The newly-rebuilt Orang Laut settlement in Sorong

ORANG LAUT

The Orang Laut are the local gypsies or people of the sea. I recently got hold of the notes of explorer and filmmaker Baron Victor von Plessen. He travelled Indonesia back in the 1920s and 1930s and described the Orang Laut in his unpublished Malaysian journal as follows:

“The Orang Laut live with their women and children on ships and almost never go ashore. For them, the Almighty could have stopped on the second day of Creation when he created the sea. Somewhere on a remote coast are a few huts built on stilts far out to sea. Those are their villages, almost always vacant. The Orang Laut have in their blood a deep-seated mistrust of dry land and its denizens. Only when driven by necessity do they go to the coast to replenish their stores of water and to trade fish for rice and tools. They are excellent sailors who know the sea and all its snares.”

This unique maritime people of a bygone age have since largely disappeared in the wake of dubious government programmes and other latter-day developments. Uprooted, the once-proud Orang Laut now live in poverty and squalor, in huts built on stilts in the sea on the outskirts of towns. Some of their settlements are to be found in Sorong. One of them was gutted by fire three years ago and is now under reconstruction. All the inhabitants have received a handout to buy the wood they need: they’re in charge of rebuilding their village themselves. This is a very sensible project, and now they’re sawing, hammering and building away for all they’re worth. Only one thing has been overlooked in this model village: a sewage system. So now as ever, all the muck still plops right down into the water under their homes.

During our visit, something else plops into the sea between the newly-built houses. A three-year-old girl. Three Orang Laut immediately jump in after her to fish the poor soul out of the water. A little while later we see the little one sitting there terrified and crying, puffing and spitting. Looks like she made it by the skin of her teeth. And all the sewage she must have swallowed in that cesspool will surely boost her immune system….