I Stole a Sea Turtle from Indonesian Fishermen
Tweedle Dee and Tweedle-fucking-Dum could tell you that members of the same species share similarities – we all eat, sleep, walk, shit, laugh, cry, love and hate. But saying “humans are not so different after all” is a wishy-washy and ignorant statement when you take a proper look at the convolution of humanity. Only when travellers witness the social and cultural intricacies that have sprouted around the globe will they realise that their own culture’s way is not the highway, and humanity is a tidal wave of complexity.
Our homegrown books of cultural conduct and morality often fail to translate in foreign cultures. At the same time, when injustices unfold anywhere in the world, we should feel obliged to help: culture is no excuse for abuse, right? But from what viewpoint is an event perceived as an injustice – the tourist’s or the local’s? This is where travellers must be careful, and this is where I kind of shot myself in the foot.
I suppose stealing a green sea turtle on a remote island in Indonesia might have been a bit rash on my part. Local fishermen in the Banda Islands have hunted turtles for centuries – they are a delicacy served at weddings and religious events. Although the islands now lie within a Marine Protected Area – putting an end to the illegal shell trade and commercial fishing – hunting sea turtles at a local level is not a dire threat.
So there I was, gazing across the glittering salt chuck at Banda Api’s volcano towering 640 metres out of the ocean, feeling like I was stoned off my tits from sunstroke in a blissful, uninterrupted stupor.
“Holy fucking shit!” I screamed (naturally) when I saw four local fishermen pull up to the golden shore in a dying rust-bucket dinghy, grappling with a huge sea turtle.
Suddenly, I felt like your friendly neighbourhood white tourist, the turtle’s ignorant saviour, and began marching through the hub of bijou beach shacks before weaving through laneways palisaded by tin walls.
When I found the little dude, or big dude I should say, possibly female dude, my heart shuddered in my chest. The turtle was perched upside down on its back, smashing its flippers against the concrete in heavy thuds in an attempt to escape through thin air, glaring at an alien world of gravity.
After greeting the fishermen with a smile, I raised my shaky finger, pointed it at the turtle and whimpered the words “Ini… makan?” (Is this for eating?). They replied with a nod and I stood motionless. My head shook in protest. I felt like crying. Then something came over me.
I lunged for the turtle, wrapped my hands around its body and lifted its shell to my abdomen. The razor tiles crushed my skin to the point of bruising, as my back buckled forwards and seized. Slowly but surely, I made my way towards the ocean, walking like Big Foot with a serious bladder infection.
The fishermen stopped me in my path to the ocean and we began arguing in Bahasa Indonesia about releasing the turtle. I immediately became lost in my ability to properly translate. Swarms of locals encircled us, goggling at the disputation, as I pointed at the ocean and cried “Banyak ikan!” (Many fish).
One of the fishermen stood nearby, clasping a machete at his side, not looking overly thrilled with my behaviour. In a moment of better the turtle than me, I realised that this was not my island and that the fishermen were not going to let me steal their turtle willy-nilly. So I played my last draw card. “Berapa?” (How much?) I asked, before slapping 200,000 rupiah ($20AUD) in the fisherman’s palm. The turtle was mine! Well, for another five minutes at least.
Carrying the sea turtle down the cracked steps to the shore felt like a near-death experience. My arms nearly dropped out of their shoulder sockets as sweat trickled from every pore. A surge of people poured onto the jetty extending into the ocean to my right as a swarm of children followed me from behind (a solitary tourist standing on the jetty took the photo attached to this piece, and it’s the only concrete evidence this actually happened). The turtle was beside itself.
I dipped the turtle’s body into the ocean and its flippers took to the water immediately. I let it carry me through the ocean for a couple of seconds, and I felt like I was the little girl in Whale Rider. It was pure magic – and then I released it. Its silhouette disappeared into the blue and I never saw the big dude, possibly female dude, again. Surprisingly, the crowd cheered, including the fishermen.
I can’t necessarily say I’m proud of the rescue. Given Banda Ai’s history, where Dutch invaders orchestrated the massacre of nearly every Banda Ai male over 18 years old, who the fuck was I – some arbitrary white tourist – to rock up to their island home and assert my personal imposition? Just as Australians see kangaroos as overpopulating pests and nutritious steaks – whilst foreigners see them as majestic creatures – Banda fishermen view sea turtles as a delicacy.
However, the reality is that sea turtles are facing extinction. This fact has not set in for Banda locals – sea turtles have always abounded their shores, and it doesn’t seem like they are going anywhere. But they are.
I know releasing the turtle probably didn’t change anything. But at least that portion of the tiny island witnessed my passion for saving the turtle, and I feel like they understood why. That’s actually enough for me to feel slightly proud of my peaceful protest, even though I was a bit of an arsehole abroad.
As travellers, it is our duty to educate ourselves of local customs, culture and history before arriving in a foreign land. Most of us are too lazy, myself included at this time. Had I known more about the Banda Islands, I would have acted differently. There is a fine line between between standing up for what we believe in and being culturally sensitive, and the answer to the question of which side of that line my actions fell upon that day continues to evade me.
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In school, Zeke used to get by selling stolen porn magazines from the local newsagent. These days, he’s a writer – and gets paid far less than he did at age 14.