Nomads of the Blue Planet

Guest Post by Peter Klika

The Vagabundos Cemetery of Isla Cervallos

More than 50 years ago, I was sailing on a small but stout 32′ ketch through the southern-most reaches of the Vermillion Sea. You would know it better as the Sea of Cortes or the Gulf of California. It was 1964, and a good year to be young, healthy and alive.

We decided to anchor for the night at Isla Cervallos at the very south end of the gulf. As the rusty anchor chain rattled over the bow, I swam to shore. There was a small palm frond hut and an aging wooden panga, or long skiff, on the beach nearby. Two old men were mending a net in the shade near a smoldering fire.

I mustered enough courage to say “buenos tardes “ good afternoon, in my perennially poor Spanish. The older one answered in English: “We don’t get many gringos here. There’s not much here except the cemetery.”

“Cemetery?” I queried.

“Yes, the old Vagabundos del Mar (literally ‘Vagabonds of the Sea’) cemetery on the point south of here. We can show you tomorrow. By the way, do you have any beer? Rum? Magazines with pictures of girls? We have fresh fish to share.”

In the 1930s the Vagabundos hunted various fish and sharks for their fins and livers for some sort of Chinese medicine, as well as Vitamin A and D from the oil. Two men in a skiff of maybe eighteen or twenty feet, with a small sail. They were poor even by Mexican standards. But they always helped each other. It was their code to share whatever they had: water, fish, hooks and line, tequila, whatever. Some were still around after World War II, but not many. (Note: John Steinbeck recounts meeting some Vagabundos in 1941)

“They all wanted to be buried here on Cervallos. We don’t know why. Maybe because no one lives here to disturb their bones.”

The cemetery wasn’t much. A few mounds of rocks with fading painted headboards with barely legible writing. If any.

One headboard simply read: “Miguel 1939”

That was all. Sometimes a broken cross. Most Vagabundos were illiterate.

After the visit to the cemetery, we sailed back. Early, to avoid the soporific heat. I looked back as the island fading in a shimmering mist. Vagabundos del Mar. Who were these people? Were there others? I had to know.

Mark Lehn: The Sea Gypsies of Borneo

Fast Forward a Few Years and a Few Continents

Only a few years later I was in Zamboanga in the southern Philippines on the western tip of Mindanao, I was staying at the only hotel, simply known as Hotel Central. I had made the mistake of playing poker with four guys in the lobby, and quickly lost too much of my money.

Then they gave it back. “We were cheating you. We wanted to see how smart you are. We bet on whether you could figure out you were being cheated.” And then they all roared with laughter.

“And what are you doing here? Not too many visitors to Zamboanga. There’s an old Spanish fort at the harbor.”

I told them I heard a song once called The Monkeys Have No Tails in Zamboanga  (a tune written by Cuban G. Savoca in 1907). The men roared with laughter. Actually, the whole lobby was laughing. “ You really know that song?” they asked. I sheepishly answered yes. “ You’re a funny boy. Don’t play poker with us. Next time we keep your money. Can we help you with anything?”

I want to go South to Tawi Tawi near the sea border with Borneo.

“Very dangerous there, plenty pirates. They chop you up.” They weren’t laughing anymore.

“Maybe you go to Jolo. We have a friend there- Don Francisco. He take care of you.”

“So what’s in Jolo?” I ask.

“Very pretty mestizo girls, part Malay, part Spanish, part everything. They will like your light skin and blue eyes. Maybe you even see Sea Gypsies.”

“Sea Gypsies,” I asked, my interest piqued.

“Yes, sometimes many, depends on fish and whether government chasing them or not. Sometimes they smuggle cigarettes from Malaysia. You still want to go? We call Don Francisco for you.”

I dreamed deeply that night. But it wasn’t about the pretty mestizo girls. It was about the Sea Gypsies.

Mio Cade: Omadal, Semporna – The young Sea Gypsies and their Floating Village

Don Francisco was pure Spanish, born in Jolo in 1895, when the Philippines was still a colony of Spain. His diminutive figure was almost swallowed up by the large rattan chair he sat in. He wanted to talk in Spanish, a rare treat for him, even if he had to correct every other sentence of mine.

His eyes twinkled as we shared pink toddy palm wine and dried mangoes brought by a turbaned Moro (a Muslim man of the Sulu Archipelago, of which Jolo is the capital). Don Francisco still owned a large ranch called “La Jota” (pronounced Hota) named after his three daughters whose name all began with J. They had all married and moved away long ago and seldom visited. Perhaps, I thought, it was the stifling heat or the never ending din of cicadas.

As we talked, he asked me with a rye smile, “Why Sea Gypsies?”

“I’m curious about everything,” I said. “I want to know if it’s a chosen lifestyle or if it has deeper cultural , religious or ethnic origins. I first heard about such a lifestyle on a remote island in Mexico a few years ago.”

Don Francisco pulled out a large cigar without offering me one, and took a long puff .

“They don’t like visitors. They are secretive and speak a dialect of Malay you won’t understand. They are not a tourist attraction. You won’t be welcome. Anyway, I think they went up to Cagayan de Sulu to gather beech de mer ( a type of sea cucumber used in Chinese medicine). You won’t find them.”

I admit I was crestfallen. I was running short on time and money. But I wasn’t going to give up my quest that easily. I was determined to find them, even if it wasn’t to be on this journey.

I would return.

The Quest Continues 2018 (or 50 Years Later)

The boat rocked gently in the emerald blue waters of the Andaman Sea on the west coast of Thailand. It was 2018 and we were anchored off a small village of Thai Sea Gypsies (Chao Lay in Thai). Their unique way of life is under siege from global warming, government intervention, and the pressures and temptations of tourist money.

I had actually been invited to the village after I had made a number of respectful and discrete inquiries and patiently waited in a guesthouse up the coast.

Some unscrupulous tour agencies try to bribe the Chao Lay to open up their villages to rich tourists who insist on selfies with the cute “natives.” The lure of money gets stronger as their ocean-oriented lifestyle struggles to adapt to a world they little understand or care to know.

These Thai Sea Gypsies live along the sparsely populated coast of a large island, which I won’t name out of respect for their struggling culture. They had their own unwritten language although some of the children spoke Thai. Few Chao Lay children go to school. They are animists worshipping the bountiful sea around them which they consider as their mother.

On this particular day of my arrival, they were launching small model boats into the sea as an offering to protective gods. The finely built models held hair, fingernails, and other personal talismans.

The Chao Lay were the original inhabitants of this particular island having arrived more than 1500 years ago, probably from the Mergui Archipelago on the west coast of lower Myanmar (Burma). The Mergui Islands are home to the Moken, the most traditional branch of the Sea Gypsies. Each Sea Gypsy community is distinctly different: from Burma to Borneo, from the Philippines to Indonesia. Some are Australnesian and some are Malay in origin. There are many theories of their origin, but not a lot of hard data or DNA analysis.


One reason this community of Sea Gypsies keeps a low profile is that they have been accused by the Thai government of poaching protected sea turtles in a closed area. They claim it’s pirate Chinese vessels who do the poaching. Whatever the truth, the Thai government is using it as an excuse to monitor and restrict their travels and encourage a more conventional lifestyle, including sending their children to Thai schools.

Most Chao Lay are stateless and have neither passports nor birth certificates. The Thai government wants to encourage them to lead a less nomadic shore-based life, and is offering citizenship in return.

More well known than the Chao Lay are the Moken of the Mergui Archipelago in lower Myanmar, perhaps the quintessential Sea Gypsies in their traditional villages built on stilts on coral reefs. The Moken men intentionally puncture their ear drums at an early age so as not to feel the painful pressure of free diving to great depths of ten meters or more and holding their breath for up to five minutes. Moken children have developed underwater visual acuity from being literally raised in the ocean.

The women prepare most of the seafood that is gathered. Some is boiled or fried and some is salted and dried for later use. They wear turmeric on their faces to prevent sunburn as well as keep mosquitoes at bay.

To Be Continued…

I’m still learning about these nomads of our blue planet and my curiosity has not waned. I want to know more, much more. I make plans to come again soon. Perhaps after the monsoon rains in the cooler months.

In the meantime, I plan to celebrate my recent good fortune as well as that fateful meeting on Isla Cervallo years ago, by smoking a fat cigar.

Just like the one Don Francisco never offered me over 50 years ago.

Photo credits:

James Morgan: Featured image from “Bajau Laut: Last of the Sea Nomads”

Mis CadeOmadal, Semporna – The young Sea Gypsies and their Floating Village

Mark Lehn: The Sea Gypsies of Borneo

Peter Klika is currently “rewiring” after working for the U.S. State Department, NASA, the University of Hawaii, the Governor of Hawaii, and the law firm of Klika, Parrish & Bigelow. He has sailed both around the world and the rim of the Pacific Ocean, led several Himalayan expeditions, and walked solo across Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. He has contributed to such diverse publications as National Geographic, Arts of Asia, UCLA Pacific Basin Law Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. He participated in five documentaries on Tibet including “Finding Shangri-La” which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival.


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