The children from the other side – report 1
Gaya Island; so close yet so far
“Money?” or “1 Ringgit, please,” are the pleas you’ll often hear when you walk around this island; an island so close, yet so removed from Kota Kinabalu city full of its skyscrapers and bustling city traffic.
It’s an island with an approximate population of 6,000 Filipino’s, Bajau and Sulu people also known as the illegal, undocumented immigrants of Sabah. The island is considered to be dangerous with high crime and a no-go area according to locals.
picture description: so close yet so far Kota Kinabalu in the background, foreground stilt houses of Gaya Island
We went there purely interested in feeding our curiosity, without being driven by any skepticism as we had zero knowledge of the area. A boat that carries about 12 to 15 people per trip, provided with no safety features like the life jacket became the people’s main transportation to the mainland. We climbed aboard, too. It wasn’t anything like Jesselton Point as everything was simple, except you could smell the pungent odor of gasoline in the air and see gallons of water and heaps of packaged food being transported via small boats every day. But it worked, somehow.
It took approximately 5 to 10 minutes to reach the island. It was a bumpy ride but who were we to complain when it was only 2 Ringgits (0,43 €). We head on to a village known as Pulau Gaya. The village with a school they call it. The area was made up of stilt houses and weathered planks. I would say that it was almost paradise because, ultimately, 89% of the island was covered with trash. The amount of trash was remarkable as we’d never seen such atrocity. Nevertheless, the first impression wasn’t all bad as we were welcomed by warm smiles and friendly conversations. It seemed like a rare occasion for them to receive visitors. It triggered our level of excitement even more.
Our first impression was the houses there were pretty normal except we were standing over a surface of clear blue water, which was pretty amazing. As we were walking through the wooden paths, we noticed that some houses were bigger than others. One of the houses that we saw had a floor made out of marble and a huge door. Most of the houses even had LCD TV’s and washing machines. We walked further down to the shore to find out there was massive piles of trash underneath the stilt houses. It was everywhere. Ironically, some of the locals had garbage bins outside their houses but had no proper dumpster. We tried making sense out of it and thought, “So, they collect garbage in the bin and basically dump it out on the shore when it gets full?” It was absurd but we were aware that it wasn’t all their fault as they had no proper dumpster to begin with.
Our eyes wanted to see more, so we continued walking to a village called Pasir Putih. Children were playing in, on and with the trash. It was a rare sight indeed. The place was overpopulated with kids. Most of the teenagers would spend their evenings playing volleyball. There were many volleyball courts for such a small part of the island, but it was all they had and it was good. Other than that, the kids would play with marbles, coins, football and basically whatever they could find. I noticed a little girl playing with a box with strings attached to it. She was just as happy as a kid who got a new toy.
Meanwhile, most of the elderly men would gamble and it came as no surprise that the little ones followed in their footsteps. Women would spend time taking care of their baby while running small businesses inside their humble homes. As a whole, most of them would spend time with their loved ones, just sitting down and talking to each other till sundown. Most people were content with what they had and with what they were doing. Just as the saying goes, “When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade”. It sparked joy in us as everything that happened in front of our eyes was truly the epitome of beauty in simplicity.
Text by Elisheeba Malakhi