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Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea

  • Water taxi speeding past the kampung’s mosque laden with goods bought from the city. Many adults are seasoned seamen working in trawlers or coastal cargo vessles.
  • A view of the teeming village of some 8,000 people. The sea serves both as fishing ground and open sewage. Some of the houses come with satellite TV.
  • Speed boats serve as water taxis for commuters between the kampung and Kota Kinabalu’s waterfront. One way fare is one ringgit.

Pulau Gaya, one of Sabah’s many enchanting islands, has two faces. The north side is strictly for tourists. The opposite end facing Kota Kinabalu, the state capital, is a scum of a place teeming with some 8,000 refugees. They are mainly Filipinos, most of whom are illegally squatting in Kampung Pondo on fragile shelters built above the sea. Despite the proximity, the two live worlds apart. All’s well as long as they don’t encroach into each others’ shoreline. The first time I visited the seedy side was in the early 1980s and it stank. It is better self organized and cleaner now but it’s still an enclave of drug peddlers, prostitutes, pimps and the plainly poor.

My Sabah friends are shocked that I enjoy visiting the place regularly. “This is a dangerous place, even the police don’t go there!” says Marilyn, my friend from the Kinabalu Four Wheel Drive Club. Jenny, my niece who is a Sabahan says she’s never been to the kampung. “No one goes there. Don’t go-lah!” was her advice. The rough side of Kampung Pondo didn’t bother me too much until recently when the cops stormed the place following an attack by drug suspects there that left three marine policemen critically injured.

Kampung Pondo fires one’s imagination as a place of intrigues; pirates, smugglers, gun runners, and much more all rolled into one. It’s a place that lures travel writers with promises of unexpected encounters and a treasure trove of good storylines.

As it turned out, one of my recent trips did produce an unexpected encounter. For some strange reason the boat taxi dropped me off at what I thought was not a usual passenger jetty, forcing me to make my way ten feet up an unsteady pole with my cameras dangling precariously all over me. I was a bit shaken up by this and immediately looked for a place to sit down to recompose. It was there that I met Nazri or Santos as he would preferred to be known as. I can’t make out whether he is Malay, Kadazan, Bajau or Filipino or what but he surprised me with his very good English. He had been working for a bank in Penang until he was retrenched recently. He looked dishevelled and at home in Kampung Pondo but he tells me he’s not from here. He’s only here for a visit. I can’t figure out a few things about him but it’s not polite to ask too much especially if one is in Kampung Pondo uninvited. No one knows what Pondo means but Santos guessed that it’s the corruption for pondok or hut. We talked for two hours on a wide range of subjects from Maslow’s theory to evolution, to predestination and eventually God. Suddenly in all seriousness he turned to me: “I had a dream last night that I was going to meet someone today who is gong to change my life. I am sure you are the stranger I was to meet. And you can change my life.”
I almost feel into the sea ten feet below.
“I can’t change your life but I know someone who can,” I said not really knowing why I said that.
“God,” I said.
Yes, Allah.
Soon it was time to take my leave.
“Santos, this may the last time we meet. But since you are convinced I am the stranger that would bring you good news it will be on my conscience not to ask you to look for the answer yourself,” I said.
“I can’t change your life, Santos but the truth can. You’ll have to discover the truth yourself and the truth will set you free.”

Well, that sounds interesting! Perhaps I will do that. What have I to lose after all?

I bade farewell to the stranger who had become my friend and walked ever so gingerly along the rickety plank-way and boarded another speed boat back to the city. Kampung Pondo is certainly a dangerous place. But for Santos and I, it was safe enough to talk about God. After all it’s between the devil and the deep blue sea. I went back there thrice since but I never saw Santos or Nazri or whatever the guy’s name is again. (Text and pix by Bob Teoh, Sinchew-i)

Sinchew-i 2007.09.07



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