Indonesia's real-life Robinson Crusoes

Indonesia's real-life Robinson Crusoes
Even though he is blind, Daeng Abu still lights up at the memory of the reef.
PHOTO: YouTube video screengrab/Ronhy Ynho

For a man who's spent more than 40 years on a deserted island, Daeng Abu fizzes with a surprisingly exuberant love of life.

As he welcomed us to Pulau Cengkeh (Clove Island), a white-sand islet off the coast of Sulawesi, Indonesia, Abu's toothless gums gaped in a joyous cackle. His blind, white eyes disappeared in ripples of laughter lines and his leprous hands reached out in a warm embrace. He and his wife Daeng Maida have lived alone on Pulau Cengkeh since 1972.

Neither knows how old they were when they entered their arranged marriage on nearby Pulau Pala (Nutmeg Island) - they currently believe they're in their 80s - but Abu thinks he was older than 20 and Maida remembers it was the dry season. Her uncle fired three shots in the air; she walked over to his family's home; Abu built a shack from bamboo and palm leaf; and married life began.

Little did they know at the time - the couple was bound to become a rather unlikely pair of environmental activists, spending their days raising sea turtles and speaking against the cyanide and dynamite fishing that is devastating Indonesia's reef. But first, life had other plans.

As the couple settled into marriage, Abu free-dove to depths of 25m or more for giant clams and abalone, embarking on weeklong fishing trips around the islands. Maida kept their house, cooked and wove. Wet season turned to dry season, and dry to wet. Sometimes they ate fish, sometimes only rice. And Maida bore six children; five died of shaking sickness before the age of one.

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