In the Time of Wanderlust: Photographing the Bajau Laut

I came by my wanderlust honestly. I was born to it, in fact. My great grandparents were immigrants to the US. Some of them came legally, some did not. The story is that one jumped off a ship coming from Canada and swam to the US (and was later granted amnesty.)

My father, not long out of college and ready to leave his hometown, took a job on a Native American reservation where he and my mother lived and worked hours from anything too familiar. He and my mother moved three or four more times before I was two years old. Just a generation after some of our family arrived in the US, he became an expatriate in London when I was eleven years old.

More than 20 years ago my maternal grandmother sold her business, retired, and started traveling the world. A woman born in the 1930s, who had rarely left the Northeast of the US, was off to Thailand, and Europe, and then half a dozen more destinations, year after year solo and with female friends.

We all share this trait, this wanderlust. I wonder sometimes, though, what is it in our blood that makes us want to see so much. To explore, to discover, to wander. Is curiosity genetic? Are we as a family somehow part nomad?

On my second day visiting the Bajau Laut tribe we were bouncing across the crystal clear water outside of Semporna. I was in awe that I had found myself in this beautiful and fascinating part of the world. Between bounces, when the front of the boat where I sat was temporarily airborne, thoughts flickered in and out.

Would I have ever predicted I would be here? In a place like this doing something like this?

What, exactly, am I doing? What is this siren call to see, experience, to explore?

Would my family have ever predicted this?


Warrior princess and courageous solo traveler (she followed our boat quite far out and away from her home.) This girl sings to my heart.

Of course they would. I often forget to give my family the credit of knowing me so well. My mother supported my interests in the Navy and then nudged me (hard) towards the Foreign Service in college and traveling in Europe post-college. (I didn’t listen to either suggestion.) My father’s history speaks for itself. And it’s not at all a coincidence that my family is the type you can be absent from for months or even years, but are always clearly considered home when you arrive for the holidays.

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In the quieter resting moments on the trip I stare at the sand beneath the water and watch the starfish. Every moment of my life seems to move as slowly as they do. Nothing dramatic, not particularly flexible, but almost imperceptibly reshaped or moving along the floor of the ocean until with perspective, is is entirely different.

What would it be like to live my entire life in one tribe? In one location? I doubt most of the Bajau Laut would be able to comprehend a landlocked state or nation and the part of me who loves water wonders at that. Are they more grounded? Happier? More strongly connected to each other? What would it be like to be part of a tribe of nomads who don’t stay too wed to one location?

Later that day after an hour in the hot sun, trying to balance my creativity and itch to photograph everything in sight with shyness and politeness for these strangers, I collapsed under the shade of the boat awning. I had to apply sunscreen nearly hourly at that point and found that I had sunburned my scalp along the part in my hair enough for it to blister and ooze. I looked at the tawny skin tones around me, on the Bajau Laut and my fellow Singaporean photographers, in envy. It couldn’t be more obvious that I am not from and not well suited to this place. I am simply not built to tolerate it well, and yet nomads who live on the water and in boats… it sounds like a dream to the wanderlust in my soul.


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Best friends

It’s impossible to predict where I will be next. I don’t even know why or how I will find myself in another destination or if I will settle longer here. Perhaps I will continue the photography work. At least it allows me to remember clearly both what I see and what is stirred in me. To use hindsight, ever so briefly, to map the invisible change.



  1. Jill

    September 13, 2016 at 2:59 pm

    Kate – these pics are AMAZING. seriously. You need to submit to National Geographic, literally each one is stunning. 🙂
    miss you and I love living vicariously through your wanderlust! keep posting so I can experience your adventures.

    1. curlywan

      September 17, 2016 at 8:43 am

      Aww – thanks Jilly, that’s really sweet. It was a fun trip.

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