Nimbert Kabes – Between Two Worlds
by Susan Huthings
In the mid 1980’s, shortly before the birth of their second son, Elsina Saleo and Johan Kabes took a trip from their village of Arefi in Raja Ampat to get a new cooker for their growing family. They didn’t head to the nearest homeware store – which was three hours or so away (one way) by fast boat – but to the beach of Pulau Wai. They had heard the tale of US airplanes coming down in the area during the Second World II and set out to find one lying in two meters of water just off the beach. Elsina and Johan cut off the pieces of metal they needed and fashioned themselves a barbecue from the bomber.
Thirty years later, their son Nimbert takes trips to the same site. But his party of explorers are SCUBA divers from Europe, America and Australia, holidaying at Papua Paradise Eco Resort on Pulau Birie. Nimbert guides his group to the site south of the island where a P47 Razorback lies in 25 metres of water covered in beautiful corals. Times are changing in Raja Ampat.
Nimbert was born to Elsina and Johan in Arefi village near Batanta island. Johan was from the village but Elsina came from Yeansawa, just across the strait. After a few years the family moved to Kampung Baru, a tiny settlement three miles from Arefi. Nimbert has three brothers and three sisters who all still live in West Papua. Unsurprisingly for the child of an archipelago of more than 1,500 islands, Nimbert’s first memories are of the sea. A favorite game was to drop a stone into the sea and dive down for it. The stone was dropped into deeper and deeper water but as his friends failed in turn to reach it, Nimbert had no trouble diving down and surfacing with the stone held aloft. He is still a talented free diver and enjoys surprising divers and their guides by appearing by their side at depth with no SCUBA gear.
School in Arefi was enjoyable but Nimbert much preferred going out in a boat and fishing with his father. He developed, at a very young age, an encyclopedic knowledge of the coasts, reefs and sea mounts of the area. Nimbert was promoted to chief fish-catcher for the family and, armed with a home-made harpoon and salvaged goggles, he was in his element out in the boat or in the bay at all times of day. This early experience has given Nimbert astonishing competence at reading, predicting and navigating the strong currents and tides of Raja Ampat and planning dives accordingly.
Alongside these skills, which would lead to his subsequent career, Nimbert learned and excelled at all sorts of sport but especially soccer. He played for several years in a local club and his cousin, Ian Louis Kabes, now plays for the Indonesian national team. Games of volleyball on Pulau Birie are athletic, enthusiastic affairs pitting dive guides against kitchen staff, house-keeping against grounds-keeping – and Nimbert is always there in the midst of the action!
When Papua Paradise Eco Resort was being constructed, Nimbert was a fisherman like his father, but he was attracted by the notion of a dive resort and the chance to learn new skills. “When I was a child, almost everyone here was a fisherman. There was even dynamite fishing! Now there is no dynamite fishing and the reefs have regenerated. Now there are jobs in tourism and local people have a chance to learn and develop new skills”.
Nimbert joined the resort as boat crew but his sub-aqua skills were quickly recognized and he and two friends were offered the chance to learn to dive. Nimbert jumped at the opportunity – even learning the new technical language of diving didn’t put him off. Nimbert, Yoris and Efraim completed their Open Water qualification, then Advanced Open Water, then Rescue Diver, diving as often as possible to build up their experience and, in the evenings, learning the English names for the fish, creatures and corals he knew so well. “The managers gave me a lot of help in learning to be a guide. We learned how to carry out a guided dive; we started learning the names of the big fish at first, then for smaller and smaller creatures”.
Nimbert quickly became an assistant guide and an authority on checking currents and deciding on the dive site and plan depending on the strength and direction of the currents, the visibility, and the comfort-level of the group that day. Gradually, Nimbert’s confidence grew until he felt comfortable carrying out dive briefings in English and managing the boat crews and so he became a fully-fledged dive guide at Papua Paradise. Nimbert still has his hunger to learn about marine life and is often seen in the evening researching the names and habitats of particular fish, shrimps, crabs, or whatever he has seen that day. Working with dive guides from other parts of Indonesia has helped broaden his knowledge of and ability to locate weird and wonderful sea creatures. Nimbert is now known as ‘King of Macro’ for his uncanny knack of finding the tiny blue ring octopus and minute Lembeh sea dragons.
It comes as a surprise then to find that Nimbert’s great love is the big fish of Raja Ampat; he loves manta rays, sharks, turtles, bump head parrot fish and the tumbling shoals of fusiliers, banner fish, and triggerfish. Beneath the waves, he seems to be conducting a symphony of fish as he points at incoming trevallies, barracuda, jacks. He can at once point to a harlequin shrimp camouflaged on the reef, to an enormous passing Napoleon Wrasse or reef shark – how does he do that?
Nimbert has worked steadily over the years to improve his English so he can speak more easily with guests, but it isn’t easy, especially when guests speak too quickly. But if you want to learn about marine life and the local area, and are happy to let Nimbert take his time, you are rewarded with lovely anecdotes about local life and insider tips on the best sites for your favorite fish – all delivered with a shy but wide smile.
It’s not only a new language that Nimbert had to learn. When we first met him in 2011 he hadn’t been outside Raja Ampat, nor been on a plane, nor used a smart phone. His parents had predicted that Raja Ampat would become an area of tourism and encouraged Nimbert to learn about and to meet people from all over the world. But the reality was less easy. These people had totally different lifestyles, different manners, different expectations. But the traditions of West Papua are extremely important to Nimbert and he found himself torn between two worlds. How to react?
You can’t judge what you don’t know, so Nimbert’s first foray into this other world was to buy a smart phone. This has been a hit for messaging friends and family – but not his mother who still thinks it is a totally unnecessary piece of equipment. A cook at Papua Paradise invited Nimbert to visit his home in far away Surabaya…on a plane. Everyone at the resort helped a very nervous Nimbert prepare for the trip. Nimbert had a great time; enjoyed seeing a city and being a tourist, but he was glad to come home. Since then, Nimbert has travelled to Manado in North Sulawesi where, at the wedding of a fellow dive guide, he met and fell in love with Cithya. He was dazzled by this lovely woman and some months later they married. They are now expecting their first baby.
Nimbert’s life has been so different from his father’s. How will his own baby’s life be different from his? “I want to learn to use the good and useful things from the outside world but I still want to keep to the important traditions in Raja Ampat. Families are very important. They make life possible. They help each other. I have respect for my family and I want my children to respect the family too”. Until recently the notion of family was paramount in life. Families had to all work together and provide support, economically and socially. Now there are more examples of people marrying those from other parts of Indonesia. Nimbert’s wife is from Manado but from a traditional family where he, in turn, is expected to be an active part of the family and to help as needed. If there is a surface interval on a jetty or an island, Nimbert is often visited by members of his extended family. The children are happy to try out their English and the adults are curious to meet the wet-suited strangers associated with Nimbert’s work. Now there are jobs in tourism and local people have a chance to learn and develop new skills. Younger people are at home with smart phones, lap tops and tablets learning about new options in life.
‘The best part of my job is seeing all the things in the sea and learning more about them. I still worry about not satisfying the guests and I need to know how so I can improve the way I do my job. As for the future my priority is to build a house for my family in Kampung Baru. I want to stay in the area. I know so many people and am happy here. My family are all very happy for me. My sister and my grandfather work at the resort. I am happy if I can be a guide, learn something every day, eat chocolate and drink pineapple and mango juice, and of course be with my family’
“I see Raja Ampat changing, more liveaboards, more resorts, more tourists, more electricity and technology. The lifestyle is changing from being fishermen to working in tourism and having a chance to work in cities if that is what people want, but it’s good that young people can stay here and work; they don’t need to leave to find a job. If that happened, families would be torn apart and village life would change too much. We need to train more people from Raja Ampat as dive guides, boat crew and in other tourism jobs so they can stay and enjoy this lovely region.”
Sue Hutchings: I am a Brit living in rural France with my husband Alan for the past fifteen years. Four or five years ago we fell in love with Raja Ampat, its landscape, its ocean, wildlife and especially its people. Each year we try to escape the worst of the European winter by spending a couple of months in RA, diving with much enthusiasm and taking underwater photographs with equal enthusiasm but not much finesse. This is her second contribution to the BHS site. Read her first here.
In 2015, Nimbert Kabes after five years of friendship, announced to us that he regarded us as his parents. We are very honoured and we value our relationship with him. It was a bit of a shock for our daughter to find she had a younger brother and was going to be an aunt! However she knows and loves Nimbert too and it is a pleasure to dive together, especially with such a talented guide as a family member! Nimbert and his wife just welcomed a daughter into the world of the BHS. They named her Sue Heather after Sue and Sue’s daughter Heather. Congrats to all!