The Almond Wood Canoes of Sumba

Habel Higa Lewa chiseled his dugout canoe from a single log of kapok, or almond wood

By Shane Mitchell

Published on July 2, 2018

When the ocean is calm and the moon on the wane, Habel Higa Lewa fishes for wahoo and mackerel late into the night along the coast of Sumba, an island in Indonesia's Sunda Archipelago. He's paddling a dugout canoe, which he will have labored over for up to two months, committed to using chisels, machetes, and handsaws to hew it from a single log of kapok, or almond wood. A wiry man in his 70s, with teeth stained red from chewing betel nut, Lewa is a member of the last generation in Indonesia to live ­isolated from the modern world.

Change has come to his far edge of the Coral Triangle: Motorized vessels, still small by Western standards but with bigger capacity and longer range than canoes, are encroaching on his way of life. Warming seas are threatening the fragile reefs. Rainforests have been cut down for rice fields. Younger generations are aspiring to own cellphones and motorcycles, and to afford these, are leaving home to seek higher education or jobs in Java and Bali.

Lewa is determined to share his knowledge with those who remain behind, teaching the boys in his extended family how to build two-man dugouts with a pair of outrigger poles lashed across the center of the hull, which help keep a narrow canoe from capsizing in a swell. After a lifetime at sea, Lewa still loves eating what he catches, but these days, he compensates for age: “I’ve gotten so old, swallowing solid food is difficult,” he says. “So I eat fish soup. It goes down easier.”

Want more SAVEUR?

Get our favorite recipes, stories, and more delivered to your inbox.