Several years ago our trip ended up at the Island of Mentawai, Indonesia. This was the farest point we reached.. After having the most wonderful times of my life at Vanuatu, I decided to fly to Sumatra to visit the Mentawai people which we did not managed last time.
On the way I stopped at Singapore first for a few days, it was like an instant shock after so much time I spent at rural areas. From there I flew to Kuala Lumpur for a week or so to renew my gear which was indeed necessary by now. Arriving to Padang, Indonesia was an even bigger shock despite the fact I spent there lots of time already before. I forgot how it is when they try to rip of the tourists big time. Interestingly during this trip it has not that common so far.
Lot changed… when I was here a few years back there was only one ferry to Mentawai every second Monday and it took 16 hours or so, now, there is one quick passenger boat almost every day, and it takes 3 hours with far more comfort than before. Also last time there was only a few hardcore surfer on the boat while now, every day there are around 30-50 tourist going to the islands. Most of them are surfers, some goes to some resorts (I was surprised by the fact that by now they have resorts as well) … life changes quickly over here.
After I arrived to Muara Siberut, the capital town of the Mentawai islands I went back to the same hotel we have been last time. They where really nice, when we had a serious medical emergency they helped us a lot, I can thank a lot to the gentleman owns the hotel but unfortunately I learned that he passed away a few years ago.
I planned to find a guide who can take me to the tribe. There is a quite high number of tourists visiting the mentawai people so I was looking for someone who can take me to some more authentic places… not easy at Indonesia as you never know how much the locals lie about the facts. Honesty is relatively out of question here, so you try to optimize and avoid the big ripoffs and fake guides. This is how I found Liki a young local fella who is actually from Mentawai and not from Sumatra, and from the first minute he was rather patriotic about his tribe and family. When he told me that we can visit his father I immediately thought it could be a good bet, strangely first he was very keen to promote an other settlement, I guess it was better for his business, but when I asked why don’t we go to visit his family he agreed. Next day we sorted out the police permits and all the shopping, prepared the canoe and not much later off we went to the forest.
Finally! I’m where I belong, where I feel comfortable: on the way to the jungle. The big cities where I spent the last few weeks are really not my world, I always find it difficult to enjoy my time there and not to get depressively bored from day two.
After an hour or so we left behind the plantations and the real jungle took over the area, we saw some rather big lizards somehow similar to the Commodo ones… lots of birds… noises of gibbons from the distance…. I felt happy again! Few hours into the river we stopped and continued on foot. I was very surprised about the quality of the jungle here. First of all it is quite diverse, would not expected that from a small island but also it is incredibly muddy. I never experienced anything like this before. By now I spent rather long time in all sort of rainforest all around the world but this here is unique. At the Anazonas, it is indeed muddy sometimes, especially if it is flooded, sometimes you walk in murky dirty water up to your chest… usually you find mud up to 20-40cm deep, but here, I hardly could move.
Every 100m I sank at least once up to my belt, and it is extremely sticky. Locals fall small logs and than walk on those, but with my broken knee on the two inch slippery branches with all the bags I have it did not seemed a better option. Situation improved slightly when we found two large walking sticks but it was still a painful slow journey. According to the locals the whole island is like this. 5 liter of sweating later we arrived to Likis fathers house in the middle of a small cleared area. He lives alone here as his wife died a few years ago. I do not think he is particularly lonely as his place is sort of in the middle of the crossroads, where all the muddy path crosses each other, so it was very common that around sunset a bunch of locals arrived and spent the night with us before continuing their way to their villages.
During my stay I met the whole family of Liki, uncles, brothers, friends. It is quite interesting to talk with this guys to learn about how they see the future of their tribe. What is immediately obvious is that they are all very proud of where they come from. In some other tribes around the word the youngsters feel shamed about their origin, but here, they told me several times, that they are not like the Minangkabaus of Sumatra or in general Indonesians, they are THE Mentawai people.
Unfortunately it is also visible that despite the fact that they are proud of their roots their way of life is disappearing. The most obvious sign is that no youngster has the so typical tattoos. Tattooing is an important tradition in their culture, it gives one protection against the spirits of the forest, also represents the family and the role in the society. (The only one sign everybody has in Likis family is the sun-like mark at their shoulder, which, I was told represent the family or more precisely the clan.) I was told that not like before, now they have to pay money for the tattooist and it is very expensive, so they can not afford it. Next to this big part of the family now already lives at Muara Siberut, instead of the jungle, like Liki and his family.
During the first day, we went to the forest with Toikot and Aman to collect ingredients for the poison they use for the arrows. It was a nice few hours, it is always interesting to see how the locals see their jungle. On the way to the tree with the poison we stopped and Aman cut down a large sago tree to collect a big bag of sago worms and insects. It will be good for breakfast 🙂 when we returned they cooked it in a bamboo and we had it with some sago and some coconut sauce. Actually it was not that bad I have to say, quite sweet and edible 🙂 I expected something really disgusting and bad… I even went for more when my portion was finished. Later at the afternoon Toikot showed me how to make the poison from the ingredients we gathered before. He brought out all his arrows and painted it with the fresh poison very accurately. In the same time, Likis brother Aman, who seems like a guy who know a lot about the forest explained what sort of different arrows they use for hunting, one for bigger game like a deer, one for the monkeys and smaller ones and one for birds and lizards with a blunt end. Although Aman seems to be the only person from the brothers who lives sort of according to the traditions, and indeed he knows a lot about the original way of life… he is already in the stage that he selects from the rules he would like to keep and ignores the others less easy and comfortable to keep.
During the afternoon Toikot explained how important leafs are for them: all has a different meaning and used differently for ceremonies. Later we went to plant a few things around the garden, so we where wearing a small green leaf in our head, a different one when we where making the poison and also a different one when we went hunting or it was time for me to say goodbye. Sometimes they spent reasonably long time selecting the right ones. An other interesting information I learned is that gongs are important symbols for the Mentawai people, it is also used at ceremonies, and represents wealth too… Toikot asked me multiple times if once I will return I have to bring him a nice gong, one with a very clean sound as he would like to extend his home but for that he needs a gong before for a special dance ritual.
Early next morning we went for a small hunting trip. It was quite evident that this guys do not actually hunt for living. (Although Aman claims he does, and he looks like he may) it was more like a long walk around the forest, when he spotted a bird or monkey Toikot tried to shoot it but he never managed to hit anything, not even close… having spent some time with the Matis hunters and the friendly guys from Lolits, Santo… who are actually hunting for thei dinner… they indeed never miss a target, ever. Maybe even here they where doing it well 20 years ago – there are quite a few monkey skulls hanging from Toikot’s house (Mentawai people do always keep the skull if they shoot something) but nowadays he mostly takes care of the chickens and pigs.
Regardless of the reality we all enjoyed the walk, was like a nostalgic event for the old fighter 🙂 spotted a lots of interesting things, and I even almost managed to step on a nice yellow spotted snake.. During the evening Toikot showed me his treasure box, as he is a real shaman a sikerei how it is called here, he has a lots of nice magical items in a cute tree-bark box.
Later as the sun went down, as usual more people arrived to rest a bit and to look for some shelter for the evening. Some of them really nicely tattooed. Everybody is very friendly. That is a main difference here compared to Sumatra, everybody is hones and friendly.. Especially the older ones, all are calm, quiet, always ready for a joke or two, and deeply in love with the nature. This is how I think everyone should live. This is the real civilized life not that bullshit one we have in the cities. Here there is always enough time to listen to each other…. or give a hand to someone in need…
Next midday I joined Sipelege, as she was going to the river to collect some shrimps and fishes, it was quite fun, so beautiful small stream next to their place!!! Chrystal clear, strong flowing water, across stones and the jungle…. I love to be here!!! Only disturbance is the frequent heavy rain which usually only happens when I go somewhere out of the hut, never when I’m inside. 🙂
One morning I wake up seeing Toikot working on something. He actually cut one loop from his necklace and give it to me. (Traditionally all the sikereis has around 4 loop of that traditional yellow – orange glass beads was given to them by the Dutch explorers in their neck.) I was more than surprised!!
That was my dream, but I know it is very sacred for them so I was not even asking about it. 🙂 I have no idea why he decided to give it to me, I was excited but the rest was less happy about, even Liki told me that he already tried to ask his father for one but he never agreed… also later when I walked in the forest my new new necklace generated some confusion and some unwanted attention with the other clans around.
When the day come for me to leave, Liki and Aman wanted to make a proper goodbye ceremony, so after some magical whispering they sacrificed a chicken and as traditionally they do, we used its intestine to predict the future. The outcome was positive, apparently I will come back some time and we all will be happy and healthy until. Happiness, everyone seemed satisfied.
After saying goodbye to my old tribal friends we canoed back to Muara Siberut in the pouring rain, we arrived absolutely soaked. Liki was kind enough and he invited me to his garden hut not far from MS. We spent the last night there, Liki, the super friendly Gugun and me. During the night they went for a hunt, aiming to drop some monkeys but only came back with frogs, shrimps, turtles and some other catch from the pond. Could not complain it was extremely tasty.
What a night, in the middle of the bush, lots of funny stories and a pot full with jungle treasures. After dreaming about being here for so many years finally I feel satisfied!! It was again an experience I will never forget… one which will not be possible in a few years … I really felt I arrived in the last 24 hour to experience one of the most interesting and rapidly disappearing tribal culture of the Indonesian archipelago …