Monday, 25 November 2019

Into the jungle – Uma ‘light’

In front of me Amanipai takes slow, decided and steady steps. Occasionally he looks behind him to see if we are on his track. The path, if you can call it that, in this jungle is rough as we stumble along it. We often walk though rivers, the undergrowth elsewhere dense. The water isn’t deep, ankle height mostly. There has been an ongoing drought in Siberut Island – in all of Indonesia in fact – it hasn’t rained for six months. The plan was for us to make the first part of our trip upriver in a canoe, but we now had to do it on the back of motorbikes. On the back of that bike, with the diver balancing my too big backpack uncomfortably between his knees, I felt the excitement built in my stomach with every bump, leap and shake. We were finally on the way!

The last few hours we trek on foot. Trees aren’t high around here, this area consists of swamp forests. I was expecting to trek trough deep mud, and as a mud lover, I have to admit I am disappointed – the lack of rain has dried the soil to hard clay covered in fine dust, which veils the green lushness you usually experience in tropical woods like these.

Amanipai's Uma 

Helping the women with sago preparation (left Baiipai)

The river early morning

We sleep at Amanipai’s Uma in Buttui for our first nights. Here we get our introduction to life in an Uma – gently. We travelled with porters carrying bottled water, chefs to cook for us and - piece de resistance - especially for us, eleven female visitors, Amanipai has put in a brand new concrete step toilet! The house is quite new and clean; the river for bathing and collection of water just below.

To the the river to fish 

Dressed for fishing - apparently the banana skirts repel snakes

On the second day, as we are relaxing after a fishing expedition and lunch, we see several visitors come and go via into the narrow paths to the banana plantation across the river. Curious, a few of us follow for a stroll, and after passing sago and taro, are astonished to realise the village of Madobag is just behind! And here we were, thinking we were in the middle of the forest…We even manage to find a tiny warung, run by pak Dani from Padang. His wife is the local primary school teacher. I’m glad of my improving Bahasa Indonesia as we chat with Danni and the other customers – in traditional loincloth and tattoos, who we treat to coffee and the ubiquitous cigarettes. Poppo has his name conveniently tattooed on his arm. This part of the village has a school, volleyball field, and many small wooden houses built by the government to rehome the tribes from the forest. Some seem empty, others have well maintained gardens. Danni tells us many villagers also have a place in the jungle, sending children to school is an important reason for families to stay here. He is glad of our business; cash is a rare commodity here. The village has a still, eerie feel to it, but I’m not sure this is in part because at this – hottest- time of the day people hide somewhere cooler. 

Socialising at Dani's warung

On our way back to the village we learn tall blonde women are very much a spectacle in these parts, a familiar sense in South East Asia. A few marriage proposals later we make our way back to the Uma, where Amanipai is going to demonstrate the traditional way of making poison for the hunt. To be honest, I barely listen to Amanipai’s demonstration, nor Johan’s translation. In my mind, I am trying to piece together the Uma, the village, and it’s people. Amanipai’s skills seem genuine, but how much are they used in reality? How much is his Uma influenced by the village nearby? And how different will it be in Attabai, where we leave for tomorrow – to stay for a week in another Uma which is much more remote?

Amanipai showing me the poison on his tongue

I am shaken out of my reverie when Amanipai holds a stick in front of my face and points at my mouth with a wide grin. Without thinking, I stick out my tongue, and only when the bitter spicy – the potion contains tiny wild chilli’s as well as many other roots and barks - hits my taste buds, I realise this is a mixture I have just been told will kill a wild boar in minutes. Amanipai laughs, and Johan reassures me: it only kills when applied intravenously, not when you eat it.

That night I go to sleep – still alive – thinking excitedly about what the next days will bring. As the smoke coming from the kitchen swirls between the monkey skulls above my head, I listen to sounds of chatter that seep in from the common veranda. I smile, remembering how I had imagined these people living in nature, without electric, would go to roost when the chickens do. On the contrary: everyone including young children were up most of last night. Amanipai is a newly initiated shaman, still learning, and he met with three other kerei and spent most of the night in ceremonial chanting, and exchanging information. All the traditional knowledge of the Mentwai kerei is shared orally, so every time two or more shamans meet, there are rituals and ceremonies to perform, and lots of information to share.

Kerei sharing session

The rituals involve the killing of four roosters, which I am glad to notice is done by breaking the necks, no bleeding, since this is done by one of the sons at mere inches from my sleeping pad. After hours of chanting and chatting, we decide to call it a night, and try to sleep best we can, next to the kerei immersed in their discussions, soothed to a little sleep by the rhythmic sounds of their singing. It is not easy to figure the exact meaning is of the rituals we witness; Amanipai’s Indonesian is similar to mine – basic. Guide and translator Johan is helpful, but I still don’t feel I’m getting the depth of things. 

Birds - toys for the spirits 

The Uma is full of intriguing objects, like the wooden birds flying from the roof of the veranda. Toys for the spirits, Johan explained, for the souls of things to play with. From research I know that the Mentawai believe everything has a soul. Some of the ceremonies we witness are to give thanks, or ask permission to things they take from the forest. But of course ten days isn’t nearly enough for any kind of real understanding, as always much of my wisdom will have to come from books. Some of the rituals remind me of the blessings common in Bali, with its Tri Hita Karana, or three principles of harmony. What we do see, what we are told – it definitely tastes like more.

On the way deeper into the jungle 

As I enjoy the relative silence and a good night sleep, excitement further builds. Tomorrow, we will leave the comfort of Amanipai’s Uma and trek to a more remote area, to stay for a week in a place with no village, shops or a toilet!

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Back to the Uma

When I close my eyes I am back in the Uma, trying to sleep on my slowly deflating air mattress, under rows of monkey skulls, surrounded by sounds. 

It is not just the expected jungle orchestra of cicadas keeping me awake; I’m listening to the rhythmic chanting of the kerei - shamans, sharing knowledge and songs in the patio adjacent to the area we sleep in. But here in Teu Reppa’s Uma in Attabai, even more is in the air. The animals know it too, as you can hear in the roaring groans of the big black bulls in the clearing around the house, the occasional cry of a pig or the cock-a-doodle-doo from the roosters that never quieten. 

Amanipai, in his element (as always)

After I came home from my stay in Siberut Island, I was straight away plunged into the madness of modern life. A school event, my son’s birthday party, things to arrange and deadlines to meet. Those two worlds are so different I struggled to collect my words. But slowly the world I left behind off the coast of Sumatra seeps back into my mind. How can I learn from the things I saw there? How can I get back that feeling of peace, of being one with the world? That feeling that what we have is enough, in fact much more than enough. That we need to simplify our lives. I gave away half the clothes I carried but I still felt embarrassed about the size of my backpack that my porter – teenage girl Toktak, lugged back out of the jungle for me. I gave her my cap. 

Teu Reppa (right) with means his wife Goreng

Toktak and I

Our guide Amanipai carried the tiniest of string-bags for his ten days with us, the biggest thing he lugged along being his pouch of tobacco tied on top of his loincloth. The Mentawai people smoke – a lot! 

Bai-Ipai (Aman-ipai's wife) during a fishing trip

Bai-Ipai and I

Let’s not kid ourselves; life in the jungle isn’t easy. It is hard work, lugging water from the river to the house, hiking miles through rough terrain to visit friends or family. Having no electricity, mobile network, access to modern medicine or any other modern comforts. To be self-reliant. But the people we saw seemed happy, living in harmony with each other and nature. They have enough sago and plenty of livestock. I miss the starchy sour taste of sago, freshly roasted above the fire in palm leaves or bamboo. I miss bathing outside in the river, low as it was after months of drought. I miss the thankful smiles of the old ladies when we rubbed their knees with tiger balm.

The WOAM team with the Sakkudei clan

Our host Teu Reppa is not only a kerei but the head of a large clan. Just before we arrived one of his sons passed away, so we worried we were imposing - but the messenger, a son who had hiked several hours to pass us the news at the Uma of our guide Amanipai, ensured us we were still welcome. The care we got from Teu Reppa’s family was astonishing. Even without a common language we managed to bond with them, particularly the women and children. Mostly the visitors they receive (the last group having come a year ago) are men, and serious hikers. We were eleven women, there for a week. We drove Johan, our head guide and interpreter, crazy with all our questions, but also managed to elicit so many laughs. We chatted and sang with the children, several of which attend the village school and therefore speak Bahasa Indonesia. We ate sago worms, witnessed the slaughter of pigs that we feasted on ceremoniously. 

Chatting with the children
Feast of boiled pig during ceremony

There is clearly a split in the family between the traditional and modern minded – of Teu Reppa’s sons two became shamans and live in the forest with their families, where another specifically wants his children to have an education in the village. This chasm in their lives is a tricky one that raises important questions: how long can their lifestyle last? And; how can the Mentawai maintain their culture and religion in modern Indonesia? There is so much more to reflect on – and write about, but for now I digest, I reminisce. I look at the photos and transport myself back to the Uma. 

Aman-suri (Teu Reppa's son) preparing sago flour

Me in the 'bedroom'
As I try to doze off, back there, I shake awake, startled by a stampede on the wooden floor planks and screaming voices. The air in the Uma crackles with suspense, and curious, my friends and I sneak past the tribe on our way out to the bush toilet for a quick peak. We won’t find out details until Johan enlightens us the next day: The spirit of the recently deceased clan member has come back to inhabit others. In a deep trance the possessed woman rocks and sways, restrained by family members with a long piece of cloth. As we walk back to the area we sleep in she follows us, tells us not to worry in a friendly tone, then continues dancing right at our feet as we acquiesce to the fact we won’t get any sleep tonight. The woman’s beautiful yet eerie voice fills the electric atmosphere as she dances, twirling and smelling the sweet ginger flowers her mother-in-law gave her to keep her soul grounded. It goes on all night, the chanting, the singing, the trances and the stampedes. The animals, my friends and I, we don’t sleep a wink. 

From my house in Bali, I think back to Siberut. I am still alive, but I hope I can go back to that Uma too some time soon, if not in real life, then at least in spirit.

To be continued

(PS several of the photos not by me but by teammate Andrea Galkova)

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Eating worms for charity

My ‘modern’ life is safe, clean and comfortable. It is also hectic, more connected to devices than nature – and leaves a disproportionately large ecological footprint. Living in Bali I am starting to realise this more and more, as I witness how people live in the villages surrounding us. The Balinese lifestyle puts a bigger emphasis on spiritual wellbeing than on economical growth. Work is easily abandoned for yet another ceremony – to the despair of many expats. To be fair, at times that includes me, but at the same time I am glad to see there are still people in this world that don’t think everything is about money. That is not to say there are no challenges here – that many Balinese don’t also want that new handphone or a faster scooter. But life does seem to flow at a different pace, and there is a lot to learn for bule like us. 

As fascinating as the Balinese culture is, I have an old dream: to dip my toes in even deeper mud than that of the Balinese sawahs. Triggered by memories from my childhood in Malaysian Borneo, I have always been fascinated by tribes living in the deep jungle, trying as much as they can to live in and off the forest. This dream, however, is not that easy to fulfil when you have young children – one doesn’t just bugger off and say ‘bye guys, mummy is of on her own to stay with some headhunters for a few weeks…’ 

So when I heard of the upcoming expedition organised by Women on a Mission, I knew this was my chance. With a group of twelve women I’m going on a ten-day trek to stay with an indigenous tribe in the Indonesian jungle. The twelve women joining are Singaporean or (former) expats in Singapore. Twelve privileged women, used to comfortable hotels, clean sheets and air-conditioning – trekking through dense jungle, sleeping in makeshift shelters full of creepy crawlies, bathing in rivers, eating sago worms; it has to be an unforgettable experience!

The original plan was to visit the Korowai tribe in West Papua – the most Eastern part of Indonesia that harbours the largest stretch of unspoilt rainforest in the region and ranks very high on my bucket list, not only for the amazing nature, but also the fascinating yet tragic Papuan people. The political situation in West Papua has been unstable for a long time. The Papuans are fighting for independence from Indonesia, and violence has escalated recently after racist incidents on Java. It would be irresponsible to travel to the region at this time. The Papuan struggle for peace is far from over, nor is my dream to visit them, and I hope both can be accomplished in the future.

Thankfully, Indonesia is huge, and WOAM managed to find another tribe that will welcome us. We will stay with the Sakuddei, one of the tribes that live on Pulau Siberut - the largest of the Mentawai - a group of islands west of Sumatra. Almost half of the island is a national park, covered in dense jungle. The tribes eat what the jungle provides, sago, fish and shrimp from the rivers, wild boar and the famous sago worms I’m particularly looking forward to! 

The Indonesian government ‘encourages’ indigenous tribes like these to assimilate, leave their homes in the jungle and re-settle in villages on the coast. Their habitat of primary forest is cut down for timber, or redeveloped for palm oil. I am keen to learn how the Sakkudei manage to preserve their tribal identity in the modern world. In preparation for the trip, I have been in touch with Suku Mentawai, a local NGO whose mission is to improve the health, well-being and livelihood of the Mentawai community by supporting indigenous culture and teaching its wisdom to the younger generation. They have agreed to meet when we are there, to discuss in what ways we can support this important cause.

The wisdom Suku Mentawai teaches young people on Siberut is old. Whilst life in new resettlement villages is often one of poverty, as there are few jobs there, tribal forest lifestyles are infinitely rich; developed over centuries to be in tune with their surroundings. The Mentawai traditionally live in uma, communities where everything is focused on balance: with each other and nature. Central to their beliefs is that everything has a soul, plants, objects and animals as well as people – and these souls need to be in a good relationship with each other. Every community has a kerei – or shaman - who can communicate with souls and the spirits of ancestors.  These shamans also have a wealth of knowledge of magical medical plants from the jungle.

Shamans, astonishing nature, eating worms; there is a lot to look forward to on this trip. The other thing the rainforest surrounding the Sukkadei is famous for is mud. Knee and thigh deep mud that we will have to hike through for hours – because the best things in life don’t come easy. What there won’t be is Wi-Fi, or even a mobile network – which will provide us with a much needed digital detox. And the upside is that not many tourists venture out there, so we will have all the privacy we crave. Aside from these physical and mental challenges I hope there will be much to learn in the forest, particularly about living together on this planet, in harmony with each other and nature. 

About Women on a Mission

Women on a Mission (WOAM) is a non-profit organisation, headquartered in Singapore, which aims to raise awareness and funds for women’s rights and empowerment, partnering with existing non-profit institutions that serve the underprivileged, with a particular focus on women's issues. Every year they organise challenging expeditions - self-funded by each participant - to raise money for the chosen charities. This will be WOAM’s 10thexpedition and they have raised over SDG 1 million to date for their chosen charities. The upcoming expedition’s objective is to raise $100,000 SGD for Women for Women International – UK, a charity which provides women survivors of war and conflict with the tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency. 

So whilst the participants of the trek are roughing it in the jungle, with their blisters, belly bugs and jungle meals, they ask their friends to sponsor them. Not for them - they themselves are lucky to go on this amazing adventure. But because there are many women in the world who have been through terrible events, and they need our help. 

Please consider supporting me to reach our target, donations made through the page below go directly to Women for Women UK 

Photos courtesy of Rob Henry of the Indigenous Education Foundation (IEF), partner of Suku Mentawai 

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Pesky pest or yummy treat?

Can you guess what local delicacy this is? Read on and you will be rewarded... 

In Bali we are surrounded by sawah – rice paddies. So what better way is there to get ourselves acquainted with Balinese life than to learn how to farm rice?

For the past weeks Roel and I have been immersing ourselves in mud - learning from local farmers how they work, the issues they face these days, and see how they have been switching back to traditional chemical free farming methods. As soon as I feel less of a newbie on all matters rice, I will definitely be sharing more of that, but or now, here is a little appetiser to get you hooked on farming life in Bali. Yesterday we took revenge against one pesky pest we encountered: snails. 

After we spent weeks preparing the mud; ploughing, hoeing, stamping, fertilising, seeding, it was finally time to plant our tiny padi plants in the neat rows our farmers had drawn for us in the mud. With about ten bule it took us a couple of hours, and when we sludged out proudly, I have to admit I was slightly disappointed to hear that a Balinese farmer can do this in an hour. Alone. 


Later, when we came back to inspect our work, we saw how pesticide free farming presents challenges: a horde of hungry molluscs had been feasting on our babies. One of the fields particularly saw more than half of the padi devoured by snails - thankfully not the one we had been working on. As we don’t use chemicals, we started googling, asking around for natural remedies to scare the snails away; ideas from beer-filled traps to crushed eggshells and human hair were tossed around. But the Balinese farmers had a better idea: let’s have a barbecue!

As Green School parents we all know that to preserve our planet we need to eat less meat; the production of beef, lamb and pork greatly contributes to climate change, deforestation - and of course there is animal welfare to consider. So I can say that I personally rejoiced at the idea of eating some sustainably sourced, free range protein. Guiltless meat! Bring on the snails.

 We roamed the field and surroundings to collect as many of the buggers as we could and collected them in a large bucket. And as I am sure by now you are all very hungry from reading this story: here is the recipe for grilled Balinese rice field snail! Even my children agree: they are enak! Delicious. 

1. Rinse the snails and bring them to boil in a pot of water with a generous handful of salt. Boil for 10-15 minutes until scum starts floating to the top.

2. The scum is what you don’t want, so rinse this off. Then use a satay stick take out the flesh: only the first fleshy bit is good to eat. The black part deeper in the shell contains the gut. 

3. Rinse the snails again, first with salty water, then with fresh water until no more mud comes out. Then string them onto bamboo satay skewers. You can grill the on a coal fire, but a gas grill works well too. Dip and coat the snails in some kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce) and grill until fragrant.

4. Serve with pecel, Indonesian peanut sauce and sambal (mashed chili). Ready made peanut sauce can be bought in supermarkets here, in varying degrees of spiciness. They are very easy to cook – just add hot water! They are great with any kind of satay, as well as vegetables, I always have some ready in storage for a quick lazy meal. 

Monday, 2 September 2019

That thing with Bali dogs

When people talk about the ways of Bali – which are supposedly both mystical and mysterious, I’m always sceptical. A very down-to-earth Dutch person doesn’t believe in such things, obviously. But Bali didn’t need long to prove me wrong. 

Roel and I have had a long-standing argument about pets, which basically boiled down to the fact that he wanted a dog and I didn’t. But now he was gallant enough to accompany me to the island of my dreams. 
So when someone posted a cute doggy on my Facebook wall, that happened to be staying in a kennel on the East Coast, conveniently located mere miles from where we were spending our holiday – it made sense even to me. Lara, a cute little Bali rescue dog joined our family. She was about one year old, raised and leash-trained by a Dutch dog rescuer. Lara has a sweet temperament that started to make me rethink my stand on dogs. 

One had better like dogs when visiting Bali. Because the main thing with Bali dogs is: they are everywhere. And when I say everywhere, I mean everywhere. It is hard to walk more than a few meters without stumbling over one of the mongrels that live on Bali’s streets. Although they look like street dogs, the majority actually has an owner. Unfortunately, some of these owners have a different mentality towards pets from what most of us westerners are used to. Lucky for the dogs, an army of dog lovers are ready to sweep to the rescue of the mangy, the underfed, the scabies sufferers. They feed, medicate, sterilise and educate, important work that will hopefully help establish a healthy, happy population one day. 

They also swamp my social media daily with pictures of cute puppies in search of a ‘forever home.’ But I was resolute – I’m done with sleepless nights, potty training and needy infants. No matter how hard the girls begged, we would not get a puppy.

But then, one unlucky day, Bali strikes again. As we drive off from the Pantai Munggu carpark, where we tried to coerce Lara to like walks on the beach, we feel a bump. Roel looks up from the wheel and a queasy feeling comes up in my stomach. We pull over and we rush out of the car. Long story short – we hit a dog.

Not only had we hit a dog, it turns out we had hit it right in front of one of Bali’s dog rescuers – which are only slightly less ubiquitous than dogs here. She had just had this little stray vaccinated. Of course we immediately offered to pay for any veterinary costs.

It turned out the dog had broken both hips and needed surgery - expensive surgery. Since we live in a country where some people cannot even afford medical care for their children, we found ourselves in a moral dilemma. Was it justified to spend this amount on a stray dog? On the other hand, not only had we promised to pay, we felt responsible for the poor creature - after all we did drive over it. I think you can now all see that there is only one way this story can end? 

There is no way we could put a dog back on the streets after spending so much on medical bills. Little Munggu, estimated to be about six months old, is a cute black puppy with the saddest eyes ever. Having adopted me as her new mother, she follows me around everywhere like the puppy she is with her slow limp. In the end, it didn’t matter whether I wanted dogs or not. The dogs got me.