Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Prickly cuteness

When I walk down the stairs, I see my son on his knees in the hallway, talking into his phone – a friend in Hong Kong on the other side. ‘There’s a porcupine in our house,’ my son exclaims. I grin as I skip down the last step. ‘Not a porcupine, a hedgehog,’ I correct him, turning around to his sister in the kitchen. ‘Did you let Rob out?’

In Singapore we had squirrels, flying lemurs, pangolins and pythons in our garden, amongst many, many other representatives of jungle wildlife. When we moved to the Netherlands, I worried about getting my fix of crazy creatures. Thankfully there are plenty around, perhaps less exotic, but not less cute. Next to our house is the Westduinpark, a nature reserve that sports Den Haag’s hedgehog shelter. Somehow I ended up volunteering there, and that is how Rob the blind hedgehog made his - albeit brief – appearance in our house.

Rob the blind hedgehog aka Houdini

Hedgehogs are nocturnal and don’t need much in the way of sight, so Rob’s biggest problem is that he cannot distinguish day from night. Wandering around in broad daylight is unsafe - many hedgehogs end up as roadkill. The plan was for Rob to live in our small enclosed garden, so we could observe him to see if he was fit for release. However, Rob aka Houdini had other plans. He came to us because he was stressed in his cage in the shelter and kept escaping, but that wasn't the end of it.

We pick him up in a small cardboard box. In our garden he spends half an hour crisscrossing around at high speed, bumping into people’s legs, like Sonic the Hedgehog on speed. We retreat inside, hoping on his own he will calm down. When we can’t see him anymore, I hope he’s settled down into the big heap of leaves I raked together especially for him. As a good hedgehog should, in the middle of the day. 

The quadruplets at the sanctuary

You can imagine my surprise when I walk out my front door and see Rob racing across the road, full speed ahead. Thankfully I can grab him quickly, and put him in a box inside whilst I call the hedgehog shelter to confer: what to do with mr. Houdini? Before I hang up, Rob has escaped again, long story short: that sunny afternoon we decide to drop Rob off in the woods at Clingendael. He stomps off happily into the bushes, as far from roads and people as we can manage. Where he hope he still lives.

Release into the garden

After more, finer wire has been installed, we are ready for the next lot. Spriet, Meneertje, Meisje and Hyacint are quadruplets that lost their mother and were brought into the shelter as tiny infants. They are healthy and grow well, but as hedgehogs hibernate, young ones that don’t reach a proper weight in time have poor chances to make it through winter. The siblings will hibernate in our garden, where we can fatten them up on a diet of cat food and cuddles (well, just the food. They are prickly, after all). If they do wake up hungry too soon, we can supplement their food so they can go back to sleep.

These little guys behave as hedgehogs should: sleep all day. In the evening we can see them roam around the garden, digging up the lawn and wolfing down the food we put out for them gratefully. 

Weighing time

Every few days we weigh them, and clean out their little pen – hedgehogs are messy animals that love to relieve themselves where they sleep and eat. But when they look at us with their beady eyes and pointy snout, we will forgive them all their sins. The weather is mild and they are still underweight, it will likely be a while before they start their long sleep. So in the meanwhile we can enjoy their company.

De Egelopvang Den Haag runs on volunteers and donations, if you can, do consider giving them some extra cash to help more of these amazing little creatures. More information can be found on their website: https://www.egelopvangdenhaag.nl

And here, just because I know you love them as much as we do: some more photos:

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

West wind blowing

So here we are, the wind has turned. The breeze blowing hot and dry weather from the East, with temperatures that the Dutch call a heatwave but made us feel right at home, has been replaced with a stout zuidwester, that fierce sea wind from the West, right off the North Sea. Dutch sea winds bring moderate temperatures and rain, making me shiver as I type this in my clothes that are better suited to the tropics.

The Netherlands are beautiful when the sun shines. At the end of our road we walk straight into the dunes, were pathways meander between wild roses and seaberries, all the way to the sea. Dutch beaches are wide and white, worlds apart from the black lava sands of Bali, both equally gorgeous yet so different. The first time we walked onto the beach here, we almost got blown off again. Dutch summers are treacherous, sunny and warm can become cold and wet in minutes, you have to bring layers of clothes when going out. The North Sea is grey and frothy, its waves flat compared to Bali. My Canggu-trained menfolk won’t get their wax out for them, but as I see Roel and Tijm staring at kite surfers scooting across the waters of the zandmotor, I’m thinking those sea winds may serve their purpose yet.

Of course, getting used to living in a new country is about more than the weather. And although many people tell us we moved ‘home’, it doesn’t feel like that, not yet. The Netherlands are new to us, it has been fourteen years since we lived here, the kids never have. Repatriation is strange, you have all the hassle of an intercontinental move, without the excitement of an exotic location. You have changed, with a lot of different cultural experiences, yet you still look and sound the same as a ‘local’. Often, as I stand in a shop or am on the phone with one of the many institutions this country boasts, I feel myself an awkward outsider - the Dutch don’t cope well with people that don’t fit into boxes. It makes me feel for ‘real’ foreigners, that don’t speak the language and have no network of friends and family to advise them how to navigate the Dutch bureaucracy where, unlike in Asia, rules are rigid and the same for everyone.

This move was a tad unexpected to me, and with both Roel and me at home, the children that haven’t been at school in half a year, I still feel in limbo. In a few weeks, school will start and hopefully life will become more normal. As normal as this family gets. Often, when people ask me whether we moved ‘back for good’, I cringe. I smile politely and give the only answer I can. ‘For good is a very long time.’ I’m sure the wind will eventually turn again, and who knows where it will blow us?

We are here now and will stay as long as we like it. And there are plenty of things I like about the Netherlands and living in Den Haag. When I feel too cold I list them and I feel better: Family and friends old and new. Kids sleeping over with aunts and grandparents. Cousins. Boating in Friesland. The dunes, the fresh air (although I might revisit this in winter when it becomes too fresh), the wind in my hair on the beach, and the fact that the sun is friendly enough to sit in (ironically I’m much more tanned now than I ever was in Asia). Seaberry kefir and kids picking blackberries. Public libraries. Kringloopwinkels (recycled goods shops). Cheese. Dewdrops. Petting zoos. My new old fermenting crock. Wild green herbs and flowers. Museums. Sheepskin rugs and wild duck down duvets.

A lot to love and we are here, in the Netherlands. Our newest adventure.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Keep Calm and Ferment On

A delicious selection of homemade sodas!

One of the advantages of being cooped up inside is that you start doing all that stuff you normally would like to do, but don’t have time for. Or, in my case, do what you were doing already a lot more. Like fermenting delicious drinks. Fermenting is such a fun thing to do with children, and mine love the flavour of our homemade fizzy sodas! You can make them as sweet or sour as you like, and add all sorts of fruits and spices to spruce them up. I get a lot of questions about how to make them, so I'll share my recipes and experiences here. 

You don’t need a lot of materials to get started, but what is imperative is to get some flip-top glass bottles that close well, and some large glass jars. For some versions a strainer, a funnel, a grater and a blender can come in handy too, as do cup measures. I normally prefer weighing ingredients as it is more precise, but in this case, cups are much easier to use and more than precise enough. Also, you’ll need a lot of sugar! But don’t worry, most of the sugar will be broken down by the good bacteria by the time you drink your soda, and those bacteria will do all sorts of wonders for your gut. So basically, these delicious sodas are not only delicious good for you too.

I won’t bore you too much with the scientific details, but feel free to ask them in the comment section as well as any other questions you have. 


Kombucha is a fermented tea, and it is extremely easy to make. The one thing you need is a kombucha SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), which is a solid mass of microorganisms that will ferment your drink. The best way to get one is to reach out amongst your network if someone has some to share. I definitely have some to share, they grow very fast. Kombucha feeds on very strong and very sweet tea. I typically use 4 tea bags and ¾ cup of sugar with 2 liters of water, but kombucha is very forgiving so don’t worry too much. Kombucha microorganisms are a non-fancy bunch, they like simple black tea and white sugar best. Although you can use other types of tea and sugar, it is best to regularly give them some good old builders brew with a light sugar to stay strong.

Kombucha brewing, the SCOBY on top

Let your hot tea cool down to room temperature before you add the SCOBY – you don’t want to kill it. The SCOBY is a layer that gets formed on the top, and with every brew another layer will form until it resembles a pile of pancakes. When it gets too thick, simply peel off a few and discard (give away or compost). Cover your jar with a cloth and elastic band – you want to let air in and keep the ants, flies and lizards out.

So how long to let it ferment? This depends on both the temperature of your kitchen and your taste. I like mine quite sour, so I leave it a little longer, but my kids prefer it sweet. Just use a clean spoon to try a little. As the colour slowly gets lighter as it ferments I now tend to judge if it's ready by colour. 
Mine (brewing at tropical temperatures) is usually ready in two days. You can drink it straight, or choose to do a second ferment, which I will describe in more detail below.

Milk kefir and yoghurt

For kefir you need kefir grains, which are similar to a SCOBY but small and roundish rather than flat, hence the name. There are two types, one to ferment milk, and one to ferment clear liquids. The milk kefir grains feed on lactose (or milk sugar) in milk, the water grains on different sugars, but the process is fairly similar. In our family we love milk kefir as it reminds us of the Dutch buttermilk, which these days is mostly no longer churned but fermented. Other cultured milk products from the Middle East like Ayran and Laban are made in a similar way, as is yoghurt, the reason they all taste different and gave different textures is because different cultures are used. 

To make milk kefir, simply add a few spoons of kefir grains to a jar of milk; they will float to the top. Then leave it out until you have the flavour you like (the longer, the more sour). I have had issues doing this in very hot weather, as the milk will curdle before it ferments (which means it separates into thick curds floating on liquid transparent whey). There is no fixing this, but you can use that whey for whey soda explained below, and put the curds in a smoothie. Or make cheese from it, but that is another story). To prevent curdling, I would ferment milk kefir in the fridge in Singapore. 

Kitchen top 'cheat' yoghurt

Because I don’t have milk kefir grains at the moment, I buy my kefir ready made, and then make it last longer (it’s expensive here!) by this cheat method. Simply leave a little in the bottle, top up with fresh milk, and leave it out until it thickens. Make sure to shake regularly, I find it goes fast, so don’t leave it out too long.

We do exactly the same for yoghurt, by putting a few spoons of store bought yoghurt in a jar and topping up with milk and leaving it out. In colder climates you will need to do this in an oven or hot place, but here its warm enough. For best results, heat up the milk for yoghurt until 80C, this gives a sweeter flavor and also makes the yogurt set better. Make sure to cool it down before adding the cultures or you’ll kill them!

Water kefir

Water kefir grains live on a sugar solution. You can also use them to ferment coconut water, but you do need to feed them sugars regularly too or they’ll flounder. Again, it’s not rocket science when it comes to measurements, but I do find kefir less forgiving than kombucha. They need extra minerals, so you need to mix in some darker sugars, molasses, or even a pinch of seasalt. Some people add dried fruit like apricot for this reason, but I find dark sugars work just as well and much easier.

I use roughly ½ cup of light sugar for 2 liters of water, plus a small scoop of a darker sugar as a supplement. You can experiment with different brands, but don’t use a very refined sugar. Toss in two spoons of kefir grains and cover with a cloth. Again, taste to see what acidity suits you. The longer you leave it the more sour!

Second ferment

We tend to drink our kombucha straight and do a second ferment for the water kefir, but this process works for either drink. Transfer your kefir/ kombucha to a flip-top bottle, but don’t fill all the way to the top. Now for the fun bit! Add any kind of fruit and spices you fancy. You can either blend the fruit, mush lightly or toss in in straight. I most often use passion fruit or (frozen) berries as those are easy and yummy, but any fruit will do. Harder fruits like apple are best added as a juice or puree. You can add slices of ginger, a stick of cinnamon. Get creative!

Now, set the bottle in a warm spot and wait. Make sure to burb your bottles regularly to let out the gas. Once it's fizzy it is done, transfer the bottle to the fridge – it will keep there for a few weeks, but will keep fermenting slowly. Be careful when opening bottles, always press down the top and open it slowly; sometimes there is so much fizz it will burst out explosively. I have had stains on the ceiling! 

Whey soda

Making whey soda is relatively new to me, and I am amazed how easy and delicious it is. It is a bit of a cheat’s ferment as it makes use of left over whey which is already rich in pro-biotics, so it is a great one to make if you have yoghurt or milk kefir gone bad or produce your own cheese. (I started doing this because a friend who sells artisanal cheese was looking for some products to make with her left over whey; I used to work as a product developer in the food industry, so that was right up my alley. Alternatively some stores also sell liquid whey, I got some at Bali Direct). In the Netherlands there are a number of whey beverages on the market, and the distinct flavour of it brings up memories. If you don’t like that, it is easily masked by strong fruit flavours.

Whey soda, the kids experimenting with flavours

For when soda I tend to puree the fruits, as we don’t just use them for flavour, we need to release their fruit sugars. For a one liter bottle I use between ½ and 1 cup liquid whey, which you add to a sweet fruit juice drink. To make that I puree fruit with some additional sugar, quantities are approximate and depend on your taste. It should be a little too sweet to drink straight. For instance, I would puree ½ a cup of berries with 1/3 cup of sugar for a one liter bottle, but you can add more or less depending on your taste. To be honest, I usually don’t actually measure and just do it on gut feel. (Something that I had to stop doing on my job as a product developer, as you can imagine!) A squeeze of lemon gives a little tang to a berry and brings out the flavour. Whey soda is quite forgiving, but it can also be very explosive so be mindful not to add too much sugar and whey.

My kids love the berry flavoured ones (blueberry-dragonfruit is a solid hit, as is raspberry lime), but my personal favourite is mandarin – turmeric, which has a note of bitter in it, just like Campari.

Ginger beer

I love, love, love ginger and all sorts of root beers and although these can be a little more tricky to make, trust me, it will be worth it. Imagine yourself with a homemade Dark & Stormy cocktail of fresh gingerbeer and dark rum. Most shop-bought root beers are just carbonated sugary flavoured drinks, but this stuff is the real deal. Add the beneficial features of many roots and you have the moist delicious health tonic ever (did anyone say gin?). Isn’t that what we all need in times of Corona?

Ginger- turmeric bug
So the first thing to do is to make your ginger bug, which will take a few days to a week. Roots have a lot of microorganisms on their surface, and it is these we want to proliferate. Apart from ginger, salsaparilla and burdock are traditionally used, but since we are in Asia I stick to gingers. Regular ginger works best. I have tried to make a turmeric starter, since it is such an amazing anti-inflammatory as well as flavour, but it does not work. Now I make one that is a mixture of ginger and turmeric and that works well. I occasionally toss in other ginger family roots, and the other day even some burdock. But using regular ginger as a base is your safest bet. Get organic ones if you can, we don't want chemicals in our ferment. There is no need to peel, the skin is where most of the micro-organisms live. 

To make a ginger bug, grate or finely chop some ginger and put it in a jar, cover with water and a few spoons of sugar. Quantities are not that important, but let’s say roughly 2 cups of water, a scant cup of ginger and a few spoons of sugar. Most sugars will work. You can cover the jar with a lid or cloth. Now you need to feed it daily, by a spoon of sugar, a spoon of grated ginger and stir. After a while you will notice it gets bubbly and smells and tastes sour, which means it is ready to go! If you don't want to feed your bug all the time, store it in the fridge, and only feed it once every week or so. In that case, you need to let it come our of hibernation before you can use it by feeding it at room temperature for a day. If it is at room temperature try to feed it a spoon of sugar most days, and grated ginger regularly, but it is okay to skip a day if you forget. 

Ginger - turmeric beer
To make ginger beer, make a sugar solution in a flip-top bottle, roughly ¼ cup of sugar to a bottle, but I tend to not measure but eyeball it. You can use any sugar, I like to use dark sugars like the Indonesian Gula Aren (palm sugar) for extra flavour. For a one-liter bottle add roughly a few tablespoons, more or less depending on taste, and add some of the grated ginger for a stronger ginger flavour. Top up your ginger bug with new grated ginger, water and sugar. 

At this stage you can add any fruit or spice that you fancy as well, similar to a second ferment as above. Then leave it out and remember to burp. It takes a little longer to get carbonated, typically up to two days in the tropics, just taste it to see when you like it. If you are lucky it will get a proper fizz! 

This is my repertoire at the moment, if you have been fermenting other drink, I'd love to hear, please do share tour experiences in the comments!

Friday, 3 April 2020


The best thing to calm me down, for instance when the world has suddenly turned completely upside down, is to be in nature. So it is my luck that right now, as we have to stay at home, I am living in a place surrounded by rice fields. When stress takes over my body I sit and breathe and look at those waving green stalks. Nature gives me perspective, it shows me what is really important in the grand scheme of things.

In those rice fields, life goes on. Plants do not stop growing, or go in lock-down, and when the government talks about ‘essential jobs’ that have to go on, this must clearly be one of the most essential jobs in the world, not just now, in times of corona and panic, but always: Farming. 

My son Tijm at work in the fields 
We need food to stay alive. And not just any food; healthy, nourishing food, and this current crisis makes it clear how our modern lifestyles weaken our bodies, people that are obese, have diabetes or similar health conditions are vulnerable. This is not the last virus that will hit humanity, and this pandemic resonates with issues I have been pondering this last year in Bali and at the Green School: the future of agriculture and the food industry. Friends who met me in the last few years know me as a writer with a passion for human rights, which I am, but this sabbatical in Bali I find myself at a crossroads. Do I continue with that, or do I go back to an earlier version of myself? As a teenager I wanted to study tropical farming, I loved plants and badly wanted to be back in the tropics of my childhood. But then, I could not see myself as a farmer, my lifestyle has always been nomadic, not grounded in one spot. Later I developed a new passion, and wanted to be a perfumer, but recurring sinus infections in the cold northern European weather ruled perfumery school in Paris out. I ended up studying chemistry, although I can’t really remember why. I specialised in sustainable development, a subject at the time – twenty years ago, gosh I am old - still developing itself, and fascinating. 

Ploughing with cows, much harder than it looks

As life is what happens when you make other plans, I somehow ended up with a job at one of world’s biggest food manufacturers as a product developer for ice cream. Creating new flavours, sourcing fair trade and sustainable ingredients, for ten years it was a dream job until I realised that such a big commercial company, in the end, wasn’t for me. With three young kids we moved to Singapore, I started writing, and that seemed that. But Bali is known to be a place that opens your eyes. It is full of people that want to ‘find themselves’, as I used to sneer, but not me because I knew exactly who I was. Then, of course, Bali slapped me in the face and laughed. 

Green School parents at work in the field, planting

Green School Bali is not only a school for the kids, it also offers courses for parents, and the first thing Roel and I both did after we arrived was enrol in a rice farming course organised by Kul Kul Connection, the departement at school dedicated to forging connections to the local community. It was such an inspiration that we joined again in the second semester, and I topped it up with a course in syntrophic farming and agroforestry. Suddenly I was that teenager again as I bended over the soil, feet in the mud and hands on the leaves, the hot tropical sun beating on my head and shoulders. I know my rheumatic body and nomadic lifestyle will never make me a farmer but boy, I am so tempted.

Roel weeding: SRI rice production means more weeds!

As we observe the Balinese farmers, listen to experts from over the world, as we toil and chat, ponder and learn, I start to realise more and more what a dire state our food supply is in. Monoculture depletes soil everywhere, wrecks biodiversity, disrupts the climate. Unhealthy lifestyles make people susceptible for diseases, there is an explosion of auto-immune conditions like the one I suffer from, one I know is strongly influenced by my diet. Massive changes will need to be made if humanity wants a future. This current pandemic illustrates that only more clearly. 

left: Pak Wayan, one of the Balinese farmers we work with
middle: an agriculture specialist from the Badung government

In Bali, most of the farmers are over 60 years of age. Getting farming to be ‘sexy’ and a popular choice for young people is one of the challenges the island faces. But of the high school students I teach creative writing to, none want to be a farmer, even though many of their grandparents were. These are smart and ambitious kids, that want to be lawyers, doctors and accountants. Their parents work in tourism or run businesses. Why would they work long back-breaking hours in the heat for a pittance, a fraction of what they can make in a cool office?

Not much easier than the cows..
Farming these days is not ‘romantic’. Modern farmers in Bali don’t use the farming methods of their grandfathers, they use the methods promoted by the government since the Green Revolution of the late 20th century; a way of production where everyone uses the same hybrid seeds, and an increasing amount of chemical fertiliser as the soil depletes and an increasing amount of pesticides as the unbalanced eco-system gets ravaged by pests and diseases. The resulting grains have less flavour and nutritional value than the rice I remember from when I was young and living in this region.

Pak Wayan seeding our no-till ricefield 

Those older farmers still remember how it used to be. How there were eels and frogs in the fields that naturally fertilised the soil. How the water coming down to the subak from the aquifers in the mountains was clean and not full of nitrates. But they also know there are many people to feed in Indonesia, and that the current population can’t be fed on the low yields those old methods produced. Most people in Indonesia can’t afford to pay the premium for the organically produced rice we grow in our course – we sell it to expats and restaurants, and to Green School that feeds it to our kids. The flavour is amazing. 

Me, happy at harvest time

If one thing has become clear to me, it is that we need to find a way where we combine the good things of the past, where balanced eco-systems were naturally protected and nature not a threat, with modern methods that allow us to produce enough to feed a growing world population. The courses I did the last year showed me many innovations in agriculture that offer solutions, and also that farmers are keen to join in. The challenge will be to roll these innovations out, to get governments on board, to supply initial investments and guidance. It is something that needs to be done. Because the natural world, the climate, the soil, the water; they are all essential for our very existence. The most essential. We can train doctors and develop vaccines as much as we like, but without a healthy world, we are fighting a losing battle.

Arthur, a farmer from Brazil teaching agroforestry 

So as I sit behind my laptop, typing as I glance over the screen at the rice fields beyond, I know that Bali raised more questions for me than it can answer. The crossroads we all stand at right now might seem blocked - in a literal sense, as there are very few flights out of Bali and most countries closed their borders – but the good thing is the roads are there in front of us, we just need to decide which one to take. Do we go on as usual, or do we make a U-turn and fix this world? There is one thing my all-over-the place life taught me, and that is that many roads go to the same destination, they meander and cross again, go over hills and hurdles, through streams, deserts and fields of abundance. As long as you go forward, not back, you will get there. 

Looking at the farmer ploughing his field behind my house, a slew of white birds behind him picking up the worms he whips up, I feel optimistic. He is essential. Hopefully I can be too.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Silent Day in Bali

As I woke up this morning and stepped from my bedroom onto the adjoining patio, the first thing I noticed was the sound of the river at the bottom of our garden. Then, twittering birds and cicadas. Today Bali celebrates Nyepi, the Day of Silence. There were no farmers in the field with noisy tractors. There was no music from ceremonies floating over from the village. No revving of GOJEK scooters delivering wares. My own noisy kids were still asleep.

Nyepi marks the new year in the Balinese calender, and its arrival has never been more well-timed in this time of social distancing and isolating. Nyepi is a day of self-reflection, and everything that can interfere with that is banned. So during Nyepi everyone in Bali, Hindu or not, needs to stay home and follow the restrictions: no fires, no electric lights, no work, no entertainment, and, importantly, do not leave the house. Today is a day of rest for ourselves and the earth.

Staying quiet and meditating doesn’t come natural to all. Just now, when my kids played noisily I warned them, only to be met with rolling eyes from Linde. ‘I don’t believe in Nyepi,’ she declared, and when I mentioned respect, and the banjar guards patrolling, she shrugged. ‘What will they do, arrest us?’

Normally, internet and mobile networks are switched off all over the island, and I am not sure I was glad or disappointed when both seemed to work fine this morning. With the current global crisis I could have used a day without any news. A day to retreat with my family in the safety of our home and relax. Our day today won’t be much different from the ones we had the past week. To protect both ourselves and the Balinese we decided to self-isolate a week ago. Initially it felt very surreal, as we noticed the world going on as normal outside. But slowly Bali started to catch up with us, as the government banned large events, and bars and restaurants closed one by one. Isolating isn’t easy for the Balinese, not only because many don’t have the savings to support staying home, but also because religion is such an important part of their lives, particularly at this time of the year.

For months they have been working at their Ogoh Ogoh, large statues of demons in all shapes and colours, that would have been paraded around the island yesterday. The Ogoh Ogoh serve to purify the environment of any spiritual pollutants emitted from the activities of living beings, especially humans. So when the government, wisely so, banned the parades, this was difficult to accept for everyone; surely purification is needed now more than ever. I have to admit even I was disappointed, for months I have been following the progress of the statues, being made in every neighbourhood. Even as an atheist, I can not but admire the dedication and creativeness the Balinese put into their religion.

And now, today, Nyepi. A day of silence at home seems to be exactly what the world needs, and the governor of Bali agrees by edict: Nyepi will last two days this year. A smart move, as the day after Nyepi, New Year’s day, involves a lot of visiting and a kissing ceremony where single youths get together and – kiss. After those two days, life will have to resume to some kind of normality, but what that will look like, no one knows. The situation changes by the day.

We will stay home a bit longer. We are thankful for our comfortable house and pool, for the GOJEK drivers that are out there and tirelessly deliver our orders. For all those working to keep the world running. For the medical staff that puts their own life on the line.

For now, I am enjoying the sound of my kid sweeping leaves, and try to make my greatest worry of the day the matter of how to keep them silent.

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Mentawai musings

Before the end of the year with all its distractions arrives, I am trying to gather my thoughts on my visit to the Mentawai tribes of Siberut. My friend Andrea, who is a photographer, shared some of her amazing shots of the trip, and staring wistfully at her colourful work I wish I could go back. Stay longer this time, and bring my family too. Learn more. 

Of course I know, self-sufficiency is hard, but jungle life does seem simple and happy. I’d love to get back the state of mind I had when I was there. What can tribes like the Mentawai teach us? Can we simplify our own lives to make them less stressful and more sustainable? What - if anything - did the tribe get out of our visit? And how can we help protect their habitat and way of life? 

It sounds like a fairy tale; a place with no mobile network, no electricity, and no cash economy. A place where people only use what they find in the forest surrounding them and even then, ask permission from its soul before they take what they need. Yet that is what we found on Siberut. And the sense of community the tribe demonstrated, the way they live in harmony with nature, was an inspiration. 

On the way!

Getting there was a journey in itself. Slowly, gradually, I felt myself moving away from the modern world. From Bali I flew to Padang, in West Sumatra, where we boarded a ferry to Muara Siberut, a small town on the south of the island. As soon as our boat left Padang, it felt like we left ‘civilisation’. (i.e. we left the mobile network behind. I missed it like a sore tooth.) In Muara Siberut we met local guides Johan and Aman Ipai, and after a night in a guesthouse, we were ready to hit the jungle. Unfortunately, because of drought, the water level in the river was too low for a canoe; we had to travel by motorbike. On the back of that bike, with the driver balancing my too big backpack uncomfortably between his knees, I felt the excitement build in my stomach with every bump, leap and shake. 

Aman Ipai's uma in Buttui
We follow Aman Ipai into the jungle

Shortly after we arrived in Aman Ipai’s uma in Buttui, where we would stay for a night before hiking on to the more remote area of Attabai, a delegation from the Sakkudei clan arrived. They had walked though the jungle for several hours to deliver bad news: one of our host Teu Reppa’s sons had passed away. They still wanted us to come, but needed an extra day for the funeral arrangements. Staying longer with Aman Ipai and his wife Bai Ipai – affectionately nicknamed Baboi or mother, was no disappointment at all, and soon enough the porters arrived to carry our bags up the difficult path to Attabai. Meeting my porter Monica, a lady about half my height and more than my age, I stared hesitantly at my big bag. I ended up giving away many of my possessions, but a sense of embarrassment of the amount of stuff we modern women seemingly need, continued to bother me throughout the journey.

Buttui is close to a village and a rough motorcycle track, but Attabai can only be reached on foot; following Aman Ipai’s measured and steady steps we hiked through rivers, over a steep hill, and pathways that in more muddy conditions can only be navigated over wooden beams. When we arrived in Attabai, we were mindful of the mourning this family was in. Grief at the Mentawai is expressed physically, with a lot of hugging and loud wailing. We felt awkward at first, but soon learned that for the tribe, these emotions have a natural place in life, and are not something to be hidden or feel embarrassed about. 

Teu Reppa's uma in Attabai

Our bedroom at the uma

We explored our new home. Teu Reppa’s uma is further from the river, the wooden house stands in the middle of a dusty clearing. Pigs, cows and chicken roam around and under; the house is raised on stilts. There is no toilet there, you go outside and the pigs clean up after. The house consists of a large wooden patio with benches all around, a middle section where we will sleep, and behind that, the kitchen. In an uma, men and women sleep separately, men stay on the patio - sexual relations are not allowed (which is why families also have smaller wooden huts in the forest – for privacy). The uma is decorated with skulls of deer, pigs and monkeys. Along the patio fly wooden birds, which Johan explains are toys for the souls. The Mentawai believe everything has a soul, and many of the ceremonies we witness are to give thanks to, or ask permission from the soul of things they take from the forest. Spirituality is an integral part of Mentawai culture, and we observed many shaman ceremonies, knowledge exchanges and even clan members going into trance with a visiting soul (described here). As an atheist, most religious aspects perplex me if I think about them too deeply, but it is clear how interwoven the ceremonies are with Mentawai culture. One cannot separate culture from religion here.

Kerei (shaman) sharing knowledge 

For a week we were part of the community and learned about their way of life. We played with the children, went hunting with the men – a tad relieved that our noise scared away all the monkeys. We ate a lot of sago. We witnessed the ceremonial slaughter of pigs and shared the meat with the tribe. We watched Aman Suri, one of Teu Reppa’s sons chop up a rotten sago palm trunk, and the children swarm to it as if it was a candy store. Sago worms! When you bite through the outer rubbery skin, the soft insides ooze creamy and sweet, like custard. Quite a treat.

Flora and Adriana

Thankfully, some of the clan members spoke some Indonesian so I could talk to them. There is a clear divide amongst Teu Reppa’s sons. Two became kerei like their father; their children grow up in the forest. Two others chose to move to the village, like Paulus, who wants his children to get an education. I asked those kids about their plans for the future. Flora, aged twelve, was clear: she wants to be a doctor. Her cousin Adriana of the same age isn’t sure yet, she giggled a lot, and got teased by the others that her only ambition is to prepare sago. Little brother Patrisius who is nine, wants to be a policeman, which made his sister laugh: he is too naughty, she said. Elisabet was too shy to speak, and hid behind her hands. On Sunday afternoon the four of them walked home to their mothers in the village. Unsupervised for the three-hour walk; they are still jungle kids at heart. 

Head, shoulders knees and toes... 

Their cousins that don’t attend school can’t speak Indonesian or write; they are clearly at home in the jungle and proficient with a machete. Communication is more difficult, but time and again we saw that not many words are needed for humans to bond, as we massaged the elderly, dispensed medicine, sang songs and strung beads with the children – the smiles and hugs at our goodbye said it all. 

Teu Reppa and Goreng enjoy a multi-hand massage

Teu Reppa receives tourists like us in his uma to make some cash - to pay for school fees, medicine, tools and tobacco. Their last visitors came over a year ago and on the way back, Johan told us how much they enjoyed our visit; most guests are men, there for serious hiking. To have a group that reached out to the women of the tribe specifically was a rare treat and much appreciated. Still, I had mixed feelings. Apart from cash, we brought plastic waste, mobile phones with cameras and sugary sweets. Our empty water bottles were in great demand to be re-used by the tribe, but what would happen to them after they broke? Didn’t our mere presence threaten the authenticity of the tribe’s way of life? I put this complicated question in front of Johan. To him, the answer was simple. 

Sago palm plantation

Sago preparation: separating the starch (a man's job)

Preparing sago palm leaves
Goreng preparing sago

After grating sago needs to be wrapped for roasting

Wrapping sago in leaves is harder than you think!

Baboi roasting the sago

Johan grew up in a fishing village on Siberut and spent several years with the tribe in Attabai working for Unesco. His father was one of the first local guides who took tourists into the forest in the nineteen nineties. Before that, the Mentawai tribes had been forced to assimilate, first by missionaries, then by the Indonesian government. Their artefacts were burned, and those who performed ceremonies or sported tattoos could end up in jail. Shamanism is still not accepted as a religion, everyone needs to select one of the five formal state religions of Indonesia. Only those tribes deep in the forest persevered. 

Teu Reppa weaving a basket

Burning the hair off a pig

When ecotourism grew, the government started to see the economic potential of their natural and cultural heritage, and in 1992 a large part of Siberut Island became a nature reserve – which is an important reason tribes like the Sakkudei can still live there as they do. In most parts of Sumatra indigenous tribes outside reserves have lost their habitat to logging and palm oil plantations. For Johan the answer to my question was easy: tourism saved the tribes.

Sakkudei children

Sakkudei chief Teu Reppa and his wife Goreng

To formulate a broader answer, I spoke to people from other organisations active on Siberut island: Suku Mentawai and IEF programs, that both work to educate people in the government’s resettlement villages about their own culture. Most people living there have lost touch with the forest way of life, and since employment options are limited in these remote villages, life is hard. People are keen to reconnect with their rich heritage, and Suku Mentawai’s programs show the benefits of education, and how it can be used to preserve traditional cultures. One thing is becoming clear to me: doing nothing and ‘leave these people be’ is not an option.

Guide Aman Ipai and his wife Bai Ipai

For a tribe like the Sakkudei it is impossible to keep living the way they have for centuries. There are many things threatening them in this modern world. They need an education; language, maths and the law, if they are to protect themselves from illegal logging, the government, or others that try to exploit them and their forest. At the same time, they need to be able to maintain their identity whilst they develop themselves – which is why locally run cultural initiatives like Suku Mentawai are so important. 

Sharing pork after ceremonial slaughter 

I believe that as long as tourism remains small scale, and focused on empowerment rather than exploitation, it can help in preservation of indigenous tribes and their habitats. Cultural exchange can enrich both parties, as long as there is mutual respect. Even though there is much to admire about strong communities, they can at times be oppressive for the individual - one thing I’d like to learn more about myself is the position of women in the clan. 

WOAM visitors with the Sakkudei and our guides

Through Whatsapp conversations with Johan, I know we are missed in Siberut - like we miss them. My life is still hectic, not as simple and sustainable as it could be. But every now and again I think of the Mentawai and try to keep learning. I hope to go back one day, and show my own children what life in the jungle can be like, now it is still there to see. This story is not over yet. 

Photos by Andrea Galkova (https://www.andreagalkovaphotography.com)