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)

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. It was a lumpy ride, that took us past a number of vegetable gardens and government villages over a path that became less of a path and more of a jungle as we rode away from the town. 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!