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)