Before coming to Indonesia, we have learned that in some regions of this huge country, people still live in the jungle. They try to live in harmony with nature, adhere to the cult of ancestors and cultivate shamanic traditions. They still hunt and celebrate special ceremonies to guard them from evil spirits and diseases. As you may have guessed we really wanted to get into that place. That’s why we decided to visit the people of the Siberut island…the Mentawai tribe.
Before heading to the new place we always do a lot of online research, and then another, more practical one, after actually arriving at our destination. It takes quite a lot of time, but it’s because we try to organize everything on our own. But it’s not that we have anything against attractions organized by tourism agencies. It’s just that we believe that getting there on our own we have more chances to actually see something authentic and real, a little piece of the everyday life. If they allow us to do that, we watch and learn from them as much as w can. No, no, we don’t picture ourselves as discoverers of new civilizations and we already had to accept the fact that the tourism industry has reached almost every little part of the world (probably even including “our” little Kayaw tribe village in Myanmar that we already told you about some time ago❤). Besides, seriously, we would have to name ourselves hypocrites, if we were spiteful about tourism.
So we decided to visit the Mentawai people on our own. In order to do so, we needed to get to the Siberut Island where they live. As the most traditional places are located quite far from the harbor it seemed a bit complicated. However, we were very well equipped… with insight knowledge and help coming from our new friend Baju (@Padang Homestay and @West Sumatra travels). Special thanks to Baju as without his tips we wouldn’t be able to live this adventure the way we imagined.
We were supposed to take a local ferry from Sumatra. And you will never believe who we met while waiting at the harbor? The two other travelers waiting there happened to be: Bogusia and Darek – a very nice couple from… Pila (Pila is a Polish town located just about 30km from Maciek’s hometown, Zlotow)‼After a quick chat we decided to continue the adventure together. In the harbor of the Siberut Island we were supposed to meet someone, who helped us register our passports at the police station… just in case. After that we were picked up by a shaman himself, who brought us all with his canoe boat to his home!
A shaman here is the clan’s head, a person able to cure others, hold ceremonies as well communicate with ghosts. Thanks to those superpowers he can take good decisions and make fair judgments. The role of shaman is passed from father to son, and so the son is being prepared to this special position from a very young age.
As we were still in Padang, we got a 2 pages dictionary with the most important expressions in both: Indonesian and Mentawai languages… and that’s it! But we weren’t afraid of communication problems. We obviously knew that we would find out and understand less than those who travel with a guide, but we preferred it this way. The person who accompanied us when we first met the shaman explained him that we are not there to be in any way intrusive. That the only thing we would love to is to be accepted to be witnesses of their everyday life. The shaman was a bit surprised and said he hadn’t had such “untypical guests” yet. When we realized he speaks a bit of English we understood that he must have seen quite many tourists already! We were quite surprised as well but in the end we knew that the place we wanted to visit is not an undiscovered area (if one can already find video documents about it online!) 😉
As we went there on our own, we had to think about taking some food for our staying there. We did some shopping on a local market and brought some rice, noodles, vegetables, fruits, coffee, tea, sugar, cigarettes and lollipops with us. The last two items on that list happen to be very much liked by the locals. We knew about it and have even heard that it would be expected from us to go there with such gifts. We had some mixed feelings about it first, but on the other hand, it’s normal that when you visit someone you usually bring some chocolates, a bottle of wine or other things that people we visit may like, right?
So after covering our luggage with a plastic film to avoid soaking with water, we packed it all on the boat and started our ride up the river towards Buttui village. Six hours spent in exactly the same position, with first sun burning and then a downpour in the middle of a jungle – it was already a great experience. We finally made it to the village. There we met a big part of our host family living in a big wooden pile house (called uma). After a short introduction, together with Bogusia we started cooking as we were all quite hungry after that ride. And I think this was what broke the ice. The family helped us in the kitchen, although we could notice that the youngest children were a bit shy. Women and children didn’t really sit at the same table with us. We invited them to do so, but they refused. And as we didn’t want to force anything on them we accepted their decision. We cooked rice with vegetables, and it looked like they really liked it. Some kids didn’t even wait for the vegetables and enjoyed eating the rice only. Weirdly enough they get to eat lollipops that they get from tourists more often, than good and healthy rice! We regretted not having brought more of it.
The Mantawai people do not have a very diverse diet. Apparently it’s based on sag (which is a kind of paste done with the parts of a sag tree pressed together with water, wrapped up with banana leaves and baked in the fire), bananas, taro (which for us is very much like potatoes) and fish. Sometimes men go hunting. Killing a monkey with an arrow is quite challenging and it needs incredible skills. That’s why those huntings may take a couple of days! As it’s a special event, a special ceremony is held before the monkey is consumed. Speaking of ceremonies.,. the Mentawai people also eat domesticated animals (pigs, cows, geese, chicken) that they sacrifice before eating in amounts… depending on the occasion.
The Mentawai people dress usually in a modern way, but we managed to see some of them, mainly men, wearing the traditional loincloth made from tree bark and colorful jewelry on wrists and neck. Tattoos are perceived as a part of clothing here. They have a symbolic meaning and are strongly connected to the village everyday life. Some time ago they used to sharpen the teeth here but we have been told this isn’t practiced anymore that often.
In order to get from our house to the village we had to go through a river, and through a part of a jungle where the mud reached up to our knees (we were there in the beginning of the rainy season). There are no actual shoes for these conditions, so everyone walks barefoot here. Some paths are marked with single stones or sliced palm trees. Walking on those, especially when they are wet, is quite an acrobatic challenge. We happened to be in the Mentawai village on a Sunday and so we decided to go to a local church with them. Yes, we were shocked as well as we saw a little Catholic church in the middle of a jungle… and right nearby a Muslim mosque! We found out that most of the population had to declare some time ago which of the 6 religions Indonesia acknowledges as state, they belong to. In the same time, a lot of families still practice their animistic beliefs and veneration of the dead. We are wondering if the children, the ones brought to churches and sent to schools, will still continue the tribal traditions?
Each day the house of the family who hosted us was visited by more and more people. In the beginning we only cooked for 10 people, then for 20, and at some point there were even 30 people to cook for. Quite a challenge, especially when having only one “fire” to our disposal. In the evenings we sang songs together: we in Polish and they in their Mentawai language, we played some simple games and we even thought them to dance “Macarena” 😀 It all was really very spontaneous. Some kids had a lot of fun with us, but there were still a couple of them watching us from a distance. They loved the balloons we brought them and a hammock (or rather swinging on it) 🙂 It’s actually quite strange that the hammock trend, which is so successful in the south-eastern Asia hasn’t reached this area yet.
We also had a chance to watch the process of tattooing with one of the most traditional methods, for which the Mentwai people are famous for. It turned out that our host Aman Lepon and his father Amon LaoLao are well known in the world or tribal tattoos. There was even a couple from Switzerland who came all the way here to get a tattoo done by them. The “ink” they use is a mixture of soot from burning a coco nut with the juice from sugar cane. This mixture is the spread under the skip with a special little “hammer”, which apparently does not hurt that much. This method became quite popular and nowadays a lot of tattoo artists use it in Indonesia (and not only there). It was really great to see it!
That 3 day far away from noise and network, in the middle of a jungle with the sound of the river and the frog croak in the background and all that we saw, witnessed and found out, triggered a lot of new thoughts in our heads. So here we are with our thoughts and questions that probably won’t find any good answers anyway anytime soon. 🙂 It was definitely an adventure full of extreme emotions! We will try to stick to those positive ones and in the end we are very happy that we could visit that place and that we did it in a way we wanted.