Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Welcome to the Mentawai Jungle! Part 1: The Trek

I am currently sitting in a town house on top of a hill in beautiful Queensland, Australia fresh out of the shower in a leather lazy-boy sipping a hot cup of Sumatran coffee in clean jeans. I got all the dirt out of my nails, plucked my eyebrows and even took the time to blow-dry my hair. I've been waiting for this feeling. Superficially, I feel back to my good old American self again, but on the inside, I am beginning to wonder just what it is about being back in western "civilization" that just doesn't feel right to me. The scenario from the news last night is playing over and over again in my head. Almost all of Queensland lost cell phone and ATM capabilities for the day when a fiber-optic cable was accidentally cut by a worker from the telephone company. Nearly the whole hour of news consisted of stories relating to the giant inconvenience that was caused by people not being able to communicate or take out money for the entire day. Can you even begin to imagine what most foreigners would do in the middle of a jungle on a remote island off the coast of Sumatra with no electricity? It really makes me second-guess giving money to my new Mentawai friend Gejang to buy a cell phone (which he probably doesn't even know how to use) to start up his trek guiding business...

Anyway, I've spent a lot of time thinking about how I can possibly condense the events of the last 3 weeks into a sensible, entertaining blog without losing the interest of my readers. Sometimes it's nearly impossible to explain such profound experiences in a way that does justice to the place of travel. I'm still stumped, but I have determined that I need to try to pick out the highlights and tell a few stories in order to even begin to give you the gist of what life was like in the Mentawai Islands. All up, we spent 19 days in the Mentawai Islands. The first 8 were spent trekking on the largest island, and the remainder were spent on the tiny world-class wave island of Nyung-Nyung.

I must begin with saying that there are so many Mentawai traditions, social customs and things that are considered "normal" in their culture that differ so much from life on mainland Sumatra and of course, in the west. Spending extended periods of time in places like these, you begin to forget what modern conveniences you even miss, and really question whether we even need half the things we have! You get used to eating rice, ferns, noodles, tree pulp, coconuts and tiny bone-in whole fish for every meal. You learn to train your thigh muscles to squat in the jungle or over a hole in the ground. You wake up every morning to the crow of a rooster, and live among various domestic pigs, chickens, cats and dogs that don't look very healthy. You wash your dishes in the river with sand, take a shower with a bucket of water deemed clean enough for washing, but not for drinking. You are happy to boil your drinking water, offer everything you eat to the locals, and fish with complicated hand-lines. All of this becomes like second nature, but even more impressive is that for these people, it's first nature. You begin to lose grip of what life was like in your "civilized" culture and start to truly focus on and become quite comfortable with the bare essentials. You even begin to challenge yourself to see how little you can really get by with...and that's where it all begins.

We started by taking a 9 hour overnight ferry from Padang, Mainland Sumatra to Siberut, the largest island in the Mentawais. The ferry was overloaded with cargo (you guessed it, live animals, petrol, food, goods, everything) and of course people. We paid an extra $2 to get a cabin room while the locals crowded into any open deck space available. At bedtime, the deck of the boat looked like something out of a war scene, with dirty brown bodies in tattered clothes sprawled in each and every crevice of the floor. This made late-night bathroom visits a bit of n obstacle course with the boat swaying to and fro. Once we arrived on the island the next morning, we began our jungle trekking excursion.

The adventure started with a 3 hour trip up the river in a motorized (15hp) dug-out canoe, or "speed boat" as the Indonesians proudly call it, filled with 7 people and all of our cargo (food for 7 days, and the belongings of 7 people). It is almost mandatory that the Mentatwaians have at least one canoe for the entire family. It is an absolute necessity for retrieving food and goods from the shops that are sparsely located along the river. The men in the family are usually the ones who build the boats, made from a hollowed out tree. This is a very time-consuming matter as the entire thing is carved by hand with a home-made axe. You are considered among the wealthy if you are fortunate enough to have a motor to attach to the back of your canoe, and you can make a bit of money off the locals and tourists if you do. This man must have been nearly 70 years old, and pretty feeble, and he was just chipping away at this thing for hours diligently. His precision with his axe and attention to detail were truly commendable!

Arriving at the first house in the middle of the jungle was, needless to say, shocking. It was however almost exactly what I had expected. The traditional houses of the Mentawais are split up into sections as small as 3 and as large as about 6 from front to back. Each section serves it's purpose: the back room is usually where the family sleeps and the Sagu (the tree that they eat) is prepared, while the middle and front rooms seem to be reserved for entertaining, also cooking and creative space. The houses are made up of wood found only in the jungle, and a ceremony must be held before and after the house is built. The first ceremony is to gain permission from the spirits (the people are Animists which means they believe that everything has a soul) to cut the trees down that they need to build the house. The second is held once the house is completed. The housewarming is a ceremony that includes the sacrificing of pigs and chickens in order to give a blessing to the house so that all the souls of the trees can live together in harmony, thereby allowing the "clan" that lives in the house to also live in harmony. If this ceremony is not held, bad spirits will haunt the house for eternity.

The front entryway of the house is adorned by sacrificed pig-skulls facing inwards honoring the soul of the ceremonial pigs. The skulls of feral animals such as monkeys are displayed in the middle room facing out to allow thier spirits to return to the jungle. The whole skull thing seems pretty creepy, but it's actually quite beautiful. The Mentawaians honor the soul of everything they kill, and they never kill without good reason and permission from the spirits.
The people themselves are also quite interesting. All of the men and women that we stayed with are still living the traditional way in the traditional style. A lot of the men are Shaman, or medicine men, and they are highly respected in the community. The Shaman men and their wives (or most of them) have tribal line tattoos all over their bodies, including on their faces and file their teeth. I'm told that the filing is to help promote dental hygiene. I guess they figure less stuff can get stick between their teeth, but it also makes them look pretty mean, which they are not...anymore that is. Your impression of them might be quite different if you had visited this place just 100 years ago when they were still head hunters! The man in the above left picture has created a set of "golden teeth" to replace his missing ones. The men still wear loincloths that cover only their frontal privates and wrap around the back in a thong-like fashion. I never found out what it was like to go to the bathroom for them, but I can imagine it wouldn't be very easy! The women sometimes still walk around topless and have a sarong tied around their waist and have a collection of orange and yellow beads (a rather new fashion custom) strung around their necks. The men also wear beads, but usually multicolored ones. When they leave the house, both the men and women have traditional beaded head-dresses that they wear as well.

The Mentawaians are hunters and gatherers to this day. They hand make all of their tools out of indigenous materials. They use hand made bows and arrows coated in homemade poison for hunting. Mick got to follow the with the man with the golden teeth to find the necessary ingredients for the poison recipe. They brought back numerous poisonous plants and roots, extremely hot chilies and something else that seemed to be very important, but was kept a secret. Next we got to watch the Shaman's process of squeezing everything in his homemade press and painting his arrows with the poison! The women of course are also quite crafty. They crochet nets for fishing (which is a pretty lengthy process), which reminds me of a hilarious story:

Our guide asked me if I'd like to go fishing with the local women in the traditional way. I of course responded with an enthusiastic "yes" and before I knew it, I was following a barefoot pregnant woman through the jungle looking for banana leaves to make a "fishing skirt" out of. Once she spotted the tree she wanted to climb to obtain the leaf, she told me that I'd better "wait here, danger!" while she retrieved our skirt material...that's right, I said pregnant, and no less than 6 months so at that! But that's not the funny part. When we got back to the house, one of the older women motioned for me to follow her to the back of the house where they were preparing for fishing. I was keen for a fish because I thought I would surely be able to catch something, since I considered myself a bit of an expert after having spent so much time fishing in Australia in the past few months. She held up the banana leaf skirt and motioned for me to take off my shorts. I didn't have any undies or a bathing suit on (it's difficult to wash things in the jungle) so I was obviously pretty reluctant to drop my drawers. Her body language insisted that it was necessary that I remove my britches, so, embarrassingly, I did. I got her to hold the skirt around me while I did it so the men inside the house couldn't catch a glimpse of my western nether-region. Once the skirt was tied on, I was relieved. At least nobody could see anything, and it didn't feel that intrusive be naked beneath the leaf, it was kinda cool actually. Then she told me to take of my shirt...once again, no undergarments. Now this was just pushing it too far, but what could I do? I couldn't say no! That would be utterly insulting! If they were going to do it, and I was going to join them, then I would have to step it up and respect their cultural tradition. They're just boobs anyway, it's nothing they'd never seen before. So, I pulled off my top. The woman left and began dressing herself for the fishing outing, leaving me standing naked, save the banana leaf skirt, on the back porch of a Mentawai house in the middle of the jungle. I was surrounded by pigs, chicken, children and Shaman (still inside the house) covering my breasts with a nervous look on my bright red face. I must have stood there for 4 or 5 minutes incredibly uncomfortable wondering when they were going to come get me. I was just hoping to God that I wouldn't have to walk through the house to find the women. When I finally looked back through the door, I saw all the women dressed in their banana leaf skirts with a tee shirt and sarong on underneath! Wait a second here...were they playing a joke on me? Maybe they just assumed that I would want to do it the traditional way, the way that they USED to do it...

Relieved, I quickly pulled back on my shirt, ran into the house and retrieved my bathing suit top and bottoms and put them on under my skirt. Okay, NOW I can go fishing... This was a different type of fishing. We fished with nets and waded around tree roots to catch the teeniest tiniest fish I've ever seen, and I didn't even catch anything! Another humbling experience!

Most of our days trekking in the jungle went something like this: You wake up and have a breakfast of usually banana and/or coconut pancakes or an omelet. All days except one, we trekked for about 3-4 hours through dense jungle. The ground was almost always muddy, and more often than not, you are using all of your concentration on walking on thin, slippery logs that line the track from village to village. It was more mentally challenging than physically! Most of the locals, (including our darling guide-to-be Gejang above) do it all barefoot. I had a hard time doing it in sneakers, especially when we were crossing over a slippery muddy log that was 3 or 4 feet above water! On our last day of trekking, it rained so hard that all of the jungle trails were completely flooded. We were basically walking (with our backpacks) in water up to our knees almost the entire day...I must admit, I kinda liked it! I've always imagined myself in that situation. Perhaps it was a premonition, but trekking through the lush green jungle in the pouring rain seemed perfect to me at the time.

After trekking, we'd usually arrive at a local house in the late afternoon. After tea and lunch, we'd relax and observe the locals going about their everyday chores which included processing Sagu (a local tree that they eat the pulp of), widdleing nails for building, crocheting, cooking, and sometimes hunting and fishing. The evenings were also a really good chance to spend some time with the children, which I did a lot of. We made masks, colored, and played games. We even taught the locals how to make the coconut leaf hats that we had learned how to make in Java. They were really excited to learn! Each place we stayed at seemed to have an activity associated with it. For example, we got to go see the making of a dug-out canoe, fishing, making poison, Sagu processing, you can even get a tattoo if you want to! Don't worry, I didn't get one!

Each night after dinner, you usually sit around and listen to the locals chat. It's a big event when they have tourists as guests. It seems as though everyone in a 3 hour radius pretty much knows that there are Westerners with cigarettes in the area and they come one after another to pilfer the goods, which means most evenings were a celebration of sorts. Oh, how I wish I knew what they were talking about half the time. Our guide would occasionally translate for us, but not often. When he did, he would usually tell us that the locals were talking about "gossip" regarding others in the village or their pigs who had gotten into some mischief. One good story was about how the man with the golden teeth's dog was eating the baby pigs. You can't blame the poor thing. After all, his job as a hunting apprentice is to round up the animals. His punishment was pretty steep as you can see. This was so he can't chase after the pigs anymore!

There are so many other stories I could tell about eating deer on the floor with the locals, watching a Shaman perform "magic" and watching our guide select and kill a chicken to make curry with (they burn the feathers off a whole chicken over an open fire) that would take days to write and hours for you to read. I'll save some of that stuff to tell you in person. I've got plenty more photos as well that I will post to a website for anyone who is interested.

The whole experience of trekking through the jungle on a remote island off the coast of Sumatra is pretty much all it's cracked up to be. These are corners of the world that most westerners don't ever have a chance to explore, and I feel pretty damn lucky to have had the opportunity to live like the locals. I also am happy to have added some survival techniques to my repitoire. If I ever need to make poison arrows, catch my dinner, or de-feather a chicken, I know how.

Now back to my (cold) cup of coffee...