Sunday, February 08, 2009

Crossing borders: Visiting the Mentawai

The Mentawai archipelago is about 100 km west of Padang, West Sumatra. Part of this non-volcanic group of 4 islands is Siberut, the most traditional one, covered to about 60% in tropical rain forest and home to the Mentawai people. They are descended from some of the earliest Austronesian groups of people who have migrated to Indonesia several thousand of years ago, and their culture may be considered one of the clearest examples of the traditions of the Neolithic period. Metal-working, rice growing and weaving are unknown. People in this egalitarian society are organized in groups of 5-10 patrilineary related families known as uma sharing a big house also known as uma. Three of these uma are going to be our homes for the coming week.

Moile, moile (slowly, slowly) is very important for the Mentawai to keep the soul in harmony with the body. We city people have no other chance than to comply when balancing on tree trunks or crossing rivers…

Alueta (hello, good morning, good afternoon etc). Made Pako’s uma in Atabai will be our home for three days. The cows and the pigs will enjoy our nightly trips to the “loo”!
Sikerei dancing in Atabai before we leave for Butui. A farewell ceremony to ensure that our trip will go well.
Mentawai woman in full adornment with tattoos, beads and chiseled teeth.
Photo above: Politik, Aman Lau Lau’s youngest son (born just after Suharto’s fall as “politics” was an omnipresent topic), enjoys a sago worm eaten alive.

Hostile elements, unsteady means of transportation.

We leave Padang for Muara Siberut, the main town in the south of Siberut island, with the weekly night ferry, a high wooden ship less new than the baru (Indonesian for new) in its name would suggest. Life jackets are a scarcity on it, as a compensation rats and cockroaches are plenty. Bigger waves are a cause for delay, owing to the lack of stability of the vessel. Fortunately, the ferry is not overcrowded, but somebody manages to close the cabin door from the outside to use it as a backrest. A frightening discovery in the middle of the night. Followed by a second one, the door to the stern of the ship being also extremely difficult to open…

However, we make it in calm weather to Siberut Island. And after shopping for the last items we will need for the whole week, we board our two long boats upriver to Ugai. First encounter with our companion of the whole week—the rain. And its unavoidable follower—the mud.

When we arrive at the uma of our guest, Bilijo, it looks like the whole village is waiting for us. The house is traditionally built on stilts, and a tree trunk leads up to the entrance. For the Mentawai people, there is no need for a hand rail. But we are not used to balancing. A difficulty that will emerge regularly when crossing rivers, balancing on tree trunks in the mud, or even reaching houses. For the Mentawai who walk barefoot and use every single part of their toes for gripping and balancing, we must be “the people who cannot walk”!!

Mentawai gastronomy

The Mentawai’s staple food is sago, the starch extracted for the sago palm and cooked in banana leaves. Their second staple food seems to be cigarettes, 'real' ones if they are available or tobacco, otherwise taro leaves cut small, dried, and wrapped into thin banana leaves. In all the houses where we will stay, we will fall asleep with the smell and smoke of cigarettes, and be woken up by them. Meat in the form of chicken or pig (or sago worms) is a treat served when ceremonies are held. Food sharing is obligatory, and eating alone considered as perverse. So we do share our supplies, and our guests have a very sweet tooth, three (big) spoons of sugar for a cup of tea being the average!

Mandi: the sky is the limit!!

The Mentawai form of mandi (place to wash yourself) is the river. The water is refreshing, can also be very muddy after too much rain. As for the river banks, they are mostly muddy. Our feet will only know two conditions in the following eight days: dirty or wet—and often both.

No such word as privacy in Mentawai language

We sleep in the front part of the Uma, the part used for receiving guests. This part is just big enough to put up our mats and mosquito nets. The men of the house sleep in the middle room used for ceremonies and sometimes fitted with an open fire cooking area. Women and children sleep in the back area.

People are mostly up before we wake up. Our wake-up call is the feeding of the animals. Impossible to miss it!! Shouldn’t you have smelt the pigs moving around below the floor you sleep on, you cannot ignore the screaming, only outdone by the singing of the roosters and the cackling of the hens. We use our guests’ concentration on their animals to slip into day clothes and pack our things. The profusion of items seems to dazzle our guests. What for? And why everything in separate zipper bags (the use of which they will rapidly understand and ask for them to keep their cigarettes dry!!)?

After just a few days, we are all trying to avoid too much water or tea on the evening, just not to have to go out at night, balancing down on tree trunks and crossing the pigs’ area with the pigs very keen to follow us to “clean up”…

Well equipped, but under-adorned

We are all well equipped for the trip but everybody apart from our guide, who is visiting for the ninth time, has renounced any 'decoration'. No necklaces, no rings, plain watches if any. We are in sharp contrast with the Mentaway who put a lot of emphasis in adorning themselves to please their souls. Elder people are tattooed, tattoos being considered as part of the clothing. Especially on the sikerei, the medicine men and shamans, these tattoos are very intricate and very esthetic. People wear necklaces made of beads, flowers or leaves in their hair. Teeth are sometimes chiseled, this being considered much more attractive than plain white teeth like the animals’. Medicine men also wear watches as adornment, and don’t worry about the battery should the watch stop!

Of spirits and taboos

The Mentawai are animists and as such believe that every single thing is animate and has a soul. Spirits and souls are not to be offended. Trees and plants are not cut if not needed, things are not thrown away if they are still functioning. Taboos limit the harvest of game and timber to maintain balance between man and nature, and the balance between a person and his/her own soul. Everybody is responsible for his own soul, should not rush so that the soul can always follow, should adorn himself to please his soul. Anything happening is due to a disharmony with the soul.

The sikerei are the medium to the spirits inherent in all things. They are responsible for keeping man’s harmony with nature and can heal the sick whose soul is hurt or displaced. As such, sikerei enjoy authority. They are also responsible for organizing rituals and festivals, and for giving fines should taboos have been breached that could bring harm to the community.

Festivals, called puliaijat, are organized for the cutting of trees, the building of a new canoe or of a uma, for weddings, the hunt, funerals, births... During festivals, all work is taboo except for the necessary cooking and rituals.

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At February 12, 2009 at 7:44 PM, Blogger Rob Baiton said...

Nice photos and good commentary!

At February 13, 2009 at 9:30 PM, Blogger brommel said...

Thanks Bob. It's an iinteresting place also for a lawyer since there have quite a number of self regulating rules. Their idea of taboos could also advance any anti corruption drive which might help this country.

We should make loudspeakers a taboo but that's another topic...

At March 16, 2009 at 7:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My compliments on the post! I'm actualy planning a trip to sumatra myself, specificaly The Mentawai Islands. The trip you did is precisely what i had in mind for this particular adventure. Could you maybe give some details about the company you hired for the trek? Would be much obliged1



At March 31, 2009 at 7:20 PM, Blogger brommel said...

Niels, we did the trip with a person who had been working with Indonesia's heritage society many years back. It was privately organized and is not commercial. Bring tons of cigarettes and share whatever you eat. allbest

At July 30, 2010 at 11:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Greatings, Interesante, yo cotizaciуn en mi sitio mбs tarde.



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