Indonesia 1 | 2
CULTURE WORE A LOINCLOTH
The moment I put down my rucksack at my guesthouse in Bukkitingi, a binder full of weathered photos and pages of adventure stories involving monkey hunting, shamanistic rituals, roasted bark cuisine and wild pig lavatories was placed on my lap. The guide's selling line was 'You can experience the jungle with the very last of the remaining primitive tribes of Sumatra.' Without further delay, my name was down on the list to spend twelve days on Siberut Island, land of the Mentawai tribe.
With JungleJuice spray,
a list of 30 most essential Mentawai words, my own safety pin (in case
I wanted to get a traditional tattoo) and a pair of rubber cleats made
especially for trekking through knee deep mud, I was ready for my first
encounter with primitive man.
Our first encounter
with the Mentawai was with a group of women on their smoking break. Drenched
with sweat and covered with mud waist high, we could not be surprised
by their laughter and pointing fingers.
After the initial
greeting of Aloita (hello), the eldest of the group cackled in a hoarse
voice, 'SEE-GAH-LETT?' Charmed, I offered my friendship- their favorite,
a Surya brand cigarette. Her disheveled black hair almost stood on end
and complimented her wide grin of tiger-carved teeth. Like the ancient
Huastec Indians and the nomadic Afar, the Mentawai practice the beautification
ritual of chiseling each tooth to razor-sharp points. Although the Indonesian
government has outlawed this ancient custom, the majority of Mentawai,
who have proven to be staunch self-preservationists, resisted any efforts
to cosmetically assimilate them into modern society.
In a friendly jest, I commented on her mullet coif. It appeared as though she used the dangling machete at her waist to do the job. Mr. Moli our kitchen porter, informed us that she had recently shed her locks, a custom of recent widows. At the age of fifty, her husband had died of lung cancer. This came as no surprise after witnessing their chain smoking habit.
The widow wrapped
her overworked hands covered with ritual tattoos around my arm. I could
not help but stare at her neck, which had tattoo lines running parallel
from the bottom of her chin to her shoulder blades. Half-naked save for
a thin tattered yellow cloth wrapped around her waist, she appeared completely
clothed by the blue-black lines traversing her torso, arms and legs. In
the past, each settlement wore unique tattoos to distinguish between friend
and foe. They continue to perform ritual tattooing, marking for symbolic
meaning as well as serving the purpose of tribal identity.
Formalities complete, she stood up to the height of a large pigmy when I noticed her stubby wide callused feet ending in bloated toes resembling half monkey half human. Definitely, these were the most agile tools for mastering Siberut Island. My 99-cent rubber cleats, one size too big, tied onto my feet with pink plastic string were second best for balancing on slippery bamboo rods placed strategically along the muddy trails.
When we arrived at
the uma (longhouse) for our first night's stay, three daughters were preparing
our dinner. The dwindling supply of wildlife has forced them to become
near vegetarians except during ceremonies when a sacrificial pig or chicken
is made. These days their daily diet consists mainly of sago, a woody
pulp mixed with coconut and sugar wrapped in banana leaf. For wood, it
was quite tasty.
I looked up at the
rafters admiring their interior decor of numerous skulls from previous
feasts. The Mentawai, in honor of the animals’ spirit, paid respect
to the sacrificial food by blessing their souls believed to be contained
within the heads. Over the years the family had amassed an impressive
collection of monkey, hornbill and wild boar skulls.
The shaman sported the usual all-body tattoos against his sun-weathered torso, strands of yellow and red beaded necklaces and a feathered head decoration. A kapit made from pounded taggaro bark was wrapped tightly around his privates. Only his red vinyl bum pack with the white Adidas logo seemed a bit out of place. One could trace their exposure to modern man by the fashion accessories offered by previous travelers.
As the designated
sikerei, his responsibilities in accordance with their animistic beliefs,
included the blessing and cleansing of houses and people from evil spirits.
If illness descended upon a tribe member a sikerei was called upon to
force the evil spirits away. However, in regards to common ailments such
as an infected foot, head lice or conjunctivitis, they sought miracle
pills from jungle trekkers in passing.
Like New York City, the jungle never sleeps. The ambient noise of cicadas, frogs, geckos and the nearby stream contrasted with the surround sound of the gastrointestinal release of eight burly western men digesting stalks of roasted tree pulp. Chickens clucked, dogs barked and pigs squealed fighting for food scraps underneath the floorboards. As the moon rose, the witching hour approached, candles were lit and our hosts became animated with a tabacco buzz.
By nightfall our mosquito tents miraculously appeared. We scrambled to strategically place our bodies furthest away from the snorers, farters, rowdy jungle night owls, the chicken coup and the most trafficked pathway. I was the last to claim my spot. My position was dead center, front row from the chickens, negative five centimeters beside the jungle porter, the family dog at my feet, and underneath the following day's dinner hanging in a basket above my head.
By 4am, the roosters began their morning calls. Their discordant sqawks cued the family to congregate to the veranda for chicken watching. To protect the fowl from predators, The Mentawai placed bamboo rods against the trees. The chickens were trained to walk along the bamboo to reach the top of the trees where they slept in the evenings. At dawn, like factory workers punching the clock, one by one in single file line, the chickens walked down the rods. The spectacle excited the family dogs to bark, growl and fight amongst each other. The jungle symphony reached a crescendo with the added chorus of early morning snoring.
One by one we came out of our tents. I could hear the low-whispered tribal chants, ‘see-ga-lette! see-ga-lette! see-ga-lette!’
In the morning, I prayed for normal bowels. Personal business became a public affair by a supporting audience cheering your success upon return. Before leaving the uma, a private moment required a walking stick to place in the mud to balance yourself from falling. In the other hand you needed a shorter stick to keep the wild starving pigs from having a jump-start at your 'waste'. If that was not enough to make you nervous, your hosts were peering behind the trees to catch a glimpse of a foreigner's uncovered bottom. Their solution to environmentally sound toilet paper was the family dog’s tongue. However, to my relief, this practice only applied to toddlers. I would not be able to manage a third stick for the dogs. As each member returned from the bush, a round of applause would be cued by the phrase, 'Yeah, I did it!'
included a poison arrow demonstration. The shaman gave the honors of concocting
a poison cooking class followed by his rusty skills of target practice.
The team jested at the close proximity of his target.
was a first class sleeper. 2 to a single bed.