The Mentawai are a tribe of people living in the rainforest of Siberut, Indonesia. Siberut is a remote island off the coast of Padang, West Sumatra, Indonesia. With the exception of owning pigs and cultivating sago, the Mentawai are hunter/gatherers looked after with devotion by their medicine men- the Sikeri, or Shamans. These are the healers of the tribe, who practice a form of animism called Jarayak. The Mentawai also practice one of the oldest forms of tattooing, which represent the important elements in their lives.
The current state of the Mentawai people collectively is much different than it was 100 years ago. There are a few government-established villages where the majority of the population live. The children are going to school, the adults are working, infastructure is weak but is starting to resemble that of the rest of Indonesia- “developed” and prodiminately muslim. However, outside the villages in the rainforest, there are still a handful of scattered clans of the traditional Mentawai. Those in the rainforest choose to live away by choice, and isolate themselves away from the assimilation of the government villages. These small, and rapidly declining number of people still live the legend of their ancestors.
The Indonesian government set up the villages in order to bring the tribes away from their “primitive” and “savage” practices and to “civilize” the culture. Missionaries are plenty on the island and convert Mentawai. In my own experience, it’s important to note that the missionaries themselves are usually peace loving people seeking what they believe to be righteous, so it is very difficult to judge either party. Progress is a double-edged sword, my only concern is that progress does not always have to inspire change by force. I believe that technology and education are tools that can actually be used to preserve a culture, while providing the necessary guidance into the modern world. The clans that remain are enduring and have survived on their own for a long time, but are now threatened and fragile. Although change is inevitable, there cannot be only one way to live, one way to perceive the world- humanity needs diversity to sustain itself.
(View the entire image series on joeyL.com)
I set off for Siberut not knowing exactly what I would find. I did a lot of research about the Mentawai before the trip using whatever books I could find and the internet, I even wrote tattoo anthropologist Lars Krutak and explorer Benedict Allen, who have both led expeditions to the island of Siberut before. Even with their advice, there was still that common feeling of unexpectedness I get before any of my trips. The truth is, it’s important to do as much research as possible, but half of the preparation for a trip like this is embracing the unprepared, to let things be as they are and accept them as part of the adventure.
My highschool friend Will first came across a picture of the Mentawai in a small shop near the village of Tabek, Sumatra. He lived in a local village for 5 months building a water system, and speaks Indonesian fluently. The image he found depicted a hunter/gatherer tribal man with full body tattoos and sharpened teeth. Perhaps it was a depiction of a people that lived long ago. I was hesitant when he told me about it, because Indonesia is one of the most devout Muslim countries in the world, I doubted an animist tribe would still be around today. After some research, we found that this is not the case. The Mentawai are very real.
My friend Cale Glendening would also join us on this trip to record everything on video. Due to commitments on my part, everything was finally decided literally days before we left to Indonesia. While laying low in Australia, I was waiting to hear back on a advertising shoot. If I got it I would push the trip one month. It was really close, but it didn’t happen, so things were 100% a go for Indonesia all of a sudden. Cale’s flights were a mess, but we managed to get him where he needed to be to meet us in Jakarta thanks to the help of my travel agent Janet Brock. Below is the incredible film he made during the trip. We have a lot of footage of us at work as well, but that will be released later.
My first contact is Gejeng, a Mentawai living in Madobak, a government village on Siberut. We would need him for guiding and translation. I got his number from another blogging traveler I wrote who had visited the island and bought him the cellphone to help his business. Gejeng then referred me to Ricky, his friend in Padang who had an internet connection and helped set up the trip. (This is his contact site.) Padang is the city located across the ocean from Siberut, on the island of Sumatra. It would be our base to fly in to, and from there we would have to take a ferry to Muara, a port town on Siberut. A couple weeks later, I was there in Padang gathering supplies last minute and watching everything unfold. Both Gejeng and Ricky would turn out to be excellent friends in the end.
Gejeng, Will, Cale and Ricky.
CROSSING THE OCEAN
Padang > Muara Siberut, August 12th, 2009
We leave Ricky’s house in the pouring rain, there is a wild storm brewing over the ocean with no signs of stopping. The rain is torrential, if you stand outside for more than 3 seconds you and everything you are holding will be soaked. My equipment was hastily packed and water proofed last minute in garbage bags, with us slipping and sliding through the mud on our way to the ship’s loading dock. One small slip could cause something electronic to get wet, and spoil the entire trip. I have a Phase One camera system which was
kindly lent to my from the company specifically for this expedition. I also have a Profoto 7b power pack and a single light head, which is tucked away the best we can. When entering the ferry, there is only confusion and frustration. There are no seats, cabins available, or even a set area for us to stay. Ricky finally finds a place for us in the cramped corner of a hallway after bribing some people to move downstairs, right outside the captain’s door. We pile our stuff into the corner, and stand back to back, face to face, because there is not even room to sit down.
We are packed like sardines inside the hallway of the cargo ferry. The 10 hour voyage from Padang to the island’s port town Muara Siberut is going to seem like eternity. An eerie unnatural humidity is generated from all the bodies smushed together around me, and tobacco smoke makes it even harder to breathe in what little oxygen is left for us. The boat’s passengers are a mixture of local Mentawai returning to their government villages, Muslim merchants and traders, and there are a few other tourists too with surfboards. Those tourists are a lot more organized than us, and have managed to book a cabin to themselves far in advance. But they are not interested so much in the Mentawai, just the nice waves and untouched remote beaches the island has to offer. There are only a few cabins, and unfortunately my crew does not have that luxury. Cale is terrified of confined spaces and manages to find a spot on deck outside on the back of the boat. However, he is awakened every once and awhile from the sea-sick people running toward him, leaning over him, and vomiting over his face down the side of the boat.
Ricky and I eventually find room to sit on the floor, and eventually have the chance to stretch our feet out too and lay down. The dim lights inside the ship flicker on and off, leaving everyone in complete darkness every couple hours to step over each other’s sleeping bodies. Will is using my wet boot as a pillow. The surf tourists in the cabin nearest to us feel bad for him and let him sleep on the floor inside. It’s just as claustrophobic and nauseating for him, but at least he doesn’t have to deal with other people’s greasy bodies rubbing against him all night like I do. I guess the guy next to me is used to spooning with his wife back home, because I get totally molested and have to constantly hit him and wake him up to stop all night.
I wake up to one of the surf tourists getting out of bed and stepping over me to go vomit over the side of the boat. He doesn’t come back for 10 minutes… 20 minutes… 30 minutes… I make a move and go into the cabin quietly while everyone in there is sleeping. I step over a snoring Will and steal the other guys bunk bed for about 2 solid hours of sleep. In the morning I awaken to sunlight coming through the small circular window next to my face, and escape the cabin before getting caught by the other stirring people in the cabin.
At daybreak, everything from the night before seems like a terrible dream in contrast to the stuff going on in front of our eyes at first light. Siberut comes into sight from the horizon. There is an epic sunrise blasting through the trees of the island, and reflecting off the water painting everything golden yellow. It’s too good to be true. There is a rainbow. Oh, and there are god damn dolphins jumping happily beside the boat too, just to top it off. I interpret this as a good omen, that we are going to have a good trip, and perhaps the worse part is over. Close, but not entirely true.
We unload the stuff off the boat and fail to avoid all the local porters hustling through our stuff and carrying it off away too fast to follow. (If only they knew how much each bag of gear was worth.) We take a truck down a dirt road , hiding our camera stuff along the way from any indecent “police” looking for an easy bribe. Then we meet Gejeng, our Mentawai guide whom I had called only weeks earlier. Gejeng is wearing a jean jacket and smoking a cigarette. When he sees us a childish grin fills his face. He seems trustworthy and happy to get some business guiding us far off to the Atabai clan, much longer than the rare curious surfer spends visiting the closest Mentawai clan houses. Gejeng is in business.
At the port we negotiate some small dugout tree boats with motors attached to them to take us inland to the government village of madobak, where Gejeng now lives with his family instead of the jungle. The boats are extremely tipsy, and we almost crash into a few boats coming the opposite way along the winding river.
Gejeng’s porch, Madobak
I am sitting on our Mentawai guide Gejeng’s porch after a warm night with the local relatives in the government village Madobak. Everyone had come to greet us, even 3 traditional shaman from outside the village. When I first looked at the sikeri, it was so hard to take my eyes off of them. After studying as much as possible in books and on the internet before the trip, there they were in real life in front of us. Together, we all listened and danced to our weird western music well into the night from my small portable speakers. I recorded the one shaman named Lala singing on my iPhone and played it back on my speakers, to everyone’s astonishment. If you ever ask a Mentawai their age, they will usually reply with “many many.” They will say it with a giggle, because for one to count how long they have been alive seems strange to them. The Mentawai do not count their age.
We talk a little business, too. I need a team of porters to help transport not only my photo equipment (me and Will can handle that ourselves between us) but our generator, gasoline, food rations for the entire trip, and tobacco to barter. The three Shaman from the Sakilou clan related to Gejeng seem perfect for the job, so I decided to employ medicine men with us for the entire trip. But they are not just laborers, they are part of the team and are quickly becoming our friends. The shaman are our bridge to the culture I wish to explore and open doors that we normally wouldn’t have access to. Having them with us 24/7 is a blessing.
Bajak Tarason- The wise, deep thinker of the group. Tarason always seems to be planning every move in advance, and is also very protective of us. He admitted that if something were to happen to us, it would be his responsibility. But he is a Mentawai, and doesn’t take anything without a side of cheeriness. Bajak Tarason as a “perma-smile”, a permanent smile on his face that never leaves.
Bajak Tolkot- The eldest of our group and very connected with the Mentawai ways of thought. Tolkot is quite hard to read, he seems very serious sitting down, then when you sit beside him his eyes light up and he puts his arm around you and tries to communicate in Mentawai every time, but is not surprised when you don’t answer back.
Bajak Lala- The hilarious one of the group. Lala is a jokester and the player of frequent pranks. He finds everything we do hilarious and likes to show us his dick when we least expect it. Yep- you got us again, Lala. However, throughout the trip I learned Lala’s serious side as well, and the fear he has of the future of his culture.
Tomorrow, our party will leave Gejeng’s house and trek to the remote Atabai clan, 5 hours uphill.
August 13th, 2009
My 4 months of working out and training in preparation for this trip has paid off. Today we trekked all day t
hrough thick jungle, up a very steep incline. The rain came and went as we trekked and stumbled through thick mud and slipped and slided down the rocks and plateus. I carried a bag with 50 pounds inside, my Profoto 7b generator, extra battery, light, and some misc other supplies. Back in Ethiopia, I could barely carry this for a small hike on flat ground. I am very proud of my progress, but we’ll see how my muscles feel tomorrow.
During part of the trek, the shaman Tarason and myself were ahead of the others, alone. He knows a few English words he has learned over time, and taught me the names of things in the Mentawai language.
“Moon- Lago” Tarason explains
“Lago” I say back. He smiles.
“Hmm,” he points up at the sky and scatters his fingers, “many many many moon”
“Stars?” I ask.
Later on in the day we were walking then all of a sudden Gejeng stops in front of me. I have no idea how his senses could be so sharp to see a green tree python ahead dangling in the tree to the right of us. The group stops and watches the venomous snake pass, then we move on. It was a safe distance away, so I went to take out my camera. Tarason pushes me on sternly, worried about what might happen to me. When we finally reached the Atabai clan I was ready to collapse. Apparently, according to Will, upon arrival to the Atabai clan house I made my greetings, then collapsed on the floor. I could not be woken up, and there was a ritual pig sacrafice to greet us inches from my sleeping body. There was no bug net set up, or wall separating myself from the noise and commotion. The pig squealed it’s horrible cry beside my head before it’s bloody death, but I still did not wake up. When Will tried to nudge me and awake me so I could eat dinner, I said “mmm well I think it’s important Cale films this. I’ll be okay.” Then nodded off again to sleep.
SLEEPING ABOVE PIGS
Atabai Clan House, Atabai
As I write this, I am sitting eating sago (the Mentawai’s beloved staple food created from the inside of a swamp tree) for the first time in an Atabai uma, or house. The Mentawai uma’s are huge wooden homes on stilts, adorned with skulls of various animals from successful hunts. The skulls are there to notify the other animals of the forest that their death was not in vain, and that the shaman’s took the care to ensure their spirit was not angered. Upon entry there is a large wooden porch with benches made into the perimeter. This is where most of the days activities take place. Beneath this there are the pigs, roaming around eating any scraps of food or camera lens caps you might accidentally drop down there.
The owner’s name is Aman Tai jia jia. I made the mistake of not trusting him at first. I have to admit it was my fault, and mainly due to his appearance. As a westerner, I’m not usually used to trusting men with sharpened teeth covered in stick-poke tattoos. I am well travelled and meet intimidating people all the time, but still I was fooled by my own judgement. However, once I got over this stupidity of mine, he proved to be one of the most fair and trustworthy Mentawai we met from the Atabai clan. He is also an amazing father, his children were the best behaved and respectful kids I met in the Mentawai. Later on, when we stayed in another house the kids were simply not the same. The Mentawai have one of the most layed back, family-oriented cultures. Hunter gatherers are still busy active and hard workers, but only for a few hours a day. They spend a lot more time with their family that the majority of Western homes. They believe that the rainforest provides them with everything they could ever need- food, shelter, medicine, so why leave it and become dependent on money to buy everything?
The 3 Sikeri that had helped us along our way from Gejeng’s house greeted Aman Tai jia jia with great affection, it had been a long time since they had last seen him. They stayed up all night talking together, and never ran out of things to say until the morning light when they began falling asleep. They would constantly gossip about things such as the following- a lying sikeri who claimed he had a bigger plantation the he actually had, Lala’s son who wishes to divorce his wife except she is pregnant, and other “normal” Mentawai happenings of daily life. It is always hard for Gejeng to translate their chatter back in time before they move on to the next subject.
The shaman’s are some of the most happy men I’ve ever met. I say this with 100% honesty. Usually all foreign cultures seem happy at first, and I think it is a bad statement to think that everyone outside the Western world is happier than you. But then you can start to dissect these ‘noble savages’ over time and realize what they lack- not true with the Mentawai I stayed with. They seem to go about everything with a light heart, even their most sacred traditions. They practised their craft with several degrees of seriousness, but still never left the Mentawai sense of childish play in between things. I’m coming to understand this is a key ingredient to their culture. During a ritual chicken sacrafice, Aman Tai Jia Jia asked the chicken to forgive him and the other shaman for killing it, so that it’s spirit will not haunt them and be angry, which would bring less chicken in the future for them. However, he joked during the chanting, laughing half way through proclaiming something in a chuckle and hoarse cackle. I asked Ricky what he had said. “He said that he hopes the spirits will accept the sacrafice, but if you want to haunt the white people then he doesn’t mind!”
KIDS WITH CIGARETTES
August 14th, 2009
Yesterday, we went hunting but didn’t catch anything in particular, we still had a good time. We were searching for monkeys, which the Mentawai will shoot with a poison arrow. The poison is made up of a concoction of several plants that are not poisonous by themselves, but when mixed can become lethal. If poison arrows, wild boars, or malaria doesn’t kill the Mentawai, smoking will. These people smoke more tobacco (usually rolled in a Banana leaf) than anyone I have ever seen in my entire life. In fact, the spliffs never seem to leave their mouths. We asked Lala about his smoking habit and he simply explained that it made him strong, because when he stops smoking he feels so weak and lost! We didn’t bother arguing further.
Last night I was sitting on the deck watching what must have been an 8 year old girl smoke. It is Saileo, Tai Jia Jia’s daughter. I’m slowly forgetting about New York and my responsibilities there. The weirdest part about being out here is that life in the outside world, my world, continues to go on. If something happened, like a job came up, or news, then there’s no way know knowing about it out here until i get back to civilization. In one way it’s peaceful, because I have seperated myself from this potential stress. In another way, it can be stressful because it is my life, there is always a wildcard. But that same fact is what brought me to Siberut in the first place, so I accept it and try not to worry about the things I cannot control. I should also not take up smoking.
After the hunt yesterday I photographed 3 Atabai clan members, the hunters in the stream near our uma. It is a
constant struggle to light my images as it rains here every couple hours. We brough the stuff out and set it up, it rained, we brought it back, and repeated only to have it rain again. It is also a struggle to keep Cale’s camera batteries charged. It take forever to charge the HVX battery and we had to keep the generator running late last night.
Today Aman Tai Jia Jia installed a railing leading up to his uma. It was simple, just a few posts in the ground with a rail between then held together with some twine. He must have seen us foreigners struggling to get up it with our poor balance and made it for us. He came and tapped me on the shoulder and then pointed to the railing, smiling madly at his creation and chuckling at our terrible jungle skills. We are only the third time Aman Tai Jia Jia has seen a group of white people.