Back to nature on a sand isle in Sumatra
EVERY morning, on this tiny Sumatran islet, our homestay host Suwanto shimmies up a coconut tree to pick a ripe nut for our breakfast. He’s shown us how to crack it, so with the blunt side of an axe we tap the coconut between the eyes to split it neatly in half.
One of us straddles the coconut grater, a chock of wood fitted with an evil-looking tongue of sharp iron teeth, and scrapes at the flesh until a mound of white flakes fills the bowl between our feet. The other stokes the fire in the basic brick hearth and places white rice, mung beans and a generous lump of palm sugar in a pot.
We add water to the coconut flesh and take turns wringing handfuls of grated coconut to extract the milk. The first squeeze yields the thickest liquid and is what we know as coconut cream; subsequent washes yield a thinner liquid, the milk. We add the coconut cream and milk to the pot and boil it over the fire until it becomes a syrupy, slightly nutty rice porridge, then sit on a log on the beach to eat our delicious breakfast.
We are staying on a tiny sand islet near Siberut, one of the Mentawai group of islands off the west coast of Sumatra. After our guided tour of Siberut’s jungle, we asked our guide to arrange a homestay on one of the outer islands. And so here we are.
He has placed us with Suwanto, a Javanese migrant fisherman who lives in a three-roomed palm-thatched hut in the middle of a grove of coconut palms. We sleep on woven straw mats atop an uneven plank floor in one room and eat at a rough-hewn wooden table in the main room, which also has a fireplace and a small cupboard and shelf for a few basic ingredients.
Before we travelled here in a motorised dugout canoe, we shopped for supplies at the basic market at the port in Siberut. As we unloaded piles of vegetables for our meals, Suwanto was horrified by our excess. During our stay, he comes home with a brace of fresh fish every night and teaches us different ways of cooking his catch.
For our favourite meal, Suwanto chops bawangmerah (literally red onion, or shallot) tomato, chilli and sweet soy sauce (kecap manis), then grinds the ingredients into a paste on a flat stone mortar and pestle.
He spreads the sauce on the fish, then grills it on a wire rack over the open fire. The fish is eaten with steamed rice. We add a stir-fry of fresh vegetables and coax him to take some. Every night Suwanto wanders into the village to watch television on the communal set. By candlelight we pore over an exercise book in which a previous guest has compiled translations of basic English words and phrases into Bahasa Indonesian. We practise our new vocabulary on Suwanto each morning and, using sign language, he teaches us a few more words.
By day we snorkel around the coral reef that surrounds the island or nap on our hard beds. Life is simple but immensely satisfying, but then we are not trying to make a living or raise children in this remote place.
At the end of our week we give Suwanto the remains of our food supplies, add a few words to his translation book and sadly wave goodbye. We leave with fond memories, new cooking skills and a resolution to find one of those coconut graters and flat grinding stones to lug back home.
Many tour companies in Padang and Bukittinggi organise trips to Siberut and homestays. Alternatively, once on Siberut, book a stay through a local guide. Tours can be organised from Australia through a reliable surfcharter operator that has local contacts for homestays, such as Mentawai Surf Sanctuary. www.mentawai.com www.indonesiatourism.com www.minangkabautourism.info