Back to na­ture on a sand isle in Su­ma­tra

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.

Check­list

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

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