THE FOR­GOT­TEN TRIBES

Be­hind the veil of per­fect waves and lux­ury surf camps in the Mentawai Is­lands, a par­al­lel uni­verse ex­ists.

Tracks - - Contents - JOHN BAR­TON

The un­com­fort­ably small ca­noe was barely wider than my hips. We’d been hunched over for sev­eral hours now with our knees al­most up around our ears. Ev­ery lurch from a tug on the rud­der or shove from a pass­ing log threat­ened to knock us into the drink and my stom­ach mus­cles were tired from con­stantly shift­ing my weight around in an at­tempt to find some bal­ance. I’d for­got­ten my wa­ter­proof bag in my hur­ried pack­ing so I was hav­ing a hard time peel­ing my ner­vous reti­nas away from the cam­era bags that were pre­car­i­ously perched up in the bow. When I man­aged to re­lax enough to di­vert my gaze though, the grin would quickly come back. I couldn’t be­lieve the scenery around me. In parts, the dense jun­gle over­hung the muddy banks of the river and we’d have to duck and weave un­der branches and vines. As a grom­met, I’d idolised In­di­ana Jones and this trip had all the mak­ings of the Tem­ple of Doom. As we mo­tored fur­ther on up­river I was froth­ing – I felt like I was liv­ing out my child­hood dreams. Hope­fully we’ en­counter sans can­ni­bals and head-shrinkers, I thought.

We were on our way to stay with and doc­u­ment the indige­nous tribes of Siberut in the Mentawai Is­lands. For the last seven years, I’d been work­ing as a pho­tog­ra­pher/ surf-guide at Pit­stop Hill – a surf re­sort in the north­ern end of the is­land chain. Over my time there, I’d heard count­less sto­ries of tribes in the in­te­rior of the big is­land that were still liv­ing off the land as their an­ces­tors had done for thou­sands of years be­fore them. When we would pass the misty, jun­gle-cov­ered is­land on our daily search for waves, I’d day­dream about the kind of things that went on in there. “I’ve got to get there one day,” I’d think to my­self but I’d al­ways put it off – we were al­ways busy with back-to-back, fully booked sea­sons and any time off would be used to visit fam­ily and friends back in Aus­tralia. Tales of sharp­ened teeth, loin cloths and poi­son ar­rows would echo through my mind but up un­til now, I had been con­tent fill­ing my days with sharp reef, board shorts and fi­bre­glass weapons in­stead. Back on the river, we shud­dered to a halt as our ca­noe met the ex­posed river stones. Un­sure of what was creak­ing more, the old wooden boat or our tired backs, we climbed out again to push. We’d beached our­selves around yet an­other shal­low hair­pin bend in the river and it was tak­ing all of our strength to heave the weight of our food, wa­ter and cam­era gear against the cur­rent. The boat was over­loaded and due to a lack of rain, the up­per parts of the river were much shal­lower than usual. This meant that ev­ery sin­gle cor­ner on the snaking wa­ter­way re­quired us to climb in and out. Sun­burnt and sweaty, we were tir­ing of the la­bo­ri­ous process. It felt as if we were run­ning out of pa­tience about as fast as the river seemed to be run­ning out of wa­ter around us. The ex­cited smiles that were smeared across our faces ear­lier that morn­ing were slowly dis­ap­pear­ing with ev­ery tow­stub and an­kle-roll as our bare feet tried to nav­i­gate the loose stones, tan­gled wood and god knows what else be­neath us. I bet In­di­ana wouldn’t have to deal with this mo­not­o­nous crap. By this stage we were deep in the jun­gle. The jour­ney was only sup­posed to be three hours but it had long since stretched into six and then again into nine. “One more hour,” the guide told us, in be­tween drags of his clove

cig­gie. I wish I could have still be­lieved him but this was the sev­enth or eighth time he’d said it. Part of me wasn’t sur­prised though – time has a ten­dency to be elas­tic and eas­ily stretched in In­done­sia, plus I’d only as­sem­bled this makeshift crew the night be­fore after be­ing aban­doned by our pre­vi­ously ar­ranged guide. I wasn’t even one hun­dred per­cent sure that these new guys knew what they were do­ing but I’d been dream­ing about this trip for so long that I was will­ing to take the risk. We pushed on through the sun­set and long into the dark­ness of the night. The last “one more hour” passed and we found our­selves com­ing to a stop on a shal­low river bank again. There was no moon and we only had two head torches be­tween the five of us. Beyond that was a kind of eerie dark­ness that I hadn’t seen be­fore – the kind that rather then feel­ing empty and void, felt full as if it were hid­ing things that were watch­ing us. Our guides were talk­ing to each other in Ba­hasa Mentawai rather than In­done­sian and I think it was be­cause they didn’t want me to hear what they were talk­ing about. “This is it,” he even­tu­ally said to us, “we can’t go any fur­ther”. As it turned out, the river had run out of wa­ter and there was no way we were get­ting to our des­ti­na­tion. We were dis­ori­en­tated and fa­tigued and the thought of hav­ing to sleep ex­posed on a muddy river bank made the night feel that much darker. While we were try­ing to fig­ure out what to do, our driver, Alfino, ap­peared to have a light-bulb mo­ment and told us to hold tight be­fore cross­ing the river and walk­ing off into the dark­ness. A short while later, through the dense cloud of bugs swarm­ing around the light of my head torch, I could make out a cou­ple of fig­ures com­ing out of the jun­gle. It was Alfino and he had some­one with him. He was small in stature yet as wiry as the thick vines we’d been pass­ing through ear­lier that day. He wore noth­ing but a red loin­cloth and his body and face were adorned with tribal tat­toos. He walked with an ethe­real pres­ence that seemed much grander than his small frame would sug­gest. I’d only ever pre­vi­ously

seen pho­tos of the Mentawai shaman, known as Sik­erei, and to fi­nally be stand­ing in the pres­ence of one had me un­ex­pect­edly feel­ing like I was stand­ing be­fore roy­alty. Aman Ik­buk was his name and with a big smile he led us down a wind­ing path into the dense veg­e­ta­tion. He had kindly of­fered to take us into his home and give us shel­ter for the night. His ba­sic wooden home (oth­er­wise known as an Uma) was filled with tools, drums, wooden carv­ings and the hang­ing skulls of dozens of mon­keys and pigs. At first the dan­gling bones were an un­nerv­ing sight but then again so were we to his young chil­dren who weren’t sure of what to make of the hairy guests. After set­tling in and giv­ing him the cus­tom­ary of­fer­ing of to­bacco and sugar, we sat and talked and he be­gan to ex­plain his way of life to us. The indige­nous peo­ple of the Mentawai tra­di­tion­ally prac­tice ‘Arat Sab­u­lun­gan’. It’s an an­i­mistic ide­ol­ogy that pays rev­er­ence to the spir­its of their an­ces­tors as the land, the sky, the oceans, rivers and all things nat­u­ral within. Their cul­ture is built around a se­ries of taboos that cre­ate a bal­ance with the spirit world around them. As the jun­gle pro­vides for them, they must in turn give of­fer­ings back and if they fall out of this bal­ance then they be­lieve it will open the doors to ill­ness and mis­for­tune. The role of the Sik­erei in their so­ci­ety is to gov­ern this peace and bal­ance and to be a me­di­a­tor be­tween the spirit world and the com­mu­nity. It seems now that in this day and age, the bal­ance for the Mentawai peo­ple has be­come about far more than just day-to-day life and is now a fight to cling to their cul­ture amidst en­croach­ing re­li­gion, in­dus­try and west­ern in­flu­ence. The first colo­nial set­tlers were said to have reached the is­lands in the mid 1700s and after failed at­tempts by the English to es­tab­lish pep­per plan­ta­tions, it was the Dutch that laid claim to Mentawai un­der the sovereignty of the East Indies in 1864. The re­la­tion­ship had been a good one and the indige­nous Mentawai peo­ple were left free to prac­tice their cul­tural life­style in peace. It wasn’t un­til after 1945 when In­done­sia gained its in­de­pen­dence that the tra­di­tional way of life was placed un­der threat. Erad­i­ca­tion of Arat Sab­u­lun­gan had be­gun in an at­tempt by the In­done­sian gov­ern­ment to achieve na­tional unity and cul­tural adap­tion pro­grams were in­tro­duced that were de­signed to in­te­grate the tribal groups into the so­cial and cul­tural main­stream of the coun­try. Rit­u­al­is­tic pos­ses­sions were con­fis­cated, burnt and de­stroyed and the Sik­erei were beaten and forced into slave labour and im­pris­on­ment. By the 1970s, log­ging com­pa­nies and other in­dus­try had moved in on the lands and with the Sik­erei and the other keep­ers of the for­est forced into re­set­tle­ment vil­lages, the frag­ile Mentawai Is­lands were in dan­ger. It wasn’t long be­fore a form of sal­va­tion had ar­rived in the ar­chi­pel­ago. In fact, it mo­tored in dur­ing the early 1980s aboard a ves­sel named the Indies Trader and car­ried with it the in­trepid Mar­tin Daly and the first pi­o­neers in what only a decade later would be­come a huge surge of surf tourism – lured to the

is­lands by the prom­ise of per­fect trop­i­cal waves. The se­crets of the wave-rich par­adise were busted open and the Mentawai were well and truly on both the map and on the cov­ers of surf mags all over the globe. In a strange con­tra­dic­tion, it was this in­flux of tourism that brought some re­demp­tion to the en­dan­gered cul­ture. The In­done­sian gov­ern­ment had fi­nally re­alised the value in the tra­di­tional way of life of the indige­nous Mentawai peo­ple and lifted the ban on Arat Sab­u­lun­gan, al­low­ing the Sik­erei and their fam­i­lies to live freely in the jun­gles on the out­skirts of the set­tle­ments. For many of the new gen­er­a­tions how­ever, the tra­di­tional way of life had been lost. Those fam­i­lies that had been forced onto re­set­tle­ment vil­lages and had been cul­tur­ally adapted to a more modern In­done­sian life­style had, over the years, for­got­ten the ways of their an­ces­tors with many claim­ing that they feel like they wouldn’t know how to live off the land if they had to. Bound then by the eco­nomics of the out­side world and with a lack of em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties, many of the modern Mentawai live well be­low the poverty line and find it al­most im­pos­si­ble to earn a de­cent liv­ing. Sev­eral years ago while sit­ting on the shore­line pho­tograph­ing our guests surf­ing, a lo­cal co­conut farmer ap­proached from the jun­gle be­hind me. I’d quite of­ten ex­change greet­ings with lo­cals as we’d pass each other on the thin foot trails that ran through the is­land, but up un­til this point, my lan­guage skills hadn’t been up to the task of delv­ing much deeper than that. This time though, as he joined me sit­ting on the beach, I asked him about his fam­ily and his life. He ex­plained to me about his dan­ger­ous work up in the canopy and how he only made 25 cents per har­vested kg of co­conut and didn’t have enough money to send his chil­dren to school or even put cloth­ing on their backs. Mean­while, in front of us was a sea of hoot­ing tourists with su­per-ex­pen­sive, su­per-stretch board shorts, GoPros and brand spank­ing new boards. I still re­mem­ber the pang of guilt as I sat next to him with an iPod in my lap and a cam­era worth a life­time of tree-climb­ing in my hand. What did he re­ally make of all of these wealthy strangers in his home? In that mo­ment the real con­trasts of the cul­tures were be­com­ing glar­ingly ob­vi­ous to me ... and I think to him as well. That seed of thought had sprouted its roots into my mind and over the fol­low­ing years it only grew. My days were jammed full with keep­ing the guests stoked, chas­ing waves, pho­tog­ra­phy and pro­vid­ing a steady stream of surf-porn to the out­side world through so­cial me­dia yet I couldn’t help but shake the nig­gling feel­ing that my in­ter­nal bal­ance was off. Was I per­son­ally tak­ing too much from the Mentawai

Is­lands and not giv­ing enough back? It was that feel­ing of im­bal­ance that had struck me back in 2010 while work­ing as an ad­ver­tis­ing cre­ative back in Aus­tralia. The GFC had hit, re­courses had tight­ened up and I had an over­whelm­ing in­stinct that there had to be a whole lot more to life than watch­ing the days slide past a small of­fice win­dow. So after a golden op­por­tu­nity was pre­sented to me to take a chance on a dream, I’d packed up my life and moved to the is­lands. Re­cently though, I’d found that those thoughts had re­turned. Look­ing through the lens at hoards of hol­i­day mak­ers day in, day out, I knew there was a whole lot more to the Mentawai Is­lands than that which was slid­ing across the cam­eras viewfinder in front of me. I knew it was time to head to the heart of the Is­lands to tip the scales back and re­cap­ture some of the magic I’d lost. So here I was – sit­ting in front of a Sik­erei on a rick­ety wooden floor, deep in the jun­gle and as far from the is­land surf as I had ever been. The thick, sweet smoke from his loosely rolled to­bacco leaf filled the air as he talked and the night was alive with sounds of in­sects that seemed to be com­pet­ing with him to be heard. That eerie dark­ness didn’t feel so omi­nous now and as I sat and let it all soak in, I was com­fort­able and con­tent in know­ing I was in the mid­dle of a jour­ney to try to give some­thing back to a place that had given so much to me. Be­liev­ing that if I can share with peo­ple, even sim­ply through pho­tos and words, that this wave-rich re­gion has so many more trea­sures to be dis­cov­ered be­hind the scenes, then maybe that aware­ness might re­store a lit­tle of that sa­cred bal­ance which gov­erns the spirit of the Mentawai. Who knows, as the an­cient ide­ol­ogy sug­gests, it might even help pro­tect an ever-grow­ing surf cul­ture from ill­ness and mis­for­tune. *** To learn more about the peo­ple that are lead­ing the charge to give back to the Mentawai and help es­tab­lish cul­tural ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams and eco­tourism or to do­nate to the cause, please visit my good friends at as­worlds­di­vide.com

Keep­ers of the for­est. Two gen­er­a­tions of Sik­erei (Mentawai Shaman) - Aman LauLau and his sons Aman Le­pon and Aman Got­dai stand by the river that con­nects their homes deep in the is­land of Siberut.

With a river that was un­sea­son­ably shal­low and a ca­noe that was too big, we con­stantly found our­selves grind­ing to a halt. (Drone photo by Marc Llewellyn) In­set: A misty morn­ing glimpse of our shel­ter from the night be­fore - The Uma of Aman Ik­buk.

‘We would get lost in a city, but out here we know ev­ery path’ - Our hosts lead­ing us through a trek in the hills sur­round­ing their vil­lage. In­set: Sik­erei per­form­ing the rit­u­al­is­tic dance called Tu­ruk - said to rep­re­sent the bat­tle be­tween the snake and the bird.

In­set: Aman Ik­buk shows us his hunt­ing ar­rows be­fore ap­ply­ing the lethal poi­son made from a com­bi­na­tion of lo­cal plants and roots that is said to be able to kill a mon­key al­most im­me­di­ately. Op­po­site: On the perime­ter of the jun­gle, an un­known surfer reaches for the rel­a­tive heights.

A tra­di­tional tat­too takes place at the Uma (com­mu­nal home) of Aman Le­pon and his ex­tended fam­ily.

Left and be­low: Equipped with bows and ar­rows, the Sik­erei lead us through the jun­gle in search of mon­keys. Bot­tom: Be­fore the hunt, the Sik­erei stop to talk to their an­ces­tors, make an of­fer­ing to the gods and bless our jour­ney as we walk through the jun­gle.

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