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