Sixty miles West from Padang, West Sumatra, there is an isolated jungle paradise called Siberut Island. It is part of the Mentawai Archipelago and home to the mysterious Mentawai tribe who have lived a basic uncivilized life deep in the jungle for over more than a thousand years. The self sufficient tribe hunts on monkeys with poisoned arrows, eats plants, larvae’s and sago and practices shamanistic rituals.
In the 19th century Christian and Muslim missionaries converted most of the surrounding Mentawai Islands. There are only a few left of the tribe who still remain their traditional way of living. They changed their ancestral village Ugai for the jungle, to escape the disruption of the modern world. This is why it is very difficult to reach them.
After a long slow boat trip from Padang to Muara Siberut (around 11 hours) the hardest but most adventurous part of our journey -a four hour trip on the motorbike – still awaits us. After we cross the first bridge there is no road anymore. The only way to reach the jungle is through the massive mud pool in front of us. Bumping from side to side I hold on tight to the guide in front of me. The first huge tropical jungle trees come in sight and we enter the deep humid rainforest. From now on it is just narrow paths with many holes and bridges made of tree trunks. Fingers crossed.
Welcome to the jungle
The last part to our Mentawai homestay we walk bare feet through slippery swamps to reach the house of Aman Lao Lao, the Shaman where we stay two nights. While my feet sink deep into the mud I keep myself standing grabbing on to tree trunks.
When we arrive at the big traditional house made of weaved bamboo strips. Aman Lao Lao walks towards us smiling and only wearing a loincloth, a red scarf covering his genitals kept in place by a belt. His body is decorated with traditional tattoos and necklaces. I feel thrilled standing face to face with one of the fewest left of such an interesting ancient tribe living a life so completely different from ours. It feels like I entered another world back in time.
When I enter the heart of the house – it is already dark- I nudge my head to the skull of a monkey. There are hundreds of them hanging on the roof. This is how the hunting trophies are displayed. There are mostly skulls of deer’s, monkeys, pigs but also huge shields of turtles.
We gather on the floor eating the rice and fish we brought for dinner. In broken English and with a little help from our Mentawai speaking guide, Lao Lao tells us as a Shaman he is the leader of the tribe and the connection to the spiritual world. ‘We believe everything in the jungle from plants to rocks, treetops, bamboo, and animals has a spirit and we have to live in harmony with them. Some spirits offer protection but others are evil and cause sickness.’
Taboos & tattoos
When the night falls in we sit on the wooden benches we listen to the loud noises of the insects, jungle music. While smoking cigarette after cigarette Aman Lao Lao’s son, Godday, tell us hunting contains a lot of taboos. ‘Men can’t wash their hair otherwise they will shoot their arrows poorly and become sick. But it’s not only about hunting, sex is also a huge taboo. It is not allowed to have sex in your house, lovers have to head out to the jungle.’ I am intrigued by their bodies covered with tattoos. Aman Lao Loa explains Mentawai tattoo are the oldest in the world. The tattoos show their identity and difference in social status and profession.
Living like the natives
The next morning we explore the village. We pass by the traditional houses with gardens overgrown with vegetables, tropical flowers, papaya and coconut threes. People who sit in front of their houses stare at us and smoke cigarettes. Woman smile back at us with their sharpened teeth. It is a tradition when female Mentawai reach puberty they file their teeth down to point using only a rock and chisel. They believe it makes them more attractive to the opposite sex.
Men and woman on bare feet who pass us carry heavy baskets on their back filled with bananas. We take part to their usual day activity searching for sago, the most important element in the Mentawai culture. It feeds them, it yields floor to feed the animals, it is a motif for tattoos and is used in constructions. We head off to Lao Lao’s backyard followed by the kids. While their mom cuts off pieces of sago with a hatchet, the kids are eager to grab the larvae’s who come out of the tree. I almost hesitated when they proposed me to try, but I didn’t dare.
The main subject Aman Lao Lao and our guide discuss about is politics and the condition of the road to the Mentawai village.The Mentawai want a better road, for example to have better excess to medicine. But the more connection there is with modern society the more the Mentawai culture fades out. A lot of the young generation turn their backs on the ancient practices. They leave the island to start working in tourism. It is very important to book a guide who is from the island and speaks the tribe language Desti from Uma Awera Lodge helps to preserve the Mentawai and can help you to book a trip. Despite inevitable changes there are still Mentawai tribes left living a traditional lifestyle, assembling sago, wearing hibiscus flowers and living in harmony with nature.
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