A Day at the Races

Batu Sankar, West Sumatra

August 19, 2017

Throughout the month of August, every Saturday, there are races held in the muddy fields near the town of Batu Sankar. But the locations vary, and are decided on the eve of the race. The only way to find out is to ask locally and that is just what we intended. I had met Martine, a French photographer, who showed me some photos of the race. I simply had to go too!

But this is no ordinary race. Called Pacu Jawi, this is the traditional racing of bulls. Each team is made up of a pair of bulls. Bamboo frames made of long oval hoops are placed over the hump of each bull, their tapered ends joined by a thin strip of wood. The jockey stands with one foot on each of these wooden steps, holding onto the tails. And off he goes, pulled by the bulls. A few well-timed bites on the tails ensure that the enraged bulls set a fast clip.

Up at the end where the race begins, most of the animals have to coaxed and cajoled into stepping into the mud and into the bamboo frames. Some protest mildly but cave in. Quite a few others demonstrate their unwillingness in a decisive manner. It takes the combined efforts of several men to hold them in position. Not that they succeed every time; more than a few bulls canter through and escape, minus a jockey.

Down they come, the hooves splashing through the ankle-deep mud. Up spatters the mud, anointing those who keep a discretionary distance with a few drops, but liberally bathing all those who venture too close to the makeshift plank rails. Not all the bulls take kindly to this form of weekend entertainment. Taking umbrage, they crash through the flimsy barrier and charge up, intent on home. The watching crowd scatters with lightning speed and more than one takes a roll in the mud.

Many of the bull-teams leap through the prescribed course, but rarely do they deign to take their jockey with them. Some of the jockeys manage to cling on almost to the end of the field, while others are left floundering in the mud, gazing at the rapidly disappearing hooves.

Expressions of frustration, resignation and fierce intent race through their faces. But it morphs quickly into laughter, joy and the sheer fun of it all. Yells and cheers greet the ones who make it to the end and laughter and jokes rain down on the hapless ones.

But it is all is taken with good grace. I provided my share of entertainment as I emerged caked in mud from head to toe, grinning helplessly.

It is Martine, that I have to thank for prodding me to go to Pachu Jawi – not that it required much prodding! And it is her that I have to thank for waving her magic wand over a few of my photos.

 

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Rites, Rituals & a Pig Sacrifice

Mentawai
August 15, 2017

“Come” said Baja Toycot. “We go to cure a sick man. You come”.
The day had dawned gray and cloudy and it had been spattering rain most of the morning, with occasional downpours. Even the chickens seemed to have gone to ground. But the mood perked up around mid-morning. Two other shikereis had loped in from the forest and settled down to tea and talk. A healing ceremony was to take place in a nearby Uma requiring all three shikereis, and I was invited to tag along. I needed no second urging. They strode along and I followed in their wake, trying to perform the usual balancing act on slippery logs. My deplorable skills had improved dramatically over the past couple of days and I gave myself a mental pat on the back for not sliding into the mud.

The Uma was not very far and soon we squelched up the usual notched log. This was a much bigger Uma, with more people but identical in design. A newly built long platform stretched out in front leading to the open-sided room. Inside was a large room with a couple of open hearths. Pots bubbled on one while some women were busy preparing sago in another. More people lived in this Uma, but the numbers had swelled even more, thanks to all the family members who had come in for the ceremony. Hung from the rafters and draped from beams were dozens of skulls. A string of numerous pig skulls hung at the entrance. Even more were the monkey skulls, looking like tiny human ones. Added to the gory ensemble were a jumble of antlers and some other unidentifiable animal skulls. The age of an Uma seems to be in direct proportion to the number of skulls it is decorated with, no doubt a sign of prestige.

The owner Baja Somorut and his wife were both elderly and sick. They had requested the shamans to perform the ceremony. Tea and talk were dispensed with, and the diagnosis made. The verdict was unanimous. When the new platform had been built, the Baja Somorut had neglected to perform a ritual to propitiate the spirits. The shamans drew the obvious conclusion; they attributed his current sickness to the punishment decreed by angry spirits. So the first order of the day was to appease the angry spirits. The spirits of the trees, the wood, the twine and the vine used for the construction all had to be appeased, and asked forgiveness.

The three shikereis strode off into the forest to collect the herbs, leaves, twigs and flowers deemed necessary for the ritual and then then began what can only be called a dress-up session. Out came the big boxes that store ornaments. Beads and bangles were slipped on amid convivial chatter. It was apparently commonplace and nobody else paid any attention. It was only I who watched goggle-eyed. Bells in hand, they trooped out to the end of the platform and squatted. A palm stalk had been prepared before, the palm fronds rubbed with turmeric. It was this that seemed to be the focus now. Ringing of bells and chanting filled the air as they implored the spirits, and begged forgiveness. After some fifteen or so minutes of chanting, one particular shaman appeared to have, what seemed like a rational conversation with thin air. In a reasonable voice, he spoke to the spirit, coaxing and cajoling in the sort of tone one would use with a recalcitrant child. And then rose, sprinkling water from a leaf up and down the offending platform.

Spirits appeased, they trooped inside, and sat across from each other. They were preparing bunches of leaves and a basin of water scattered with herbs. Incantations murmured over them for purification and they were ready for the next part of the healing ritual. For the next ten to fifteen minutes, the sound of chanting reverberated from the walls as they swayed and weaved over the heads of the sick duo. The same ringing of bells, sweeping of branches signifying sweeping away bad spirits was performed energetically as the patients sat immobile beneath. Down squatted the shamans, this time, cupping water from the basin and bathing the patients while murmuring chants. The forehead, face, chest and arms were all wiped down, as they reached into the basin repeatedly. Cleansing the body with the now-blessed water, they did a thorough job, murmuring and talking to the spirits the entire time. Each of the shamans in turn, dripped a few drops from a leaf into the mouths of the sick; a concoction of their own making. And all was deemed well.

The cleansing ritual was not quite complete yet. An animal needs to be sacrificed at each such ritual and a pig was brought in. Trussed to the bamboo pole and lain on the floor, it lay squealing as the shamans embarked on yet more chanting. This time, asking forgiveness of the pig. In an almost explanatory tone, they spoke to the spirit of the pig. As they rubbed a leaf over the pig, they explained the need for slaughter. And slaughter it, they did. In one swift cut, the neck lay open, the blood collected in a large wok. Each of the shamans drank some of the blood and then examined the entrails. Nodding heads, I imagine, implied they agreed with what they saw. Despite asking, I did not quite understand what exactly they were looking for, nor what they saw.

The ritual was complete and the patients already claimed they felt better. How much of it is the placebo effect, I wondered. Several family members now busily set about cutting up the meat and preparing the meal for a communal feast. Bamboo tubes were brought forth and stuffed with the meat, to be cooked over the fire in the usual manner. Some of the meat I imagine was to be smoked and stored for future use. I too was given a share of the meat. Delicious it was, infused with the delicate flavor of bamboo and herbs.

Postscript: By happy circumstance, later at Muara Siberut, I met an anthropologist who was studying the Mentawai. Manvir had been living with the Mentawai for seven months and was kind enough to answer my many questions about the rituals, beliefs and ceremonies of these intriguing peoples.

In the House of a Shaman

Muntei, Siberut Island,
Mentawai

August 12, 2017

Tales of hunter-gatherers living in the middle of the jungle in an island off Sumatra had been playing through my mind as I traveled south and I wanted to go see these people. The Mentawai are a chain of islands, some with rudimentary development and some that are famed among surfers. Siberut, is the one where the tribes live and the undeveloped state of the island is largely responsible for preservation of their culture, supposedly still intact. No ATMs, no wifi or connectivity and in the jungle, no electricity – it sounded perfect!

But the tentacles of social media have broadcast tales of the Mentawai far and wide and I found to my surprise that visiting the Mentawai tribes is very much on the package-trip list. Guesthouses in Padang, the closest large city on mainland Sumatra push packages albeit in a low-key sort of way. Predictably, I wanted none of it and decided to take the early morning ferry to the port of Muara Siberut, to try to locate a local guide. And so it was I got myself to the village of Muntei where many of the households have relatives that live in the jungle.

A narrow, paved road leads through the village with houses on either side. Raised off the ground like elsewhere, all have a wide open-sided veranda with seats, a set of shallow steps leading up to it. People wave and smile as I go past, riding pillion on a motorbike. Palm fronds hang from the eaves and wood carvings of animals grace the posts. The A-shaped frames have thatched roofs, the wood logs holding it down form a row of crosses along the ridge. I remember seeing the same somewhere else, in some other country, but could not remember where.

I did not need to look for a guide; in small communities such as this, word seems to travel without any discernable conduit and soon enough, I was chatting with some of the locals. Everyone seems to be related, at least distantly and finding a guide was far simpler than I had thought. Negotiation over a glass of tea, a wander around the village, getting the necessary permit and a stop at the village shop for food and we were set. The entertainment of the evening was watching the rescue of a truck mired in mud. It was too late to start off today and I was given a room to sleep in. A mat woven from bamboo laid out over the wood floor was my bed. No light in the room meant I was spared the visual assault of the brilliant pink mosquito net. Chinks of light filtering in through the woven bamboo walls were too faint to see the sources of nocturnal scamperings; I counted it as yet another blessing.

Somewhere in the jungle
August 13, 2017

The morning dawned bright and it promised to be blisteringly hot. We walked down to the Reiket river, to the longboat. Powered by a lawnmower engine, we puttered up the river. Once there were crocodiles in the river and monkeys in the trees, but they have been hunted to extinction and children gleefully swim and paddle in the waters near the banks. The tall grass and bushes hide any dwellings from sight and soon we turn into a smaller river, the Osap. A couple of hours on the river and we pull up to the bank. A few people are busy laying down some logs, forming steps on the muddy banks and we stop for a chat before heading into the forest. The rubber boots I bought in Padang were the smallest I could find but were still two sizes too big. To keep them from slipping off, I had tied rope around my ankles. My avante garde style garnered me a thumbs-up sign from one of the women as she tugged experimentally at the boots. A comment made by someone else had them all cackling; no doubt at the entertaining prospect of the inadvertent donation of my boots in the first mud bog.

I had heard and read about the mud bogs that we have to wade through, but realized very quickly that I had severely under-estimated the amount and depth of the bogs. Struggling to balance on slippery logs over the mud, I asked if there were more patches like this.

“This is dry” he tells me, adding helpfully that the entire path was like this, only worse. The people living in the forest use these paths routinely and have put down some branches and logs to walk across. A few logs are wide enough to walk on without falling off, but most are between five to eight centimeters in diameter. Some are just palm fronds, floating on the surface. Some float under the surface, impossible to see under layers of squelching, sucking, oozing mud. Unerringly the locals walk, their bare feet with splayed toes getting grips on the narrow, slippery surface effortlessly. I step gingerly, trying to keep my balance and more than once my foot slides off and sinks calf-deep. Loud sucking noises accompany retrieving the fallen foot, as I balance precariously, trying not to fall headlong. Liberally infused with the smell of assorted excrement, the prospect of being bathed in mud is not exactly at the top of my list of priorities. I plod on again, with the added delight of oozing mud inside the boot. Sarul, my guide belatedly realizes a stick would help and voila! I can inch along at a slightly faster pace. A couple of hours later we cross a small stream and I see a palm thatch peek over the trees. We are at the house, or Uma as it is called, where we are to stay in tonight. The owner is Baja Toycot, a shaman, but Sarul does not know if he is at home. Lack of any sort of communication means we simply have to wait and see.

There is a tree trunk with notches masquerading as steps, leading up to a small platform. This leads to a wide open-sided room that is the living room, bedroom as well as kitchen. On one side is a hearth with a rack hung above it for firewood. Some stones are set in it, to hold pots, black from extensive use. Just beyond the thatch off to one side is a trio of buckets. They collect rainwater, for cooking and drinking. Water for washing is brought in from the river in buckets. From a couple of hooks, hang ladles, mostly handmade from coconut shells and sticks but there are also a couple of plastic ones. Hanging from the beams are crude wooden images of snakes, birds and a monkey. They are to appease the spirits of the animals, Sarul tells me. The chicken feathers that dangle off a rope are to appease the spirit of the chickens that have been killed. There are a few pig skulls hanging as well. A ritual precedes the killing of any animal, asking their forgiveness and afterwards, the skulls adorn the house to appease the spirit. At the end of the open room is a door leading to a small enclosed room. There is a hearth there too with multiple racks, holding more kindling. Against the wall are quivers of arrows and a spear. Apart from the metal tip of the spear, all are made from wood, leather and other materials found in the forest. In one corner of the open room is the mosquito net, presumably the bed of the owner. But of the owner himself, there is nary a sign. Some chickens strut and peck in the mud with chicks trailing. The smell of rain-soaked soil mingles with pig excrement. But there are no signs of the pigs either.

Across from the house, is another house belonging to one of Toycot’s sons, Pina. While waiting for Baja Toycot to return, we visited him. We found Pina squatting on the floor, smoking a cigarette, idly swinging a pair of hammocks. It is nap time for his sons, aged three, and a year and a half. But at the sound of our voices, they perk up and are soon out of the hammocks, playing. His wife is likely not going to be happy but she is out in the jungle, collecting bamboo.

A lot of cooking is done in bamboo tubes, over the fire, including the all-important sago. Extracted from the spongy center of a sago palm, this is the starchy staple of everyone here. Humans. pigs and chickens, they all eat sago. The pigs eat chunks of it straight out of the split log and chicken peck there too, keeping a wary eye on the pigs. But for human consumption, it is first ground into powder. The powder is then stuffed inside the bamboo tubes or wrapped inside sago leaves then and roasted in the fire. The moisture from the bamboo combines to give it a soft doughy texture and it is pulled from the split bamboo and eaten. Other than the subtle flavor of bamboo, it is completely tasteless. Much like the tsampa of Tibetans, it is tasteless enough not to encourage overeating. Occasionally the taste of sago is enlivened with the dubious delights of sago worms, still wriggling.

Baja Toycot had been out visiting another household and returned soon. Most families have one male member who is taught the rites and rituals of a shaman or shikerei as they are called. But if none are deemed suitable, a generation may pass before there is a shikerei in the family. Those without a shikerei, have no recourse but to request one from another family for rituals.

As he comes up the path, all I can do is stare. Perhaps in his mid-sixties, he is lean, dressed in a loin cloth made of tree bark, with necklaces draped around his neck, an earring in one ear and forearms festooned with bracelets. A beaded headdress, one that is only worn by shikerei, sits on his head, a hibiscus flower tucked under the rim. And he is covered with tattoos. Across the chest, down the back, on the shoulders, on the hands and down his thighs.

With a wide smile and a handshake, he greeted us and bade us welcome. And busily set about lighting the fire, splitting kindling with a machete. Bananas were set to boil and soon he was grating coconut, using as the grater, the spiny outer bark of a sago palm. We sat down to a meal of boiled banana coated in fresh coconut and sipped the tea we had brought. He is never still, chattering and exchanging news and gossip as he works. He sees to the chickens, feeding them and putting the hens with chicks into a basket for the night. A hollowed-out piece of wood hanging from the rafter is struck with a rod, the sound meant for the pigs to come home to feed. Over the next couple of days, I heard the same sound echo through the forest, rung from other Umas. It is a wonder to me, how the pigs know which call to obey.

Life each day rarely varies. There are chores to be done, animals to feed, edible flowers and fruits to be got from the forest. Sometimes the bland sago is enlivened with frogs caught from the bogs and fish from the river. But it is all accomplished at an unhurried pace, with chatter and laughter laced through the day. Sometimes people pass by, on their way to or from their own Uma. And they stop by for a while. News and gossip is exchanged over tea or coffee, liberally laced with sugar. They roll wads of tobacco in dried banana leaves, the stubby cigarettes dangling from their lips as they talk. It is astonishing how much everyone smokes – their own rolled ones or the packs that we had brought with us. They are born storytellers. As we sit on the benches, they spin out the tales, wreathed in tendrils of smoke. The tales are told slowly, with pauses pregnant with anticipation as the audience listens intently.

Dinner was the rice we had brought and pork that had been dried and stored. The chirping of the cicadas slowly increases in volume as the last rays of the sun give way to the dark. The chickens not put into cages, flutter up into the branches of a tree and amid a few squabbles, settle down to roost. The fire in the hearth has died down and only a few embers give out a red glow. We sit over cups of tea, and I hear tales from the forest.

The trees, animals and humans all have spirits Baja Toycot says, and the work of a shikerei is to communicate with them. Shikerei are needed for rituals, and rituals there are aplenty. Before building a house, to cure an illness, for weddings and funerals, before killing an animal for food, all need rituals with prayers performed by a shikerei. Sometimes it takes more than one, he tells us, depending on the seriousness of the situation. I learned of the meaning of the tattoos, of going hunting for monkeys with a bow and arrows. And of hunting wild boars with a spear. Under the mosquito net in the same open room, I feel asleep to dream of boars and monkeys and of poison-tipped arrows.

Where Women Lead

Pagaruyung village, West Sumatra
August 8, 2017

On a hill called Gombok, in West Sumatra, were found some statues and several large stones with inscriptions carved on them. Dating from 1347, they can hardly be called ancient, yet these are the first written records in this area. Written in Pali script, they speak of Adityawarma, the founder of the kingdom who ruled in these parts until his death in 1375. In the usual manner of such edicts, the inscriptions praise the greatness and wisdom of the king, especially as a master of the Tantric Buddhism. On a stone dated 1356, the author, a certain Mpungku Dharmma Dwaja, calls the king, a god of snakes and priests who became the arm of the world. Another stone is written in commemoration of a temple and yet another speaks of the meaning of human life. Adityawarman was the grandson of Tribhuwanaraja, the king of the Melayu kingdom and a royal of Java’s Majahapit lineage. He conquered the east coast of Sumatra and founded a royal dynasty in Pagaruyung, near modern-day Batu Sankar in 1347.

Today the stones lie in an open-sided shed, by the side of the road, some four kilometers from the town of Batu Sankar, largely forgotten and overlooked by tourists and locals alike. There are sketchy explanations in Bahasa Indonesia and none in English. Yet it is this dynasty that gave rise to the Pagaruyung kingdom, and are the forerunners of the Minankabau lineage, much vaunted in these parts. Strangely, no records exist between 1375 and 1513 and little is known about this kingdom.

Although the Pagaruyung kingdom was disbanded in 1833, and the royal palace destroyed several times, it has been re-built each time. The most recent incarnation is from 2007, built in the traditional style with several innovations. Three storeys high, this too is boat-shaped like the Batak houses. But the saddle-shaped roof is even more pronounced, with multiple thatched roofs forming layers. Seen from the front, the roofs soar up and away like the outspread wings of birds, tilted at the tips. The ends of the roofs rise sharply into tips, mimicking buffalo horns. At right angles to the roof layers is the entrance, with its soaring roof as well.

Instead of only the eaves being decorated, here, the decoration creeps up on all three sides of the building in the form of wooden panels. But true to Islamic tenets, there are no masks or imagery. Instead, these wooden panels are beautifully carved and painted, covering all except the rear wall. Flowers, vines and geometric designs fill every inch of space in a dazzling pattern, strong greens mixing with pink and brown and yellow. The polished wood interior is largely bare but the segregated areas for men and women show adherence to Islamic laws. A rice barn once a standard feature of every house graces one part of the yard. A large life-sized buffalo statue next to it plays happy mount for a gaggle of children.

There are several traditional houses in the area, some renovated and in pristine condition, while some are slowly giving way to the elements. There are some families that still live in the old traditional houses but most now occupy modern buildings. The wealthier families maintain the traditional buildings and use them for ceremonial purposes these days, while everyday life goes on in newer building set around the courtyard. Walking down the road, a greeting led to a smile and a smile to an invitation to stop and chat. It was usually the women who invited me in, happy to share their culture and history. Unsurprising really, given this society’s matrilineal heritage.

The Minangkabau, descendants of the Pagaruyung kingdom are best known today for their matrilineal society. They are deemed the largest matriarchal society in the world today and are understandably proud of their heritage. Not so long ago, most families still lived in houses ruled by the matriarch and populated by only those related to the women. Husbands moved into their wives’ houses after marriage and were treated as honored guests. Property and wealth were inherited by the women and remained in their possession. It was the women who made all the decisions, in home and out of home, including farming and business. The spread of Islam, with its tenets that favor men, raised more than a few debates and indeed rebellions in the past. Today, the Minangkabau continue to do a tightrope balancing act between tradition and religion. Modern life with its nuclear families further erode the old system and some of the older people shake their heads as they sigh. A facet of bridging the laws of tradition and religion, has given rise to a peculiar compromise. “High inheritance” refers to wealth and property that are still handed down through the mother while “low inheritance” refers to the wealth inherited from the father, largely from his professional salary. There are other such compromises but the culture still retains enough of its tradition to remain unique in the world.

Our People Came by Sea

Samosir Island, Danau Toba,
North Sumatra

August 5, 2017

“Our people came by sea” said the old man, nodding sagely.
“Exactly from where, nobody knows but they came in boats, and so we build our houses like boats” he added, between puffs on his cigarette, his face wreathed in a gap-toothed smile.
In a small roadside café in Ambarita, on the island of Samosir in Lake Toba, I had fallen into conversation with the old man. He seemed to delight in telling tales of bloodthirsty ancestors, especially the creative ways of exacting vengeance. He cackled as he spun out tales of cannibalism and ritual drinking of enemy blood. Every so often he would pause, peering at me with rheumy eyes, hoping to see a shiver or two. I hadn’t the heart to disappoint him.

The much-touted, three hundred year-old stone chairs where the king sat on judgement and meted out punishments is prominently displayed in this part of the village. Despite its bloody past, in the dappled shade of the tree, they seem innocuous. Of more interest to me, were the many stone figures I saw. Barely a meter high and green with moss, they were crude figures depicting guards at the gates and dutiful subjects paying homage to the king. But the ones I found down a small lane in Amabarita, seem to have been forgotten. I have no idea just how old they are, nor what tales they tell. The family in the house next door did not know either, nor seemed interested.

While the old man’s stories of ancestral heroics are no doubt embroidered, the tales of their sea-faring ancestors may very well be true. I remember being told something along the same lines, when I visited the island of Sulawesi years ago. While both styles of houses are equally dramatic, they each have distinctly unique features.

Viewed sideways, the steeply-pitched roofline drops into a saddle before rising back up, giving it the tell-tale boat shape. The short pillars it rests on and the outward leaning walls are the same that I saw in the Karo highlands. But there, the similarity ends. Here, the sharply projected triangular eaves dominate the front and back, with front gable extending further than the rear one. While the rear gable remains unadorned, the front one is the single, most eye-catching feature. It is riot of painted motifs, the intricate patterns swirling among demonic masks placed at intervals. Painstakingly carved out of wood, every inch is painted in bold red, black and white. The panel joining the edges of the deep eave over the balcony, adds a layered look with its equally elaborate designs. The lavish curlicues dance between stylized figures and motifs, making it mesmerizing. The intricacy and lavishness of decorations are in direct proportion to the wealth and status of the owner, the most detailed one being that of an old palace-turned-into-museum, in the nearby village of Tomok. In the same village is the royal graveyard with tombs that are shaped like boats. Some of the tombstones are mini versions of a traditional house. There are stone figures here too, near the tomb, set in a scene complete with musicians, subjects in attitudes of prayer and the figure of a bull, no doubt to be sacrificed.

In the old days, the houses were set in a row, facing a common courtyard. A few steps lead up to the short front door and into the house. Small windows, set on each side of the house let in a little light into the dark interior living area. The interior is an open space, without walls, largely utilitarian in nature. Another ladder inside leads up to an attic space formed by a flat wooden ceiling over the front third of the living area. The attic is mostly a storage area, stuffed with family heirlooms and sometimes shrines. In the old days, an open hearth at the front of the living room would form the kitchen, but it is no longer so. In the houses that still in use these days, the interior is used as a living room and bedroom, with couches, tables and the requisite television blaring in a corner. Additions made onto the back form the kitchen and bath, the bulk of it discretely hidden behind the main building. The houses these days are mostly modern, made of concrete but the art of woodcarving is very much in vogue. Young students learn the art and use as hammers, the filled-in horns of buffalo, just as they did in the past.

The single-lane road that connects villages, wraps around the island with the green ridgeline at its center. Although intensively farmed, it still retains a feel of a slow-paced life. Water buffaloes peer inquisitively as I walk past and a few herons stalk in the fields. The fields are a brilliant green of rice fields and in the distance, I see the boat-shaped roofs among church spires. Just about all the Batak are now Christian, and every village seems to have a scattering of churches of different sects with Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostals dominating. Smiles return my greetings as I stop to chat along the way.

Tales from Karo Highlands

Lingga, Sumatra, Indonesia
Aug 1, 2017

The small villages dotting the highlands around the town of Berastagi in northern Sumatra, have been home to the Karonese people through the ages and still are. Word is, some old traditions are still alive in some of them. A minibus ride got me easily to a village called Lingga and there, peeking over the tops of other houses are the sloping traditional roofs. Rubbish-strewn dirt lanes wind through the village and laundry hangs on crooked posts. Some children smile shyly and adults answer my greetings cheerily. Most houses have corrugated tin roofs, planked walls and stand on cement blocks. The roofs of the oldest ones are covered in moss, with a healthy crop of ferns trailing down the edges. Only three traditional houses grace this village and only one is still lived in.

Chatting with some of the residents, I met the local English teacher.
“Dari mana?” he asked and promptly fell into conversation.
“I know a lot of history” he told me, offering himself as guide.
“What about your classes? Don’t you have to teach?” I asked.
“Oh no” he waved it aside, “I have no schedule today”.
A weekday and no classes? It seemed a tad far-fetched but I thought it prudent not to probe too deeply. James, as I shall call him, shepherded me around, graciously explaining many features.

The traditional houses are massive in size, the heavy wooden posts that form the stilts, placed on stones with shallow indentations. The posts are wedged into the stone with the same natural fibers that form the roofs. This, James tells me, provides enough flexibility to prevent collapse during earthquakes. A meter or so off the ground is a bamboo platform, reachable via a short ladder and above it is the house. A unique feature of these houses are the outward-leaning side walls. The brightly painted walls depict stylized lizards, among other motifs.
“Lizards are small, they have no horns or big claws” said James. “But they manage to crawl in and out of tight places; they are quick and clever” he said. Being wily is a desired trait, hence the motif.

A short door leads into an open space that spans most of the house, the floor made of wide wooden planks. There are several open hearths, each with tiered racks hung above it. It is startling to see the same hearth with racks that I saw in the houses in the Ziro valley of Arunachal Pradesh in India. The racks are used to smoke and cure meats there and no doubt were used for the same purpose here. Then again, perhaps it is not so surprising, given the similarity in climate and geography that must dictate the way of life. Doors lead off to rooms along the sides, each room meant for a family. It used to be, that the entire extended family lived under one roof.

Above the soaring rafters is the steeply sloping roof, the outside covered with fibers from the forest. The fiber bundles are rolled, the rolls laid side by side in a couple of layers. On top of these, are placed several more layers, the entire thickness enough to keep out the heaviest downpour. At each end of the pitched roof is a peaked eave, with beautiful colored patterns woven from palm. The figurehead at each end is that of a buffalo, the head made of cement but the horns are real buffalo horns.
“We have no elephant” says James, “Buffalo is the biggest, strongest animal”.
I saw a new house under construction. And here too lay the buffalo-heads, waiting to be mounted. The horns on these are real buffalo horns as well.

A man sat outside his house, busy carving a hasapi, the Karonese two-stringed instrument. Stopping to chat, we were treated to a snippet of a song. Come to Kabanjahe on the nineteenth, he told me. We will do traditional dances and songs then.

Near the large central community hall lay a couple of cane baskets with enormous pigs grunting inside them. Not for long though, as they were slaughtered in short order. Some women sat nearby busily preparing vegetables. “For a funeral ceremony, tomorrow” said James.

Our meanderings led through the village and we stopped at a house of the storyteller. I had wanted to hear Karo tales and he was only too happy to oblige. We sat on the mat inside his house and he told us tales, pausing only to shoo out the chickens who wandered in from time to time. James translated from Karonese to English as I listened to tales of the gods who created the world. Tales of magicians and sorcerers merged into those of the god who shrugs sometimes, causing earthquakes. There are tales too, of the reason volcanoes erupt, but they take too long, said our storyteller. You have to come back to hear those tales.

Encounters with People of the Forest

Gunung Leuser National Park, Indonesia
July 29, 2017

Decades ago, the town of Bukit Lawang was no doubt a beautiful spot perched at the edge of the national park. But today, it spreads along both banks like cancer, with concrete monstrosities in painted in virulent shades with ever more being constructed each day. The cafes, restaurants and shops line the path along the river and edge onto the grounds of the Gunung Leuser National Park. The shallow, fast flowing Bahorok is where adults and children alike, splash, swim and float downstream on inner tubes. On weekends it is a veritable circus with weekending Indonesians swelling the numbers of tourists and music pumping out of bars. I wonder what the animals in the park make of it.

A trek in the jungle is the main reason to travel to this part of Sumatra and most guesthouses arrange treks for varying number of days. There is an unspoken but definite push to commit from the moment of arrival, the chilly attitude undergoing a distinct mellowing, once a deal is struck and the package paid for. Confirmed bookings for rooms disappear like smoke if there is no promise of a trek. I signed up for a trek along with four others from my guesthouse. Tommy and Maggie are from Argentina, travelling for almost a year while Tessa and Hans are from Holland, on the road for three months.

Barely an hour into the trek is a rubber plantation, the latex collected and taken to town periodically. This is home to a group of Thomas Leaf monkeys who like the nuts of these trees. Their strikingly patterned faces are everywhere. Some on the trees, some on the ground, they seem unperturbed by the masses of humans, so used to them are they. It is unsurprising, given the familiar way of the guides and the selfies deemed mandatory by many of the visitors. Some even hold out food for the monkeys for that all-important selfie.

Our guide, Joseph overheard a couple of comments we made and unknown to us, decided to take matters in hand. We walked along but soon after, a barely discernable rustle of leaves high in the tree-tops, a flash of orange in the distance and Joseph stopped to listen. Off he went down the steep slope, off trail, barely needing to hold onto the branches and limbs. We scrambled to follow, holding onto branches and vines, trying to find purchase on a mountain slope that was easily seventy degrees or more. Too many vines looked like snakes and it paid to check carefully before clutching at them. Balancing on trunks and roots, we saw it high among the treetops, swinging from one branch to the next. Orang means person in Bahasa and Utan means forest; orangutans have been so called in this part of the world because of their uncanny resemblance to humans and so they are called today. The bright orange of their fur is different from their darker, almost black cousins that I saw in Borneo.

We were to see more of these fascinating creatures over the next couple of days. Among quite a few females with their young in tow, was one massive male. Off trail they were sometimes, but many more, closer to the trails. Many are known by sight to the guides, from the days when they or their parents were regulars at the rehabilitation center while it was still in operation over a decade ago. The feeding center might be history but regular feeding is still a prominent feature here. Most of the guides offer bananas and other fruit to entice the orangutans closer. To make their clients happy, they say. Rehabilitation is a lost cause as each new generation learns of the easy access to food. We learned just how “wild” these animals were in a hilarious incident over lunch, the first day.

We had stopped at the old dilapidated feeding center to eat our packed lunch. No sooner had we entered the caged enclosure that used to be the viewing platform, than we had visitors. First came a troop of monkeys, wise to the ways of humans, knowing there was food to be filched. They slid between the railings and had to be constantly shooed away as they tried to dart in to snatch food. But we had yet more visitors in store.

Swinging from branch to branch came a young orangutan, peering in through the wire, eyeing us and coveting the fruits that were spread out on the floor. Being zoo animals inside a cage was a novel experience for us as she prowled around outside. Soon after came yet another one, this one known to the guides as “flat nose”. With her baby wrapped around her she was not to be gainsaid. Boldly she opened a window and clambered in, making a beeline for the leftover fruits. The guides had yelled to us to grab our backpacks and we had, but Joseph did not quite get to his pack soon enough. Flatnose sat, one paw reaching out for the pack while both she and her baby scarfed down the fruits with much lip smacking. A few tries at the tugging the pack proved fruitless and within a couple of minutes she was off, the backpack in her jaws, clambering up to her nest in a tree nearby. There she sat, gorging in the fruits still in the pack, having had no trouble opening the zippers. A one-sided conversation between her and the guides followed, alternately cursing her and enticing her with more fruit in exchange of the pack. But the cajoling interspersed with threats fell on deaf ears, as she proceeded to take items out of the pack. Unwanted objects were flung out hither and thither while edible ones were promptly devoured.

Joseph’s trousers floated down, getting caught on some branches, soon followed by a sheet. The battery pack was flung down the slope, taking the combined efforts of all of us for the better part of a half hour to find. The baby sat playing with the charging cable for a while until it too was flung down. An entire bunch of bananas, some fifteen in all, were consumed in under three minutes, the skins thrown down on our heads. A far cry from wild or even semi-wild, she clearly knows many of the words. Yells of “plastic, plastic” had her tossing down empty plastic bags. The toothbrush was taken out and went promptly into her mouth, wrong end in. The toothpaste was squeezed out of both ends and liberally graced all parts of the pack. An attempt to climb to retrieve the pack had her angrily pushing Joseph so he came tumbling down, thankfully landing on a pile of leaves, chastened but unhurt. He claims it is not the first time he’s encountered a pack-snatching orangutan. Wild animals? Most definitely not, not even semi-wild as the guides like to claim. Only when she was finished with her massive lunch, did she leave the nest. Armed with a branch, one of the guides fended her off while Joseph climbed up again to fetch his pack. I hadn’t laughed this hard in a long while. My sides aching, I doubted that anything else on this trip could match this unanticipated drama. I had not expected anything remotely this entertaining!

The trails are not marked but the guides seem to know their way unerringly. Not death-defying, but certainly not a stroll in the park, they go up and down, the ascents and descents steep and slippery after rain. NoenThe camps are set on the river banks, sometimes small streams, sometimes larger ones. Some are rudimentary shelters, some more established ones. But unlike the Amazon, where everyone slings hammocks between trees, here we bedded down on hardpacked mud inside the hut. The meals were a pleasant surprise. Our cook was clearly talented and we ate better than at most restaurants. The camaraderie around the campfire, tall tales told by the guides accompanied by numerous card tricks and games are a routine part of the treks and enjoyable in their own way.

Surprisingly, no animals visit the camps – at least none did, ours. For reasons I cannot fathom, the mosquito population seems to give the camps a wide berth – not that I was complaining! Some pig-tailed macaques kept up their chatter high in the trees up the cliff and a couple of monitor lizards swam by in the stream where we had been bathing just before. The laughing call of hornbills tantalized but they deigned not to appear. Neither did the snakes, much to my relief.

After returning to Bukit Lawang, I went walking one day, along a path on the cliff edge, overlooking the river. Some distance upstream, above some of the lodges, I saw a knot of bathers in the middle of the river intently looking at the opposite bank. Lo and behold, it was Flatnose, with her young. Most orangutans avoid rivers if they can, but the lure had proved too much for her. And for good reason. Just as on the trail, here too some of the people in the river laid out bananas and some food on the rocks by the river edge. Flatnose came cautiously, ate as did her baby. And then they lumbered off to the forest edge again. Perhaps a banner advertising Bukit Lawang should read: You don’t need to go into the jungle to see wildflife. In Bukit Lawang, the wildlife comes to you.

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