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.

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