I have been dreaming of Indonesia for many years, after all it’s a destination on every traveler’s list. But the place I had pointed out on this vast cluster of islands was not Bali, not even Java, the main attractions for the majority of visitors. It have been 10 years ago, since I read somewhere about the remote Mentawai Islands, west of Sumatra. At that time, the islands were connected by old ships that took at least 12 hours for a distance of 150km, often facing the troubled waters of the Indian Ocean. Today, a speedboat operates almost daily from the city of Padang in Sumatra to one of the main islands in just 4 hours, reducing their geographical isolation to a minimum. The few foreigners who visit the Mentawai islands are mostly surfers who find the perfect waves for their sport, but the reason I decided to get here with my travel buddies is the tribe that lives in the deep jungle, maintaining a traditional lifestyle.
Let’s take the trip from the start. After the first leg of my trip to Bangladesh, a flight delay to Kuala Lumpur that made me miss the next one, I finally arrived in Padang where I met my friends. To move in and around of the city we rented scooters, a popular way of transportation all over Southeast Asia. Padang is a nice city, very “lively” and extremely friendly. A river divides the city in half and the main bridge that connects the two sides is a meeting place for the youngsters. There are also many outdoor restaurants and tea shops, in various parts of the city, along the coast and also in the Chinese Quarter where you will find delicious dishes. Another popular type of entertainment is karaoke bars and amateur concerts. The religion of Islam is practiced in a very relaxed way here, many women do not wear headscarves, young couples publicly get together, and alcohol is permitted. A beautiful route south of the city, through a picturesque road surrounded by dense jungle, leads to Manis beach, which is not suitable for swimming but attracts many locals who enjoy the scenery, riding ATVs and other sports. A small island is accessible by foot from the beach. Continuing with the scooters on a steep uphill trail, we discovered no exotic beach but an ugly industrial port. Unfortunately, most of Sumatra huge island has no idyllic beaches. As we drive around the city slums, we will meet the excited reactions of the locals who wanted to get to know us and invited us for dinner at their homes.
Mentawai – Sipura island
We boarded the speedboat to Mentawai a day later than we’d planned, due to Eid’s Muslim holiday. In addition, on that particular day the ship was heading to Sipura Island and the port of Tua Pejat, which was not our main destination but we were also interested to. After a comfortable journey, we reach the settlement looking for accommodation. Tua Pejat, though a small town, has everything from small shops, Christian churches and even a bank. But the accommodations were limited to a single hostel, “homestay” as they call them, which didn’t excite us. So we rented scooters again, at a price more expensive than Padang, to explore other parts of the island. After a long drive, we reached a beautiful beach called Mapadega. There was nothing there but a huge wooden cafe where just the owner was present. He informed us about some homestays a little further down the street and even volunteered to come along to guide us. Unfortunately in all three accommodations, the few rooms were full of young surfers, regardless that the beach was quite serene, apparently surf spots are elsewhere. After searching around the island, we finally found a beautiful, large wooden house away from the sea that accommodated us. After so many days of hot and humid climate in Bangladesh, I finally wanted to cool my body in the turquoise waters of the islands. Sipura was one of the few places on my trip – to be continued in Borneo – that offered me a gorgeous beach, a luxury we have abundant in Greece. Our scooters reached the white, fine sand, on a beach with no other around, that could easily match the typical postcard images. At some point just a young couple appeared, trying to fish. Underwater environment was quite alive, mostly with small fish, but my buddiess were lucky enough to see a water snake, probably poisonous. After enjoying the whole day at the beach and the sunset at the -beautiful as well- Jati beach in Tua Pejat, we dined some small lobsters cooked with plenty of chili in a local restaurant. Dozens of huge swordfish and small sharks were carried through a house, from a fishing boat onto the sidecar of a motorcycle.
Mentawai – Siberut island
The next day we travel with the wooden boat which fortunately had a connection to the island of Siberut. It sailed at a very low speed and had a comfortable covered deck to lie down, but it was quite hot, and the locals were trying to gain space, displacing us. After 5 hours we reach the port of the island which is much less developed than Tua Pejat. Relaxation, fresh large fish meals and moderate beaches on this island, will await on our return.
Upon arrival, we were looking for someone to take us into the jungle and arrange for our stay with the tribe. Despite the rush to take advantage of the day, it took some time searching for a bargain deal. A young man coming from the tribe who has been urbanized, will be our guide. At a local market we got some supplies to offer to our hosts, such as cigarettes, tobacco, rice, sugar, etc. We boarded a motor longboat upstream the river and, to our luck, two elders of the tribe boarded. They had the characteristic tattoos all over their body, sharpened teeth, underwear made from tree bark and beaded ribbon with flower decoration on they head. They smoked incessantly and had the knife and the machete as an indispensable tool. The river cruise took about 2 hours and was extremely enjoyable, like in all the tropical jungle-crossing rivers, where I feel like I’m in my natural environment. In some spots you could see women in the water, it was not a swimming activity but a search for shells in the seabed. Upon arrival, we disembark on a coast with very deep mud and after giving cigarettes to the people around we take the path into the jungle. The rubber boots I carried till here were worth the effort, although in many places they were stuck in mud so deep that was hard to release. My friend preferred to walk barefoot balancing on the trunks that were all along the trail, but at some points there were spiked branches that made the experience painful.
The Mentawai tribe
The Mentawai live semi-nominally but in autonomous huts scattered in the forest and not in organized settlements. After two hours of easy walking into the jungle’s “sauna” heat, we arrive at a hut where a young Mentawai couple welcomes us. The man had the half-naked appearance of the tribe with full-body tattoos, but his wife wore regular clothes rather than a banana-leaf skirt, it seems the women’s traditional outfit tends to disappear. These people were very kind and very welcoming. We offered them the gifts and they never asked us for anything more, except from a flashlight that impressed them, in return for… a meal of caterpillars the next day! We searched for a nearby river to flush out the sweat, the water was shallow and relatively flat. The hut was large, built on stilts above the mud. Underneath and around it, were domestic animals, pigs and chicken, creating an… intense smell. Those animals were not included in our meals, that would consist of the rice we brought, some unknown vegetables and a kind of starch bread from a palm tree called Sago, which is important for various uses, nutritional for themselves and animals, construction and more. Mentawai people are traditionally gatherer- hunters, but probably there were not be many hunting game left around. In the hut, among other things, there were some monkey skulls, which once served as lunch and traditional medicine for our host, who was also a shaman. Next to it were some children’s drawings, made by the family’s three children living in the village with relatives, so they can go to school. As our guide -who also has the Mentawai tattoos- told us, the next generation will not live this life in the jungle, following the trend of modernization, with cell phones and motorbikes. You have not much to do spending your time in the jungle, besides enjoying the tranquility of the landscape, with the exception of the pigs’ roars and defecation sounds, the roosters’ croaks through day and night, and in the evening the singing skills of our host, without his smoking habit affecting them.
We will sleep on the hard floor of the “veranda”, under mosquito nets which are a necessity in this environment full of malaria. For breakfast we will be in search for food and in particular the much expected larvae meal. Nearby in the jungle, there was an open space with cut down Sago palm trees. These larvae are breeding in the tree trunk, 6 months after cutting. Our Mentawai friend made a bag from the bark of the tree and started digging the soft inside of the trunk. He caught many white, large and thick larvae that were quite in mobility and were biting, using their two teeth protruding from their heads. We cut out heads and tried them raw. It was not bad, but neither exciting taste. Returning to the hut, we prepared the most of them for barbeque, putting them on skewers, make cut on them and grilling over fire. Their taste was surprisingly excellent. It tasted like meat with a lot of fat, something like a kebab. We ate them with much appetite, with plenty of salt and rice as a side dish, quenching our thirst with sweet tea. Finally it was a quite heavy meal for breakfast and we found it difficult to digest.
During the day we decided to visit nearby huts to meet other tribe members. The “neighbors” seemed they had been left to the jungle, and the household seemed to be packed for long absence. Walking for an hour, we reached another hut where a tourist was staying in. Despite the cigarettes we offered to the host, he refused to be taken pictures without money. The same thing happened when we reached the huts of the old men with whom we were traveling in the boat. Their money claims were excessive. Unfortunately, tourism has changed people’s behavior here like many parts of the world and their character was affected much. Fortunately the family that hosted us were very different and we were lucky to have had this unique experience with them.
Let’s wish the longevity of the Mentawai people, another rare tribe under threat…