Adventurous Jungle Trip in Indonesia (Abenteuer im Dschungel Indonesiens)

Reise zu Fuß und im Kanu zu den Mentawai auf Siberut/Sumatra

Ein Expeditionsbericht von Angelika und Karsten Bech-Andersen
Travelling by dug-out canoe - Foto © Karsten Bech-Andersen
A Surprise Party in the Jungle

There is no way of communicating from the outside world with the Mentawai tribe, so we set off on a ten hour night passage from Sumatra to Siberut Island in the Indian Ocean, without an appointment.
We were a group of nine, including our guide, and penetrated the jungle by dug-out canoe, with an outboard motor, and then on foot into the steamy, muddy jungle. Being in the Equatorial region it rains every day.
Most of the Mentawaians of Siberut Island are largely unaffected by our civilization and live as they

Arrows being prepared - Foto © Karsten Bech-Andersen
always did. Naked, save for their tattoos and loincloths made from bark. They are hunter-gatherers and the grandparent generation, in their forties to early fifties, use bow and poisoned arrows, whereas the young fathers in their twenties, now prefer shotguns.  But they all agree that anything that moves can be eaten!
The local currency is chicken and pigs which preclude growing vegetables and other cash crops, they say, and, in any case, there is no market for pork in Muslim mainland Sumatra. A woven chicken pen costs one chicken. A wife 30 to 60 pigs and training to become a medicine man, which involves a thorough knowledge of the jungle’s medicinal plants, singing and dancing, costs 20 pigs.

Foto © Karsten Bech-Andersen
We stayed for some days with a family in their large house on piles above the pigs and chicken in the mud below. The houses are divided into three sections of equal size. The first is the reception area with built-in benches along the edges from where children and adults observe the outside world.
The centre section is the men’s with an open fire in the middle where they cook the food which is prepared in the women’s section at the back.
Each house holds one family: Grandparents, parents and their children. We never saw any great grandparents. Our first host family had two adult sons living in the house with their wives and young children. Their daughter was married and now lived with her husband and his family.
Another family we visited had eight brothers living with their parents and wives. They were building a massive new house of more than 4,000 sq. ft. (400 sqm). It will take three years to complete and last for thirty.

Foto © Angelika Bech-Andersen
 With so many fertile people living together in an open space, modesty is the order of the day, at least when the grandparents are around. Husbands and wives are allowed to have their mosquito nets next to each other, and they may even roll into one another’s, but they must be back by dawn. But the jungle is full of  lovely and interesting things husband and wives want to show each other, we were told.
There were no villages and houses were scattered around the jungle connected by a network of muddy paths with logs and branches placed lengthwise to facilitate speedy barefoot progress.
 We wore shoes which became big like elephant feet and slippery with mud and we would often slip and sink ankle or knee deep into the mud. It was a struggle to recover both foot and shoe without

An encounter in the jungle - Foto © Angelika Bech-Andersen
which the danger of parasites, which burrow their way into the sole of the foot, is too dangerous to contemplate. But there are just as unpleasant but less dangerous threats. Leaches appear from nowhere, some insects drop down from above, others jump up from below, which is why we sweated our way through the jungle with wide brimmed hats, long sleeves and trousers with long legs. We were drenched in sweat which made a tropical downpour a welcome change and a river crossing, where we had to swim fully clothed, feel like a holiday.
Mentawaians are animists and believe in ghosts and souls in everything. If somebody is taken ill it is because the soul stayed out in the jungle. That is when the medicine man is called for. He will go

Been there, done that - Foto © Karsten Bech-Andersen
looking for the soul where it is thought to have been lost and lure it back with song and dance. If it does not work, another medicine man will be called, and another until there are up to five who will chant and dance around a white plate until a drop of blood appears. That is when the patient is cured. Otherwise he or she is given up as incurable. Those with access to the clinic at the mouth of the river may give modern medicine a reluctant chance. Injections are not understood but the pain caused by a needle is, and on one occasion the accompanying party asked the doctor if it was necessary to inject into the buttock. Could he not inject into the wall instead­.
Their staple food is sago, which comes from the trunk of a palm tree, sometimes with grated coco added for taste. That is why they welcome outsiders with

A medicine man - Foto © Karsten Bech-Andersen
open arms because we bring rice, vegetables and sugar for their tea. And cigarettes which they chain smoke, interspersed with their home made tobacco rolled in banana leaves. Wherever we went they invited family and friends who would travel great distances for a party.
It is the first time we have experienced anything like it, and we are lucky, because the next generation is increasingly interested in things money can buy. The last frontier will soon fall.
 A friend of ours recently commented that we do seem to get around. Well, ten months ago we were in Himalaya on the Mount Everest trek. In eight months we will be on a cruise in the Caribbean with a group of friends before going through the Southern states to Mexico for a couple of months. John is right, we do get around!
Text and Photos © 2009 Angelika and Karsten Bech-Andersen - First published in Musenblätter 2009
All rights reserved.

Jungle, less romantic - Foto © K. Bech-Andersen
Loincloth made to measureFoto © A. Bech-Andersen