Getting down to business
bed down early on Pulau Siberut, the largest of the Mentawai islands that
lie 120km off the West Coast of Sumatra, and for good reason.
Early morning wake up calls arrive, not by prior arrangement but automatically,
courtesy of the pigs and chickens that spend their nights beneath the
This open-air larder is the scene of a
never-ending opera of squealing and crowing that reaches its crescendo
in the early hours of the morning. Sleep does not come easy.
Arising after one such performance I peer through the misty veil that
drapes the village and surrounding forest. I can just make out the figures
of already active villagers their slight but athletic frames moving swiftly
between the shadows.
Stepping from the hut my host Lacha smiles. "Albeit kipa sosoa,"
he says, bidding me good morning, a machete tucked casually under one
arm and a troubled looking chicken held firm by the other. Maybe he was
woken by it too.
I am here with my guide Lala whom I met in the town of Bukittingi on mainland
Sumatra. He had promised me ten days of adventure, new cultural experiences
and discomfort. The discomfort began on the overnight journey across a
moody and threatening sea needed to reach the island. Our vessel looked
old enough and rickety enough for Noah to have once rejected it. This
was followed the
next morning by an arduous trek through the Siberut forest, the ground
thick with mud and the air heavy with humidity.
A Malevolent Spirit
is not an easy place to get to. For the villagers today is special. A
malevolent spirit has held their meetinghouse (uma) hostage. The uma is
regarded as the spiritual center of the village its well being is pivotal
to the villagers spiritual health.
Tonight a ceremony will take place to evict it.
As one of the islands eldest and most respected shaman or kerei, as they
are known here, Lacha will lead the ceremony. He will be assisted by four
It is the responsibility of the kerei to maintain harmony
between the villagers and the spirits and souls that surround them. The
Mentawains are animists believing that everything has a soul from the
plants and trees to the rocks and stones in the river, all must be treated
Everyone's role in the preparation for the ceremony is dictated by village
custom. The women have the duty of growing and picking the taro, sweet
potato, sago and cassava. For two backbreaking days, tortured by the baking
sun, they have been plucking their harvest from the heavy, marshy ground.
These are the hard-earned accompaniments for the fresh flesh, donated
by the monkeys and pigs that the men have been hunting. All will be enjoyed
at the celebratory feast.
As the sun beats its harshest path to the village
Lachas four allies arrive. Their attire is as bright and alive as the
forest from which they emerged. Long, sharp, dart-like leaves strike out
from their elbows, waist and knees, reds, yellows and greens clashing
Closing rank they disappear into Lachas hut. Their preparations involve
secret rituals that are forbidden viewing. As the night rolls over the
village everyone makes their way to the uma. Deep in meditation the five
shaman remain oblivious to their growing audience. Silence fills the uma.
As one, the shaman begin to sing. Their sweet voices float gently on the
still night air and as the half-light from the fire produces dancing shadows
on the walls and floor, one cannot help but feel hypnotized. Rising to
their feet the calm is suddenly shattered.
Armed with hand bells and powerful chants the quest to stir the malevolent
spirits begins. Ancient words and primal fears meet as the uma comes alive,
everyone alert with anticipation. Mirroring the atmosphere the shaman
strike out in a jagged dance. Arms, legs and hips rise, fall and circle,
mimicking the animals of the forest, taunting the spirits.
As the performance
intensifies the uma rattles with
the chanting, stomping and bell ringing. Gradually the shaman enter into
a state of trance, their eyes distant, searching, staring through the
air toward something beyond.
Pulses caught in the rhythm accelerate with the increasing pace, overworked
vessels pound alarmingly. Fearing a hemorrhage I welcome an abrupt halt
in the proceedings. Lacha collapses to the ground, his prone body jerking
in violent spasms. He has captured a spirit.
Intoxicated by the magic and mystery of the moment the audience also appears
in a trance, static and speechless, paralyzed witnesses to a spiritual
spring clean. Collecting him from the dusty floor the spirit free shaman
escort his quivering body from the hut. From outside a harsh untamed scream
the silent forest as Lacha expels the spirit from deep within.
Unburdened he returns leading his tireless troupe through a succession
of encores, continuing relentlessly until finally all unwanted spirits
have been ejected. To ensure the ceremony is successfully completed there
is one final ritual to perform.
For the enlightened shaman of Siberut the intestines of a chicken offer a sign as to the success of the ceremony. Unfortunately for
the chicken they have to be removed first. Lines on the membrane are interpreted
in positive or negative ways depending on their formation.
Lacha holds the membrane up to the light so that judgement may be passed.
Everyone waits silently and expectantly for his verdict. After a minute
of serious study Lacha turns, a broad grin across his face, his reading
To the joy of the villagers and distress of a selection of pigs and chickens
the celebrations can begin.
The next day we leave the village with the sound of drumming and singing
reverberating around the surrounding forest. The feast will continue for
at least one more day to demonstrate how important a healthy uma is to
their daily lives.
to to Go?
Most flights to Indonesia arrive in Jakarta. From here it is possible
catch express buses to Sumatra and on to the town of Bukittingi,
around $20 but the journey is long especially during the wet season.
better idea is to break the journey, Bengkulu and Kerinci are interesting
diversions. It is also possible to fly Jakarta to Jambi ($40-50)
get a shorter bus journey ($5-10) of four to five hours to Bukittingi.
In Bukittingi there are many cheap hostels in which to stay, prices
as low as around $2-4 for a basic room. Guides to Siberut can be
the many coffee shops in town most of whom have a tour desk on site.
Canyon coffee shop and the Harau cliff cafe are particularly recommended.
The cost of a ten-day tour is $100 - 150, make sure this includes
transport between Bukittingi and the island along with porters,
and trekking food.
If you wish to go it alone ferries leave the port of Padang, two
and a half-hours from Bukittingi, four times a week but services can be a bit
erratic so double check before buying a ticket. Guides can be found
once you are on
the island but this can often be more expensive and time-consuming.
The dry season runs between May and September and although this
is the best time to visit you could still find ourself knee deep
in mud. The Mentawaiins lay felled trees along their paths to walk
along so a good sense of balance is helpful to avoid the quagmire
It is advisable to take at least a basic first aid kit cuts and
grazes can soon become infected in the tropics. Also make sure not
to get dehydrated the heat and humid can soon drain you. Suitable
anti malarial precautions should be taken. Chloroquine resistant
malaria has been reported so consult your doctor before going for
It is a good idea, although it's not expected, to take gifts to
hosts and guides; cigarettes and sweets are always welcomed.
Gary Long writes from East Sussex, England.
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