I was spending time with these fascinating people to photograph and write a travel piece on Siberut and loved it there. Especially in the Malargue Uma (stilted house/lodge cum village) where I was made to feel really at home by Susui’s father.
The Siberut Islands are more famous for their surfing than traditional culture. But they have been declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve because the ancient and unique culture of the Mentawai people is struggling to survive the modernizing and intolerant attentions of Jakarta. One way they are doing this is through tourism. Jungle trekking to spend time with these people is preserving the culture though of course the reality is that due to deforestation and Indonesian government subsidized immigration from Java and Sumatra the culture many tourists experience may actually be more of a performance than reality these days. But that is true many places not just here.
It is not an easy place to visit, the jungle saps an explorer’s energies with sun-scorched equatorial heat during the day while the nights are interminable airless and malarial. Even just moving around is a chore when the roads are mere walkways made from bamboo logs. Stepping off those slippery thoroughfares, even an inch, is to find mud and thorny undergrowth. Indeed the mud is waist deep in places. It is not for the faint-hearted and quickly turns any Indiana Jones dreams you have into sweating nightmares of nature’s indifference to you.
As I said, I loved it there though and wish I had a chance to head back. Not because the culture is disappearing, though that may be true, but because the Mentawai people are amazing. I remember particularly Susui going off to school in the morning. It was a 20 minute or so walk through the jungle to the government village from her Uma in Malargue. I’d walked that path many times and always ended up, scratched, sweating and covered in mud. Yet Susui’s uniform was as clean when she arrived at school as it had been when she left her home. Not even her shoes were muddy and that is when it struck me that whatever changes might happen in this place the skill that the Mentawai people have for living in this forest of theirs will never change. Susui might have gone to school and learnt new things and new horizons for her ambitions. She may even have left these islands altogether to study and work in Sumatra or even Jakarta but where ever she is now she will always know where her home and her people are and be comfortably tripping along the logs of real or urban jungles, avoiding the mud and other bad things. I hope.