My Father asked me a question before I left England for this leg of my journey. It was a question I didn’t know the direct answer too, but I said there’s always a possibility, I mean, I can never say I won’t do it again I just need the right idea or to be in the right place.
The people of Mentawai don’t just traditionally wear their loin cloth to clothe themselves, they also consider their tattoos, and acts like the teeth sharpening to be part of their dress. Today even though the Mentawai jungle culture still lives on, some of the older traditions are dying out, the government frowns upon acts like teeth sharpening, and with the heavy influence of the west, the new generation feel more suited to wearing t-shirts than permanent body art.
Aman, his wife and Papa were three people that still lived through the traditional field, they’d all gone through the painful process of having their teeth chiselled into sharpened spikes and they’d all gone through the many stages of tattoos that are given to honour their achievements, much like how Boy Scouts receive their badges.
Aman himself was a keen tattooist and on more than one occasion asked me if I’d like to have one of the Mentawai symbols tattooed on my using the traditional methods. I felt that it was a fitting idea of a way to remember my time with the family and a way to honour their traditions.
The designs they offer as decoration are symbols that they’ve reproduced in honour of the elements that build part of their culture, such as the bow and arrow, the stars, fish, sun and knife. Where as the other tattoos were marks of achievements such as being a medicine man or a shaman.
I opted for a fish bone tattoo as I liked the design and fishing was one of the final things we’d be doing there, so the idea was quite fitting.
Aman prepared his tools for the job, a hardened wood needle holder, built from the same strong wood as the bows and bowls, a small hammer like tool and the ink. The ink was made from sugar cane, ash and possibly something else that I can’t quite remember. The final ingredient was the needle, which happened to be one of the safety pins we’d given him the day before.
The tattooing was a short and pretty painless experience, I suppose there’s nothing more than a few dots and lines for the whole thing, but I wondered what it would be like to have the tattoo created by a manually driven single pin as opposed to the multi-pin machines that are commonly used today.
The only slight feeling of pain was when he crossed over an area that had previously been coloured due to the skin being swollen and tight.
After finishing the job Aman produced this green plant complete with roots and rubbed it on the tattoo. He said that the plant had antiseptic qualities, and as much as I believed him, I helped make sure by using an antiseptic wipe from my medical kit. Best to be safe I figured.
After finishing the tattoo it was time for fishing, and not just any old fishing but fishing in traditional dress. I had to strip away my normal western clothes and exchange them for the local look of the loin cloth. Vicki kept her dignity a little more intact by wearing a palm leaf skirt over her usual garb, which was probably for the best as she couldn’t manage to keep it on, as she spent more time with the skirt covering her ankles than her lady bits.
Aman’s wife and Nini led us down to the near by stream and using a few nets and bamboo fish holders we’d learn the practice of stream fishing by catching small fish and shrimp. This was more of a woman thing so for the most I just followed along and watched the three make the catch, or two catch and one stumble, trip and flail the net around in the air whilst trying to retrieve a falling palm leaf skirt.
We followed the stream back up to the house to show off our catch or lack of it, and to finally pack our backs and get ready for the canoe ride back to the harbour.
Once packed we said goodbye to Aman’s wife and Nini and went off to the river to jump in Aman’s canoe.
We had one final stop before reaching the harbour. I’ve mentioned Sago a few times during the past few blog posts and some of you may be wondering what that is. Basically it’s one of the main foods of the Mentawai people, in fact it’s one of the main foods for most jungle tribes I believe. It’s a product that comes from a particular tree, a starchy pulp that can be processed into a few types of food including a type of flour for baking with. A typical way of cooking processed sago is to put it inside bamboo and cook it over a fire which causes all the water to steam out of the top of the bamboo leaving a rubbery and sort of bread like stick which can be eaten straight or dipped in broth for flavour. Sago, no matter which way is taken is generally a bland food but is accessible, much more so than rice which has to be imported, so over the years has become the basic food type for the jungle people.
The sago plantation that Aman and his family used was a little way down the river from his home. We arrived there to find Papa lounging at a small hut a little walk from the processing plant. It was another trek across the jungle highway of logs and patches of thick mud to reach. At the plant was Aman’s brother who was stomping away on this wooden device. Basically the sago was cut from the logs and the chunks were put on a large wooden sieve structure, big enough for a few people to stand on. It was then mixed with water and trodden on, squeezing the pulp through into a trough. The processed sago is then taken out of the trough and prepared for eating.
After looking at the plant and then taking another walk on the jungle highway it was another goodbye followed by the few hours journey back to the harbour ready for the boat back to Padang.
We got off the canoe, collected our belongings and dragged them to the local shop to buy some drinks. There we met up with one of the other guides who began to tell Mr. Moly something in Indonesian. I don’t speak the language, but I could grasp at some of what they said, one part being ‘cancelled’ and the other being ‘Tuesday’. I asked Mr. Moly to repeat what they’d said. He told me that the ferry had been cancelled and the next one was due to leave on Tuesday. We were currently on Thursday.