Shrimps, skirts and yellow submarines – The Siberut experience

The first thing I saw was green. Green grass, green leaves, green trees, there was earth everywhere. Between short scraggly grasses and luxuriant ferns, palm trees rose from the ground, uniformly arched; their leaves languidly reaching to the sky in perfect circles. Enhanced by the pale steamy sky, the smell of rain and grass emanated from the air, tingling my taste buds, filling my lungs and sending cool, flowing shivers down my spine.

A river on Siberut island in Indonesia.

Except for the distant murmurs of birds and insects coming from the surrounding forest there was complete quiet. The silence was eery, like the white mist that drifted in the wind and settled like a cobweb around the trunks, leaves, and surrounding vegetation. stepped out of the Uma, onto the deck. The cool, wet bamboo rejuvenated my skin; my body filled with the morning breeze; my mind savoring the view and brimming with wonder at the wild, rustic, quiet beauty of the landscape. It was then a chicken, perching on a beam in front of me, lost its balance and fell on my head.

Children posing in front of the Uma
Children posing in front of the Uma we stayed in our first night in Siberut

Siberut is a large, hilly island off the coast of Sumatra. Its land is primarily made up of rainforests, mangrove forests and fresh water swamps and bogs. One of the four Mentawai Islands, it has a warm, humid tropical climate. Around a 12-hour boat ride from the city of Padang, it is situated over a deep underwater trench, and has been separated from the mainland as far back as the ice age. As a result, the island and the people who inhabit it have become secluded and until only recently, untouched. Part of the island has been converted into a National Park, to protect the indigenous way of life of the Mentawai People. Their houses or Uma’s are scattered around the surrounding forests where they live in separate family clans or in villages. We had stayed in Siberut two days and we, our travel group, were being hosted by a family clan, and were staying in their house. The marking on the map shows the rough location of the Uma. It was here I stood on the porch and witnessed this amazing view.

By late afternoon the mist had risen, and sunshine filled the Uma and trees and sky and we set off to see the local Sago plantations. The Mentawai cultivate the sago tree and use it to make a sort of bitter flour, which has become part of their staple diet. They also sell parts of the tree to outside businesses as additional income, and use the wood as firewood. It is important part of Mentawai life to use the environment as completely as they can, especially considering their recent troubles with logging. Logging has already permanently removed more than seventy six percent of the Island’s forests. If the forests are not protected it may lead permanent flooding, loss of agricultural opportunity and it will negatively affect the Mentawai culture, as it is based on the forest and the animals that live there. They can’t live off the forest if the forest is gone.

Posing and playing
Posing and playing the leaf game with the children from the Uma

As our guides led the hike, children from the Uma followed us, calling our names that they had learnt the night before. We were bored, so snatching a leaf I arranged it artistically on one of their heads. Shaking it off they put one on mine. I put one on theirs, they put another on mine, and soon a huge, messy, leaf-filled pandemonium erupted. The children swooped around us, and everything from minute grasses to gigantic palm leaves endlessly rained down upon our heads. Though, admittedly, it was disorientating to have a bunch of leaves smack us in the face whenever we turned around, the boredom was gone, and the kids were bold and inapprehensive.

The most wonderful thing about the people of Siberut was their boldness, and their unabashed way of talking and carrying themselves around us. The night before, we were chatting in a corner when the grandfather of the family, Aman Lau Lau plunked down in the middle of us and started talking and laughing and asking questions. In ten minutes he knew all our names. He was a Shaman, a local medic, and tattooed heavily with only a loincloth as covering he displayed a style reminiscent of the cannibals in ‘Bugs Bunny’ cartoons. He was lean, his skin glowing and evenly colored and his hair was tied back in an assortment of rustic braids. His body could easily have been one dancing around a cauldron in the middle of the jungle. His face though, could never be captured in animation. It was wise and learned, serious yet smiling, old yet youthful. With his rough, abrupt, laughing voice and extensive hand gestures he cheerfully answered our questions.

To become a shaman, he explained through the translator, serious training was Involved. He had to have vision, and knowledge of the local flora and fauna. He made medicines and poisons out of plants, he was learned in his clan’s superstitions and taboos and he performed ceremonies in the family. He and his father had built the Uma by hand for his family who lives with him. Everywhere, he said smiling, there was history. As he talked his fingers constantly moved, rolling a cigarette, running fingers through his unkempt hair. His eyes were dark and old, wrinkled with age and cigarette smoke. His body was lean, the crisscross tattoos stretched over muscles built on time and constant labor and his hands were strong, hardened with work, quick and deft.

Aman Lau makes the poison
Aman Lau makes the poison to put on the arrows

He was proud. He sat with his back straight, and his chin tilted at a high angle, yet it was not conceited. He was proud of his position in his family, his culture, and his knowledge. He commanded respect, and part of his pride was in the fact that, despite his tattoos and non-existent clothing that were so funny and strange to us, eventually, he won our high opinion and with time our respect would only continue to grow.

It was his hands that made the poison to be brushed onto the arrows that afternoon. We watched in awe as with graceful movements he crushed plants and herbs and chili peppers to make a substance that, as we learnt, could kill a human being in five minutes. Trying to recall times we had ever made them angry, some of our group slowly retreated to the back of the Uma. We were all privately relieved they were only used for hunting (the Mentawai don’t practice human sacrifice).

The people in the Uma were always generous with their time and effort. When I worked my self into fervor about my missing camera they calmed me down, and wouldn’t stop looking until I had found it. When I caught a cold, and was delirious with fever they offered assistance, sat by me, and every following morning would ask if I was okay. Later in the afternoon, the women of the family made grass skirts for us to wear, as part of a shrimp fishing costume. The skirts were flimsy, and due to the water, sun, and the fact that we tripped over every five seconds, they only lasted a few hours. Despite this, the women put a lot of effort into making them, cutting the grass finely and evenly and unabashedly hoisting up our shirts and fitting them around us. Though I wasn’t so keen as to completely remove my shirt, as they insisted was the Mentawai fashion, I discovered that I liked their helpfulness and openness, and the way they took the effort to make our trip authentic. It was refreshing and honest and was something I would miss in Jakarta. I also discovered my inability to catch shrimp.

In the evening we taught the children card games. Their favorite was ‘war’, a game similar to snap, but because there were so many children playing we were continuously running out of cards
. As the leaders, we would secretly slip cards into their piles, so they always had something to play with. Enthralled with the ongoing game, they didn’t seem to notice, and so we continued, feeling smug, sneaky and altruistic. I lost all my cards in one game and was out. It had just begun so I took up my book and settled down to read and wait till the next. I reached for my flashlight, and there, under my hand where my pile used to be, were some more cards to play with.

Hiking to a beautiful waterfall
Hiking to a beautiful waterfall on our last day on the island

That night, after politely refusing our offerings of macaroni and cheese, Aman Lau Lau and another member of the clan did a dance for us. It was a chicken dance, and they stomped around the small clearing on the floor, with leaves tucked in their skirt and in their hair. We giggled as we remembered playing with leaves in the morning. The guides performed a love song, the children haphazardly rushed around and then, we were invited to perform. We awed them with our rendition of ‘Yellow Submarine’, we shocked them with our hopeless attempts to do ‘The Ketchup Dance’ and we confused them with ‘Jingle Bells’ (Dashing through the snow?). They clapped and whistled and laughed and laughed. People in Siberut laugh continuously. On the riverbanks waving at our boats, when fishing, when watching the dancing.

I remember stepping out of the jungle, covered with mud, stinking of insect repellant and lusting after water to find them laughing and pointing to the river. They have a dry, unique sense of humor, and the best thing about it was I never felt embarrassed or ashamed, only more like I was part of the community. We sat together, played together, and laughed at each other.

Singing had ended late, and through heavy eyes we said goodnight. Shrimps, skirts and yellow submarines danced around my mind and sleep slowly started taking over. A meditative calm settled on the Uma as people packed up and prepared for bed. Suddenly, like a rocket through the misty darkness a rooster decided to crow, loud and piercing, waking me from my almost slumber.

Well…it was appropriate.

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Bjørn Grøtting

Photographer based in Norway. See a collection of my best photos in the portfolio. Licensing of images is done through Photoshelter or alamy.
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