I spent the last 10 days in the jungles of Siberut Island in Indonesia, living with an indigenous tribe known as the Mentawai. I helped make poison tipped arrows, made a loincloth from tree bark, trekked for hours at a time, balancing on narrow logs through muddy swamps to gather and prepare jungle food such as, Sago Palm starch, Sago grubs, river shrimp, small bony fish, the fruit of the chocolate tree (cacao), and of course, coconuts. In return I taught a few of them how to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together.
If you haven’t read the first chapter in this series: I’m 32, and Last Week I Retired: Musings on Money, Monotony and Madness check it out. This adventure takes place four months later.
Spear, machete, bow and a quiver of poison tipped arrows at my feet. Wearing a loincloth I made from the bark of a tree.
The Mentawai people live in traditional longhouses which are built on stilts, occupied by one family and are usually miles apart. Most of their food comes from the starchy trunk of the Sago Palm which they also use as feed for the chickens and wild pigs. At least once a day, the man of the house will split a Sago trunk, toss the logs down into the mud and then call the hogs in from the jungle. Let me tell you, for sure, there is no scarier sound than wild pigs mating; especially when you are on a night walk trying to dig a hole for a toilet. High pitched screaming combined the most demonic growling I’ve ever heard (followed by a stampede in my direction???); they sound like monsters.
None of the families I visited had electricity, though one had a propane lantern, and besides occasional plastic bowls, or soccer shorts on one of the children, you wouldn’t know if it was 2014 or 1814. The elders all wear traditional attire, which consists of a bark loincloth, and little else. Most of the old men also wear a fanny pack and carry around tobacco and dried banana leaves to make the cigarettes that are always dangling from their lips. The fact that these guys chain smoke like they do just blows my mind considering that they are so incredibly fit and active at such an advanced age. Their teeth on the other hand, are a nightmare, if they exist at all. Many of them sharpen their teeth with files gives them a Golem-esque smile. They say it helps them eat.
One of the old men gave me a Mentawai name though the translator wouldn’t tell me what it meant. Aman Bowna. He kept insisting that I introduce myself with my Mentawai name but based on the reactions I was getting, I wasn’t all that comfortable with it. The women in particular seemed to get a kick out of it.
Come to find that Aman Bowna means “playboy” or “man with too many wives.”
This guy. Such a boss. I taught him how to make a fire by rubbing sticks together.
Here is the end result of a friction fire method known as the Bamboo Fire Saw. In the background is the guy pictured above and his grandson. I’m lighting the cigarette for the man I know only as grandpa.
Inside the longhouse, boiling some creek water to drink.
Yes, the wild hogs also swim and drink and shit in this water. Grandpa and Grandma in the background. I absolutely love these two. They are both singing constantly and grandpa is a total goof who loves to dance as he walks through the jungle.
Shrimping in the creek.
They use handwoven nets to scoop through the mud and then put whatever they catch (shrimp, fish, crabs) in the bamboo tubes for carrying. Later these are cooked by laying the bamboo over the fire.
Grandpa napping with a hand rolled banana leaf cigarette still in his mouth.
The watch hasn’t worked in years. Also, nice fanny pack amiright?
Pangeh weaving a bracelet for me.
He told me to remember his name so I could tell people if they asked. Now the whole internet knows. Pangeh (PONG-ay). This is the guy who taught me to make poison arrows. Built like a 70 year old Bruce Lee.
Bracelet close up.
Notice the (rusty?) safety pin hanging from his necklace? This is for picking thorns out of your feet. I watched an eight year old kid suddenly stop on a long jungle trek, sit down, ask for a pin, and calmly perform self surgery for 5 minutes before handing it back and carrying on like nothin’.
Painting poison onto the arrows.
I recognized two of the 4 ingredients, some type of chili pepper, and something that smelled like ginger root. The other two, no clue.
Inside the longhouse are the skulls of wild animals they’ve hunted for food.
They do this to give thanks to the animals by symbolically inviting them into their homes. This wall was full of monkey, and some strange looking deer skulls. I think the gesture is beautiful.
Get notified when part 3 gets published:
Best bath of my life.
This post was originally written in April 2014.
P.P.S. for cool ideas on travelling checkout Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel by Rolf Potts.