A BUSINESS MAN WITH SHARP TEETH
August 15th, 2009
Our trip here coincided with the initiation of a young shaman. Aman Tai Jia Jia tells us about his neighbour’s son, who will undergo the final process to become a Sikeri in a few days.
Aman Tai jia jia’s neighbor is not quite like him. First off, he has a name which mimics a western name- Aman Biliejo… But mainly, he is a business man. When looking upon the white man he wishes to suck every penny from his pocket. I am never against paying for photographs in a foreign land, usually this is a fair source of income for many different cultures. However, Biliejo wants an unfair, hefty sum of money in exchange for us to photograph his son and witness the ceremony. I know that I cannot miss an opportunity like this, so we bargain hard. He refuses to budge on a price until Lala comes over to help. Because of Lala, the price is cut in half and all parties are happy.
The new Sikeri is Aman Tetap, a young man very different from his father. He seems shy around the camera, unlike his father who jumps in the frame and climbs up a tree to spoil the photos. Tetap is actually quite young to take on the heavy burden of becoming a shaman, but it is a choice made out of desperation. Tetap is sick with rheumatism, a painful disease which inflames the muscles and tissue of the body. The Mentawai name is sasagoik. He believe’s that if he does not become a Sikeri, he will die from this disease. He knows that he will still have the disease after the initiation, but that perhaps he can become resistant to survive.
The first level of Shaman is said to heal himself and family. The second level, to be achieved later, gives the power to heal anyone in his clan. The third and final initiation, he may heal anyone, even foreigners.
The ceremony begins with a ritual feast and pig sacrafice and lasted a few hours, but the main events of the night are the turog dances. The 5 traditional dances to allow the initiate to be accepted in the spirit world. The father and son face each other in ceremonial garb and stomp on the wooden uma floor in a rhythmic pattern to the tune of a band of other Mentawai playing drums and hitting rocks with machetes. The whole sound is quite unique to other ethnic songs I have heard before, and vibrates across the rainforest surrounding us. The two dancers chase each other over and over again, repeating the same footwork and taking small breaks in between songs.
I photograph the dances with a long exposure and multiple bursts of my flash in the same frame to get a sense of movement in the still images. After looking over the images later with Biliejo and Tetap, we notice something strange has happened. Due to my studio lights modeling light being on constantly throughout the whole exposure, not only can I see the frozen stills of each subject, but also a ghostly counterpart beside them, arising from their intense poses. They tap their fingers on my LCD screen and stare at it blankly, they don’t know how I captured that. They are not shocked, but want confirmation. I play along and ask Ricky the Mentawai word for spirit. It is Ukku. I point at it and proclaim “Ukku.” They are not interested anymore, they simply nod their head in aggreance. To them, this is not a simple light trick worth discussing, it is a visual depiction of something believed very common in the world around them. The Sikeri see spirits all the time, and they aren’t very surprised.
After tonight, 100% of our batteries are now flat. The generator was damaged again and Gejeng must leave in the morning to repair it. He will travel through the rainforest all the way back to the government village by himself, and return as soon as possible. Gejeng talks about the trek with a light heart, he can do it in half the time it took us.
August 16th, 2009
Mentawai of all ages love their curse words. The most common is the direct translation of “fuck”, which is pronounced “TEE-LAY” Everyone says it, even the kids who are just learning to speak.
This afternoon everyone from Aman Tai Jia Jia’s family was gathered around my laptop, looking at pictures. When an image flashed by of Tai Jia Jia, he would point at the screen to his kids and proudly proclaim “Aman Tai Jia Jia.” Of course he had seen mirrors and pictures before, but never himself portrayed in an image like that on a screen. I was happy he was pleased with the photographs I had taken of him. All of a sudden, the uma began to shake. Instinctively, Tai Jia Jia grabbed his children and made for the entrance of the uma, away from any falling debris. An earthquake had hit Siberut, but everyone was fine. A Mentawai house is designed to withstand earthquake’s and storms, with the heaviest parts below the head, but this one was extremely violent. Earthquakes are well known here because of the island’s geographic location between techtonic plates, and have birthed many legends for the local people to explain the phenomenon.
The Sikeri are extremely nervous. An earthquake of this size is considered a bad omen. They will not come back into the clan house but instead squat in a circle outside smoking and story telling. Along with taboo, they will not go hunting tomorrow in fear of another earthquake and a rainforest tree falling on them. The shaman’s are in a deep discussion as to what was the cause. Yesterday a woman in a far away clan had died, so that is perhaps why. Or perhaps their was an enemy nearby that had entered an uma. Surely it wasn’t the white man, because we had already been there for days. The shaman who read the future on an chicken’s intestines yesterday predicted a heavy storm today, but not an earthquake in detail. Luckily, no one was hurt.
We join in the circle and eat together. After eating I ask Aman Tarason to tell me the legend of the earthquake. He begins only after the ground we were eating on was clear. Tarason begins to recite a famous tale of the Mentawai…
“Long ago, there was a boy who had a beautiful house. It was so well made that the other Mentawai were jealous of him. Since they did not possess his craftsmanship and skill, they tricked him into building their own houses for them. While he was digging a large deep hole for the center support beam, they beat and killed him with clubs. After the houses completion, it remained haunted and cursed. A feast was held inside by the murderers. The sister of the dead boy was invited, but upon arrival heard her brothers voice asking not to go inside. She listened to his spirit and sat outside as the dead boy rolled his his grave and shook the uma, causing a large earthquake. The people inside the house were all killed but those outside remained safe. That is why to this day, we the Mentawai feel uncomfortable going into our houses when earthquakes are rolling. It represents a breach in taboo.”
August 17th, 2009
Last night we awoke frequently to the earth shaking. There were several other earthquakes and tremors after the first and they went on all night and into this morning. We await news on what is happening along the coast. Ricky explains to me that since we are staying in the interior of the island, on high ground, we probably did not feel the worst of the quakes. The most affected areas will be those along the shore. It could have brought destruction to the poorly structured buildings in the government villages, or worse- tidal waves. I can tell Ricky is afraid for his family, who live back in Padang.
Gejeng should have been back this morning. Day turned into night and he still had not returned. We believe that he is having trouble because of the Earthquake. The small boat trip to the government village could have been damaged, or being used only for emergency use and delivering medical supplies. We have no news from the outside world about the earthquake.
August 18th, 2009
We spent our last day with the Atabai clan relaxing and waiting for Gejeng. If he is not back by tomorrow morning, we will return back to the government village without him and hope to come across him on the trail. Our plan is to move on to the next clan in Rorogot. I take this down time to try and relax, and pry Aman Tai Jia Jia with questions. I ask about why he became a shaman.
“I became a shaman to protect my family. I can be there to heal them when they need me.”
Like Lala, Tarason and Tolkot, Aman Tai Jia Jia is the highest level of Shaman, and has taken every oath and initiation to reach it. In the first stages, a beginning shaman may only a few people close to him, but Tai Jia Jia can heal any one, even a foreigner. He cannot eat eel, white monkeys, and several other species because of his oath. He is worried about the new generation and the lack of shamans, which he believes brings a balance to the rain forest. He believes that without the Sikeri, the rainforest cannot be in harmony. He will ask his son Sinambek to carry on the tradition. Unlike his daughters, Tai Jia Jia clothes Sinambek in the traditional loincloth made from the bark of a tree. Tai Jia Jia will allow him to make his own decision, but wants his son to be ready in every way for the devout undertaking of shamanism.
August 19th 2009
No sign of Gejeng this morning, so we left without him. Our goodbye wasn’t so hard because Aman Tai Jia Jia offered to come with us to help guide the way. The goodbye to all his kids was only difficult because in this short time we had come close to them. But, I am confident I will see them again in my lifetime.
We completed the trek downhill from the Atabai to the government village much faster, although it was a lot more tedious. Those rocks that helped us climb the hill before were now like sharp daggers pointing upwards. We were blessed with some beautiful weather and it did not rain, I’d like to say we are getting the hang of the ways of the rainforest. If I became tired and gasping for breath, I would find Bajak Tolkot there over my shoulder singing a song in my ear to try and restore my strength. For a short while we were alone and seperate from the group, and the magic of his song seemed very real. I want to believe it, and in many ways I do.
Finally we reach Madobak and find Gejeng. He had trouble finding the parts for the generator like we guessed, and had to help his brother with his boat after the earthquake. A few buildings in the government village were broken, but nobody was killed. However, we still do not know how things are for Ricky’s family living in Padang.
After a nights rest and getting everything finally charged completely, we said goodbye to Aman Tai jia jia. He misses his family already after a day and wants to go back to his Atabai clan house. We sit down and buy some drinks from a small shop (one of the only shops in Madobak) before he goes. Tai Jia Jia wants to try a can of Coke. He puzzles over the tab to open it, then on first sip he lets out a big gasp at the liquid foaming in his mouth. I don’t think he’ll want another one very soon.
The next clan we visit will be Rorogot. We have to take a small motorized canoe from Madobak to the Rorogot shore, then a short trek. The family we are going to visit has seen a lot more visitors than Aman Tai Jia Jia because of his proximity to the port town of Muara. Their uma is said to be the biggest in Siberut.
August 20th, 2009
The uma in Rorogot lives up to it’s expectations, it really is a beautiful house. Upon arrival, we are greeted by a barrage of barking dogs. One dog bites another dog, and the other the other. Soon there is a 6-dog-pile-up-wrestlemania-smackdown. This is where we meet Bajak Sorumut, the elder and owner of the house. Sorumut heroically jumps into the dog pile and begins tossing them away from each other by their tails. After, he stands a tiny frail old man with a big grin on his face. His smile is so big that it makes his left eye close. Sometimes you think he is just winking at you, but really with all his missing teeth he doesn’t have much keeping his smile from ending. Sorumut’s english nickname is Cookie, I’m not sure why other than his rough face actually looks like a cookie, and his freckles the chocolate chips. To me he also vaguely resembles a friendlier version of Goro from Mortal Combat. Three families live here and share the Uma, and this is where we will spend the remainder of our time in Siberut.
A tourist had visited Cookie’s famed house years before and given him marijuana, and taught him a few english phases. I’m not sure how I feel about this, but you can ask Cookie yourself-
“Bajak Sorumut, Do you like Marijuana?”
“Yes, I like you very much”
“I don’t know!”
Cale became very sick and developed a fever. He barely had enough strength to complete the hike here from the river, which was only about 30 minutes. When we arrived, he collapsed immediately. Willem, Ricky and I spoke about what he might have, and discussed how we could heal him. After some western drugs we gave him, the shamans decided to step in.
Tarason, Tolkot and Lala left the uma and gathered several things from the rainforest. They were not gone long, and came back with a collection of plants. Tarason conducted a series of tests, pushing different areas of Cale’s body. Then the Shaman crushed the plant ingredients together into a sort of paste, then began to sing together. The sikeri waved leaves around Cale, brushing him lightly. Then they chanted as they pressed the herbal remedy into his skin. After they instructed him to get some rest and only wake up for meals. The next morning he awoke feeling much better, but just a bit tired. We will never know if it was the drugs, the shamanism, or a combination of both.
I question Tarason about Shamanism, and how he feels about Western medicine. Tarason is not biased, and believes that Western medicine is very important. They explains that there is a purpose for everything, and many different paths to heal the same sickness. The only difference is, a doctor will ask you for money. Interested, I ask Tarason if he knows how to heal my allergies- on trips I can never stop running at the nose and often go on ridiculous cycles of sneezing and weezing. “Menthol oil!” he exclaims. I guess he’s true to his word.
August 21th, 2009
The earthquakes continue to shake the uma. This morning we had several big ones. I am enjoying myself here but I do look forward to going home. We are more than midway on the trip now, so it’s normal to start feeling low and difficult to find the special juice inside you to make good images. But I know I will. All I need to do is look beyond right now and think about how I know I’ll feel when I’m back home, wishing I was still on the road. I have all the right subjects in front of me, the location and the equipment, I just need to pull it all together and make some magic of my own.
The most interesting paradox when traveling is this- you can be gone for months and miss home the entire time. Then when you finally get home, after a few days you miss the road. I believe the thing I fear is actually consistency and order, as I have had none in my life since my earlier grades in high school. This might be why I travel so much. When there is order and schedule, to me it feels like there is something wrong. I cannot stay in the same place for long. You can get caught up in a routine and completely forget to live in the present moment, you become the thing you do instead of the thing you are. My life as a freelance photographer is extremely complex and disorderly, yet because of that it brings consciousness to the things I do.
It’s extremely hard to explain in spoken word, and even harder to explain in writing. Sometimes I become extremely aware of myself in my surroundings, so aware that I can slip away from it and have first-person glimpses of my own life unfolding like a film. The best analogy I can think of would be sitting in a movie theatre at the back of your brain, observing the things that are happening to you through your eyes projected on the screen. You can hide away in this space, and observe your judgements, decisions and feelings on this movie screen from an unbias, untainted perspective. The things on the screen seem unique from the person sitting and watching. This is a state of mind, and comes more frequently when I travel.
I can stop for a moments and observe how easy and comfortable another job or path in life would be, one less responsibility and more structure. Then that moment passes, and I realize that I wouldn’t ever change a thing.
and No, I didn’t hit the mary-jane with Cookie.
DOG FOR DINNER
August 22nd, 2009
In the West, I suppose it is considered pretty gross to eat your own dog. Not so much with the Mentawai.
Will and I combed through the menu of delicious doggy treats roaming the Uma. We were going to prepare tonight’s feast for everyone ourselves, and Will decided on a nice looking pooch. But we had to go with our second choice because a Mentawai girl said “any dog except that one, that one’s my pet!” I won’t go into the details of how Will prepared the meat, but I will say that the dog died in the most humane way possible and more importantly- it tasted fantastic. Think a combination of beef and chicken, and then a little bit chewier. But not unpleasant chewy, more like beef-jerkey chewy. We will never set foot in a pet store hungry back home again, we might be tempted.
Over the last couple of days we’ve been doing the standard routine- waking up, drinking tea, eating breakfast, taking photos, eating lunch, taking photos, eating supper, and staying up late talking with the shaman. I feel like I am at a point now where I do not have to break down any more barriers and gain trust, and it’s possible to dedicate this time instead to making the photographs. The way in which I shoot, the production, the stylistic elements could never be done without this crucial first step of easing into the photography. But that is not to say that I don’t still make mistakes…
Yesterday, Cookie took us to the tree of his dead son after some convincing. After a Mentawai dies, the family will show tribute by carving the shape of their hand into a durian tree. The place is sacred and like a grave back home. The Sikeri believe that if someone were to break off the bark of the hand and bring it to the relatives house, that relative will certainly die. It is a great shame for an enemy to spoil the grave. This is why Cookie covered his sons tribute with bushes, so no enemies knew where it is hiding. The tree itself was deep off any established trail and was well concealed in the jungle.
I took things one step at a time, and began taking photographs. My ideal image was Cookie beside the tree, but he seemed tense. He couldn’t touch the tree. I could tell it was time to finish, and would have been a good time to stop taking photographs, but I made the bad judgement of taking one more. All of a sudden he closed the bushes around the carving and sped away while the flash went off. Later when we caught up with him, half lost in the jungle not being able to find a trail, he spoke to us. Cookie claimed that the ghost of his son told him that he didn’t like us taking pictures of the tree, and for him to stop it at once. Although deep inside I would like to believe this, I think that the real reason was that he personally had a change of heart about showing us. It’s hard for a father to do this in any land, even where young death is common. I believe he might have interpreted this guilty feeling as his son, leading him to make the decision he did. For one of the first times on this trip I felt exploitive. I apologized to him, but he didn’t see the reason- he felt he was at fault because he was the one who left us there. It wasn’t long before he was himself and smiling with one eye again.
August 24nd, 2009
I met Lala’s daughters, who have the same round face as him, but dress much differently. She wore Western clothing, a Disney shirt to be exact. It was an interesting thing to see Lala beside his daughter, two generations separated by cultural influence. I felt that it was extremely important to photograph things like this, and include it in the series. To not do so would be a lie, and a shame. I also photographed Tolkot with his son Peno, and Cookie with his son Rudi. Rudi was very trustworthy and an overall nice kid. I asked him about his Western clothes, and more importantly the mindset of him and his friends toward Shamanism.
“I prefer to stay here in the jungle. I won’t go to the government village because it is not my home,” Rudi said.
I asked him, “would you ever become a Sikeri like your father?”
“No, I am afraid of dying,” he replied, “there is a huge burden you must take on when becoming a shaman… It requires a strong commitment.”
Rudi went on to explain that although most of his friends weren’t interested in the traditional ways of the Mentawai, there were a select few who were still Animists.
THE MENTAWAI TATTOO
August 25nd, 2009
Rudi, the son of Cookie left the Uma early in the morning to visit the next clan over to fetch their tattoo artist. It is said that the Mentawai tattoo tradition is the oldest surviving in the world, and one in our crew happens to be a tattoo enthusiast.
We waited a long time for the tattoo man, letting the hours pass as we told stories and laid on the hard wood floor. Our journey was almost over, and you could see on everyone’s faces. Will had dislocated his rib the previous day holding my giant octabank. The wind had caught it like a sail and he twisted slightly the wrong way, causing a great pain. Will could barely walk at first, but was determined not to give up and helped me finish up my picture. Later after the hike back to the uma, he laid on the hard wood floor and didn’t move much. He needed to get it fixed. Cale had become sick yet again after his short health-streak, and looked deathly pale. He was still sick with something. It was time to go home, but not without a memento.
Cale was set on getting a traditional Mentawai tattoo. It would be done in their slow, painful stick-poke method. Ricky warned Cale against getting it because he was sick- the pain can be extremely severe and lead to infection. I am to blame for forcing Cale to eventually give in, and to this day he is glad for it. I was the devil on his shoulder saying “You told me you wanted one no matter what. How often will you be back here? Sickness will fade but that tattoo will be there forever.” Case in point. When the tattoo artist arrived, there was a little bit of awkward silence… then Cale proclaimed “Okay- let’s fuckin’ do it.”
The first task was finding a sterile instrument for the tattoo artist, named Bajak Jerajak, to poke our friend with thousands of times. Traditionally, the Mentawai used a sharpened piece of bark. However, Jerajak had a nice rusty safety pin instead that “had not been used in the skin before, but had been used for other things.” Uh, no thanks. We got a new, wrapped safety pin from our first aid kit, then gave it a wipe with one of Will’s oxy-pads. It was the best we could do. The pin was bent into a wooden instrument, and the tattoo artist began his work.
It’s not as complex as you might think- first the designs were temporarily laid out on the skin using long pieces of grass dipped in the ink. Cale began to get very nervous because the old tattoo master was now half deaf and blind, and first laid out the design with too many lines. After finally getting it right, the real torture began. The end of the needle is dipped into the pigment, then jabbed into the skin. Eventually, all the individual holes connect and make the final design. Cale made it through like a champ, and now has story he can whip out of his shorts at any point in his life. The tattoo tradition of the Mentawai is extremely endangered, and barely any of the new generation are getting it done to themselves. I believe that soon it will be a lost art.
August 27th 2009
A lot of time has passed since my last journal entry. I have all the time in the world here as the days creep by slowly. I guess I just haven’t felt like writing because we have been in some difficult circumstances.
On our departure from the Rorogot, Cookie impressed us one final time with his broken english.
“You go, I many many cry.”
We left Siberut safely in a personal charter boat instead of the ferry. We discovered that the ferry was too risky for a couple reasons-
- Cale has fallen even more dreadfully sick and needs medical attention. Hmm… I wonder why?
- Will’s dislocated rib
- Earthquakes prevent the ferries from coming and instead are bringing relief supplies. It would be too risky to wait for the boat knowing our plane leaves the same day as it’s arrival in Padang. Okay, Charter boat it is. A lot more expensive, but difficult times call for deep pockets.
The ride itself was beautiful, and I sat by myself in reflection while Cale and Will slept, watching the flying fish and dolphins swimming beside the boat in the ocean. The water was incredibly blue. Midway through the ride my friends woke up and felt better, I think they were just happy to get off the island safely. We peed in some bottles, and talked about our adventure, taking pictures and even some more video footage. I’ve never told Cale, but he managed to capture that same beautiful blue water I was staring at perfectly, and included it at the end of his video. We think alike.
When we spotted land and crept closer to Padang, we noticed something peculiar floating in the water near the shore. There it was, the ferry we decided not to take. It was crashed on a rock outside the harbor, tipped over.
When we arrived in Padang we immediately went to the hospital for Cale. The wait wasn’t long at all, and the doctor there diagnosed him with an acidic liver. Later on back in the US, Cale’s doctor confirmed this, and it took him awhile to get healthy again. To fix Will’s rib was another story all together… Apparantly chiropracters aren’t very common in Padang, so from some local tips we were brought to a man’s house who fit the description we were looking for when asking the local people. Basically, he rubbed grease and onions all over Will’s back, pulled his fingers, and asked if he was cured. Will just looked and him and said “uh…yup. Thanks.”
We took time to chill for the first time in a “nice” hotel for a long time, instead of floorboards. We flirted with the hotel staff and phoned them to hang out late at night. We explored Padang a bit as well, and I bought some bootlegs of the Twilight DVD, including bootlegs of my cover artwork I did for the film for it’s novelty-factor. The only time I got sick on this entire trip was after a KFC binge, which we found in Padang. It’s funny that Will and Cale had it so bad, but the only time I felt miserable was when I threw up all night after scarfing down three chicken burgers. I guess I am a Westerner deep down inside, and will always be.
The next day we visited the village Will lived in, Tabek. Will saw people he had not seen in years. This was Will’s day, so I just followed along and shook hands with everybody and smiled. The villagers were warm and friendly, and I could tell Will was more happy than ever that we left Siberut a couple days early. We had a huge group of girls walking with us the whole time, and Will was famous in that village. He had built a water house there, and his name was still engraved in a plaque outside it.
The next day we left Padang, said goodbye to our new friend Ricky. Cale went straight back to the US, and me and Will flew off to Sydney for a stop-over.
My macbook pro stopped working on Siberut. So a scheme- we dropped it off at the Mac store during our stop over in Sydney for repairs, and simply bought another for the next leg of our trip. I will return it back on the way home and take advantage of the 14 day return policy. 2 minutes later, I will walk upstairs and pick up my repaired Macbook and fly to New York. Suckers. We also fixed Will’s rib in Sydney and he is back to his old self again.
I don’t know what kind of force allows me slip passed the most dangerous situations, but I’ve escaped danger before. In Bangladesh, I left a day before the disasterous typhoon in Dhaka. And now this time, again in Indonesia. If the advertising campaign mentioned at the beginning of this blog went through, I would have post-poned my trip to Siberut by about a month or so. In that same time frame from our stay in the Ambacang Hotel in Padang, the entire building collapsed in an earthquake trapping and killing more than a hundred guests.
I was sitting on my computer safe home in New York, working on some images from a photo shoot I had just shot. A message from Cale bounced from AIM on my screen. He told me he had heard news about new earthquakes in Padang, and investigated further. He found this news story and picture about our hotel. At first I had trouble looking at the picture at all. I tried to phone the attendants cell phone Will and I had successfully gotten, but no one answered. I tried again and again for a couple days, but there was never any answer. I wanted to speak with her and hear news about Padang because I also couldn’t get ahold of Ricky at that point. Eventually, I was able to reach him and he told me his family was alright and nobody was injured, but I doubt the same fate for the hotel attendant.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to meet the people I do, and have the experiences I have. If it’s ever my turn to go, I can say that I will be content with the things that I have done and be able to look back on everything without regret. The Mentawai were some of the most fascinating people I have ever met. I hope that when I tell these stories to my kids when I’m old, the Mentawai way of life is not forgotten, a myth, or just another paragraph in an anthropology book. I hope that when the world does progress, the old ways are not forgotten. Perhaps the plight of the Mentawai can be summed up in a simple, witty sentence taken from Lala during one of our interviews to Cale’s camera.
“Hello World. If you want to come see the mentawai then hurry up and come see me before I’m dead.”
Perhaps he was just being vain an talking about himself, but for some reason I feel he meant it on a broader scope.