I was sold on Siberut the moment our guide Marwan showed me the photos from the last tour he led there. Marwan was a tiny man with a wispy moustache and dress sense that was more Blacktown than Bukittinggi. But his photo album was stacked with snapshots of near naked natives hunting monkeys in the jungle.
They were the Mentawai, a primitive people who lived pretty much like we all did a couple of thousand years ago. They were at one with the land and didn't have a problem with near nudity. And according to Marwan, if we played our cards right, they'd let me and three of my mates join in. To prove his point, he pointed to a picture of a gaggle of fluorescent Swedes in tiny, poorly fitted loin clothes.
Yep, we were off to the jungle to find our manhood, Mentawai style. While I was a little concerned about Marwin's qualifications for such a sacred duty - the guy's business card rather disturbingly featured a pair of 'hang ten' surfie feet, after all - I had no fears about entrusting my inner male to the Mentawai.
You see, the Mentawai man is a bloke's bloke. He lives in the jungle, wears a bark loincloth and hunts monkeys with bows and arrows. He has tatts all over his arms, legs and over most of his body. And he can have as many wives as he damn well likes. He also likes a smoke. "Aka Rokok?" (Roughly translated: "Got a ciggie mate?") is a traditional Mentawai greeting. Hanging out with them in the jungles was a bit like having Colin Farrel officiating at your Bar Mitzvah.
The first test of our manhood came early and involved us actually finding the Mentawai. They don't live in villages as such. They live in clan houses or umas. The umas are the centre of all social and ceremonial life and are basically big, open sided longhouses. The Mentawai, however, have a penchant for building them in the most inhospitable and inaccessible parts of the island.
It took us eight hours of tripping over submerged logs, falling down ravines and begging to be put out of our misery to even reach our first uma. The only thing that kept me going was the thought that it was actually Uma Thurman that lay at the end of my trek, not a thatched hut built over a pigsty. We arrived wet and homesick. And we stank.
That didn't stop every young buck with an hour or two of the clan house coming to arm-wrestle us. The Mentawai are avid arm-wrestlers and I'm proud to say that even after the kind of day that made me curse the moment I was born, I was able to win 3/2 in a torrid best of five against a muscley guy with tatts and a ponytail. To be honest, though, I put my victory down to his poor diet and my poor hygiene.
Next on the agenda was a night of traditional Mentawai dancing. For a carton of Orange Rooster cigarettes our host, Danyuk, agreed to reveal to us secrets of the Mentawai that had been passed down from generation to generation through song and dance. The special feathery headdress was dusted off and a chook was sacrificed especially. There was a catch though. We had to wear a loincloth for the occasion.
We were each handed a long strip of bark and ushered into a small room to change. I spent ten minutes just looking at it, trying to figure which end was which and generally despairing at ever fitting it correctly. It was then that I first suspected that the only reason the Mentawai allowed us to use their island as a male bonding stamping ground was to have a laugh at our expense.
I was rather pleased with my first attempt. I simply looped the strip of bark between my legs and then round my waist. But when I tried to relieve a rather persistent itch caused by the rough fiber of the bark the whole thing collapsed leaving me standing stark naked. Thankfully, Danyuk came in and fitted the thing properly. It may have looked like little more than an environmentally friendly g-string, but at least it felt secure.
Out in the main room, half of Siberut had gathered to see us. Every one of them - man, woman and child - sat sucking on roll-your-owns as big as cigars and laughed out loud when they caught sight of us. Danyuk and two of his mates performed three dances - the chicken dance, the monkey dance and the pig dance - that seemed to consist of nothing more than two blokes chasing another bloke around a room and pretending to smash his head into the floor. I thought it was a good show, but the crowd's minds were elsewhere. They wanted us to sing them something from our culture.
Sadly, all we could remember were beer commercials. I reworked a few couplets of the VB (Victorian Bitter) ad - adding a line or two about how you can get it falling down ravines - and my mate Sean led us in a few stanzas of "I feel good". Danyuk and his family went away that night believing that the height of Australian culture consists of self-consciously holding your hand over your crotch and singing "I feel like a Tooheys or two".
I don't know whether our performance had anything to do with it, but the next day Marwan took us to a longhouse a few hours' deeper into the jungle.
This uma belonged to Magwa, the guy I had beaten arm wrestling. It was the largest we had stayed in and was set in a prettier spot closer to the river. The inside of the thatched roof was decorated with the skulls of all the pigs, monkeys and small birds his family had ever killed and eaten. Obviously Magwa was a man of importance in these parts. His wife was also the first woman I had seen on Siberut whose breasts didn't sag.
Magwa was also a man with a rather keen sense of humor. It was his idea that we should try and get in touch with our primitive selves by putting on our loin clothes and hunting monkeys. We spent the afternoon shooting ourselves in the foot and being stung by stinging nettles in places that stinging nettles should never have access to. Magwa thought it was great. He enjoyed an afternoon's worth of entertainment watching four silly Australian men trying to live out their Tarzan fantasies and got a carton of Orange Roosters to boot.
And if a monkey had come along I'm sure Magwa would have made it look easy, taking one last drag on his ciggie before disappearing to a vantage point hidden from both sight and scent. In his jungle hide he'd silently pull an arrow from his quiver and deftly put in place,waiting until he got a clear shot of the king monkey, the biggest of them all, still scratching his balls after a quick shag. With a click of his tongue he would catch the monkey's attention, and for a moment they'd look each other in the eye, unmoved. And then...the kill.
But that didn't happen. The monkeys proved a lot smarter than us and ran off chattering into the jungle on hearing our heavy foot (and occasional body) fall. I never had to ask that dark moral question of whether to let loose my quiver and the monkeys were left without facing the dilemma of whether to hang around that split second longer after we fired off a shot to make us feel like we got close. I'd like to think the monkeys were the losers though. If they had decided to stay they would have been treated to the spectacle of three unfit Australian men with a flimsy piece of bark wrapped around their wedding tackle trying to figure out how a bow and arrow works.
After ten days of this self-inflicted torture I am sad to report that I still hadn't contacted my primitive self. But I was aware of every other muscle in my body. And what's more, I had also come away with a unique insight into Mentawaian culture. Cigarettes will be the death of them. If they don't die laughing at silly tourists in loin clothes first.
Peter Moore is an itinerant hobo who is lucky enough to be able to support his insatiable travel habit through writing. He has survived a shipwreck in the Maldives, a gas heater explosion in Istanbul, student riots in Addis Ababa and rates his first encounter with an Asian-style toilet as one of his life's defining moments. At last count he had visited 93 countries and written five books. To find out more visit his web site at www.petermoore.net.
Photos are courtesy of Brian Nevins, by way of Saraina Koat Mentawai, the only surf charter company registered in the Mentawai Islands. SKM is dedicated to supporting the local Mentawai economy by employing Mentawai residents and guides, locals who are dedicated to protecting the well being and natural environment of the Mentawai Islands.
Story posted 12/30/05. See more great Asia Travel Stories in the archives.