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Beneath The Surface

02nd Feb 2021

There’s much more to the Mentawai Islands we all love and know…

In collaboration with White Horses Magazine, this is a first-person story by John Barton, who spent years providing daydream surf material to the outside world through social media as a surf travel photographer, until he realized there was much more to the Mentawai land, people and culture…

The uncomfortably small canoe was barely wider than my hips. We’d been hunched over for several hours with our knees almost up around our ears. Every lurch from a tug on the rudder or shove from a passing log threatened to knock us into the drink and my stomach muscles were tired from constantly shifting my weight around in an attempt to find some balance.

I’d forgotten my waterproof bag in my hurry to pack and kept a nervous eye on the camera bags that were perched precariously up in the bow. When I managed to relax enough to look around though, I was awed by the scenery. The river snaked through dense rainforest where every shade of green pressed in around us. The jungle hung over the muddy banks in swathes so thick we had to duck and weave under branches to get through. We were on our way to stay with the indigenous tribes of Siberut in the Mentawai Islands.

For the last seven years, I’d been working as a photographer and surf-guide at a surf resort in the northern end of the island chain. During my time there, I’d heard countless stories of tribes in the interior of the big island that were still living off the land as their ancestors had done for thousands of years before them. I’ve got to get there one day, I’d think to myself whenever we passed the outskirts of the misty, jungle-covered island on our daily search for waves in the resort tinnie. But I’d always put it off – we were constantly busy, and any time off would be used to visit family and friends back in Australia.

Back on the river, we shuddered to a halt as our canoe met the exposed river stones. Unsure of what was creaking more – the old wooden boat or our tired backs – we climbed out again to push. We’d beached ourselves around yet another shallow hairpin bend in the river and it was taking all of our strength to heave the weight of our food, water and camera gear against the current. Due to a lack of rain the upper parts of the river were much shallower than usual. This meant that every corner on the snaking waterway required us to climb in and out. Our excited smiles of earlier that morning were disappearing with every toe-stub and ankle-roll as our bare feet tried to navigate the loose stones, tangled wood and God-knows what else beneath us.

By this stage we were deep in the jungle. The journey was only supposed to be three hours but it had long since stretched into nine. “One more hour” the guide kept telling us, in between drags of his clove cigarette. I wasn’t surprised though – time is elastic and easily stretched in Indonesia. Plus, I’d only assembled this makeshift crew the night before after being abandoned by our original guide. I wasn’t even one hundred per cent sure our new guides knew where they were going but I’d been dreaming about this trip for so long that I was willing to take the risk.

We pushed on through the sunset and into the darkness of night. The last hour finally passed and we found ourselves coming to a stop on a shallow riverbank. There was no moon and we only had two head torches between the five of us. Beyond the shallow light they emitted was a deep darkness that felt eerie and full, hiding things that were watching us.

“This is it,” our guide said to us. “We can’t go any further”. As it turned out, the river had run out of water and there was no way we were getting to our destination. We were disorientated and fatigued and the thought of having to sleep on a muddy riverbank made the night feel that much darker.

While we were trying to figure out what to do, our boat driver, Alfino, told us to hold tight before crossing the river and walking off into the darkness. A short while later, through the dense cloud of insects swarming around the light of my head torch, I could make out a couple of figures coming out the jungle. It was Alfino, and he had someone with him.

The man was small in stature yet as wiry as the thick jungle vines we’d been passing earlier that day. He wore nothing but a red loincloth and his body and face were adorned with tribal tattoos. He walked with an ethereal presence that seemed much grander than his small frame would suggest. I’d only ever previously seen photos of the Mentawai shaman, known as Sikerei, and to finally be standing in the presence of one had me feeling like I was standing before royalty.

Aman Ikbuk was his name and he led us down a winding path into the dense vegetation. He had kindly offered to take us into his home and give us shelter for the night. His basic wooden home (known as an uma) was filled with tools, drums, wooden carvings and the hanging skulls of dozens of monkeys and pigs. At first the dangling bones were an unnerving sight but then again, so were we to his young children, who weren’t sure of what to make of the hairy guests. After settling in and giving him the customary offering of tobacco and sugar, we sat and talked and he began to explain his way of life to us.

The indigenous people of the Mentawai traditionally practice Arat Sabulungan, an animistic ideology that reveres the spirits of their ancestors and sees them as part of the land, the sky, the oceans, rivers and all natural things. Their culture is built around a series of taboos that create a balance with the spirit world around them.

The jungle provides for them, and they in turn must give offerings back. If they fall out of this balance, they believe it will open the doors to illness and misfortune. The role of the Sikerei in their society is to govern this balance and to be a mediator between the spirit world and the community. But in this day and age, the balance for the Mentawai people has become a fight to cling to their culture amidst encroaching religion, industry and western influence.

The surfing world was by and large indifferent to the Mentawais until the 1980s, when Martin Daly and the first pioneers started scouring the wave-rich archipelago on what would later become charter vessels, ferrying surfers to the waves of their dreams. A decade later and this paradise was well and truly on the map – and on the cover of surf mags all over the globe.

For many of the new generations, the traditional way of life had been lost. Families had been forced into resettlement villages to learn how to adapt to a more modern Indonesian lifestyle. Many displaced Mentawai claimed they wouldn’t know how to live off the land if they had to. Tethered to the economics of the outside world and constrained by a lack of employment opportunities, many of the modern Mentawai live well below the poverty line and find it almost impossible to earn a decent living.

This came into stark relief for me several years ago. While sitting on the shoreline photographing our guests surfing, a local coconut farmer approached from the jungle behind me. I’d often exchange greetings with locals as we’d pass each other on the thin footpaths that run across the island, but up until this point, my language skills hadn’t been up to the task of delving much deeper than that. As he joined me sitting on the beach,
I asked the farmer about his family and his life.

He explained his dangerous work, which involved climbing up into the towering tree canopy,
and how he only made 25 cents per harvested kilogram of coconut and didn’t have enough money to send his children to school or even put clothes on their backs. Meanwhile, in front of us was a sea of hooting tourists with super-stretch board shorts, GoPros and brand-new surfboards. I still remember the pang of guilt as I sat next to him with an iPod on my lap and a camera worth a lifetime of tree climbing in my hand. What did he really make of all of these wealthy strangers in his home? In that moment the real contrast of cultures become glaringly obvious to me, and I think to him as well.

That seed took root and grew over the following years. My days were jammed full with keeping the guests stoked, chasing waves, and providing a steady stream of daydream surf material to the outside world through social media, yet I knew there was much more to the Mentawais and I couldn’t shake the feeling that my internal balance was off. Was I personally taking too much from the islands and not giving enough back? Eventually I mustered the resources to trek to the heart of the jungle to get some perspective.

So there I was, sitting in front of a Sikerei on a rickety wooden floor, deep in the jungle and as far from the surf as I had ever been on the island. The thick, sweet smoke from his loosely rolled tobacco leaf filled the air as he talked. The night was alive with sounds of insects that competed with him to be heard. The darkness didn’t feel so ominous anymore, and I let it all soak in.

I knew even then that my photos and words could never fully do justice to the experience. But I took solace in the thought that if they simply shed more light on this fragile way of life and make us, as visitors, think a bit more about the role we play here, then maybe that awareness might help restore a little of the sacred balance which governs the spirit of the Mentawai.

Published in Issue 31 ‘Islands’, available online now. All imagery by John Barton / @johnnyjungle

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