I stroll towards Padang’s dockside area to book a ticket on the boat heading for Tuapejat, Sipora in a few days time. Get in early to get a cabin. Cabins are a lot bigger these days. The two old ferries that serviced the islands years ago are now retired further upriver. One has been turned into a restaurant. Flashback to a bleak night crossing from Sikabaluan to Padang, mid-strait, lights out, engine dead, drifting, being tossed by rough seas. The current ferry has been refitted so a taller-than-local-on-average orang barat like myself doesn’t have to bend double but can stand straight and not risk skull fracture in a moment of forgetfulness.
I collect my bag and wander to the wharf where the boat is in the process of being loaded with goods. Laborers struggle to hoist drums of kero into the hold. I’m charmed by one of their T-shirts.”Fuck You” it proclaims. I flirt with the idea of producing a similar T-shirt:”Pantek awa ang”(“You cunt” in the local Minangkabau language). Despite being the fasting month a food-stall is in full swing catering to members of the public who wish to forgo hunger pangs and not wait for the official breaking of the fast just on dusk.
A couple of the surf-charter vessels are tied up for the off-season side by side. A third vessel is a navy patrol-boat which does not see much service. It was formerly tied up near the main shipping port just to the south, but someone stole the gun off the deck. Now they reckon its safer in Muara Padang. The sailors along with other port officials lob in for lunch. Paradise is too much of an abstract concept in the face of existential concerns.
As evening falls and departure time nears, crowds gather. One of the UNESCO personnel from Maileppet is on the mainland for Christmas. He’s off to Bali soon to spend Christmas and New Year. Official UNESCO advice to them whilst in Padang is to not go out too much: some high-profile discontent with UNESCO’s activities on Siberut: they have to watch their backs.
Marcus and his wife turn up, him feigning anger and indignation at my recent dissapearance from the Rereiket. Marcus is a locally born and bred teacher whose wife, Tina, hails from Sipora’s east coast. They are off to visit her family whom they have not seen for several years.”Where’d you get to? I looked everywhere for you in Monga [Muara Siberut] but you just vanished”. “Surf charter vessel stopped by, got talking to them, offered me a lift. Anyway, we’re here now.” They had invited me to spend the leadup to Christmas with Tina’s family, our journey together to commence from Monga. We knocked around for a day or two waiting for the boat when opportunity presented in the form of an off season surf charterboat: people, quite rightly, get put out if you don’t take your leave in the proper way. I headed for Padang via the Nyang-nyang, Mainuk and Penanggalan surf playgrounds off Siberut’s south coast whilst my companions went via the Sikabaluan route.
Nearing the end of loading the cargo, shouting breaks out.We observe the well-proportioned owner of the boat, Bangun, remonstrating with a less well-proportioned fellow who is attempting to have some gear taken aboard. Bangun gives him a shove, sending him teetering backwards, Bangun advancing menacingly and confidently. I resolve to never act on the T-shirt printing fantasy.
We file on board where the hold covers have been put in place and people are now crammed in, more crowded than I’ve ever seen it.We squeeze up the short flight of stairs to the upper deck to find the cabins full. My berth is double-booked. We look around for a place on the boardwalk between the rows of cabins. More people file in. Standing room only. Aha. The inauguration of the Mentawai Regional People’s Assembly is to take place tomorrow at the seat of Kabupaten Administration, Tuapejat. VIP’s wives, children, and others have taken the cabins.
A contingent of police squeezes through with carbines and packs to take the cabin adjacent to my place on thedeck.We regard each other across a growing mound of baggage and bodies. I join in a public censure-motion of just-what-the-hell-does-Bangun-think-he’s-playing-at-here with some fellow passengers. Visons of another Southeast Asian ferry disaster. I resign myself to an uncomfortable night pressed up against the sleeping forms of the other passengers growing more envious with each interminable minute of their ability to sleep soundly even whilst occupying positions that surely even a professional contortionist would find taxing. Every now and then a crew member exits the cockpit a few meters forward of our position en route for a leak, enabling a glimpse of our GPS position as we inch towards Sipora. I am pleased to see that progress is being made. We slip into the harbour at dawn whereupon the vessel quickly disgorges its passengers at Tuapejat, the official party members hurrying off to get the inauguration underway. We depart for Sioban an hour or so to the south.
Tina’s father had expected us yesterday, the scheduled time of departure from Padang actually being the evening before last, but the parliamentary delegation had priority in that department, departure from Padang being delayed. He had made the journey by motorised canoe in vain. We await their return to Sioban late into the day. Sioban is as good a port as you’ll find on the islands, tucked out of the way of the prevailing onshore winds, at this time of year anyway. Most people living more than a few kms away get there via the open sea in motor canoe, the main form of mass motorized transport in the islands. The boat having come in, a market is set up on either side of the narrow pot-holed strip of tarmac leading from the wharf along the edge of the bay into the main settlement. Despite being the fasting month, as in Padang, several restaurants are doing a discretely brisk trade serving hot tea, coffee and a variety of snacks for hungry breakfasters.
By late morning we move out of the harbour to the north then inscribe an arc around to the south thus avoiding the promontory separating the port from the open sea. It’s a bit late to be travelling since the wind is up from the north sending a one to one-and-a-half metre sea running onto the coast. We drop over the back of swells which occasionally sends a spray of water over the passengers.Those who are smart have umbrellas. Those who don’t, or who want to be mucho (its mainly the girls who put up their brellas), get wet. It’s worse for those tracking south to north, the extended bows of their canoes rising over the swells and slamming down into the troughs. There is steady traffic up and down the coast as we go.
Villages on Sipora are almost all located on the coast, often most immediately identifiable by the prominent mosque or church, depending upon the religious composition of the community, that is visible from a good distance out to sea. There is a wide main street of packed sand/soil, with some houses on stilts, some without, along with the familiar brick structures built on a concrete base that have become ubiquitous throughout modern Indonesia.
We wend our way south, following the contours of the little bays so avoiding being too far out at sea at any one time. An hour or two later we motor onto a narrow sandy beach. Tina is out very quickly and heads off towards her parents’ house located 100m or so to the south. The boat belongs to the Village Head so we pull it up the sandy embankment above the high-watermark a little way in front of his house. Tina moves down the street stopping to greet friends and relatives for a moment before moving on. Marcus follows suit reestablishing relations with people whom he had got to know the last time he was here. He stands in the relation of in-law (lakut) to the locals, a term they use both to refer to as well as address him.
Tina’s elderly grandparents live beside her father’s large house in a modest hut. We arrive to find Tina sobbing inconsolably in her grandmother’s arms. It is only after a good half hour that quiet words are exchanged between them. Tina quietly talks about the death from malaria of their 4 year old daughter a few months ago. It seems that she was taken ill and died very quickly, and it is not until now that Tina,who is not native to the Rereiket and hence has no family and real allies in whom she can confide there, is able to unburden herself. Much conversation is about the inactivity and apathy of the people at that time, “them”, in the Rereiket.The Sikerei come in for particular scrutiny, a general air of questionability enveloping their activities and by extension most everything else in that region.
Nearing dusk Marcus and I wander over to a nearby well for a welcome wash, in which we clear away the grime accumulated from a night crumpled on the deck of the ferry the previous night. He reciprocates the mildly deprecating views of the locals towards his natal region noting the “inferiority” of the water “here” compared with the Rereiket where its “much cleaner and nicer”, although it appeared just fine to me and did not taste salty as I had expected. We are momentarily observed by several pigs rooting for foodscraps around the houses.
It is a week before Christmas, and right along the coast preparations are in full swing, for those sections of the community that are Protestant, for a visit from the Bishop from Medan. Most in these communities Catholic or Protestant although there are also a good number that are mainly Muslim. This one is mostly Catholic, with its church centrally located. The protestant church, reflecting its demographic, is located on the northern fringe of the settlement. This is no more than a largish hut with a table at the front and several rows of benches separatedby an isle which has been lavishly decorated for the occasion, a church service to be conducted by the Bishop and some accompanying staff.
By 11am groups of well dressed church-goers are gathering outside the church where the Bishop awaits them, greeting each person individually remarking on how the children have grown so since he was last in the area. Women and girls sit on the left side, with men and boys on the right. Many are not able to obtain a seat and watch from outside, crowding the door for a view of procedings. A booklet in the Sikakap dialect of the Mentawai language containing details of the morning’s service is handed out. Prayers and hymns alternate between addresses by the Bishop, the hymns being led by a young woman obviously much more familiar with the verses than most. She begins each loudly and confidently, animatedly encouraging the less confident congregation towards perfection. The Bishop wishes the new administration in Tuapejat well and bestows upon them the blessings of God whilst reminding those present not to rest their laurels with these officials, not to rely on them but be “hard working” and “really want” to get things done themselves.
With the end of the formal proceedings at around 1pm, a range of cakes that families had spent the previous evening and most of the morning preparing and baking are produced and auctioned off, the funds to be used for the building of a new church. The auctioneer is the brother of the Desa Head and presents the first item, commenting on its fine quality, and that the opening bid of Rp. 5000 was surely an insult to its creator, thank you very much. It sells for Rp.15 000. Marcus gets me to bid Rp. 30 000 for the next item, assured that we would secure it. We are immediately outbid, the item going for Rp.45 000. Some people nominate prices on behalf of others: the Bishop ups a bid made on his behalf from Rp.50 000 to Rp.100 000 commenting that such a price would be much more appropriate for one such as himself. Cakes in hand the congregation disperses, a meeting to be held later that night with the Bishop for discussion of issues of concern to parishioners.
All day long people move in and out of the village, the main destination for those heading out being their gardens where a variety of cash crops are tended, an important one being cloves. Nilam is very popular at the moment, fetching high prices on the market. Harvested Nilam plants lie drying in the sun the length of the village. With wicker baskets on their backs, machetes in hand, Tina and her parents head south a little way down the coast, Marcus and myself in tow. Her father is building a new shelter, in place of the old one, where they will be able to rest during a day’s work, or even spend the night. The roof is due to go on today, so we set about the business of constructing the requisite parts. This involves a 1.5 m length of bamboo around which are looped individual sago palm leaves, held in position by a flexible sliver of bamboo threaded from one leaf to the next. Several dozen of these are placed each over the other at around 4cm intervals on bamboo beams forming the roof’s frame to which they are tightly fixed with more flexible strands of bamboo.
Tina’s father scales a bamboo pole resting against a sago palm and proceeds to hack at the branches providing the slender, water-proof sago leaves. In the meantime Tina and her mother have taken themselves off to the beach a short distance away to collect crabs and assorted shellfish for a lunchtime treat. They return and we stuff the catch into bamboo cylinders along with a little seawater. The ends being sealed, Tina places them in the fire to cook. Marcus, his father-in-law and myself begin to fix the prepared sections to the bamboo beams. Falling a little short of material we head over to the sago tree to obtain more branches. Marcus looks anxiously at his watch.
“When are we going?”, he asks, referring to the plan he and I had hatched earlier that morning involving a walk inland a little way to do some sightseeing. “You better be the one to make our excuses. If I say we are going off now, they’ll think I’m a lazy, poor excuse of a son-in-law.” “Yeah, I know what you mean”. But we could not really walk away from the job at this stage. And besides, the crabs were nearly ready. Tina’s mother extracts the cooking vessels and splits them with a machete. We get to work on hot crab and boiled bananas, washed down with lukewarm tea prepared at home earlier. Our walk would have to wait. Rain clouds begin to roll in hastening our departure with the roof still some way to go until completion.
The storm clears away quite quickly and I head over to sit on the beach in front of HTs. The first of a line of huts, accommodation for the dry season surfing crowd is under construction. Occasional sets roll around the point and stack up onto the reef. But it’s not big enough and the smallest mistake would see you rolled, scraped and slashed. Still it’s nice to sit there and enjoy the ambience. Come the surfing season the place would be jammed packed. [Fast forward 20 years later and looking back to late 2000 this is as good as it gets on that front.]
Rain falls continuously the morning of the following day; the usually permanent haze between the Mentawai Islands and the Sumatran mainland is temporarily washed away. I sit on the beach contemplating the outline of Mount Kerinci jutting prominently skywards, dwarfing the other mountains making up the Bengkulu-West Sumatra portion of the Barisan Range running the length of Sumatra’s west coast, which are also visible, although diminuitively so, in its vicinity. It’s the same shortly after on Christmas Eve aboard the Perintis, the last vessel to take passengers prior to the Idul Fitri/Christmas/New Year holiday period, chugging towards the port at Teluk Bayur at Padang, the 1-1.5m swell slapping ineffectually against its unyielding iron sides.
I have often gazed out to sea from the Sumatran side trying to catch a glimpse of the low-lying Mentawai archipel. I have only been able to imagine I have seen any of the islands even from several thousand meters banking around in the direction of Singapore on departure from the Tabing airstrip. They rest invisibly, nestled against the mighty bulk of Sumatra, as has been the case with the various communities in the context of the, hitherto anyway, socially and politically dominant mainland communities whose trajectories of desire have had such a determining influence upon them particularly in the 20th century. I resolve to return early in the 21st which appears to be shaping up as one in which the impacts will be just as far-reaching as in the previous, although just as much from within as from without this time around. 2001, here we come.