The Foreign Tourist, the Harassed Guide, the Difficult Hosts, a Sikerei in Search of Some Shavings and a Church Service

The uma of the Saguguluk is a common destination for foreigners. Getting there does not involve great distances. But distance is made up for by the degree of difficulty in getting there, without which the journey would have much less appeal anyway. The walker climbs up out of the settlement, moves through cultivated forest into primary growth areas, then follows river beds—in the absence of a torrential downpour—these being preferable to slogging through the frequent sections of knee-deep mud. Hardship and anticipation combine to form a destination of desire, an objectification of the traveller’s imagination which sustains him or her in inverse proportion to the enthusiasm of the, usually non-local, guide who mediates the experience.

Syarul (‘Rul’) arrived back in Ugai, one day, having had quite enough of mediation. Several days earlier he had hit the jackpot. A rich German tourist had arrived at Muara by himself looking for a guide to take him up to meet the primitives. Twice a week, an hour or two after daybreak, the boat appeared having spent the night crossing from Padang on the mainland. Returning locals and groups of backpackers with their mainland guides would be quickly ferried ashore, their ranks having first been inspected by scouts, local Minangkabau residing in Muara Siberut, continually on the lookout for the lone foreigner. Jurgen was one of these, and Rul had somehow managed to “secure” him before anyone else had the chance to.

Two days later and what was beginning to feel like a lifetime for Rul they returned to Ugai, the place from which they had set out to make contact with the distant Saguguluk. Rul had cut the trip short having had enough of the complaining Jurgen whose primitivist fantasies had been somewhat destabilized. Having left his difficult charge in the hands of the Niasian shopkeeper, Rul wandered over to me and confessed to having had a most difficult time. I nodded in understanding, preparing to be dragged into the hall of mirrors constituting the untidy space of crosscultural communication.

The original plan involved at least a week up with the Saguguluk. However Rul cut it short. “This guy is just too much. When told he was not allowed to photograph something, he went right ahead and did it anyway! He would also give out sweets when I suggested he not do so. I asked him for Rp.15 000 to pay for sweets and other things I had brought with us which were meant as gifts for the people there (I did not pursue the issue of why he waited until this time to demand payment from Jurgen—sure to be a red rag to a bull). I am dizzy (pusing), Glenn, dizzy from all this.”

Generally Jurgen’s behaviour was deemed by Rul to be so outrageous that the only option for him was to cut his losses and head for home. It seemed that Rul’s most pressing concern was his relations with the Saguguluk locals, with whom he perceived he had a pretty good relationship. He was fearful that Jurgen’s recalcitrance would see him being somehow ‘banned’ or ‘blacklisted’ or just plain unwelcome in the future. And he viewed this as an unwelcome restriction on his financial options in the future.

Having unburdoned himself of some of the frustration that had accumulated over the previous couple of days, Rul returned to the shop where he had left the troublesome Jurgen. He produced a list of the items making up the debt that the shop-keeper figured Rul and Jurgen owed him, goods they had taken on credit prior to their departure to the Saguguluk, as well as the variety of treats currently being enjoyed by Jurgen which he perhaps viewed as a reward for all he was being subjected to. The bill came to Rp.25 000 which engendered a tirade from Jurgen who just could not believe it (prices were much higher on Siberut, especially upriver, than they were on the mainland).

For him it was just another example of not so much the greed of the locals, but their caprice. It was his understanding that Rul was the one to take care of all these expenses anyway, since an overall price for the trip had been agreed to before they set out. Yet here they were demanding more money from him! Rul explained to me that he was merely “borrowing” it, and would return it later when they arrived at Muara on the coast.

“It is just like those people up there”, Jurgen complained to me, referring to the Saguguluk. “They say ‘OK…take a photo. It’ll cost you Rp.5000. Then they say 10 000, then 15 000, then 20…30!! They ask, ask, ask, all the time!” He seemed to object to being taken advantage of, which made it a matter of principle, the often cited rationalization by tourists elsewhere in Indonesia for taking this stance when it comes to price negotiation. “Don’t keep upping the price”, he fulminated at me, making me long for the reasonably anonymous confines of the nearby uma which was my temporary abode, despite the intense and incessent pressure brought to bear by the master of the house to give him my watch, a request to which I had so far, probably unreasonably, put up a degree of resistance. “Name your price and stick to it!” snorted Jurgen to the world. The stalemate ended when Rul sidled up to me and asked if he could borrow the money to which I assented. Rul was not the only one feeling dizzy.

Whilst all this was going on, a diminutive, wiry Sikerei [shaman/healer] marched up to the shelter housing the shop and proceeded to take a series of fine slices off one of the posts there, to the surprise of myself and the nonchalance of everyone else—a priceless image for Jurgen if he could divest himself of his distractions. I later discovered that these shavings were considered to embody the communal essence of the many people who would gather there during the 16 or so hours the business was operating each day, and would thus make a valuable addition to the Sikerei’s collection of “medicines”.

Having temporarily stowed his shavings into the ‘bum bag’ in which he also kept a supply of fresh tobacco, the Sikerei then headed for the Church where, being a Sunday, the weekly service was in progress. He no doubt figured that the communal essences brimming in its timbers would be the icing on the cake, as it were. However, upon seeing just how many people were there and perhaps becoming aware of the formal inappropriateness of him pursuing his art which was in perpetual competition with the aims and activities of the Church and its agents, he abandoned the plan and returned to his business several houses away.

Later in the evening when the village had fallen silent apart from the occasionally audible singing of the shaman and his colleagues down the way, as they attempted to entice the wayward spirit of someone who had fallen ill to return to the patient thus restoring her to health, I reached for my notebook and began to reflect on the cultural borders and boundaries that had been both crossed and reinforced on just one day in the Rereiket, South Siberut.

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