Trekking Tour in Mentawai? Check out this Video Guide to Siberut Culture

by Glenn

There’s plenty of videos out there about Mentawai these days, mainly about surfing. That’s no surprise since surfers make up the overwhelming majority of foreign visitors to the islands.

There’s also a good deal of video and fim-making relating to the Mentawai cultural ‘hot zone’, namely a couple of river valleys in South Siberut.

mentawai culture trekking in siberut
The three main cultural variations in South Siberut

If you are someone who may actually contemplate heading over this way to trek into the jungle to check these folk out yourself, though, none of these are very much help. You’ll be largely on your own in that regard. It’s a great adventure  and character-building anyway so no big deal there. Still it would be nice to be able to get a bit more of an idea of the lay of the land. Even if you’re with a trekking tour group, there’s a lot in this video that they won’t tell you.

The edit I’m featuring here is one of the best introductions to “Mentawai” culture ie. the culture of South Siberut. It gets beyond the garden-of-eden, great cinematography angle that excessively romanticizes the people here. And since it is about the village of Madobag right in the center of the ‘hot zone’ which many of the trekking tours pass through on their way to somewhere else,  it’s a lot more helpful. The area is known locally as the Sarereiket or Rereiket for short. (It means “rainy place” which is absolutely true so be prepared!)

A recent example of this garden-of-eden approach would be Cale Glendening’s The Mentawai. It consists of great takes of “tribal” people doing what tribal people do. However, for one thing you don’t learn about the actual location. For another their lives are made up so much more than what is depicted in this movie.

mentawai culture for trekkers
Most people  wear T-shirts and shorts not the “traditional” garb mostly associated with this area

You get a better feel for that life in Hairil Saleh’s The Soul of Arat Sabulungan (at the bottom of the post). Its focus not simply on arat Matawe or ‘Mentawai culture” as this would be rendered in English. I have elsewhere indicated where the usage “Mentawai” came from. It is a word imposed from outside but one which has been incorporated into how the local people see themselves. Instead the focus is on how the local people think about their own local culture on their own terms.

Still, it is not perfect. It does buy into this age-old notion of fragile cultures right on the very edge of the precipice and you’d better trek your little legs on over there asap before they are relegated to history by progress. I have my own views on just how accurate that view is.

There are also several inaccuracies particularly in relation to social structure. In my articles that deal directly with this village society I point out the base structure that exists there: Suku, Uma and uma faction. This is essential to understanding what an “uma” actually is and what it is used for (you’ll know why I said that when you view the video).

It’s good to see some familiar faces, particularly Mikael Samwonwot whose English is not bad and twenty years ago was doing ok directly guiding foreign tourists along the standard trekking tour routes through the hills around Madobag.

If you head to South Siberut as an independent tourist or trekker, and you can make it past the “gatekeepers” to the interior in Muara Siberut (locally born Minangkabau originally from West Sumatra), then link up with Mikael. His English is great and he’s a pretty good guy, although I think he still owes me a half-dozen tegge (machete) blades (OI…Mikhael…lol) I gave him for safekeeping once.

Make sure you bring plenty of money! These folk charge like wounded bulls. The only way around that is if you are there for any length of time, measured in years. Then there are ways around that issue.

If I’m not mistaken I also see Sikebbukatku, sibajak Salolosit whom I cured of a leg abcess when the Sikerei’s pabete (curing ritual) did not work. Or rather, they chose to use concurrent methods such as anitbiotics since most of the folk here know that if you get sick you’d better get your ass down to Monga (Muara Siberut) as fast as you can to the clinic there.

To be fair, the film shoot took place over the course of some 10 days or so. That’s hardly any time at all to work out just what is what in this part of the world. If you ask the standard questions, you’ll get the standard answers which is something else to remember if you go trekking into this area.

And if you did actually do this you’d hardly be the first. I remember a young Australian guy that lived up at Attabai during 1992 with nothing but a pair of shorts. He went completely native, and lived to tell the tale…as far as I know. Other adventurer-scholars have not been so lucky. But all this is a story for another day.

Stay tuned.

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