* * *
This is the story of my trip to the Mentawai islands off the coast of Sumatra in 2001.
First, I have to thank Dave Rodriguez for even telling me about the Mentawai tribe. I came into Braindrops where he was working around 1998 and showed him a picture of this girl I drew. It was a tattoo I wanted on my neck. He told me before I got the tattoo I should find the book Mentawai Shaman: Keeper of the Rain Forest. It is written and photographed by Charles Lindsay.
It took me a while to track down the book. When I did I saw that the lines I wanted on my neck were almost identical to the tattoos the women of the Mentawai tribe received. I was fascinated with this book. There were two pictures which confirmed for me that this is the tattoo I wanted on my neck (the left two pictures below).
I went to talk to my friend Philip Millic about the tattoo. He agreed to do it for me. I was eighteen. The tattoo turned out beautifully and I never for a moment questioned it’s impact on the rest of my life (employment or otherwise).
At the beginning of 2001 I got a travel bug. I decided to go to Bali, Indonesia with 2 girl friends. The whole time I was planning my trip the thought of the Mentawai islands was lingering… Eventually that year I booked tickets to be in Indonesia for two months. After roughly three weeks in Bali I decided I needed some space from my friends.
I booked a flight into Padang on the southern coast of Sumatra. All I had was an out of date travel book with 1 paragraph on the Mentawai islands… Nobody thought I should go. Muslim country, woman traveling alone to an island that is inhabited by one of the oldest intact indigenous tribes in the world. Fuck it… I went.
I arrived in Padang at about noon. I took a cab to the small shipping port. There was one boat leaving for the Mentawai’s at around 5pm that evening. It would be the last one for several weeks. I bought a ticket to sleep on the deck. I spent the rest of the day running around trying to buy food, sugar, salt, tobacco and anything else I thought I might be able to trade to go upriver… It was a surreal experience….
I boarded the boat that evening to discover that it was cargo boat for Durian, the stinkiest fruit ever. I had one small backpack and the food I had purchased that day… I was wearing flip flops and did not even have shoes with me. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into.
The cargo boat sailed 15 hours over night and arrived first at a small port on the eastern side of the island before continuing on to Siberut, the port at the base of all paths up river. I had no plan… I got off the boat at Siberut. Almost immediately someone came up to me pointing and staring at the tattoo on my neck. The tattoo from the book. They looked completely awestruck that this white girl from another place had the same tattoos that they did. I believe that this moment determined that my trip would be okay.
I was led to a small shack where a man who spoke broken English told me he could take me up river. He told me that he could take me to two different communities. We negotiated on a price and we left the next morning. We took a small boat about four to six hours upriver to community that was built right along the river banks. We stayed here for several days. It was explained to me that the second place we were going was further in and could only be reached on foot. It would take all day. I was also told that many of the people that still performed tattooing were getting very old and that it was hard for them to see. There was a man in this village who still had his sight and would I like to get tattooed? I would.
After a lot of consideration I decided on the tattoos on the top of the hand that all the women have. I had brought my own safety pin as some attempt at having a “clean” needle. I was told that it would cost me a bag of green seed beads and a lump of tobacco.
That afternoon I was taken to the long house of the sikerie (the native word for shaman which I am probably spelling incorrectly). He brought out a bowl stained black. A short stick with a hole in it, and a longer stick. He also brought a stick of sugarcane an oil lamp and a thin reed.
First he took my safety pin and jammed it through the smaller stick with the hole in it. Unfortunately it slightly barbed the needle, but there was nothing to be done, and I couldn’t even have communicated that to them if I had tried… He then took the oil lamp and scraped the soot from the glass shield into the bowl. Here you have the first element of tattoo ink, carbon. He then proceeded to crush the sugar cane dripping the juice into the bowl. And there we had it, ink.
He took the small reed and dipped it in the bowl and proceeded to draw the pattern onto my hands for him to follow with the needle. Once that had dried. I took a lighter, “sterilized” the needle and he started to hand tap the ink into my hands.
This process felt like it took forever. One tiny dot at a time he traced the entire pattern he had laid out. Then he started again and retraced it over and over. This eventually gave the semblance of a line. I have since learned that they pass over their tattoos several times in their life in order to make them have a solid black appearance.
Once that hand was completed we stopped and rolled wild tobacco cigarettes in banana leaf and started the other hand. They bled a lot. Finally we were finished. My hands were rinsed with bottled water and they took some type of leaf and squeezed its juice over my hands. The bleeding stopped immediately. The wife of the man that tattooed me came and put flowers in my hair and beads around my neck and I got to wear them for the rest of the day…
The next day we left to head deeper into the jungle. This is the part of the trip I was not prepared for. We hiked through mud that was almost up to our waist at times. I had only brought flip flops. We walked for hours standing only on thin fallen logs to keep us out of the mud. Finally we entered a clearing to see a large longhouse against the back drop of lush forest.
When we walked up to the longhouse the men were all butchering a large deer they had just killed. It was explained to me that they had to perform an offering for the deer that would last three days. I could not take any pictures because my camera might capture the spirit of the deer. Those next few days were amazing. Unfortunately there is only one picture of this place.
This picture is Aman Lau Lau and his family. He is the man in the Mentawai Shaman book. It is his daughter that I based my tattoo on. I was fortunate enough to stay with his family and meet his daughter. In the photo he is the second from the right.
Meeting him brought everything full circle for me.
Now whenever anyone asks, “Isn’t that insulting to that culture? What would they think if they saw you?”, I can say, “I have been there. They were amazed that I knew about their culture even though I lived on the other side of the world. They tattooed me and treated me as family. And for all this I am so thankful.”