On one side of the bay, near where we anchored, is a river that we had heard leads to a Mentawai village. On the other side we can see a small working port, with a tugboat and a ferry and a few larger fishing boats. We wanted to explore the river. Our friends on Gaia were here two days ago, and told us via radio that the river has three paths — the left is pretty, just jungle. The middle peters out. The right takes you to the village.
When the morning rain subsided, we decided to try for the village. But first we had to find the mouth of the river — hidden among the mangroves. We found an opening, but we didn’t know if the three paths had separate mouths, or if we would encounter forks upstream. In any case, upstream we went. After maybe a mile we passed a boat coming down. The men aboard smiled and pointed upstream, so we judged we were on a good path. In another half mile there was a fork, so we stayed right, even though the larger flow seemed to be left.
The mangrove banks gradually changed to pandanus and coconut palms. The channel got pretty narrow, often less than 30′, which had me doubting that the large canoe we saw had come down this way. But it was still deep, and on we went. We saw a man getting out of a canoe, and slowed to speak with him. He just pointed upstream, and from that point we could see a little dock. We tied the dinghy and stepped ashore.
There was a concrete walkway stretching to the left and the right, and it wasn’t clear which way to go. A young girl and two younger boys were approaching from the left, so I gave her a questioning look and pointed each way. She pointed right, so we went that way, while they stopped to inspect our dinghy.
The concrete walkway turned out to be Main Street, houses all along each side, almost every house having people staring at us. But everyone waved back at us, and many smiled hello. We crossed a couple side streets, constructed the same as Main Street, and we crossed a covered bridge over the river. We spoke with two or three men that we passed, but not enough English to communicate. We passed a “gathering place” that had a tavern-like aspect, mostly men hanging out. Places like that make me nervous — how the group will receive outsiders. But again everyone seemed friendly, and we waved and smiled and said hello, and continued on by.
And then we saw a man planing a board for his house, and he stopped and said hello in pretty good English, and invited us to join him. We sat on his deck and had water and sweet tea, and met his wife and son and brother and a neighbor. Communication was very limited, but as a new batch of rain poured down we tried to learn some words from him — cat, dog, house, roof (beautiful and watertight thatch), duck, wife, son, etc. Mostly he was teaching us the Indonesian words, which we had at least a tiny chance of remembering, but sometimes he would teach us the Mentawai word. All I can remember of Mentawai is thank you, and even that I’m sure I now have wrong, something like matsurai bagata…
We had read that the Mentawai were “semi-nomadic” but that much seems to have changed, as they have well built houses and other signs of permanence. They grow bananas and coconut and cacao and some things we couldn’t identify. We saw some people carrying big bags of copra out of the jungle, probably bound for the ferry as a cash crop. Lots of chickens roaming around. Wires for electricity, but the only satellite dish we saw was at the “tavern.” Kids had book bags, and were clearly coming home from school in the rain. There were a couple motorbikes (even though no road, per se), a couple bicycles, someone had earbuds listening to music. But the signs of modernity were very limited. Funny how it seems that those with the least are the happiest and friendliest…
The rain eased as the tea was finished, and we thanked them profusely and headed back the way we had come, feeling much more at ease now.
Returning to the bay, we decided to run by the port to check it out. There was some activity there, loading bananas and other cargo on to the ferry, and interest in us. We decided to check it out, and went ashore. An English-speaker (sort of) named Timo adopted us, obviously hoping to be our guide for a fee. There was a little restaurant, so we went there and bought him lunch. While waiting for our food a policeman showed up, nice guy, no problem, but wanted photocopies of our passports. That was going to require a trip to the boat (and probably some money). So we bought him coffee since he had to wait for us to eat, and then Timo and Mr Polisi and another guy of unknown connection hopped in the dinghy with us, and off we went. We let them look around on the boat, and we chatted, and then we said it was time to go.
Timo took me aside and said I should give him 300,000 Rupiah to give to the police guy, for our safety. I said that was too much, and offered 50,000. Or I said I had $5 US, which some harbormasters seem to prefer. He declined the $5 but said I should give him 100,000. I was not in a strong bargaining position, because the only bills I had were 100,000 — I didn’t have a 50,000 note. So I gave him 100,000 (about $8). Tim took them ashore, and he told me after that the policeman declined the money. So Timo gave it to the other guy — still don’t know his role. Whatever; not a big deal except that we are almost out of Rupiah. Getting desperate for an ATM!
Waiting for the sun to sink below the clouds and cool things down, suddenly there is Maggie coming to anchor next to us! Tim and I swim over, just to cool off, and invite them over for a sundowner. They had never been aboard our boat! We pulled out the last of our snacks, and swapped stories about the places we’ve been, and what lies ahead. Very nice. Another memorable day.