Sumatra: The Mentawai Islands

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February 13th 2010
Published: February 21st 2010
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Lying 135km west of Sumatra are the little known Mentawai Islands. This was to be our next destination having flown on a whim, and another cheap Air Asia flight, from Kuala Lumpur to Padang. Getting to, and finding any information about, these far away islands was to prove seriously tricky and testing but ultimately worth it.

Due to the contrasting nature of our time I have split the account into two parts. Good and bad maybe but both an experience that will live long in the memory.

Part One - Moody Mas to Masalot

We arrived in Padang, a city that is still licking it's wounds from yet another earthquake in September 2009. Many buildings we passed were reduced to rubble and the city felt damaged. It didn't have a welcoming aura but who could blame a place that has been stricken so often.

We seemed to be the only western tourists in town or it certainly felt that way. Nobody spoke any English. This was a nice feeling until we wanted to do anything or go anywhere. Having just managed to order breakfast in a cafe that looked bemused at our presence we made our way (in the rain) to a makeshift tourist information centre. The two men spoke some American English and were able to show us the route to the harbour where we could book a ferry to the islands.

The lack of sleep the night before was making the new language and money difficult. At 15,000 rupiah to the pound the Indonesian currency is confusing with its large numbers, leaving plenty of room for error or exlpoitation perhaps. Nonetheless we were instant millionaires although our money went as quickly as a lottery winner's.

Our opelet (mini van) journey to the harbour was a harsh example of this as what we thought was a 7000 rupiah trip actually turned out to be a 70,000 hired vehicle. We had hailed the wrong opelet and upon saying Bagus Bay harbour the driver had produced what we thought was a 5 and a 2 thousand note when in actual fact it was a 50 and a 20. A lesson in making absolutely sure of a price.

20km out of Padang, Bagus Bay Harbour was good for one thing; the ferry that left it. The jobless, scheming men that preyed on your every move as well as a dark restaurant made it a spirit sucking 6 hour wait that drained the little energy we had left.

The ten hour boat journey, thankfully, was much smoother than the time at the harbour and we actually had a very good sleep on a matress on the floor. We were just happy to be away from the claustrophobic atmosphere of the harbour and it's restaurant.

As the boat pulled in to a jungle clad island, the sun piercing the morning mist, a crowd of people awaited us on the pier. We braced ourselves for another harbour experience but this time no hassle. We were able to walk the length of the pier with not even a "hello mr" as we passed the crowds. This was all well and good until we realised we didn't know where we were going. So rather sheepishly we walked back down the long pier to seek help. Before long we were on the back of two mopeds with our packs still on our backs causing us to tip at an alarming angle. This was not helped by quite frankly the most potholed road in the world. I was trying to take in the scenery but the strain of keeping myself on the bike was my top priority.

Having both made it without tipping off we sat down for breakfast in Siberut, the capital of Mentawai if you could call it that, with a guide who tried to excreet millions from us (rupiah if your still with me) for treks, boating and anything really. One of the main reasons we had come to the Mentawai's was to go trekking into the jungle but paying 3 million rupiah for two days was silly even with a lot of bartering.

Taking stock and finding a bed was the main agenda now so we left our green eyed guide, Corne, and within minutes were approached by Mas, another "guide". This was all becoming a bit tiring but with no signs showing any guesthouses we went with him to his house where "many tourists stay". I think what he meant to say was he wished many tourists stayed, but we finally had a bed, in a house sat over the water, and he seemed friendly enough.

Soon talk started about trekking. He wanted 2 million which was still way out of budget but could take us to Masalot island for 700,000 where we could camp. It was food for thought but still so expensive on an island where breakfast cost a little over 5000.

With our minds near to bursting we rented a motorbike to explore and have some time to ourselves. As we drove along we felt free for the first time in ages and the waving, non-guide, locals were all so friendly. We stopped for our first Sumatran coffee which was strong, sweet and unstrained but very good. On our way back we spoke to the first westerners we had seen in Sumatra. Coincidentally, they had just come from Masalot and only paid 500,000 to Corne for the return trip. Maybe this price was doable especially if we could camp on the beach.

We went back to Mas' and explained that we would go with him to Masalot if the price was 500k, like the others. He then took up a strange sort of denial, almost brushing our offer under the table still believing he would get 700k. He insisted on helping us to get food and cooking supplies, as there is nothing on the island, and continued with
Prt 2: The kitchen...Prt 2: The kitchen...Prt 2: The kitchen...

Leos and I hard at work
this charade until we got back to his house and gave him one last chance to change his mind, otherwise we would go with Corne. He refused and so we left to agree a deal elsewhere. With a few harsh words from his wife, we presume, he proceeded to follow us but, oddly, not to do the deal with us. With Mas out of sight we found Corne and with little trouble a deal was struck for 500k. As this happened Mas pulled up and an argument between him and Corne ensued. This was not what we wanted for our first day on the Mentawai islands.

A deal is a deal I told Mas and he stormed off back to his house. We then felt extremely awkward as we had to sleep there that night so instead of going back we headed to a cafe for a much needed Bintang. Not ten minutes had passed before Mas found us and with his mood not broken said he would do it for 500k. This was all too late we told him but he kept saying "Corne no good...I will talk with him". We had done a deal with Corne and didn't want to renage on this but our arguments continued with Mas unwilling to back down. It was becoming silly and all we wanted was to get to Masalot. Corne had the last customers so maybe it is fair if we went with Mas this time. In terms of mental health and nightime safety we reluctantly said we would go with Mas if he spoke to Corne.

Despite having secured our custom Mas' mood did not change. He was no longer a nice man but a greedy man. That evening, at his house, felt very uncomfortable and so we were relieved when they went to a wedding party leaving us to get to sleep.

The next morning the still moody Mas took us on a distinctly smaller, narrower boat than he first showed us but it was a beautiful journey through mangroves and rivers finally landing on the most stunning white sand beaches.

Of all the vast empty beach we were dropped by the one wooden dwelling along the shore. Hopping out of the boat Mas spoke with the owner and then told us "you cannot camp on the island", his excuse "because the locals might steal your can stay at the house though". It was all too convenient in a commission based business like his and we had been let down by Mas. The room had no bed just a very thin matress on the floor and a mosquito net. Malaria is endemic on the Mentawai's and at that point we were wondering if it was all worth it. We were in an amazing spot though and had no other choice but to stay at the house. Saying goodbye to Mas was the start of our relaxation.

Part Two - Tea and Tandor in Paradise

If you look at any picture postcard of a paradise beach then you will see everything that Masalot had. The great part was that this beach wasn't on any postcards and didn't have any resorts. After a swim and a sunbathe it wasnt long before Mas and money were forgotten and our first cup of tea was poured.

Using freshly boiled water from a constantly filled thermos the three men of Masalot; Raqu, Favrianos and Leos would drink sugary tea (a table spoon of sugar per cup), morning to evening everyday. In fact that was all they drank. Luckily we had bought a pack as we soon adopted their ways, although with a little less sugar.

The social dynamics of our new hosts was puzzling. All they seemed to do was drink tea and listen to the radio. The three men were descending in age from around 50 but didn't seem to be related, though lived in the same house. It was only them and an old tribal guy, with all the tattoos, who would pop in for a cuppa each day. Where were all the women? We were still bemused even after a few days until it became clear they were helping Raqu, the eldest, build the between long tea breaks we gathered.

Each evening as the sun began to fall we set about preparing dinner. We had vegetables, they had rice and despite the hermit crabs that gathered in the galley we were able to produce some great meals with the ingredients we had. On the remaining days we were there Leos caught fish for dinner and even some huge shellfish that we ate raw.

They couldn't speak English and we didn't know Indonesian let alone Mentawai but we had some
Prt 2: The strange Shellfish...Prt 2: The strange Shellfish...Prt 2: The strange Shellfish...

which were pretty tasty.
good laughs at our charade like conversations. We learnt words but it was hard remebering them when there was always two translations. So for the word 'good' Raqu would say "speak Indonesia...bagus" then "speak mentawai...miero".

The international language, however, was the game of chess and each night I would play Favrianos and Leos with light from a small, noisy, generator and yet more tea. Of the many games we played I remained unbeaten..."miero".

The island afforded time to read our books and for me to practice my didgeridoo circular breathing. The language barrier didnt effect the three tea drinkers as I think they truely did not know what to say to my tribal sounds.

The sun was the fiercest we'd had since leaving and after the burn from our first day we learnt not to be in it until around 5pm. This was about the time that we would hop out of the hammock and go snorkelling, using Raqu's homemade wooden goggles, along the beautiful reef on our doorstep. One day I left Han alseep and saw a Ray and two babies on the sea floor. It was an incredible sight as only their eyes could be made out from under the sand. I watched them swim away with the still camaflauged babies in tow.

Our accommodation wasn't perfect. We were sleeping on the floor with the constant scratching sound of hermit crabs edging closer as well as pigs that slept under the floorboards. The shower was from what water you could muster from the well outside but we were in a beautiful place and it all felt natural and real.

You may think the presence of pigs on a beautiful island would diminish it but they were actually very helpful. Any waste could be thrown onto the beach as within seconds the pigs would consume it. I was able to commence in a kind of eco-littering. Tandor, the fattest one, would eat everything, showing a particular liking to tea bags, of course. I didn't realise my affection for the little piggies until our last evening when we were hit by a big storm. We could hear them squeeking under the floorboards and we probably would have let them into the house had Raqu not been awake. They were fine though.

The day came when we had to leave this island of relaxation. We had agreed with Mas that he would pick us up at 10am but by 3pm he still had not shown. "Mas no good" Raqu kept saying, he couldn't have put it better. Mas was no good but we liked the island alot. With the 7pm overnight ferry to catch and Mas a lost cause, Raqu and Favrianos took us back to Siberut. Their kindness was highlighted even more by how dishonest Mas had been.

We got on a moped taxi with our bags on our backs again and made it to the ferry in time. Getting off the bike Han leant on the exhaust leaving a nasty burn on her leg. At the port we saw the first westerners in over a week. They asked "have you been surfing" like most tourists, or "have you been trekking" to which we laughingly replied "no, neither". We had come for trekking and ended up on a beach. Not a bad substitute we thought!

Money doesn't grow on trees in these parts but bananas certainly do and boarding the ferry it was clear that they took priority over the paying passengers. The boat wasn't like the one we took the first time. It was wooden and much smaller with no nice mats to sleep on. The presence of so many bananas made it hard to see where we would sleep, but luckily some Estonian guys we had been talking to had saved us some shelf space for what was to be a long, hot but not hungry journey back.

Additional photos below
Photos: 40, Displayed: 31


Prt 1- Arrival in SumatraPrt 1- Arrival in Sumatra
Prt 1- Arrival in Sumatra

View of volcanic mountains from the plane
Prt 1: The old footy postersPrt 1: The old footy posters
Prt 1: The old footy posters

in our room at Mas's

21st February 2010

guys this looks amazing, something unreal! your both looking so brown now. han your leg looks painful, hope its better now :) cannot wait to come to Thailand, its so soon now! looking froward to seeing you both, lots and lots of love, stay safe :) xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
21st February 2010

What a Life!
Hi Han and Lewi, Thankyou for your last two blogs. We have all enjoyed them very much, especially the photo's of you with a beard! I felt quite tense reading your hassles with Mas, but it is all part of paradise I guess. The time on the island sounded as if it made up for it quite a bit though. Sas says, "hello Lewis and Hannah, hope you are having a good time.I am making a teddy bear by cutting up your old socks!I have been on half term and I don't want to go back to school tomorrow,but I will. Looking forward to seeing you both in China". Walked round the cliff path below the house today, not paradise but close, just a lot more mud and no eco pigs. Love Mouty, Mod and Sasxxx PS keep up the blogs, they are great. Printed some off recently and sent them to Gandhi, who still insists he cannot use his computer. He was v pleased.
22nd February 2010

Never heard of the place....
Yo! Wow. This is somewhere I've never heard of and it sounds awesome! - a little bit of yet-to-be-trampled by tourists paradise. Sorry to hear about the slightly negative bit with Mas etc, but I guess it's those things which highlight how good the positive experiences are - and make you feel lucky you don't live like that. Keep enjoying the road - last three stories were brilliant. Peace and Love x
27th February 2010

Hi you two. Just read your latest entries.You guys write so well,gives us real feeling for the places you stay. Youre doing such a good job of keeping us all i touch.Some of your adventures do sound a bit worrying though! Stay safe and well. Lots of love xx
15th June 2010

Thank you for your insight
Dear guys, I really liked your article about Mentawai. There is so little informTIONabout Mentawai. I definately won't take a ride with Mas. Your writing was so amuzing and full of pictures. I can really imagine how it must have been. Sarah
31st October 2010

Nice Island Masalot.but..
We can't find it on a map of siberut... Only Masilok (Pulau Masilo). Can you help to find Masalot? Best Wishes, Denis.
6th June 2012

where are the names of those islands?
hey! I found your story quite interesting and I am thinking about going there. Could you tell me what the names of those islands are? Thanks so much in advance. Lilly
23rd January 2013

Sorry didn't reply
Hi there, So sorry we didn't reply have been completely out of he blogging loop. The islands are part of the mentawai archipelago, Siberut is the main and largest/most populated island. Masalot is much harder to get have to brave the likes of Mas and Corne! Did you already travel there? Hope your adventures were as wonderful as ours, Hannah
17th July 2012

Hi, I was very amused to read you blog, I'm from the UK and have been living in Padang for the past 13 years, I'm an English teacher in muslim university and have opened my own orphanage for street kids. Your experiences with the local people is all too familiar, it has taken me many years figure out the culture and how things work. If you ever come back to Padang or have any friends that plan to come here send me an e mail, I'm not a guide hehe, but I know the culture and the people inside out from years of experience and would be happy to help/advise fellow travellers :)
23rd January 2013

Hello there, Sorry not to reply sooner, we have been totally off the blogging scene. But reading your comments about the Mentawai islands has reminded me of how amazing and crazy those times were. 13 years in Padang, wow, and what great work you have been doing there. If we ever return (which I know we would love to) then we will be in contact with you, thank you for the kind offer. Hannah

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