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The Mentawai: Walking Barefoot in the Siberut Jungle

The Siberut jungle undergoes a radical change during the rainy season, when itís transformed into a massive bog. Although the easiest way to travel is on the swollen rivers, they donít go everywhere, so Mentawai make a network of ďstreetsĒ for several kilometers around their villages. Logs of all sizes, set in the mud beneath the water, allow travel without having to walk in thigh-deep mudóif you can walk on them. Even when the logs are laid on the surface, where they are easy to see, they are not always easy to walk on.

The worst are the very narrow and slippery bamboo logs; those not born into this world would probably fall time after time as I did, then spend an equal amount of time trying to get back up on the log. Itís no wonder that even a single kilometer is exhausting when youíre constantly struggling to lift your feet without losing your shoes while stuck in mid-thigh mud. Meanwhile, kids running by on the logs are amazed by your clumsiness; they too like playing in the mud, but feel there is an appropriate time for everything.

It becomes even more difficult when you have to walk on logs you canít see. With mud up to your ankles and water to your knees, trying to feel where the next inches of the log are is challenging. If you are lucky enough not to slide off this one, you miss the next one because you canít feel it through your shoes, which you quickly realize are completely unsuited to your needs.

In my mind, the biggest risk on the island is falling from the logs used as crossings. A tumble from the large logs across rivers only means a refreshing bath. However, the tiny little logs set high over the big rocks of dried river beds make you consider if you would be able to walk out of this jungle with a broken leg. Even using a walking stick for balance isnít enough to follow the Mentawai; after all, native kids take their first steps on logs. Since all houses are elevated to prevent flooding during the monsoon (the space beneath is lodging for the pigs), the only access is up a steep and usually slippery log.

After 6 weeks, my Gore-Tex trekking shoes were rotten and, although my balance skills had improved, I was tired of struggling to lift those heavy slippery nonsensical things. I finally realized that I had to walk barefoot: feet grip better than shoes on muddy logs and only when barefoot can one feel the log and know the right place to step. I was prepared to start walking barefoot.

First Day Barefoot

Today my Mentawai family decided to pick durian from trees only a short jungle walk from the house; it seemed like the perfect opportunity to leave my shoes at home. Not only did I go shoeless, but my friends also deprived me of my shorts and outfitted me with a kabit, a loincloth made of tree bark. Scantily dressed, I followed a group of women, old men and children into the rainforest.

Walking on top of wet logs had become instantly easier but they remained slippery as I experienced a variety of new sensations. Stepping off the logs in the mud felt very strange--with each step, the mud came squeezing itself up between my toes and spreading back on top of them. This tickling was soon replaced by what felt like an oily foot massage when I slid down a small bank of the river. To climb back up, I used my toes to grip the mud or little roots. It was an interesting experience and felt amazingly good.

In the vegetation, I watched each step, afraid I might step on some hidden thorny pandana branches or pieces of durian shells. Caution was the word of the day, but nothing could compensate for the tenderness of my feet. In sudden pain, I lifted up my right foot to see a three-inch thorn stuck in it. Holding on to a tree, I removed it with loud wails of pain. Five minutes later, the old woman in front of me silently lifted her foot to remove the same type of thorn, which seemed to have dug into the sole of her foot more than an inch. She calmly removed the thorn in two seconds and then kept walking. Shoes hadnít worked, but touristís feet obviously werenít much better. I knew it would take time and pain to walk like a Mentawai, but I threw my shoes away and, from that day onward, went barefoot.

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