Sean Doherty On: As World's Divide
COASTALWATCH | SEAN DOHERTY FEATURE
Could you just walk out the door one morning, a morning indistinguishable from any other in the dutiful dirge of your grey and meaningless working life, stand there on the porch, scratch your ass, stare ponderously out into the cosmos and go, you know what, instead of going to the office today I’m going to put on a red loincloth, cover myself in tribal tattoos, and go and live with an indigenous tribe in the jungles of Indonesia? No? Well, Rob Henry did.
The Melbourne surfer disappeared eight years ago into the forests of Siberut, the largest of the Mentawai Islands, living with one of a handful of truly indigenous cultures that survive anywhere on earth today. Over those years he filmed slices of tribal life, documenting his assimilation into the tribe. As World’s Divide is part anthropological study, part personal transformation, and Rob is hoping that by sharing the tribe’s culture with the world, he’ll help save it.
CW: Who were you in your previous life?
RH: Previous life? I was in Melbourne for eight years. I was actually a carpenter and then went into ad sales for a publishing company. Living in Melbourne everything is going a hundred miles an hour and I was very much a part of that. Everything is immediate and fast and bright and a lot of fun, but I never felt it was me. I came from the country where things were a bit slower. I was enjoying Melbourne but I guess I was looking for something else. Then the GFC had a big impact on me too, not in terms of losing my job but more so looking at the situation that the globe, that the Western world had got it so wrong. We’re supposed to be far more educated and developed yet we’re still able to find ourselves in that position. It really amazed me. I looked at the reasons of greed and capitalism and these systems that were largely responsible for that and I didn’t want to be a part of it anymore.
So there was a cognitive dissonance there. You didn’t feel like you belonged in that system?
Not so much the job, it was more being part of the rat race system and living in Melbourne that troubled me more.
What’s your surfing background?
I grew up an hour out of Melbourne. When I was younger it was a train to Melbourne, a train to Geelong and a bus to Barwon Heads to go surfing. It was a mission and this was the days before forecasts. Twice a year we’d get good waves but the majority of time it was onshore but I was still loving surfing, loving the ocean, didn’t matter what the conditions were like. When I got my license I got a panel van and stayed in that down the coast.
Where was the jumping off point? The moment you decided to get out of here.
I resigned from my job and went to Indo, filming guests at the Pit Stop surf camp in the Mentawai. The agreement was for three months but I lasted eight weeks. I went with an open mind and an interest in exploring alternatives to life in Melbourne and that’s why I was so inspired by the local people, in particular, Andy the boat driver. He was super-happy and had this glow of freedom in him that was quite different to what I’d left behind in Melbourne. At that time back home it was all doom and gloom then to meet this guy, he didn’t have a care in the world. He’d be jumping off the boat cackling all day. What did he know that we didn’t? Of course it was a remote area but I was interested to know why they had that happy disposition when us from a more developed world were struggling. I was intrigued. Andy had been plucked from the jungle and had never seen Westerners before and he seemed so much more connected to the culture and the land than the other staff. The other staff were more westernised but Andy was still climbing trees and running around with a machete and that gave me some insight. It drew me to learn more. He was the inspiration for me to go and live in those communities and find out more.
When did the decision to live in the jungle lodge itself in your mind?
I was so distracted in my mind by the people and the culture that I lost focus of what I was paid to do at Pit Stop. I was there to film the guests but my mind would wander and miss their best waves. I just found the longer I went on the more my mind wandered. It got to the point where I couldn’t keep on going and I needed to act on this and I made the decision. I asked if they knew of a village removed from the whole surf tourism deal. At this point, I didn’t even know about the indigenous tribe. I tried to explain a village that’s not on a break, no surfers, no Westerners, so this guy told me his uncle had a hut in the coconut farming village on the back side of the island. He organised the hut and I rocked up. I bought a boatload of supplies but there were people living in the hut when I got there and I felt terrible. I was rolling up unannounced and I could hardly speak the language and I felt awful. That’s how I transitioned.
Jumped into the deep end.
It was quite challenging, those first few months. They’d never had a Westerner stay there so I had groups of people around me all the time. Because there were groups from different islands coming for two week blocks, new people would come in and see the white guy, then they’d get bored of me after a couple of hours then another one would come over. It was pretty tiring mentally because all the while I’m trying to learn the language so I’d be pointing at things and writing it down and listening to them talk and trying to pick up on repetitive words.
Did they speak Indonesian or Mentawai?
Both, and a combination in that community. They dragged in a few words from Indonesian but primarily Mentawai, but because they spoke both that allowed me to learn the language. If I was going to learn about these people I’m going to need to master the language.
How long were you in the coconut camp for?
How did you handle the change?
It wasn’t too bad. There were some challenges with the rats. But it was quite humorous really, me versus the rats. I had some food in a polystyrene box and they’d eat through that so I built a wooden box and they ate through that. Eventually, I had the bag of food hanging suspended from the ceiling. Same with the garden. They’d eat everything so I had to build a garden in a wire cage. It wasn’t the creature comforts but I just wanted to live the way they did.
So how did you end up in with the Mentawai tribe in the forest?
I’d learned about the tribe while I was in the coconut camp. Hearing about this community that was still living traditionally on Siberut, I thought maybe there was something I could learn in there. On my first stint I was in there for almost a year. I left to do a visa run but that was it.
How did they react to you living amongst them? When did they become comfortable with you being there?
It was after quite a while in there. I felt so immersed in the life and I really liked how free I felt… it’s funny talking about being busy in the mind, but also how free I felt just to be in their life and be in that moment with none of those thoughts that terrorised me, wondering where I belonged. Being in the moment and being part of their lives I felt so free and I really loved that, but the filming brought me back to that other reality. When I was filming I was thinking what’s the point of me being here? Am I just taking advantage of this amazing life they’ve spent thousands of years setting up? Am I not serving a purpose when I can see that their way of life is so threatened? That’s when I had to go home for a bit and talk to friends and family and sort out what I wanted to do.
And want about detaching yourself totally from the Western world and being alone with your thoughts in the jungle. How did you handle all that external noise stopping?
When I was in the forest and I had a fair understanding of their life and had could speak there language there were times I felt a loneliness, and it wasn’t because I was alone – I always had people around me and they’re a very social culture the Mentawai, that’s not the issue – but no one spoke English and no one understood the type of thoughts I was having anyway because it’s not in their realm of perception, me thinking about the future of these people and their lives and how I fit in. Do I go back to Australia? Lots of thoughts. In our society, whether it’s the overconsumption of information or whether we train our brains to go a little faster I don’t know what it is, but I find my brain is very active and when you’re in that situation and you’re alone with your thoughts and having to deal with everything, after a while it can start to get to a point where you’re sending yourself a little crazy.
The indigenous Mentawai are an animist culture, right? How did you go understanding how that belief system worked?
On a basic level I agreed with a lot of it, before the spiritual side I agreed with their values and practices. That was something that made sense to me so I felt connected to that way of life. I feel much better about going out and gathering food and hunting as a means to survive as opposed to go to work to earn money to pay for that survival. I feel more alive living off the land and being directly connected to it. That was easy. To then adapt to the spiritual side is complex and I’m still learning about it, but I’ve gradually taken it on. When they pass on their spirits move on and become part of the land and the sea and sky, and they believe the spirits of the ancestors protect them. They live in the trees and in the animals. They spend so long asking for forgiveness when they sacrifice an animal or cut down a tree so I guess the more I learn about it the more interested I became in it. They’ve been moulding me in a way to become a sikerei (shaman). I still have a lot to learn. All the taboos and medicines.
What world do you want to live in?
Both. I’ll be over in the Mentawai for the rest of my life but there was a time out there when I thought I’d just be happier out there, but you’re so removed from the outside world. There’s no daily news so you forget in a way how you used to think and how you interact with other people in the Western world. I thought this was great and I’d be happier there, but then coming back to Australia and reconnecting I felt I belong here too. My family and friends are so important to me. I’ll live between the two.
How were those news catch-ups? When you’d get home and learn about all these things that had happened in the world and the lives of people around you?
It puts things in perspective that you’ve been away for six months. You reconnect online you’ll very quickly learn about the things you need to learn, but all the other stuff you haven’t lost anything by not knowing about it. You might have 500 emails but three are worth reading and replying. But it’s part of the process of living in this Western world. How much time do we need to spend on this shit? I don’t think we need to know everything about everything. That’s not helpful. With all these news stories of things going wrong, it’s putting fear into peoples’ minds and making their lives harder. You don’t get any news out there so it’s a much simpler life and easier to focus on the world you’re living in in the forest.
Did you get sick out there at all?
A couple of fevers but nothing major. The dietary changes, swapping over from a Western diet to a local diet, I was quite lethargic for a few months and didn’t use my bowels for a few months, but after that I actually never felt more energetic. Once I swapped over in the coconut community we were eating fish and sago and rice. They ate a lot of biscuits and sugar in their tea but I couldn’t do it. They thought I was mad. After that I was so energetic and healthy and that was in the forest as well. I had a couple of fevers but I had the shaman gather medicines from the forest and they worked. I did at one point get stung by a scorpion. I was walking through the forest and I thought this was a prawn in a stream so I grabbed it then halfway up its tail has swung up and stung me. I was with a couple of sikerei and I asked, “Err, is that a problem?” As soon as I said it one of them darted off into the bush and came back with a root he chopped up and he said hold it there and if the poison gets beyond your wrist to your elbow let me know. They didn’t seem too fussed about it. A year later I asked, “How poisonous are scorpions?” They went yep, you can die. That’s their persona; they don’t get too jazzed up about anything. They’re so relaxed. Death is a natural part of their life they wouldn’t panic anyway.
Did anyone in the village pass away while you were up there?
I haven’t been there while someone’s died but I’ve been to a ceremony. They bury them now. Years ago they used to put them in boxes up trees to keep them closer to nature but the missionaries sorted that out. The ceremony is quite amazing. The spirit will remain in the body until they release it, which can be a week or so after, even longer, a month. They call that “the crying period” then when they’re ready they’ll have a big ceremony and release the spirit back into nature. When they cry they almost cry in song. That’s their crying. Then after the ceremony everyone is back to normal. Life moves on. It’s the release and closure that’s interesting. They deal with death better than we do in the West.
How aware are they of wider Indonesia and the forces of the modern world pushing in on them?
They’re really isolated and they’re not that aware of what’s going on. They don’t have that perspective and don’t see the motives and strategies by the governments. In the forest, they don’t quite understand what’s happening out in the world. They want to protect their culture but aren’t aware of the complexities of what’s going on around them.
I’ve got to ask you about your tattoos.
I’ve always been interested in tattoos. I was there for a while and they were offering to tattoo me but I knocked them back. It came about later on. I was struggling to find where I fitted in in this world, whether I’d stay in the Mentawai or go home, and that’s what motivated me to go ahead with the tattoos. It was a sign of commitment. If I do this then I’ll have a better understanding of the path I’m going down. I don’t know if it made it better or worse though.
It wasn’t regret. I appreciated it and felt privileged, but it didn’t give me the answer I wanted at that time. After finding more purpose later I felt better about the tattoos and have continued getting them. I understood better what my purpose was and that I was going to be there for a while.
How was the dynamic with the camera? Did they know what the camera even did, and did that soften the dynamic of filming their everyday life?
The tribal community, they were like, this thing can see me? Where does it put it? They don’t understand how it works and they don’t feel insecure or self-conscious. It doesn’t exist for them, so they’re quite happy in front of it. Being there a long time it actually enabled me to film anything and they were fine with it. My father figure there, he was crook one time and I arrived back and his son come down river to the port where I’d arrived and he said, “Dad’s sick.” When I got there he was close to death. He hadn’t eaten or drunk for a week, but he’s recognised me and he goes, “Photo? Photo?” In his dying moments, he still wanted me to film him! We took him down to hospital and he was in there for five days. I had to change the drips as there was only the occasional doctor. He started talking in tongues and his brother, who’s also a sikerei, started crying and I just thought he’s dying. He went on for a while, then they stood up and his brother said, “He’s going to be all right.” From whatever he was saying his brother knew he was at a crossroads to live or die, and he’d decided he was going to live.
Are you optimistic about the future of the village and their way of life?
I think they can survive. It’s a tough question. There’s a lot of pressure and I’ve seen a lot of change in the time I’ve been there, but I’ve been in touch with an anthropologist from the Netherlands who was there in the ‘70s and he said the situation was very much the same back then. They’re still living that way. It’s at a critical stage, they’re building this trans-Mentawai road into that area and that will have a huge change. The remoteness protects them at the moment. I’d like to think they’ll still be there in 30 years and their best chance is through this film and the education program we’re creating so we can get them to see the value in their culture. They don’t have that perspective to see what’s in store if they lose this. At worst, if we can protect their culture then even if they stop living the way they are in the forest, the culture will hold them together even if they’re living in a town. If they don’t have the forest the culture will save them, but if they lose both they’ll lose themselves.
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