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The Mentawai: Walking Barefoot in the Siberut Jungle

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Second Day Barefoot

The next day, my family decided that just the loincloth wasn’t enough to make me look Mentawai, so they wrapped my neck and arms with necklaces and bracelets of plastic beads, stuffed my long hair into a wrap of red cotton and added all the flowers and scented leaves necessary to make me look decent. Today, I was going to follow Martinus’ brother and other members of the family on a long walk to pick kilos of durian fruits. Though everybody tried to discourage me from going because of my thorn experience of the previous day, my mind was made up.

Walking in the jungle is never easy. I could feel the smallest variations in the texture of the mud; sometimes it tickled, sometimes it rubbed, but it was always slippery. When I dug my feet into twenty inches of mud, sometimes they hit rocks, or were trapped between branches on the bottom, making me trip over trees. I got used to digging my toes in to get a better grip, but it took time and I was particularly slow that day. After half an hour, I was delighted to see a large riverbed, thinking we would leave the mud and follow the river. My first step into the river was heavenly; the cold water felt good and the threat of thorns was gone. My joy disappeared shortly when I discovered that walking in the riverbed was simply a different kind of painful experience. I couldn’t see clearly where to put my feet because of the current, so I smashed my toes on anything that stood in my way and often slipped and fell. After an hour walking this Via Dolorosa, I was beginning to look forward to logs.

When we finally arrived at one of the clan’s trees, Sigrigeirei was already atop it. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Though it was raining and incredibly slippery, he was walking from branch to branch thirty-five meters above the ground as if he were on the floor at home! He focused only on the fruits that he was hooking with a long bamboo stick. The durians fell by the dozen.

We ate our fill of the delicious fruits, and then everybody got to work filling up their rattan baskets. We returned with eight baskets weighing between twenty and thirty kilos each. They all wanted to carry my basket for me because they were afraid I would fall and kill myself. Despite the walking stick that they cut for me, carrying that basket reminded me of the painfully intense mountain training I had survived in the French Special Forces. The durian thorns pressed against my back, thin shoulder straps dug into my skin and the additional load made it very difficult to control my balance. Extremely cautious and therefore slow, my feet ached, but I knew I had to get used to it. After a long hour of walking, my thighs were already tired. I suddenly understood why even old Mentawai men and women have beautiful muscular legs. Three or four hours of work a day in the jungle can preserve your youthunless you try to harvest durian unsuccessfully.

A Week Later

Two days ago a piece of thorn broke off in my foot and became infected. I used a waterproof Band-Aid to protect it from the mud although it usually stayed on for only an hour or two. Yesterday, I cut myself between the ball of my foot and the little toe; that Band-aid stayed on for only five minutes as the mud made its way through my toes. I still felt strange walking barefoot here, but was relieved to not have to wear those heavy hiking boots. For the first time, I was able to walk without falling from logs into the mud. Even the sharp stones of the river weren’t a problem for the first hour, but then, aggravated by fatigue, my feet started to get sore. Today, I finally enjoyed the walk. Each time we saw a fruit tree we stopped to eat, saving the remaining fruits to collect on our way back. The sun penetrated some parts of the forest with small lines of light while other parts were covered with a roof of leaves and branches. Sometimes the river would funnel into a small canyon where we had to bend over to go through a tunnel of vegetation. The jungle was beautiful as each turn of the river uncovered more pools of crystal clear water, the dense vegetation hanging from each side reflected in them.

6 months later

After two months of walking barefoot in the jungle every day, stopping constantly, in excruciating pain, to remove thorns, I could finally walk normally. This doesn’t mean I could follow Mentawai as they ran over logs, but at least I was no longer falling down. It took more than four months for my feet to become tough enough for me not to miss shoes; even after six months, my feet were not nearly as tough as those of elderly Mentawai ladies and my balance not quite as good as that of a 10 year old. Eventually I realized that I could never adapt to the jungle as well as the Mentawai have.

When I returned to the mainland, my feet no longer fit in closed shoes and when, a few months later, I bought a pair of shoes, it took me two weeks to be able to lace them shut. By then, the thick leather from the soles of my feet had peeled off completelyin a mere two weeks, they had lost the toughness gained from six months of pain.


If you plan on visiting the Mentawai for a short time, I don’t recommend walking barefoot. Walking shoes are not ideal for Siberut, but at least they protect your feet. Lifting your heavy muddy footwear and sliding on submerged logs is just part of the joy of discovering the beautiful world of the Mentawai.

Jean-Philippe Soulé, 1993

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