When Travel Becomes Time Travel

23 Sep

[tweetmeme source=”@mummy_t” only_single=false]Tomorrow we embark for Pulau Halmahera, one of Indonesia’s Spice Islands, where we will travel back in time.

Our aim? To experience the nomadic hunter-gatherer life as it is still lived today, among unassimilated Togutil people.

And this is a journey almost as close to time travel as it is possible to get. A step right back into human history.

Storm clouds gather over a flat dark sea. Off Pulau Derawan, Indonesia.
Because, despite logging and mining of their ancestral lands and the efforts of missionaries and government to civilise them, the forest nomads we are going to meet still live as their ancestors have for millennia and ours did millennia ago.

They wear loincloths, hunt deer and bushmeat with spears, forage for sago, cassava, eggs, leaves and fruit. They build shelters of leaves and branches, and move their camps as the forest provides.

They live without money, electricity, running water, healthcare, in clan units of four to fifteen people, scattered among the rivers which thread the forests and mountains of this wilderness island.

Now, Z and I have seen a lot of different ways of living and experienced a lot of different beliefs since we started this journey in January.

But this journey — the two of us, a lead guide and three local guides-cum-porters-cum-guards will, I hope, teach both him and me a lot.

We’ll be building our own shelters. Hunting and foraging some of our own food. And, hopefully, spending time among people who live as they have done for millennia.

It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I thought about it in the Calamian archipelago of the Philippines, not so far from here, where tribal peoples still live as true nomads in the forested mountainous interior of these islands.

I thought about it in southern Palawan, in the Philippines, even nearer to here, where the Ta’ut Batu lead a lifestyle not too dissimilar to the earliest cave dwellers not far from the sea. But Z wasn’t ready.

And I’d intended to do something similar in Indonesian Papua, but unassimilated tribes live deep in the interior, and on an island where every drop of fuel has to be flown into the interior, a simple boat charter runs at $700 or so a day.

So here we are…

Heading off into the wilds, in search of a people under an ancient curse, from a city which is, in part, straight out of Evelyn Waugh.
dazzling sunset over the Maluku Sea: blues, pinks, and the wake of a ferry.

The curse? Well, Pulau Ternate, the island we are on now, and the spiritual and cultural capital of the northern Moluccas, has been ruled by the same family since the twelfth century CE, which means that some of their rituals are pretty damn old.

Certainly pre-Islamic. Possibly pre-Hindu, though early Hinduism involves a lot of magic.

And, as we found in northern Laos and the Tana Toraja, a lot of what folk initially describe as “old beliefs” turn out to be pretty damn current once they trust you enough to open up.

This old belief? Many centuries ago, the sultan of Ternate, ruler of an empire which vastly outstripped the size of this tiny island, had a captain, who refused to obey his orders.

The captain ran and hid in the mountainous forests of the neighbouring island, Halmahera — still a place which few can penetrate.

So the sultan put a curse on him: that he and his family and all his descendants would live in the forests, like beasts.

Many folk here put enough credence in the old belief that they consider the Togutil not orang asli (aboriginals) but degenerate Moluccans.

Which is also damn convenient when it comes to taking over their ancestral lands for logging and mining.
logging barge in borneo

Things I’ve heard today about the Togutil?

“One day, on the survey land, we catch four of them,” explained an educated, thoughtful, Jakarta-based landowner. The choice of verb is unfortunate, but revealing. “They are from a family. The grandparents are brother and sister. They marry. They have two children. A son and a daughter. Then the son gets his mother pregnant and they have four more children. They live so far apart and are so afraid of each other they have no other way.”

“When the government resettles them, they run away. When someone dies, they bury them in the garden, abandon the house and run back to the jungle. They are afraid of the ghosts,” explained a local teacher of computing, a Sufi so abstract and spiritual he’s close to agnosticism.

He adds and, gentle reader, if you’ve ever heard the tinpan alley battering a tropical rainstorm plays on a corrugated iron roof, you might understand the sentiment a little, “When they first put them into houses and the rain falls on the roof, they are terrified and run back into the jungle.”

“There are some Togutil who are very, very tall and white,” one of Pulau Ternate’s many, many enthusiastic students of English (and mobile phone photography) explains.

“One day I was hunting deer in Halmahera and I saw the footprint. It was like so [he mimes the length of a forearm]. We think they are from Portuguese people. They are whiter than you. They have white hair…”

He continues, “A friend of mine, he bring some to his home. All they do is watch TV. They never saw TV, so they watch it from 6am to midnight and through into the next day. He tries to teach them badminton, but they cannot play.”

I must confess that I am not entirely sure about the ethics of this trek. It won’t be first contact, though folk believe there are clans further in the interior who have yet to meet people from outside their own tribal minority.

But we are, in effect, yet another incursion from the modern world on people who seem to run from much of it in terror. And, I wonder, if the Togutil eventually meet the fate of Borneo’s Penan, whether we will be a part of the problem.

Selfishly, though, I’m doing it. I think we’ll learn an immense amount. About human history, human nature, linguistics and, maybe, just maybe, what it means to be human and to be happy.

At the least, we should get an insight into a way of life which will, I think, be gone for good by the time Z has children of his own. What do you think?

We’ll be back to the land of connectivity in a week or so. In the meantime I’ll be posting some other amazing things we’ve done over the last few weeks. If you haven’t already, you might want to click here and follow our feed.

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10 Responses to “When Travel Becomes Time Travel”

  1. scotttraveler September 23, 2010 at 10:50 am #

    If you do see the tall albinos, be sure to capture a photo for us, ya?

    • MummyT October 3, 2010 at 12:59 am #

      photography a little bit of a sore spot, i’m afraid, monsieur. my camera decided to stop being waterproof when we arrived at the jumpoff. took some photos with the guide’s camera, but can’t get them off… no albinos. everyone on the island seems to have a photo of a footprint, though. like halmahera’s answer to the yeti.

  2. Jenny September 23, 2010 at 10:56 am #

    WOW. I wish I could have done something that fun when I was Z’s age. I think that it will greatly impact him in a positive way. When you experience a tribal culture like that it really makes you feel grateful for the opportunities your home country has given you (and the ability to even have that experience) and for the little things back home that make life easier (modern comforts).

    When I was in Vanuatu I lived with a tribe for 4-weeks and I learned so much. I didn’t make my own shelter or anything like that, but I participated in ceremonies and did my best to live like them while volunteering there. Prolly the most impactful, amazing, most happy experience of my life to date. They didn’t need money or modern comforts to survive… their life was slow and happy.

    • MummyT October 3, 2010 at 1:02 am #

      wow! i actually just posted about the slow and happy stuff. i can’t quite internalise it, i have to say. admire it, yes. but it still seems wrong.

      maybe we need to spend longer? having just got back with a lot of stories, i think the simple living experience is very, very mixed. maybe not so much on vanuatu. did you blog this, btw? would be great to have a link…

  3. Tracy Burns September 23, 2010 at 8:20 pm #

    Sounds amazing and I’m very jealous. Looking forward to your pictures and insights when you return.

    • MummyT October 3, 2010 at 1:02 am #

      thank you! it was amazing. a real frontier experience. think we may seek out more tribes a little further south, too. it continues to intrigue…

  4. Snap September 24, 2010 at 12:31 am #

    As I clean out the dead spiders and dust from underneath my fridge and freezer, I think….GOOD LORD! is there nothing this woman wouldn’t do, places she wouldn’t go?

    Have a great time and take care. Can’t wait to hear all about it.

    • MummyT October 3, 2010 at 1:08 am #

      we are back safely. zac uninjured, despite acquiring impressive machete skills. i, having avoided the things like the plague, managed to cut my finger open on one to general hilarity. thought i might lose a chunk of it, but it seems to be healing nicely.

  5. Andrea September 24, 2010 at 1:03 pm #

    I hope it is all you hope for, and good luck. Am very jealous, and I think Z is the right age to do something like this, my 13 year old would not be too keen! It’s about his limit to spend 3 weeks in Thailand trekking etc.

    • MummyT October 3, 2010 at 1:11 am #

      ah, the joys of teenage independence. seeing some dawnings of it over here. concern with hairstyles, etc.

      i do tend to have to sweeten trekking type activities with the promise of a hotel with a/c once we get out. but, yes, one reason to do it while they’re relatively young is precisely that…

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