2012 Asia Date Geography Interest Jewish Interest

The Siberut Bonfire

As the old saying goes: “seek, and ye shall find”. At least that seems to be the case for me with Jewish encounters when I travel. Maybe it is because I am psychically open to it, but I find myself unexpectedly bumping into things of Jewish interest wherever I go, no matter how improbable.

I have stumbled across numerous abandoned Jewish synagogues on my travels, like the one converted into a dry-goods store that I wandered into while shopping in Rangoon, Myanmar (Burma, in old-speak). I ate fresh-baked Jewish pastries at Nachum’s Bakery in the covered markets of Calcutta, and I have been invited to Friday night dinner by isolated Jews living in the most unlikely of places. I even once found myself in what turned out to be my father’s primary school classroom, in a derelict Hebrew school building in the old Jewish quarter of Fez, Morocco. And, as I described in a posting last month, I unsuspectingly found myself at the gates of Auschwitz while on a work visit to a Polish gas well.

It was in response to this story that a friend asked me: “what is the strangest Jewish travel experience you have ever had?” The answer is easy, although for this one, I need to take you back about 18 years.

When I finished law-school I was desperate to see the world. So with Camilla, my girlfriend at the time, we set off on an 18 month voyage of discovery, travelling across much of South East Asia, into Nepal and India, and then repeating the process across most of Europe and into North Africa. It was my first real taste of the world at large, and since then, I have been well and truly smitten by the travel bug.

During the part of our journey that took us overland across Indonesia, we were breakfasting one morning at a backpacker café in Bukittingi, a hillside town in the highlands of central Sumatra. We struck up a conversation with Ingrid, a pretty Dutch girl who was sitting alone at the table next to us, sipping a coffee. After chatting for about 15 minutes, she made us the most extraordinary offer.

Ingrid had married a young man who was a native of Siberut, an island off the west coast of Sumatra that I had never heard of before that moment. Ingrid’s proposition was simple: her father-in-law was the chief of a village on Siberut and was soon to be “ordained” as a medicine man of sorts. She and her husband wanted to attend the ceremony, but didn’t have any money. “If you buy boat tickets and gifts for my husband’s family – tobacco and rice – then you can come with us as our guests”, she had said.

One of the great advantages of being young and stupid is that you actually accept offers like this at face value without thinking too deeply about how insane it all is. So the next day, Ingrid, her husband, Camilla and I caught a rickety bus to the coastal city of Padang, and from there boarded a supply ship for the overnight journey to Siberut. On arrival at the island the next morning, we transferred to a large oar-powered canoe for what turned out to be an eight hour up-river paddle. At the end of this we were exhausted, but still no village in sight. Ingrid told us we had some way to go yet (!!) and so we would need to camp for the night and continue the next day.

Early next morning, just before sunrise, we set off on foot walking along a narrow, muddy jungle path for hours, each step taking us deeper and deeper into what was now wild, dense jungle. Finally, sometime that afternoon, we arrived at a small isolated village with no electricity and no running water apart from the nearby stream, and where the male inhabitants were wearing loin cloths and carrying bows and arrows. “We’re here!” Ingrid said cheerfully. Holy fuck – what had we got ourselves into?

We were greeted by Musang, chief of the village and Ingrid’s father-in-law, who was a quite magnificent specimen of a human being. Sun-bronzed leathery skin, a body ripped with muscles and not an ounce of spare fat to be seen. A stub of tobacco wrapped up in a leaf was permanently wedged into the side of his mouth, and the only thing he wore apart from a loin-cloth was a necklace made up of string, feathers and colourful beads.

So, Camilla and I settled into what was to be a six day stay. We slept on the raised floor of Musang’s hut, along with him, his wife, his younger children, Ingrid and her husband, and various other random visitors. Pigs and chickens slept in the dirt below.

On my second day I swapped my shorts for a loin-cloth. It was a frightening sight, but for the next week, my loin-cloth and I were inseparable. We joined in the daily life of the village. On one day, we helped to carve a new canoe from a giant log. On another, I waded into the river with the village women, fishing for prawns and mollusks; and on one incredibly memorable day, I went into the forest with the men of the village, hunting for wild pigs and monkeys.

Finally, on our last evening, it was time for Musang’s initiation ceremony. In the late afternoon, guests from other villages started appearing, as if by magic emerging from the surrounding jungle. Musang popped a flower behind his left ear, gathered a few of his most prized chickens, chanted a blessing of some sort over them, and then slaughtered the poor birds then and there. The carcasses, once plucked, were handed over to his wife, Teresa, who with the other village women was preparing a dinner feast.

As darkness fell, everyone gathered around a massive bonfire. Food was passed around, followed by singing, chanting and frenzied dancing, that seemed to go for hours, late into the night.

Eventually, full of food and all chanted out, everyone settled around the waning fire. I was staring dreamily into the glowing embers, when the strangest thing happened. Teresa and some of the other village women began singing: “hava nagilah, hava nagilah, hava nagilah ve nismecha ….”

At first, I thought I was hallucinating, but it was unmistakable: the village women were singing that most quintessentially Jewish of songs, the hava nagilah. I cannot begin to impress upon you how utterly bizarre this was. We were in the deepest, darkest reaches of a remote jungle on an even more remote Indonesian island. We were an overnight boat ride, eight hour canoe journey and all-day trek from the nearest outpost of “civilization”. I was sitting by the campfire wearing nothing but a loin-cloth, for God’s sake. How was hava nagilah at all possible in this place?

Some enquiries via Ingrid yielded an explanation. Apparently, missionaries had established an outpost about two days walk from the village. Some of the village women had adopted Christianity, and once a month they hiked overnight to attend the mission’s church on a Sunday. The women loved to sing, and the pastor at the mission had taught them an assortment of hymns and songs – clearly religious denomination being of less relevance than melodic catchiness – and this included hava nagilah, which the pastor had himself learned on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

I responded to this entirely unexpected turn of events in the only way I thought appropriate. That is, I stood up and indicated to everyone else around the fire to do likewise. Holding hands, we formed a circle, and I proceeded to teach my Siberut friends the hora, which is the traditional dance that accompanies the hava nagilah at most Jewish weddings and festivities. The village women took to it right away, singing and laughing with delight, and eventually the men joined in with gusto, too.

So picture the scene if you will: a jungle clearing on a faraway Indonesian island, two western backpackers, one of them dressed in a loin-cloth, leading a group of the native islanders in a traditional Jewish hora around a smoldering bonfire, the voices of the village women singing hava nagilah rising up through a canopy of trees, into a cloudless night sky.

Hands down, the strangest Jewish-related travel experience I have ever had.

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