Mentawai – in the heart of the jungle

Fireflies, red dragonflies, the next moment a dinosaur could trudge between the primeval sago trees – south of Sumatra, in the Indonesian archipelago, there are small islands where the indigenous culture is still maintained: the Mentawai Islands.

young Sikerei (shaman)

The rivers lead deep into the largest island of Siberut. The jungle lies in a swamp – the indigenous cut down trees to create paths through the mire out of thin tree trunks – it’s a challenge to keep your balance on long walks across the slippery tree trunks and not to fall into the mud or into a spiked palm tree with your film equipment.

shaman Takgogouk in the forest

Deep in the forest, there is the Uma, the house of the clan. Airy and open, you feel at home quickly in its cooling shadow. My host is the shaman Takgogouk – the shamans (Sikerei) are the charismatic guardians of the ancient Mentawai culture, they know all the plants and preparations, how to craft bows and poison arrows and how to hunt, they live the tradition. I got to know some Sikerei during my days on the islands, listened to their stories and songs.

The indigenous people live in an egalitarian community. Everyone has a voice when there is something to decide, including the children. It roots partly from animism, here the spirits are more at eye level, less an almighty deity of monotheism, which could promote a culture of subjugation and exploitation.

Mother Tiru fishing in the river

Everything is animated: according to native beliefs, souls and spirits form the interwoven forest. Every human being, in a sense, has two souls: the consciousness and a spiritual soul that could be walking through the forest and meeting other souls while one is working or sleeping at home. In the aboriginal belief, the shaman can see the invisible souls, the whole spiritual fabric of the forest. One adorns oneself with flowers, so that after its wandering, the soul gladly takes its place inside the body again. If someone gets sick, their soul is gone astray on their wandering through the forest, is in bad company, does not want to come back. The soul is like a child, the shaman soothes and lures it like one – with songs and gestures.

Takgogouk searching for beetle larvae in a sago tree

The sago tree is the affluence of the swampy islands. If you cut down a tree, you can provide for family and pets for a long time. Some sago trees serve luxury: they feed beetle larvae, which are regarded as a delicacy. But in the end, you only get a small basket full of larvae from the soft wood of a big tree.

delicatecy: sago beetle larvae

Sago flour is much more fruitful. Roasted with grated coconut, it acts as the daily bread. You put the sago dough into the fire inside bamboo pipes or wrap it in sago leaves and put it into the hot coal. The menu includes fruit, chicken, fish, beetle larvae and game. Pigs are not part of everyday meals, their meat is reserved for important festivals and ceremonies. The domestic pigs are half boars and are free to search food in the forest daytime. In the evening their owner sounds the wooden bel, the noise rings through the forest and the pigs come back to the house to get their share of sago.

According to old legends, the sago tree is said to have turned into a human and a human into a sago tree. The tree not only provides food, its leaves serve as a roof and in earlier days, the leaves were smoked as well.

Takgogouk with bow and arrows in the forest

Poison arrows are made for hunting with a bow and arrows. The shaman knows exactly how to find roots and leaves to prepare in the vicinity of the house, and after half an hour, the arrows are prepared to be lethal.

Takgogouk processing the bark

The production of bark clothing is just as fast, but the old techniques can only be performed with such ease using lifelong practice. With a few strokes of the machete my host Takgogouk cuts through the slender trunk of a Baiko tree from which the bark clothing is made. But the tree does not fall yet, its crown is stuck in the dense forest. Takgogouk climbs up the narrow, bare trunk in seconds and uses the machete to separate the trunk from the top. A moment later, he is down again safely and with quick cuts releases the second layer of bark, taps and rolls it with a wooden tool until soft and elastic – this requires strength and skill, which only forms after long practice.


The forest of the islands is maintained to this day, the indigenous people use it regeneratively. But the government has given licenses to commercial loggers who are now moving in on it as well. Here, too, the ancient forests and traditional culture are in danger.

Mother Tiru

The Australian Rob Henry has been living with the indigenous people for nearly 10 years and has established a foundation to support their culture. He collaborates closely with the organization of the indigenous people Suku Mentawai.They have begun to document traditional culture, language, medical and plant knowledge, stories, myths, spirituality, songs – a project worth supporting. At present there are hardly any funds and donations are urgently needed. If you would like to travel to Mentawai yourself, you will find eco-tourism offers at the house of the foundation (

The old Aman Pangkek still lives in the forest with his wife

After filming, I‘m travelling to my next destination, the island Flores – first back to the 30-million-city Jakarta  and then further east in the archipelago, beyond the Wallace line. But the departure from the Mentawai Islands is hard. At some point I will return.

Joo Peter, July 2019

Update September 2020:  trailer for my documentary 

Support the film project here – Thanks!

(c)  by Joo Peter (except film trailer by Rob Henry)

copyrights reserved, contact joopeter(at)

The featured starting picture of this chapter shows shaman Aman Boroi Ogok.


organization of the indigenous people: Suku Mentawai

IEF – Indigenous Education Foundation

As Worlds Devide film by Rob Henry

youtube channel  Yayasan Pendidikan Budaya Mentawai – Mentawai Cultural Education Foundation

Local media intiatives:  youtube chanel Bang Nimus

Onion Collective in Ubud, Bali

Like to jump into the pool after coding? The Onion Collective started 2012 in Ubud,  as the oldest co-working & co-living space on Bali, when the life-style of digital nomads just was born.  It’s  soulfeeding roots go back to the 70s with love, peace & happiness.

While  other co-working spaces turned more business-focused, Onion stays an inspiring place with a mission beyond money-making. So it still is the most affordable co-working space also, starting with 50.000 IDR day-pass.

Networking magic happens at the Onion Café at night – travellers & creative people around the world meet at the restaurant. I never met so many wonderful artists and travelling soulmates in Ubud like in this place.

Mark Kuan is the founder spirit of the Onion – handling it with a lot Asian wisdom to keep it a special place. More on the Onion temple of Chill here

Regina is the welcoming spirit of the Onion, supported by a like-minded team.

Find the Onion of Airbnb here. There are private rooms & dorms.

Onion collaborates with  Bali Moon project – jewelry by the tribe.

Mark Kuan also created a new retreat called Gungung An

Hi Gusdek, I spotted you at the cremation ceremony 😀

Kan Kulak – portraying Bali culture

He is an Bali artist legend living in Ubuds neighbor village Peliatan: Kan Kulak portrays Bali culture and taksu (spirit) – he is like a powerful Balinese spirit himself.

Its joy of life and dedication to Balis precious culture expressed in his paintings, some of them reminding of Gauguins soft and colorful expressionism.

However there is much more to discover in his art, an universe of complexity in the spiritual belief  of Bali: his large  black & white art works are unsurpassed masterpieces in storytelling this complex interwoven spiritual world.

Portraying Dewi Sri, goddess of rice, Kan Kulak shows how all creatures and spirits are depending on her and linked to each other. All space surrounding us is full of spiritual energy and living spirits, therefor you will find in Bali art very often all space of canvas and sheet of paper filled with creatures.

This spiritual view on the world can have a great impact on our western culture, it can inspire and remind us to connect to nature again. Western culture is influenced by the three big religions originated in the desert, which change the world into  a desert – after we lost the connection to a spiritual world full of spirits like in Bali still present, reflecting the universe of souls mankind is put in.

Black & white art goes deep back in time in Bali art history. In the early times, a simple bamboo stick and ink was used – now also soft graphit.

Kan Kulak is also leading community projects like designing and supervising production of the huge bull sarcophagi for cremation ceremonies or creating a monster for Ogoh Ogoh parade in the night before Nyepi.

Above: Ogoh Ogoh designed by Kan Kulak, collaborating with artist friend Epong and other community members of his banjar in Peliatan.

But what he loves most is his silent reatreat in his studio to work on new art.

Soon more on Bali art, Kan Kulak and his friends.

Toraja Land – Sulawesi

Living in a small region of the mountains of Sulawesi, the Toraja people are a proud, independent and smart. They keep a unique heritage alive and are famous for their Tau Tau figures, effigies of the deceased family members buried in caves in rocks. Major events are funerals in the village with sacrifices of buffalos.

White buffalos are the most sacred to the Toraja people, and a lifetime of savings can be spent on it for a funeral ceremony.

After exploring the jungle for hidden graveyards in caves with their famous, boat-like shaped coffins, I bumped into a rice farmer living close by.

He told me he was learning Spanish by himself and had visited Europe some time ago, travelling from Amsterdam to Vienna during the winter time. Then he returned Sulawesi, continued his work in the rice fields and built a new traditional house. That’s the way Sulawesi people are. There might be a SUV parked outside, and the mummy of their grandma in the back of the house   — they know how to balance tradition and modern life.

A ritual rice storage building in a small forest mountain village

Rock tombs for the spirits of the ancestors, with Tau Tau effigies.

Men singing and dancing on a funeral ceremony. Buffalos and pigs are sacrificed to ensure wealth in afterlife.

Wooden, carved coffins in a holy cave in Toraja land. The old coffins are shaped like boats. Researchers and local people believe, that the ancestors of the Torajas came by boat to Sulawesi, shaping their houses and coffins like boats in memory of their origin.

family member in traditional costume at a traditional funeral in a village

Ancient Fire – Tribes in Flores

he Ngada people in Flores are still living in an ancient matriarchal society, where women are the head of the clans. When a couple marries, the man moves to live with the woman’s family and works for them. Houses are symbols of female power and the process of building a new house is followed by a ceremony, where men sacrifice animals (a treasure in archaic society), cooking and sharing all in a big feast.

Bena village is seated below volcano Inerie, close to the sea. Ngada people are traditionally animistic and worship their ancestors — today their old beliefs peacefully coexist with their Christianization by the Portuguese centuries ago.

I visited Bena village for a major event, the ritual renewal of a clan house, owned by the matriarch mother. The final part, setting up the roof, is celebrated with music, sacrifices and a feast for the entire community.

Proud mother of a clan in Ngada, watching her men rebuilding her house. Her teeth are black from chewing betel nut, as was common almost everywhere in Asia in the early days. Women in Bali used to do it, even Geishas in Japan.

While the celebration goes on, the black fibers of sugar palms are turned into strings and ropes in a few minutes, used to bind thatch for the roof. It is stunning to see how the old men quickly process natural materials into construction parts of the house, all in a playful manner.

Shaped like an umbrella and covered with thatch, shrines for male ancestors called ngadhu are placed in the center of a village (here behind Moses working on thatch for the roof). Their female counterparts are called bhaga and are shaped like a little house , symbolizing the sanctuary of the family home and the female body. Each clan has such a shrine.

In its matriarchal society, the chief mother of a clan is called Ine. There are also wise old men called Masolaki, who are respected for their experience and living memory of the culture, keeping the village and clan history alive through oral traditions.

The people believe that these megaliths connect them to the supernatural world and help them to communicate with their ancestors.


Diving deep into Bali culture: Fred B. Eiseman Jr.

His bestseller sekala & Niskala  supplied  generations of travellers with a fundamental  introduction to Bali culture – little known however many of his other writings.  It seems, no Expad dived deeper into Bali culture than Fred B. Eiseman Jr (1926-2013), who even published the first dictionary on Balinese language.

Reaching  out to shoot an interview with him 2014, I was sad to hear he passed away just the year before.

Publishing over 30 books on Bali,  Eiseman Jr.  was a great messenger of Bali culture. Only one of his books is  still reprinted, his bestseller “sekala and Niskala” (the Seen and the Unseen), Balinese terms for the co-existence of the spiritual world (Niskala) next to ours (sekala). Another title is still available as e-book (Fruits of Bali).

Most of his books were just self-published, hand-copied in small editions and sold in a few places like Ganesha bookstore in Ubud.

There is a great a great Open-Source project supporting the preservation of Balinese language, which started with 10.000 words of Eisemans dicitionary This wonderful project  will continue to add content of Eisemans work in the future.

Back in 2015  I  tried to compile a list of Eisemans works in chronological order (see below), using international library search tools (worldCat) for 24 titles. More titles, mainly collaborations (with Patrick de Panthou and others), I found in online-bookstores.

To preserve Eisemans heritage, I encouraged  2014/2015 his long-term assistant Linud, who cared about Eisemans original scripts after he passed away 2013, to support a Open Source solution. 2016 Linud gave all material to Alissa Stern, who created the Open Source dictionary of Bali language, based on Eisemans work. Now Eisemans manuscripts, books and photo archive are accesible at the Cornell University, USA and hopefully will be digitalized, becoming part of the BasaBali Wiki-Project.

 Here is a a first list of original scripts now included in the Cornell University library:


Many decades Eiseman Jr. spend in his second home Bali, but his stunning biography shows a curious explorer far beyond Bali.

Born in Mark Twains Missouri 1926, nature and indigenous culture soon became his passion. 11 years old he visited the Great Canyon the first time in 1937.  At the age of 12 he  joined Prairie Trek Expeditions in the South West in his summer  school holidays.

In war time he completed his studies and became a highly acclaimed teacher in the 50s, teaching Earth science, chemistry, and physics, publishing on these topics and receiving a a nation-wide teacher award 1959. In school holidays he would continue to explore the Grand Canyon, becoming an experienced river guide and a good friend of Hopi and Navajo Indians.

In the 70s he came to Bali his first time, to stay here almost the rest of his life.

Fred Eiseman Jr.  died April 6, 2013 in Arizona, his ashes have been returned to Bali.


Works by Fred B. Eiseman Jr.

(compiled 2015 by Joo Peter)


Bali : wood carvings and trees

a guide to the wood carvings of Bali with discussions of the types of woods used and the trees from which these woods come

Fred B Eiseman, Margaret H Eiseman

Den Pasar, Bali, Indonesia : Fred B. Eiseman, Jr., 1987

Bali : sekala, what you can see, and Niskala, what you can’t

Fred Eiseman, 1988

Scottsdale, Ariz. (13025 East Mountain View Road, Scottsdale, Ariz. 85259) : F.B. Eiseman

Fruits of Bali

Fred B Eiseman, Jr.; Margaret H Eiseman, Berkeley : Periplus Editions, 1988

Flowers of Bali

Fred B Eiseman, Jr.; Margaret H Eiseman, Berkeley : Periplus Editions, 1988

Woodcarvings of Bali

Fred B Eiseman, Jr.; Margaret H Eiseman, Berkeley : Periplus Editions, 1988

Bali, sekala and Niskala

Fred B Eiseman; Margaret H Eiseman Berkeley, Calif. : Periplus Editions, 1989-1990

Bali: sekala and Niskala / 2. Essays on society, tradition, and craft.

Fred B Eiseman; Berkeley, Calif. : Periplus Editions, 1990

Tulisan Bali : a layman’s guide to Balinese script

Fred B Eiseman,  Jimbaran, 1995

2nd Edition Scottsdale, 1999

The story of Jimbaran

Fred B Eiseman, Jimbaran Bali, 1996

Punyan-punyanan : plants of the Jimbaran area Bali

Fred B Eiseman,  Jimbaran, Bali, 1997

Dadaaran Bali : foods that Balinese people eat

publisher: Jimbaran, Bali,1998

Ulat-ulatan : traditional basketry in Bali

Bangkok, Thailand : White Lotus Press, 1999

Balinese calendars

Scottsdale, 1999

Jimbaran, Bali, 2000

Usada Bali – A living Drug Store at Kubu Beach

written for Ritz-Carlton Bali, Jimbaran, 2000 (not listed  in worldCat)

Nyledét Jimbaran – Glimpses of everyday Life in a village in South Bali

Jimbaran, Bali, 2001

Usada Bali : traditional medicine in the Jimbaran area, South Bali

Jimbaran, Bali, 2001

Reinventing Bali : the island of peace

Wayan Darsana, I pseud. van Fred B. Eiseman (Jr.); Bali Tourism Authority (Denpasar)

Bali Tourism Authority, Denpasar, 2002

42 p. : ill., krt. ; 21 cm.

Traditional Balinese stories : satua Bali kuna

Jimbaran Bali, 2002

Dugas pidan : the way things were : everyday life in Jimbaran, a village in South Bali, from Dutch times to the present

Jimbaran Bali, 2004


Babantenan offerings and their role in the daily lives & thoughts of the people of Jimbaran, Bali

(other title: Offerings : and their role in the daily lives & thoughts of the people of Jimbaran, Bali = Babantenan)

Jimbaran Bali, 2005

Kakaputan : wrapping & packaging things in Jimbaran, Bali

Jimbaran Bali, 2006

Paribasa Bali – Playing with words in Bali

Jimbaran 2006 (not listed in worldCat)

Things I wish someone had told me when I first came to Bali

Jimbaran Bali, 2007

Guide to the common fishes of Jimbaran Bay & Bali Strait

Jimbaran, 2007, not listed in worldCat

Dictionary English-Balinese

Jimbaran, Bali, 2008

Traditional Balinese tools in the Jimbaran area, South Bali = Prabot Bali tatamian

Jimbaran, Bali

Palalyan : traditional Balinese games in the Jimbaran area, South Bali

Jimbaran Bali, 2009

How Balinese people express ideas = Nyatuwayang pakeneh anak Bali

Jimbaran Bali, 2010

Bali niskala : the intangible world of Jimbaran, Bali

Jimbaran Bali, 2010

About the publishers

Eiseman published five books with Periplus between 1988-1990, together with his wife Margaret.

Since 1995, Eiseman mainly self-published books as hand-made copies in small numbers.

Besides that, he had a major publication with White Lotus Press in Bangok 1999 (Ulat-ulatan : traditional basketry in Bali).

For other publishers, also see special collaborations below.


Special Collaborations

Eiseman is mentioned as author/co-author/contributor in other books, especially in a book about Bali by Patrick de Panthou, which seems to have been republished many times by different publishers and a variety of titles. All five titles below seem to be based on the same travel book, Eiseman developed with partners and had been published in English, French and German.


Patrick de Panthou, Fred B Eiseman and others

Editions du Pacifique (1978) french version

Times Ed. Singapore(1988)

Hachette (1989)

edition weltkultur (1996)

Bali (Travel Bugs)

Patrick de Panthou, Fred B Eiseman

Hungry Minds Inc (1993)

Bali – the emerald island

Patrick de Panthou, Fred B Eiseman

McGraw-Hill Contemporary (2001)

Bali and Lombok

Fred B Eiseman, Singapore, MPH Pub, Sun Tree Pub, 1992

Suntree Guides, Bali und Lombok

Fred Eiseman Jr., contributors Leonard Lueras, Kunang Helmi Picard, Morten Strange

GEO Center, München, 1997


Cockfighting in Bali

This text might be included in one of the books above.

Other work

Eka dasa rudra slides, 1979

Slides taken for a National Geographic magazine article.

ca. 10,000 slides (151 slide boxes)

Cornell University Library, Ithaca, NY 14853 United States

(as listed on worldCat)

Bali Celebrates a Festival of Faith

article for National Geographic, 1980


Kecak : a Balinese music drama.

Fred B Eiseman; David Lewiston; I Gusti Putu Putra; Kecak Ganda Sari.

New York, NY : Bridge Records, 1990, CD-Rom

orchestra Kecak Ganda Sari conducted by I Gusti Putu Putra

and more

Eiseman Jr. published also on different topics besides Bali, these publications are not listed here.

Also, Eiseman had a special photo archive on Great Canyon river rafting. Eiseman Jr came from Arizona and was passionate about the Great Canyon. He served as river guide for a while and made many boat tours on the river. See also Fred Eiseman Collection below.

Fred Eiseman Collection

Short Biography:

more biographical informations: