An intense experience featuring jungle juice, Mr. Samosir – and a pig’s head on a plate.
While in Sumatra I met a guy my age who took me under his wing. He showed me stuff I never would have been able to find on my own. This is the story of the day we drove into the jungle.
“Sit down.” As I’m ushered towards a makeshift table in the middle of a clearing I suddenly wish I was somewhere else. Anywhere else. A group of Sumatran men are staring at me, and they aren’t smiling. My mate speaks quickly to them in Batak Indonesian, they nod, and I do as I’m told. I sit down.
Half an hour before I’d been riding around a local village with my friend, Batin. I’d met him a few days before – a conversation that started when I asked him what happened to his hand. It looked like the bone was coming out of one of his fingers. “I crashed my bike after I drank too much jungle juice.” What’s jungle juice? I asked “You’ll see,” he replied. I guess today was that day.
Jungle juice – or arak as its locally known – is a milky, sour-tasting liquor made from the bark of a palm tree. It’s real DIY stuff, with small bits of bark and dirt floating within it. The place we were at had no shortage of palm trees – a heavily forested area about 15 minutes down a dirt track from the nearest village. “This place sells jungle juice,” Batin told me. It was a wooden hut with a table out front. Inside was dark, with more Sumatran guys sitting around. A woman was pouring a white milky liquid into plastic pitchers, while a chicken pecked at her feet.
Outside it was ten Sumatran guys and me. They chatted amongst themselves, drinking. A bowl of meat sat in the middle of the table covered in blood. I drank, they topped me up, and I drank some more. After a while an older guy arrived on a motorbike and you could feel the atmosphere shift ever so slightly. The Sumatran guys weren’t talking as openly, and I got the feeling that maybe they were weighing up how warmly I would be received. This guy was obviously a big deal. I made a point of putting out my hand and introducing myself. He gripped it tightly, no smile on his face, and told me that he was ‘Mr. Samosir’. I let out a wry smile, couldn’t help it. The island we were on was called Samosir, and evidentially he thought of himself as its boss. Still crushing my hand, he gestured towards my camera and wanted me to take his picture. I obliged.
Meanwhile one of the guys ventured into a wooden hut and reappeared with a pig’s head on a plate. One of them picked up a knife and tried to crack open its skull. After many failed attempts his mate took over and with one swift thump the skull gave way, revealing the animal’s brain. One by one they stuck their fingers in, scooping out the brain and eating it. The Batak people eat everything. Eye sockets were emptied of their contents. Nothing goes to waste.
After about an hour I exchanged glances with Batin. I nodded, a univeral gesture that means “OK, let’s get out of here.” Mr. Samosir got up and shook my hand again. I thought he’d never let go. Back on the motorbike we weaved our way through palm trees back to the main road, the smell of the leaves reminding me of the smell of the drink. I looked down at Batin’s hand, it looked painful. With no money to go to hospital, he just hoped it would get better. I wasn’t so sure. I looked back over my shoulder and saw the jungle fading behind us. So long, Mr. Samosir.