Primitive Papua

Trip Start Jun 29, 2011
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Indonesia  , Papua Barat,
Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Aeroplane approached Danau Sentani, a huge lake with several islands inhabited by native tribes who live in stilted houses, go fishing, and produce woodcarvings and bark paintings. The smooth hills around the lake with their rich, short grass would have made an ideal golf course - maybe one day, when Papua is overtaken by main stream tourism, there will be one, but hopefully not! The sun was just sinking, making the idyllic lakeside look even more kitschy. Danau Sentani is a main transport hub, so that I saw it 4 times from the air.

In the luggage collection hall, mosquitoes were soaring, and I quickly put on some repellent - there was a species of Malaria close to this region which was resistant to some types of medication. Boys were playing football in the airport's parking lot. It was a hot evening, quite a tropical climate. I walked a few meters when I came across a plastic policeman, and his flesh colleagues were just around the corner. As they were sitting there with nothing to do, I asked them on the spot if they could issue me the required travel permit for the Baliem valley, and I was instantly invited to a soft drink. Almost all the officers came from other parts of Indonesia and not from Papua, as are most people who have a job which requires special training, and even many shop assistants. It seems that non-Papuans are running Papua's entire economy. The policemen phoned their colleague who deals with travel permits, and drove me to a shop where I could get photocopies of my documents. Then I was offered to sleep on a field bed in one of the offices. Accommodation was not available below US$ 20, so I gratefully accepted. We watched some Harry Potter on TV, and I soon went to sleep in the clean and tidy office with a desk and computer in it. The next morning I was woken up at 5 am by the officer who had invited me to stay over - maybe he was trying his luck, or just waking me up before his colleagues appeared, because it was not exactly official that guests were accommodated here. So I was sitting with the curious policemen for the whole morning and answered all the personal questions they asked me in Bahasa Indonesia until I got absolutely tired. One officer sent me back to bed, and half an hour later I was woken up by some loud knocking on my door. When I didn't open immediately, an angry man tried to kick the door in. Apparently, he was the guy whose office I was sleeping in, and needed to use his computer. Now my nerves had really come to an end, and I wished I had stayed at an expensive hotel. However, the travel permit guy, who also worked for Sentani's special intelligence, appeared with my certificate, and after a lunch served by a guy with incredibly long fingernails which he had grown for two years, I made my way to the airport. Unfortunately, all the flights to Wamena were already sold out, but I got the canceled ticket from a "Mrs Angel" and kept my fingers crossed that I wouldn't become an angel soon: Several days, a smaller plane had crashed on its way to Wamena. We flew in a medium - sized plane over thick jungle and snaking rivers, and then finally approached Wamena in the Baliem Valley.

The plane to Wamena carried all sorts of goods, even some motorcycles for sale, as this town in the middle of West Papua could otherwise only be reached via a very small and dangerous road. However, all items and vehicles that are common in the rest of Indonesia were available here, if at a significantly higher price. Most people on the flight belonged to the Dani tribe, which is abundant around the Baliem valley; however, most of them wear Western style clothes today, at least in and around Wamena. The guesthouse that was recommended to me by another traveler was very clean and had a kitchen with a do-it-yourself breakfast, which was available all day and covered most of my meals. However, there was a catch: It was run by missionaries! Religious fanatism and conviction of their duty to convert the savage tribespeople was literally written on their milk white, collared faces. There were books in the guesthouse which were supposed to introduce young people to the christian religion, in the style of: "Oh, did you know that you are automatically a sinner by just existing? But we have good news for you: Jesus can free you from your sins. Which gets you one step closer to salvation than people who don't even see that there could be any problem at all". Several converted Dani people were working at the guesthouse - they spoke with hushed voices, were as conformist as sheep, and always tried to serve any Western people in complete devotion. However, there were some interesting folks at the guesthouse: A middle-aged lady who was doing her PhD at the Bird of Paradise University in Sentani, and the delightfully geekiest person I ever met: A high school teacher from Bandung who lived with his parents and had never left his home town before, and who was teaching business applied maths to college students in Wamena. He was rather stressed out about his stay in this alien environment, and when he was barked at by street dogs, he ducked down in panic like a hedgehog and so got bitten.

On my first day, I just went around the block to buy a few things, and had a bewildering encounter. A Dani man, who wore the traditional dress, which is simply a Corteka (penis gourd), some jewellery and headdress, and pork lard against the cold, approached me in the street. He held my hand for a long time, which is the usual greeting. He didn't speak any English or Bahasa Indonesia, and his voice was hoarse and throaty - it sounded like he was rather whispering the words. He gesticulated that he had come from very far away - over many mountains. And he wanted me to buy some sugar and cigarettes for him, because he was so cold. It wasn't a miracle he was cold as little as he wore - I was cold in my fleece! He was staring at me the whole time, with an animal-like expression in his eyes. I have to admit that his eyes were on that level, but he hardly ever looked me in the face and only stared at my breasts most of the time, which were covered under the fleece. Dani men are known to have multiple partners and take sex whenever they need it. Even though sugar and cigarettes aren't really the healthiest things you can buy for someone, they are what everyone desires here. So I bought him some and then asked to take a picture with him, and he tried to kiss me on the cheek! After this encounter I was almost a bit in shock - how was I supposed to go out there into the valley if they all were like this folk?!?

After registering with the local police office I started exploring the East side of the Baliem Valley. I got dropped off at a museum, which, however, had been closed for a very long time. A dozen women were sitting on the ground next to their noken bags full of foods, which look a bit like huge shopping nets carried on the back and held with a string around the forhead. They were waiting for a transport into town, possibly to the market. There was an old woman with a finger missing - in former times, a finger was amputated to a joint whenever a close relative died. Then along came a man called Jason, and he accompanied me and showed me his area. We walked across a hanging bridge, and to a grotto where a young boy was fishing. By a village gate made from wood and straw we shared some bisquits with some children, and then came to a larger village where school was just finished and many high school students crossed our path. The sun was very strong, and I caught a bad sunburn in my face. With some other Dani people in the car we went to the main market and were walking around in between women selling vegetables and noken bags, and men selling head dresses and jewellery. In a street shop back in Wamena we then tried on different pieces of traditional jewellery. I liked some necklaces made from ammonites, and felt sorry for the birds of paradise, which the slightly silly looking headdress was made of. Traditionally, women wore ONLY a grass skirt, nothing else.

In the streets of Wamena, children greeted me with "bye-bye". Photography was also not accepted by most people – just a few had their photo taken for money. It seemed like tourism had entered the Baliem Valley a long time ago, and had passed again. People were mistrusting and weary with foreigners, but as there were hardly any tourists at this time of year, it felt like traveling off the beaten track. Rather walking on a beaten and then abandoned track. But this critical attitude of the Dani people was not entirely directed against tourists – most of the white people I met here were missionaries, and many Papuan natives have the feeling of being exploited by Western or Indonesian corporations.

The next day I made my way to see the mummy of the Dani chieftain Wim Tok Mabel, who was very powerful in the 1800s. He “lived” in a traditional house in the village Sumpaima, which I reached in a completely packed public taxi. Children do not count as a person and are somehow squeezed in, and pigs are put in the back. I talked to some women who shared the backseat with me in Bahasa Indonesia, and after some time, they lost their shyness. One pig started hyperventilating after being left in a trunk facing the direct sun, and locals approached with water for a refreshing shower. The Taxi dropped me off at the village junction, where children showed me the way. Some tough negotiations for the price of seeing the mummy then started – extra cigarettes lowered the price, but they were smoked immediately. Several men living in the beehive-shaped grass houses in the village still wore the traditional outfit, and even some topless women were present. They seemed like they had seen many tourists before and wanted to make money from them. Then the mummy was taken out of the house and positioned for me to look at and take pictures of. He had been preserved by smoking over the fire, wore a net on his head, and a crown made of wood, which almost looked like a halo. On my way back by public transport, I started talking to a young man, and when we met some others, a gun suddenly appeared that everyone seemed to want to play with. It was really irritating to see people pointing this gun at each other in play. I asked if it were loaded, and they said yes, but maybe it was a misunderstanding. In the end I took care of the gun and pointed it skywards out of the window during the bumpy ride back to Wamena.       

Then it was time for some trekking in the South Baliem valley. In the public taxi to the village where the asphalt ended I met some local people who were heading to the same village as me, Kilise, where I wanted to spend the night. First we needed to wade through a stony river bed, and some people gave me a hand and made sure I didn't slip. Many goods were transported through the water – things people had bought at the market, and motorcycles. By motorcycle the way continued to the next village where I needed to show my travel permit. I was submitted without a guide, and was only told “Hati-Hati”, be careful. The people heading to their village waited for me until all the paperwork was done, and even shared bisquits with me. Then we started a steep 2 hour uphill trek along the Baliem river with great views. Most people were quicker than me, but two men waited for me patiently, almost like they were escorting me. In Kilise village, I got a small traditional beehive-shaped hut to myself, and a cave with a waterfall inside as a bathroom. The owner was also the chieftain of the village, and in the main hut were many pictures of villagers in traditional dress, which they wore for a festival. I was kindly supplied with lots of hot water to brew my cup noodles and some coffee. Some curious children came to visit me. The other villagers were rather shy – I only saw some women meet up to go to the market together.

The next day I went on a trek all by myself – I wanted to walk to the next village, descend to the Baliem river from there, and return to the police station. Pigs were kept in walled areas which needed to be climbed via wooden ladders. People were out working in the fields, and I greeted them as I walked past. Many wild flowers grew in the green and fertile hills, which almost had an alpine feel to them. A very old woman with only two front teeth was on her way to fetch water with an empty kettle, and shook my hand as we crossed paths. In the village I entered, people were very surprised seeing a lone woman trekking, but when I showed them my travel permit and explained my route to them, they let me pass. It started raining and I couldn’t quite find my way down the hill. A local man showed me the path and warded off a barking dog, so I gave him some cigarettes and could proceed. The rain had stopped, and a view on the Baliem river and another river flowing into it, surrounded by steep hills, opened up to me. I descended further, and heard kids playing in the village below. Their calls echoed up the hill, but then started surrounding me. Some of them had circled me before I reached the village. Now two older children carrying machetes approached me, and I shook their hands in greeting. First I wasn’t sure if they were just playing, or if they thought I could be a potential invader – maybe both. I explained to them that I was just passing their village in order to reach the Baliem river, so they accompanied me. One blond boy with white skin appeared - I first thought he was the child of a Dutch missionary, but he was an Albino. He was very interested in meeting me – finally there was another odd-looking person around! He was very excited, tried to impress me by hacking wood with his machete, and fell over when walking and talking to me at the same time. I asked the children if they went to school, and they proudly told me they did in a nearby village. And they even had satellite TV! Some adults came back from their work in the fields, and I also introduced myself to them. They were surprised I was out here on my own and were wondering if I was allowed to, but I told them about my travel permit and the approval from the police station. The kids walked me to the last village gate, which seemed to be as far as the adults allowed them to go, and waved me goodbye. I now walked along the Baliem river, which was wild and raging in this area. Soon I arrived at a hanging bridge where there was a group of women selling bananas. I bought a bunch of bananas and ate most of it on the spot. Then I gave out cigarettes to the women, but not to a child who was very disappointed! After walking on the adventurous hanging bridge, which had some steps missing, crossing the raging river, I joined two Dani women who were on the same way as me. We met many people heading the opposite direction, possibly across the river and into the Eastern Yali territories, and as the other women did, I shook all of their hands in greeting. The younger woman helped me climb down the cascades of a waterfall – there was no other way! She carried young ginger in her Noken bag, which she had just brought from the field, and offered some of them to other people during a break as a snack. When I arrived in the main village, many children who had been playing football ran towards me and welcomed me. An older boy invited me to stay over at his family guesthouse, in a compound surrounded by traditional Dani huts. By the entrance gate he had written with chalk in English: “Please come in here!” He prepared the obviously long-deserted guest room for me, which was full of spiders, and brewed the instant noodles that I brought. After such a long day of trekking with so many encounters I fell into a deep sleep. The next morning, which happened to be a Sunday, we went to Church together. It was a service for the children, and many songs were sung. A boy played the guitar, and there was a self-made bass guitar, too, which had only two strings, which matched the two chords that all the songs consisted of. The boy whose guesthouse I stayed at read something from the Johannes chapter to the other children. Then it was time to head back – after some coffee with the policeman, I made my way wading across the river and to the taxi stand. A drunken young man from the local transport mafia terrorized all the passengers waiting for the cars to depart, which was just not happening, so I joined some Polish tourists and their guide in their private car to reach Wamena.     

When I came back from Wamena, I had some time to explore Sentani and the area around. In the center of Sentani, there was a large field with the grave of Theys Eluay, the assassinated independence leader of West Papua .

The art produced by different tribes of Papua can best be seen at a museum at Cenderwasih University. As I walked across the campus, I wished I could attend some lectures, and maybe get a degree from this "Bird of Paradise University". I got a free guided tour to the rich collection of ritual masks, ancestral figures, items of everyday use, armour and weapons, and musical instruments, that was on display. Asmat wood carvings often symbolise families, and people who have already deceased are shown upside down. There were some impressive Devil Dance costumes worn by the Asmat for ritual dances. Some ancestral figures are prayed to, but also feared. Bark paintings from around the Sentani lake bear motives of fish and lizard like people and have a strong fertility aspect. Traditional boats from the Sentani area used to have rich decorations which were individual for each family. After death, the Asmat bury their people, but after rotting, they excavate the bones and keep them in boxes at home. Sometimes a skull of a loved one, whose mouth is tied shut and decorated with shells, is used as a headrest for sleeping. There were some medicine hats, which are used for healing dances, and which have a shape that symbolises the respective illness. There was also a snakelike human figure, which was supposed to symbolise the tale of how Sentani lake was formed: There was once a father who had two daughters. One day they brought an egg home of which they first thought it was a dragon egg, but from it hatched a snake man with a human head. As he became a teenager, he started fancying the two girls, who got very scared and thus ran away from home. Then the young student who gave me the tour didn't want to tell me the rest of the story - maybe a terrible drama somehow including sexual violence happened there to form the lake Sentani, which my pure and innocent mind will never know.

Overlooking Sentani lake, there was a site called Tutuari with monoliths and rock paintings, whose origin and age are unknown. There were burial sites of men and women, which were separated in space, and also had different shapes. Some large stones with peculiar shapes were thought to be the tombstones of important chieftains. Some rock painting symbolised a chain of beads, as well as fish and lobsters. 

On the way to Sentani lake on foot, I passed by the airport field, where many empty kerosene drums were stored, and at the edge of the airport, several small aeroplane wrecks were left carelessly. I  walked through a small banana plantation and reached the end of the airstrip, whose extension reaches into the water as a concrete platform. As I walked along, a long-haired man with a diving mask and a harpune put his head out of the water in front of me - what a surprise, and for a moment I feared this Neptune-like guy was going to attack me with his harpune! But it was a friendly and chatty guy named Jimmy who was simply fishing with his brother. We sat on the concrete pier for a while, soaking up the tranquil atmosphere of Sentani lake. Some fishermen slowly came past in their boats transporting goods or fishing, and singing peaceful songs as they were paddling. From a stilted village across the lake, sounds of some traditional music were carried over by the wind. The pace of life was very slow here, almost as if I had entered a different dimension as I walked onto the pier. The sun burnt down viciously now. For a packet of cigarettes I had originally bought for the Dani people, Jimmy drove me back to the hotel, passing by his mother's house to deliver some fresh fish.

Now it was already time to leave Papua. It had been an interesting experience, but I was also looking forward to re-entering civilisation. It had even seemed pointless brushing my hair when everyone around me hadn’t had a shower in two weeks. I had caught a flavour of the fascinating cultures and traditions of some Papuan tribes, whose primitive people still bewildered me. There were many tribes undiscovered by me, and some even completely - in the South of West Papua some tribes were thought to still live as cannibals. But the experiences I had had told that some prefered to keep to themselves, and I have strong sympathy for that. This choice of theirs - their cultural and social isolation in addition to their geographical isolation - was probably the only reason why they were still around.

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FredP on

Nice time spent to watch those nice pictures of places I went few years ago.

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