Bold and beautiful Baliem


November 20 2010

And now for something completely different…Papua!  We knew we were in a different world when we staggered out of the tiny airport in Wamena, packs on backs, in search of a becak (bicycle rickshaw) to our hotel,  and a stark naked man clad only in a feathered halo, a beaded necklace and a penis gourd crossed our path.  Just what is a penis gourd, you ask?  Well this item of dress is central to the traditional attire of the males in Baliem Valley.  They are long, narrow, hollow gourds – apparently they grow the gourds then dry them, hollow them out, and polish them – which are attached over the penis by a string around the scrotum and then kept conveniently attached to the body with a string around the waist.  It kind of defies belief that a thing like this would work, and it was quite a while before Doug spotted the string around the scrotum which is what holds the thing in its place and prevents embarrassing disclosures.  Doug was chagrined that his camera was in his bag as he thought maybe this would be his one chance to photograph one — but actually, among older men it is still quite common apparel and they wander the streets of the town, frequent the markets, and of course sit around their villages attired like this.  The younger men have substituted second hand basketball shorts, but still like the jewellery and the feathered headdresses.  The whole effect is often completed by a boars tusk inserted through a hole in the nasal septum, kind of makes you blink.

This really doesn’t feel like Indonesia, which is what the Papuans think.  There is a strong separatist movement and in past years Papua has been closed to foreigners at different times due to political unrest.  The Indonesian government has taken a leaf from China’s book in dealing with the Tibetans, and has flooded the area with Indonesians from overcrowded islands, mainly Java.  They are very much in evidence in shops and restaurants, and I am sure they run all of the businesses here.  Very reminiscent of Lhasa.

Quite apart from the men’s traditional dress, people look completely different here.  They are very dark skinned with mops of very very curly black hair, and much more pronounced angular features than the soft faced Indonesians.  At first they appear quite fierce, especially the young men who are large and almost forbidding looking, but foreigners are thin on the ground here and a cheery Selamat Siang brings a huge smile and an immediate reply, often a warm handshake which the older men accomplish using two hands while holding on and gazing into your eyes, saying La-uk, la-uk which is their greeting in DanI, then Waa waa waa which we take as a sign of approval but really must ask someone for the translation.  The young men, having eschewed the penis gourd, make up for it with creative hairstyles.  American rap stars could learn something here.  Some of them grow huge heads of Rasta locks or braids and then tie them up with scarves or bits of string in fanciful pony tails and such.  They often wear the feathered halos but also attach single feathers into their hair and use headbands to keep the whole thing in place.  The rest of the costume is rather more mundane — if you have ever wondered where all the stuff that the thrift stores discard goes, wonder no longer.  It is all here, and black with dirt!

The women’s traditional dress was a grass or rattan skirt, and they used to go topless.  They keep their hair very short and make little attempt at vanity — the peacocks are the males.  The fibre skirts have been replaced by accordian pleated skirts in very cheesy fabric, topped by a thrift store special Tshirt.  Some women also wear the basketball shorts, and since they have very solid rounded bodies with breasts that kind of meld into their bellies, it is sometimes hard to be sure which sex you are looking at.  They have these amazing hand knotted string bags, very large and expandable, and even little girls always carry one with the handle around the forehead.  Often they carry several at a time, loaded with stuff they’re bringing to market, or things they’ve bought, or pig fodder they’ve gathered along the way. They also carry their babies in them, usually with a few other bags over the top — I cannot imagine why the poor things don’t suffocate.  The bags expand enormously, they are always trying to cram them into the bemos, and have to be forced to put them on the roof.  They can be so heavy that it takes two people to get them off a tiny little woman’s head.  Amazing.

Wamena itself is a small dusty place with the most lethal sidewalks we have ever encountered and that is saying quite a bit.  Horrible sewers run under the so-called sidewalks which have massive holes in them at irregular intervals.  Since we have now actually met a tourist who has lived through (with severe injuries) our worst nightmare, ie falling into one of these holes in the dark, we would rather get run down by bemos and motorbikes operating without lights than trust the sidewalks at night. The town is located in the middle of the Grand Valley area which is dotted with small villages of the DanI, Lani, and Yali tribes.  We have been out each day to walk trails which wind between these villages, through spectacular panoramas of fields of sweet potato, taro, and other vegetables, ringed by green hills, with dark blue mountains in the background.  We are on a giant plateau at 1500 metres with higher mountains all around.  The only way in and out of Baliem and the only way to access remoter settlements beyond the mountains is by plane.  Every single thing here including vehicles has to be brought in by plane, thus the prices for everything are triple what they are in the rest of Indonesia.  The village people are so poor, I don’t even know how they afford to ride the bemo to market, it is so expensive.

The village houses are conical thatched huts with hand hewn rough wooden slat sides, and are called “honi”.  Each compound is ringed by a stake fence on top of which they plant what looks like a creeping sedum which apparently keeps the fence boards from rotting so quickly.  The compound is entered through a tiny door which you climb a style to get into, very difficult for the large foreigner I travel with.  The pigs have their own larger, ground level door which is blocked during the day when they are set out to forage, but when Doug tried to use that door at one village, everyone reacted with horror and insisted he insert himself through the tiny people door!  In each compound there is a large hut in which all the men sleep, and a series of smaller huts for the women.  A very large rectangular hut is the cooking house with fire pits dug into the dirt floor (covered with straw, in my opinion all Indonesian cooks like to live dangerously), one for each woman.  A man may have a number of wives, and the men and women only get together when the man makes an appointment to have sex.  Apparently they do not have sexual relations while the woman is breastfeeding which is at least 2 or 3 years, I suppose it must limit the families to some extent but with so many wives, there seem to be a vast number of filthy but very cute looking children milling about every village.  The compounds are quite tidy (as opposed to the outside areas which are just as garbage strewn as everywhere in Indonesia) but are extremely bare.  The houses are very dark, the only access for light and air is a tiny low door, and inside the sleeping houses there is practically nothing, a blanket or two and a few extra t shirts hanging from the roof beams.  One lady invited us into the cooking house where she sat knotting yet another string bag something every woman and girl is constantly doing.  We sat on the straw strewn floor beside her cooking fire, and she gave us sweet potatoes which she pulled out of the embers.  These are pretty much the entire diet for these people, pigs are their pride and joy but are way too expensive to eat, they save them for funerals and for buying brides.  It was pleasant in there, warm and smoky, but I could not see any cooking utensils, or other accoutrements, aside from one empty plastic carboy which I suppose she must get water in though we have yet to see anyone carrying water.  We carry horrid cheap cigarettes and biscuits to give as gifts.  Unlike in Sumba, the villagers don’t chew betel, though everyone in the towns does and there are blood red patches everywhere with people constantly hoiking up this disgusting residue.
Many of the older village women are missing all or parts of several of their fingers.  In the past, each time a close relative died, a woman would sever one finger joint.  Apparently they used a sharp rock and bound the finger up with leaves, heaven only knows how often septicemia set in.  Most older women are missing all of their little and ring fingers on their left hands, plus a few other joints on the right hand.  With some of them so little is left it must be impossible for them to do much except jab their digging sticks into the ground in the gardens. One old dear let Doug photograph her hands (for a small price) it seemed so sad to think of all the family members she had lost and the pain she had suffered.

We have gone out with a guide two days and will go with him again tomorrow.  We have traversed a number of areas close to Wamena by ourselves on other days, using the bemos to get to a starting point and then walking from there.  With Alex we are going further afield and using more complicated trails which we would not be able to find for ourselves.  Doug finds him spectacularly annoying, but he does try, his English is pretty good, but like many Indonesians, the word “why” just does not ring any bells for him.  Basically if something is, it is, our constant quest to understand the reasons for everything seems inexplicable to them.  We are such linear thinkers in our culture.  At any rate, he is not the best guide we’ve ever had, but not the worst either, and he knows all the trails and speaks DanI.  It is funny that his opinion is that if you’ve seen one village you’ve seen them all, he simply does not see why we like to go in and interact as much as possible with the people who are really excited and interested to see us, and why our questions about village culture are so important when to him the whole thing is really quite boring.  He is also absolutely laughable in the way he hates riding in the bemos, and just cannot stand being crushed in, making the most inane remarks, I suppose to distance himself from those riding.  There is no other way to get around (except renting our own vehicle which is hugely expensive here, and for which we do not have the money due to another little Papuan anomaly with banks) and there is no sense waiting for a less crowded bemo to go by since they will be crammed to the rooftop by the time we get to our destination anyway, but every time he makes a fuss, and is totally baffled by what we should pay, which we find easy to ascertain.  Weird, however we cannot find the trails without help, though if my Indonesian extended beyond pleasantries and ordering food we could go by ourselves, it is not dangerous here
The bemos are astonishing.  We have been in crowded bemos in many countries, they generally always pack them to capacity, but here the other passengers are worth the price of admission.  When you are packed into a tiny, decrepit van with 27 people, and two of them are stark naked with penis gourds poking up to their chins, a wizened old crone has just parked her oozing bag of pig fodder on your foot, and you are holding a 5 year old on your knee whose clothes are so stiff with dirt they feel like canvas, and then everyone lights up their noxious cheap cigarettes, the old crone rolling her own and threatening to burn your arm with hot ashes — well you feel like you are in a most entertaining, parallel universe!

Our problem with money here is kind of interesting.  In the less touristed islands which we have been visiting, the banks are not interested in changing foreign currency and so we have been using the  ATMs.  Usually there are only one or two that will take foreign bank cards.  Since it is so expensive each time with Canadian  bank charges we would prefer to take out large amounts, but the ATMs will generally dispense only 2 million rupiah (about $235 Cdn) at a time, often less, partly because 2 million in 100,000s is about the most that will fit through the slot.  Since our bank has a $500 daily limit, we both take out what we can when we find an appropriate ATM.  However when we left Ambon the tickets to Jayapura used up what was left after paying our hotel bill, and we only had one day in Sentani before we flew up here.  The ATM we found wouldn’t give out that much so we got what we could and bought tickets to come here, and tickets for Denpassar next weekend, after expenses we came up here with about enough for 3 days.  There are supposed to be two ATMs here that take foreign cards, however for some reason that is totally inexplicable to the banks concerned, neither would work for us.  As I say, independent foreign travelers are very rare here so they may not have had anyone enquire for a long time.  The banks here do not change money and they have no money changers.  What to do?  We wondered if we would have to leave after just 2 days (also needed money for air tickets back!)  Finally I approached the only English speaking staff person in the bigger of the two banks and laid out our dilemma.  Well she said, the BANK does not change money, but it can be “personal”.  What does that mean, but who cares I thought, expecting her to quote me some ridiculous rate of exchange which obviously we would have to take.  Well she gave me a very reasonable rate, and when I hesitantly asked if she’d do $500 US she didn’t blanch so I added two more hundreds and get this — she went out to the ATM we had spent 3 days struggling with (Indonesian cards work fine in it) and using her own card, she withdrew the rupiah for $700 and we exchanged currencies!  The cleaning man’s eyes nearly popped from his head — this is a first in our books too.

Better go send this, internet is also difficult here, but we found a mad Japanese guy running who let me plug in my laptop and maniacally entered the complicated digits required to do so, so will go back now and send this and hope to get some messages!  Doug will have to wait for a better connection to sync his pictures, maybe in Sentani.


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