Last days in Papua


November 25 2010

Our time in Papua is drawing to a close and it’s been a great experience.  We’ve been in Baliem eight days, and have hiked every day, three times with the insufferable Alex and the rest on our own. The countryside is beautiful with unforgettable panoramas of mountains, jungle, and cultivated fields, and the people are different from anywhere we’ve ever been and friendly and welcoming.

The people of this area were headhunters and cannibals right into the 1950’s so a lot of “civilization” has been thrust upon them in a short time.  When we see the old naked men and the old wizened ladies, it is odd to imagine that in their lifetimes they experienced those events.  They still, like the Sumbans, are very prone to intervillage and intertribal disagreements that rapidly turn violent, resulting in deaths and houses burned down.  In the 50’s they were still using stone tools, metal has replaced the stone axes and the women use metal digging sticks but they are still the exact same design as when they were just sticks of wood.  Every man carries a machete and many have bows and arrows with them as well in the fields.  Absolutely no one wears shoes and their feet must be like leather as they walk over the sharp stone paths which threaten to cut the soles of our Tevas without ever wincing.

Yesterday we went two hours north and then walked for three hours through a lovely village area near the Baliem River.  We got hopelessly lost and walked uphill needlessly for half an hour until I asked a passing man who set us right.  In fact he obviously thought we were such incompetents that he took us all the way back to the correct path even though he was going the other way!  We were at the boundary of the DanI and Lani tribes — apparently the DanI who predominate in the area around Wamena are the most traditional of the 3 tribes in this vicinity.  We could see very little difference in the village compounds, but the penis gourds are much much larger and the variety of feathered headgear quite incredible. I am sure this fashion is the reason we rarely have heard a bird sing, and the only ones we’ve seen have been raptors.

It is interesting to see how much larger and sturdier the younger people are compared to those who are older.  People’s ages are very hard to judge here, their faces are quite severe and tend to have lines in them, especially compared to the soft faced Indonesians.  I suspect that some of the people I think are in their 80’s are probably 60.  In China, where this generational difference was particularly obvious, it was easy to see that the amount and type of food had radically altered since the ‘40‘s.  Here I am not so sure.  I guess they must have more variety in their diets, as the women sell carrots and cabbages in the markets, but the main thing they eat is still sweet potato, and they share the greens with their pigs.  They don’t eat any protein at all as far as we can see except at the occasional celebration.  We wondered at the absence of chickens, but we have seen some in missionary villages.  People are very very traditional, one of the exasperating things about Alex was his inability to even wonder at the reasons for anything — things just are.

Most of the younger generation are quite sturdy, some of the girls downright portly.  Small children often have the bleached hair that is characteristic of anemia and the bulbous stomachs that denote parasites.  They also seem to have chronic heavy mucous discharge from their noses and the rainy season hasn’t even started yet.  None of this is surprising as no one washes with water so hard to obtain, everyone is barefoot, and half the population is naked.  As far as we can gather the toilet facilities are in the fields and the ponds where we see them gathering water are muddy and contaminated  by pigs and people.  We have seen a few very sickly babies and I am sure the attrition rate is high in the first year. Lots of old people are completely blind from cataracts, they love to shake our hands and feel our arms as they cannot see us.  Government health care is pretty minimal and the only other source is the odd mission clinic operating intermittently.  Remember that Wamena is a big centre for this area, all the other settlements in the highlands are accessed only by tiny planes which land on grass runways, a couple of which we have seen as we have gotten farther afield.

One minor inconvenience to us, but which I think is probably a real saving grace for a culture like this struggling into the 21st century, is the complete prohibition of alcohol.  This being a Muslim country, there are a few places in Indonesia where liquor is not legal, and Baliem is one of them.  I would not want to see what the effects of alcohol would be on this impressionable population, as we well know from our native people, it would not be good.  Our nightly Scrabble games are not quite the same, but as I say, a minor inconvenience for tourists.

Papuans are really not happy to be part of Indonesia, and here I can see why.  They have no industry, little infrastructure, and there are no jobs for Papuans except driving becaks and ojeks, and maybe the odd bit of guiding if they can learn Engish.  Almost all tourists arrive from Europe with their own guides which is another source of resentment to the locals.  Most DanI only learn Indonesian when they go to school (and as far as we can see few do) and the old people do not speak it at all.  However Indonesia will never let them go now, the Freeport Mine is the largest seam of gold and silver in the world.  Papuans think they see none of the benefit from this mine and I can only imagine the horrible conditions, rules mean nothing in this country.

We’re certainly glad we came here, it has been a most interesting week.  We fly back to Santani (Jayapura suburb) tomorrow morning as the flights all go early in the day to avoid the uncertain afternoon weather.  Then we fly to Denpassar via Makassar on Saturday.  Will do a bit of traveling in the interior and to the north coast before we meet Barry and Loretta  in Ubudon the seventh.  I am sure we will be eating and drinking well in Bali, we will really appreciate the food!  Not that we‘ve starved but the complete lack of variety really begins to pall after nearly 3 months and if I ever see another bowl of fried rice at breakfast I will scream!

Love to all, we anticipate easier internet contact in Bali so look forward to your cards and letters.



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