Star Date: October 2007
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
(No Problem - Papuan))
great man never puts away the simplicity of a child."
Papua, a hidden world that time forgot. 'Discovered' less than 50 years ago the
wonders of Baliem Valley are still available to the intrepid
traveler. The only access to this valley, in the rugged
mountainous interior of Papua, is by small plane. A rare
situation indeed this lack of outside influence has allowed the Dani
tribes people to remain innocent in many ways. Locals are a
joy to be around and certainly welcome a good joke.
Villages remain unchanged without lights, phones or TV, and
agriculture or building projects still utilize stone tools, as in
the stone age.
British essayist queried, "The great and recurrent question about
abroad is, is it worth getting there?" The answer with Baliem
Valley is a resounding yes. Just remember to breathe.
We have had Papua as a goal for
our almost 5 years of continuous travel. Not a place you can
just happen upon, we have been researching Baliem Valley and it's
festival over the last 6 months. Never choosing to travel in a
herd of tourists, it is now easier to see why travelers go with the
security of a tour guide, even though the trip costs $1500 - $3000.
Frustration set in as we repeatedly called Trigana Air, the only
airline servicing the valley, and had them giggle and hang up.
The August Festival and event dates were set, changed and changed
again. Flight on the twin propped planes loaded with local
beer were cancelled due to bad weather (at one of the most dangerous
airports on the globe), mechanical problems or the government
chartering the planes out from under fully booked flights.
Linda, the sweetest check-in clerk on earth, will do what she can to
help but she can only fill planes that actually are flying.
A typical village is
rectangular in shape with a circular thatched hut (honai) for each
wife on the left side,
the cooking, storage and pig huts on the right, and the husband's hut
on the end. Hubby shares his space with the curled up mummy of an ancestor,
often 300 years old, and spends his days organizing the activities of
his harem. The thatched huts are very primitive.
The dirt floor is covered with straw and the low ceiling has a trap
door leading up to the 3 ft. high straw covered sleeping loft.
Sounds cozy but the smoldering fire down below, without a chimney,
virtually turns everyone into smoked jerky. This may ward off
mosquitoes and keep them warm on cold nights but eye problems are
common. As an added layer against the cold the men smear
themselves with pig fat. All of a sudden our simple guesthouse
back in Wamena seemed like the Ritz in Paris. Somehow things
crawling over, under, and on us and our hair at night was an
experience we could skip. (Actually trekkers usually sleep in
a separate shed or building for that purpose). Children are naked and unmarried girls can
be spotted wearing grass rather than string skirts. Polygamy
is the rule even with the increasing influence of Christianity and
the more wives the better, up to twenty. It is common to see a
proud naked old guy walking down the road with part of his harem of
wives trailing 10 - 20 feet behind. He has as many wives as he
can afford and take care of. This is a sign of his power and
wealth. Multiple dialects impede communication, causing
conflicts (as anyone in a relationship realizes). Wives have
always been allowed to leave their smoky Prince Charming and
remarry, another prime source of tribal wars between families and
villages. Times are changing though. We were surprised
to hear that the 'divorce' rate is up. The grass is greener on
the other side of the hut or mountain.
The going rate is 4 pigs for a new wife and I was offered camaraderie a few times by the old village men. They liked to take my face in their hands and longingly gaze into my eyes knowing that I cost too many pigs for their pockets. They instead settled for talking with us, inviting us into their huts, shrieking at their image in Joseph's digital camera, commenting on photos of our family or Hawaii and laughing as the children played games with their new balloons. Refusing to give out candy or cigarettes, as is the norm unfortunately, we provided entertainment or gave a box of matches to the really dear ones. Never in a hurry, an extended handshake allows time for Dani tribes people to have a good look. Feeling each other's hand or face is common, while gazing into our eyes they would often slowly utter their traditional welcome, 'wa wa wa waaa waaa'...
While pausing in a grove of pine trees to make lunch one afternoon; an ancient guy, sporting his gourd covering only the barest of essentials and a smile, carrying a heavy shovel head suddenly materialized out of thin air, not unlike the little fellow in the movie, "The Gods Must Be Crazy". He squatted next to us for a good look and tasted a piece of our cucumber. He talked and talked and told us his whole life story. It's times like this that knowing all of the hundreds of languages of Papua would have been handy. Then he motioned to us that he had to be going. Walking the 5 miles to Wamena would be tough carrying the heavy shovel head and it sure would be nice to catch a ride on the bemo. We offered him 24 cents to catch a ride, most certainly on the way home after he had purchased his new handle. He then vanished, showing us his two remaining teeth in a smile of farewell. That shovel would be in great demand back in the village, along with his story of meeting two strange strangers in the forest.
An agricultural society, they still till with wooden and stone tools, powered by water buffalo. The well maintained plots were full of vegetables of all types, accented by bananas, papayas or sugar cane. Of all the markets we have been to over the years we rated the produce on blankets in front of the women vendors, as the healthiest we have seen. Cooler climates mean less bugs and being so poor they can't afford chemicals, (unlike in Baguio, Philippines).
Having to turn around while hiking the valley, due to a deep mud hole, we met several groups of women and another old man carrying heavy fence posts he had just cut from the mountainside with his machete and stone adz. Proudly he showed us his land, neatly enclosed by a solid wooden fence covered in straw. Some villagers ask for money for their photo or ask for smokes when a guide is along, but he was pleasantly surprised when we gave him a box of matches while we were expounding on the good job he was doing with his land. You understand that very little English is spoken in Baliem Valley but, as all over the world, communication carries on at all levels.
Not knowing that anything outside this 60 km by 16 km valley existed, life amongst the scattered tribes remained unchanged. Can you imagine skipping from the 'stone age', (missing the bronze, iron age, etc. altogether) and being thrown into the fast paced confusion of our high tech modern society. Jaunts into town must be like visiting the moon. Going from a totally self sufficient society to having new fangled gadgets dangled in front of them in shops has created fascinating markets where tribes people sell vegetables, pigs, tobacco, decorated skulls of monkeys or the ostrich like cassowary, live or flattened colorful wild birds, and handicrafts; in hopes of picking up a little income for doo dads. Luckily a worker with a NGO told us they haven't discovered the downfall of many societies, alcohol. Yet. Most of their handicrafts and jewelry were large, rough and heavy. I spent one afternoon with a Dani man and one of his wives, in front of our hotel, making a necklace and bracelets from reeds, seeds, beads and feathers. And don't forget the boar's tusks and intricate horim gourds for the men. It was a fun, rewarding experience for all of us and I am reminded of it with whiffs of smoke from the braided string encircling my neck occasionally.
Ritual cannibalism (the Fore highlanders of neighboring Papua New Guinea honored the dead by eating their brains) and tribal fighting was common before the arrival of the missionaries in the 1950's. Bow & arrows and spears were the only weapons used, as with the headhunters of the Philippines. Now the mock fighting ceremonies of the festival are to commemorate those great battles.
Sulking a bit because we had missed this mock war festival, we were overwhelmed and elated on the 'carnival day' to see close to 1000 men, women, and children from Wamena and surrounding villages show up for the closing parade. Interestingly all the tourists had flown away (we only saw 6 foreigners all day); and we got totally immersed and lost in the enthusiastic crowds, afire with excitement. Only one group of villagers, represented by middle aged men and women, was completely traditional with gourds and bare breasts, dusted with a light coating of mud and paint. The rest sported more proper 'Christian' attire with breasts covered by string tops and penal gourds replaced, except in a dozen cases, with bright shorts. The head dresses made of 'squashed' birds of paradises were spectacular and the painted bodies and spears of the young warriors sent chills of excitement down your spine. Each tribe gathered in a large field and would spontaneously burst into harmonious song, led by drums, as the excited young people danced in circles around the musicians. In a unique blending of cultures, groups of Indonesians, each dressed in the bright traditional costumes of their home island such as Sumatra, Java or Suluweisi, sang and played instruments while waiting. Small floats representing different valley activities were mixed in with marching school groups. Policing troops, obviously out of place, kept a stern eye for a possible uprising. The two cultures walked side by side and we were hopeful that with each new generation, the Papuans and Indonesians will be on more equal footing and learn to live in harmony.
The whole town was on fire with excitement! So many spectators climbed trees for a better look that we thought the branches would break. The energy igniting the villagers and townspeople was contagious as they frolicked and posed for us. The day was spectacular! And as with so many of these gala cultural events or ceremonies, it just ended. Everyone went home to their villages and Wamena transformed, once again, into a sleepy little frontier town.
There wasn't a forced take over
of Baliem Valley. When the elders saw the first white men they
were scared. Not because of the threat of battle but because
they knew that they would be changed forever. The takeover
here was by missionaries, evident by small churches in the larger
villages. Groups of fully clothed locals walk to church Sunday
mornings, while their naked counterparts head up the mountainsides
to commune with the gods of Nature.
It is common here to be greeted, "Hi Mister!" and it was a fitting end to our valley exploration to be flying up into the blue sky on tickets boasting Mr. and Mrs. Mister. Try getting through a security check at a US airport with a ticket like that. We also passed two curious Dani tribesmen chatting and squatting under the arch of the unmanned metal detector on our way into Wamena's tiny airport. Our tickets from Sentani to Sulaweisi, the neighboring Indonesian island in the chain, had us under another alias: Mr. & Mrs. Joseph. We would be hard to track for sure. No wonder we had trouble making reservations in advance. This laid back attitude prevalent on Papua was the charm that beckons adventurers in for a glimpse into the valley forgotten by time.
And so it goes.........................................Next the island of Suluweisi. Lack of electricity and anything that resembles internet has meant delays in sending out our new pages. Maybe I'll consult one of our new Papuan friends for advice. Then again they probably don't have a word in their dialect for deadline. Until next month Keep Smiling and remember to pause and look at life through the eyes of a child once in a while. We are glad you stopped by. Take care.
Love, Light &
$1.00US = 9,000 Indonesian rupiahs
Our main advice is to allow plenty of time for scheduling mix-ups when trying to get into Baliem Valley. Try the check in window at the airport 1st or go directly to the only Trigana Air office in Sentani that can make reservations - (left on the main road back over the bridge). Make friends and plead. Something will open up. Not the festival time? They may pay you to fly. Actually the 500,000 R isn't negotiable (the missionaries charge the same for their chartered craft, while trying to make you feel guilty for wanting to go up as a tourist instead of saving souls).
Our original plan was to fly in and out of Baliem Valley then explore the northern islands of Papua by ferry, en route to Sulaweisi. The ferryboat schedules were so sporadic and unreliable and the smaller air flights so expensive, we decided to tackle neighboring Sulaweisi via a flight to the northeasterly city of Manado. This also helped us avoid some serious malarial zones along the coast of Papua.