Star Date:  October 2007
Papua - Baliem Valley


Hello Dear Family & Friends!

"Tida Papapa!"

(No Problem - Papuan))





"A truly great man never puts away the simplicity of a child."
(Anonymous - Chinese proverb)


Papua, a hidden world that time forgot. 'Discovered' less than 50 years ago the wonders of Baliem Valley are still available to the intrepid adventure 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.

Rose Macaulay (1881-1958), 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.
An expensive destination by Asian standards, it is controlled in all respects by the government and organized tour companies, no doubt dishing out payola. Make it your goal to arrive at least 3 or 4 days before the supposed festival dates and you may just catch the action of the mock battles between neighboring tribes.  We carefully booked our flight to Jayapura on Guaruda Air and it was cancelled, starting the dominoes to fall and causing us to miss the Festival all together.  We had discovered that you 'can't get there from here'.  I had to take a long walk to work that one off.  Patience is such a hard lesson.   

Arriving during festival time also may have you staying at less than desirable, but expensive accommodations; only one step above sleeping in the smoky, straw filled lofts of the Dani huts.  Crawling out from under our dirty temporary 'rock' on the first morning in Wamena, a room opened up in a more expensive hotel down the road.  This allowed us to settle in a bit and get down to the real reason we came, the local tribes people.  While packing my things to move I looked up and standing in our small room was a totally naked man, just watching me.  Well totally naked except for the boar's tusk through his nose, a cowry shell stone and ammonite necklace, and a prominent penal gourd (horim or kotika).  I greeted him with surprise.  "Well hello there!"  He returned my smile and continued silently watching me as I sorted out my world's possessions.  This was our introduction to the genuine child like nature and innocence of these beautiful people.  Everywhere we went we were amazed at the primitive style in which the Dani tribes people lived, yet their timid ways were only a learned behavior around new situations or people.  In their villages, at the markets or on 'bemos' (small transport vans) we were overwhelmed with their contagious mischievous curiosity.  Not a smile or greeting went unanswered and our mouths were sore just from smiling.  This more than made up for the scattered showers floating on the clouds blowing over the valley.  One day while out exploring we watched the rain pour first in one direction then another.  Catching a ride on the back of a pickup truck full of locals we prepared for a deluge but instead drove through the corner of the black clouds back into the sunny blue skies over town.  Arriving dry and laughing with our new traveling companions, we were certain we had escaped the drifting rain clouds only because we had our ponchos and umbrellas in tow.  An appendage of the environment in which they live these folk seem unaffected by the weather and simply wrap a thin shawl around them when it rains or when the coolness of nightfall turns them into moving shadows in the dark streets.   Besides if you aren't wearing any clothes, as many of the older men weren't, there is nothing to get wet.  We did notice one guy shivering when the cold mountain wind moved in and later smiled as many of the old guys walked down the streets towards town, in only their penal gourd, sporting a colorful new umbrella against the intense intermittent mountain sunshine.

In town the women covered themselves with shirts over their grass or string skirts but were never without their strong string bags. These colorful hand woven bags carried everything from produce, to tiny children, firewood, rocks or even a new squealing piglet bought at the market.  Women often still go bare breasted at home, a much easier scenario for the suckling babies hanging on their bosoms.  While crammed in the back of a bemo with 6 women and wide eyed children of all ages, we watched a mother chew up a treat bought at the market and spit it into the mouth of her "baby bird' waiting on her lap.  Living simply ourselves we enjoyed watching these friendly folks go about their daily tasks, amazed how many chores still hadn't advanced from the stone age activities used from the beginning of time.  Curious all, we watched, as they watched us back.   The Dani people could tell we genuinely enjoyed experiencing them and their culture and our interactions were nothing less than wonderful.   We observed as they wove and created their crafts, cooked sweet potatoes and wild boar in 'imu' rock and dirt pits, and tended their crops in sprawling garden plots.

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.

Many traditions are still adhered to such as sex is taboo for 2-5 years after the birth of a child, while nursing their babies.  Childbirth continues to be a common cause of death, as it was in our society only 80 years ago, but still the average age of the Dani people is about sixty.  Must be that good clean mountain air and simple living.  A practice stopped about 15 years ago was the shocking tradition of men or mainly women chopping off their fingers at the 2nd joint when a loved one or close friend died.   A very curious custom considering the women do most of the work in the fields and in a land where no mutual language is spoken, often bargaining is done with fingers.  It was a common sight with the older men and women we met to  proudly flash their maimed hands with only a couple stumps remaining or display corners of ears clipped.  We were shown how it was done and offered a razor sharp stone to buy in case we ever had the need for self mutilation. Maybe this would catch on in the tattoo and body piercing circles?  Usually done themselves we were told it was simple.  Just put the small stone adz on the finger joint, hit it with a big rock and Voila!   Any takers? 

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.

When Indonesia battled with the Dutch in 1962 for the western half of New Guinea island, it was 'required' by the United Nations that a referendum be created for the Papuan people.  In 1969 the "Act of Free Choice" vote was put before a group of 'specially' chosen delegates and surprise!, Papua became part of Indonesia, a country easily 'bought' by outside interests.  Irian Jaya was created as hundreds of thousands of Indonesians, from mainly overcrowded Java, were transplanted.  Tensions are sometimes apparent between the local black Papuans and the ruling Indonesian forces.  Racism is common as is the case with their Aboriginal cousins in Australia, a bit further down under.  Human rights issues are reported concerning these now labeled 'dissidents'.  Troops or 'police keeping the country safe' are in place everywhere, just in case one of these quiet, kind hearted guys shoots some wild arrows.  Simply wanting control of some of their native Papuan land the prospect seems hopeless.  An agreement in 2002 offering a percentage of profits on all natural resources to the newly established Papuan territory seems to be on paper only, as locals look in at their country from the fringes, most living in abject poverty.   Papua has the 3rd largest copper mine on the planet and is now home to the world's largest gold mine - operated by US and British interests.  As the 'created conflict' continues, the natural resources disappear.   Same scenario, different location.  So the story goes....  

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 & Laughter, 
xoxoox  Nancy & Joseph


Travel notes:

$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).


Beni and Paulina Dawir, Telephone: 53 6698 or 0852 5422 0361.  Give him a call if you need a taxi.  His English is ok and is very honest, helping you with anything you need.  We got into his taxi/van on our way in from landing at the airport in Sentani. Stay in Sentani, (skip the town ? in between) or go along the lake if you have time.  You need to go into Jayapura to get your official permit to travel anywhere in Papua.  A full service taxi driver, we even went home with him when there were 'no rooms at the inn'.  The next morning with a grandson in tow we went off to the police station for the relatively painless procedure, although Beni was nervous being near the big compound.  He then drove us back to the airport in Sentani.  His eyes popped when we gave him 150,000 rupiah for his help.  We later sent him photos of his family, members of his Dani tribes people in Wamena and us.  Tada Papapa, Beni.  

Most places are overpriced and rundown - just keep looking.  Start adjusting to the only high prices in Indonesia.

Baliem Valley/Wamena:
Mas Budi Hotel & Restaurant,  JL Pattimura - Mulele, Phone # (0969) 31214,
A good clean option in the moderate range (200,000 Rupiah).

Budget accommodations are nonexistent in Wamena.  Budget means dark and dirty.  Just get used to the idea that this adventure costs more and pay what you need to.  High end hotels are full of tour groups around festival time.  Most groups disappeared before the final 'carnival' and we only saw 6 foreigner, including 2 NGO workers, in the crowds that day.  Avoiding the hype of the annual August festival makes for a quieter visit, but the excitement of the celebration and unique traditional costumes is a one of a kind experience.  Having fun while they are having fun.  You decide.  Life in the outlying villages never changes, festivals or not, and it is worth hiking out for a look whenever you come to visit.

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.










Two Dani tribesmen heading into town from their village. 
Notice 4 missing fingers; done himself with a stone adz
when a close friend or family member died.  They have
traveling light down to a fine art!

Magnificent bird of paradise head dress, (alias 'squashed birds').

Goofing with the guys!  The cowry shell 'tie' denotes importance, and
this fellow was to us.  He had a good sense of humor and we laughed
 lot together over our days.  Feeling shy this particular day, he added a
 ti leaf to cover his backside.  I made jewelry with the guy on the right.

Young warriors.

Redefining cool.

This Dani  tribesman simply appeared then disappeared, during our
lunch in the forest.


Like the little guy from "The Gods Must Be Crazy" he had a gentle
spirit and a child like, curious nature.

Village life.  A few of his 'harem' hanging out in front of a typical
'honai', (the sleeping quarters for one wife and her children).


Strong and lean from manual labor, this man proudly showed us his
land and the fence he was repairing around his housing compound.

The Carnival
. The whole town was on fire with excitement!

Fresh produce served with a smile.


The drums started beating as the whole group broke into harmonious
singing and traditional dancing.  Amazing what happens when
people, waiting for something, don't have cell phones to fuss with.


"Tida Papapa!  No Problem!" Beni (our taxi/bemo driver) and his wife
Paulina told us when all the guesthouses in Jayapura were filled up.
  "You can come sleep at our house".  We shared a vegetable dish with
 this happy, welcoming family; cooked in their kitchen over a
kerosene burner.




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