People of Papua

People of Papua

Papua New Guinea is another mystical place that has been on my dream list for a very long time. However, as I was in Indonesia already and there were flights more readily available, I decided to go for West Papua instead. Two countries, one island, much like Borneo, separated for political gain but united in culture.

Even through the plane window, as you head into Jayapura, you can tell that this is an incredible place. Surrounded by the most incredible mountains, Jayapura really is a mash of cultures in a mystical back drop.

I met with a local guide called John who was very informative. We had a long chat about the resistance movement in Papua and how i could meet up with some of the ring leaders once I had gotten further into the interior. For the time being I had to sort out finance and permits to visit the interior. Money was a bit of a problem as my card didnt work at a single ATM and my mother kindly sent me a loan via Western Union.... to Papua New Guinea... which I was not in....

Money was eventually sorted and I started the rather laborious process of applying for my interior permit. I had to get passport photos done, then photo copies of tickets, itineraries, my passport and list the name of every place I intended to go to. Without a map that last bit proved quite difficult so I relied on my guide to list off random villages that he thought were of note. I got everything sorted and went down to the police station. I was told by John that I needed to sweeten the deal as that's how everything worked in Papua. So whilst my paperwork was being processed I practiced the classic and age old art of shaking hands and transferring clandestine tips. I convinced myself I was ready for the challenge, the policeman came out of his office to ask me some more questions about my trip, I reached out, shook his hand and the money floated gently to the floor like a feather. He merely looked at it and said, you dropped some money, turned around and walked off. I hastily picked it up and looked over at John who looked like he'd just swallowed his own tongue in fright; he shrugged, I stowed the money in my pocket ready for round two.

Some time later the policeman came back and made me sign something else and then gave me all my paperwork back and told me I was free to go. I didn't see another opportunity to "say thank you" so left as quickly as possible. Maybe he just wasn't the bribing type (odd as every other man and his monkey after that wanted money for even the slightest thing!)

I read through my visa and noticed that even though we'd listed all these amazingly complicated place names off that the clerk had just written the name of the district they were all in. Had we thought of that earlier it would have saved a lot of head scratching. I set off to get my ticket for Wamena and then went to bed early as I could.

In the morning I checked in at the airport. I had one giant rucksack and a smaller one. Other passengers had spears, pigs and bags the size of a Mini Cooper yet no excess of handling fees were even mentioned. The flight was in the twin engined plain shown below and was once a day. The sheer expanse of jungle between Jayapura and Wamena is unimaginable. 300km of the most unexplored jungle and mountains in the world. The scenery took my breath away even from the plane window.

I finally landed and unloaded my gear.

I got in touch with the head guide for the area. His name was Issac and he was a VERY strict Christian who also ran an orphanage. He took me to the police station get all my paper work sorted and then invited me back to his orphanage for some food and to stay the night. This was the first time I encountered sweet potato in Papua. It is virtually the only thing that some of them EVER eat. For dinner I was handed an enormous plate of sweet potato and told to tuck in! I LOVE sweet potato, but by the end of my time in Papua I was sick of the sight of it.

I spent the night in an gigantic bed with the orphans. They ranged from about 12 - 20 years old and were all found on the street.

We sat down that day and planned, did some shopping for provisions on set off for the mountain tribes. I found the climate quite different to the jungle tribal areas that are often shown on television. Everything was very dry, the sun was beating down ferociously and the going was slow due to the altitude. As Baliem valley has only be open to the outside world for a few decades, it still retains a vast amount of traditional Papuan culture. Penis gourds, local languages, and stone age technology were all rife. The valleys were littered with small settlements, hamlets of wooden, round huts.

After a day or so, we came across the first large village and asked if we could stay with them. I ended up sleeping on the floor of one of the main families houses. Darius (my guide) slept with the other Dani tribe members in small room in the back. This room was lined with lots of straw and had a fire pit in the middle. This was great, although this house had a much more modern construction due to the new found wealth of the family, they still preferred to sleep in their original way.

The host was great! A nice pair of boar tusks were shown off via a massive hole in his septum.

We sat round having a conversation about Christianity and how they felt about it. Everybody was quick to state that they were overwhelmed with joy at being saved from the fires of hell and how it had bettered their lives etc. However, when I asked what the first missionary was like, there was an unusual silence.... everyone looked everywhere else but directly at me.... then someone at the back went: "tasted nice" and they all fell about laughing. Apparently they cut him up into six pieces and spread them out amongst the villages in the valley. They then went on to tell me that the chief of the next village originally had six wives but decided to eat one during a particularly poor harvest.

In the morning I was glad to leave. Fun as the night had been, discussing various ways of eating each other, I was eager to get further away from the airport and find people who had had less contact with the outside world. The next village we hit was far more traditional and nestled neatly on the steep side of the valley. The view was breath taking.

The houses were round, with the multi purpose rooms and main kitchens being rectangular. The men all lived in one house, with they wives and children occupying a house each.

The insides of the houses had two floors, believe it or not. The womens houses were also split into 1/3 pig sty and 2/3 ground floor living space.

This village had a lot more traditionally dressed people.

The doors of the houses were so damn small that i felt like I was living with pygmies, it was virtually impossible for me to get in an out in a dignified manner. I had my standard portion of sweet potato that night and we sat around the fire discussing hunting methods, hunting tools, fire making methods (see video at the bottom), their language, culture, their lives in general and after having inhaled my life times limit of smoke from the fire we all fell asleep. I slept like a baby, even though it was cold outside the house was like an oven.

As I completed my time in Western Papua, we had time to loop back and visit a village that was very famous in the local area. They had mummified their chief some 150 years ago and still had him intact. In order to see the chief, we had to have a ceremony and get all dressed up which was awkward to say the least.....

It was an eerie site as they bought a crouched mummy out and stood him on a stool. The man holding him was in the exact same position, wearing the same clothing..... Was almost as if it was the same man....

That was my trip over and done with. It hadnt been anything like id imagined. Visiting the hill tribes as opposed to the jungle people had given me a totally different and very unique perspective into their culture. This was the second place in as many months that I had stayed where cannibalism and head hunting had been, and in some cases still was, an integral part of their culture. Now that I understood their belief systems and reasons behind such an unusual activity, it made a lot more sense and I was more comfortable with it. The Papuans were so stone age with their technologies that I really felt as if i had gained an insight that most British archaeologists would die for. Right down to the continuing use of stone axes, which stopped in Britain thousands of years ago.