Nowhere In Papua

There is a long way in, and there is a short way in…but short is sort of a meaningless term here.  In reality, there is a long way and there is a longer way.  So we’ll take the long way?

West Papua is a place with unique cultural landscape to the extreme. Nothing is simple, easy, cohesive, and without context here. There are deep layers to everything you see and everyone you meet.  It is a place of beauty and a place of uncertainty. Formerly the Dutch East Indies and controlled by the Dutch as late as 1961, the region became known as Irian Jaya after Indonesian occupation and finally renamed West Papua in 2007. West Papuan history is laden with complexities.

Humans are believed to have first arrived on what is now the island of Papua New Guinea roughly 60,000 years ago.  Most likely arriving by sea from Asia, during a glacial period when ocean passages between landmasses and islands were much shorter due to lower sea levels, the early humans in the area were believed to be primarily hunters and gatherers.

Our journey into the jungle starts with a boat ride through a winding maze of jagged karst islands, some of which are decorated with ancient art, in the region known as Triton Bay on the southern coast near Kaimana.  This area is beginning to be discovered for it’s diving and soft corals, but we are here for another reason – to catch a glimpse of remote life deep in the forest.

Our first stop is a small village along the coast.  It is a sort of meeting place between worlds.  Cement is poured to build an elaborate and modern sea wall, along which traders bearing goods from the forest tribes walk in traditional dress made of bark.

After a dinner of fresh caught fish and a long fitful night of sleep on a concrete floor (which was a kind and appreciated offer of accommodation from the villagers), we head off into the hills.

The forest in this area is densely packed with life. Papuan forests have been altered by man for a very long time, with things such as native squash cultivated among the trees. But the major threat is not that these forests become less ‘pristine’, it is that these forests are lost entirely to massive logging and mining operations.

We walk for multiple days into the thick jungle, with each day bringing us into a denser and darker forest.  What was a relatively small group, seems to grow each day.  We are never quite sure of how many, guides, porters, and new friends we have picked up along the way, and the exact count seems to be constantly changing.  At one point we are followed for a whole day by a group of curious, giggly, and able footed girls from one village deep in the forest to another.

Nights in the forest are long and it seems like every branch, root, and stump migrates towards the center of your spine. Sleeping pads may have been a good idea for those of us who have gotten used to having mattresses in life, but we didn’t really pack anything special for this trip since we were distracted trying to rescue a stranded dugong calf near Komodo National Park immediately before coming here.  More on that story some other time…

We eat a combination of dried noodles, which we brought with us, and food foraged along the way. At times we try and supplement this with some fresh protein, which includes diving in a saltwater crocodile infested lake for snails and crawdads (this job is reserved for the three of us Americans – Jeff, Katy, & Mikey…the locals know better). Our cook knows an impressive amount about the plants in the area.  Some plants are delicious, and others are deadly to touch.

One morning the guys bring back a smoked wild deer leg for breakfast, which is thrown in the pot with some of the dried noodles to make an amazing stew. By day three, the little water we are allotted for drinking each day has the strong and gamey taste of deer meat, and the whole sucking on a pebble trick seems to come in handy. That is of course until it down pours and we excitedly collect rainwater off the roof of our temporary tarp shelter. Sweet, clean, deer free rainwater!

As we make our way deeper into the jungle, languages and dialects multiply and each conversation must go though 2, 3, or 4 people. Our plan changes many times and we head off in a different direction than we had thought the day before.  But we have already learned many times over that plans mean nothing in Papua…and that is fine. So what if we make a left instead of a right at the saltwater croc infested lake? Someone knows where we are going…right?

For many, Papua has allure of having potentially “uncontacted” tribes still deep within the forest. People come here with the hopes of reliving the classic exploration and adventure novels of the past. The truth of the matter is that if a group of people is “uncontacted” in the 21st century…they likely don’t want to be “contacted” and have been highly successful at isolating themselves in an insanely connected world.  The vast majority of people in the deep forest of Papua, have had some contact with cultures outside of the local Papuan tribal cultures, and have begun to loose traditions at a rapid rate.  Particularly in the past 3-5 years, many more isolated areas have changed dramatically.  In the forest of Papua, that can mean the gain of modern medicine and standardized education, but that comes with exposure to new illness, loss of traditional education and traditional religions, loss of languages, arts, and many other aspects of culture.

Along the way, we pass through a few small villages.  Small may be a bit of an overstatement in this region, as a village seems to consist of an extended family in one large hut a few days walk away from the next hut.  In one of these villages, we cross paths with local resin traders.  The resin is traded as a fire starter, and valued for both starting cooking fires and lighting cigarettes which were unfortunately introduced in the area somewhat recently.

As we keep trekking and get in the rhythm of picking off the days leeches, it seems every little cut, scrape, or leech wound gets adamantly infected. It becomes routine to spend time each morning and evening cleaning and re-bandaging ourselves in a tedious effort to acclimatize to the new bacteria’s of the Papuan jungle. In the spongy jungle, it seems everything decays quickly…even us.

We eventually reach a larger village consisting of a few much larger scattered huts.  Change has swept over this place in recent months.  While many of the adults wear traditional clothing, the children are dressed in t-shirts riddled with holes from having been worn so long.  The huts are built with fine traditional craftsmanship from bamboo, and tacked along the walls are a small handful of torn and weathered photos ripped from what appears to be an ‘in flight’ magazine.  Traditional food is prepared in aluminum pots and a broken plastic cup is quickly being overgrown by plants near the edge of the hut.

The villagers work together to prepare ‘sago’, a starch extracted from the pith of the sago palm (Metroxylon sagu), which is the traditional staple food of the region.  After splitting the palm lengthwise, the pith is removed, crushed and worked in a kneading fashion until the starch can be separated from the fiber.  Once cooked the sago has a flavor and texture some where between undercooked flower and tapioca, and is nearly a pure carbohydrate.

A medicine man comes into the village and we have the privilege of meeting the local chief.  Jeff, Mikey, our guides Bob and Usman, and all of the men sit around a fire and hold a meeting, which is largely over our heads, while Katy plays with a mob of children as the daylight slowly fades away.

By the time we start the long walk out of the forest, our group has grown yet again.  This time the chief of a local village is going to walk part of the way with us.  Along the way, Jeff and the chief somehow begin to talk (via two additional translators) about culture and how important it is to protect tradition.  The conversation continues until the chief gives Jeff a very precious gift.  It is a drum that has been in his family for three generations. It means the world to us.

As we follow a local man we have affectionately nicknamed ‘The Rabbit’ as he wordlessly bounds though the thick underbrush barefoot, we all slowly and silently make our way back to the world more familiar to us.  Back to the world of hot showers and leech free legs, cell phones and the unrealistic expectation that we will answer them, road noise and riding around on motor bikes, the chance that Katy and Mikey’s infected wounds will start to heal (and access to a buffet of antibiotics)…and most importantly water that doesn’t taste like deer meat.  As much as we are worn out and would love to play a round of cribbage over some cold beers, we are left a bit uneasy walking away from this place. It has go though so much change so quickly…what will it be like if we ever come back?

More images from this trip can be seen in our Portraits From The Forest Gallery

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