Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 20, July 16, 2002
Missionaries, Deep in Penis Gourd Country, Dead Cocks, Pig Fleas
Photos: Gourd God! Click Here to enter the acclaimed Penis Gourd Gallery!




Land of the Fuzzy Hairs.

West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya) is very different to anywhere else in Indonesia. This is because, historically, ethnically (the word Papua means land of the fuzzy hairs) and culturally, it is not really part of Indonesia at all. Rather, it has far more in common with the Pacific Islands and Australia. The only real connection that is like the rest of Indonesia, it was part of the Dutch East Indies. And, when the Dutch sulkily granted Indonesia Independence, they hung on to Papua, the idea being that it would eventually be reunited with what is now Papua New Guinea. But the Indonesians weren't having any of this, largely because Papua was huge, had loads of trees and minerals and, in terms of its population, only a few inconvenient tribes. So with the collusion of that great force for global justice, the US, and to a lesser extent the UN, they effectively nicked the country. Not quite as bad as an invasion, but, by any yardstick, a great historical injustice. After this Indonesia acted much as China has done with Tibet: the indigenous population was pacified (with napalm, helicopter gunships etc.) and, through huge transmigration schemes, diluted with ethnic Indonesians.

Anyone who doubts that the Papuans hate Jakarta should speak to the orang asli (original people) as they're sometimes known. Every village has photos of the (recently shot) leader of the OPM (Free Papua movement) and people who've only just met you will tell you how much they hate Indonesia: complete strangers will say quite openly that a free Papua is a cause worth dying for. As one guide put it when I asked him about people's allegiances: 'You don't need to ask - every black person here is OPM.' If this all sounds a bit familiar it's because it is: the Papuan situation has more parallels with Tibet than you could care to mention. So you might ask, why don't students and Hollywood types jump on the OPM bandwagon? Why aren't there Renault Clios up and down the country sporting 'Free Papua' stickers? Why doesn't Richard Gere choke up when he speaks of his and Cindy's deep commitment to the Papuan people? Well, first of all, the Papuan cause is a little - but not much - more complex than its Tibetan counterpart. It takes about ten minutes - as opposed to ten seconds - to understand. And actually thinking about stuff is surprisingly difficult, especially if you star in blockbusters or hang around Student Unions. But the real reason, you suspect, is this. The Papuans just aren't as cute as the Tibettans. They're not Buddhists, many of them walk around naked and the kids, while nice enough, aren't as sweet as Tibetan babies. And, of course, they have no Dali Lama. Indeed, if they want the world to get serious about their cause they ought to get some image consultants to make them over and find themselves a media friendly leader in a saffron vogue who's prepared to hobnob with celebrities and guest-edit Vogue magazine.

Karmic Keenoids

Although almost everyone arrives in either Jayapura or its airport, Sentani, the real Papua is not to be found in these unpleasantly steamy coastal towns; rather it's in the Baliem Valley in the mountainous interior. The tribes here were only 'discovered' in 1938 and had no real sustained contact with the outside world until the 1960s; it is their distinctive culture which is Papua's biggest draw. Now, in Indonesia there are two kinds of airline: there is Gauruda, the national carrier, which has new planes, foxy stewardesses and is better than many European outfits. And then there is every other airline, all of whose planes look like they came from a Russian car boot sale. Naturally Garuda does not fly to the interior, so you have to take your chances. Despite the uniform low quality of these outfits, it is surprisingly hard to get a seat. First you must queue for several hours to buy your ticket only to be told to come back tomorrow. So you come back, queue again and get a ticket. Then you reconfirm as many times as is humanly possible, before heading to the airport. Finally you can check in and - if you get a boarding pass - you have a 70% chance of getting on the flight, which of course, is half-empty. Well, that's the theory, anyway. We met a Swedish couple who'd had a nightmare; we met another couple who'd waited a week; we even met people who'd flown all this way then given up on the Baliem valley.

In fact, in sharp contrast to our luckless fellows, we had no such problems. We bought a ticket, showed up and got on a plane, leaving me with an odd feeling I can only describe as competence. I cannot think of any reason for our good fortune other than that most of the other people we met were super-keen. The effort involved in getting to West Papua from nearly everywhere except eastern Indonesia means you get very few dilettantes like us, who pitch up on the grounds that it might be cool to check out some dudes with penis gourds. These keenoids plan and read books and consult websites and itinerise their every waking moment. And there's nothing funnier than a keenoid thwarted; you see them at at the grubby check-in desk choking on their own impotence and crying into their palm pilots as they have to spend precious, pre-allotted days hanging around a boondocks airport. Whereas, if our flight was delayed for five days, we probably wouldn't have given a toss. And, I believe, for that reason it wasn't. I used to sneer at people who talked about karma, but after my experiences in Sentani airport, I think they may be onto something.

Anyway, the vintage of the aircraft notwithstanding, the flight is nice enough. First you fly across 300km of almost totally undisturbed rainforest, one of the last places on earth where tribes who have never met the west practice cannibalism (how do you practice cannibalism? And if you practice enough do you become a really, really good cannibal?). Then you get rather close to a range of jungle covered mountains, after which, there's suddenly an enormous valley with a patchworth of neat fields and villages and, in the middle of it all, the bustling little town of Wamena.

Ten days in the Valley

The Baliem valley is a naturally stylish place, with the kind of endless skies you find in the American west. It is 1600m above sea level and has a pleasant dry climate, hot in the day and cool in the night. To the north is a range of moutains and jungle, while to the south is another range of mountains and the world's biggest swamp. Even though they are practically on the equator, some of the southern peaks are so high they sport small glaciers, the only snow anywhere in South East Asia. The upshot of all this swish geography is that the valley is completely isolated and although the Indonesians are trying to build a road from the coast, they have been trying for 15 years and there is still no sign of it. Which means that everything from bottled water to clapped-out minibuses to the town's three horses has to come in by air. The effect is that of a frontier town - expensive remote and rather disconnected from the world. Many things we take from granted are absent: when we arrived there was great excitement in town as mobile phones had only just become available. The modern world comes late to these parts and there are still many people here have never downloaded pornography from the Internet.

Missionaries Positions

If you were dropped in the middle of the Baliem as in that C4 show 'Lost' (that apparently only I liked) you would probably assume you were in the Kenyan Higlands. It's hot, dry and 80% of the population are black; although related to Australian aborgines, they have the more delicate features of Africans. There's another thing that gives it a slightly African feel... there aren't many white folk in these parts, but you do see a few. Some of them look like the adventurous tourists that they are, but others seem a bit stodgy. What, you wonder, are these rather middle of the road types doing up here? Then it dawns on you - they're missionaries! Yes, I know it seems hard to believe but, in this year of our Lord, AD2002, these strapping footsoldiers of Christ are still busily spreading the word to those who haven't heard. Wandering around with that slightly bovine look on their faces, busily telling the savages why they should worship a man with a beard in the sky rather than their ancestors, animals or trees.

Actually the Baliem valley must have represented a significant boon to the missionary movement. Back in the 1960s (when the western world at large became aware of the place) these good folk must have been running out of ignorant pagans to save. And then, all of a sudden there was this totally unsaved Stone Age society! Even better, unlike, say, the darker regions of the Amazon basin, it's nicely organised into to villages, non-malarial and relatively easy to get around. So the missionaries descended (if you'll pardon the Biblical allusion) like a plague of locusts and have been annoying the locals ever since. In fact, when you look at it rather more seriously, there is something rather repulsive about watching this well funded dolts from places like the US, Germany and Austrailia busily destroying one of the last traditional cultures on earth. Still, there's hope. As recently as the mid-80s the Yali people caught and ate a missionary.

In fact, it's interesting here to note that the only person I spoke to (other than ethnic Indonesians) who argued strongly against West Papuan Independence was an American missionary, a seventh day Adventist. Initially I was quite impressed by his cogent, well-marshalled argument. The tribal peoples, he said weren't ready - an Independent west Papua would be riven by tribal infighting and internecine bloodbaths, etc, etc, etc....another Rwanda. Then it struck me that the arguments he was using were much like those invoked by the British when dealing with his unruly forefathers across the Atlantic over 200 years ago. Still, whatever the merit of his line of argument, I suspected that the real reason he was against independence is because a free Papua may well tell his sort to bugger off and take their god bothering elsewhere.

Tourist Class

As for the few other tourists, while they're pleased to tell you their horror stories at Sentani airport, they're considerably less voluble up in the valley. Indeed, odd thought it may sound, in Wamena, what tourists really, really resent is, well... other tourists. It's a strange situation: a sort of projected self hate. I mean, we all dislike hordes and places that have been overrun by the egg and chips brigade, but, at any given point in Wamena, there were probably about ten tourist in town. And, as for myself, after flogging through backwoods Indonesia for a couple of months I was glad to see a western face. But those faces weren't so glad to see me. Espying a group - German I think - walking from the airport 'terminal' and into the next door hotel, I greeted them, all puppyish enthusiasm. The tossers, they blanked me completely. And all I wanted to tell them was that the hotel they were checking into was rubbish and that ours was cheaper and better.

We had a number of other similar experiences. And I guess this antisocial behaviour has a couple of causes. Firstly, having fagged all the way out here to somewhere this remote, these people seem to want it to themselves. Well too bad: if you really want to be alone, you'll have to do better than somewhere that has scheduled (if nerve-jarring) flights. I think the main thing, though, is the way most people get here. Funnily enough, most tours here are in fact package tours, but not the kind of package you score at Lunn Poly with change from #200. No, these are the kind of packages you see advertised in the back of Conde Naste Traveller and upmarket Sunday sups with such tempting phrases as 'a ten day expedition in....' Indeed, if you look at any of the scanty travel literature on West Papua, the word 'expedition' crops up an awful lot. Now the last time I looked expeditions didn't advertise in the back of swanky magazines - well not in this century anyway. And, having organised for ourselves exactly the same kind of expeditionary experience in Papua that our fellow tourists (sorry, explorers) were enjoying, I can only conclude that, here, 'expedition' is a euphemism for 'Two thousand pound surcharge for making twenty phone calls.' It's possible that the few independent tourists who make it this far remind them of this uncomfortable fact.

For all that we did meet a few funny people. There was a Frenchman (the French love their 'cultural tourism') who, when I said I was English, replied 'I'm from France, perhaps, you've heard of it.' When I replied that, yes, it was twenty miles away, he sighed: 'Ah yes, the only 20 mile wide ocean in the world.' Then there were the Swedes at our hotel: in their 50s, he was a truck driver and she worked in advertising. This seemed an unlikely match so I asked them a little more - perhaps he'd been a hot shot ad exec who'd had a stylish 80s coke-fuelled burnout and downshifted to truck driving. Not a bit of it: she really did work in advertising and he really did work in trucks, their union the result of an unlikely liberal 70s love match. She as a crashing bore and he was rather good fun. There were the usual adventurous Europeans and a few Canadians and, of course, there were no Brits. It never ceases to amaze me how conservative my countrymen are - for most of them, Thailand is quite exotic enough thank you very much. And this is such a sharp contrast to our otherwise culturally similar northern European neighbours. When NASA finally gets round to sending a manned mission to Mars, some latter day Neil Armstrong with step out onto the red planet to find a German and a Dutchman bitching about the cost of accommodation.

Guide Wars

As there is little else to do in wild remote places, we decided to go trekking. We'd had a guide, who went by the unlikely name of Kepenis, recommended to us and we'd met John, another chap who seemed quite nice at the airport. Meanwhile the Swedes had employed the services of a chap called Isaac. Kepenis had said he'd show up at noon, but didn't appear till eight. So after sounding out John we decided to go with him. He was a Dani/Yali guy who (probably unwittingly) dressed like a London clubber and was an ex-boxer. He spoke six languages, only two of which - English and Indonesian - had any applicability outside the valley. We were especially pleased about the ex-boxer part of his CV. We'd met an Italian whose guide had been so unfit he'd quit the trek half way through; although, like most Dani men, John was small, he looked strong enough to carry us both.

Then Kepenis showed up and was well and truly miffed. He bitched and squeaked for ages. Tough, we said, that's business: even by local standards, eight hours late is a little rude. Then, the following morning, Isaac, the Swedes' guide, started slagging of John, saying he'd run off with clients' money, which was curious as the previous day he'd been badmouthing Kepenis. We'd be far better off, he said, going with him and the Swedes. Then Kepenis demanded that John stepped aside, saying I'd made a deal with him at the airport, which was even more curious, as he hadn't been there. Then Isaac demanded a cut, which made no sense at all. Eventually we told Kepenis, thanks but no thanks and told Isaac, who was an unpleasant little shit-stiirrer, to bugger off. So we went with John who turned out to be perfectly good and far cheaper than Isaac. Interestingly, at the end of the trek, we bumped into another guide who, after asking my name, swore blind I'd made a deal with him in the airport and then demanded 50% of John's fee. Obviously I'd never met him before.

Guys and Gourds

With John and our porters we stocked up on food for the trip. This is pretty essential as there is no guarantee that you'll be able to buy food out of Wamena - here, if the rains fail as they did in 1997, people starve - and besides, sweet potatoes form 90% of the local diet. Unless you're prepared to live off these it's a good idea to come prepared. So we bought all the usual inessentials and one live chicken. This may seem rather primitive to all of you out there who know that chicken grows in Styrofoam trays at Tesco, but in the fridge-free Papuan highlands the only way to ensure your chicken is not a funky one is to keep it alive.

For the first day we walked through a beautiful but baking landscape - all rugged mountains and wide skies, with the valley narrowing to a spectacular gorge. But not terribly different, rather like Nepal, though the people were black and the sun was hotter. That night we slept in a priest's house. But by the second day things we were deep in Dani country and things got more interesting.

The Dani are the most numerous tribe in the valley and its chief attraction, largely because of the way they dress. You must remember that until the 1960s only one westerner had been to the valley, so anyone over the age of 50 will remember a Stone Age lifestyle unchanged for 5000 years. Moreover, despite the best efforts of the missionaries and the Indonesian government, the traditional cultures here remain relatively intact. The upshot of all this worthy anthropobabble is that many of the fellahs wear nothing but a dried gourd on their old fellahs. This is affixed to the man by a piece of string, and points jauntily upwards in a permanent erection. Nor do these gourds just contain a chap's johnson, many Dani men also keep tobacco and money in their gourd. Which, I suppose, lends an interesting twist to parents telling kids not to put money in their mouths: 'You don't know where it's been.' Out of Wamena, almost every man you meet is near naked and while it is quite a curious thing going around shaking hands with men whose scrotal sacks hang out of the bottom of a conical gourd, you soon get used to it. The women are rather more modest and go topless but wear grass skirts.

Cock Death

The main reason for our taking a rooster with us was that the second day of our trek was July 6th and he was to be the centrepiece of my birthday meal. At the outset, there had been some macho joshing over who would kill the cock and foolishly I'd agreed to. As the time approached I was less sure I should have challenge - especially as I was getting kind of fond of him - but I could hardly back down. Besides, I'd met an American who'd told me that killing a chicken had long been a goal of his and was a totally life affirming experience. Obviously I was anxious to see for myself if this was the case. So, with a rather blunter knife than I might have wished for, I beheaded our squawking chook. Unlike the American I felt no bolt of life-affirming energy; in fact it was a fairly pedestrian experience. Disappointingly, post decapitation, it didn't run around like the proverbial, but this was probably because its legs were bound. We then ripped out the tail feathers to give to the locals to make headdresses and John took over. Not, I hasten to add, because I came over all squeamish, but because I'm a bit hopeless at plucking and gutting. And sure enough, we soon had a chicken that wouldn't have looked out of place in a Tesco cold cabinet.

I then cooked about a third of the chicken, barbeque style over the fire pit in the cooking hut. I would love to say that, after all this palaver it was the best chicken I have ever tasted; but it was probably the worst. The problem, I think, was twofold. Firstly our chook was about as free range as you can get - far too free range in fact, the poultry equivalent of a marathon runner. And secondly he'd clearly done all this free ranging over a number of years. The end result of which was a chicken that was a tough as old boots and had no fat whatsoever. Thus, when I barbequed it, I effectively made chicken jerky. It didn't taste bad - it was just like eating bird-flavoured leather. A little later we gave John the rest and he did a far more creditable job, proving that the skills needed to cook in a well appointed London kitchen are rather different to those needed in a Papuan hut.

Still, it all made for an agreeable and rather unusual birthday. My 30 th I spent off my face on a swish Thames cruise surrounded by friends who all gave me cool, ironic gifts. My 31 st was spent in a grass-roofed hut on a Papuan mountainside, surrounded by tribesmen; Jane presented me with a penis gourd and the village head gave me jewelry and some arrows. I later asked him if the arrows were for killing birds. He looked at me as if I was stupid and replied - for this in an area where inter-tribal disputes can get quite messy - 'Not for killing birds, for killing people.'

The following morning we discovered that the next bridge had washed out and had to take a route that involved edging along a six-inch wide path and climbing across landslides. Here the villages were even more traditional and, as the only gourdless guy, I was starting to feel a little overdressed. Actually, all this nudity, is one very cool thing about the Dani. In most traditional societies, modesty - often to the point of discomfort - is the rule. But as the Dani are practically naked, you could visit them in a bikini without offending anyone. Indeed, our John told us that the previous summer, he'd guided a group of four Germans who'd gone for the full Monty. In the interests of ethnic verisimilitude, they had walked for five days wearing nothing but boots and penis gourds. Res Ipsa Loquitor.

Swine fleas

The next village we stayed in looked deceptively alpine from a distance. But close up it was definitely Dani. That is, one of the cutest villages you could possibly imagine. Indeed, every single Dani settlement looks like an entry for Indonesia's best-kept village. Although these people are subsistence farmers, they plant flower borders and shrubs everywhere. You find shady seats under bougainvillea bushes, dinky little rockeries and there is no rubbish or waste anywhere. The effect is a sort of Neolithic Cotswolds. Here we decided to keep it hyperreal. Instead of staying with the usual priest or teacher, we'd stay in a traditional dwelling, largely because we had no choice. A Dani hut is about 10 ft in diameter and has wooden walls about 5 ft high topped by a grass roof. Inside is a dirt floor with a fire pit in the middle (no chimney) and a dirt floor covered with straw. There might be a second storey - a cramped sleeping space. And the hut may or may not be shared with pigs. Ours, thankfully was not.

The first hut night we spent sharing the sleeping platform with 9 other people, eight of whom had coughs which did little to glamourise smoking. The second was even more real. We slept on the ground. This time we shared the hut with only four other people. But the low headcount was more than compensated for by the million or so pig fleas that also lived in the hut. Here the shower was the river and the toilet was out where the pigs rooted; it was just as well the pigs were friendly as they had an alarming habit of appearing when you were in mid-stream with your Johnson at its most vulnerable.

Well, although as we travelling types say, it was all a really, really amaaayyyzing experience - and an experience of a culture that will likely cease to meaningfully exist in the next decade or so - it was all becoming a bit real for even us. There's only so much reality even the most comitted traveller can take. By the end of the fourth day, filthy and with around 200 fleabites apiece, I was dreaming of mobile phones and lasagne while Jane fantasised about roast chicken and flush loos. So it was with genuine joy the following lunchtime we reappeared at our hotel in Wamena, a surprisingly nice place run by an Indonesian couple from Sulawesi. He was a gadget freak and had three Satellite decoders, which could receive several million channels, two in English. She was a terrific cook who produced food in vast quantities. So, on the doorstep of the last few traditional cultures on earth we sat gratefully on our arses in front of MTV Asia, stuffed our faces and scratched out fleabites.

More Culture

A couple of days later cultural guilt caught up with us and we went to check out the local mummy. I'd obviously expected something that looked like it came out of the Pyramids (all Sarcophagi, gilt and so on) but this was, in true Dani style, near naked, crouched on its haunches with a face that recalled Munch's 'The Scream'. Rather than the usual embalming, the Dani make their mummies by smoking corpses. So what we were looking at was in fact a 360-year-old human kipper. The other touristastic sight that day was a brine spring. Nowadays of course, most Dani sensibly buy their salt from the shops but for the benefit of tourists (and occasionally themselves) they make it the traditional way. This involves soaking smashed banana tree stems in the brine for a day. The resultant mush is then dried out and burnt and the salty ashes used to season food. I only mention this because I'm sure it will be available in a Conran Shop near you soon, commanding a per-gramme price comparable to cocaine.

Cargo a go go

Getting out of the Valley is considerably easier than getting in. And there's an obvious reason for this - as everything has to be flown in, a lot of empty cargo planes go out. For around #25 you can 'enjoy' flying in an empty cargo plane. So we made the easiest airline reservation ever - write your names in a child's exercise book - and rocked up on our allotted date. And, after a distinctly surreal wait during which one man attempted to beg a plane ticket off me while another tried to sell me a live lobster (very Daliesque), we threw our lot in with Trigana air.

I don't know if anyone reading this has ever been in a cargo plane but basically, after they offload the cargo, they shove a few seats into grooves in the plywood floor. Had ours been a passenger plane it would have been a 60 seater, but this only had 14 passengers - so 14 seats. On the plus side, you do get fantastic legroom. But the downside is that the plane's interior is all mucky plywood and it tends to reek of its previous cargo, in this case, barrels of petrol. Still it was a perfectly OK flight, except at take-off, when there's a nice view of a crashed aircraft at the end of the runway to remind you what happens when planes go wrong. Apparently this was crashed (sans death) by a pilot hailing from the Russian Mafia. A side effect of this is one of Papua's most curious tourist attractions: every night, at the only half decent restaurant in town you can see 11 very miserable looking Russian Mafia pilots; with no plane they have no employment and cannot afford the airfare home.

Plane in the Arse

Back in Sentani and our remarkable streak of plane (haha) good luck ran out. We now wanted to leave Papua, but because we'd experienced almost no delays, we had four days until our Garuda flight to Makassar in Sulawesi. So we booked into a hotel next to Sentani airport and settled into an invariant routine. Every morning we'd get up at six to see if we could get on the flight. And every morning we'd come back to the hotel at eight. But, after a few days of this, Jane made friends with a Guaruda executive called Lexi. With his porno moustache and feather cut hair, Lexi looked like an extra from Cheech and Chong; he also liked patting Jane quite a lot, but she was happy to be harassed if he could get us back to civilisation.

After some sweet-talking from Jane (during which I skulked in the corner as I was unlikely to appear in any of his nocturnal fantasies) Lexi found us a flight to Bali, which if we slipped him a tenner he'd put us on. This seemed remarkably cheap but if Lexi was taking backhanders, we didn't mind. Later that day it turned out this flight didn't exist - but he told us to show up, as usual, at some ungodly hour in the morning. By then the extra cost had gone up to fifty quid, the right price: Lexi wasn't corrupt, just incompetent. With about an hour to go our man then informed us that only business class seats were available - but, bizarrely, they only cost #10 more than Ekonomi! We were perfectly happy with this until we discovered we were #20 short of the total needed. Naturally, Guaruda's credit card machine was broken and the nearest cashpoint was a 60km round trip. Inspiration struck again: we had some dollars. Disappointment struck again: we had $15, so the shortfall was now about eight pounds. And Lexi wasn't budging: no eight quid, no flight. Jane smiled very sweetly: would he lend us the money? No. Could we pay in Bali? No. Could we pay by card over the phone to the nearest big office? Don't be stupid.

There was only one thing for it. We (i.e. Jane, who looks sweet and helpless) would have to beg another tourist for Rp 100,000. So she found the only westerner in the airport, an American called Gary and started imploring: 'I've got a massive favour to ask you...' Gary replied, 'I'm not carrying anything for you.' (This means within four weeks Jane has been mistaken for a missionary and a drug smuggler.) But God bless him, Gary was on our flight and was more than happy to give us Rp100,000. Of course, after we gave this to Lexi, it turned out there were Ekonomi seats after all and the whole charade was totally unnecessary. As it turned out Gary was a thoroughly good bloke and not, thank God, another missionary. Rather he was a Californian academic doing research on the behviour in undeveloped societies that leads to the spread of HIV. So while we waited for our flight, he kept us entertained us with tales of the most barbaric and bizarre sexual practices from primitive cultures around the globe. And, yes, when we finally got on our flight, there were 20 empty seats.