papua

“Travel makes one modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” -Gustave Flaubert

This post will be by guest writer Ezra Eash. I’m a little burned out on catching up on this blog and he wrote such an entertaining e-mail I decided to share it below. The only thing he forgot to mention was that these trails were not only steep (sometimes we had to scoot down on our butt because it went vertical and there was no safe footing) and full of scree, but many times the edge of the trail was the edge of the mountain. One time I misstep and almost fell off. My legs were a bit wobbly after that.

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“We finished our trek in the Baliem valley a few days ago and flew out yesterday, we are now in Jakarta (we flew all day yesterday to get here). The valley was beautiful and the people were so nice and friendly. It’s hard to juxtapose the two; being in one of the biggest cities in the world after having spent time in a place that was unknown to outsiders just 70+ years ago where people still primarily live as they have for thousands of years. The hiking was tough for both of us; it was the first time we had really done anything like it and of course I packed way too much that I ended up having to lug up and down mountains. But the scenery was superb and most of the time it was only us on the trails; we never saw another tourist but not infrequently the locals would pass us on the trails or come down to say hi. Everyone shakes your hand and smiles and asks you where you are going and where you are from, and says thank you after you shake their hand. They all seemed so gentle and peaceful just like most of the people we met in PNG (ethnically they are all Melanesian and more or less look the same). It’s hard to believe that before missionaries came and converted them they were always engaging in warfare (it was the mens’ pastime apparently) and cannibalism and headhunting were still occurring in the region up until the 1970’s. Praise The Lord I guess; maybe the body of Christ is all they really need.

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getting started

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my entourage – who doesn’t like messi?

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The children were fascinated by us and especially Angie; many of the young girls would sneak touches of her hair or just wanted to put their hand on her. We gave the kids balloons and this was like crack to them; I’ve never seen anyone, let alone a whole village of children, so excited by something. They would rush us like a mob when they saw we had balloons and as we handed them out many of the older ones would hide their ballon and then get back into the frenzy so that before we realized it some of them had a handful.  After we were out they would proudly pull out all of the balloons they had seized and start to count them out. Everyone huddled together counting their stash and then the eldest would start blowing up the balloons for the youngest; presumably they didn’t want us to blow them up because it would be harder for them to hide (although that happened too). : ) In one village they played for the entire time we were there with the balloons we gave them, which was almost a day.

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playing soccer on an airstrip

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The people are called Dani in the area where we were and they live in round huts made out of grass and sticks (called a honai). They get their water from streams nearby; some streams they would drink from and some they would not. Actually in some villages we visited in PNG the water was a 5-10 minute hike away down a steep and slippery cliff and then they had to transport it back up again, which made you appreciate water even more than when we were on the sailboat. Some villages have a generator to provide power for special occasions, but since it was hours of steep hiking to get to many of the villages I don’t believe they probably had too much fuel on hand. Some had solar panels to charge small electronics. Cooking was done in their honai or in a special one dedicated for cooking, and firewood was always the fuel. There were no chickens as there was all over PNG, but lots of pigs. Pigs are well respected and some sleep in the honai with the family. There were rock walls 2 to 5 feet high all over the place; we think they would mark the property boundaries. They even were present across the trails so as a result we had to scale what seemed like hundreds of walls, which was not something I felt like doing after climbing up and down mountains all day.  : )

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yes, we crossed this rickety bridge

The Dani men are known for their penis gourds, which some still wear.  They don’t wear much else; I joked that anywhere else seeing a naked man with an axe outside your room looking in would be cause for some concern, but here we didn’t think twice about it. : ) They want to have their picture taken because they expect money in return; sometimes they would trick you into taking their picture so i called them the penis bandits. If you give money to the penis bandits then every guy in the room that had their picture taken wanted money too, even if they were wearing their street clothes. Okay, maybe that was only one guy we met, but I’m not going to try to ‘pantomime explain’ that I only want a picture of naked men to a guy that’s holding a machete and demanding a  dollar.  : )

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what is this construction site missing? oh yes, boots and a hard hat. : )

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gardening in the (almost) buff.

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i had to give $0.60 and a box of crackers for this baby… penis bandit.

There are something like 300 plus languages that are spoken in the region, so everyone communicates with other tribes in Bahasa Indonesian, which is Indonesia’s national language. We learned a few words to be able to communicate with people as no one spoke English. In the town of Wamena there are lots of Indonesians that have immigrated from other islands and are ethnically Asian as opposed to the native Melanesian Papuans (who actually look African). Half of Papua’s population is now apparently non-native (Asian) Indonesian immigrants, and there is tension between the two groups as many Papuans wants independence from Indonesia and they have a rebel army that occasionally targets military and other Indonesian interests on Papua. As a result tourists have to apply for a special permit to travel around Papua and check-in with the police when they arrive in towns or even some of the larger villages (i guess to make sure we’re not with the CIA). : )  Not surprisingly there seems to be an inordinately large military presence on the island and around the towns. That all said we didn’t have any problems and made friends with some of the young soldiers who would pour over our Surat Jalan (travel permit) and ask us if we had any cigarettes.

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checking out our surat jalan

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The last day we hiked from 7am until 4:30pm with only a few breaks with the hope that we could make it back to the main town of Wamena. It was a Saturday and we weren’t sure if we would be able to catch transport on Sunday because in (also very Christian) PNG a lot of things shutdown on Sunday. Where you start trekking, I should add, is about an hour bus ride from Wamena. We were exhausted and even though it was starting to rain and getting close to sundown we kept hiking and finally made it back to the first village that we had started out at a couple days before. The only transport that was available back to Wamena was on the back of a motorcycle (called ojek) and we decided to risk it with the thought of a bed, shower, food other than uncooked ramen noodles and stale crackers, and no rats/mice/mosquitoes/cockroaches. We each climbed on the back of a motorcycle, me with my backpack, and we started the 40 min journey back. We had to cross several fast flowing rivers; we would get off and they would amazingly gun through the water and climb/descend the steep hills on either side. I would never ever have guessed that they could get a motorcycle across that terrain if I hadn’t been on the back of one.  : ) We weaved our way through old river beds (I presume) that were covered with large rocks and boulders as the rain poured down, and zipped around cars and people and pigs and bikes. On one big wooden planked bridge the dump truck in front of us somehow broke through some the planks which caused the entire bridge to shake. My driver steered us off the main planks so that we were crossing the planks perpendicularly, which you are not supposed to because there are gaps between the boards! It was quite the adventure and capped off a fun and adventurous trip all around.

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i’m exhausted

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who knew you could bike through this.

We spent a day in Wamena, the main town in the Baliem valley, before flying out yesterday. If someone dropped you off in Wamena and you saw the mountains and sweet potato/other agricultural practices surrounding you, a population composed of what looks like Asians and Africans, and the calls to prayer bleating out from the mosques which often side-by-side with churches, you wouldn’t be sure if you were in the Pacific, Asia, Africa or the Middle East. Or all of them at once. New Guinea, both PNG and now Papua, was such a unique and rewarding experience and really is an island of contrasts that cannot be summed up with simple classifications or stereotypes. Many people we spoke to before we went told us of the horror stories they had heard about the island and how unsafe it would be for us traveling there. Yet I don’t know if I’ve ever met such kind and artless/genuine people anywhere (other than my family) who went so out of their way to make sure we were safe and happy. It definitely wasn’t all roses and there were many points of fatigue, despair, fright and discomfort along the way, but those are all just part of the journey. I think we’ll long look back with fondness on the time we spent in New Guinea, and the wonderful people we met, and feel truly lucky to have gotten to experience such a unique and fascinating part of the world.”

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Love and miss you all,
Ez

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