Travel Stories

New Guinea in two parts

1. The Baliem Valley in New Guinea is unique among all of the places I have visited on the planet, mostly because the culture of the indigenous stone-aged Dani people who’ve lived here for millennia is still dominant and palpable, although fading fast.   

The plane we fly on from Jayapura on the north coast of Indonesian Papua New Guinea to the central market town of Wamena in the Baliem Valley is crowded at least in part because there are still no roads into or out of the Baliem Valley and no other way than by air to get to Wamena.  Indeed, the Valley was first “discovered” and explored by westerners only seventy five years ago and those first western explorers also first flew in - by sea plane - which they landed on a mountain lake before setting out into the interior.

We are met in Wamena by our tour guide Olfied, who is from Sulawesi, by our driver, Richard the silent hearted, and by our indigenous Hoopla vouchsafe guy and porter, Yeskeel, named after the prophet Ezekiel, who is wearing nothing but a feathered headdress, a penis sheathe gourd held up by a woven thread wrapped around his waist, a loose bamboo decorative “belt” holding up nothing, a necklace with beads, keys, and safety pins, and a nice wristwatch.  I’m told Yeskeel wears the watch strictly as jewelry, not because he knows how or needs to use it.  I can’t confirm or deny this, but it is decidedly a nice watch.  Most of all Yeskeel is definitely a man of the deepest tribal traditions, and seems to know every path, every hill, every compound, every plant name and each plant’s medicinal properties.  He walks everywhere barefooted no matter how rocky the surface.  And in what for me is a moment of disconcerting awareness I realize as I’m walking down the streets of Wamena with this handsome completely naked black man, with feathers in his hair and a penis sheathe, that it is me, the tall white guy, who is being stared at, a personage far less frequently seen on the streets of Wamena than naked Hoopla or Dani men are. 

Olfied carries with him a well worn original of the photo-filled book “Gardens of War,” co-authored by Karl Heider, the premier American anthropologist/ethnologist on Dani culture who I met in Bukittinggi, Sumatra and who lived among the Dani for over two years in the early nineteen sixties when ritual but deadly warfare was still a core aspect of Dani culture, and Robert Gardner, the producer of the movie “Dead Birds,” as beautiful an ethnographic film as I have ever seen that documents the ritual and deadly consequences of Dani warfare and that Joy and I watched in advance of coming to New Guinea.

Our first day in Wamena is spent visiting the main marketplace and driving around to get somewhat oriented to the Valley and the river running through it.  The Dani people live in rural villages and compounds throughout the sixty mile long fifteen mile wide Valley and everything they grow, craft, weave, bead, knit, and sharpen that they do not utilize or consume themselves is brought to market for sale in Wamena - green vegetables, yams, fat carrots, scallions, spears, passion fruit, tobacco, stone age adzes, stylized penis sheathes, caps, woven grass skirts and bags, avocados, tangerines - and where modern electronic devices are offered back to them - most of which they can’t use other than the ubiquitous cell phone.  Remember, these are folks who didn’t have metal tools until the 1980s, who didn’t wear western clothes before the 1990s … and who now are driving motorcycles and occasionally shopping in stores.

Wamena is a dry town, no alcohol of any kind not even beer is available anywhere.  The streets are crowded with Indonesians and Papuans, and although there is a fair sprinkling of naked men and even more with feathered headdresses, in the main what you see - especially outside the marketplaces where traditional people have come to sell their produce - is - at least on the surface - akin to what you’d see in similar post modern market towns in Myanmar, Cambodia, Kenya, and Tanzania … a marginal cash economy, dull and simple housing, and shops selling processed food, soap, and cigarettes.  There are about fifty thousand Dani living in the Valley along with dozens of other tribal groups.  It is said that over five hundred languages are spoken in New Guinea. 

Early on our second day in the Baliem Valley we drive south and are dropped off at a footbridge on the west side of the Baliem River, near where an avalanche killed hundreds of people about twenty years ago.  The Indonesian government has been attempting to build a more substantial road and bridge across the river at this site but repeated fatal accidents involving modern equipment being used in the bridge building attempt - bulldozers, front loaders, backhoes, a crane, big trucks and tractors - has led the government to at least temporarily abandon the effort.  The Dani see the hand of ghosts in these accidents, perhaps ghosts of those perished in the avalanche, ghosts being as real to the Dani - albeit invisible, but with absolutely clear and obvious effects - as gravity, also invisible but with obvious effects - is to us.

We cross the bridge on foot and trek about a third of the way up the mountain to a path used daily by these slash and burn subsistence agriculturalist pig raising villagers to connect to their fields, to other villages, and ultimately - about ten kilometers up river - to reach another footbridge which connects to a path that connects to the road to Wamena.  The living compounds we see are classic expressions of Dani culture: enclosed by a wooden fence or stone wall with a men’s house, a women’s house shared with children of both sexes under eight years of age, and a kitchen longhouse, shared with the pigs in their pigsties.  All of the structures are made of wood and thatch roofs earthen floors, a small fire pit, and no furniture.  Some compounds have a single solar panel mounted on a post that produces enough energy to power one small, low wattage electric bulb that hangs in the kitchen.  There is no running water, all of which must be drawn from nearby streams or the river.  All human eliminative functions are taken care of at random sites in the bush outside the compounds. 

We have been trekking for three hours or so when we reach a tiny wooden church we are told has about fifty active members and where we take shelter from the sun to rest and eat lunch in the shade of some tall trees growing next to the stone border surrounding the modest lawn of the church.  Within minutes of our arrival more than a half dozen children from three to twelve years of age have come by and seated themselves in a semicircle a respectful distance from us, watching us eat.  Yeskeel has brought nothing for his lunch.  Olfied has brought some bananas and a pineapple.  Joy and I are given box lunches with a chicken thigh, a tangerine, a small plastic bag of cooked vegetables, and a small bag of rice in them.  I give the chicken to Yeskeel, eat the tangerine, and, signaling a young boy to come over in order to give him the box with the veggies and rice still in it, which he takes back to the semicircle of kids and shares with them.  No squabbling.  No power plays.  No teasing.  From the tiniest girl to the biggest boy they just share the food amicably.  

Throughout the trek we are passed by women carrying huge loads of vegetables in woven sacks carried across their foreheads and suspended down their backs with the sack handle straps.  When the women get to the river they wash the vegetables and set off again toward town.  When filled the sacks weigh well over fifty pounds.   

During the trek we learn that Yeskeel lives in a compound/village at least a five-hour walk from the nearest roadway, and that because of his dependability and demeanor he is regularly used by this tour company under Olfied’s supervision for trekking expeditions such as ours.  I also realize walking around Wamena with him that Yeskeel is a well-known and popular figure among the Dani and Hoopla people and that many men call out Yeskeel’s name, come over to greet him warmly, and are genuinely happy to see him.  I’m not sure why this is so, but imagine in part it is because he has been selected as a tourist guide - a role they respect - and that they recognize Yeskeel as a living repository of their honored traditional culture and way of life.

    The transformation of village Dani from naked stone-age agriculturalists with fertile gardens, pigs, bows, arrows, spears, and digging sticks, to subsistence horticulturalists still living a more or less traditional Dani lifestyle - absent all-consuming ritual warfare - in still small clan compounds but with the addition of metal shovels, solar panels, cell phones, Christianity, and a certainly broadened awareness of the larger world is ongoing and I have no idea what will remain of their culture as they transform from grass hut dwellers to town dwelling, motorcycle driving, national government assisted, urban peasants.  My experience of the Dani in New Guinea makes me think long and hard about the remaining indigenous relatively un-acculturated Amazonian tribes, and about indigenous Native Americans, about what is unique and worthwhile in their traditional cultures and what as a practical matter can be preserved.      


2.    On our second full day in New Guinea we drive north from Wamena and then walk to Obia - a very traditional Dani village where the people live a traditional Dani lifestyle, supplemented by holding mock battle enactments and offering traditional pig roasts to visiting tourists such as we are.  None of it feels artificial in the ways a Hawaiian luau or hula dance would, nor is it the equivalent of the pale traditional greeting the Maasai offer visiting tourists.  Rather it is the actual living out, as opposed to recalling, of an ongoing way of life. And although the battle enactment is clearly a ritualized recalling of a practice now strictly prohibited and subject to seriously enforced sanctions by the Indonesian government, many of the older Dani men actually fought in battles such as these up until the 1980s or so, and some have the scars to show for it.   

We are greeted and welcomed into Obia as honored visitors.  There is singing and dancing.  The adult men all wear penis sheathes and go about barefooted and naked other than the ceremonial feathers and seashells they wear.  The women all wear traditional grass or woven skirts and are bare-breasted.  The villagers form a semicircle with the tribal chief in the center and we walk from person to person within the semicircle, softly shaking hands and exchanging the traditional Dani tribal welcome, “Wha!  Wha!  Wha!” said repeatedly and very breathlessly. 

A smallish pig is selected for slaughter and killed in the traditional Dani way with an arrow to the heart.  A fire is started using dry grass and a twirling bowstring.  Large and small rocks are heated in the fire. A baking pit has been dug and lined with straw.  The pig’s skin is seared and the pig’s hair singed and removed before the pig is placed on edible leaves for butchering.  The pig is butchered by three men working together using only bamboo knives, which they sharpen as they work by peeling away the dulled bamboo knife’s edges with their teeth.  The men doing the butchering are watched closely by a trio of five to seven-year old boys.  The men’s skill is remarkable, they remove the pig’s belly and all its internal organs in one fell swoop, then remove the spine, then flay open the pig and absorb the pig’s blood with edible leaves.  The pig’s spleen is thrown to the dogs, one of which is very lucky.

Meanwhile the largest hot rocks are carried from the fire to the straw lined cooking pit and placed inside it before being covered by another layer of leaves, then yams and other vegetables are added, then more leaves, then more rocks and leaves, then the pig, then more leaves, more rocks, more veggies, more leaves.  Ultimately the entire tiered structure is completely sealed in leaves, wrapped in larger leaves, and then tied around the middle with vines so that it stands, a streaming pile of trussed together grasses, hot rocks, veggies, and a whole pig, all about four feet in diameter and three feet high.  The moving of stones, the placement of the stones, and the adding of leaves and vegetables to the pile are all activities carried out by about a dozen women and a few older men.  

Once the pig is cooking the women retire to the women’s house and the men to the men’s.  I am invited inside the men’s hut with the chief, his two sons, one who will inherit the chief’s title and authority, the other a handsome twenty year old who has clearly chosen or been chosen to be a mainstay of carrying on the tribal traditions.  The men’s hut is dark, but clean.  There is a fire pit around which hang sacred objects.  Talk is murmured and soft.  They want to know about my children, about how my daughter got married.  They seem shy and a bit ashamed or embarrassed about their material conditions.  I ask them as much as I can about relations between men and women, given that the sexes eat separately, work separately, and sleep in separate houses.  The answers seem stylized and stereotypic but the language limitations are also vast, my questions in English being first translated into Indonesian by Olfied, then translated into Dani by the chief’s son to the men, whose answer is translated back by the chief’s son to Olfied who tells me what I fear he thinks is best to share with me, some of it answers Olfied has decided upon even before he even gets answers to my queries from the men.  It raises in my mind questions and doubts about how deep anthropologists can actually get and reminds me of a classic story about the Zuni of the American southwest who are very secretive about their activities in the sacred kiva and refuse to share information about the kiva ceremonies with outsiders because it would be a tragic - perhaps even fatal - giving away of their power and how an American anthropologist fell so deeply entranced and enamored of Zuni culture that he actually dropped out of sight and became as much as was possible a Zuni himself.  And, as the story goes, how more than twenty years later another American anthropologist came to study the Zuni and found the first anthropologist still living among them, who the second anthropologist imagines will be a fantastic source of information and data, only, as you can guess, the first anthropologist refuses to disclose what he knows for fear of losing his power.

I am told in regard to conjugal relations that a man goes infrequently and quietly out of the village men’s house to visit his wife in the women’s house late at night where they have very quiet sex and that the man must be back in the men’s house before sunup.  Naturally I just don’t get it given what I have experienced and know about the inherently/genetic/hormonal power of the sexual impulse as manifest by European, American, Polynesian, and African men and women, at least as best as I know.  And like much else about the Dani this access to their inner worlds remains beyond my grasp.     

In any event, after the pig has finished being cooked, the leaves are unwrapped, and I am invited over and given one of the blood-smeared leaves to eat.  I nibble it.  The woman next to me frowns, takes a few whole leaves and thrusts them in her mouth, demonstrating the gusto with which one should properly approach the eating of such a treat as pig blood smeared leaves.  I put the remainder of my leaf in my mouth, but as my own tribe’s former high chief said, I don’t inhale, and I’m actually caught on tape by Joy as I secretly spit out the delicacy.  

The men take the pig from the leaves to cut up and distribute.  As an honorific I’m given a piece of the pig’s liver.  I bite into it gingerly, but it also never makes its way down my esophagus.  I have shaken hands with every man and every woman in the village, everyone of whom has wiped their runny nose with their hand, adjusted their penis sheathes with their hand, petted the dogs, picked lice out of their kid’s hair, toileted themselves.  Need I go on?  It’s not that I have OCD, but I am a fastidious man, compulsive about hand washing before eating, even in American restaurants and at home, and I give away all the food I am given by the Dani other than a yam I selectively and meagerly eat the inside of.

After the meal Olfied takes out the “Gardens of War” book and a crowd gathers round him to look at the fifty year old photographs to see if they can identify anyone, something some of the older men do.  Then the souvenirs come out for display and sale.  Joy and I are good customers.  And as we are leaving one very old woman, whose bag we examined but did not buy, thrusts a tightly wrapped black plastic shopping bag into Joy’s lap, which when we unwrap it later find it contains the woven bag we examined and did not buy.  Olfied says it is an unusual gifting.  Add the event to our pile of mystery data.  Include as well my sense of having fallen in love with these people, with their kindness and seemingly egoless innocence.  I cannot fully explain why, but something very deep inside me is touched and moved in ways, something in my core that feels deeply romantic and heartfelt.  In a certain mood I might even suggest that my own tribal roots and my genetic memory/inheritance of the times my direct ancestors and my very DNA lived in just this tribal manner has been emotionally and empathically stimulated and I can barely stand tearing myself away from what feels like a deeply romantic and touching encounter/affair.   

I must also say that I believe the warmth and welcoming energy of all the Dani people we encounter is real, even in the most tourist-centric settings.  This is not Plimouth Plantation where costumed actors are playing out traditional roles from centuries past, at least not yet, but rather a people living their lives as they always have and still do, albeit in some structured ways, almost as a cash crop for the benefit of tourists.  But Dani men do routinely hug one another in greeting and every Dani man walking along and encountering a seated gathering of other men will stop to softly shake hands with every one of them, breathlessly whispering “Wua. Wua. Wua.”  Their smiles real, the hands and hugs they offer one another real, the hands they offer to help me over narrow bridges, slippery stones, and muddy gateways real in the kindest most caring of ways.          

    My experience of these stone-age people living in the modern world also leaves me highly energized, as well as curious, and I am frustrated at not being able to understand what I am witness to, at not understanding the meanings of what I am observing at a deeper level, at having absolutely no access to what the Dani think.  Still I feel immensely privileged and honored to have been witness to what I believe are the sweet death throes of traditional Dani culture and, in my assessment, traditional Dani village life will only be found in Plimouth Plantation-like settings within two generations at most.  The city and modern technology are simply too irresistible.  A six hundred kilometer long road is being built from Jayapura to Wamena.  The advantage and attraction of motorcycles, electricity, television, cigarette lighters, running water, modern medical treatments, compulsory public school education all contribute to the demise.  I’ve read a little bit about how Brazil is struggling with the issue of protecting the remaining indigenous people in the Amazon, not wanting to deny them access to that which they might desire, but also not wanting to impose the dominant culture and cultural views upon them as a fait accompli.  Noble, but futile I think.  The days of all indigenous stone-aged people are numbered. Their traditions are mostly history.  Their way of life more memory than fact.  

We bought all the decorative penis sheaths and woven bracelets Yeskeel made.  The next day he was taking pictures with his new cell phone.  And in light of truths such as these, we must acknowledge we cannot preserve whole cultures, although it is my deeply held wish that everything which can be done should be done to preserve their languages, their poetry and song, their beliefs, and their knowledge, sacred and profane.  Perfection in this regard, as in so many others, is the enemy of the good.  And I feel strongly a desire to get to the Amazon while I can still walk and squat, before the Great Spirit tells me, as the waiter in Wamena did, “I’m sorry to inform you, but the fried banana sir ordered is empty.”  


inside the men's house

inside the men's house