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Living with the Dani People of Beliem Highlands.....

papua Journal...Volume 2

We packed all our supplies in several bed- raggled cartons covered with tarpaulin and set off for our trek. It was not like Amundsen or Scott setting off for the poles, calculated, organized and fighting every impulse for failure. Ours seemed to be one of practicality, a
vague lack of purpose and leaving a lot to chance. The A-Type me simply ignored getting involved since the weather was always pleasant, the mountains filled with villages and the land as lush as it could be. We boarded a beat up mini van that took the six of us on a 20-minute ride. Why? That is where the road ended. Wamena is a jungle town with a 5-mile highway running on either side of the airport built by missionaries, block by block.
Kilese was our destination. My lonely planet research was pooh- poohed by Scorpio, my guide, who was sincerely interested in showing me the real Papua. It took a lifetime to get my police permit to travel the areas we were planning to traverse. The climb was steep and my porters lifting heavy loads were moving fast in order to reach the village before nightfall. Scorpio and Hanuman (a name I have used here to notate the faithful caretaker of mine, since I do not remember his name) were with me during this lovely trek in misty rain with a Chinese ponchodoing a slow water torture on my body.
The path leading to the village, which was about 6 km to the hilltop comprised of wild flowers, hand carved sweet potato plantations, old growth trees and lovely vegetation that seemed to be well tended. We passed small huts with families tending pigs and washing sweet potatoes on the mountain streams. Here is where I realized that Papua is all about pigs and sweet potatoes. It was their Nasdaq and DJIA.
As the evening was wearing thin I was wondering about our camp. Scorpio was very vague about our campsite causing me considerable anxiety. Close to 6:00 PM I noticed kids and families moving about the trail. It was very foggy and the rain ahead picked up in intensity making me wonder if wipers on glasses will indeed be a practical invention. Alas! We arrived. If the opening scene from the Lord of the Rings, showing an idealistic gnome community in a fantasy landscape was a “Ten”, then Kilese was a 20. An arched floral gateway, very natural in its presence, followed by several steep steps brought me to this commune of several huts holding about 30 members of an extended family. We were first shown to our common habitation, a large hut with plenty of firewood and hay for flooring.
We dried ourselves in the fire and the cook who had already arrived earlier was brandishing his ware in front of the smoky hearth, which served as light, stove and heater: it was certainly the most important element that evening.
Scorpio whispered into my ear that I should proceed to one of the huts in the far extreme corner of the commune. It was still raining, but I could see flickering light and some figures in the hut. I walked in from the rain to see the most impressive sight any adventurerc could expect to see. It was the daily evening congregation of the men folk of the commune in front of the fire. The chief had a whisk, a conch shell necklace and spectacular feathers in his headdress. His brother a wiry muscular figure had a boar’s tusk going through his septum, an uncle dressed less exclusively sat in the far side and a brother-in law who seemed to have more curls in his groin than on his head sat quietly with a lonely feather sporting out of his ornate head
The whole scene was so unexpected that I was short for words. Several thoughts raced through my mind, Do I whip my camera (a little one) and start shooting, or should I attempt to make gestures or just simply let them enjoy the sight of an Indian, whom I suspect they had never seen. Along with the thick smoke emerging from their wet timber hearth they were all smoking cigarettes and instead of offering me one asked for some more from me. A habit certainly started by the Dutch who ruled this land, as a barter item. I slowly eased my camera out of its moorings on my hip and tried to take some pictures only to
realize that it was completely fogged from my trek in the rain. Photographers reading this article will sure share my anguish at this importune moment, as my SLR was in a far away hut.DSC07072.jpg
Scorpio after letting me simmer inside with no communication, cigarette or camera finally came in with some smokes and sweet conversation. It seemed that after all the chores are done in the plantations the men-folk retire to their “Alpha Hut” where they discuss their day’s issues: pigs, swine, sweet potatoes, war paint and old tales of blood and gore. They also wonder about Christianity that is being pushed on them, something called the Indonesian Government, tourism & brown people who offer cigarettes without barter and above all the threat to their unique way of life. The Alpha hut serves as a meeting room, a 'men only' gathering place where every male member (only) is accepted, a place where an ancestor or two are smoked after mummification and preserved and a place where all the elders sleep on a platform away from their wives and families.
I offered a few cigarettes to the elders from my new stash while smoking one myself. I had a feeling of hometown bonhomie with the Dani at that moment. The altitude, the tedium, the cheap tobacco and the overall atmosphere was indeed taking me to a higher plane.
Scorpio proceeded to explain to me that the men slept next to each other on the platform above the fire (see plates attached), but did their matrimonial duties by visiting their family hut briefly where the wives and kids along with their pigs slept. In fact within the compound of each family hut there was an interconnected stockade, where the swine would spend their daytime hours. Like stashing any other valuables, these pigs would occupy the living quarters in the night providing financial security and physical warmth.
Nature had provided them a perfect climate for this type of arrangement to evolve. Jarred Diamond, the author of “Guns, Germs and Steel” observed that this living arrangement of man and beast led to virus jumping species in Papua amongst other places. The same is true with sheep in the Middle East, cattle in Asia (I remember SenKhazani, our milkman in Madras living with his favorite cow in the Government provided housing, dogs and cats in Europe and monkeys in Central African Republic.DSC07054.jpg
I felt very touristy trying to take my pictures with the elders. Upon review of the pictures one could see the stupidity of that enterprise (See plates) we took leave after several introductions, handshakes and pleasantries. After a dismal meal in the communal hut, I was shown my hut. It was a hut and just that. I was given an old pillow, which I quickly covered with a jacket and a straw mattress. The floor of the hut was made of cane reeds and the door was an excuse for a portal. It was pitch dark inside the hut but after midnight and after the rains had abated out came the stars; the milky way, constellations, star clusters, white dwarfs, red dwarfs, black holes?. This humble traveler was soon stargazing in absolute awe.
The only other time I had observed such an event was in the Sahel Desert in Mali. Every time I tried to crawl back into my hut to sleep, out came the creepy crawlers. They were moving, gnawing, chewing and boring into the straw floor. It was not the former cannibals with whom I was lodging that would give me the
creeps, but the unseen critters encompassing my space was simply too much to bear. I barely slept.

Ramdas Iyer can be contacted at riyerr@aol.com

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:00 Archived in Indonesia

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