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A Trek deep into Dani Country, Papua

Papua Journal Volume 4


After a poor night's sleep with insects creeping under the floor of my hut, I woke up to perfect morning light with clean, crisp air, a body of fog in the river valley below and a surrealistic cannibal village under my feet. The photos attached display the beauty of the valley. All the men folk were working the grounds while the women folk were grooming their children under the sun. Sweet potatoes, their primary diet, were cooking in an underground hearth, the pigs had already been released to their stockades (from the family bedroom) and I was watching everything in silent fascination.

After morning ablutions, a scary experience where a misstep could have hurtled me down a deep ravine,a wonderful breakfast of eggs and bread, we set off on our 7-hour trek for the day. Good Byes to the Kilease clan was brief as the elders were beginning to fight for sharing the fees even before we departed.They are a bellicose people, easily provoked by external stimuli involving property and women. They literally get on each other’s face with or without the Stone Age hoe that is their main agricultural tool. I did mention that the Dani, Lani, Korowai, Kombai, Asmat and other peoples of the Island are stone age tribes, since all their implements were made of stone until recently and still in use. (I bought a couple of hoes from the chief).

The climb was getting arduous despite the porters carrying everything including my camera. On a mere nod they would have lifted me too. I regret not noting their names but all four of them were very pleasant but for one grouch who always kept to himself and never communicated. White Water Rivers were hurtling below and periodically we crossed bridges built only of wood and tree vines over great heights. This was Indiana Jones country for me. No nails, no metal but pure archaic engineering (see photo). Along the way we saw several villages but would not trespass them since Scorpio knew where to go and what to avoid.
One particular meeting was with a pair of Papuans who were returning home after trading tobacco for penis gourds. They proudly showed the long gourds, which were teased while growing to become straight, long, and broad enough to hold a Negroid penis. While I inspected them I was tempted to smell the gourd but suddenly realized with great alarm that there could have been a "fitting" prior to the purchase. These travellers had nothing but a bag made of hemp holding some tobacco, some sweet potatoes and their body decorations. They demonstrated their nasal bone ornaments that they always carry lest they have to attend a function of great importance. All Papuan males have pierced septum to accommodate boars’ teeth ornaments. Large ones being rarer these days, the longer the bone the more sophisticated the wearer. After bidding farewell to them we ascended to greater heights were the clouds seem to hug the crown of the mountain ridges.
Scorpio suddenly swept me aside and made me crawl on the high grass and observe an amazing hunt. A local bird hunter actually shot a flying bird with his arrow at 50 yards and while in flight. I could not believe my eyes. Imagine that your only diet consisted of sweet potatoes and an occasional bird stew of an animal in flight downed with the most rudimentary tool-a bamboo bow and arrow.


After several magnificent vistas and vertical meters, we were about to enter a village to call our home for the night. Being squarely in the tropics sunrise was 6:00 AM and sunset its numerical counterpart in the evening. I was given my customary private hut but this time on an elevated platform because a major stream was only a few yards away. Within a span of 5 minutes several young children and many maimed village elders sat outside my hut trying to get cigarettes or medicines and sell me some trinkets. The first woman that approached me, topless of course (No Bridgette Bardot folks!) raised both her palms in the way the pope would do as you approach him. I was wondering if she was bestowing a blessing on me, but it turned out to be a typical Papuan greeting to indicate war loses (I noticed that several digits of her fingers were missing in both hands). I have seen too many lepers in India with such loss of digits but I was told she was not a leper but a person who was mourning death(s) in her family. What? I thought!. Then came a middle-aged man with a cigarette between his forefinger and thumb, of course with all his digits missing ,worn to the nub. Upon further inquiry, I was told that the each digit was sawn off to mourn the loss of a sibling or parent in a tribal war. I saw many have them had only two complete fingers in both hands. With regular pitched battles in the past family losses were so heavy that most Papuans over the age of 50 ( born in the 1940’s and 1950’s)had severely maimed bodies.
The next morning with mostly naked people all around me, I was least conscious when I disrobed and washed myself in the stream. I found a spot upstream from the pigs and the ladies washing their sweet potatoes. I was very tempted to wear a gourd and walk about but better judgment prevented me from doing so. A noble savage imitated by an urban literate is tantamount to blasphemy.
IMGP4387.jpgIMGP4376.jpgIMGP4363.jpgIMGP4361.jpgWishing a hunter good night

Wishing a hunter good night


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:00 Archived in Indonesia

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