A Travellerspoint blog

July 2011

Amongst the Tuareg Tribesmen of Timbuktu

A Journey with the nomads of the Sahara.......Ramdas Iyer, Author

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Timbuktu sits where the Sahel meets the Sahara. The Sahel is defined as “ the biogeographic zone of transition between the Sahara desert in the North and the Savannas in the south. It stretches across the North African continent between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea. The Arabic word sāḥil literally means "shore, coast", describing the appearance of the vegetation of the Sahel as a coastline delimiting the sand of the Sahara.
While Timbuktu has scrublands and acacia trees around the city, it is only a few yards from the sand dunes of Sahara. Within 10 minutes of driving out of the town one encounters huge sand dunes and endless vista of sand, sky and scarab beetles marking their footsteps in the sand, while feasting on camel dung.
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My son Arjuna and I visited a monument, which was rather unique. A few years ago after a bitter battle between the black Malians and the Arabic Tuareg had led to a dangerous stalemate in this area. After much death and destruction, peace was declared with the burial of 500 machine guns in cement. It was a rather graphic site for us simple folks who had never seen or handled firearms. We then visited the Sankhare mosque, a World Heritage Site, the ancient library housing Islamic works (paid by Ford foundation lest anyone forgets) and the town built on sand including a tour of the house occupied by the first British (or European) explorer to ever visit Timbuktu, Gordon Laing. The legend of Timbuktu was so great in the mid- nineteenth century that its discovery by the west was a prize to be had like a moon landing envisioned by the cold war USA.
In light of this importance, in 1824, the Geographical Society of Paris announced a prize of 10,000 francs (£400) to the person who first visited the African city of Timbuktu. Timbuktu was considered an almost mythical place, a city of gold nestled in the hostile lands of Muslim North Africa. Europeans were not welcome. Several expeditions had been financed from England, but no one had yet returned alive from Timbuktu – even Mungo Park, who had set off down the Niger from Segu (the regional capital of Niger and a place of great interest for the traveller) had been murdered. Animosity between British and French Geographical Society's existed over British explorer, Gordon Laing. There was vague evidence to suggest that Laing had successfully reached Timbuktu in 1826, but had been murdered shortly after leaving. In 1828, René Auguste Caillié was the first European to return from the fabled city.
Caillié settled in a Muslim community on the Rio Nuñez, Guinea, the land made famous by another Frenchman Dominique Strauss -Kahn of the IMF, by allegedly raping a Guinean woman in NYC this summer, to learn the language and customs. After three years he felt confident enough to join a caravan heading to Timbuktu, disguised as a Muslim, and carrying a minimum of supplies: a single bag of trade goods, an umbrella, compass, medical kit, and a journal. He dismissed his poor language abilities by saying he was an Egyptian, kidnapped by Napoleon's army and taken to France to be raised amongst the heathen.
His entrance into the fabled city was a disappointment: later describing the view as "a mass of ill-looking houses, built of earth." Caillié stayed in a house only one street away from that where Gordon Laing had slept the previous year, and was shown a compass said to belong to Laing.
After spending a fortnight in Timbuktu he joined a caravan crossing the Sahara to Morocco, reaching Fez in 3 months. From Tangier he returned to France. Caillié was the first to accomplish the journey in safety.
I take pride in our visit given its rich history of exploration, intrigue, murder and trade. Today with sufficient interest, money and a willingness to endure relative discomfort one can get to Timbuktu with relative ease. I will never forget some of the local restaurants along the way for the sheer grossness of the kitchen, plates and offerings. I can recollect having a sandwich in a small restaurant along the way to Timbuktu operated by a French returned Malian. While the food depending on electricity available was tolerable, the kids all around the restaurant were playing with real dead fish, real dead birds and real dead rodents.
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After truly enjoying the tourist offerings, our Tuareg guide Bebe and Malian guide Mama Kone offered to take is up to 20 km into the Saharan sands by 4X4 to visit nomadic Tuareg tents. After 30 minutes of driving we came upon a small community of about five tents who shooed us away, the heathens. While this is not new to Bebe, he was looking for a more amicable community and we found one. With Arjuna dressed like a Tuareg he was confused for an Omanian.
A small rug was spread on the shaded side of a tent and sweet tea poured by the elder. The women in purdah while curious did not approach near us. However a very bratty young man dragged his paramour near us and displayed affections like hugging and kissing while she was shy and running away from it all. (See pictures). We took pictures of them all and showed it on the digital camera display, which was a big hit that drew the rest of the women near us.
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We observed a 8 year old boy with a broken jaw and a festering wound in his face, We were told that a camel had kicked him and they had no way of treating him. Though not very smart, I gave my entire bottle of Tylenol to the father with Bebe instructing on treatment. That would have been a $15000 job with a New Jersey dental surgeon treated with a bottle of Tylenol..
The people were genuine and meeting each other was a privilege of globalization. As we moved on we stopped at a bore well for refreshing ourselves. Much to our amazement it had a stencil that said Mali- India, an Indian aid program to poor Africa, We drank to our heart’s content- Malian Saharan water through Indian largesse.

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Along our travels, we stopped at a local chief’s compound. While the poor Tuaregs move about, the rich sheep and camel owning Tuaregs stay in one compound and conduct business in Timbuktu by taking deep forays with their their camels. This chief offered us a chance to sample riding his camels, served tea in a very relaxed and informal setting while his three wives were cowering in various parts of his compound lest the evil eyes of a heathen cast his stare on their veiled beauty!
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To Be Continued…………………

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:52 Archived in Mali Tagged sahara timbuktu tuareg Comments (1)

Nuclear thief in Timbuktu: A journey into the Sahara

Bamako to Timbuktu by 4X4............................by Ramdas Iyer, Author

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Whether he really knew where it was, my uncle Krishnan always used the cliche "It was as far as going to Timbuktu". I now realize that it was indeed an old English adage,” As hard as reaching Timbuktu". The successes of Victorian English conquests of Africa somehow did not bear fruit in Mali. Disease, terrain and cruel rulers along the Niger kept them from reaching the fabled city of Timbuktu until the late 17th century. This led to this usage in the Anglophone world. Preparations for my own conquest of this fabled city in the Sahara desert included reading the book by Kryza, F (2007) The Race for Timbuktu: In Search of Africa's City of Gold.(HarperCollins). A great sense of adventure brewed constantly inside of me and my frequent discussions of the subject over dinner inspired my teenage son Arjuna to join me. After obtaining special permissions from his Randolph High School principal we set off into an Africa that was still a dream for many a seasoned desert traveler.
After a long drive from Bamako, passing through some amazing adobe towns and villages we crossed the mighty Niger River and arrived in the fabled city of Timbuktu. Followers of history may know that this was a 13th century center of trans Saharan trade and its many madrassas produced scholarly Islamic works. The Sankhore Medrassa is a World Heritage site where important astronomical observations were made. As a center of gold, ivory and slave trade its long reach influenced governments in 16 th century Tripoli and Cairo. Its inhabitants were the Songhai people and the Empire of Songhai came under pressure in the 15th century by the Tuareg people of Arab descent who until recently formed the local majority. The Tuaregs are Berber people from North Africa and islamicized around the 10th century. A handsome people with ancient traditions they were the masters of traversing the Sahara desert. This ability made them the main transporters of slaves, ivory, gold and other merchandise through the trans- caravan routes.

The West African tribes which include the Bambara, Bobo, Bozo, Fulani and the Dogon often preyed on each other for the slave trade and handed their captives to the Arab moors and the Tuareg of Timbuktu.

While planning our trip and researching Timbuktu I and came upon an article in the Times of India about the Hotel Hendrina Khan, where we planned to stay. The excerpts from Google search of that article is attached herein:
[i]Feb 1: 2004 “ISLAMABAD: The architect of Pakistan's nuclear programme Abdul Qadeer Khan, who has been sacked as scientific advisor to the Prime Minister, had amassed properties at home and abroad besides building a "fabulous" hotel in an African nation where he transported furniture by an air force plane.

Hendrina Khan Hotel, named after Dr. Khan's Dutch wife, in the city of Timbuktu in the African state of Mali was one of the dozens of business undertakings of the nuclear scientist that were now being investigated by Pakistani intelligence officials to verify allegations by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the country's scientists collaborated with black marketers of nuclear technology, The News daily said.

It said the probe revealed that not only did Dr. Khan build a hotel in Timbuktu but used Pakistan Air Force's transport aircraft C-130 in early 2000 to ferry an exclusive range of carved wooden furniture from here to his hotel.
The aircraft landed at Tripoli airport in Libya and the cargo was then taken to Timbuktu by road, as it could not land in Mali. Dr. Khan himself accompanied the furniture from Islamabad.
Dr. Muhammad Farooq, a centrifuge expert at the country’s premier nuclear installation, Khan Research Laboratory (KRL), revealed the details of the trip. Dr. Farooq is one of the 13 scientists and officials of the KRL interrogated by the investigative agencies.

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Being the nicest lodging in town we were booked in the Hendrine Khan. Later that evening we met the manager of the hotel who was a puppet of A.Q. Khan and was extolling the virtue of a great scientist who was his partner. While seething under my skin, I played the part of a curious listener to hear the story of an international criminal being praised by an under educated simpleton.

Timbuktu is built entirely of mud bricks and no paved roads but just sand everywhere. It was awesome. The town had as many camels as there were 4X4’s, the only means of transportation to the interior. Our local guide Bebe, a young Tuareg man humored Arjuna by dressing him in Indigo turban (see photo). The Tuareg of the Sahara were known as the Indigo men as they were caparisoned in Indigo cloth, a dye that is made from a natural dye extracted from a desert plant. The 1850’s Levis Blue jeans were originally made with this dye until it was later synthesized.

We got our first thrill when Bebe introduced us to four fearsome looking Tuaregs with curved knives adorning their waist. They had just returned from a twenty eight day return trip to the salt flats of the Sahara, an ancient sea bed. A train of thirty camels walk 500 miles to Taudenni to bring back salt which was worth its weight in gold until 50 years ago. (Read this National Geographic article https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/5/in-sahara-salt-hauling-camel-trains-struggle-on/. Even today, Mali being a land locked country depends on Saharan salt brought by camels carrying 400-500 lbs. each. It is then distributed to the interior by donkeys and mules carrying 100 -150 lbs. each. Having a young son dressed in Indigo turban amused the traders that they invited us the next day to their camp and since they had traded goods along the away and promised a nice Tuareg outfit for Arjuna.
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The next morning we walked from our hotel into town where freshly slaughtered lamb was broiled in small domed ovens all along the road. We picked some tender pieces, wrapped in a French newspaper and walked to the Tuareg Indigo men's tent. We sat around a bunch of handsome and feisty looking Arabic salt merchants. They offered us very sugary tea with dried camel cheese to cut the sweetness. We opened our meat offering and we all ate very elegantly from the newspaper. Dining traditions are a good example of culture. Despite sitting in a tent, in the Sahara with a bunch of tribesmen, the elegant picking of small morsels by each and every one was a very interesting observation of mine. While I envisioned myself as T.E. Lawrence, this amazing meeting and time spent with the salt caravan traders was a fantastic moment in our trip. Arjuna took the time to inspect their swords and accepted some camel cheese to take back to school. A native cigar mounted on a silver holder was also passed around.
The leader took us into a small store room behind and brought out a classic green traditional tunic of the Tuaregs and an amulet that had Koranic versus for protection from the Djinns of the desert, for sale. His permanent home was inside the Sahara sands about 40 KM from Timbuktu. (See Photos) .A mere $20 (but a huge fortune) exchanged hands since an entire 28-day trip into the desert to fetch salt only yielded $40 per camel trader. Bebe did mention that whenever he got a chance, he introduced the rare travelers to the area to meet such people. The joy of traveling alone exposes one to so many opportunities not available to many.

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Emailme at ( riyerr@aol.com)

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To Be Continued

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 18:28 Archived in Mali Tagged camels sahara mali timbuctu tuaregs caravans arabs Comments (2)

Nuclear thief in Timbuktu: A journey to the Sahara

Bamako to Timbuktu by 4X4............................by Ramdas Iyer, Author

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Having grown up in India, I often reminisce about my elders and their usage of idioms. My uncle Krishnan Periappa often used the term “It is like going to Timbuktu”: whenever god-forsaken places were mentioned. I now realize that it was indeed an old English adage,” As hard as reaching Timbuktu". The successes of Victorian English conquests of Africa somehow did not bear fruit in Mali. Disease, terrain and cruel rulers along the Niger kept them from reaching the fabled city of Timbuktu until late 17th century. This led to this usage in the Anglophone world. My preparations for my own conquest included reading the book by Kryza, F (2007) The Race for Timbuktu: In Search of Africa's City of Gold. HarperCollins, which gave me a sense of adventure, that brewed constantly in my mind and that of my young son Arjuna, my companion on this trip.

After a long rough terrain drive and a crossing of the Niger River, Arjuna and I arrived in the fabled city of Timbuktu. Followers of history may know that this was a 13th century center of trans Saharan trade and its many madrassas produced scholarly Islamic works. The Sankhore Medrassa is a World Heritage site where important astronomical observations were made. As a center of gold, ivory and slave trade its long reach influenced governments in 16 Th century Tripoli and Cairo. Its inhabitants were the Songhai people and the Empire of Songhai came under pressure in the 15th century by the Tuareg people of Arab descent who until recently formed the local majority.

The West African tribes which include the Bambara, Bobo, Bozo, Fulani and the Dogon often preyed on each other for the slave trade and handed their captives to the Arabs near Timbuktu.

While planning our trip and researching Timbuktu I and came upon an article in the Times of India about the Hotel Hendrina Khan, where we planned to stay. The excerpts from Google search of that article is attached herein:

Feb 1: 2004 “ISLAMABAD: The architect of Pakistan's nuclear programme Abdul Qadeer Khan, who has been sacked as scientific advisor to the Prime Minister, had amassed properties at home and abroad besides building a "fabulous" hotel in an African nation where he transported furniture by an air force plane.

Hendrina Khan hotel, named after Dr. Khan's Dutch wife, in the city of Timbuktu in the African state of Mali was one of the dozens of business undertakings of the nuclear scientist that were now being investigated by Pakistani intelligence officials to verify allegations by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the country's scientists collaborated with black marketers of nuclear technology, The News daily said.

It said the probe revealed that not only did Dr. Khan build a hotel in Timbuktu but used Pakistan Air Force's transport aircraft C-130 in early 2000 to ferry an exclusive range of carved wooden furniture from here to his hotel.

The aircraft landed at Tripoli airport in Libya and the cargo was then taken to Timbuktu by road, as it could not land in Mali. Dr. Khan himself accompanied the furniture from Islamabad.

Dr. Muhammad Farooq, a centrifuge expert at the country’s premier nuclear installation, Khan Research Laboratory (KRL), revealed the details of the trip. Dr. Farooq is one of the 13 scientists and officials of the KRL interrogated by the investigative agencies.”
That evening we met the owner of the hotel who was a puppet of A.Q. Khan and was extolling the virtue of a great scientist who was his partner. While seething under my skin, I played the part of a curious listener to hear the story of an international criminal being praised by an under educated simpleton.
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So after all the excitement we made our first foray into the town. Perhaps the only town that is built on sand, as there are no paved roads but just sand everywhere. It was awesome. The town had as many camels as there were 4X4’s, the only means of transportation to the interior. Our local guide Bebe, a young Tuareg man humored Arjuna by dressing him in Indigo turban (see photo). The Tuareg of the Sahara were known as the Indigo men as they were caparisoned in Indigo cloth, a dye that is made from a natural dye extracted from a desert plant. The 1850’s Levis Blue jeans were originally made with this dye until it was later synthesized.

We got our first thrill when Bebe introduced us to 4 fearsome looking Tuaregs with curved knives in their waist. They had just returned from a forty day return trip to the salt flats of the Sahara, an ancient sea bed, A train of thirty camels walk 500 miles to Taudenni to bring back salt which was worth its weight in gold until 50 years ago. (Read this National Geographic article http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/05/0528_030528_saltcaravan.htm). Even today, Mali being a land locked country depends on Saharan salt brought by camels carrying 400-500 lbs. each. It is then distributed to the interior by donkeys and mules carrying 100 -150 lbs. each. Having a young son dressed in Indigo turban amused the traders that they invited us the next day to their camp and since they had traded some goods along the away they promised a nice Tuareg outfit for Arjuna.
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The next morning we walked from our hotel into town where freshly slaughtered lamb was broiled in small domed ovens all along the road. We picked some tender pieces, wrapped in some French newspaper and walked to the Tuareg Indigo men's tent. WE sat around a bunch of handsome and feisty looking Arabic salt merchants. They offered us very sugary tea with dried camel cheese to cut the sweetness. We opened our meat offering and we all ate very elegantly from the newspaper. Dining traditions are a good example of culture. Despite sitting in a tent, in the Sahara with a bunch of tribesmen, the picking of small morsels by every one and not showing greed was a very interesting observation of mine. This I would not expect in Papua. While I had visions of T.E. Lawrence, I must tell you that this amazing meeting and talking to the traders through Bebe was a fantastic moment in our trip. Arjuna took the time to inspect their swords and accepted some camel cheese to take back to school. A native cigar mounted on a silver holder was also passed around.
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The leader sensing that the conversation did not extend beyond the tea and meat, brought out a classic green tunic of the Tuaregs and an amulet from a trunk, that had Koranic versus for protection from the Djinns of the desert, for sale. He had a small size purchased from traders for his family who lived in the middle of the Sahara about 40 KM from Timbuktu. (See Photos) .A mere $20 (but a huge fortune) exchanged hands since an entire 40-day trip into the desert to fetch salt only yielded $40 per traveler. Bebe did mention that whenever he got a chance, he introduced the rare travelers to the area to meet such people. There are no group travels thankfully in this area and a group has to travel in several 4X4's. The joy of traveling alone exposes one to so many opportunities not available to many.
Emailme at ( riyerr@aol.com)

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To Be Continued

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 18:28 Archived in Mali Tagged camels sahara mali timbuctu tuaregs caravans arabs Comments (2)

Travels in Papua in Dani Tribal Lands, Papua, Indonesia

Down the Mountain to a Mummy, The final segment of the Dani Experience.................Ramdas Iyer, Author

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The "Baliem Highway" as I call it, is a network of small trails issuing out of hundreds of villages sequestered in the lush mountains of Papua. I was amazed to discover that the trail distances are measured in "days of walking" to Wamena, the only town in all of the Papuan Highlands. These trails descend from 6000 feet down to the valley floor, at about 1000 ft. above MSL If the fearsome Yali wanted to purchase some batteries, or aspirin or even simple comforts like candy or cigarettes, they have to walk a minimum of 8 days on the "Baliem Highway". On the last day of my stay in the highlands I enjoyed walking the highway, which is nothing more than 5 feet wide hugging the crest of the mountains. There was a steady flow of people in either direction, and to give you an idea of human density, contact was made every 30 minutes or so. From space it would almost look like ants walking a forest floor.
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After my host villagers wished me good-bye, some of them walked alongside this pedestrian highway and set themselves up in various stations along the way trying to sell sweet potatoes, sugarcane, tobacco and taro roots for the hungry travellers. I met a young man with a rooster in his hand. He will be walking 2 days down and two days up to sell his rooster in the market and pick up some essentials on the way back (See Photo). One of the most interesting observations was that of one of my porters carrying a two-gallon can of petrol amongst our supplies. I initially thought that it was fuel for our trip. Instead he sold the can at our farthest point thereby garnering a good price for its supply to the interior. Unfortunately this fuel is also used for chain saws to cut trees.
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People were carrying piglets, walking adult pigs like one would walk Dalmatians, holding hemp baskets for sale and in one case one of them had a collection of fine boar's tusk for sale in the market. What does not qualify to make it into the nostrils end up as necklaces used for ceremonial purposes; one such artifact was acquired there for my New Jersey home along with penis gourds and bead necklaces. With a keen eye on statistics, I purchased 5 and as expected two made it back whole.
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We paused at several points as my porters were purchasing and consuming sweet potatoes from select vendors. I was given to understand that the ones grown in steeper slopes had a better taste than the ones found in the valley. I would imagine that the tuber had to grab every ounce of tumbling water to put out its fine sugars. It brought back memories of buying Malbec wine in Mendoza, Argentina a few years ago, when the same grog was available back home perhaps even cheaper. I am glad that restricted baggage in air travel has put an end to my trans- national appellation transfer. I have made it a point not to buy duty-free since the $10 saved is lower than the $20 copay my chiropractor charges, along with the question “Did you carry something heavy?”
We came upon some spectacular springs were water from the ground caused rivulets, resulting in waterfalls just a mile down hill. The porters and I had our last group picture together in the highlands and thereafter the trail dropped steeply towards Wamena.
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If you remember, I had mentioned that Wamena had only five miles of paved roadway. Alongside this roadway, there are many stops were minivans picked up these tribal coming down the hill and transported them into town. We took one such conveyance and reached Wamena. After leaving our luggage and saying sad good byes to my porters (The silent one gave me a gift-a necklace with a single round rock in the middle) It felt as though the boomerang throwing kid in “The Road Runner” movie had grown up and was saying his good byes to me. (Mr. Gibson!)
We crossed a flimsy steel rope bridge secured by weighted steel drums over some scary waters. Since it was fairly sturdy, I would imagine that the builders loaded the steel drum pylons with concrete.(see picture)

The next morning, Scorpio and I trekked a couple of miles to see the famous mummy of Jwicka village

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Indonesia has some of the most fascinating death cults. The cremations in Bali, the cave and rock burials of Sulawesi, the sea-burials of the Bugis people of Makassar and lastly the mummification of the Dani. Traditionally the Dani, after the death of a leader or chief used to drain the body fluids of the chieftains and smoked them for preservation.( It almost seems thath the enemy would be vanquished in the digestive tract while the leaders will be preserved for eternity;Ying and Yang!) These mummies were kept in the chief’s hut and were used as a talisman for war successes.
Upon arrival, we were shown the long houses of these people and finally the famous 300-year-old mummy. This today has become a touristy pursuit and did not have the real excitement of being with the villagers; nevertheless it was an unusual sight and a great experience since I was the only tourist there at that time of the year. There were several mummies scattered around Papua just a few years ago. Collectors and museums decamped with most while the remaining ones were badly damaged due to age and poor preservation.

After final good byes were exchanged Scorpio walked me to the airport, only to be interrupted by a motorcycle carrying two drums of fuel for our aircraft! (see picture)

This trip had been like a dream come true. With no one interested in sharing my costs, I tried to do it very economically using frequent flyer mileage. The biggest cost was the hopper flights from Jakarta to Jayapura.
I am very keen on visiting the coastal Papuans; The Asmat who live in spectacular villages with totems akin to the the British Columbian Haidas and the Tlingits, The plains Papuans namely the Korowai, who live in gigantic tree houses and eat grubs and worms as delicacies. These trips involve many porters and travellers to subsidize the boats and planes to reach the interior. If any reader is interested in pursuing this trip please contact me.
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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 09:29 Archived in Indonesia Tagged indonesia trek dani tribes tribal papua jayapura cannibals aboriginals tribals yali lani Comments (0)

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