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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)

Deep inside Yali, Dani and Lani territories, Papua,Indonesia

A fascinating trek amongst a unique people..... Author Ramdas Iyer

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The third and fourth days of trekking took us to greater heights and deeper into Dani territory. It was an exciting time for a photographer with the land and its unique people offering many opportunities around every corner. The climb was very vertiginous slowing down our pace considerably. We crossed many mountain waterfalls tumbling towards the white water Rivers below, traversed several vine built bridges and saw some magnificent flora.
The Baliem valley consists of three main tribes; The Dani, the Yali and the Lani. The Lani are – like their neighbors, the Dani - experienced farmers and use a highly sophisticated irrigation system to produce mainly Sweet Potatoes, Tobacco, Beans, Taro, Spinach, Sugar Cane and Bananas. 
Their villages in a beautiful surrounding southeast of Wamena are larger than the small compounds of the Dani and the Yali.
The Lani men, who are stubbier than the Dani, wear thick kotekas (penis gourds), which also serve as a “handbag”, a case for tobacco and valuables. Men sometimes wear hairnets, but the Lani extensively use bird feathers as decoration. Quite often a feather crown is worn even when the men are dressed in western clothes. The women wear short grass skirts, but like everywhere in the valley tend to wear western clothes more and more today.
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Like their Dani and Yali neighbors, the women carry everything – like vegetables, small pigs and even their small children – in net-bags across their backs.The Yalis on the other hand resided on the steeper slopes at higher elevations. As a result they were not discovered until 1976. They were the fiercest cannibals in Western Papua. They not only ate the bodies of their enemies, they also ground the bones and scattered them in the mountains to totally annihilate them.. Though very tiny in stature (Average make height was 5 feet or less), they were the most feared. They wore their penis gourds parallel to the ground in a pointed manner, but of a relatively smaller size.
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As a photographer, I hate to see these magnificent tribesman wearing jeans and T-shirts saying “Jesus Saves”. While not a big fan of proselytization, I must admit that the Christian missionaries have done yeoman’s work in this harsh land trying to bring modern comforts and education to these people. Like many before them these cultures will be relegated to the history books and I count my blessings to have witnessed them prior to extinction.
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As a traveler the Dani and Lani can be distinguished by the relative sizes of the Kotekas (Penis gourds or more scientifically called Phallocrypts) and the Yali by their height. The Lani live 3-4 day trek from Wamena while the Yali live 5-6 days trek from Wamena. Since more Papuans are adapting to western clothing it gets harder to identify them. I was fortunate to meet a Yali man about 4 days trek into the mountains, but unfortunately he was wearing western clothes (See Photograph)
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Upon arrival at the village for nightfall around 3:00PM, the heaviest downpour ever witnessed by me continued straight for 8 hours trapping me with my porters and the occasional naked villager straggling into our kitchen hut. I took this opportunity to explain life in the USA to the porters through Scorpio to a fascinated audience. They asked me if I had sat in one of those flying buses that are seen from the mountains. We also discussed their individual lives, their farming techniques, relationships with women, ancestral stories etc, etc. Our cook was making the same noodles with cabbage and eggs every day that I couldn’t take it anymore. I realized that I had not eaten anything tangy in 4 days but I noticed a lemon plant in the fringe of the village. I grabbed a few lemons and offered to cook them all noodles my way, much to everyone’s satisfaction except perhaps the stunned cook.
There was a time inside the hut when 5 naked villagers were sitting around the fire with us, just watching. The highlands after rain cools down to about 60degrees F and the men, instead of wearing an outer garment rely on the warmth of a hearth. They live in such perfect harmony with nature that I fear any changes in global climate would adversely affect them.
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The next morning we spent 3 hours walking around the village and studying their homes, farms, pigs and enjoying the mountaintop vista. Here is where I met a Yali member. He was passing through the village, along the trail that would eventually take him to his destination in higher terrain. He was no taller than 4 feet 6inches, with an elf like ear. In the 2is century we still live with homo erectus who have not closed the gap with the civilizations from the fertile crescent.
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I met a woman who was constantly waving both her hands with open palms. It struck me as odd for her to continue to do it for an extended period of time. Scorpio explained that she was proudly showing all her 10 fingers, since none had perished in her family: a sign of a very brave and successful warrior family See photograph). An elderly gentleman actually took the time to demonstrate the art of septum piercing and nasal decoration (see Photos). This was our turn around point and to head towards Wamena for 2 days in a very different trail along the ridge of the mountain.
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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:00 Archived in Indonesia Tagged indonesia dani papua jayapura cannibals lani wamena Comments (0)

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