Jungle cheesecake: rebounding in the highlands of New Guinea (1991)
My first stop is Wamena, where I stop in for noodles at Sam Chandra’s shop. Sam’s a middle-age Moluccan Indonesian with a golf cap and great charm. He is gracious as usual and tells me about a Hong Kong feature film called ‘Stone Age Warrior’ which shot a segment here last year. Sam was asked to round up hundreds of Dugum Dani extras and kit them out with props. Prices varied for a man with a pig on his shoulder and a woman with a net bag of sweet potato, that sort of thing.
"Who set the price?" I want to know.
"The Dani did!"
There was some confusion in the big battle scene, even though the production crew supplied these men with blunted spears and arrows. They failed to mix the clans on both sides, and so the actors coalesced into enemy camps, and when the first arrows fell, all hell broke loose. The Chinese loved it and just kept rolling.
Sam laughs. "No dead,’ he’s quick to add---"just wounded."
Sam is a
transmigraci from the Moluccas, relocated to this Papuan Province decades ago and now a formidable presence in this small frontier town. He owns the noodle shop and the town’s only teletype machine. We stand together at the open gate to his small establishment and I begin to hear the unmistakable sound of American English.
"We’ll walk you back if you like."
This from a tall handsome Indonesian walking up to us. Behind him is a smaller one. They’re a team of professional photographers, and Teo, the tall one, is the son of a diplomat who spent his teens in New York City, so his English is American, and, as I am 2
to learn, all his film, TV and musical references are my own. Tony, his photo assistant, is from Sulawesi, and mostly smiles and giggles; we all three walk back to Anggrek Losmen and I learn they’re flying to Kosarek in the Star Mountains tomorrow on an MAF cessna. This is interesting insofar as Sam has been trying to pitch that very flight to me as an exclusive charter. That Sam, we laugh, always hustling. I tell them the story of how, last year, I brought Sam with me to conduct some TV interviews with the survivors of Robert Gardner’s 1965 film,
Dead Birds, the documentary from the Harvard-Peabody Expedition to the Dugum Dani that Michael Rockefeller joined as still photographer before setting off to the Asmat and disappearing, reportedly drowned or killed by villagers. Sam and I sat down with the old warrior Weaklekek, who brought out the 8x10" Rockefeller photo of his first wife, now long deceased, and cried over the image of her digging sweet potatoes with half her fingers lopped off from mortuary rites so many years ago. I formulate just the right question to elicit his memory and an opinion of the filming experience, Sam would then translate to Bahasa, Wewaklekek’s son would turn this to Dani, then Wewaklekek would brighten up and return a three minute monologue on his experience with Gardner, Rockeller, Karl Heider and Peter Matthiesson. I’d look to Sam, who would then say, "He enjoyed his time very much."
Can I come along tomorrow? Sure, why not. Teo has an advertising gig for one of the national airlines, and the whole of Indonesia is his location. My plan is to take off from Kosarek for a weeklong walk to Angguruk, and then fly back to Wamena from there.
When I get to the MAF hangar the next day they say they want to put a training pilot on the flight, and bump me. It’s only a six-seater cessna. I am reconciled, but then 3
Teo suggests he drop his guide and bring me instead. Sam Chandra throws a wobbly because the guide is his, and he’ll lose the commission; instead he suggests I take a walk with another guide for the day.
Teo looks at him from twice his height. "No, I don’t think so."
My hero. The pilot relents, they drop the trainee, and I jump aboard after all.
The shocking thing about Kosarek is that, so far away and perched on a spectacularly narrow ridge top, it actually does have a grass strip, a loony missionary couple in residence, and hundreds of kids constantly begging for smokes. The plane taxis up the steep gradient to turn around for its take-off (over a sheer cliff), and a toe-headed mission kid come running up with a letter for the pilot. His folks have a nice clapboard home right by the strip, and there’s a visiting missionary cabin up the hill where we can stay (for a price). Naked kids are swarming now, hands outstretched. "Smoke! Smoke!" Someone even barks "Winfield Blue!" as if he prefers menthol. Clusters of teenage girls in short reed skirts stand around laughing at me for what seems hours.
Okay, but I’m not that funny.
The Yali men wear dog bones in their septums and a few cockatoo and cassowary feathers in their hair--accessories are really played down in favor of the main article: tens of rattan hoops around their waist, widening like an inverted cone or one of those stacked donut toys, down to their knees, where a meter-long penis gourd is held by string at a forty-five degree from their chest, and keeps the hoops from spilling to the ground. It’s so Rodgers and Hammerstein, something only Edith Head could put together for one of those girls getting dressed Oklahoma scenes, everyone in hoopskirt undies and rag curlers. Just that these men aren’t singing (yet). 4
Inside our cabin, an old man squats on his haunches, his hoops hiked up around his hips and his long skinny penis gourd resting on his shoulder. He’s poring over my photos of Papua New Guinea, nodding and smiling. Everyone in Irian Jaya asks about PNG, is desperate for shots of their doppelganger in the independent developing State next door. One of the kids steals a shot and never brings it back. Some go after him at first but then give up.
Higher mountain ranges surrounding us have ridge tops thatch homes emitting smoky tendrils that waft into clouds, and we’re dying to walk to them. We hear singing from one of them. In the late afternoon clouds float onto the clearing outside the hut and fill the valley off it’s edge. It’s a wholly unexpected danger to think of walking off the smoke machine filled stage and into oblivion. It looks like a shortcut to the other side of the valley, but then maybe the hoop skirts help you fly.
In the village school a Biak island man in a Bali batik shirt is the Headmaster. Teo takes very handsome portraits as he perches on a school desk and explains the local courtship practice whereby girls and boys together from various villages come together for a night of singing that, he declares, winds up in one big orgy. So it is Oklahoma after all.
At night we eat by candlelight while a sea or dirty noses are pressed against the louvered window panes. Even when we unroll our bags to sleep, hanging towels over the glass, the whites of eyes are still there in the cracks. Teo plays someone's guitar, all of us sitting around at the timber table. Teo, Tony, Olfiet their guide, Judas the porter (whose name shall serve him well), a young Kosarek boy, and the old man who’s already been a portrait model several times over. Teo sings Indonesian pop songs, Paul Simon, James 5
Taylor, and Tracy Chapman in a strong voice, under pounding rain, and I am, as usual, immensely impressed by someone who can remember lyrics along with a melody. My heart swells with contentment as I watch Teo, and think about us all here in candlelight, in the midst of the Star Mountains, barely strangers just two days ago. I look over at Tony, Olfiet, the deadpan old man, and the young boy who reaches his hand to me. "Smoke."
The next day our Bible translating hosts show up, a German couple with two Gerber-faced kids, plus an Australian woman. The Aussie woman in friendly, but the others as a little Teutonic for me, Mr and Mrs both preferring to speak to Teo rather than me---because he’s Indonesian, or a man, or tell? I can’t figure out. The man tells us all this begging for smokes is fairly recent, since last year when the first backpackers came through. [Are they blaming us---me?]. They’ve been here five years and may need at least five more to finish their work in the clapboard three bedroom house with water tanks, solar panels, cheery curtains, CB radio and video player. The kids are home schooled, and we are told they speak better Yali than Mom and Dad. The housegirl is helping them with Corinthians right now.
At Walsatek, a hamlet perched an another precarious ridge across the valley, Teo and Tony take rolls of astonishing, truly breathtaking shots. The ridge is so narrow that the village is barely one footpath wide, all the huts spilling off down the sides. No one seems particularly aghast to see us space travelers on their section of the moon, but I think they’re just cowed by T and T, who, as Indonesians, represent the police state. People can be pretty guarded when they’re used to strangers carrying AK-47s. But not always compliant. 6
The next day we walk to Welarek where Tony organizes handsome young men to sit for portraits. There are reflectors and fill in flashes and all manner of interesting gadgets for these people who’ve barely seen cameras before. One man is most elegant and patient as Tony fusses and tilts him about like a bored supermodel. "Sau wali," says Tony--Excellent. After about fifteen minutes he’s dismissed and paid; he stares at the useless paper notes, then at the polaroid he’s been handed, figures he’s been cheated, and stomps off. "Tough crowd," Teo says.
"He’ll go start a union now," I say.
The next night we’re all tucked into sleeping bags when Tony, Teo and Olfiet wake to footsteps and scraping in the cook house behind. They’re all in one room and, in deference to Olfiet who’s a Timorese kid with a gold cross, I’m in another. But they come wake me now and insist I bring my bag in with them, to tuck into the bunker. I’m a little scared, it’s true, if only because I’m familiar with the dangers to women in the highlands of PNG.
"Maybe it’s that disgruntled Welarek model," Teo says, then corrects himself. "More likely his agent."
We tell ghost stories to get to sleep, some of which are creepier left untranslated. Teo tells the ghost story of our shared American youth, the one where two parked lovers keep hearing scratching at the driver’s door and it turns out to be a friend left for dead. I keep trying to imagine Teo as a New York City teenager. We wake in the morning to find small tufts of fur between the planks of the cook house wall. Not the agent after all, just that three-legged cur who stole our stash of jerky. 7
Nohomas is an hour’s walk from Kosarek by a route that opens to huge views across the valley and the jungle below. As we round the final bend in a path hugging the mountainside, there’s a terrifying mob on the ridge above us--forty or more hoop-skirted men cassowary headdresses in full paint and pig tusk necklaces and nose ornaments, yodeling and bobbing with spears. Their hoops wobble in waves from chest to knees and make them some kind of militant Michellene man mob. Someone sent word two photographers were coming and the whole village has kitted out in full fight regalia; they’ve even made us a
mumu of sweet potatoes. We crest the ridge to find seventy or eighty men and women dancing and whooping in concentric circles: a tight centre circle of men chanting and stomping, counterclockwise, and women running clockwise outside, clutching their breasts and hoop-hooping at full throttle. An older man brings us to the mumu mound and lights it, so we hand him a clutch of twist tobacco to distribute, and the kids are everywhere begging for smokes. This dancing is wild and exuberant and incites Teo to lie down with his camera in the centre of the circle as people hop over him. The whole scene, the whole village of us is balanced on a long narrow ridge top with 360 degree views of surrounding valleys like a Lilliputin platter of stemmed glasses raised from the valley floor. Some of us are even wearing paper umbrellas and twisted straws.
singsing dies down we hear faintly harmonious singing from across the valley, where men have just finished clearing a garden. They’re singing for themselves, without even trying to please. When the dancing stops and the mumu has been opened, after a brief rainfall that sends one and all to the thatched huts eaves (lest headdresses get wet), everyone assembles in three rows for a group portrait. It’s a class picture, and Teo sets a timer and tries several times to run from camera to front row while people keep 8
spilling out with infectious laughter. Finally, the real rains come. A crash of thunder and great balls of rain start falling (again very Lilliputin). All the rakish Yali men head for shelter, and women scatter for the space under the eaves while the kids slide down the muddy paths screaming with silliness. A fog slips over the ridge like a quilted sleeve, hiding all the mountains around us, so that now we are very much alone on this platter in a fluffy cloud, all sated and happy and danced to exhaustion. It’s time to walk back.
Paulius, a young Yali, joins us for dinner and explains that knowledge, not wealth, is what makes a man important here. Nowadays that includes traditional knowledge as well as knowledge of the Indonesian language and bureaucracy. Now that things have opened up with pacification in the past ten years, men can seek wives from distant places. If a Yali marries a Dani woman, from the next valley, he will move down there rather than vice versa. Paulius himself plans to go with another kid to Angguruk, a mission station in the Star Mountains, for some aid post training. He hasn’t yet got enough pigs for a wife, even though he says most men marry at 16 here, and girls by 14. It was during his father’s youth, some thirty years ago, that missionaries first introduced chits to the village for buying goods at their stores. By now the Yali are firmly locked into the cash economy for salt, sugar, biscuits, rice, and the ubiquitous (if ephemeral) smokes.
Tony does a great Sam Chandra imitation, stroking his chin, strutting, tipping his golf hat. Then he tells a story about an old man who accompanied us from Nohomas today, stroking his balls all the way, then bending to inspect a bit of pig dung on the path; he helped Olfiet make the potato fritters tonight.
The Nohomas people show up early next morning, all dressed for a photo shoot. Women with white clay dots and red noses, men with spears and cuscus and cassowary 9
and lesser bird of paradise feathers in their hair. Paulius mediates, Tony and Olfiet negotiate, and it’s decided each person will get roughly two dollars for the morning's work. Olfiet’s a smooth and pretty Timorese boy who wears immodestly short cutoffs and smokes incessantly. He argues that the potential benefits in tourism call for their coming down to fifty cents a day, but Teo agrees to the better rate. The airline’s paying anyway.
Teo shoots with a Hasselblad, but he takes polaroids to see what he’s got before taking the shot, so he hands these back to the delight of his subjects everywhere. This morning he sets up his tripod and reflectors facing the outside side wall of the cabin. Groups of two, four, sometimes one, stand, kneel and sit, one after another, on a little proscenium of banana leaves. Very stagy shots that will make their way to a large photo exhibition in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur later. Nothing candid or would-be candid about this, and so truly different from the sea of documentary images every photojournalist and his sister bring home from New Guinea. Simple, frank poses, but unabashed posing poses. A couple of disarming shots of young girls sitting side-saddle peering over their shoulders. One favorite model is Teo's greatest and giggliest admirer, a young girl named Marta, and she also poses for him against a red door inside the house, with a reflector to bouncing light off the wall to warm her skin. She is beautiful, preteen, topless, and without guile. Somehow the shots Teo takes bypass the realm of exploitation and bring her sincerity to something even lovelier. These will be centerpieces of Teo’s show.
We take Robert Mapplethorpe shots of me and the old man with the three legged dog, back to back, medium close. Young white skinned blond against a wizened black man. He’s in hoops and penis gourd, I’m in a sarong over my breasts. The old man turns around and snuggles his nose into my hair and everyone laughs. 10
It’s the day before I’m supposed to go off on my own to Angguruk and now I’m scared of being caught in the rain, cold and miserable. The old man wants to be a porter, but Paulius and Judas have told him he’s not needed, and he’s become very huffy. Teo wants to shoot him again but he turns on his heel saying he’s not being paid enough. Now the rain comes. We sit inside, chilled, as it hammers overhead and Tony shuffles a deck of cards. A youthful arm reaches in through the louvered window. ‘Smoke.’
I say my reluctant goodbyes to Tony and Teo the next morning. An MAF plane will fly them to Wamena and westwarad, the next leg of their junket. I’ll miss the hand puppets, the match-lit farts, the burping armpits, and Tony’s brilliant imitations: even the one of me he’s doing in the cessna as they taxi away. Herr Bible comes out with mail for the pilot, waves the two off, and pulls a puckering face when Teo bends to kiss my cheek. I beam up, happy to sin, wondering if I’ll be punished when the plane has gone. How I wish I were leaving with them right now. Could this be yet another lost chance? Could I jump aboard? Tony calls us TNT, TeoNancyTony, a romantic comedy with asexual/comic/less-attractive male sidekick. But in fact I’m rebounding from a break up in Papua New Guinea, and Teo is married, if feebly. (He will be divorced by next year when I get calls from Jakarta to the highlands of PNG suggesting possibilities that first occurred to me standing here in Kosarek, just as they lift off the edge and climb over the wide open valley).
Olfiet is coming with me to Aggurruk, as is Judas, the unsmiling porter. And the old man decides to come along after all. He and his absurdly long penis gourd and three legged runt of a dog. Accessories, of sorts, for what is a walk in the park for this guy, while I will always consider the trek one of my most life affirming accomplishments. 11
This first afternoon we reach Sarkasi, on top of the next mountain away. The track is impossibly steep and the last leg almost kills me. I stop for a breather every few minutes to gulp for oxygen, while the porters all ask for a smoke. The old man apparently never smiles. But Olfiet organizes camp in a timber home filled with women at the doorway and men in the front room. It’s the local Yali pastor’s house. A blue-eyed albino baby gurgles in one woman’s arms. Kids are crowding in on me, in my face, and I’m exhausted trying to entertain them. Plus, I’ve given away all my pens. We’re only two hours from Kosarek and I’m nearly dead, already missing Tony and Teo like babies torn from my own arms.
I step outside. We’re at the highest point in this narrow ridge top strip of a village. It’s such a magnificent view (breathtaking) with two, and faintly three, mountain ranges below us, crosscut by layers of dense white cloud. Tall poinsettias and croton surround the house. I finally catch my breath in time for a wash in the stream, then sit for a plate of instant noodles and finally, ever so eagerly, crawl into my sleeping bag.
Next day we reach Delambela, another hilltop village. We climb and climb, then descend forever through dense rainforest, hacking at vines or sliding down logs. The main mountain we’ve scaled is Mt. Timike, but scores of impossible foothills surround it. Here and there the garden paths give way to raw wet bush and getting a grip is very hard. My left leg has gone sore from all the steep descents, but I find some solace, actually humour, followed by more yearning for T and T, from discovering that the tap-tap-tapping on my left shoulder is not, as I imagine, the old man trying to get my attention, but the tip of his penis gourd team-tagging me as we descend the mountain. 12
We’re now squatting on the dirt floor of the church with crowds of people at front and back door and more watching through the wood slats. It’s a far walk to the river, so Olfiet, Paulius and the porters (the original two having mysteriously become four) borrow many pots for water, and I go down with them for a wash. But then they all stop for a smoke in the men's house, or
honai, of a settlement just below, leaving me barefoot and useless outside for over an hour. Welcome to the double standard. You can be the solo female trekker in West Papua but you’ll never get into the honai. My leg has seized up and I’m pissed off, so three little girls show me down to the river by shortcut. We all jump in together, laughing, and they lather up with my soap, reaching under our shorts and laplaps.
I wish there were a province filled exclusively with New Guinea women, all as gracious and cheerful as they are here and now. They would have photos of their male relatives dressed in those wonderful penis gourds and cassowary head-dresses, but would explain ruefully how they’ve moved away or been killed off, not one of them to found anymore. We would rule the entire resource-rich island without big men or corrupt politicians, and banish all school fees, all dietary taboos, all string bags filled with firewood strung from women’s brows. No more menstrual huts, no more marrying strangers, no more starving so our brothers can eat. Tony once worked for Dea Suderman, the Japanese ethnographic filmmaker, who’s done a few 16mm films of Irian Jaya for Japanese TV. At one time, Tony claims, he and a pre production crew canoed the rivers close to Jayapura, searching for a mythical ‘Amazon’ tribe said to abduct men for insemination and then kill their male babies. They found traces of broken camps, and huts where they once lived, Tony says. But now the woman are assimilated into other tribes. 13
Of course Teo and Tony are old Amazonia hands, they say, both married to matriarchal women from South Sumatra, they love to be bossed around.
By late afternoon everyone’s come back from the gardens and crowded in to see us. Thirty people watch as I write this diary note. Olfiet has boiled water to put hot towel compresses around my left calf, which is now throbbing like a pounded drum. Most of the walk today has been in cloud, which was pleasantly cool and disorienting, but for a while we climbed under the canopy of one mountainside, in a wonderfully muffled quiet. The moss and knotty surface roots slowed our feet, and lawyer and liana vines had to be chopped back to let us through. When we stopped for lunch in a clearing a hunting party with bows wandered through our party and sat for a smoke. One sold us his cooked sweet potatoes which we shared around, the men telling jokes in local language (no doubt about me). This walking is so tough that I have to remember to look around, to enjoy it, which increasingly irritates my fleet companions. These guys race up killer steep and slippery slopes in the drizzling rain. Even the scrawny three legged cur pities me. We’re pressing ourselves to reach Angguruk by Monday, because an MAF flight comes in Tuesday and can fly me to Wamena. Where I shall take a bath.
And now the clouds lift off the summit to reveal a panoramic view, just as the sun sets into deep violet. Our camp is in one corner of the big empty church, and after dinner the kids--tens of them--come in and sit down around us with lit candles before them. It’s blackness all around, each face bending into a pool of amber light. As a young boy strums a ukulele, they sing a couple of local songs in perfect harmony. Some murmuring and preparation, and they begin the Papua New Guinea anthem which they’ve memorized from radio in Pidgin. It’s clear and strong and uninhibited enough to bring stinging tears 14
to my eyes. They are so close to the border, where self-rule is out of their grasp, but they’re brave enough to put on this subversive performance for a complete stranger who claims to be from PNG. As the second verse begins, Paulius picks up a guitar and starts strumming discordant tunes. We stop for a minute to hear his Kosarek song. But then as the kids began again, he persists in his crude strumming against their
a capello voices.
"Olfiet, can you get him to stop?"
"You want to play the guitar?"
"No, want to hear the children."
"But cannot stop him."
We set out from Delambela just after nine this morning while it’s still raining. Olfiet stops someone strolling by with a live chicken, buys it, then ties its feet together and carries it under his arms. My leg really hurts now that it’s all downhill, each step reverberating through my teeth, but I can’t stop for fear of not starting again. By midday, I’m overjoyed that we’ve hit a flat walk through a valley. But then we climb again and, god bless these guys, they slow down for my sake. This is itself an enormous accomplishment, getting the troops to slow down, and now I’m enjoying it so much more. Lovely moments pass listening to nearby birds of paradise, and stopping to greet people coming down from their gardens. The porters are all forty-five minutes to an hour ahead of us on their broad flat feet, so they get long breaks and two smokes in before we ever show up---when they jump ready to go again.
At one point we reach a vine bridge across a narrow, fast running river and on the other side disturb a small family on the hillside processing sago flour: pounding, milking and straining the palm mulch into a food they will bake and boil for food. 15
Olfiet calculated this day's walk to be four to five hours, and it’s been eight so far, with only a short pause for a lunch of bananas, peanut butter and the ubiquitous smokes. Paulius has become disagreeable to Olfiet today, sick of being bossed around by an Indonesian. He sometimes smiles a really wanky smile at me though.
"Bad man I think," Olfiet shakes his head.
We’ve probably climbed and descended four mountains today. Finally Olfiet spots the aid post of the village of Membaham near the summit of the next mountain. "Just up there." But it’s a cruel illusion. We climb endlessly, and Olfiet stops every ten or fifteen minutes to point again to the apparition somewhere above. Three hours later and very near tears, I stumble to its door. I’m nearly mad from the pain in my leg. We camp in the aid post under tattered posters of medical lexicons and in the loving care of a kind woman who apparently is married to the aid post worker, although he’s on patrol. The five room building is perched on a small cliff side landing, it’s back to the bush, with a lovely waterfall spilling down only a few paces away. I hobble to the far side of the waterfall to wash before my legs seize up, then return just as Olfiet’s gotten hot compresses and tea ready for me.
There’s no real pattern to how these places receive tourists. Olfiet’s brought tourists here before, and they’re as kind as can be. Delambela, on the other hand, was more remote, and they reacted a little coolly when we first arrived. But then, we’re walking through areas where people still fear their neighbors and live on ridge tops for a reason. I have recurrent dreams of falling off the mountainside. Rolling over and into freefall The kind of dreams where you’re aware you’re dreaming but you can’t stop it, it’s a juggernaut gaining momentum until you hit the next REM phase. 16
The next day, just before finally descending into Angguruk, we all rest at a precipice with a 270 degree view of the valley below. It’s a windy extreme place to sit, and it doesn’t take much to imagine being blown off. This is where the porters--at Paulius' nod--go on strike. They want a full day’s pay for the first and last days, originally negotiated as half days, and full pay for a fourth man who attached himself to us along the way. I sit silent as Olfiet and Paulius argue in Bahasa and the porters, Judas presenting and terrific scowl, all look on. The old man now becomes snarly and claims to have personally helped me over every mountaintop, so I tell Olfiet to tell him to stuff it, he wasn’t asked to come in the first place (although I have to concede the downhill shoulder tapping always lightened my day). He came along on an errand to Angguruk anyway, I know, carried nothing but his own string bag and got free meals along the way. In the end, and in the spirit of labour movements everywhere, they win a better rate for all.
Our sullen mob descends into town. We walk to the hospital, where a Timorese doctor treats people from all over the region. He’s a ‘friend’ of Olfiet, our Timorese, and they share a lukewarm greeting in Timorese. But I dislike him instantly. With a gang of snotty Indonesian assistants he blithely reports that tomorrow's plane will fly from here to Welarek to pick up passengers, and will be too full for the leg too Wamena. No seat for me. Too bad, they all shrug. But Friday (four days from now) a tourist charter is expected and I can no doubt pay charter rates to take it on to Wamena. Olfiet makes noises about my international connection, but this man literally turns his back. As keeper of the radio he can’t be alienated, so we stand like goons for a minute knowing it’s also possible for him to get on the radio and stroke MAF a little for my sake. Olfiet shakes his head. I ask him to ask them to ask the doctor if he can radio Wamena
please. Olfiet grimaces 17
nervously at the doctor's flat refusal and explains to me in English that his friend here is a "joker."
"I think he is making a joke."
And I think I’ll be walking back to Wamena.
"We come back."
Yes, we come back. Before I hit the man.
Angguruk is a sweet small town, entirely embraced by steep mountain palisades with gardens climbing up to their tops; and there are cows grazing on the airstrip. Across the airfield sits two abandoned mission houses with slightly overgrown gardens behind them. The missionaries left two years ago, I’m told, but these houses tell a poignant story. One of them still has wormy books in the glass cases and a big cast iron stove that must have been hellish to transport. There are three large bedrooms with adjoining baths. Ghosts everywhere, of people who left before they finished packing.
We make our way across the strip to the guest house, which is really a string of bare wooden rooms off a raised walkway, like a motel. All of us crowd into one room, slump to the floor, and settle accounts with Paulius and his gang of merry men. Soap, biscuits, instant coffee all quickly change hands. As each man receives his rupiahs from Olfiet and slithers off to the porch with barely a nod in my direction. In weakness, I hand the old man a cigarette, extra thanks, for which he says nothing and walks away.
At mid-afternoon we return to the kindly doctor, who appears to be organizing an outrageously expensive charter in my behalf. Or, we can walk to Welarek tomorrow and jump the flight from there. 18
This is really not funny, I tell Olfiet.
We come back tomorrow, he suggests, proffering one more strained smile.
In the yard behind the guest house, the schoolteacher, his brother, and their extended families come to see the photos of PNG they’ve heard about. Within twenty minutes the crowd swells to fifty or more men, women and children passing around my snapshots of friends and Western Highlands tribesmen, along with one lone Air Niugini in-flight magazine that contains the rosetta stone images of Papua New Guineans in tshirts, school uniforms and even suits and ties. Women have straightened hair and lipstick; coastal and islands faces smile cheek to cheek. A blue-black Bougainvillean in an orange jumpsuit stands under the wing of an Airbus. The school teacher raises the photos of heavily decorated highlanders at the Goroka Show and they loudly coooo and aahhhh as he explains the people live just across the border. Kids jump up and down to see, very politely; when a snapshot reaches them a few wander off alone to contemplate the big head-dresses, the body paint, the bright string bags on people who look just like them but are worlds away and afloat on a separate geopolitical plate. It’s fifteen years since PNG got its Independence from Australia, and twenty five years since West Papua was cheated of theirs in a forced referendum that evicted Dutch administrators and installed Javanese policemen with their checkpoints and AK47s. I wonder if the departed missionaries were Ducth.
The teacher holds up a close up of a Huli tribesman from Ambua Lodge in the Southern Highlands, wearing his traditional toreador-shaped wig with marigold borders and yellow face paint. The crowd roars. William is the most photographed Papua New Guinean, his face beams from all the travel brochures and trade show posters. When the 19
page turns we see Willie in Huli dress next to two bikini-clad girls on a beach in Australia. More cheers, and now the kids reach and throw fingers at Willie's pig tusk necklace, his ass grass and fiber apron, asking urgent questions in local language. They giggle, all wide eyes and covered mouths, so I follow their eye lines and discover they’re not even looking at the girls in bikinis.
Then the teacher opens to the magazine's center map showing the PNG side of the country with barely an inch of Irian Jaya over the western border. He points to the space not illustrated and indicates where Wamena and Jayapura and Angguruk would be. Everyone stares or exclaims politely, as though they haven’t seen a map before. I wonder how many of these kids, all in penis gourds and grass skirts, even go to school. The older people stand for long minutes holding a snapshot near their face, or they open the magazine and stop at the masthead where a small square picture shows a Papua New Guinean Minister of Civil Aviation. It is more powerful than any religious icon.
The next day Olfiet and I get on the MAF Beechcraft back to Wamena. Turns out the doctor was pulling our legs all the time, and our seats have always been secure. He tells Olfiet he just wanted to see my face when he mentioned the cost of a charter. Asshole.
The tough little Cessna touches down with delicacy and then drop its full weight to the nose wheel. You can feel it sigh before the engine revs loudly and the plane shudders up the graded grass strip. Such incredible machines, single engine planes. They’re so fluttery and frail moving through these enormous gorges, so hollow and exhausted when they land on isolated hilltops. High altitude single engine flying is as risky as it gets. As though the plane knows this, it always seems to catch its own breath 20
before take off. There’s that hesitation, that pause when the plane squares up at the edge of the runway and turns to go, a second thought, the slight window of opportunity during final checks, that last chance to turn back, before pulling the throttle and racing down the straightaway in a vibrating defiance of gravity. You’re whole body is thrust back by the force of inevitability, shoulders pinned to the seat, then jolted up in a miraculous lift--when you’re stomach falls and your bowels loosen, and then your heart races with a compressed feeling of ascension. All this for taking a dare. Your body is momentarily exalted as the little machine wrapped around you slices through turbulence to a calmer place in the sky. I love flying. My own single engine license has long lapsed from the price of fuel and the limits of my amateurism in these mountains. I’m an idiot, but I’m not that stupid. The descent into Wamena is beautiful, soaring low over gardens and kunai thatch homes with their feathery plumes of smoke. Streams that oxbow across valley floors, fields of mounded sweet potatoes hung from the sky at eighty five degree angles.
We touch down with a bounce in Wamena, at about nine thirty AM. That hour-long trip will have to suffice me for thrill seeking and breathelessness, I know, for the time being.
Descending the plane a young Dani boy comes running onto the tarmac calling and waving an envelope, "Nancy Sullivan! Nancy Sullivan!"
I don’t understand. "Me?"
It’s a note from Tony and Teo. Folded inside is one of Teo's Polaroid’s: of a tall Bokondini man in wide penis gourd, red sash around his waist, cassowary feather head-dress and beard, standing against a blue sailcloth, his eyes closed and head tilted, and his arms are crossed tenderly hugging his neck--the posture of New Guineans who emerge from their huts into the cold morning air. The image is only 2x2" and its precision makes 21
my heart sink. My own religious icon. The note is in Teo's hand. From the Baliem Cottages hotel, dated this very morning:
As you can see we’ve yet to leave the valley. The day we got back from Kosarek we positively decided to push on to Karubaga...We decided to scrap our plans and stay on till the 9th in Wamena to do some more portraits (one example included).
This morning as fate would have it, we found ourselves basking in the unseasonably warm sun on the airport tarmac eagerly awaiting the arrival of a MAF plane from Angguruk. My heart would beat like crazy in anticipation of the arrival of a certain passenger I thought (stupidly) I was fated to meet again. Alas, it was not to be...During our wait we photographed the cockpit crew if a Merpati Twin Otter bound for Ewer (Asmat) and ensuing conversation afterwards yielded a surprising reward--a quick (& free) flight to Ewer and back with a brief walkabout--about 25 minutes around the boundaries of the fabled Asmat land. That should make my client happy, plus I got some astounding aerials thanks to the crew. The fact that we were the only two passengers aboard helped too, I think. WHERE WERE YOU NANCY? This may sound fucking ridiculous to you now, but I must admit I’m just plain smitten. I realize this can be attributed to a variety of well known (classical) causes of which elaboration would be no less than redundant, but as you must have deduced by now, I’m all the time sucker of circumstance. The incurable romantic--how cliché can you get, right? Anyway...as I recall you were having trouble deciding what to do with the empty space in your schedule (between Wamena and Jayapura). You could always stay
on in Wamena till two days before your flight back home--a perfectly pleasant thing to do--cool weather, frontier town, naked buttocks, exaggerated gourds (or maybe they aren’t), or you could lock in on someone else’s schedule--some one who is dying for your company & possibly book yourself on a series of flights not too unsimilar to the following: [He lists Merpati flights to Jayapura and onward to the Bird’s Head.] Check into the Sentani Inn, near the airport if you fly out on the 9th (Tues). There you will be greeted by a Javanese song and dance duo of unparalleled talent. Our party will overnight to comfortable lodging in the big city, or wherever suits your unquestionable preference. The Javenese duo will proceed to Sorong, then onwards to countless exotic and decidedly unerotic destinations in the Molluca islands and Bali...It’ll break this Javanese boy’s heart if you choose to shiver alone in Wamena, but don’t let me try to overly influence you. Ha! My eyes are starting to water already. Seriously though...I thank you for your wonderful warmth and company!
I'm at the Merpati desk within the hour.