A Memoir from Western New Guinea

While all these thoughts rolled through my head, Gil was sitting on the bed beside Jake. I resumed our conversation as if I was never absent in mind.

“It’s a bitter irony to be felled by a stroke here after surviving danger in Papua.”

“We are waiting for tests,” Gil said. “He might’ve been poisoned like another colleague.”

“Poisoned here?” I couldn’t believe an assassin was lurking in New York.

We left for a quick bite at a diner off Seventh where we sat in a quiet corner and ordered steaming bowls of lentil soup. The warmth helped to melt the wariness of strangers. I wanted to know more about Jake’s work and the struggle for independence. Gil leaned back in the booth to wipe his spectacles and collect his thoughts.

“We were in DC for an award the night before he fell ill. We thought human rights in our land would get attention at last. It’s a long story few people here know or care about.”

Market day in the mountains

I knew the threads of history: how Dutch New Guinea was preparing for independence when General Suharto annexed it, how at the height of the Cold War the West turned a blind eye because his regime was a bastion against communist insurgency. There was a multilateral agreement supposed to safeguard the rights of indigenous people by a plebiscite, but it was a sham and merely switched Papua from a Dutch to an Indonesian colony. Political dissidents fled or joined OPM bush fighters, no match for the army or the more-feared paramilitaries who made punitive raids on villages. No one knew for sure how many people died in those decades, and I didn’t ask for grisly stories.

“Indonesia is now a democracy and its army withdrew from East Timor. Why not Papua next?”

Gil sighed. “We are a long way from Jakarta. There’s a limit to what even a good prime minister can do, and the West won’t put pressure on a friendly and moderate Muslim nation.”

“I guess the mine is a big problem, the one that got Jake into trouble. No one should go hungry or homeless in a country that rich.” I found the gold mine on Google Earth, a dirty ochre stain in place of a green baize for tribal homelands. Apart from token support of local communities, the wealth was exported for American stockholders and government coffers in Jakarta. I was more than angry, I was heart-broken at losing Eden.

“Mmm. The mine too,” he said.

A few weeks later, Jake moved out of the hospital to a friend’s home a few blocks away. His physical recovery was painfully slow and the ‘Voice of his People’ was now aphasic despite dedicated effort by therapists.

After I moved away it was hard to contact him, but the following winter I called ahead to meet in the Village. I stood in a pool of light outside a diner on the sidewalk and examined every black man who passed. Finally, one emerged out of the shadows, his teeth gleaming in the light and hand attempting a wave. He sauntered into my embrace.

“How are you?” I asked. He felt strong again, but could he speak?

“Fine,” he rasped. That was his only word, but nods and smiles are fine communication between friends.

“How’s your medication?”


I heard his stroke was not from any act of malice, but a complication of an infection caught in Papua for which he needed retroviral drugs. I never forgot the poignancy.

The End


A Memoir from Western New Guinea

I flew to the Highlands on a creaking Merpati aircraft with only one other passenger and other seats replaced by large steel drums. I would have been more nervous if I had known we were a tanker carrying gasoline to Wamena. Flying over an unbroken canopy of lush forest and climbing over the island’s backbone we descended into the Baliem Valley. It was assumed to be uninhabited until 1945 when a USAF plane crash-landed and was met by hundreds of tribesmen. It was the last great encounter between the modern world and uncontacted people, and they are still trying to adjust to encroachment they cannot resist.

I walked out of a ramshackle airport into cool mountain air free of malarial mosquitoes for the first time. No advice could have prepared me for Main Street.

People went about business barefoot on the mud, splashing in puddles, and occasionally moving aside for a bicycle rickshaw or Land-Rover. Tiny Papuan women in rags stooped under huge bundles of firewood or had bags of sweet potatoes slung by a band around their forehead. Some held a naked infant to their breast with a skinny arm. Youths in mud-stained shorts and t-shirts looked on vacantly, and a blind albino man with burgundy lesions stood apart.

Real friends

Some men wore a semblance of Western dress, but many still observed tradition. They strode with the erect self-confidence of businessmen on Fifth Avenue, although their ribs were starved of plumpness that prosperity grants. They carried a parang (machete) or a digging stick instead of an attaché case, and wore a koteka (penis sheath) and a large leaf as a vain attempt to cover their rear cleavage in place of a tailored suit. There were more native dressers in the countryside where they were resistant to pressure from missionaries and the Authorities to dress ‘properly.’ As people wended past a satellite bowl connected to the world I came from, I felt like a Time Lord stepping out of his TARDIS into a surreal world where two eras thousands of years apart had collapsed into each other.

I took a rickshaw to meet an American who I heard gave refuge to students from my alma mater after they were released in a military operation against freedom fighters. Frank was instantly recognizable in his yard, much taller and fairer than others. He was the son of the first missionary in the valley and came back from college in California where he felt alien. He invited me to join his family for tea and home-made cake in a sitting room that looked like it was transported from Fresno, until you gazed out the window.

“I hear you are helping community development, Frank.”

“Yep. This is very different to when I was born. Let me show you what it was like with one of my precious possessions.”

He opened a book with a cover picture of native warriors going to battle. I too owned a copy of Gardens of War, and read the story again of bygone Dani society again before traveling.

“I came for birds-of-paradise and tree kangaroos. Have you heard rumors of thylacines in the southern jungle?”

“Sorry, I’m no naturalist. While you’re here, you must enjoy the people. You’ll never forget.” That realization was already dawning.

But as I sat in comfort with a second slice of fruit cake, I felt uneasy watching the Dani file back to their homes in the bush. “Why are they so poor?” I asked. “Isn’t there a humungous gold mine?”

“Forget the gold. This is the land of the sweet potato. The crop failed this year and people are starving.”

I was flummoxed to walk blindly into a humanitarian disaster. Hundreds of people were dying during a drought caused by El Niño. He explained the smoke plumes I saw from the air were a superstitious belief that fires bring rain clouds.

“When you return bring us news where garden crops are failing so we can drop rice sacks from our whirlybird.”

I hadn’t come on a mercy mission but no one could refuse such a light request.

The next day I was in the back of a pickup truck going to the end of the road from where I would start trekking. Several tribesmen were already sitting with their tools, and another pair arrived with a live hog bound feet and snout hanging from a pole between their shoulders. Before the tailboard went up, two women with a child got on board. We were a rag-tag bunch and I shifted closer to the men because, although their naked bodies reeked of wood smoke, they were less repellent than the women’s fetid rags.

The younger woman cradling a baby grinned to show blackened tombstones between orange gums stained by betal nut juice to relieve toothache. Her companion, probably her mother, was forlorn and wasted with skin stretched thin across her skull and eyes staring out of dark sockets on a hard world. When she pulled her rags to cover a shoulder I noticed the ends of two fingers were missing on one hand and one on the other. According to a custom less-honored now, women express grief for losing a child or spouse by chopping off a finger, whereas men slice off a corner of their ear. Amputations were common, some more extensive, and the sight reminded me of my own family, safe and well at home. I wanted to hold the ‘old’ lady’s hand to convey warmth of our common humanity, but hesitated too long wondering whether I should or if I could. The chance was lost when she drew her hands to her breasts to stop them flapping like loosely fitting soles when we drove over bumps. How did she bear to go on? Did she have a peace I could never understand?

The road ended at a police shack where I roused the officer to sign the surat jalan. My translator Michael was waiting for me. He was a wiry man from the Lani tribe in a clean shirt and pants who spoke several languages and knew our route over a mountain pass to a tiny settlement. I was much slower than him even with hiking boots and a light backpack and had to rest for breath and rehydrate. I cursed my water filter two days later when I often had to retreat quickly behind boulders, but it was hard to complain when the Dani bore suffering stoically. They hurried past us in bare feet laden with bags of tubers and rice, skillfully avoiding loose rocks and human feces strewn like mines.

I learned to greet men ‘nayak’ and women ‘la’uk’. They were amazingly friendly and cheerful, and always willing to pose for a photograph in exchange for a gift from my bag. A lady in a grass skirt burst into giggles taking me for a clown dressed for hiking in the Adirondacks instead of an equatorial mountain.

We sometimes stopped to shake a Highlander’s hand, which according to custom should be long and mindful to give warriors time to weigh up a stranger. One ‘old’ man, perhaps younger than me but whose ribs bulged under parchment skin, followed us for an hour carrying his parang, only pausing for discreet relief behind a bush so I wouldn’t see him lift his koteka. We parted with hands but no words to share. When I returned home to be streetwise again, I recalled how a visitor can travel among the tribes with confidence in security.

Highland lady scraping with digging stick for tubers

We arrived at sunset on a ridge with a cluster of wattle huts below from which smoke columns rose through holes in thatched roofs. Our first hotel was down there.  We scrambled across the baked dirt of gardens where a woman was raking for wilted sweet potato plants with a stick. I made my first mental note for Frank to make a food drop.

Michael led us to a more distant village to meet a ‘Big Man’ who lived in the largest hut where other men were quartered at night. Women and children lived separately, near the hogs which are villagers most valuable possessions. We crawled through a hole in the wall to the inner gloom where my eyes smarted from smoke.

A venerable man sat in the dirt poking the fire to make sparks fly. His face and body were daubed with white paint, and he had a vacant hole in his nasal septum for a boar’s tusk. The bird-of-paradise feather in his hair advertised his status. I guessed he witnessed extraordinary changes in his lifetime: from tribal wars as a young man, to Christian missions in mid-life, and now in his third age a military occupation. I always dreamed of seeing a place where traditional society still clung, if only in the heads of elders, to bring stories to my world of crowds and concrete.

Meet the Mummy outside the Chief’s home

That was my Eureka moment suspended since childhood, and yet I wondered about my motives for being there. Later, I asked Jake if I was no better than others who exploited his people. Did outsiders claiming to be harbingers of progress and development really come for selfish interests—the government for natural resources, businessmen for companies, anthropologists for careers, and missionaries for souls? I came for adventure, and gave nothing back to the people—not even cigarettes they begged for. Always a gentleman, Jake only stared back with dark eyes.

I didn’t learn much new from stories Michael translated from the old man, but it was precious to hear them first-hand. When I asked if the young girl stirring a pot of leaves on the fire was the chief’s grand-daughter, he grinned: he had taken her as his third wife to preserve his health. I also asked if he was an animist because I assumed the shriveled mummy outside was his ancestor, but Michael grinned even wider because the chief declared he was Catholic. I made a gift of a bag of cowry shells and we curled our small fingers together as a traditional sign of friendship on parting.

Michael leads us to our hotel

As we hiked to a losman (guest hut) I exhausted Michael with questions and wished Jake was my companion. He could explain how former warrior tribes became gentle and hospitable, if missionaries criticized for suppressing culture should be given credit for fostering goodwill, or even if the security forces condemned for human rights abuses be complimented for forcing a peace. I expect his sympathy was for the tribesmen who resisted with bows and arrows and antique shotguns against automatic weapons. Michael was reluctant to talk about suffering and violence, perhaps out of tribal loyalty, but he admitted a monstrous exploitation when he recently guided another Westerner who wanted young girls brought to his tent.

“How many and why did you help him?”

“About fifty. They got a dollar apiece.”

Money, meaningless in better days, was needed for food and tools in desperate times. The chief told me promiscuous sex was normal before marriage, but that liberty made young people vulnerable to predators and brought disease to his community. Michael didn’t understand, but the provincial medical director I met earlier told me travelers and sex workers were spreading HIV-AIDS in coastal communities. It would only take a few sparks to start a wildfire among innocent Highlanders.

“Michael, you know about AIDS?”

He shrugged. He didn’t know or thought nothing could be done.

“Are hospitals prepared?”

“Hospitals for dying people.”

That was the general attitude. There was no faith in them as places of healing, and Papua has the worst health and mortality statistics in Indonesia. The only hospital in the district closed for a time when money ran out, and the scattered missionaries were language translators and none was qualified for medical care.

I made a silent promise to contact professionals in NGOs and the WHO who know when conditions are ripe for epidemics and have resources to combat them. I also emailed Jake as someone with field experience. I had no difficulty persuading them of the urgency, but hadn’t counted the obstacles. International aid was already stretched, Africa was the priority for AIDS, and Papua was a security risk for precious resources. When I returned two years later the fire had already spread, and nothing was being done for victims who could only turn to their families for care and traditional medicines. This was the second promise I broke, perhaps from a mix of naivety and hubris. An estimated 5-10% of the adult population is now infected, and the UN reports the prevalence of HIV infection is twenty-times higher than elsewhere in Indonesia.

Continued September 15


A Memoir from Western New Guinea

I learned about Papua from BBC TV as child in gray suburban London and fantasied about exploring the bush for exotic wildlife and Stone Age tribes. In time, I became a biologist, but my environment was a sterile laboratory, not the green and bountiful land the naturalist in me dreamt of. But I had my first opportunity to visit New Guinea in 1997 by a long detour after a conference in Australia.

I took an overnight flight from Jakarta to Sentani where a small airport serves the provincial capital Jayapura, mostly known as the base from which General Douglas MacArthur rolled Japanese forces back from the Philippines. Alfred Russel Wallace also came there to record the diversity of life in what was then called the Malay Archipelago, and hit on evolution at the same time as Charles Darwin mulled over the ‘dangerous theory.’ Papua New Guinea gained independence after the war, but the western half of the island turned to a backwater, drifting from notice except for Cold War politicians and off-beat visitors.

At dawn, I watched for the coastline as we cruised through chasms of pink and gray clouds. The summits of the mountainous island were hidden under white bouffant hairdos and long green saris of forest cast to the lowlands. Rivers cut the tropical canopy and tumbled over waterfalls to wind like brown snakes through coastal swamps to die in the ocean. The Mamberamo River drains one of the last unexplored rainforests where biologists recently discovered new birds-of-paradise, frogs, butterflies, and palms. This was the land where trekkers brought home tales of encounters with head-hunters and giant crocodiles. The Harvard-Peabody expedition arrived in the 1960s to study the Dani tribe, and Michael Rockefeller made his ill-fated visit to the Asmat region.

Bonny Lake Sentani

As we descended, I looked down on empty beaches and shallows with coral reefs stretching to a deeper cerulean sea. We inclined in a great semi-circle over Sentani Lake where homes stood on stilts and fishermen paddled dugouts. Wherever I cast my eyes there were panoramas to inspire an artist’s imagination of Eden.

We were greeted in the airport lobby by friendly Indonesians wearing kopiah caps and batik-patterned shorts. With my few words of Bahasa, I asked a man blowing licorice-scented smoke for directions, but he surprised me with English: “No roads. Fly. Get surat jalan.”

I took a taksi crammed with passengers for a sweaty 45-minute ride to Jayapura, a sleepy town with hotels and restaurants run by Javanese and Chinese immigrants. I entered police headquarters warily because a missionary in Jakarta warned that honesty is not always the best policy. As I filled details of my passport and places to visit on my surat jalan (travel permit), uniformed officers watched idly from seats in front of fans. It is a militarized province, not a tourist destination, ostensibly secured because of terrorist activity in the Highlands where the Authorities discourage nosey people, and journalists and researchers are persona non grata. Large areas were still off-limits at the end of the Suharto regime, and have only slightly eased. Before stamping the permit, an officer pointed at my breast pocket where my journal bulged.

“No researcher!”

“Not me.” I lied.

On the return ride, I stopped impulsively at a tiny university the size of a high school back home. It was where Jake took his degree, although I didn’t know him then. There was a bunch of Melanesian students bubbling with conversation on the steps, and one of them, a law student named Yvonne, walked over to introduce herself. I think I looked a curiosity kitted out in khaki shorts and shirt with a kangaroo skin hat from Sydney.

“Why you here, Mister?”

I didn’t roll out the whole nine yards. There is an aphorism attributed to Robert Louis Stephenson that travelers need no justification: ‘I travel not to go anywhere, but to go.’ She waved her friends over and translated our chatter about college for twenty minutes until the voice of a young man interrupted.

“Is it right for Papuans to be governed by Jakarta?”

I fumbled an answer and heard in reply a word I would hear again and see sprayed on walls: ‘Merdeka’ (freedom). I didn’t need to pretend ignorance because that was transparent.

“The government has brought you development.”

It was true. Those kids were the first to have a higher education, and Bahasa as a lingua franca helped unify a country divided by a babel of some 250 languages and many more dialects. Yvonne broke what may have become a tense conversation by pulling my sleeve: “Wanna see the Biology Department?”

Two motor bikes pulled up in a cloud of dust and we craned our legs over the pillion seats to race past an occasional shop and warung selling fried bananas and head uphill to a tiny campus. There was a new building beside an azure lake fringed with palms and set against a green mountain, so far-flung from my concrete office block in a choking city-center.

In the laboratory, we pored over cases of gaudy butterflies, dried snakes, and pickled specimens reminding me of Asian food markets. A human skeleton hung in a corner like a bleached felon on a gibbet. There was a bookshelf of old textbooks and a brass microscope on a desk, but when I peered through the eyepiece the image was foggy. It was only decoration.

The teacher loved her students but was homesick for Sulawesi. It reminded me the professional, business, and security people I met were all ethnically different to native Papuans—light-skinned Asians instead of dark Melanesians, Muslims instead of Christians and animists. Suharto was moving hundreds of thousands of transmigrants from more populous provinces to outnumber natives in their own land.

She had a fine building but lacked modern equipment and books. I thought of surpluses at home and obsolete equipment we discard, so I offered to help. In a rush of enthusiasm, I overlooked the obstacles of shipping goods past corrupt officials and Iforgot I couldn’t give away what was not mine, even if it was unwanted. That was the first promise I broke.

The memory of the sweet visit turned ugly a few years later when I read about a riot at the university. Students protesting with the Morning Star flag for the illegal independence movement were killed by security forces, others tortured or imprisoned, and some fled to the forest. Jake interviewed victims and witnesses, but the next time violence flared he had fled the country. On that first visit, however, I had no inkling of a political volcano or the history of persecution in the backcountry. I left the campus to go merrily on my way.

Continued September 8

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