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

By Roger Gosden

A British and American scientist specializing in reproduction & embryology whose career spanned from Cambridge to Cornell's Weill Medical College in NYC. He married Lucinda Veeck, the embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America. They retired to Virginia, where he became a master naturalist and writer affiliated with William & Mary.

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