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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For a month’s respite from new blogs I am posting a memoir dissected into four

A Memoir from Western New Guinea

(some names have been changed)

There was a message waiting in my office from an unidentified caller. Jacob was back in town. But why was someone urging me to hurry down to see him at St. Vincent’s?

I scurried for a yellow cab outside the hospital, waited in line as a wintry mix of sleet and rain fell between towers of the Upper East Side. My driver grumbled about the afternoon rush with the United Nations in session, so we took the FDR to the West Village. I sat uneasily, worrying if I would be too late, but for what?

We crawled across to Seventh and I jumped out at 12th Street to join a tide flowing along the sidewalk. Pausing to button my jacket against the icy blast from the East River, I gazed up at the windows of St. Vincent’s Hospital. Was Jake inside? Did he have an accident? That would be tragic after fleeing assassination. I pushed through revolving doors to the embrace of warm air and waited for a man at the desk to lower a wall of the New York Post.

“Is Jacob Korem a patient?”

He scanned a list.

“Eleven. Take the elevator to the Stroke Unit.”

Stroke! I never expected that. Surely, not a man of forty-four? Inside the cell, I pressed a button behind a doctor in green scrubs whispering to a nurse. Another man looked solemnly from under a black fedora at his wife. I too would soon be locked in a private drama.

The corridor on 11 was painted beige to calm emotions, but the urgent chirping of a distant monitor made me uneasy. I arrived at the nursing station at a bad moment when the staff was scrambling for an emergency. It was crass to disturb them but my first thought was for my friend. Was he in danger? After waiting for a Filipino nurse to finish on her keyboard I lost patience.

“Is Jacob Korem here?”

I was relieved when she pointed to a door cracked open behind because a gurney had rushed past it. When I peered inside there was a human form on the bed beside a vase of daffodils. I stepped inside. A blinking neon light and wriggling EKG caught my attention before I recognized Jake lying motionless. His brown arms protruded from a hospital gown like peninsulas of land in a surf of white bed-linen; his frizzy mop put me in mind of a tropical atoll with coconut palms waving in a Pacific breeze. Was this hobbled body of my tireless friend, the one they called ‘the Voice of his People’? I often wondered if he ever thought I was a naïve, if well-meaning, foreigner because, if only at first, I thought his stories of menace in his country were exaggerated, if not pure fiction. But it never spoiled our friendship, and now much wiser I imagined his enemies gloating.

New Guinea

I didn’t know we were not alone until a cough startled me from behind. A short black man stood up to offer his hand, the picture of a young Desmond Tutu.

“Hi, I’m Gilbert… call me Gil.” It was an unlikely name for another Melanesian. “I’m a journalist too.” Another refugee I thought.

“I’m his friend, Roger. What happened?”

“It’s a tragedy. Such a brave man.” It sounded grave. “How do you know Jacob?”

“It’s an unlikely story. You know how sometimes you start a journey with a destination and end up somewhere completely different and don’t regret it? He came from an alien world only inhabiting my imagination for a long time.”

Jacob was a journalist in the Indonesian province of West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya), the western half of the vast island of New Guinea. He became a leading human rights activist, and that’s when his troubles began.  He accused the Indonesian military to the FBI of complicity in murdering Americans outside the Grasberg gold mine. He also published a report about the murder of Chief Eulay, the champion of Papuan independence, which helped to prosecute members of the Special Forces ‘Kopassus.’ And he was already a marked man for documenting abuses of the Amungme and Kamoro people, which almost got him fired by the NGO he worked for. He never shrank from threats, but when he was labeled an enemy of the state his friends persuaded him to flee because discretion really is, if only sometimes, the better part of valor. Perhaps he believed, or at least hoped, he could serve people better in an overseas haven instead of martyrdom. His friends hoped a nomination for the Peace Prize would bring publicity to the cause, but it isn’t awarded posthumously. There never is any certainty for those campaigning for poor indigenous people in a land richly-endowed with natural resources under foreign military rule.

Gil waited for me to explain more.

“We met on the Internet when I needed an influential Papuan for advice about an emergency.” I hoped he wouldn’t ask me about something I felt disappointed about, even a little ashamed of.

“You visited him in Abepura?”

“Never at his office.  We met when he came to lobby at the UN and Congress, and was a fellow at Columbia. I never probed his politics.

I grasped a limp right hand, marveling at the long, dexterous fingers Jake drafted reports with and wondered if he was paralyzed he would also lose his speech and gift of writing. If he couldn’t be whole again I almost wished he wouldn’t recover rather than being bed-ridden with the knowledge that a decade of struggle was for nothing. But I couldn’t give him up, so I whispered in his ear he would get back to work and we would eat barbecued fish together on his beach, just as we planned, although I was talking to myself.

As Gil took a turn at the bedside, I remember looking out the window beyond the wintry towers to feel the equatorial heat again and see the emerald mountains crowned with cumuli. I fancied I smelt smoke from a Honi hut still clinging to my body, and that flashed back to sleepless nights on dirt floors, inquisitive brown eyes across the embers in the men’s hut, and a tribal family who helped a delirious traveler. Jake knew the Interior but never understood my fascination, and even joked I was a pale Dani.

Continued September 1

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Whatever the etymology of Passchendaele, the little Flemish village sounds to me like “Valley of Passion” in English. In 1917, it was a valley of mud and cordite, steel and fire. The dirt was burned and scoured of life, except where poppies sprouted in early summer. They are ephemeral and irrepressible little plants, nodding with blood red heads where there is little competition on disturbed ground. Poppies came to symbolize the War, then the Wars.The poem was composed in 1915 by John McCrae, a Canadian army doctor who was badly gassed at Passchendaele and succumbed the following year. When I worked in Montreal and visited the library archives at McGill Medical Center I passed a glass cabinet containing the original copy he posted home to his mother. Without the poem as his memorial, I wonder if his name would stir any remembrance of him.

Last week, there were ceremonies to mark the battles that lasted from the end of July to November 1917 around Passchendaele. The centenary was commemorated by somber tributes near Ypres in the presence of Belgian and British royals. The Last Post (equivalent to Taps in America) was heard across the military cemetery, and has been every day for the past hundred years.

The congregation joined the stirring Ode to Remembrance by Laurence Binyon, but when it came to, “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them,” I felt the words hollowed out because everyone who knew people who served in the Great War have all passed away too. Have the fine words become a hackneyed ritual, like a church Creed or national anthem, empty of feeling and soon forgotten until next year? Of course!

Who remembers the names of young men and, indeed, women like Miss Nellie Spindler who was nursing close to the Front? Without names to flesh them they are become ghosts.

I was musing how quickly family memories fade. I was never told a great uncle perished at Passchendaele until I found his name through ancestry research. I only know he was 26 years old and married, but not his rank, regiment or anything else. Since no one ever mentioned him, he never existed for me until recently, and now I am come late and the only one to celebrate his life.

His name was Leonard James Saunders. The name has a sad mirror the other side of the family. The other Leonard died the following year in France, aged 19. There is, however, some memory of him. He lied about his age to the recruiting officer so he could join up with his older brothers. He disappeared in the war, probably atomized, which may be a better fate than terminal trauma in the trenches. It took decades for us to find his name listed at Arras. His mother laid a place at the table for the ghost every day for the rest of her life, because closure is harder without a body or a memorial.

I’m no better than others at remembering, but I know it helps to have something to stir this consciousness, maybe a portrait or if there is none then fabricate a token.

Next Post: Gold and Guns in Paradise

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Celebrating the Dirt Road

Dirt roads are the borderland between flourishing nature and the black sterility of asphalt roads. Gravel roads are dirt roads after they have been improved with crushed stone to make them more resilient to wear and weather. Dirt roads of all kinds are the roots of rural life.

Dirt roads are the rule in poor corners and countries, and road maintenance crews are rare so travelers must use their own ingenuity to conquer the problem of a wash-out after a heavy storm. I remember a journey in the back of a truck with Lani tribesmen in the Highlands of West Papua where a new stream formed by an overnight storm carved a deep crevasse in mud across our route. There was no going round or back so we scouted for a pair of logs to lay over the six foot gap the exact distance between the wheels, and then very gently roll the truck across to firm ground on the other side. For local folk it was a minor annoyance compared to the trials of their day, but I doubt many Westerners would have gotten through without their cell phone.

I believe there is more romance driving on dirt than on tar because you never know what you may encounter or, sometimes, even know where the road will end. For sure, there will be potholes and more wildlife on the way, and in rural America you might not realize when the public road changes to a private driveway until you reach a ranch or mobile home where only invited guests are welcome.

Driving on dirt or gravel in summer is musical, except in the desert, because life still clings to the ground instead of buried under poisonous tar. As the tires are steered along the paired track, stalks of vegetation in the center play a random tune on the underside of the vehicle. The lower its frame to the ground the bigger the orchestra.

I was musing about the profile of a gravel road I know, and why they all look like a Mohican hair-cut with a mid-line sprout separating bald patches on each side.

Why the difference between the green and the gray? Does it need regular traffic to stay that way? The example I was looking at was an old driveway where road and foot traffic passes infrequently, yet it still had two bald lanes running in parallel. It seems that where there’s been a history of traffic the vegetation is suppressed for a long time, maybe even for centuries. That’s why you can still see some places in the Plains where wagon trains went out West, and old logging trails are visible in the forests of Appalachia.

Another explanation for the difference is drainage because the grassy center probably retains more rainwater than the smooth camber where it runs off quickly. That maybe so, but it doesn’t explain how the difference started in the first place. Besides, I found a flattened area where vehicles used to turn all over the place and it was bald, apart from a few miniature patches of grass where growth had stalled.

The real explanation now seems obvious, especially to a gardener who avoids trampling the ground and keeps the soil particles loose with a fork and hoe. For even if a road is no longer taken, over its history the weight of passing traffic compresses dirt and stones under the wheels, but rarely on the crown of the road which stays more porous so plants can put down roots to reserves of water and oxygen in the gaps. Dirt roads are truly about roots and routes.


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Testicles and Neuticles or Other Jewels

For someone who has spent a career in reproductive endocrinology there’s a surprising dearth of stories about gonads in my blog. I am now correcting that impression.

This post was prompted by the memory of a visit to our former veterinary clinic for Ben’s checkup. One of the techs who examined him wanted to show us her own Golden and went out to retrieve her dog from the kennel. It had that lovely nature redolent of its breed with a double coat of hair and brushy tail. He was magnificent in every way, except one. His long bones were so elongated he looked like he was walking on stilts. The next time I saw a Golden like him I snapped a picture, but it wasn’t an extreme example.

Hind legs like a jack rabbit

Both owners told me their dogs were neutered around 6 months of age. Many female dogs are also spayed before puberty, and the same for cats, but I believe it’s too young when they are still immature.

There are four reasons for castrating a dog before puberty. 1) It’s good for society because it avoids breeding unwanted animals that may suffer or become feral and terrorize the neighborhood and wildlife. 2) It’s good for the vet because surgery is easier when the gonads are tiny. 3) It’s good for the pet owner because it reduces socially embarrassing mounting and marking behavior, or hounding females in heat. 4) And it’s good for the animal, or is it?

Among many impacts on the animal’s body and behavior, testosterone in males has a double effect on the long bones of limbs and ribs, as in humans. At low levels in juveniles, testosterone stimulates growth zones near the ends of bones (epiphyses), and when it rises to adult levels epiphyses fuse to prevent further elongation, and the bones are then considered mature. But if levels remain low because the testes are surgically removed the long bones continue growing past the age when they would normally stop. The final stature of the body is partly dictated by the trajectory of testosterone, and the same for estrogen in females. Without his sex hormones, Ben would become a canine eunuch.

That’s why a girl who has her first period early, at say age 6 to 8, tends to become a shorter adult because her bones have matured prematurely by estrogen. Hence, no more than 3-4” in height can be expected after menarche. Conversely, delayed puberty gives more time for growing, although sex hormones are only part of the story. Testosterone has the same effects in boys, although less apparent because there is no stage of puberty as marked as the onset of menstruation.  But I digress…


Ben is an adult dog approaching two years old and still intact, yet we have no intention of breeding him. His day of the knife is postponed, and our vet agrees with the physiological rationale that his body should experience testosterone at full throttle before we cut his engine.

Ben looks like classic Goldens you see at the Westminster or Crufts Dog Show, where every competitor must be intact to qualify for show. They have shorter and stouter legs than either of the examples I mentioned, although it’s hard to compare pictures because of his shaggy coat. He doesn’t need to be “fixed” urgently because he’s not aggressive or horny and does not roam willy-nilly looking for females. I am sure he’s a better-looking and healthier specimen for still being intact. The delay helps weight control and avoids extra strain on bones and joints, but if it raises his risk of prostate growth a tad in old age the disease is unlikely to be malignant, as in men. But his time will come, and he won’t be the only family member feeling sad that day. It feels unkind to put our best friend under the knife for mostly social reasons, and some owners feel so guilty they replace the testes with prostheses.

A pair of neuticles made of medical-grade silicone fill the vacant space to give the impotent the presence of potency. The swollen scrotal sac placates an owner’s conscience, but I wonder if it can restore a dog’s pride?

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