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

Who’s seen a Thylacine?

Only Aussies born more than 90 years ago can make a plausible claim to have seen a living thylacine: according to official records, the last of them died in Hobart Zoo in 1936. And, yet, thylacines still live! Few “extinct” animals cling so doggedly to public consciousness or attain cult status as the so-called Tasmanian tiger/wolf.

Thylacines feature on the Tasmanian coat of arms where two of them support a shield depicting their favorite prey (a sheep). They have been adopted by a pop group and are emblems on car registration plates. They are cartoon characters in children’s stories. They are mascots of the Tassie cricket team. They have a huge following on Facebook, and are pursued by a Tasmanian research team which is struggling to verify sightings of these shy animals. They are regularly seen or captured as fuzzy images looking like yellow labs darting into cover after the sun has gone down and cocktail hour is over. And where else, apart from Australia, would a government choose to humor motorists by erecting signs warning about extinct animals crossing the road?

Watch out for thylacines
Watch out for thylacines

I doubt thylacines would be so beloved today if they were not hated yesterday. Perhaps we feel guilty for having pushed a species over when it was already on the brink of extinction. A bounty of ₤1 per head was offered on behalf of 19th century farmers when thylacines were already rare. But who should blame a predator for supplementing its diet with mutton when hunters were thinning out its natural prey?  They also attracted attention for having the stripes of a tiger, the gape of a wolf, and the habits of a hyena. And they had cachet as genuine Australian natives with pouches like other marsupials, but unlike other species they were worn by both sexes, which is a rare example of political correctness among Aussie males.

Why else would thylacines attract attention? Every continent except Antarctica is inhabited by at least one cryptid species. There is the Sasquatch (Bigfoot) in North America, Mapinguari in South America, Yeren in China, Yowie in the Australian Outback, etc. As we tame the shrinking tracts of wilderness and clear jungles for our own wants, we are still wont to preserve some mysteries passed down by tradition and from folklore. We aspire to all knowledge of the universe and strive for all control of our environment, yet still harbor a love of mystery and curiosity about the unknown, for a world in which everything is known would indeed be dull. Ape-like critters on two feet fit the bill, and for the merest shard of plausibility they require a large territory for cryptids to hide in. But a small, highly-populated island like Britain does not have enough cover for them so they must keep their heads discreetly under water in Loch Ness. As for Tasmania, it still preserves old forestland, enough to conceal a critter the size of a dog, providing it never prowls after daybreak.

Thylacine-a portrait
Thylacine-a portrait

Thylacine hunting is a serious endeavor and a mighty passion for its followers. It stirs emotions like watching for ghosts or stalking for Bigfoot, but these animals are in a class of their own because they were never phantoms. More than a fading memory, evidence of their existence stands on all fours in museums today, and they may even hold out in tiny numbers. If Bactrian deer can come back from “extinction” in the wilds of Afghanistan, why not thylacines in Tasmania’s quiet forests or somewhere else?

Australia was originally part of a continental land mass combined with the huge island of New Guinea. The fauna and flora could come and go within the same ecozone, where they evolved differently to animals in mainland Asia north of the “Wallace Line.” New Guinea preserves descendants of a common marsupial stock, including some kinds of kangaroo that adapted to a life in trees. Perhaps thylacines still survive in its tropical forests. On my first trip to West Papua nearly twenty years ago, the western half of the island colonized by Indonesia and then called Irian Jaya, I met a man who was the provincial medical director and a keen naturalist. His brother in the Merauke area had recently seen in good light a critter looking like a thylacine. I didn’t know until recently that around the same time missionaries reported sightings by tribesmen in the Puncak Jaya region, although they had no idea it was a sensational claim. May the mystery endure, and thylacines hiding in the woods keep their heads down.

Next Post: A root to cure all


Inferno in Indonesia

Indonesian forests are burning. It happens annually, but this time the inferno is far worse. On some days, the fires evolve more carbon into the atmosphere than the whole of America (whose economy is 20 times larger), and the smog and haze have spread beyond neighboring countries to Thailand and the Philippines. Yet, as George Monbiot the environment correspondent for The Guardian newspaper points out, this catastrophe gets scant attention in the media, and is a long way below pronouncements by Donald Trump and European debates about standards for sausages.

As peat dries out in forest swamps drained in the Suharto era, it catches alight easily and smolders underground, even for years. That incendiary program, combined with clear-felling for logging, slash and burn farming, and palm oil plantations, is sending to extinction some of the richest habitats in the world where orangutans, gibbons, sun bears, pangolins, and other endangered species dwell.

When Alfred Russell Wallace visited in what was then Dutch New Guinea in 1862, he thought the astounding biodiversity was safe forever: Nature seems to have taken every precaution that these her choicest treasures may not lose value by being too easily obtained in the roughest terrain (The Malay Archipelago). A century later I remember hearing in our geography class that the jungles of Indonesia and Brazil are so tenacious that we can never degrade them. Those pages in my school notebook should be tossed in the fire.

The fires are especially aggressive this year because of the El Niño effect. As Pacific currents change periodically there is a see-saw impact on rainfall—less in normally humid Southeast Asia and more for parched California this winter.

The last strong El Niño in 1997 helped farmers in California to produce bumper crops. I was visiting Indonesia. From my seat in a Garuda flight from Java to Irian Jaya, I wrote in my journal before landing at Sentani:

When I woke at dawn we were flying through canyons of pink and grey clouds, and I will never forget the first thrilling sight of the coastline. This was a land from which travelers brought home tall tales of head-hunters, gigantic crocodiles and belligerent cassowaries. I pressed my forehead to the window to scan the terrain. The mountain summits were hidden under white bouffant hairdos from which long green saris of tropical forest trailed to the lowlands. As we descended, I could see brown rivers tumbling down steep gradients and over waterfalls before transforming into snakes weaving through coastal swamps to die in the Pacific Ocean. The largest was the Mamberamo River basin, which drains one of the last unexplored tracts of rainforest on earth, where new species of birds-of-paradise, frogs, butterflies and palms have been discovered…

The whole archipelago of Indonesia looked like a jewel from the air, and I anticipated a paradise on earth. The coastal plain was still lush, but when I reached the Highlands they were dry, the staple crop of sweet potato had failed, and people were dying of famine. Observing an ancient superstition in times of drought, they had lighted smoky fires to make clouds for bringing rain.

But they never sparked any great conflagration because they understood their environment, and the print of their bare feet on the earth had always been light.  It took the years of commercial and often illegal forest clearing to create conditions for infernos in Irian (now called West Papua), as in Borneo (Kalimantan) and Sumatra.

Irian Jaya, West Papua, Indonesia
Papuan friends in the Highlands. Hungry but not scorched in 1997

A change from authoritarian to democratic rule in the past two decades hasn’t stopped the burning or the burners, and responsible stewardship of a wonderful archipelago seems beyond the reach of a feeble government and the new president, who graduated in forestry science. A better prospect for rooting out corruption and prodding a cataleptic government is coming from outside, through boycotts of products from Indonesian forestland brought by neighboring countries, and hopefully India and China will add their influence. Iya nih!

Next Post: Human chimera