Irian Jaya

“No planes, no planes,” was the reply as I stood at the airport in Jayapura in 1993. I was headed for the Baliem Valley in the highlands of Irian Jaya and the only way was by plane. The weather in the highlands often cancelled scheduled plane flights and this day was not unusual.

“Try the Air Force plane, they fly in bad weather," I heard from many different people as I waited for the next weather report.

This idea intrigued me. I never would have guessed that the Air Force would fly passengers to the interior of New Guinea, but in Indonesia, anything is possible. I got directions to the Air Force. Luckily it was at the same airport. Even though it was a small airport I had to keep getting directions. I couldn’t see the Air Force planes anywhere. “Where is the Air Force?” Everyone kept pointing at the small building by the runway which had a sign that clearly read, “Air Fast”. It was a cargo transportation business.

I guess I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t going to fly an F-16 to the Irian Jaya interior, but a cargo plane would do.

All of the seats were removed from the plane except for the last row. In their place were perhaps fifty 50-gallon drums full of gasoline. The drums were on their sides and tied to the floor. The smell of gasoline made me dizzy and I still hadn’t reached my seat at the back of the plane. I knew it was going to be an interesting flight.

The passengers included myself and three Indonesian men. Typically, all Indonesian men would light their cigarettes as soon as the no smoking light was turned off. This plane had no light and I hoped they had enough common sense to keep us alive. When the plane started its take-off a wave of gasoline an inch high washed to the back of the plane and drenched our shoes.
From my window seat I got my first glimpse of the highlands. There were steep mountains right up to within fifty feet of a very think blanket of dark clouds. The plane turned parallel to the mountains and continued. After a while the plane turned around and started following the mountains the other direction. It occurred to me that the fifty foot distance between the peaks and the cloud cover was not safe enough to fly between and the pilot was looking for a valley. He found one so we turned and flew up the valley with mountains towering over both sides of the plane.
We landed in a different world, or at least a different millennium. The indigenous women wore only grass skirts and the men only a penis gourd. The gourd had an upward curve and some were very high with a string tying it around their waist. Don't ask any of the men to make change for your larger bills because, with no clothes, you can guess where they kept their money.
There were many Indonesians, perhaps from Jakarta, living there as well. They owned all the businesses. One of the businesses was a hotel. I checked in immediately so that I could store my duffle bag and get back to exploring this small town.

There was a very busy market selling mostly vegetables and farm animals. The sellers and their products were scattered around on the ground. There were so many that the customers would have step over the goods just to keep the line moving.
There were also lots of old, big shell necklaces for sale. These were not made to sell to the tourists. I was the only tourist in town. Those shell necklaces were once owned by a powerful person, perhaps a chief, because shells were money. The highlands were so far from the ocean and so hard to get to that they had no idea what a shell was or where it came from. Tribes near the ocean traded those shells with the next tribe inland, who traded with the next tribe, and so forth until the shell eventually made it to the highlands. This made it valuable. I wouldn't be surprised if those shells were hundreds of years old.

Another surprising sales item were very old Dutch coins. These coins would have made it to the highlands the same way the shells did. I learned that many of the people at this market walked for days from their village in the mountains just to sell their chicken or shell necklace or antique coin. They would then buy something else and return to their village.

The hotel was the kind you would expect for a third-world country but that was much better than I was expecting for such a remote area in a third-world country. There were many hotel employees and I was the only guest so we had lots of time to talk. One offered his services as a walking tour guide to visit some very remote villages.

"And what shall I do with my duffle bag?"

That question was quickly answered by another hotel employee, "I'll carry it."

The price they offered for their services left no room for negotiation. For the multi-day hike through the mountains, the guide wanted $15. And the poor guy who was going to carry my 100-pound duffle bag everywhere we went, wanted $5. The tour was going to cost less than if I was to spend another night in the hotel. We left at sunrise.

Look closely. This is a picture of me and my porter. My guide was my camera man.
The scenery was unlike anything I've seen before and changed around every pass. At one point we came to a wide, raging river with a suspension footbridge high above. The bridge looked like it was originally made in a safe condition but now was old. Perhaps half of the floorboards were missing. I feared to think how many people plunged to their deaths when the boards first broke off. There were signs of years of amature repairs with sticks tied to the cables of the bridge to replace the floor. Would this be the end of our trek?

We decided to cross, but very slowly and tightly holding hands. The theory was that if one of us fell through the other could hold on and pull him back up. The height was scary enough but seeing the raging river through the missing floor planks made the crossing ridiculous. We could hear some of the remaining floorboards cracking as we crossed. It took some time but we got to the other side.

We sat on the edge of the cliff watching the bridge that we just conquered. At that point I wasn't sure if we were brave or just stupid. As we sat, another person came along to cross the bridge. He was moving rather quickly over the bridge, apparently having crossed many times before. Half way across there was a gust of wind that made the bridge sway. We watched in terror when the man stumbled and fell to the floorboards but quickly got back to his feet and continued. After he safely reached the other side we looked at each other and laughed. A different route was planned for our return trip to the hotel.

We stopped at several remote villages along the way. For a couple of dollars the village fed us and gave us a hut to spend the night. The people were very friendly and tried hard to please us. They had a difficult but peaceful life. They spent all day at their farms and gathering firewood for that night. Even though we were close to the equator, it still got cold at night. The round huts had a fire pit in the center but no chimney to let the smoke out. The smoke would seep out through the grass roof which made it difficult to breath while sleeping.
The next day the villagers wanted us to see their ancestors who died a hundred years earlier. We waited at the center of the village as they brought out the bodies. They put their ancestors on stumps of trees that they used for chairs. The bodies were in a sitting position. The skin was wrinkled but looked good for having been dead for a hundred years. I was told that they keep the fire burning in the ancestor's hut and the bodies were smoke dried.
Have you ever felt different? Perhaps because I was always taller than everyone else but still I felt as though I stood out everywhere we went.
As we returned to the hotel in Wamena, I'm not sure how many days later, we saw the hotel employees running out of the hotel. They each were carrying something from the hotel. One carried a chair, another a lamp, the men had a mattress, bed, stove, etc. I don't know where they went with the furniture but they quickly returned for more. The guide told me that the employees haven't been paid for a long time and this looked like the end of the only hotel in town.

I paid my guide and porter and thanked them for a wonderful adventure. I wanted to talk more but they were in a hurry to get their fair share of the furniture.
 The women often covered their bodies in mud.
 I'm told no tourist has ever gone beyond this fence. I don't know why.
 After a long 5 hour hiking stretch with seeing no signs of people we came along side this village. I was anxious to stop and rest but the porter refused. He never said why. I guess that he probably backed out of a marraige proposal from someone in this village.
 I guessed this family had a coffee bean farm and the kids showed the signs.
All the trails led straight up the steapest part of the mountains. No winding, no going around, just straight up one side and straight down the other. It reminded me of Marine Corps bootcamp. 
 The smoke from a farm a few miles away was considered to be from the gods because no one ever ventured that far from the village. The funny thing is that the farmers from that fire thought our fire was also from the gods.
My guide was getting good with my camera considering he never held a camera before, but he chopped my head off from half the pictures.

Read more of "My Adventures" on the top right of this page.

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