Where Money Must Grow On Trees….Papua (Oct. 11th – 28th)

After a brief layover in Manokwari, we continued onwards to Jayapura, Papua’s largest city. Jayapura is located in the North East corner of the province, smack against independent Papua New Guinea. In getting there, we flew over endless miles of jungle my mouth was salivating to explore.

Upon landing, we realized Jayapura was an extra hour away since a powerful river destroyed a crucial bridge linking where we were to our destination. We bargained with a taxi driver, then loaded our gear for the circuitous trip to the city. I was anxious to get into the bush, but some necessary shopping had to come first.

First impressions…Different. Every section of Indonesia has been unique from each other, but this land takes the cake. We drove through miles and miles of Sago palms (Papua’s traditional food source) with towering mountains blanketed with jungle in the distance. The people looked more African than Asian, not only in color, but in features like big lips and thick ’fro-like’ hair. I was psyched to be here, enthusiastically speechless absorbing the ambiance the entire way to Jayapura. Papua….How Crazy!

The sun had set by the time we arrived, and the first order of business was to find a hotel. After walking around the main street for a bit, we decided on Kartini Inn, only 90,000 Rupiah (~9$). Rushing to get back to the streets, we dropped off our packs and reentered the bustling town.

In Jayapura, the majority of the people were Papuan (as expected) but many Indonesians also called this place home. We walked the markets which sold everything from fruits and veggies to CD’s and knit carrying bags (purse-type things which constantly had Michelle’s attention). We scouted out a few grocery stores, then after a bite to eat, returned back to the hotel to get some rest.

The next day we had a list of errands to run. I needed to re-buy a compass since my former one was stolen out of an external backpack pocket by curious luggage handling airline employee. In addition, we needed to buy food and supplies, stop by the post office to send home some picture CDs, figure out airline tickets to Wamena, and get our ’Surat Jalans’ (traveling permits for Papua). We contemplated whether these passes were necessary or not, but getting them turned out to be a wise choice.

Errands lasted the entire day, but by night fall everything was basically finished, except airline tickets. All the flights for the next day were full, so we decided to return to the airport tomorrow with fingers crossed. Back at the hotel, a TV in the lobby was showing ’Princess Bride’….I mean who could refuse that?

Early the next morning (and I mean early, 5am), we took a taxi back to the airport. After pleading with a Trigana Air desk woman, we were directed to their office about 10 minutes away by car. When we got there, we met three girls from Norway (pretty cute might I mention), trying to get tickets to Wamena as well. I don’t know if it was their long blond hair or what, but collectively we got the airline to fly an extra plane at 2pm that afternoon…prefect!!!!!! The girls spoke flawless English and were escorted around by a local guide named Matese. He was a funny guy, and I liked joking around with him. In fact, I think he ended up liking Michelle and I more then his clients (I mean who wouldn’t), and we were offered a ride back to the airport in their chartered mini-bus.

When we returned, the time was 11 o’clock and Michelle and I were a little hungry so we split ways with our new friends planning to reunite before departure. We left by foot and walked to a spacious, but empty restaurant. We sat under the only fan rotating, but before we ordered, a cute older foreign (USA) couple walked in and began searching for a place to sit. It was extremely hot, not only in the restaurant, but in the entire country, so we invited the two to join our table. They gladly accepted, which became a treat for all of us. Apparently, Leon and Lorraine both first came to Papua in the 50’s and were the pioneers in evangelical work for the region. We asked both of them a million questions about what it was like accessing the most remote of locations and missioning to untouched, potentially dangerous people. We heard some great stories, although all of it was from a pro-Christian infiltration point of view.

The lunch, which we all shared together was delicious, and afterwards the couple was nice enough to drive us to the airport. It was a unique experience listening to their past, especially since they have witnessed so much change while living in the country for over some 50 years.

We re-joined our Norwegian friends and eventually boarded the plane. I had Matese draw on me a Papuan Tattoo with a marker, and he got a big kick out of the assignment. Not before long, the lowland jungle gave way to steep mountains covered in clouds. Minutes later, a valley opened up…Balieum Valley. We began our decent after the hour long ride, anxious to breath some fresh air.

Wamena….being the largest city in the Baliem valley doesn’t really mean much. The airport was small and empty, and a short walk away form the landing strip was the center of town. Here, you could definitely tell all the Papuans were of one tribe…the Danni Tribe. They all had the same exact (Jewish-looking) noses…rounded and droopy. Most people were barefoot, even though the city was somewhat modern with wood paneled buildings and paved streets. Interestingly, it was fairly common to see traditional naked Danni men strolling about town wearing nothing but a penis gourd with a slung bow and arrow around his shoulder…something straight out of National Geographic!!

We walked with the Norwegians to a resort they booked online, then planned to have dinner together. Michelle and I left to find a cheaper hotel of our own. In no time at all, we were resting on beds at Nayak Hotel. Wamena was a bit chilly, not a temperature you would expect when hovering above the equator. It was about 65 degrees Farenheit at the peak of a sunny afternoon. Quite comfortable if you ask me, especially great to fall asleep too, but painful if you ask Michelle. Sometimes I think she would prefer to sleep inside the flames of a fire.

We went back to the Norwegians and found a tiny restaurant where we got to know them a bit more. The conversations started off slow, but picked up to be a lot of fun. By the end we were bashing our respective countries; us upset with them for harvesting Free Willy’s whale meat, while they insulted us for ruling the world (Ya, there’s a good insult). The discussion was all in good fun. We exchanged Emails and eventually parted ways. Tomorrow they begin their trek around the valley while Michelle and I planned to go over the mountains to find more isolated natives. We returned to Nayak and went to sleep.

The next day we split up and searched different cargo and missionary companies who fly planes into the dense interior. Eventually we decided on Suzie air, a cargo airliner that flew to Dekai the following morning. The price was steep, 100 bucks a piece (one way), but it was something we were both enthusiastic about. We bought the tickets!

Having the rest of the day to spare, we decided to bus to a more isolated village within the enormous valley. We chose Kukulu, based on a recommendation to see a mummy. We packed into a local filled mini-bus and began passing tiny village after village, constructed the same ways they were centuries ago. About an hour later, we were surrounded by naked women and children, as well as gourd-covered men. There little community was really cool to be inside of, a culture completely unique to the rest of the world. I bought a bow and arrow from one of the men while Michelle purchased some beads and purses from the women. They archaically still use stone tools as well, which I did not expect. Oh, and on a side note, the women amputate their fingers to the middle knuckle (except for the thumb) when a relative passes away. Every woman you see has missing fingers, and the majority of elders only have nubs remaining. Kind of gruesome if you ask me, considering they chop it off with a sharpened stone tool using no anesthesia or proper bandaging techniques (by today’s medical standards).

We parted ways with our tribal friends, returning to Wamena. After some delicious fire-roasted sweet potatoes in the coolness of the night, we fell asleep back at the hotel anxious for tomorrows adventure.

A late rise had us rushing to check out and sprint to Suzie Air, only to realize the flight was delayed from 7am to eleven O’clock. This opened up time for us to get some breakfast and hit an ATM up. Eventually, we were in the sky destined south.

Wamena, smack dab in the middle of Papua is high in the mountains. Dekai, a short hop south placed us right back in the humid rainforest of the lowlands. The plan was to find a merchant ship at the port, and hitch a ride to the town of Senggo. From there, trek inland to the Korroway (a tribe of cannibals). We hopped out of the dust covered, twin-propeller craft without a map (there were none) or a sense of direction (we never have any). The sun was stiffeling, causing an instant stream of sweat to drip down my back. We were hard pressed to find someone that spoke Indonesian, let alone English. We began walking down a road…luckily the only road making the choice rather easy.

The longer we walked, the more individuals our posse would accumulate. Eventually about 10 curious people began tagging along to see where we were going and what we might be doing when we arrive. A police man (sent form Jakarta to enforce Indonesian tariffs on the city) made us enter his office. Thankfully, we got the traveling permits, since South East Asia does not pass up opportunities to charge you extra money for a ’violation’. We bolted from the police station after paying a couple rupiah (traveling fee) and ate at a little tiny restaurant just incase it was our last. Sadly, all that was offered was the same old Nasi Goring (FRIED RICE)…thank you Indonesia.

On full tanks, we soon realized something completely unexpected….money really must grow on trees, because things here were multiple times more expensive than even Singapore. Being only a couple ojecks (motorbikes) in the town, it was 20 bucks a piece to get them to take us the 20K (further then we expected) to the port. We did our best to negotiate, but apparently fuel prices are just that ridiculous in this region. Having no choice, we jumped on the backs and began sliding down a wide, gravel road.

Indonesia is doing its best to infiltrate and modernize Papua. For Dekai, they eventually want to transform it into a big city where they can centralize all the locals (making them easier to tax and use as cheap labor). Also it will help them in extracting the Earth’s resources, such as timber. The road we were driving down, I’d say spanned 50 meters across (half a football field) and cut right through the otherwise pristine jungle. It was kind of sad to see, but at the same time it was granting us transport to the river, so I can’t be too hypocritical now can I?

The jungle looked alive. The ride was gorgeous. The epiphytes alone were like the size of a trees. I was stuck scanning the road’s edge in hopes of a snake, but found none. Occasionally flocks of parrots would fly above, squawking loud enough to hear over the roaring of the motorbike.

After skidding a couple times, nearly wiping out on the loose gravel, the rainforest gave way to freshly cut open ground. A couple tiny wood-paneled houses, one doubling as a primitive mini-mart, stood to satisfy the worker’s needs. Currently, construction was underway to make a concrete pier to cater to the merchant ships….just what we were in search for. The river was small, but surprisingly some fairly large boats were tied up right against its steep, muddy bank. I sent Michelle with her womanly charm to see about hitching a ride downstream. It was cute watching her negotiate with a couple crews and I was anxious to hear the outcome. It turns out, as far as getting to Senggo (where we wanted), these boats could only drop us off at Basman. From Basman, we would have to charter a longboat (made from one enormous tree) to get to our desired location. With that now the plan, we selected a ship hauling cement as our home for the next night (what turned into nights) planning to depart tomorrow….so we thought!!! We set up jungle hammocks on the bow of the boat, but a heavy rain washed Michelle out to the cabin. Having dealt with sleeping wet while camping in Palau, I toughed it out and slept drenched in order to not encumber our hosts with an extra body. Surprisingly, I got sufficient rest.

Tomorrow came and went, but the boat did not move an inch. Communicating was not exactly easy to do with the crew, and after asking if we would depart (the next morning)…the answer we received meant nothing cause we knew there was no understanding of the question. If the boat didn’t disembark by tomorrow, we planned to scratch the idea and just trek around the jungles of Dekai. With nothing much to do for the day we got to know the boatmen a lot better. This gave us the chance to watch the dynamics between the Indonesians and the Papuans.

The crew was all Indonesian, consisting of six people (which I‘ll get to later) we bonded with immediately. However, the interplay between them and the Papuans was disappointing, as expected. There was definitely a class system, as the Papuans did all the manual labor. It was sad watching them ’slave’ in the destruction of their own pristine beauty. Witnessing them hauling heavy cement bags from the belly of the boat while plastered with the gray dust stuck to their sweat-soaked bodies was an image that really stuck in my mind. I began pondering however, what it must be like from their point of view, rather than from a pro-conservationist westerner…I mean am I at liberty to judge what‘s taking place? To them, they were transitioning into a life with generators…allowing them to cook with the touch of a button, refrigerate food to prolong spoilage, and watch television, granting them a window to the World. Is that so bad? I mean don’t they have just as much a right to those luxuries as anyone else on the planet. They seemed eager to change their ways and adopt the lifestyle that diminishes the difficulty of living. To me, losing cultural diversity is disheartening, I mean it’s what excited me about Papua in the first place, but by being there, in Dekai, watching it happen first hand…right in front of my eyes…I now feel it’s bittersweet rather than my previous all-negative point of view. As we globalize further and further, it’s only a matter of time till we lose the differences that make our species unique…and in my opinion, the more homogeneous we become, the worse off we’ll be when disaster strikes. I’ll have to wipe away the tears and realize how privileged I am to be here now, able to still witness ancient practices in untouched environments before the whole lot of it becomes extinct.

Oh, back to the crew….Michelle and I loved these guys. I bonded fast with James, a funny dude about 30 years old that had a pet bird named Enrique. Every time I saw a parrot in the sky, I’d point at it and holler ’Enrique’ and everyone would laugh (Yes, at least in the third world my humor‘s a hit). The captain (about 25) was a bit reclusive, but his younger brother Jerry was a comical little rascal. Then there was Constan, 27, who was dead-set on learning English. He had a great heart but sometimes drove me nuts with how much he wanted to ’try’ and speak. Arul, about 20 was second youngest to Jerry (18), and was a hoot himself. I’d always joke around with these guys, I mean after all, Michelle and I had to represent the people of the United States. Can you imagine, us, being the only Americans these guys may ever come across…We have to look good (I’m sorry USA). Lastly, there was ’Fader’ (The way SE Asia says Father), Michelle’s favorite. He was the only senior one in the crew, probably in his late 50’s, and just as fit and ripped as anyone else on the boat. He loved talking to us in Indonesian and he spoke as if he thought we could understand everything that came out of his mouth. Michelle and I would always look blankly at him, then laugh when we looked at each other.

That night, dusk, Michelle and I went for a walk down the road transecting the jungle. The sunset was spectacular, but what I remember most was how peaceful it was. The sounds were smooth and steady, and even the birds seemed subdued from daily life, returning to their trees to roost. Night time sparked the fireflies to swarm in large number, and our barefoot walk back to the boat was illuminated by their abdomens. It was a great way to spend the evening…you gotta love the jungle!

That night the crew felt bad for us and convinced Michelle and I to sleep in a little bunker below the sleeping quarters. We accepted and although the wooden planks were hard and unforgiving, it sure beat falling asleep wet.

Next morning, thank goodness, Arul began untying the knots and we pushed off. The river, I swear is about 50 feet wide at the most and doesn’t appear to be very deep, but some of these boats are monstrous. One cargo ship must have been at least 30 feet wide and 150 feet long! Michelle and I climbed up the wooden crossbars stretching out past the front of the boat. Here we were, cruising down a tranquil, reddish-brown stream in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by everything we were hoping for and more! Aboard our merchant ship, I felt once again like an ancient explorer destined for an new, unknown World.

Tribal village after tribal village passed by. Native Papuans starred with dangerous looking eyes at Michelle and I as we flowed through. Apart of me was excited to trek to untouched people for adventure, but another part of me began to question the morality of the whole situation. I mean, no matter what, us visiting a traditional village will most likely result in aiding the change of their culture. Whether it’s buying a souvenir or giving them something of ours, a part of me doesn’t want to get involved. Also, it’s not really nice of us to show up unexpectedly in order to watch them like they’re a tourist attraction or some kind of exhibition in a museum.

We cruised past Mengai, then Braza (too tiny to be on even the most detailed of maps), stopping at sunset in Basman….a whole day away by boat. The plan now was to find a long-boat driver, negotiate a price, and tomorrow charter upstream to a base camp where we’ll begin our trek. James said he knew a boat captain, so we went ashore on a manhunt.

The people of Basman are of the Koroway Tribe. By the rest of Papua, they are known as the cannibals. The people we came in contact with no longer live in trees or eat other people, but they still live humble lives with the majority of their subsistence coming from the rainforest. They looked much more powerful than the funny looking Danni’s in the mountains, and I don’t think their faces were capable of smiling….I didn’t see a grin from anyone. Indonesians lived here as well, more than I expected. They were the owners of the little shops, and given incentives by the government to move in and colonize certain locations. I don’t really see them treating Papuan’s as equal, in fact, Arul referred to them as stupid people that live in trees. Nonetheless, I see the children of both races playing together indifferent of each other‘s color, which as Michelle pointed out, shows racism is definitely taught…not instinct.

We found James’ friend and got a price to motor us to Senggo…..8 million Rupiah!!! That’s about 800$, can you believe it? We talked the guy down to as far as 5 million (500$), but he wouldn’t go any lower. We negotiated with some different boat owners, but their lowest price was five hundred as well. Apparently almost all of the money would go to gas, so anything less wouldn’t be worth it to the driver. Michelle and I found the price hard to believe, and we definitely didn’t want to pay that kind of dough. Plus, our crew on the Norma Bahari (our boats name) really wanted us to stay with them, tagging along all the way to Timika. We thought about it for a few seconds, then gave our friends the green light. So to Timika we go!!!

Back on the boat, we untied and began traveling by moonlight. Michelle and I laid out on the deck watching grey clouds illuminated by the moon, pass over head revealing stars by the handful. The river had gotten wider now (100 meters across) due to contributions from some tributaries, and the jungle was now much further than a leap away. Sometime around 3am, we anchored in the middle of the river to give rest to the crew. Michelle and I slept under the sky.

As the sun began to peak, we awoke to our friends setting up for another day of river cruising. At about 12 o’clock we stopped in a tiny village for a couple hours…not really sure why. It did give Jerry enough time to buy 2 baby parrots from the locals which he will resell, along with Enrique in Timika. Of course, I don’t condone capturing wild animals from the jungle and captivate them into the pet trade, especially when they feed the baby chicks human infant formula, but there didn’t seem like much I could do. I definitely didn’t know where the nest was to return the babies, the only thing I can think of is education…but even that won’t work if the people need to make money. Job alternatives would be a solution.

Michelle and I disembarked as well and went on a photo safari of the local inhabitants. Naked babies posed for some crisp pictures while some mangely looking dogs blocked the board ways. This town, just like Basman was entirely connected by a boardwalk. The rotting wood didn’t appear stable, and I had to constantly pay attention to holes. Nonetheless, the rickety structure was allowing people walkable transportation even during the rainiest of seasons. The locals here were of the Asmat tribe, once revered for head hunting. To me, they looked extremely similar to the Koroway, and guess what…the Indonesians were here too. They’re everywhere! To support them taking over all the unique islands in Indonesia, Michelle and I bought some canned fish in chili sauce to share with the crew.

On board once again, we continued down river. Day turned to night with another vibrant sunset that quickly used up all the memory card space in our cameras. Something about the water-saturated, clean atmosphere over the jungle really produces a canvas for spectacular colors. After about 3 more hours of propelloring by night, we arrived to Agaz, the capital of the Asmat range.

Agaz was a little fishy, let me explain. Michelle and I were thirsty, so upon arrival, we wanted to jump out and go to town….which we could tell was much bigger than the former villages we had recently visited (from the amount of visible lights from the river). The port had about 15 big boats tied up to a pier, and ours being last to arrive meant jumping from one to the other. This wasn’t that easy, considering some were massive vessels. On one attempt, I nearly wiped out by slipping on a landing (extremely slippery wood). The fun (horror) didn’t stop there either. From the last boat, a guy had to pull a huge rope connecting the ship with the pier, in order to leap across. I went first, and with the 4 foot distance, I barely made it. My fingertips were holding onto the top while the rest of my body dangled in thin air about 20 feet above the dark, fast-moving water below. I pulled myself up, then braced myself to help Michelle do the same. It turned out, I had to help her a little more than expected, which almost ended in both of us going for a swim. Finally, together, we both made it to the dock….something I don’t think should have been that difficult.

Ok..Ok..so it was a little rough, but get this, it was hardly even a pier at all. For the first 20 meters or so, only the grid of a former dock remained. That meant we had to walk across a concrete skeleton a foot wide. This gave way to something much more ridiculous. Where the concrete ended, about 3 feet away, rusting metal began. You were basically taking a leap of faith, and landing on a four inch wide platform of iron that now stretched for more than 30 yards. It was insane!!! All this wasn’t lit up, and for parts of it you had to step over obstacles while other sections were completely destroyed and laying broken in the river. I was ready for the rest of it to fall apart at the next attempt to get across. I normally like this kind of thing, but something about this wasn’t churning right inside. I was already shaky from just getting to where the concrete ended and I felt it wasn’t worth the risk of falling in and flooding our cameras, but Michelle was eager to give it a shot….She was Nuts!!! She went off out of site…while I remained like a coward guarding the cameras on the concrete. It was weird, I normally love this kind of stuff!

I began getting a little nervous (more nervous then I already was) about letting Michelle go to a new town alone, in the dark, but she’s not the type of girl you can restrain when she wants to do something (but that’s what you learn to love). Anyway, about thirty nail-biting minutes passed before she came back frantically, with a mouth full of things to say about her traumatic Agaz experience. Apparently, the rusty, crumbling section eventually gives way to a slippery wooden bridge consisting of a 2 by 4 type beam, then nailed to another 2×4, then to more and more down the line….all being supported by random stakes, she said was way worse then the rusty metal part. On a whole other level of frustration however, was that some Indonesian guy pretending to help, solicited her for sex while she was on her way back. She was furious about the situation and we returned to the boat to talk more about the occurrence. Things calmed down and Jerry, James, and Arul left the boat to buy some liquor. I know this because when the returned they were excited to have us all drink with them. Personally, all I wanted to do was relax, especially if more drama was to commence with these pirate-like sailors that were harbored all around us. Michelle however convinced me, along with the guys to have a little fun….I mean we were their guests and they wanted to treat us to a good time….Let’s do it!

We formed a circle and Jerry mixed together coke and a local whisky of which we took shots of 1 by 1 (the mixture). Apparently, straight shots of the 40 proof would be too much to handle, but as it turned out, shots of the mix were a little to rough as well, since everyone except Michelle and I started feeling sleepy after four sips. These Indonesians were a bit of lightweights! It turned out to be a great time that I’m glad to have participated in, and after all the festivities (around 2am) we crashed for the night.

The next morning I was anxious to get out there and tackle the pier that filled me with so much fear. Yup….it was exactly as sketchy as I remembered….what a hazard. Nonetheless, it was rather easy to do with calm nerves and daylight. The 2×4 part was described nicely by Michelle, since each plank appeared to be a buffet for termites and you could see broken pieces of the former ‘bridge’ littering the swampy undergrowth. The wooden section was long too, stretching probably fifty meters itself…making the whole shaky stretch from boat to land, nearly a football field (100m). I learned to love the challenge and both Michelle and I made it across alive!

First order of business…registering with the local police. Things went smoothly, allowing us legal rights to explore the town. The entire village was on stilts, just like the other little port stops we had visited before, but here (ironically because how terrible the pier was), the boardwalk was really nice and maintained. In fact, people traveled across it by bicycle. A town with bikes (BMX style for some reason) dominating as the mode of transporation….it was an interesting sight.

The people were friendly, responding as we greeted them. The tribal women loved me, and I loved that…Ha. We had some Nasi Goreng at a local restaurant (thanks Indonesia), as there were no ethnic (Papuan) restaurants to dine in(remember it’s the Indonesians that do the businesses). We bought some tight artifacts, then brought them back to the boat expecting to depart. That turned out to not be the case….we were told we’d leave at 10, but 10 turned to 11, then to 3, then to tomorrow!! Since all this was conveyed to us in non-English, we had absolutely no idea when the boat was leaving, but we had no choice really. With nothing to do, we headed back to the town to take more pictures.

Arul, while walking across the wooden section of the ‘pier from hell’ spotted an ’Ular’, the Indonesian word for snake!!! I jumped into the knee high muck and spent a good 5 minutes excavating the mud of where the serpent though he could outsmart me. Eventually, I got him out and everybody was happy (really just myself). It was a cool snake…I still haven’t identified the species. What intrigues me about this guy however, is how its pattern is very similar to an anaconda’s pattern from South America. It was definitely a water snake from its tiny head and upright eyes, but more interestingly, it had the exact same circle blotches on top while sporting crescents down its side from head to tail. Once again…I was the only one who cared (don’t worry, I’m used to it).

I released it in front of a crowd of Papuans who definitely thought I was gila (crazy in Indonesian), and we continued to town. Only 10 minutes later we heard…’Tavis’…’Mechil’!!! It was Constan, apparently they were having trouble clearing us for Timika with port patrol, but after a brief visit with them showing our stamped Suran Jalats, they recognized and we and the Norma Bahari were free to set sail to the Sea! And that’s exactly what we did.

After about ten more minutes in an ever widening river, the ocean emerged and we were now ocean voyagers. Eventually (unexpectedly), we went out so far, the land disappeared. Nighttime soon covered us, but the boat that could, kept chugging. When morning came we still couldn‘t spot land, but it felt like we were making great time (Actually it felt like I spent years stuck on this boat). Finally, around 10 o’clock we rolled into another river bordered with mangroves for a scenic jaunt that ended in Timika. Wow, what a journey. We didn’t trek into the rainforest and find the most pristine of peoples, but we did meet many different ethnicities that still live extremely modest as well as toured through a large part of Papua. In addition, we really bonded with our crew mates and in honor of our gratitude, Michelle and I invited them out to a bar called Scorpion tonight, which they always talked to us so highly about.

Constan helped us get a taxi, and we booked a hotel when we got to town. We split ways with him, then went on search to see how and when we could fly back to Wamena. Today was Thursday, and we found a flight via Mulia for tomorrow (Friday) or Monday. Not yet truly having a chance on foot to explore Papuan lowland jungle, I opted for Monday and Michelle was just as excited.

Later that afternoon we met the head of Security for Freeport. He offered us a ride back to our hotel and we gladly accepted. His name was Marcus and originally from Sorong, northern Papua. He was about 49 years old and really excited to show us around. He offered us a tour of Freeport free of charge for tomorrow and with nothing in the itinerary book, Michelle and I gladly accepted. The plan was to pick us up around 9.…what a service!

As 7 o’clock pm approached, the crew from Norma Bahari began filing into our room. Earlier that night I ran out and got a cheap bottle of whisky to get the party started pre-game style. I ended up having to run back to the hotel room from this crazy guy that wouldn’t leave me alone….you get a lot of that out here. Michelle was making fun of me for sprinting back to the room and locking the door! About the crew…there were more of them then I remember….it turns out they invited a couple of their friends. We went through the bottle a little to quickly.

The plan also changed from Scorpion to Queen. I didn’t like the sound of that, but I was going with the flow…I had no choice. At about 8, we headed out. Queen was exactly as I imagined. They had some terrible band impersonating the group Queen, which I already considered horrible music in the first place (Sorry if I offend you…not really). On top of that, the drinks were ridiculously expensive, I think about 20 USD for a pitcher of beer, is that unheard of or what? Michelle and I bought 2, then let everybody else fend for themselves. James ended up buying us one on his nickel, which kind of made me sad cause I know he really couldn’t afford it, but did it because he really wanted too. It was a great gesture. Sick of Queen, even though it was cute watching Michelle having a blast dancing with Jerry who was having even more fun, we unanimously decided to move the party to Scorpion. After the reckless driver (Someone we didn’t know) scared Michelle and I to death (almost literally), we parked the car and entered into a shady building that reminded me precisely of a Palauan ’Buy Me Drink Me’ bar. When we arrived, it was Karaoke and things were slow, but it picked up a bit when the Dance music kicked on. We all got jiggy wit it. After another death defying ride back home, we bid farewell. What great group of fun individuals…Michelle and I were so fortunate to have selected the ship we chose, we made great friends.

The next morning, Marcus came bright and early, eager to show us a good time. We drove the 15 minutes ride to Kuala Kentana, a micro city built by the American Company, Freeport. Now, if you don’t know what Freeport is, you are just like I was before Papua, but Marcus for one, felt like Freeport is the most famous thing in all the world. He was shocked we had never heard of it, he thought the whole world was aware…here, let me enlighten you.

Freeport is the largest gold mining operation in the world, and the third largest copper mining facility. The American based company pays royalties to Indonesia that Papua barely benefits at all from…which is a strong reason why Papua whispers about liberty. Freeport created this little town we drove through as a safe haven for their employees. As we gazed around, it reminded me a lot of a cute little suburban neighborhood in the states. They even had an 18 hole golf course with an elaborate, classy clubhouse. I began talking to Marcus about finding big snakes, and he said road cruising around the golf course at night is where they are usually seen. I got excited, and before we knew it, plans were made for later that evening to go on a search.

Freeport was interesting. At times it felt a little too Utopian and a bit too cheesy, but it was definitely a nice place and everyone seemed to like it. They had tennis courts, parks, golf, nature walks, a fitness center, and a cafeteria. Marcus dropped us back to our room around 2pm , giving us time for lunch before going on a serpent night safari! Tonight, I planned on catching my first big python (In these parts, it would be a scrub python).

Around 7, Marcus picked us up and when we returned to Kuala Kentana it was already dark. It was drizzling….perfect for snakes. We drove around the course once, then we stopped at the club house. This evening they were featuring a Thai-buffet and we wanted to treat Marcus to the feast. He declined, so we bought him a beer instead. Michelle and I signed up for the food. The spread was insane…..and we were the only ones eating it! Everything from Roast Lamb to Spiced Duck. Seafoods I had never heard of with sauces I never knew existed. The desert tray alone had 6 different pie/cake/custards to select from. We were in Heaven! I felt like I was in Africa just in from Safari, back in the 1800’s. The staff was five stars, and the ambience was of Victorian Nobility. Michelle and I joked to each other in Old English accents with wealthy sounding, superficial chuckles. It was such a treat, considering the staff all had tuxes, while we were wearing bush attire. It reminded me somewhat of the life I’d perceive Steve Irwin or Jeff Corwin might have. Exclusive access to private land, being coached around simply to spot wildlife, then to eat at such an elegant establishment. This whole evening will definitely be a night to remember, snake or no snake!

After we ate, Marcus picked up his kids to help us search via automobile. They were young little guys, about 8 and 11, and loved the idea of adventure. We looked high and low, even out into the tiny neighborhoods which of course border right up to the rainforest. We never saw the giant we were hunting, but we did manage to find several little wallaby looking creatures. They hopped around like mini kangaroos but were only the size of, I’d say, a skinny housecat. Definitely marsupial!

Now into morning hours, Michelle was dozing in and out, and we all felt the same way. Marcus dropped us back at our hotel (what a nice guy), and we crashed. He asked us if we ever wanted to do it again, to just let him know….I hope he meant that, cause I planned to! The next morning the script was written for relaxation, save up strength, then go out for another night of searching. We ended up running errands, searching for Mp3 player songs, and getting to know Timika a little more in depth. I came to the conclusion that Indonesians perhaps aren’t the brightest in the bunch….but that’s from my standpoint, maybe it’s just a culture thing. For lunch we got to try traditional Sago from (finally we found) an ethnic Papuan restaurant. It was much different then I expected….like eating a watered down, half solidified, nasty tasting Jello, but we enjoyed the opportunity and did our best to finish it. Sago is a staple food source for the traditional Papuans created by smashing together the fibers of the Sago Palm.

Later that night I got a little too caught up in preparing ’The Box’. Because we had so many souvenirs with us, and because they were going to be traveling with us on plane, train, and automobile, I felt it suitable to make them a good box. Michelle thought I was nuts for the time I spent taping box after box together (and she’s right), but boy, what a work of art emerged! We decided to save the hunt for big snakes with Marcus for tomorrow.

Morning came and we went to buy some foam to package the box as well as make Cd’s with our camera chips. Time whipped around fast, and before we knew it we were meeting Marcus back at the hotel. We drove off heading for big snakes (fingers crossed).

He began telling us about how his friend saw a huge python last night, crossing the road and yes, this notion made me feel a bit pre-orgasmic. He also started mentioning how another staff member keeps seeing baby crocodiles in this one waterway. He asked if I wanted to check it out….come one…do you really have to ask? Off we went!

Around and around a dusty dirt road till….‘There’s a Croc!!!’, I shouted! Marcus slammed on the breaks and about 20 meters or so in the road was a beautiful looking 3-4 foot freshwater crocodile. Michelle and I hopped out of the car with cameras armed to sneak up and get some beautiful pictures. When we got within ten feet, I passed Michelle my camera and went in for the capture. Blinding it with the light, and tip-toeing as quietly as possible, I situated myself in leaping position and darted straight down. SUCCESS!!! Wow, my first crocodile encounter! We took lots of pictures and we even got Marcus to pet it despite his hesitation. It was a great way to start the evening, and even though I was thirsty for more, this single reptile could have quenched my thirst. We released it and continued.

Back at the golf course, this time we traded in the truck for our feet. We began to circumnavigate the greens, fairways, and fringes. On closer inspection of this huge tree in the middle of a fairway, we found several giant millipedes, but a brown snake (about 3 feet and skinny) as well. It was just chillin up amongst the roots/vines of the strangler fig. I climbed the tree and wanted to grab it by the tail, but before I did that, I wanted to make sure I could drop it onto the ground and not someone’s head. When I turned back, all I saw was Michelle’s flashlight and I didn’t know where Marcus and his friend who was accompanying us were positioned. I tried to convey what I meant…I wanted them to get out of the way, but the snake decided to take the advice before the onlookers. Oh well, if it was the python, it would have been a different story.

We continued on and found many cool spiders, geckos, and katydids, but never another snake. We decided to call it a night around 12, and Marcus once again drove us home. Even though the snake of my dreams is still on the lose, I’m happy it’s that way and now I definitely have something to look forward too. I can’t thank Marcus enough for providing us the access and transportation to such a neat area. A Crocodile…we can add that one to the list!!!!

A knock on the door woke us up. Oh man, it was the guy from the airline ticket office reminding us we have to be at the airport at 7!! We thought it was eight (another miscommunication), so we got up and rushed as fast as we could. Michelle for some reason ended up carrying the big box on her lap while she back seated a motorbike rider…I got pictures, it was crazy. At the airport we hurried to the line, only to wait (hurry up and wait) till about 10 for our departure. We ran into Marcus one more time, who works security for the airport as well, and gave him a present (cookies) to show our appreciation. Eventually we were up in the sky in a packed little Trigana twin propeller jet. First over rainforest, then up over the turbulent mountains. We landed about an hour later in Mulia. Mulia is another mountain city, similar to Wamena, where we had just enough time to snap a few photos. The tribe here is of the Lani, a similar group to the Danni of the east. About five minutes after we touched down, we hopped right back onto the now empty plane for the short skip to Wamena. It was as if we chartered our own flight….It was only Michelle and I, the pilots, and one other person.

When in Wamena, we instantly brought all our luggage back to our familiar hotel, Nayak. With several hours of daylight left, we decided to try and make it all the way to Kurima, a small village to the North. We rickshawed to the Bemo station, then hopped aboard for the hour long drive. The serene mountain setting was perfect for this group of Danni people and after walking down a trail for a little bit, we were invited into the house of a friendly local.

Michelle and I were ecstatic to enter inside. The house smelt of roasted wood (kind of pleasant), and the floor was soft straw. In fact, the whole thing seemed to be built of straw. It was extremely dark inside, but the flash would reveal a whole different appearance on camera. The two gentlemen that were showing us their house were decked out in tradition. They proceeded to dress me up as well, of which I was eager to comply. Michelle too got decorated in feathers and bone…it was a great experience, and something we only wished would occur!

After having fun with our new friends, we headed back to the central area of the little community and began walking back to Wamena along the maintained dirt road. We passed a beautiful rainbow and several nice pictures of people tending the earth as they have for thousands of years. Occasionally a couple of Danni’s would pass by us in the traditional garb….nothing. After an hour of walking, a Bemo finally came and we rode it all the way back to Nayak.

Searching for a place to eat, we passed tons of football (soccer) fans just coming out from the stands. The community seems so ancient, but the sport has definitely infiltrated the entire province. I think Wamena was playing the great Indonesian team of Makassar or something, and pulled through with a victory. Afterwards, a parade of fans came screaming by at all the pedestrians. There was excitement in the cool mountain air.

We found a place to eat and did just that. Same old, same old…Nasi Goreng. We returned to the hotel where we repacked all our souvenirs till exhaustion…then fell asleep with alarms set bright and early.

Beep…Beep, we woke and carried everything to the airport. The plane departed and we were on that piece. In Jayapura, we wanted to find a flight heading out that day, so while I guarded our valuable gear, Michelle went in hunt of our next destination. Coming back to share with me a variety of itinerary options, we both decided on Manado, Suluwesi for our next vacation…Ha, how many vacations can you take in one year?

We left Papua, still as enigmatic as when we first arrived. We didn’t exactly do what we originally intended, but in the process, I felt we saw a lot more of the land that Papua is today. For the first time in Indonesia…we were meeting people that looked and acted completely different, and most of them couldn’t help but to display a huge smile. For me, I loved Papua. It was both what I expected, and at the same time much different. Meeting certain indigenous people was easy, while meeting others required months of planning and a fat bankroll. Seeing first hand the destruction of the environment and cultural diversity was sadning, but the endless miles of river cruising through pristine jungle was uplifting. Catching a Crocodile was a dream come true, and the sunsets were the most beautiful I’d ever seen. Papua sure has a lot to offer, and I feel we couldn’t have capitalized on it any better. We made great friends of all different races, and left them with a wonderful impression of who we were. Papua, what a unbelievable place to retreat to. A land of mystery where on every glance you learn more about yourself…the simplicities of what it truly means to be human.

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