Thick forests, hills covered in green rugs of nature, blue sky, white fluffy clouds and culture so distinct, it made a permanent awe in your heart. When it comes to beauty, I believe we speak the same language. And Papua is the word to describe it.
My first (and hopefully not the last) trip to Papua occurred in October 2006. I remembered the feeling I had in my stomach when I received the assignment. I was torn between being genuinely excited and at the same time all the negative stories about that island ran inside my head like crazy. Was I scared? Well, unfortunately I have to admit that I was a little bit scared. It was a land so distant yet so close because bad publication made it so.
Donovan the photographer and I left Jakarta late in the evening and arrived early in the morning. The trip probably took about 7 hours, with 2 stops. Biak, as one of our stop, welcomed us with a new morning and a horizon so beautiful it immediately erased all my worries. Jayapura served us with another gorgeous view of green rugs covering all its mountains and hills. It was so gorgeous that I felt like I was in a kind of fairy tale and it couldn't possibly be real. I have never seen forests so thick!
As a town, Jayapura was not that special. Drunk people roam the town and there was an atmosphere of uneasiness among its people. A course of history had taken local people to different perceptions and understanding on a lot of issues, and it showed, even in the subtlest way.
But my visit to Jayapura was not that bad. We went to a couple of beaches that served as battlefields in World War II between US and Japan, MacArthur Monument, Sentani Lake and several other points of interest. We enjoyed Lake Sentani on a wooden boat with the sun happily grilled our skin. Nevertheless, it was a really nice trip. There are numerous little islandson Lake Sentani, with different tribes living on them. Isn't that just awesome? One of those tribes, is the Babrongkos. People on the island of Babrongko made their living by making and selling wood carving. Babrongko people believed that they are descended from alligators, thus they highly respect the animal.
After Jayapura, we flew to Wamena in the District of Jayawijaya. The absolutely gorgeous Baliem Valley is located there. Flights to and from Wamena are available on daily basis in those small airplanes (though still bigger than the one I had in Flores). The ticketing system was pretty chaotic and believe me, you don't want to mess with the locals. So if the airline makes some stupid mistake and everybody in the passenger list is being delayed, you better step back and let the locals do the talking (and fighting!). That's a show you do not want to miss!
Anyways, we eventually arrived in Wamena and were welcomed by the cool breeze of the highland area. The view from the airplane was absolutely beautiful. Again, green, green and more green! Baliem is surrounded by towering peaks of 2,500 to 3,000 meters high. There are three main tribes inhabiting the valley, which are the Dani, Yali and Lani. Dani is the most exposed tribe among the three, since they inhabit the area closest to the town of Wamena.
It took us 15 minutes from Wamena to Baliem Valley and the view was breathtaking! It was like a painting of a truly gifted artist. The blue sky came together beautifully with the lush green of land and tiny traditional houses called honai that were easily spotted from every angle made it even more striking. Local people, some with traditional outfits (koteka) and some with "modern" clothing but with the same warmth, completed the impeccable view of Baliem Valley.
Unfortunately, it is true that money has become a very important part in the life of the Dani people. It has become common "courtesy" for people to pay for a photograph of and with local people. The amount of money you have to pay has significantly risen over the years. For a picture with the 300 years old mummy, you could even pay up to Rp.150.000,-. They usually use the money to buy cigarettes. Some tourists guide facilitators have forbid their guests to give cigarettes in exchange of money and recommend foods such as biscuits or treats.
In Papua the most valuable belonging of a man is his pigs. Yes, pigs. So don't go there hoping that you'll meet lots of pork on your plate (like I did, unfortunately). Pigs are even more valuable than women (and I suddenly felt like I was in the 16th century or something). They only feast on pigs on really special occasions such as weddings. In fact, pigs are considered as dowry. The higher a woman's place in the social hierarchy, the more pigs her family will get.
Pigs are so valuable that if you hit one and it happened to be female, be prepared to pay a huge sum of money. Killing a female pig means you have also killed the piglets she could have given birth to. So here's what the owner would do; he/she will count the nipples on the pig and times it with Rp.1.000.000,- or more and add extra charge for the amount of piglets she should've given birth to. You could be looking at Rp.15.000.000,- (at least).
The pig thingy is so famous in Papua that they made a joke about it. They said that it is better to hit an old lady than a pig, because she only has two nipples and they don't even work. Haha!
Visiting Papua is definitely one of the highlights of my life. Lots of memories, lots of stories to share. For now, just know that Papua is not unreachable and horrible. It is so close and it will be closer in your heart after you get to know it better.