Visiting Papua: Little things, big impact: Notes from my travel journal.

Packed for travel: As we descended toward the village of Ugimba, two men – wearing only traditional kotekas (penis gourds) and tribal markings and wielding large bow and arrow sets – stepped out of the bush and onto the path, raising their weapons toward us as they did so. (from my post entitled, “Welcome to Ugimba, West Papua”) Men who travel in from other villages often carry weapons should they encounter a tasty bird or tree kangaroo, but also because they wish to be ready if ever-present tensions escalate. Orchid fibers wrapped tightly at the tips of war arrows increase contamination of wounds. This indicates that the arrow was designed for a human target.

Amakane! literally means, “Welcome to my bosom.” The message is warm and welcoming and implies, “I offer to nurture you.” In addition to some time spent in the larger towns of Timika and Sentani, I was able to visit the interior villages of Bilogai-Sugapa, Titigi, Hitadipa, Gamagae, Ugimba, Beriquit, Sengapa, Kobae and Selemama in the Zombandoga, and Pogapa. In one village, a man yelled up to us enthusiastically from his hut at the bottom of the hill, “It is amazing that the mbagubagu (literally, ‘straight hair,’ a term for Indonesians and expats) walks this land.” In another, a village elder told a gathered crowd where I was demonstrating porter skills, “What is happening here is more precious than the largest cowry shell.” Everywhere I travelled, I felt sincerely welcomed.

Near Beriquit, a man yells his welcome up to us!

Near Beriquit, a man yells his welcome up to us!

“Giving relationship” is more than “taking only pictures” or “leaving no trace!” An assistant pastor in the Zombandoga, this man was so moved by the fact that I wanted to walk through the jungles and encounter people instead of using helicopters to travel to and from villages, that he gifted me a necklace with pig’s tooth. I felt significantly appreciated and honored.

“Now everyone gather!” Completion of the Selemama airstrip in the Zombandoga valley required nine years of manual labor. One construction strategy was to collect water seeping from the hillside behind a makeshift dam, which when released allowed pent up water to surge forward and carry dirt to a location lower on the airstrip where fill dirt was needed. Large rocks, initially unmovable, littered the future site. Fires were stoked beneath them, and the heat caused them to split. Once split, they could be carried away. See the captivating November 2013 video of the opening of the new landing strip in the Zombandoga here.

Construction at the lower edge of the airstrip in February 2013.

Construction at the lower edge of the airstrip in February 2013.

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore!” Though I have traveled the world and seen numerous communities ravaged by poverty, the extreme poverty as it exists in Papua is of a slightly different shade of suffering. The interior and much of the Highlands are remote and void of the “conveniences” of roads, running water, electricity, and health care. While sustenance farming and hunting practices, strong clan and tribal bonds, and access to some remote communities via airplane exist to support communities, the challenging topography which limits access, unrelenting rains which often destroy homes and gardens/crops and leads to starvation, and recent epidemics which have decimated not only the pig, chicken and rabbit populations, but also many children and teenagers, have all factored into Papua’s poverty equation.

Let’s play! Soccer is the lingua franca of inclusion. I found myself playing more soccer than I had in years! Whether playing soccer outdoors on a remote village airstrip or in an indoor gymnasium, pick-up games were easy enough to find. Below, Muslim (Indonesian national) and Christian (indigenous Papuan) school children have an opportunity to practice and play together. In communities often rippling with tensions, soccer serves as a common language for fun and healthy competition.

Don’t lose your head over this issue! During the 1920s, British and Dutch colonists sought to end the practice of headhunting used by warring tribes. Headhunting was used both to appease ancestral spirits as well as to give ritual names to children during manhood initiations. The colonists forced them to end their traditional practices by shooting them down in a show of raw force! Missionaries later brought Christianity to the area to further help stop the practice, admittedly in a much less barbarian manner than their colonial kinsmen. Remnant sorcery and witchcraft continued to cause the missionaries significant consternation, but eventually churches and pastors were able to introduce the Christian Bible into the Highlands. Though one can today still read about man-eating witches and witch-eating men, the practices of headhunting and cannibalism have been abandoned in all but perhaps some exceedingly remote groups. Pastors now routinely “split God’s Word” (interpret and preach) the Christian Bible to congregants. The Bible is referred to as the Hazi Dode, the “Holy Talk.”

A colorfully dressed woman prepares for a Sunday worship service.

A colorfully dressed woman prepares for a Sunday worship service.

Does it really matter? The lowlands of Papua are home to some of the most poisonous snakes on the planet. A danger score has been posited and includes: (1) venom toxicity, (2) venom yield, (3) fang length, (4) temperament, and (5) frequency of bite. However, whether a snake rates a 16 or a 21 (out of 21!) on the danger score has very little meaning to the one who has been bitten. A friend reminded me, “No snake is a friendly snake in the tropics!”

The pig is indigenous and very important to the Papuans. So much so that other domesticated animals carry the word ending for pig, wogo. So wogo is rabbit (i.e., marsupial-pig) and bega wogo is chicken (i.e., bird-pig).

A translation to take your breath away: The word given to describe a cigarette (to tau uggia, or shortened, to-gia) literally means, “inhaling the devil’s breath.”

The Balance Test: Are You Ready for Carstensz?

I’m going to go out on a slick, mossy jungle limb and suggest that the core skill of improving balance isn’t receiving enough attention in our fitness training programs. I am fully aware that balance training just isn’t very sexy when compared to running, weights, yoga or other more traditional fitness elements. If, however, you want to succeed on Carstensz – whether on the trek in through the muddy jungle, the ascent of pitch after pitch of 4th and low-5th class gullies, or dismounting the Tyrolean traverse at nearly 16,000 feet – get serious with your balance training!

Sara McGahan steps carefully across an airy gap en route to the summit of Carstensz.

Sara McGahan steps carefully across an airy gap en route to the summit of Carstensz.

Did you know that balance is simply a motor fitness skill? I used to watch people walking slack lines and reasoned that they were aliens – I thought I could never do that! Nothing could be further from the truth. Read this now and believe me later, we can improve our balance just like we can improve our strength and flexibility! Wouldn’t you agree that training to improve our balance and stability in advance of an adventure seems a significantly better option than learning that our balance needs help smack dab in the middle of the jungle? And including balance training into our life is ridiculously simple. Just add 5 or 10 minutes of balance work a few times a week to start.

We took advantage of the waves in Bali before heading into the jungles of Papua. Suffice it to say that Mark Tucker was one balanced surfer!

We took advantage of the waves in Bali before heading into the jungles of Papua. Suffice it to say that Mark Tucker was one balanced surfer!

If you want to get technical, you can use the Romberg Test and Stork-Stand Balance Test to get a performance baseline for your balance. Incorporate balance activities into your daily life/workout and watch your improvement over time! Really easy! Here’s how …

Experiment with these challenges:

  • Balance on a single leg.
  • Hop on one foot.
  • Close your eyes while standing on one leg.
  • Walk the edge of a sidewalk for as long as possible without falling off.
  • Move your legs closer together while doing bicep curls.
  • Look up while doing lunges.
  • Raise your arms overhead while walking the edge of a sidewalk.
  • Carry a light weight in one hand while standing on one leg.
  • Walk a log or a downed tree limb. (Challenging ourselves on unstable surfaces fantastically simulates the experiences we will encounter in the jungle.)
This steep, slick bridge, with its flimsy handrail, was still one of the best bridges we crossed this day. These bridges are regarded as as somewhat temporary as heavy rains often destroy them.

This steep, slick bridge, with its flimsy handrail, was still one of the best bridges we crossed this day. These bridges are regarded as somewhat temporary as heavy rains often destroy them.

While it is true that improving our balance also gains us improvements in coordination, stability, athletic skill, strength, and posture, that we will likely suffer fewer injuries and hopefully trip & slip less, and that we can indeed become better runners, skiers and cyclists, I believe that the true benefit for a Carstensz climber centers around the pure enjoyment of movement through a notoriously challenging environment. I hope you’re standing on one leg as you are reading this!

Got balance? Be inspired to challenge yourself!

Got balance? Be inspired to challenge yourself!

Punjak Jaya: Mountain of the Imagination: An account of the first ascent of Carstensz Pyramid by Philip Temple

The first ascent of the Carstensz Pyramid was made on February 13, 1962 by New Zealand mountaineer Philip Temple (22), Austrian Heinrich Harrer (49) of Seven Years in Tibet fame, Australian rock climber Russell Kippax (30), and Dutch patrol officer Bert Huizenga (25).

Being a bit of a budding historian, adventurer and author myself, I was most pleased to encounter Philip this past month (Sept 2013). He graciously agreed to guest write for this blog, sharing his summit experience as documented in The Last True Explorer (2002). He sent some fantastic photos to boot. Thanks so much to Philip for sharing this dynamic account, which ought to be especially engaging for anyone who has struggled to navigate that summit ridge in less than optimal weather. Enjoy, and read more about Philip here.

Philip Temple, adventurer & author, first ascentionist of Puncak Jaya, in his New Zealand office. Photo by Maja Moritz from www.philiptemple.com

Philip Temple, adventurer & author, first ascentionist of Puncak Jaya, in his New Zealand office. Photo by Maja Moritz from http://www.philiptemple.com.

Tuesday, 13 February:

‘When the alarm rang at 3.30 a.m. I got up without wondering whether the sky was clear or not: something seemed to say – today is the day. The preparations of the evening before had been full and complete with an air of finality about them.  As it turned out, the sky was clear with a spread of stars …’ 

Heinrich Harrer surveying the North Face of the Carstensz Pyramid from New Zealand Pass

Heinrich Harrer surveying the North Face of the Carstensz Pyramid from New Zealand Pass.

We left camp at 5 a.m. using headlamps and torches to light our way across the Merendal, Middenkam and Geledal to the foot of the north face. Any feelings of anticipation and excitement were swamped by apprehension. Would I be good enough for this? My skills and experience were mostly on snow and ice in the Southern Alps; I had little technical rock-climbing ability and this was the first big rock face I had attempted.  At the foot of the face it had grown light enough for us to stash our lamps at the 1936 campsite.  Harrer had decided that I would lead the climb, carrying all the hardware of pitons, karabiners, hammer, etrier etc… plus one of the two light ice axes for the snow we might encounter on the ridge. I would take Huizenga on my 100-foot rope and, from the look on his face as he stared up at the wall, I was reassured that at least there was someone in the party more nervous than I.  Kippax, the most skilled rock-climber in the party, would guide Harrer and carry his movie camera and film.

Philip Temple writing a note to leave in a cairn at the then snout of the Carstensz Glacier (now gone).

Philip Temple writing a note to leave in a cairn at the then snout of the Carstensz Glacier (now gone).

The start of our route followed a wide crack in the limestone wall, which laid back about ten degrees from the perpendicular. The first problem was a jammed boulder. Harrer below told Huizenga to watch all my moves carefully so that he could follow them: ‘He will probably come out of the crack now and go round the boulder’. But I somehow managed to pull myself directly over the top of the boulder and haul Huizenga up behind me.  The crack now widened to a gully with vertical side walls which, another rope-length on, was blocked by an overhang.  I was unable to cope with this and, trying to disguise my humiliation, I waited for Kippax to come up. With calm grace he climbed a 15-foot slab to a ledge that led above the overhang. I tossed him a piton and the rest of us hauled ourselves up on the attached rope.  

I was able to cope with the cracks, steps and exposed ribs that lay above and moved rapidly from belay point to belay point to secure Huizenga’s ascent.  A ledge led to the first prominent verschneidung or dièdre with easier, exhilarating climbing: ‘I yodelled happily as the sun warmed me and I swarmed up. There were about two rope-lengths to its top and Huizenga came up quite easily though always out of breath and often exhausted by the time he reached me’. This was probably from nervous tension as much as physical effort. ‘I avoided thinking about it but I was climbing worse than solo’. I had no belay from him, had to give him instruction and ensure his safety and there was ‘always the danger he might pull me off’.  Although Huizenga often needed a tight rope, and a pull to get him over the difficult sections, he did well in nailed boots and ‘slipped only once all day’.

The Last True Explorer, by Philip Temple

The Last True Explorer, by Philip Temple

A horizontal shelf gave relief before a second and more difficult verschneidung and crack gave access to a wide shelf that had once, |centuries before, supported a hanging glacier. I was wearing leather gloves by now to protect my hands from the ‘needle-like, lacerating’ surface of much of the karst-weathered limestone.  From the shelf, we walked into a snow-filled gully and ramp that took us to the crest of the west ridge after three hours of climbing.  There was no view as the first cold mists of the day swirled up to engulf us.  

A six-foot wide gap in the ridge proved our first obstacle; Kippax and Huizenga elected to jump, Harrer and I chose to use the etrier for a more circumspect climb in and out of the jagged fissure. As I retrieved it, Harrer and Kippax moved ahead into the mist and they were well out of sight when Huizenga and I arrived at the second break in the ridge, one so large that we had identified it as one of the cruxes of the climb. The ridge dropped vertically for about 40 feet to a snow shelf and then another 20 to the upper snow limit of the south wall hanging glacier. ‘A yell came out of the fog: “Two short abseils Phil!”  I looked at Huizenga. Hell!’  What a place and time for climbing instruction.  It began to snow.

I threw a sling over a rock outcrop, hammering away the karst spikes that threatened to cut it clean through, passed the climbing rope through it and then demonstrated to Huizenga how to wrap the rope around his body and lower himself down.  Awkward but secure, he somehow slid down behind me and we climbed along an easy shelf to find Harrer and Kippax in a cave, stamping their feet.  Single-pair-of-socks Harrer was no doubt feeling the cold in his frost-sensitive toes and for Kippax this was a long miserable way from the sun-baked sandstone crags of Sydney.  They pointed to icicles that framed a hole through the ridge.

Harrer indicated that I should continue leading the climb. He needed someone to star in his movie (one that I would never get to see), so  I tried to “look skilled and heroic” as I continued to find a way along the snow, scree and rock shelves of the south face, avoiding the massive pinnacle on the west ridge that we had christened ‘Fog Tower’.  I became increasingly anxious about the time; it was now midday and the snow continued to fall. If the temperature dropped any more, we would have great difficulty negotiating a safe descent over a snow-plastered north face.  

There was still nothing to be seen in the dense cloud when I regained the ridge and moved quickly along, only to be brought up short by yet another major gap which lay at the foot of what we judged was probably the summit buttress. A giant rock flake was wedged in the neck of an almost vertical rock couloir that dropped away into the cloud. The opposite wall was layered with a leering tongue of unstable snow. With minimal security from Huizenga, I climbed into the couloir, manouvred under the flake and, after detaching my ice axe from my back pack, stretched out for a footing in the snow. When I drove in the axe, its spike clanged against the rock beneath and I realised that it might break away under my weight. I packed down each step with great care – heart pounding – and half-slid upwards to reduce the pressure. Just as I reached a handhold of rock, half the snow below me collapsed and cascaded down the face.  Understandably, Huizenga would not follow me and, with belays from both sides of the couloir, he crabbed directly over the flake. Harrer followed him and gave me a secure belay from which I could climb a rock slab and then another unstable slope of snow.

Rock, snow, ledge, rib, the ridge seemed endless and, after eight hours of almost continuous climbing, my energy began to fade. But neither fatigue nor diminishing time would stop me now.  The ridge lifted and narrowed into a smooth snow peak but when I reached the top of this, I looked beyond to yet another rock pinnacle, convinced it must be higher.  The others came up and laughed at my anxiety about which was the real summit.  We could see no more than 20 or 30 yards into the cloud but one thing was certain. Beyond here the ridge trended down. We shook hands and I grabbed Harrer’s head in a mixture of exhaustion and exultation.  

At the summit - Bert Huizenga, Philip Temple and Heinrich Harrer.

At the summit – Bert Huizenga, Philip Temple and Heinrich Harrer.

It was ten past two. We had made it just in time, for it would be too dark to climb after the onset of the long tropical night at seven. We carried no bivouac gear and we barely had enough time to get down. Quickly we took photographs sporting all the national flags – of Austria, Australia, New Zealand, Holland and ill-fated West Papua. We built a cairn and I left my small New Zealand pennant in a cigarette tin with names, times, date and the facetious comment, ‘I’m buggered’, echoing the phrase immortalised in New Zealand rugby history when All Black forward Peter Jones was asked how he felt after scoring the try that had won the test and the series against the Springboks six years before.  What else should one leave at the top of a mountain?

The Culture of Tourism in New Guinea: Insights on Porter Services for Carstensz Pyramid

With the savage recent attack on porters and trekkers on Papua New Guinea’s Black Cat Trail, I wanted to offer some insight, as limited as it will be, intended to help protect porters, tourists, and tourism in the future.

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I advocate that we (visitors to New Guinea) recognize the high value of porters as team members. I believe this understanding can contribute significantly toward developing a healthy tourism culture. Within the context of tourism & climbing in West Papua, I hope that some of the practices described below help foster stronger porter care & appreciation, which subsequently leads to increasingly cohesive teams of tourists (trekkers & climbers) and support (porters). This subsequently can help to build a culture of unity, which can further culturally-appropriate tourism, rather than a culture of conflict, which can arise whenever one group is under-appreciated, taken for granted or misused.

 

A brief history of Carstensz Pyramid in West Papua as a tourism enterprise:

 

For the decade or so following the 1998 stepping down of Indonesia’s second president, Suharto, greater democracy came to Indonesia and West Papua and the concept of developing tourism gained momentum. However, political volatility remained and Indonesia closed Carstensz Pyramid to climbers & tourists from 1995 to 2005. This was due in part to the Free Papua separatist movement of the Organisasi Papua Merdeka, or OPM, which has been fighting for independence from Indonesia since 1965.

 

After Indonesia re-opened West Papua to tourism in 2006, a steady number of people came to trek through the interior highlands to access the climb of Carstensz Pyramid.

 

Though no official data exists to track those who have reached the summit of Carstensz Pyramid, between the first ascent in 1962 and 2005, after which access to the peak was again granted, it had only been climbed by approximately 100 people. Now, with its popularity exploding in part due to the demand created by the new “7 Summits” designation, the mountain experiences scores (some cite hundreds) of successful ascents each year. Even so …

 

Does the jungle never end?

 

… climbing and travelling in West Papua entails a great deal of uncertainty and requires tremendous flexibility. In addition to the drum of equatorial rain and eventual venture to higher altitudes, political and bureaucratic challenges may exist right from the start to hinder the progress of an adventure. Numerous accounts exist of climbers denied Surat Jalans (local police & government permits) or access through tribal lands, of unexplained, cancelled flights into the interior, and of shady, unscrupulous commercial outfitters. On top of all that, accidents and injuries (usually of tourists & climbers) and fatalities (usually of locals & porters) along the trek are not difficult to uncover.

 

While the jungle trek is typically completed in just short of a week of arduous work, the jungle is, at least, exceedingly muddy and slick. I have had people tell me that this jungle trek can feel harder than Everest, though not necessarily because it’s physically harder. Rather, there just isn’t the same, developed infrastructure supporting access and climbing as there exists on Everest. People struggle with the endless muddy, rainy, dirty, steamy, way-out-there feeling the jungle can give. A friend was once asked, “Does this jungle never end?”

The jungle trek can be exceedingly challenging, even for the fittest visitor!

The jungle trek can be exceedingly challenging, even for the fittest visitor!

For many, if not most, the adventure becomes the experience of a lifetime. The satisfaction of having completed the trek & climb and returning home safely is hard to beat.

The thrill of climbing Carstensz completes the adventure!

The thrill of climbing Carstensz completes the adventure!

Porters as a vital link to the success of climbers:

 

Throughout the history of adventures, porters have served as a vital link to the success of climbers. My own personal adventures into the interiors of Tibet, Africa, and New Guinea simply would not have been possible without the efforts of porters who are, I dare say, a universally, under-appreciated group of people.

Porter on Kilimanjaro's Machame Route in Tanzania, Africa

Porter on Kilimanjaro’s Machame Route in Tanzania, Africa.

Porter loads ready to be carried en route to Everest Base Camp, Nepal

Porter loads ready to be carried en route to Everest Base Camp, Nepal.

Crossing the slick logs en route to Carstensz Pyramid didn't seem to challenge our porters at all!

Crossing the slick logs en route to Carstensz Pyramid didn’t seem to challenge our porters at all!

Here are three ways we, as visitors, can make a positive contribution toward porter care & appreciation:

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Select a responsible commercial outfitter.

Start by letting the commercial outfitter you choose know that the treatment porters receive is important to you. Bottom line is that porters need fair wages, substantive meals, proper attire or equipment for the adventure, and warm, dry sleeping arrangements. The hallmark of a responsible company is how well they look after their porters on the trek.

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Interact with your porters.

Talk to folks! Ask about their traditions and villages; share photos or stories of your family. Initiate the relationship by approaching them with appropriate interest. Even if you don’t share a vocabulary of words, body language (a smile, head nod, hand shake, etc.) can express your sentiments well. If you haven’t heard this before, it is well worth recognizing that porters want to be considered part of the expedition team, they enjoy interacting with visitors, and they want to learn and improve their service. In fact, in the sense that this is their land, they truly are the experts, and visitors who take the time & effort to have meaningful interactions with them can learn much. 

Hiding from the rain at Carstensz Base Camp!

Hiding from the rain at Carstensz Base Camp!

Thank your porter.

Show your porters that you appreciated them. Thank them verbally and leave a tip of money or goods. I discuss tipping guidelines below.

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What to discuss with a responsible commercial outfitter or tour operator regarding their porter practices.

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Porter Wages

Porters must receive fair wages. When unscrupulous tour operators withhold promised wages, tension builds and chaos can ensue. No one wants to be ripped off! As with insurance, this is difficult to ascertain, but lower fees and a high turn-over rate can indicate compromised practices. In my post entitled, “Polite! Practical! And 1 for Fun!” I mention an usua me (good man) now working to advocate on behalf of porters to protect against non-payment, which has been a not uncommon and tumultuous issue.

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Insurance

In West Papua, in-country tour operators can provide porters with protection paid out to their families in the event that a catastrophe leads to permanent disability or death. This insurance works differently, even among different tribal groups, than it does, for example, in the United States, but they can be covered nonetheless. If a commercial outfitter offers a trip at a substantially lower fee than others, it could be that they are not diligently ensuring coverage for porters.

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Weight Limit

The maximum visitor weight that a porter should be given to carry is 15 kg (33 pounds). On top of this, porters also carry personal weight of blankets, clothes and food. Generally speaking, an additional porter should be hired for every three porters in order to carry group equipment and food.

 

Meals & Sleeping Conditions

Porters are engaged in physically difficult and mentally challenging work. They are leaving the comfort of their villages and families to venture into the remote and inhospitable environment of the high limestone escarpment of Carstensz. You will be tired & hungry at the end of a day, and so will they.  A responsible tour operator ensures that porters are appropriately nourished and accommodated throughout the entire adventure. In general, porters sleep together in groups, whether in huts, shelters, caves, tents or dining tents. However, truly responsible tour operators ensure that their porters have weather-appropriate shelter at higher altitudes. Porters come from the warmer, lower rainforests and, just like any visitor, are not accustomed to sleeping out-of-doors in the cold of the Sudirman Mountains.

A lone porter strolls across the high plateau en route to the rock towers of Polisinagagelagia, West Papua.

A lone porter strolls across the high plateau en route to the rock towers of Polisinagagelagia, West Papua.

Environmental Impact Education

Outfitters have a responsibility to educate porters on the environmental impact of a trip because porters’ futures are directly tied to the future of the land. Latrine construction, cat-holing, trash management, camp clean-up and other such topics must be included in the vocabulary of every team member, visitor or Papuan. Ask specifically how waste – and especially human waste – is managed at villages, on the trek and on the climb of Carstensz.

Carstensz Base Camp in July 2012. Note the large pile of garbage (in the right foreground) left by a previous expedition.

Equip for the Future

Most of the porters look forward to future work opportunities and are also family bread-winners. Tour operators should inspire and equip porters to develop their skill sets. 

We took time to train groups of porters on how to set up & care for our tents. For most, this was the first time such training had been offered.

We took time to train groups of porters on how to set up & care for our tents. For most, this was the first time such training had been offered.

Tipping and gifting

Tipping should be dependent on the quality of the service you received. However, even if the food was terrible and the porters couldn’t communicate very well, they were probably still working hard to carry your equipment through the jungle.

 

In general, though it varies from tribe to tribe, tips and gifts should be given to the tour operator or lead porter in order that he takes charge to distribute tips and gifts to his team of porters. This honors the Papuan tribal tradition of a providing chief. This is absolutely true of money and even a good idea for gifts.

 

It is a wonderful truth that Papuans also love ceremony. For a closing ceremony, while tips and gifts should be given to the tour operator for distribution, it would be very kind and meaningful to speak good words to the porter team prior to their returning to their homes.

Our closing ceremony included distributing certificates of completion, something our porters could offer as verification of their experience and skill set.

Our closing ceremony included distributing certificates of completion, something our porters could offer as verification of their experience and skill set.

Enjoy!

Cowrie shells: More than simply “shell money.”

My travels in West Papua introduced me to so many different people, and my eyes were opened to a host of new and interesting customs and cultures, unlike anything I had experienced in the past three decades of travel around the world. I’d heard stories of head-hunting, tribal warfare, freedom fighters, of Don Richardson’s amazing “Peace Child” account with the Sawi tribe, of man-eating witches and of witch-eating men!

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I also heard of less dramatic but equally intriguing accounts surrounding the lore of pigs as valued over women (principally to extract a high bride price in the purchase of wives), the extraordinary value of cowry shells (so credited because of the storied histories accompanying them), the use of stinging nettles as salves to abate pain, and of polygamous clans headed by honored chiefs (in which more wives indicated an increase in the chief’s status).

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This post explores the beautiful cowry shell, an item not unfamiliar in the legend and mythos of New Guinea. I start with some interesting general information (with links to original resources) and conclude with a few paragraphs specific to the tribes of West Papua. Enjoy!

Illustration from Natural History: Mollusca (1854), p. 169 – “Full-grown Cowry”

Cowry shells (also spelled cowrie, plural cowries) are home to the Cowry snail, a marine mollusk of the Cypraeidae family. These sea snails are native to the Indian and Pacific oceans, particularly the waters around the island nation of Maldives, off the southwest tip of India.

Erosaria marginalis Dillwyn, 1827

Erosaria marginalis Dillwyn, 1827

The shells of cowries are usually smooth and shiny, often colorfully patterned, and more or less egg-shaped, with a flat belly showing a long, narrow, slit-like opening, often toothed at the edges. Their lengths range from a tiny 5 mm to a robust 19 cm.

The attractive cowry shells have fascinated people throughout history and, subsequently, have been used extensively in jewelry and for other decorative and ceremonial purposes.

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Interestingly, they are also one of the oldest known forms of currency and have been widely used as such around the globe. This practice dates back at least several thousand years ago to China where, because shells could not be counterfeited and sources for cowries were so far removed from China, the wealthy imported cowry shells for use as currency. Excavations of early Chinese emperors evidenced that even the royal dead had currency in store for the afterlife, as cowry shells have been found placed in their mouths! The shells were used for centuries as African currency and huge amounts of Maldivian cowries were introduced onto the African continent by western nations during slave trading days. History shows that they were also used as means of exchange on the sub-continent of India as well as in Arabia.

A print from 1845 shows cowry shells being used as money by an Arab trader.

A print from 1845 shows cowry shells being used as money by an Arab trader.

Beyond their value as currency, cowry shells have been used as symbols of wealth. Rows of shells found attached to African masks symbolized great wealth and clothes covered with cowry shells likely indicated royalty. Anton Ploeg documented wealth items used in the Western Highlands of West Papua, Indonesia.  He uses the term “wealth items” to refer to movable objects (cowry shells and pigs rather than land, for example), accorded great value and used as means of payment, as gifts, as ritual objects, and as markers of identity.

Hindu dancers at the Festival of Lights (1916)

Perhaps most surprising, the Ojibwe (Chippewa) original peoples in North America, who inhabited the area around Lake Superior, used cowry shells in ceremonies. Debate exists about how the Ojibwe traded for or found these shells, so far inland and so far north, so very distant from their natural habitat. Oral stories and bark scrolls seem to indicate that the shells were found in the ground, or washed up on the shores of lakes or rivers. They may also have been obtained through trading.

Five Ojibwe chiefs in the 19th century.

Five Ojibwe chiefs in the 19th century.

There are numerous additional uses of cowries, both traditional and modern. Rachel Naba has written an interesting piece entitled, “The Gift of the Cowry.” Cowry shells have also been viewed as symbols of womanhood, fertility, and birth. Waistbands strung with cowry shells have been worn around hips to increase fertility. Women in Roman Pompeii wore them to prevent sterility. In Japan, one name for the cowry shell translated to “the easy delivery shell” and some women held cowry shells while giving birth to aid in a successful delivery.

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Cowry shells are sometimes used as dice, as in board games or in divination (foretelling the future or gaining occult knowledge). As shells are thrown, those landing with opening upwards indicate the actual number rolled.

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The Cowry in West Papua

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As I desired to understand the culture & customs of the various people groups in West Papua, what I learned regarding the cowry came in part from casual conversations with Papuans.  I am also indebted to Kal Muller, whose stunning photography and careful documentation in West Papua, have helped introduce not only the world to the Papuans, but also Papuans to their own rich history. In February 2013, Mr. Muller gifted me three beautifully written and illustrated texts: Introducing Papua, Highlands of Papua, and South Coast of Papua. These excellent resources distill years of research into manageable, organized bites; perfect resources for my visit to the interior highlands.

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The importance of cowries in the highlands of West Papua was linked to their usefulness as trade items. While major trade items included pigs, salt, stone blades, and seashells, the specific type of cowry, Cypraea moneta, morphed into the most commonly used form of currency. Items less valuable than the major trade items were traded or sold for this “shell money.” Other types of cowries were used as well, but on a much smaller scale. Lower value items included, for example, various bird feathers, colored soils, or orchid fibers from outside the area.

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The “shell money” system may have been introduced to New Guinea by the Japanese during World War II and further spread via porters assisting the first Protestant missionaries through the 1950s. In the mid-50s, the Dutch government brought in large quantities of lower valued shells. Soon thereafter the Indonesian rupiah (IDR) was introduced. Cowry shells still see use in trade and purchase, and are currently used alongside the rupiah. This is especially true in more remote interior communities.

Cowry shells, Cypraea moneta. Now: Monetaria moneta (Linnaeus, 1758)

Cowry shells, Cypraea moneta. Now: Monetaria moneta (Linnaeus, 1758)

Cowry shells also still serve an important role in acquiring brides, as part of the bride price, in highland communities. The cowries are accompanied by a number of pigs as well as rupiah, the latter two in accordance with the wealth of the groom’s clan.

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I found it immensely interesting that the value of the cowry – especially in times preceding 1950 when cowries were difficult to obtain – had more to do with its history than with its size and color, which predominantly determines the value of newer shells.

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This young West Papuan woman wears her cowry necklace as many commonly do, as simple jewelry.

This young West Papuan woman wears her cowry necklace as many commonly do, as simple jewelry.

It was explained to me in story form; that is, “This cowry was used to settle a certain dispute between such-and-such clans. Later, it was offered as part of the bride price for so-and-so, a man of status in the community. Finally, this particular cowry was given as part of a trade for a number of pigs needed for a significant celebration.” It was in this manner that cowries increased in value as they accumulated history.

Climbing the 7 Summits not as easy as 1, 2, 3!

This post is probably simply just more for fun than the scientist’s mind or the adventurer’s heart will likely allow. You judge …

Aconcagua, highpoint of the Americas

Aconcagua, highpoint of the Americas

·        How many continents are there: 5 or 6 or 7?

o   Most students in the United States are taught that there are seven continents: Africa, Antarctica, Australia, Asia, Europe, North America, and South America.

o   Many European students are taught that there are six continents, with North and South America combined as the single continent of America: Africa, Antarctica, Australia, Asia, Europe, and America. In some parts of the world, students learn that there are just five continents: Eurasia, Australia, Africa, Antarctica, and the Americas. And yet other students are taught that Antarctica, due to its lack of permanent inhabitants, does not meet the traditional definition of a continent.

o   Many refer to six continents, where Europe and Asia are combined as Eurasia (since they’re one solid geologic landmass): Africa, Antarctica, Australia, Eurasia, North America, and South America.

o   See National Geographic’s Geography FAQs for a simple, clear & interesting description.

·        Verdict: No consensus!

Climber’s Base Camp on Mt. Vinson, Antarctica

·        What is included in the definition of the “continent” of Australia?

o Australasia is a landmass description which includes Australia and the island group of Indonesia and New Guinea, and holds weight with the concept that islands located near a continent are considered a part of that continent. 

o   Australia is by convention recognized as a continental mass, not just a big island.

o   As a side note, Oceania is identified as a region centered on the islands of the tropical Pacific Ocean. The term is sometimes used to denote the area of Australasia (most common use), sometimes all the islands between Asia and the Americas, and sometimes all the islands of all the oceans (least common use). I have not seen Oceania described as a physical continent, whether using geography, political boundaries, or cultural groupings, but only as a term of convenience to collect disparate islands.

·        Verdict: No consensus!

Mt. Everest, unquestionably the highest summit of the world!

Mt. Everest, unquestionably the highest summit of the world!

·        Which summits should we include in our pursuits?

o   Mont Blanc or Mount Elbrus?

§  From the perspective of geography, many Europeans recognize Mont Blanc as the highest peak of Europe. From the perspective of political boundaries, Mount Elbrus becomes Europe’s highest peak.

o   Carstensz Pyramid or Kosciuszko?

§  If New Guinea is not considered part of the continent of Australasia and is thus a separate island, Kosciuszko would be the highest point on the continent of Australia. If New Guinea is a part of the Australasian continental mass, then the highest peak becomes Carstensz Pyramid. In my experience, most climbers choose to include the island of New Guinea, though strong opinions & some opposing ideas regarding the science of continents exist.

§  To add to the dialog, many have suggested that Kosciuszko does not belong simply because in its short trek there exists no significant challenge for climbers. Carstensz Pyramid, on the other hand, is a true challenge for the adventurer. Others strongly disagree that such a criterion ought to even be considered.

§  Gerry Roach authored an interesting piece entitled, “In Defense of Kosciuszko,” which is a thought-provoking and enjoyable to read.

·        Verdict: No Consensus!

Mount Elbrus, in Caucasus Mountains of Russia

Mount Elbrus, in Caucasus Mountains of Russia

Maybe Dick Bass’s Seven Summits idea will evolve to “nine continental summits of the world’s five continents!”

Polite! Practical! And 1 for fun!

In my past few posts I have already shared a few fun & interesting words learned as I traveled from Bilogai, through the Zombandoga, and eventually to Sentani. I love different languages & cultures! I’d like to share a few more, not with the intention of imparting any level of proficiency with the language, but just to enjoy sharing a bit more about this amazing land and its peoples. Though I met folks from several different tribal groups, I principally encountered Indonesian Nationals and Papuans of the Moni tribe. A phonetic guide accompanies the literal spelling of the words below.

The Polite

Pak (pak)                             Sir or Mr.

Ibu (ē-bu)                            A polite designation for a woman or a mother;                      i.e., Ma’am or Mrs.

Martha shows off the plump strawberries harvested from her garden. Because I knew her name, I could address her as Ibu Martha.

Martha shows off the plump strawberries harvested from her garden. Because I knew her name, I could address her as Ibu Martha.

This young mother and I had a discussion regarding her cowry shell necklace. I did not come to know her name so I addressed her respectfully, simply as Ibu.

This young mother and I had a discussion regarding her cowry shell necklace. I did not come to know her name so I addressed her respectfully, simply as Ibu.

-mala (ma-la)                     This is an endearing ending attached to a boy’s name; e.g., Zani becomes Zanimala

-sama (sa-ma)                   A similar term of endearment, attached to a girl’s name; e.g., Alina becomes Alinasama

Children in tekah (kindergarten).

Awas (a-waas)    danger (i.e., an expression such as “whoa” or “careful,” as when someone slips on the slick log). Awas is an Indonesian word that has made its way into daily indigenous language.

The super slick & muddy jungle path made for many awas moments, especially for anyone in trekking or rubber boots with stiff, slickish soles! I took a number of near falls (as well as several falls!) during the trek. The folks who live in the jungle are, not surprisingly, amazingly proficient in this environment. Their feet functioned in a prehensile manner, wrapping around rocks and small logs as they moved smoothly forward. Not many awas moments for them! I was impressed by three teenage boys who sat shoulder-to-shoulder, squatting on a log not bigger around than their thighs, but balanced several feet above the jungle floor. They sat as comfortably, it seemed, as I would sit in a chair, with their feet wrapped soundly around their small perch.

Ham & Zonatan were not only sure-footed themselves, but excellent, caring guides.

Ham & Zonatan were not only sure-footed themselves, but excellent, caring guides.

Ham's sure-footedness extended beyond the forest floors to the trees. This is one of my favorite shots from the trip, when Ham, all smiles, shot up into the trees to show off a little!

Ham’s sure-footedness extended beyond the forest floors to the trees. This is one of my favorite shots from the trip, when Ham, all smiles, shot up into the trees to show off a little!

The Practical

usua me (u-su-a-meh)     good man

This good man works with the local Papuan regency government to ensure that porters are paid. He walked with me from Sugapa to Hitadipa, a hike of about 4 hours, and we had some significant time to chat. He had worked as a porter for a number of commercial outfitters over the past decade and in that time, the abuses he witnessed spurred him to begin serving as an advocate for the Papuan people. He now ensures that commercial outfitters uphold their responsibility to treat porters respectfully and pay them as promised. On average, he told me, only about 75% of the porters are being paid as promised. His work isn’t easy and can be fraught with tension because he is essentially policing foreigners. That said, he was shocked that I spent time just chatting with him, asking him about his family, showing him pictures of my family, etc – extending what I would consider just simple kindness to a hiking compadre. He confessed that no foreigner had ever expressed such interest in him as a person. I told him, “You are a good man, taking a difficult job, working on behalf of your people.” He appreciated that.

imba (ēmba)                      hurt

obat (ō-bat)                        medicine – Obat is another Indonesian word which is now frequently used by the Moni. In the early days, the Moni did not have words ending in hard consonants, so we also hear obat-i.

meze (me-zā)                     You will have aches and pains (imba) along the trek, and you may be offered a leaf called meze as medicine (obat) to rub against your aches. Don’t accept it! It is a stinging nettle and it will make you miserable! It itches and stings, and gives welts and wheals like nothing you have ever experienced. Meze will make you so miserable that you forget your other aches and pains!

I watched Zonatan rub meze onto his sore knee with his bare hands! It made me wonder how long the plant’s chemicals would remain on his hands.

I watched Zonatan rub meze onto his sore knee with his bare hands! It made me wonder how long the plant’s chemicals would remain on his hands.

Eo (eh-ō)                            Eo is simply an expression of agreement, a little bit like ok.

And 1 for fun!

Mepa (meh-pa)                 An expression or exclamation suggesting that you “get tough!” Akin to “man up!” The expression is spoken only from man to man; the expression is not used by or with women. The expression literally challenges you as “man baby.”

Enjoy!