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!

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