Category Archives: Fun Facts

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.”


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!”