Category Archives: This Unique Place!

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.”


A Return to the Mud Below & the Sky Above!

I took nearly the entire month of February to trek through the interior of Papua’s highlands with the sole intention of getting to know the people through whose lands I wanted to continue traveling in the future. And to be perfectly clear, a month is barely enough time to even scratch the surface!

Amy shows pictures from a  previous visit to the Bulapa village area.

Amy shows pictures from a previous visit to the Bulapa village area.

For me, it was a total immersion experience. I met with everyone I could, sometimes just to say hello, sometimes to explain in greater detail why I was passing through. It would not be accurate to say that I involved myself in the practice of “muna muna” because I needed translators (my friends Amy, John & Maximus) to help me tell stories. Nonetheless, we were very warmly received everywhere.

A little "muna muna" goin' on!

A little “muna muna” goin’ on!

Only men “muna muna.” This looks like two or more men squatting on their haunches (a common & apparently comfortable pose, at least for Papuans), deeply involved in conversation. These conversations will run the gamut, but many of them revolve around what traditionally has been the domain of men in tribal society: strategies to wage war, the secrets of effective hunting, and how to best protect their families. These discussions are secretively guarded among the men to the extent that involvement is considered a bit taboo for women, but it is also true that some women hinted that their men “muna muna” to such an extent that entire days are consumed in the practice, and no work gets done!

People would rarely let you pass through their territory without some manner of cordial acknowledgment. Walking along a roaring river, my eyes drifted three-hundred up to the very top of an embankment to see a family waving. Far across a field of crops, a working family yells a greeting, barely discernible, but clearly friendly. A tough looking group of six young men steps out from a village hut, and a quick “amakanie” breaks down barriers as we all shake hands and greet each other. (“Amakane” is the customary greeting in the singular form; “amakanie” is the plural form.)

I zoomed in on these folks, who greeted us from a  substantial distance.

I zoomed in on these folks, who greeted us from a substantial distance.

After spending a hospitable evening in an “nduni” (a men’s hut, where travelers are welcomed to spend the night), our host dressed up in his traditional best, recognizing that us tourists would likely love a photo. He and his family got just as big a thrill out of the evening of stories and meal sharing as we did, and were delighted to see themselves in a digital photograph.

An nduni, men's hut.

An nduni, men’s hut.

Our host joyful posed with us in his traditional best.

Our host joyfully posed with us in his traditional best.

Not everything was all sweet and perfect along the way, of course, and I hope to unpack some stories in the months to come that will help paint an accurate and realistic picture of the peoples and the lands through which we traveled. This was my second trip to New Guinea, however, and I remain hanging onto Amy’s statement about these people: “They are the loudest talking, meanest looking … intelligent and friendly people you would ever meet!” She grew up here, and so far that has been spot on!

Welcome to Ugimba, West Papua

The village of Ugimba lies in the heart of Moni land in West Papua, deep in the jungles of New Guinea. It is the deepest of the tribal villages; only immensely dense jungle and the high marshes and limestone plateau’s of the Sudirman mountain range lie further afield. We would travel these jungle paths en route to Carstensz Pyramid, the jutting high point of the Australasian continental mass.

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.

Our hearts stopped, but just for a breath. A moment later several young women also stepped into our path. Equally modestly dressed in grass skirts and colorful jog bras – I guess that’s what I should call their tops – also with a variety of facial paintings and tribal markings.

The women began a series of repetitive calls that sounded very much like an old style emergency alert siren. The sound that issued from them rang amazingly loud and clear and others, further toward the village, responded in kind, setting up a sort of path of sonic bread crumbs for us to follow. We were being treated to an entirely genuine and traditional village welcome ceremony, complete with dance and song.

The welcome committee, now growing rapidly as additional warriors, women and children joined in, guided us patiently toward Ugimba. Running ahead about fifty feet, then stopping to dance as we caught up, and all the while calling out, the six of us were soon engulfed in a friendly swarm of Moni villagers.

Some villagers welcomed & greeted us in traditional dress …

… and others came to welcome us in casual dress.

We all joined in for the photo op.

What a fantastic experience after a day of trekking through the heat, humidity and wetness of the jungle! At the time, I simply knew we had a lot to look forward to on this trip. We were engaged on an excellent adventure via a route that has seen few western travelers, with a two-fold goal: first, safely reach and return from the summit of Carstensz Pyramid and second, build relationships with indigenous people which would respectfully balance our visit with their way of life. Now, in retrospect, I know we were treated to the very special and unique experience that not many see any longer … literally being welcomed into the Moni home! The July 2012 excursion represented our inaugural effort and as I now look forward to future visits, I am still full of hope for more summits and stronger relationships.

Watch my short, fun video of some of the Moni welcome ceremony.


Visiting Papua (Part 2: The Moni People)

The 25,000 Moni live in the highlands east of the Paniai Lakes and Enarotali, which was the first Dutch post in the central highlands. Despite this proximity and that the Moni are one of the highlands’ largest groups, little has been written about them.  The Moni have proudly resisted assimilation. Western encounters with the group seem always to produce strong reactions: “sarcastic,” “a tribe of all chiefs and no Indians,” and even “treacherous,” are often heard. Other observers find much to admire: “they have such gentle features,” and “they have inherited all the good points of the tribes around them and blended them into one.” Having grown up with the Moni, I can only say that none of these is accurate. Or perhaps, they all are.

The first documented meeting between a European and the Moni took place in 1937, when Dr. J. W. Cator, the Assistant Resident at Fakfak, flew from the coast to Lake Paniai and trekked to the village of Kugapa. In 1939, Controleur Dr. Jean Victor de Bruijn mounted an expedition to Kugapa and continued on into the heart of Moni country to the village of Sanepa in the Kemandoga Valley. His first impressions were condescending (in the habit of the time), but positive:  “The Miganis [Monis] are a superior race and are very conscious of being so. Not only are they superior in warfare, but ordinarily conduct themselves with better manners and greater dignity. They are a proud people, more reserved.”

The Moni can seem intimidating in part because they speak loudly in clipped, guttural tones. In reality they are kind and highly intelligent with a wonderful sense of sarcastic humor.  They appreciate the curious outsider and enjoy teaching the “how to’s” of Moni culture.

Although western clothing has largely replaced the traditional grass skirt and  penis gourd, it is not unusual to see both, even in larger towns and villages. Interestingly, seeing exposed lighter skin is considered immodest. Nets woven of string made from tree bark are a must for all adult women.  The adult men also wear smaller nets.

Historically the men waged war, hunted small animals, traded goods (which included women) and cowrie shells. The women worked their gardens and tended to the children. Their culture and home is changing at a riveting pace.  The Moni’s are trying very hard to preserve their culture and customs. They are striving to maintain their individualism and their dignity while at the same time they know they must assimilate to new ways.  Amakane!

Many thanks to Amy Meredith for this contribution.

Visiting Indonesia (Part 1: Travel Facts)

The following 2 posts spotlight interesting cultural elements of a trip to Indonesia. This particular post provides quick, simple, useful answers to questions commonly asked by travelers. Part 2 will introduce us to the Moni people, from the perspective of an expat who grew up in Moni land.

General Information

Capital City of Indonesia: Jakarta
Capital City of Papua: Jayapura
Currency: Rupiah
Languages of Indonesia: Bahasa Indonesia, English (major cities)
Languages of Papua: 300+ tribal languages
Religions: 6 formally recognized world religions and other traditional faiths

Indonesia at a Glance

The word “Indonesia” originates from the Greek words “Indos,” meaning “India,” and “Nesos,” meaning “island,” together literally meaning “Islands of India.” 17,508 islands exist in the archipelago, stretching for 3,200 miles (5,510 kilometers) between Australia and the Asian Continent. These islands, 6,000 of which are occupied, divide the Pacific and Indian Oceans along the equatorial line. Indonesia has 400 volcanoes, 100 of which are active.

Papua at a Glance

Papua is the largest province of Indonesia, comprising a majority of the western half of the island of New Guinea and nearby islands. The provincial capital is Jayapura, located high on a hill overlooking the sea to the north. Papua is a land of contrasts, with some of the thickest jungles lowland in the world, rugged snow-capped mountain peaks, beautiful sandy beaches, huge stretches of marshlands, and deep river gorges carved through dense forests.

Climate and Weather

Indonesia’s monsoon-type climate changes approximately every six months, although, in recent years, global warming has somewhat disrupted weather patterns. In Papua, regardless of the time of year, the rain is part of the rainforest.

Due to the large number of islands and mountains in Indonesia, temperatures vary. Along the coastal plains, the average is 82°F (28°C); for inland and mountain areas, it is 79°F (26°C); and, in the higher mountain areas, the average is around 73°F (23°C). Like other tropical countries, Indonesia has a high average relative humidity, usually between 73 and 87 percent.

Flora and Fauna

Within the Indonesian archipelago lies one of the most remarkable zoological zones on the planet. Home of the most diverse flora and fauna in the world, Indonesia has 10 percent of all flowering plant species, 12 percent of mammal species, 17 percent of bird species and 25 percent of the world’s species of fish.

Time Zones

Indonesia has three time zones—Western Indonesia Time which is GMT +7 (covering Sumatra, Java, Madura, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan), Central Indonesia Time which is GMT +8 (covering East and South Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Bali, Nusa Tenggara) and the last is Eastern Indonesia Time which is GMT +9 (covering Maluku and Papua).

The capital Jakarta is GMT +7 or 16 hours ahead of US Pacific Standard Time.

Ethnic Groups

Some 300 ethnic groups call Indonesia home, but most (45 percent) of Indonesians are Javanese. In addition, 14 percent are Sundanese, 7.5 percent Madurese, 7.5 percent coastal Malays, and 26 percent are of other ethnic groups.


There are more than 700 languages and dialects spoken in the archipelago. They normally belong to the different ethnic groups of the population. Some of the distinctly different local languages are: Acehnese, Batak, Sundanese, Javanese, Sasak, Tetum of Timor, Dayak, Minahasa, Toraja, Buginese, Halmahera, Ambonese, Ceramese, and several Irianese languages. To make the picture even more colorful, these languages are also spoken in different dialects.

Bahasa Indonesia is the national language. It is similar to Malay and written in Roman script based on European orthography. English is the most prevalent foreign language. Also, some Dutch is still spoken and understood in the bigger cities and French increasing in its popularity at the better hotels and restaurants.

The Flag

The Indonesian national flag is called Sang Saka Merah Putih or “the red and white treasure.” As provided for in Article 35 of the 1945 Constitution, the flag is made up of two colors, red on top of white. By law, its width must be two-thirds of the length.

Like the country’s coat of arms, its flag is also symbolic. The flag’s red stripe represents bravery, and its white stripe stands for spirituality.

The Garuda

Indonesia’s official coat of arms is centered on the Garuda, and ancient, mythical bird from the country’s historical epics. Like the Bald Eagle in the United States, the Garuda is often used to represent Indonesia.

A great deal of symbolism runs through the Garuda. The eagle is a symbol of creative energy. Its principal color, gold, symbolizes the greatness of the nation. The black color represents nature. There are 17 feathers on each wing, 8 on the tail and 45 on the neck. These numbers stand for the date Indonesia proclaimed its independence: 17 August 1945. The shield symbolizes self-defense and protection in struggle. The five symbols on the shield represent the state philosophy of Pancasila. The motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (“Unity in Diversity”) is enshrined on a banner held in the eagle’s talons, signifying the unity of the Indonesian people despite their diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Traditions, Customs & Considerations

  • Even though hand shaking is deemed appropriate between men and women, bear in mind that a number of Muslim women prefer to introduce themselves to men by nodding their head, smiling, and clasping their hands without any physical contact.
  • Traditionally, when you greet someone, both hands are used when shaking, without grasping.
  • It is considered polite to make a phone call first before visiting.
  • Shoes must be taken off before entering a house or place of worship like mosques.
  • Usually drinks are offered to guests. It is polite to accept.
  • When eating, receiving or giving something, always use your right hand.
  • Your right index finger should not be used to point a place, items or people. Use the right hand thumb and fold the remaining fingers to be more polite.
  • Taking photographs of houses of worships is allowed, however permission should be asked first whenever possible, especially if you want to take pictures of the interior.
  • Most Indonesian Muslims do not consume alcoholic drinks and pork. Hence, the tradition of proposing a toast to honor someone is not generally known.
  • Skimpy clothing in public areas, save from beaches and pools, might warrant unwanted attention.

Fun stuff! Enjoy!

Amazing animals & plants of New Guinea

Here is some fun info on New Guinea’s biodiversity  …

I was introduced to the Tenkile tree kangaroo through this wonderful article by Jeremy Hance.

A National Geographic article with the title, “Thousands of New Species Found in New Guinea,” described just a few of the 1,060 new species found on or near New Guinea between 1998 and 2008!! Wow! And, as you might imagine, National Geographic’s photos are phenomenal.

ZME Science: Not exactly rocket science posted an interesting article entitled, “Papuan weevils have screw-in legs. Just envisioning that made me want to check it out!

Australian Geographic posted an intriguing article about an intriguing animal, the pig-nosed turtle, mentioning “The reptile (Carettochelys insculpta), which has no close living relatives. … It is found only in northern Australia and southern New Guinea, where demand for its meat and eggs – a traditional food – maybe driving the species into extinction.”

Another fantastic National Geographic article posted the discovery of tiny frogs, the size of M&Ms, whose feet/digits are too small to grab onto foliage (remember the million photos of frogs hanging onto branches?) and who hop & jump explosively like crickets.

And the fauna of the island is likewise amazing. Scroll through this gallery of orchids & forests sent to me by a friend who traveled to Carstensz Pyramid not too long ago.

Finally, let’s save the nightmare for last, read this Huffington Post article (complete with video) about a – dare I say it? – testicle eating fish! What in the world?!


What do we call this place?

Indonesia, New Guinea, Papua, West Papua?

The name Papua was used well before contact with western peoples, but its etymology remains a matter of hypothesis. One theory suggests that the name comes from the language of the eastern Indonesian island of Tidore, whose sultanate controlled parts of the Papua’s coastal region. The name derives from papo (to unite) and ua (negation), which mean not united or territory that is geographically far away and thus not united. Another theory suggests that the word derives from the Malay word papua or pua-pua (frizzly-haired), referring to the curly hair of the area’s inhabitants. Yet another possibility suggests that the name comes from the Biak phrase sup i papaw (land below the sunset), referring to island groups to the west. Whatever the origin, Papua was the name known to the Portuguese during their colonization in this part of the world.

With the arrival of the Spanish explorer Yñigo Ortiz de Retez in 1545, the name New Guinea became used, referring to the similarities of the indigenous people’s appearance with the natives of the Guinea region of Africa.

The Dutch who first arrived called it Schouten Island, but later this name became used only to describe islands along the north coast of Papua. It was when the Dutch colonized the area as part of Netherlands East Indies that they called it New Guinea.

Indonesians referred the island as West Irian and the Indonesian province as Irian Jaya. The name Irian is taken from the Biak language, meaning to rise, or rising spirit, and was used until 2001 when the name Papua became favored. The name Irian, though originally favored by ethnic Papuans, became considered a name imposed by authority of Jakarta.

Ethnic Papuans refer to the area as West Papua, though that name has not been officially recognized. In a conciliatory effort with the Papuans, the Indonesian government agreed to rename the province Papua in 2002. Adding some confusion, in 2007, the western third of the province – the “Bird’s Head” peninsula of New Guinea – was officially designated West Papua to distinguish it from the rest of the western half of the island. Officials now refer to the province when they say West Papua; ethnic Papuans mean the whole of western New Guinea.

Many of the native peoples who live in the region and who seek distinction from Indonesia, currently refer to the region as West Papua. This is noteworthy considering that there are several hundred indigenous groups living on the island. Most contemporary mountaineers and missionaries also use West Papua.

Historically, the naming of peaks and places around the world has always been a charged topic, and not so simple at all. No different here with “Carstensz Pyramid” in “West Papua.” Very understandable considering the rich history, diverse cultures, and myriad of people groups and interests in the area. Grappling with these type issues should be an important and enjoyable part of any visitor’s preparation. After all, if we want to visit, we also want to be culturally sensitive and respectful. I welcome your insights as I continue to comment on the physical and cultural topography of this amazing region.

As an intro to the physical topography, check out the gallery for a few interesting maps of the area.

As an intro to the cultural and ethnic diversity, check out the following two websites.

Check out the Dani warrior at Bugboy Travel Guides. Enter “Dani” in the search box for great photos of the Dani people.

And visit the amazing photography of George Steinmetz as he captures some of the lives of the Korowai and Kombai people.