A Taste of Papua!

One of the most enjoyable experiences of my crossing cultures from the U.S. to visit Indonesia and the jungles of Papua includes sampling local foods. I recently traveled to Papua for a three week trek through the interior with only 30 packets of oatmeal, 30 protein bars and 60 electrolyte drink mixes, intending to procure the remainder of my foods in the villages I visited. I admit I was a bit intimidated by the “taro in the morning and sweet potato at night” diet stories I had heard, so I also brought four freeze-dried dinner meals just in case!

Broad-leafed taro in a garden.

Broad-leafed taro in a garden.

White taro, marbled taro & sweet potato: staples of the Papuan diet.

White taro, marbled taro & sweet potato: staples of the Papuan diet.

Hoga (a general term used for greens) with chunks of wogo (pig, a precious protein resource for Papuans) and rice (a relatively recent import to the island).

Hoga (a general term used for greens) with chunks of wogo (pig, a precious protein resource for Papuans) and rice (a relatively recent import to the island).

As it turned out, I didn’t need most of what I brought with the exception of the electrolyte drink mixes (the jungle is so hot & humid and I was vigilant regarding hyponatremia!) I was able to eat local, native, traditional and indigenous foods throughout my entire stay.

We buy some fruit from a child along the trail.

We buy some fruit from a child along the trail.

Stripping a sugar cane stalk.

Stripping a sugar cane stalk. The raw cane immediately rewards you with a burst of sweet, wet sugar when bitten.

Phineas enjoying sugar cane.

Phineas enjoying sugar cane.

That said, I am by no means hyper-adventurous when it comes to ingesting strange foods. Neither am I careless with regards to food & water safety protocols for travelers. I also realize, however, that almost all diarrheal illnesses are caused by infectious microorganisms which are ingested and are more common in parts of the world where food or agricultural hygienic practices are compromised or not reliably safe. So I definitely watch what I put in my mouth & where it’s been before I put it there!

Sage tree: "Sage" is pronounced with a short "a" and a long "e"

Sage tree: “Sage” is pronounced with a short “a” and a long “e”

About the size of a plump radish, sage grows on a tree, can be found in either red or white, and has a sweetish initial taste.

About the size of a plump radish, sage grows on a tree, can be found in either red or white, and has a sweetish initial taste.

Plus, contrary to popular belief, traveler’s diarrhea is not caused by food or drink to which the gut is “unaccustomed.” It is also true that most Americans have grown up with pretty good sanitation & food handling practices, and so have little or no immunity to help protect against what might in other places be considered “normal” practices.

Rabbit, chicken & pig comprise the principle meat sources for Highland Papuans. This particular rabbit earned the name "yummy bunny" from a 14-month old child who was given a little bit of leg to eat!

Rabbit, chicken & pig comprise the principle meat sources for Highland Papuans. This particular rabbit earned the name “yummy bunny” from a 14-month old child who was given a little bit of leg to eat!

The reddish tinge seen in the hair of some of these tekah (kindergarten) children has been cited as an indicator that their diets lack sufficient protein.

The reddish tinge seen in the hair of some of these tekah (kindergarten) children has been cited as an indicator that their diets lack sufficient protein.

Fishing in Lake Sentani adds a healthy protein source for people living there. Fish was abundant in the markets.

Fishing in Lake Sentani adds a healthy protein source for people living there. Fish was abundant in the markets.

This beautiful old avocado tree bore an enormous amount of fruit.

This beautiful old avocado tree bore an enormous amount of fruit.

Finally, it would without a doubt be exceedingly cumbersome to import a full menu from home. Practically speaking, with the severe weight restrictions on flights into New Guinea (often a 20 kg max) or the associated exorbitant costs of additional baggage to do so, and the limited variety of familiar foods, even if one shops at commissaries preferred by the expat community, eating at least some local foods becomes a necessity. Let’s be real, though, it’s just plain tasty, interesting and fun to do so.

Papua is rich in its variety of fruits. This grapefruit-like fruit (called a pamalo) tasted sweet like a succulent orange.

Papua is rich in its variety of fruits. This grapefruit-like fruit (called a pamalo) tasted sweet like a succulent orange.

Deserts ... Papuan style!

Deserts … Papuan style!

Rice squares packaged in a bamboo sheath & a tasty mixed vegetable soup served as part of a dinner meal.

Rice squares packaged in a bamboo sheath & a tasty mixed vegetable soup served as part of a dinner meal.

I hope you’ve enjoyed a taste of Papua!


So Wogo Saigia

Being invited to an afternoon wogo saigia (pig roast) demonstrated to me the second of two extremely hospitable Moni cultural practices.

The first practice involved welcoming travelers into an nduni (men’s hut; seen in my last post). Each village or clan enclave provides an opportunity for travelers to rest or spend an evening in an nduni prior to continuing their travels. No cost is incurred by the traveler, but the customary expectation for reciprocation exists; that is, everyone is expected to offer respite for a traveler.

The second practice reflects a similar generosity and involves welcoming a visitor to a meal. If a guest joins a meal, whether invited (as in our case) or not (a “walk-in,” if you will), the expectation to extend an invitation and share that meal exists.

I am curious how these practices originated, but I might venture a guess that in terrain as rough as the highlands of Papua, a little generosity goes a long way in building alliances. I welcome your thoughts & comments.

The wogo saigia I experienced was primarily a celebration honoring a visiting missionary family (the folks who hosted me) who had spent much of their life and energy in this village. Such roasts are reserved for great occasions and typically become an all-day and extremely social event. A recent epidemic, however, had decimated a large part of the local pig population, so our wogo saigia wisely morphed into a saigia of veggies, hoga, and so wogo, rabbit. Super tasty as well!

Start by digging a hole in the ground large enough to hold all the veggies and meats that you wish to cook, as well as banana leaf linings and hot rocks needed to make this oven functional. Our host was serving approximately 20 people, so our hole was about a foot deep and 3 feet in diameter.

Gathering all the veggies and preparing the animals took a couple of hours. Of course, a healthy amount of friendly socializing & play kept the work of cooking festive, not unlike the outdoor bbqs of my childhood.

Feb 2013 547

Everybody joined in to help prepare the rabbit, chicken, sweet potatoes, taro, corn, squash, and a variety of tasty greens.

A little bonfire heated the cooking rocks. Those rocks, transported via forked sticks into the waiting hands of someone who would wrap them in banana leaves, were then carefully placed into the oven.

Cover it all up with additional greens and roughly three hours later … voilà! …. a tasty celebration with plenty for all … including two uninvited, but welcomed – as per hospitable culture – guests.


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!

Do the Moni really want to live as they always have?

Amy with a Moni friend c. 2007

As a child of missionaries to West Papua, Indonesia, I have heard many discussions about one’s interaction with indigenous people groups. Some are heartfelt and deeply thought out, some are shoot-from-the-hip perceptions that cover the gamut of opinion. Recently, catch phrases such as “White Savior Complex” have been used to describe those of us who would seek to partner with indigenous people. The concept of “helping” has become a minefield, fraught with criticism and cynicism.  Although new and catchy words or phrases may be used, the concepts and criticisms are anything but new. Anyone who has worked with indigenous people for any length of time, will at some point have their motives challenged. One cannot argue that over the years there has been truth to some of the criticisms. However, I would submit that the new social-anthropologists-journalists-environmentalists commentary and yes, even well-meaning tourists, actually demean the very people groups they claim to hold in such high esteem. After over a half century of living and partnering with the Moni tribes people, I would say that this partnership can be both exceedingly simplistic, and exceedingly complicated.

It is purely a Western construct that indigenous cultures must never change and “we” must protect them at all cost. This has always baffled me. Why is it okay for Western thought and culture to change, but not the culture of the Moni? There has been much hype about the protection of women’s rights in the recent re-election of President Obama. No one would dare suggest that we return to an era where women are viewed as possessions, or subservient to their male family members, yet the current push to “leave them alone” relegates Moni woman to exactly that. Why is that okay for them, but not for me? Do the Moni really want to live as they always have? Has anyone actually bothered to ask them?

It is my belief that the suggestion that the Moni are “offended” by the helping hands offered to them is totally contrived. I would even go so far as to suggest that it demeans the intelligence of the Moni. It is a house of cards that pretends to care without actually knowing who or what they are, much less what they actually want. I can recall translating this for a Moni tribesman once when the question was posed, and he sniffed and wrinkled his nose very quickly as Monis do when they are mildly disgusted, and said, “What? Am I of a child’s mind, that I cannot distinguish these things? Does that person think that they are wiser than I? Is that why they must explain it to me? Can I not determine for myself the heart of a person who comes to our land? Is it that I am child that needs protecting?”

Several years ago a journalist came to Papua wanting to hear from the indigenous people about a Western NGO doing exploration in their areas. My brother was asked to interpret. The Moni tribe’s men and women waxed eloquent about their ancestral lands and how the spirit of their ancestors lived among the mountains and could not be disrupted … unless, of course, the company was willing to pay a steep monetary price. My brother, being very good friends with several of the village elders, asked after the meeting what exactly they were saying. They all laughed and responded, “Tuan, do you not say and do what YOU need to get what YOU want.” It would seem the tribes men were willing to play to the sympathies of a Western journalist, to set the stage for a specific outcome. When the company decided to pull out because of these factors, Western journalists and environmental groups rejoiced, and declared victory. The Moni tribes men, however, rioted and demanded the company return for negotiations.

National Geographic recently ran an article about a group of anthropologists who were studying a central highland tribe in Papua as observers and documenters. Sometime into their observation an illness swept through the village. A great argument broke out among the anthropologists.  Several wanted to sit back and observe how the villagers handled illness and death, and others wanted to “help.” What was the right thing to do? Finally, one of the anthropologists decided academic research principles could go to hell, and carried the most ill woman over the trail to the nearest hospital with Western medicine.

Perhaps we should re-evaluate the social construct that is so pervasive today. Maybe we need to take a step back from all the political correctness of the day; the one that arrogantly assumes the worst of the helping hand. Rather than treating the Moni like children that must be protected, maybe we should begin recognizing that they are equal to us in their ability to think critically and determine for themselves how to interface with the “helping hand.”

AGM, November 2012

Many thanks to Amy Meredith for this contribution.

My good friend Maximus introduces me to dignitaries of the Legislative Assembly of Mimika Regency in Timika, Papua (June 2012).

Relationship building in a different culture and actively listening to the Moni people describe what they want and need, and don’t want and don’t need, requires more time and less “action” than most Westerners are accustomed to.

I will join John and Amy in Papua in February 2013 to meet with various Papuan village and tribal leaders to discuss community development and infrastructure needs along the Sugapa-Carstensz trekking route. Somewhat reminiscent of the National Geographic article in which cave people “sent a surprising message to the modern world,” the Moni seek economic and educational opportunities, as well as health and infrastructure improvements for their local communities.

John and Amy, as children in Papua in the 1960s.

Growing up in Papua has given John and Amy an exceptionally strong love and regard for the Moni people. It is most certainly true that our February excursion is built upon strong cross-cultural relationships that began their development with the life-time service of John and Amy’s missionary parents. Only two decades ago cannibalism was still practiced (though not by the Moni) and it was (and still is) the work of Christian missionaries that has defused tribal conflicts and advocated for the human rights and dignity of the indigenous peoples. John still actively serves in West Papua, where he fiercely advocates for tribal peoples and is fueled by, as he states, “Many are starving; there is much work to do.” In addition to ministry and relief/aid services, John has mediated between the Grasberg mine and the indigenous peoples who dwell in the surrounding area, as well as in cases of inter- and intra-tribal conflict.

John speaks with Dani tribal warriors and children during preparations of a pig festival.

A nearly perfect practice testpiece: Shuksan’s Fisher Chimneys

I found it! A nearly perfect practice test piece to compliment my prep for Carstensz; not only to see if my skills are up to snuff, but also as an opportunity to do some team-building! … Mt. Shuksan’s Fisher Chimneys route!

The Challenges: We must proficiently cover lots of terrain (both rock scrambling & climbing), be smooth & efficient on mid-fifth class rock, and know how to execute a Tyrolean traverse and multiple rappels!

The Carstensz Pyramid expedition is for adventurers in excellent physical condition with moderate technical climbing ability. Moving on third-, fourth- and easy fifth-class rock, on fixed ropes, and through multiple rappels shouldn’t cause us to flounder or halt. Certainly, the altitude, length of trip, the remoteness of the area, and the technical nature of the climb all contribute to make this a challenging and demanding adventure. On top of that, the Carstensz area is usually rainy and we expect to spend at least some time travelling and climbing in the rain.

Even for the healthiest and fittest individuals, climbing Carstensz requires a high degree of physical stamina and mental toughness!

With regard to fitness and technical training, RMI Expeditions emphasizes starting sooner than later, intentionally developing both your fitness and your technical skill sets, and the closer you get to departure, the more your training ought to resemble climbing in New Guinea.

The Solution: We must get a healthy dose of rock climbing under our belts, practice the technical climbing skills (the Tyrolean & multi-pitch rappels), and find routes that challenge us both physically and technically (like Fisher Chimneys!)

Carstensz climber, Sara McGahan, doing “homework” at Linville Gorge, North Carolina

Getting multiple “practice” pitches under my belt along the Tieton drainage in Washington

I had a chance to climb Mount Shuksan via the Fisher Chimneys route on the mountain’s northwest side this past weekend. The route offers lots of moderate, enjoyable climbing. The alpine rock and glaciated terrain which make up the climb are not difficult – but there is a lot of it! The climb takes every bit of three full days. Except for the fact that the Chimneys route includes some glacier travel, it gives a taste of the fitness and technical climbing demands rolled into one adventure that makes it a perfect test piece for a future Carstensz climb.


A lengthy approach, which included climbing the actual “Chimneys” (better described as steep, rocky gullies) with a moderately heavy pack felt more like “climbing” than “practice!”

Climbing with packs and in alpine boots is an important component of the adventure, as this is exactly how we move on Carstensz.

The summit (the exact halfway point of our adventure!)

The Carstensz Pyramid adventure throws much more at us than just fitness and rock climbing demands, but practicing diligently heads us in the right direction … and it is downright fun!


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 3: Cultural Sensitivity)

Teju Cole, writer, art historian, street photographer, and contributor to the New York Times, the New Yorker and more, recently tweeted several striking statements that really grabbed my attention:

  • From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex.
  • The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.
  • I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.

And I certainly encourage you to read Mr. Cole’s complete comments in The Atlantic, March 21, 2012, at http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/254843/ for context, but my question here is, “How do I balance our visits with the Papuan’s traditional ways of life?” Whether I come to guide a climb of Carstensz or to involve myself in some sort of ‘community development’ project, can I do so in a way that not only does no harm to the Papuans, but also in a way that is rooted in respect? I admit, I have to learn what this means. I certainly don’t desire to be a part of that White Savior Industrial Complex. Oh yeah, and I was born in Amsterdam. That’s not considered a bonus in Indonesia!

I’ve read or heard statements which just make me wince. I knew these statements were likely borne of cultural ignorance, not maliciousness, but I wondered how they might read if their authors had been more culturally aware and in-tune with their role as visitors:

  • “The Dani are so much nicer than the Moni.”
  • “The exciting thing about Carstensz is that you start the trek from a village … whose people still walk around naked, with bows and arrows and eat spiders.”
  • “There’s also a lack of any sort of facial recognition of closure or agreement. No smiles. No handshakes. No nods of the head.”

One of these statements came from a friend of mine, so don’t mistake me, I’m not lambasting anyone, I’m simply using these examples to caution myself with the understanding that I, too, can share the spotlight with the “culturally insensitive tourist” or even the “white savior industrial complex,” and those attachments I’d like to avoid!

Perhaps I can share a few (admittedly simplistic) cultural sensitivity guidelines which I held to on my first climbing adventure in June-July 2012:

It is important for people not to “lose face.”

“To lose face” means to be embarrassed or to lose respect in the presence of others. For example, if we have some sort of misunderstanding, miscommunication, issue, etc. with one of our local porters, we should bring that issue to the local porter leader rather than taking it up with the individual porter. For example, we had a climber who needed help carrying a backpack, and the porter who carried that pack was not always nearby when it came time to take a rest stop. Regardless of how many times that occurred (or how badly we wanted the porter to stick close by), we remained sure to ask our porter leader to manage the porters. As a result, we didn’t shame an individual porter and our local porter leader retained his lead role without losing the respect of his team.

We may see things that we do not agree with.

For example, several young boys (probably about 10 years of age) accompanied our party and carried supplies for several days. While we might think these young children should be in school (and, of course, we also have strong feelings regarding child labor), in this case, we learned that the boys actually came along as helpers for their dads. They were enjoying being out with their dads during a week-long furlough from grade school! They were just “working” so much harder than any 10-year old we know.

Honestly, there are a number of other things that might cause our eyebrows to lift, practices which are so far removed from our own cultural norms that we naturally can’t help but apply value judgments. Polygamy, cannibalism (though recently this has only been found in cultic ceremonies), animist practices, the role and value of women and children in tribal society, tribal warfare, etc. all fall into this camp. It is important for us to be aware of just how very much Papuan life contrasts our own.


Before heading to Papua, it was explained to me that Papuans love greetings. I came to learn that this was true even with the simplest greetings. Of course, the fun part is recognizing that tribal greetings are different from our own.

A friend who grew up on the island mentioned that to a Western tourist, the tribal people (speaking of the Moni with whom we worked) can seem loud (the Moni speak loudly in clipped, guttural tones) and look mean (their facial and body language is far more reserved than we are accustomed to). She then added that they were likely “the loudest talking, meanest looking … intelligent and friendly people we would ever meet!” And I indeed found them to be unbelievably friendly.

“Amakane” (ah-MAH-kah-nā) is the traditional and most common Moni greeting used by both men and women. It literally means, “Welcome to my bosom.” I have been told that all Moni greetings are offering up a private body part in some way or another. Amakane, (which offers up one’s breasts) is no different. The message is warm and welcoming and lovely, and implies, “I offer to nurture you.”

Another wonderful greeting, a mix between our Western handshake and a finger snap, is a knuckle snap. A lightly held opening handshake is followed by the knuckle snap and then by a closing lightly held handshake.  The knuckle snap itself results in a loud snapping noise, just as if one snapped their fingers really well. The two who greet each other curl their hands in order to intertwine the knuckles of each other’s 2nd and 3rd fingers. Then holding tightly, they quickly pull away from each other causing the snapping noise. What a wonderful greeting! It is rare that this greeting does not bring smiles to faces!

I did find that for all of their reserved nature, flashing a smile and saying “amakane” never failed to produce a similarly friendly smile and greeting in return.