Tag Archives: community development

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.


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:


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.


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.


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


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.



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.


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.



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.