So today I finished my first tour of the season in Papua, far eastern Indonesia, a place that has little to do with the rest of Indonesia. A land where it is not uncommon for a man to be meandering the isles of the departures lounge (cage) of the airport, wearing nothing but a penis gourd and selling necklaces. A few days ago I arrived at the airport in Wamena, which is essentially a tin roofed hut, with wire fence walls, and the word “checkin” haphazardly spray painted in red on a tin wall.
My instant impression stepping of the plane in Wamena was: this is not Indonesia? From its people to its landscape, nothing reminded me of the rest of Indonesia. Nothing at all.
Papua and Australia were once joined by land, and the people, wildlife and flora reflect that. Papua was basically added to Indonesia in a rigged vote in 1969, from a group of carefully selected representatives who were either threatened and/or bribed to vote for Indonesian sovereignty. Why did the newly independent Indonesian government want Papua? Money of course! They new Papua was rich in oil, timber and gold. Sadly, Papua, at the time had actually been on its path to independence from Dutch rule, and no one wanted to become part of Indonesia – which is why so many were angry when Indonesia annexed Papua, and there has been so much violence in Papua since. Indonesia has instilled its own form of colonialism on Papua, extracting resources, encouraging transmigration from other parts of Indonesia, and investing in a heavy military presence to control the local population. Considering how much money the Indonesian government gets from the resources in Papua, you see very little development in terms of infrastructure, education and wealth reflected in the region. And there have been ongoing reports of human rights violations and aggressive violence used by the military ever since Papua was annexed, up until today. In June, Papuan political activist and head of pro-independence movement of West Papua, Mako Tabuni, was shot dead by police officers.
When I first arrived the picture I saw of Papua was very raw. There was indeed a large and heavily armed military and police presence. Just walking through the local market in Wamena was out of this world. Kids and adults were red toothed from chewing betel nut (a highly addictive psycho stimulating euphoric drug), staring at me with wild eyes, pulling on my clothes, slowly motioning with their fingers to their mouth that they wanted a cigarette, and demanding money for taking any photos whatsoever. There were pigs rummaging through piles of garbage, kids clung to me to ask for money, and old men in penis gourds lurked in the shadows. In a local village I saw a pig get slaughtered, heard its haunting squeals, and saw a child walk off with fresh pig intestines slug over his naked shoulder. I saw poverty and desperation, anger and frustration. Everywhere I looked I felt like I was at the ends of the earth, a forgotten about place, whose people had been exploited and ignored by the very country that wished so desperately to have them. The song “This is the End” by the Doors played in my mind, and I felt a little mad myself.
Oh yeah, I LOVED IT! I loved the madness. Where there is madness, beauty stands out so much more clearly. I saw children bathing along the riverbanks. I crossed old rickety bridges that felt as though they may collapse at any moment, and gorgeous gushing rivers beneath them that would swallow me up if they did. I visited villages where kids followed me around with the biggest smiles on their faces and fell into contagious fits of giggles at anything I did. I saw pigs treated like family – free to rome in and out of the family huts, piglets playing like puppies (cutest thing ever!), kindness and giving from people who have nothing to someone who has everything, and shy smiles. I was swarmed with kids crawling all over me to see photos of themselves reflected in my camera, and I shook hands with strangers just because they wanted to say hello. All the while I was surrounded by lush green hills and the sounds of birds in the trees.
Papua is special. It is one of those places that you can’t exactly describe why you fell in love with it, you just have to go. I was here for work, with my group, but I will go back. Papua has some amazing trekking, it is still 3/4 forrest and it is lush and green. Cascading rivers fill the valleys and it seems as though the landscape is infinitely green. I am hopeful the more people visit Papua through conscious eco-tourism the brighter the future for the local indigenous population. Hopefully leading to more humanitarian awareness, education and conservation.
As I boarded my tiny plane to leave Baliem Valley, the old man wearing the penis gourd who had been following my group onto the tarmac turned to walk away, giving up his last attempt at a necklace sale. I sat down in my seat, and watched his saggy old bum walk away, and I couldn’t help but smile.
To learn more about human rights violations in Papua, a good place to start is: http://www.amnesty.org/en/region/indonesia/report-2013