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Highland Papuan

Baliem Gorge to Wusarem

The next day we departed on a six-day trek to the Baliem gorge. After buying food, we took a rickshaw to the bemo terminal on the outskirts of town. We climbed into the back of a communal truck, the only whites in a crowd of staring Papuans. A few kilometers down the bumpy track, a landslide had washed the road away. An impromptu market had been set up. Women sold carrots and potatoes from string-bags while men in penis-gourds squatted, smoking. We shouldered our packs and set off, picking our way across the rushing streams. Soon we arrived in Kurima, the former road terminus and location of the military barracks and a police checkpoint. After a stop at the army post to deposit a copy of our surat jalan, we went to the police post. Here, the officer questioned us about our purpose and destination. Romy, a frequent visitor, knew just what to say. After getting our permit stamped, Romy whispered that Eric should give the officer 20,000 Rp (about $2), but quickly dropped the subject when Anne intervened, asking what the money was for. We had decided on principle not to give any more bribes. As we left the station and walked up the hill, we met a military patrol in full combat gear, automatic weapons in hand. After asking if we had already reported, the leader waved us on. For us, being foreign white tourists, it was only disconcerting, but Papuans have to live with constant military presence. We turned to follow the Baliem river, now a raging torrent, into the gorge. The mountains rose around us, their summits shrouded in mist. Thatched-hut villages and potato fields clung to the slopes.

Highland village Baliem gorge

After a break for lunch, we crossed a hanging bridge and climbed a steep hill. Children walking home from middle school joined us. At one point, Anne discreetly asked Eric to look behind. A short man in traditional dress, wearing only a penis gourd and a “crown” of feathers on his head, looked back. Smiling, we shook hands for a long time, looking deep into each other’s eyes, feeling the other person. A lingering handshake was customary for every person encountered on the trail. Friends would hug each other loosely as well, crooning softly, searching each other’s eyes. A soft “aiiiiieeee”, a kind of surprised, wailing cry, usually accompanies meeting someone special or unusual, like a tourist. We gave the man a cigarette, and he indicated that he wanted to put on my backpack. Beaming proudly with the pack on his shoulders, he posed for a picture before we continued our climb. Later, Anne hesitantly reached out to touch his feathered headdress. He held still for a moment, before making a grimace and pretending to bite her hand, scaring us all. His eyes lit up with glee at the ruse, and we laughed together.

Highland trail Village gathering

In the early afternoon we arrived in Wusarem, our first overnight stop. Clouds rolled in and the weather turned chilly. As we sat making small talk with the schoolmaster in his wooden house, the village children pressed their faces against the windowpanes, watching our every move. The schoolmaster had an adjacent room set aside for visitors. While drinking tea, we heard a rustling noise and saw a large rat with a long tail jump onto the bed and nose through our packs. The floor and walls, made of leave, woven palm and bamboo, were full of rat holes. To keep them safe, we hung our packs from the walls. For dinner, we cooked pasta over the open hearth in the kitchen at the back of the house. Mixed with some store-bought curry sauce, we had a filling and tasty meal. Romy, huddled next to the fire, smoked one cigarette after another. Despite our curiosity about Dani customs, he wasn’t much of a talker. At bedtime we unpacked our air mattresses and unfolded our single, shared sleeping bag. There was not enough room in our packs to carry two, so we used the one we had as a blanket, putting our feet together in the stubby end to keep warm. Just as we had settled down, we heard rustling. At first we thought it was the rats running around the room. Then it became clear that there was a rat in one of the bags! We turned on our headlamps. Romy’s pack, left alone with us, had a rat. We whacked it a few times, and, thinking that we had seen the rat escape, hung it back on the wall. A few minutes later, though, the rustling was back. As soon as we took the bag down it stopped. We carefully opened the bag, then jumped as the rat streaked out. Relieved, we hung the bag back on the wall and tried to sleep.