A passage to Irian Jaya

A young alumna tests her mettle in the wilds of New Guinea

I documented, photographed, and videotaped it, yet somehow it feels dreamy--like it never happened. The events before it are more of a tangible reality: slinging burritos at a Nacho Mama's restaurant on New York City's Upper West Side and attempting to make ends meet as a freelance photojournalist. When a regular customer asked me one day what my plans were, I decided to blurt out the truth regardless of how far-fetched it sounded. "I want to travel to New Guinea, to a place called Irian Jaya, and photograph the local people there," I said. The area had always intrigued the customer, because his father had been stationed in New Guinea during World War II. He said he liked my idea and asked me more questions.

Oblivious to what would eventually transpire, I blithely answered that I would travel to Irian Jaya and try to develop a freelance photographic essay for the Associated Press. The man offered me 70,000 miles of his frequent-flier mileage in exchange for photographing executive portraits of him for his company's annual report. A little afraid to believe that this could really be happening, I kept talking to him as I served microbrewed beers and burritos to my customers. I tried to remain pragmatic.

Six months later, after a fundraiser that raised $2,000 and countless other signs of encouragement from my friends and family, I boarded an airplane in Newark, New Jersey, on one of the last planes to take off before the Blizzard of 1996 bombarded the East Coast. Five flights and four days later, I landed in the airport at Jayapura, a coastal city in Irian Jaya, an Indonesian province comprising the western half of New Guinea. Then I planned to fly to the small, tourist area of Wamena. I met my guide and gave him my passport to arrange for my surat jalan, or travel permit, with the local police.

Sitting down to a cup of coffee in the airport cafe, I indulged in a real feeling of excitement for the first time on my trip. Then my guide returned and told me he could not get a permit for me because Wamena was closed to foreigners. No other details were given, even though I asked a number of questions. This served as a quick introduction to Indonesian culture; the military is not discussed with foreigners.

Downstairs, tourists were unloading their luggage and newly acquired bows and arrows from their plane, which had just landed from Wamena. I approached a sunburned Australian woman and asked her what had happened. The native people had taken hostages--Indonesians, Brits, and Germans--about twenty of them, she replied. The Indonesian military was being sent in, and all foreigners were being flown out. She and her husband gleefully recounted their trip, congratulating themselves for completing their adventure before the incident occurred. But I felt stricken. With no other options than to wait and see if Wamena would be reopened to foreigners, I went to my hotel and checked in.

Hotel Ratna, also known as Hotel "Rat's Nest" as I later learned, had a small cement walkway over the open sewer running past its front door. It was a very appropriate welcome mat. A few hours later in my hot, sticky room, with tears running down my face, I tried to recover from the sight of a rat poking its pointy head through a hole in my bathroom wall. For the rest of my trip, whenever I felt scared, a rat invariably appeared, making me feel a lot worse.

As I waited for permission to fly to Wamena, I ate every meal at the same small restaurant across the street from my hotel. There, I hoped to meet other foreigners who could help me. After three days, I met a bunch of beer-drinking, adventurous Australians, who had a plane and a plan. porting a shiny black eye from a barroom brawl the previous Saturday night, Andrew, a pilot for the American Missionary Association, helped me find a different, more remote place than Wamena. Three days later, I flew with him to Nabire, a smaller town in Irian Jaya. Following Andrew's instructions, I went to the missionary office. From there, with the equivalent of $40, I booked a flight to Apowo, a tiny village in the huge mountain range that runs through the heart of Irian Jaya.

At 6:00 the next morning, I buckled myself into the passenger seat of Andrew's Cessna. It took the prop plane about an hour to reach our destination. We landed on a barely visible, very short, grassy strip nestled between mountains. Andrew didn't get out of the plane as I grabbed my pack and camera gear, but he did tell the locals that I would need a few guides to walk with me over the mountains. Andrew added that he would come back for me in about seven days if I walked to one of the villages where he flew; then he pointed his plane skyward.

I was quickly surrounded by dozens of small children. No one spoke English, and I spoke only a few words of Indonesian. Laughing and screaming with delight at the sight of me, the children motioned me toward a wood shack down a muddy slope. My high-tech Gortex boots couldn't grip the slick grass, and, as I slipped, a slight old man took my hand and guided me down the treacherous hill. I blushed and mumbled my thanks.

The old man was the first koteka wearer that I saw. A koteka is a gourd, worn as clothing, sort of like underwear, and it is known as a penis gourd. All Irian Jaya highlanders are phallocrypts, or penis-gourd wearers. Recently, the Indonesian government and the missionaries toned down their campaigns to get the natives to wear clothes. Now, everyone has a few pieces of clothing, but most men still wear the gourds. In the most remote villages, traditional dress seemed to be a matter of personal preference.

I spent the first night in the village of Apowo, where I itched to move on to the other villages and finally shoot the photo-graphs that I came all this way to make. The next morning, I started walking, paying $30 to hire two guides to help me navigate the steep, rocky, muddy terrain for three days. One of the guides looked about sixteen-years-old, while the other one appeared to be around forty. They brought along a small boy and young girl. Later the young girl, Angelique, told me that she was married to the oldest man and that Albert, the small boy, was her son. Try as I might, I never figured out how this girl who looked about thirteen years old could be married to this older man and have a son who looked like her younger brother.

My lack of Indonesian language skills caused me the most trouble during my journey through the countryside. It took a day to figure out the translation for a basic word: bathroom. It can be pretty uncomfortable when you don't know how to express your basic needs.

Soon after we left Apowo to start our trek, Albert used his BB gun to shoot three beautiful parrots. The guides excitedly showed me what later turned out to be on the menu that evening: three beautiful-yet-bloody tropical birds. No, I didn't eat any of that; I munched on my peanut butter instead. Besides the rare delicacy of parrot, the natives ate sweet potatoes whenever they were hungry. As far as I could tell, no one had any set meal pattern. I only ate sweet potatoes, rice, and peanut butter that week. I have not eaten a sweet potato since, and I don't plan to do so again.

The walking was hard, as we kept moving for about ten hours a day for three days. We rested often; I needed to--it was the rainy season and the trails were slick. Sometimes I had to scramble up the steep parts on my hands, practically on all fours, but the others easily kept their balance. At one point, on top of a mountain, I sank in mud almost to my knees.

There are no roads in most of Irian Jaya, only ancient trails worn down from the constant stream of travelers walking between villages to trade. The mountains range in height from 10,000 to 14,000 feet, but people seem accustomed to navigating them. The villagers don't wear shoes, so the soles of their feet are swollen and thick with calluses. One of my guides took a fancy to the teva sandals I loaned him, though. I also gave him a Band-Aid, and then everyone else requested one, too. They loved everything thing I carried--my flashlight, my Band-Aids, and especially my cameras.

My guides carried few supplies except their cigarettes and the sweet potatoes they stored in the bark bags, called nokken, that they wore slung from their heads. The Ekari are known for their fine nokken; the orchid coverings on some are valued by collectors from other parts of the world.

On the first night of our journey, we slept on top of a mountain under a bamboo- and palm-thatched shelter that my guides constructed for us just before sundown. They built a fire in the middle of the shelter, and we all slept huddled near it. Their sense of personal space challenged my own spatial boundaries; basically, they cuddled up next to me. The next night I slept in the loft-like second level of a wood hut. It provided all the space I needed, but I slept fitfully. The possibility of rats invading my space kept me on the edge of consciousness as I practically zipped my sleeping bag over my head. On the ensuing nights, I fell asleep clutching my lit flashlight as I heard rats thumping across the top of our huts. The rodents sounded as big as cats as they ran back and forth all night.

Every morning I woke up relieved and began to coach myself to get excited about the next day's adventure. Still, the days seemed long, and the week felt like a month. The natives' lives were simple--no cars, no electricity, just farming or other work and living in tiny huts. I was probably the main event of their day, no doubt looking like a freak to them. The average Ekari adult is five-feet tall; I'm closer to six feet. Some people ran away at the sight of me, but more often I was surrounded by most of the village, especially the children. People screamed and laughed, especially when I spoke. Unfortunately, toddlers always burst into tears at the sight of me.

I spent the last four days in a moderate-sized village called Modio. I enjoyed walking through numerous villages in the previous days, but I wanted to stay in one place and try to get to know the people a little better. Modio also had a grass landing strip, and I needed to be somewhere Andrew could fly in and pick me up.

A male nurse in Modio spoke a little bit of English. He showed me the village and helped to translate so I knew what I was photographing. More importantly, he let me know that the village had a radio, which was tuned in to the missionary airport. He kept me posted on when Andrew would fly in--weather permitting.

The mountains usually have a thick cloud cover, so Andrew had only a small window of opportunity to land early in the morning. He flew in on the seventh morning of my trip and whisked me away as the clouds rapidly closed in on us. Andrew nonchalantly told me that I was probably the only white woman to have passed alone through these mountains. He also confirmed that the bow and arrow and nokken that I brought back were the genuine articles.

After Andrew and I flew back to Nabire, I caught a flight to Biak, a coastal city, where I thought I could log some beach time. Biak promoted itself as a sparkling tourist paradise; in reality, it was a dismal, polluted, poverty-ridden place sorely lacking in tourists since commercial flights had stopped flying there two years before.

As I checked into my deserted hotel, I spotted a fellow foreigner. It turned out that Nick was a British journalist, the only one who had managed to sneak past the Indonesian censors and get into Irian Jaya to cover the hostage situation. Since there were no American hostages, the news organizations in the United States weren't interested in my story.

I had a few days left before I had to fly home. Wamena had reopened, and I wanted to check it out. Nick needed someone to check in with his contact there. Short on cash and frustrated by the lack of interest in the hostage story in the States, I did a little freelance reporting, providing the information to Nick over the telephone in a sort of code in case anyone else was listening. At that point, however, there really wasn't much to report. The hostages weren't freed until late April; by then, I had been home for quite a while.

In Wamena, the indigenous people lingered around hotels, offering their bows and arrows in exchange for hard currency. The Indonesians marketed the locals' unique way of life, with travel agents' signs encouraging travelers to take a journey back to the Stone Age, only a few kilometers away in the nearest village. Unfortunately, I think Wamena provides a foreshadowing of the future of the other tribal peoples in Irian Jaya.

I finally started my flight home, experiencing a sense of relief that I had accomplished my goals. I had gone deep into the jungle by myself and completed my photo essay. Still, I was saddened by the Indonesians' treatment of the native Irians. I'm afraid that in the Indonesians' quest for modernization, they are doing exactly what our country did to the Native Americans, taking their land and destroying their culture.

A brief guide to the culture and history of Irian Jaya

I rian Jaya is the least-visited, least-populated, and most remote province in Indonesia. Some of its native inhabitants have only recently changed their tribes' ancestral living patterns, such as the recent eradication of head-hunting and cannibalism. They are quickly losing their land, resources, and traditional social organizations to the negative effects of logging, mining, and the migration of Indonesians from other islands.

Environmentalists call Irian Jaya the last great wilderness on Earth. It has huge amounts of natural resources, including timber in the rain forests and deposits of gold and copper in the mountains. The Freeport-McMoran mine, which is owned by U.S. interests, has the largest single gold reserve in the world.

In 1963, the United Nations gave Indonesia control over Irian Jaya. The Organisasi Papua Merdeka, or the Free Papua Movement, claim that the land was taken with little or no compensation. Areas of Irian Jaya are often closed to foreigners because of the Free Papua Movement's activities. Its members held twelve hostages from January through May of 1996. The Freeport-McMoran mine was closed in March 1996 by riots in the neighboring town of Timika. It was reported that a thousand people from neighboring tribes rioted to protest their exclusion from the benefits that the mine is bringing to their country. Apparently, their political consciousness is developing faster than their style of primitive life is changing: they rioted with sticks and bows and arrows.

The cannibalism once practiced by many tribes is now taboo. Most tribes of Irian Jaya still eke out a living as hunter gatherers and subsistence farmers, grouped in small clans. They traded their stone tools for steel ones in the middle of this century, but they still practice age-old methods of farming. The main food staple is sweet potatoes; their diet also includes rice, cane sugar, small birds, and rats.

The highland tribes featured in the accompanying images are the Ekari. Their most distinct characteristic is that they have no communal property, unlike other Irian tribes. For example, each person who participates in a construction project owns the materials he or she brought to it.

The Ekari's first contact with the West came in 1938, when Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in their land. Ten years later, the missionaries converted them to Christianity. After the arrival of the missionaries, the Ekari named their creator Ugatme. They believed that since all good and evil came from Him, they had no free will. One problem that the missionaries had with converting the Ekari was that the concept of hell was attractive to these highlanders, who are always suffering from the cold. They liked the idea of eternally burning fires without the fuss of gathering firewood.


Courtney Kealy grew up in New York City and graduated from Kenyon in 1989 with a degree in English. She is currently a freelance photojournalist in New York and a master's degree candidate at the Columbia University School of Journalism.

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