Thursday, June 2, 2016

Surrounded By Cannibals and Headhunters


OK, the headline might be a little over-hyped, however, we were indeed rapidly surrounded by local warriors as we approached the village of Syuru in the Papua District of Indonesia. They were former headhunters, and until the early 1970’s cannibalism was still practiced in this region. We were a party of perhaps 7 zodiacs heading ashore in this remote region when from out of the surrounding shoreline a fleet of perhaps as many as 80 or so dugout canoes rushed out to completely surround our little party of zodiacs. In each canoe were somewhere between 8 and 10 warriors, each looking fierce in their war paint and feathered head gear. They were making a great deal of noise both in chanting loudly and in rhythmically beating the sides of their canoes. Once they had us surrounded, the circle started to close until they were right up alongside of our zodiacs, all chanting and banging their canoes. Then horns were blown and as one, our entire group was shepherded like sheep towards shore.

Of course this was all staged and planned in advance--still it was quite a spectacle, and good fun was had by all. I had hoped to get some good pictures of the warriors once we got to shore, but almost as an apparition, both the men and their canoes seemed to vanish into the myriad of channels and riverines.

Before going on, allow me to stop for a minute and describe exactly where in the world we are located. Essentially, we are on the far western side of the Island of New Guinea. On the eastern side of the Island is the country of Papua New Guinea, while the western half is Papua, the eastern most Province of Indonesia. The Province covers 123,000 sq. mi., and it is one of the most remote regions in the world. Even today there is a low-level conflict between the Government of Indonesia and the indigenous populations of the West Papua region. Indeed, just last week the Indonesian government instituted a brutal crackdown of 600 West Papuan natives who were peacefully protesting for self-determination outside a conference of the region’s leaders.

Our journey today was to be one of the highlights of this voyage, and so Lisa and I were quite excited about the upcoming adventure. This region is known as The Asmats Region which is a large area of lowland swamp and rainforest. The natives live in an elevated world in which all structures are built on stilts well above the swamp, and in which they are connected by wooden walkways, or boardwalks. Indeed, there is such a maze of intersecting walkways that they actually have street signs at corners, and from my perspective, I could see the boardwalks going on for as far as I could see. We were told that some of the people actually live in the trees. The surrounding forest where we were appeared to be mostly a mangrove swamp.

Our first challenge was to exit the zodiac without falling into the dirty brown water. Our little rubber boat rode up onto a wide wooden ladder made of small tree limbs spread across three supporting beams. The gaps between the small limbs was just big enough to give both Lisa and me some problems, but as usual the expedition team did a wonderful job of insuring that somehow we managed to make it up to the top. Once on the boardwalk, I realized that the planks were not always even, nor solid. We had to be careful where we stepped, but slowly we were led along, while all around us were throngs of people, as well as, small huts lining the walkway. As we were being led forward, I noticed many things of interest. Outside every hut sat a porch full of people, mostly women and children. There were so many children climbing everywhere that there was almost no free space. The next thing that struck both Lisa and me was the fact that people did not smile back at us. Universally if you smile at someone, you almost get a smile back, but not so with these people. They were not hostile, they simply looked at us with blank inscrutable faces. The children, on the other hand, were children, and could usually be counted on for at least a small smile or a grin.

Finally, we were all led to a section of the boardwalk which on the left had a long building in front of which a large crowd had formed in the shade facing our party which was now standing on the boardwalk in the blazing sun. We were separated from the building by a swampy area in between, where at three places were placed ladders made from limbs to climb down, then some branches or planks had been placed across the gap, and on the other side were log rungs for climbing into the building. A small raised platform had been constructed from which, I guess, the chief would welcome us, because I could clearly see him standing to one side smoking a cigarette. Before he would speak, however, a man took a microphone and stood below the platform in the muddy bottoms, and started to speak to us “Ladies and Gentleman.” We all dutifully turned towards the speaker. Now picture this in your mind – all of our team is lined up on this wooden boardwalk standing facing into the blazingly hot sun, while this man in the swamp below drones on and on and on. Behind him is the men’s ceremonial building, in front of which are standing a large crowd of people in the shade of the building itself, all looking at us across the swampy gap. Soon I am drenched in sweat, and my camera becomes hot to the touch. I look left, then right, and at each end of our line I see we are surrounded by locals all standing in the shade, and suddenly an image snaps into my mind of POW’s arriving into camp and being greeted by the commandant. There they stood at attention in the blazing sun while the commandant goes on and on about the camp rules. As our speaker droned on constantly saying “And Ladies and Gentleman” one by one our group started to move to the side seeking shade, which is exactly what Lisa and I did. I never could understand what the man was saying, and at that point, did not really care. Finally an expedition team member asked if we could make it across to the building, which of course we could not, so while the speaker was still droning on with the Chief yet to speak, we left back to the zodiac for a ride down the waterfront to where everyone would eventually end up.

Now I have to really praise the Silversea Expedition team. They allocated to us a zodiac and a driver, along with an expedition team member and a local guide. All of this effort to accommodate our disabilities. All the while I must tell you, Lisa is going along like a little trooper. Right until the very end you would not have known her knee is in trouble, but eventually it did give out, and by the time we got to the ship it was quite swollen, but today she is definitely better, at least knee-wise. Both of us have bronchitis and we are taking antibiotics, but Lisa’s conditioned worsened, and she had to go back today and be seen by the doctor since she was wheezing so badly.

So let’s finish our adventure; our ride along the waterfront was basically following what the group would eventually walk. We arrived at a concrete jetty, which was actually located in another town, Agats. I gather this was the administrative center of this community of around 13,000 people. The boardwalk was wider here, and to be precise was actually a concrete walkway. I quickly learned that even on this narrow pathway, I was expected to walk on the left as motor scooters and bikes whizzed past me on then right. We passed a police station, and in the distance, I noted some electric poles and even some lights. We were essentially walking along the market street while back in the forest were the residential areas. I was disappointed at the garbage thrown everywhere into the swamp below the boardwalk. This is also where sewage ended up. Our guide explained that the government was willing to pay for people to pick up the trash, however, since every time they had a really high tide it carried it all away, no one really saw it as an issue. It suddenly dawned on me that as these scooters zoomed past, I heard no sounds of a motor. I was curious when I woke up to the fact that at most corners there was an awning where underneath stood 2 or 3 scooters and drivers. These were taxi stations, and each had wires running along the back where the scooters could be charged--they were electric of all things. So, if there is electricity there may be cell phones, and sure enough our guide produced her phone. Gee, the world is really shrinking.

Sadly, I did not get many pictures because it started to rain and so cameras were put up, then it rained harder, but still our guide wanted us to walk farther, until Lisa said no more. We took a brief refuge in a small hut, where the people were all extremely friendly and smiling – a few questions revealed they were not originally from this region, hence the smiles I figured. Finally we headed back, and by this time, the expedition had sent a member to check up on us. He walked with us all the way to the jetty, where a zodiac and driver were assigned to take us back to the ship. Again I just can’t believe the lengths to which Silversea had gone to make our trip enjoyable and to help our problem.

Our visit to the Asmats region was pretty spectacular. Originally the ship was to spend two days in this region, however, because of the tides that is not possible. Therefore, today we are at sea where I am sure more adventures will await us.


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