Java to West Papua (2012)


In June 2012, I embarked on a PELNI ship to Papua, together with my friend Iulius Carebia. We were looking to go to the Korowai, a tribe which lives in the Papuan forests, known for building their houses on treetops. The cheapest way to travel from Java to the south of Papua was by PELNI, at “kelas ekonomi”.

PELNI is the maritime-transportation company which links the Indonesian Archipelago. Onboard, thousands of people working in different provinces, families, students, militaries, illegal traders of home-made alcohol, betel-nut sellers, gamblers, prostitutes, businessmen and groups of Christian youth singing with enthusiasm. For the “economy” ticket, the seats’ numbers are irrelevant and people group according to ethnic connections, religion, social class, or destination. Checking the decks you find karaoke bars above Muslim praying rooms, rescue boats either filled with illegal travellers or used as toilets (guess how I know it), decks separated with barbed wire and illegal cinemas loudly advertised. On speakers all over the ship, we could hear the Azan five time a day or the name of the next movie, always alternating a karate/commando one with porn – presented as “very romantic”. 10k a ticket (0.8$) sold at a small stand, along with boiled eggs, imported apples and home-made banana chips.

After seven days we debarked in Agats, in the south of West Papua. Agats is a picturesque town built on stilts, with suspended, wooden streets. Even the soccer field is made of wood, like a large deck. It is a lazy administrative centre in the middle of Asmat territory, with many offices filled with dormant civil servants, kept there by the Government. Then, there are a few local fast-food outlets and shops run by Indonesians. The rest is a village, where the Asmat people live. Most of them don’t seem to have any occupation and look more like homeless people, living from hand to mouth.

Asmats, the original inhabitants of Agtas area became famous for their spiritual carvings, through which they communicate with their ancestors. After their arrival in 1953, the missionaries condemned these as satanic and the Asmat culture almost disappeared. Now we saw its traces in the “Museum of Asmat Culture and Progress”, built by the Catholics.

From Agats, after four days of hitch-hiking on boats with fish traders and agarwood collectors, we reached Tiau, a village of Citak people, the downstream neighbours of the Korowai.

In Citak we felt like being somewhere else than in Indonesia: different people, a different way of relating to us and different stories. It was the first Melanesian community we stayed with, in the Indonesian occupied Papua.

In Tiau we managed to get a decent description of the Korowai area and bargained a canoe to take us upstream, to their territories.

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