Blog of the trip to New Guinea

Pictures of New Guinea

Trip to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea of May 2011
Thursday, April 28, 2011, 02:47 AM
Preparing for the trip.
Tentative itinerary:

The Indies
Sunday, May 8, 2011, 02:58 AM

"In the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ this present year 1492 your Highnesses determined to send me, Christopher Columbus, to the above-mentioned countries of India, to learn their disposition and the proper method of converting them to our holy faith; and furthermore directed that I should not proceed by land to the East, as is customary, but by a Westerly route, in which direction we have hitherto no certain evidence that any one has gone."

Columbus wanted to find a faster way to reach the Indies, from which the valuable spices were imported. If America didn't exist (as Columbus thought), the first "Indies" he would have encountered were the islands that now constitute Indonesia.
Ironically, Columbus' accidental discovery of a new continent (America) would, in due time, make these very islands irrelevant, because the new continent would give birth to the superpower of the future.

Columbus thought that he had found India, whereas he had found America. Today we go to India and we find America everywhere (young Indians are imitating the technology, customs and even the accent of the USA). China is moving in the same direction. Indonesia, however, has not changed as much.

Columbus is remember for "discovering" America, but should really be remembered for proving that the Earth is round, a fact that today we take for granted but was not obvious at all before his trip. His trip convinced everybody (although he had not really reached the Indies). That also meant that the Earth was finite. After 1492 the Earth became round and finite. Since then it has become smaller (as we travel faster) and rounder (as regional differences disappear). It is becoming just a dot, a very crowded dot in which 7 billion people live the exact same life, dress the same way, speak the same language, etc.

Any place that does not belong to that dot is not just a place: it is located somewhere, but "somewhere" is no longer a place.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011, 07:02 PM
Taipei airport. Civilized countries like this one offer free internet for passengers.
Young Chinese instead can be shockingly selfish. When we landed, an elderly lady had trouble pulling her luggage down from the overhead bins. None of the three kids in front of me stopped to help her: they all rushed towards the exit. I helped her but then she said something in Chinese to me that i could not understand. I turned to the Chinese girl behind me and asked her "do you speak Chinese?" She obviously did but simply squeezed by me and continued to walk. Eventually i understood that the lady was telling me she had another item to retrieve (an umbrella).
THis reminded me of this kid in Beijing who once told me "Change has been so rapid here that old people can't even understand that" and pointed to a middle-aged woman (not so old) who was standing in front of an escalator, hesitating to use it. He added "They are a burden to society". And these are the descendants of people who used to worship their ancestors...
Leaving for Jakarta in a few minutes.

Jakarta, Indonesia
Wednesday, May 11, 2011, 07:26 AM
The only problem in Jakarta is the heat but i think i will adapt quickly. Hot and humid.
The pollution is not even half of what i feared. The chaos is minimal compared with other Asia metropolis.
What is probably unique to Jakarta is how intermingled wealth and poverty are. The number of SUVs is impressive. But there are still vendors pushing their tiny carts. There are regular taxis for the rich, but ordinary people take the motorcycle or the tuktuk (there are dozens waiting for customers at every corner).
Arriving from the airport the road is lined with new skyscrapers, yet another sign of Asia's economic boom. They are certainly nothing compared with Shanghai, but it must be quite a change for this poor country. Every now and then you still see the slums.
I headed straight for Jalam Jaksa so i wouldn't waste time looking for accommodation. Big cities like Jakarta and Bangkok have one street (or more than one) dotted with guesthouses. You don't need to find a room: they find you. The moment i got out of the tuktuk someone offered me a room at a good price with private western bathroom (less than $9). That was it: it took less than one minute to find a room.
Indonesia has always been a relatively progressive Muslim country and women have always been treated much better than elsewhere (in fact, several places in Sumatra are still matriarchal). The difference between Chinese and Muslim women is striking though. Indonesia has a sizeable Chinese minority that is generally wealthy. Their women frequently wear miniskirts. The Muslim women are not completely covered but generally wear a scarf. They have no problem sitting next to a man on a bus and chatting to a complete stranger. The Chinese women, however, behave just like they would behave in the West.

Today i got out of immigration too late to reach the embassy of Papua New Guinea in time. It takes about 1.5 hours to get downtown no matter what means of transportation you take (and the choice is only between bus and taxi because this city does not have a freeway or a train from the airport).
Tomorrow i will go to the embassy first thing in the morning. I just checked the prices of flying to the Indonesian sideof New Guinea and they are very reasonable. Now i just need to convicne Papua New Guinea to let me enter the country overland (they really want you to fly into the capital which i really want to avoid).
There are western backpackers around but nobody has even dreamed of going to Papua New Guinea and the local travel agent didn't offer much help either.

The flight with China Airlines was good. Because it left at 1:30am and arrived at 6am in Taipei, it basically coincided with a long night's sleep. Somehow it made it easier to adapt to the time difference. I feel absolutely no jet lag.

It's good to be in a non-developed country. My last two trips were too easy.

When i travel, i feel at home.

$1=8300 rupees
Visa $25
Bus from airport to Gambir station $3
Tuk tuk to Jalan Jaksa $3
Guesthouse (House of Bali Hai on Jalan Jaksa) $9 +
Dinner $3

Jakarta, Indonesia
Thursday, May 12, 2011, 06:47 AM
I should have the visa for PapuaNew Guinea tomorrow afternoon. I had to book the ticket first, whichis a bit annoying but no ticket no visa application.
So i am flying May 13 from Jakarta to Jayapura (Indonesian New GUinea) arriving on May 14 morning. Then i have a day to cross the border and reach Vanimo, the border town on the Papua side. Then i have a flight from Vanimo to Wewak on May 15, returning May 25. This is the flight that theyforced me to book before the application. Basically, Vanimo is isolated. You can cross the border into Vanimo, but then you're stuck in Vanimo because Vanimo is not connected by road to any other city of its country. So they want to see that you have a flight from Vanimo into the rest of Papua New Guinea and more importantly to come back. In fact, the return was the tricky one.

Papua New Guinea has a reputation for being very expensive and it already looks like this. The very short flights were a lot more expensive than the 8-hour flight from Jakarta to Jayapura. All the hotels i found in Vanimo cost moer than $50 (here i am paying $9).
Sigh. I hope i can just buy a hammock and sling it from two trees, like i did in Guyana.

Yesterday it was cloudy, and i barely survived the heat. Today it was sunny... Memories of south India, with sweat dripping nonstop from my face. If i don't drink, i disydrate, but if i drink i sweat even more. Ditto if i take a cold shower.

After the bureaucracy at the embassy of Papua, i had time to explore huge chunks of Jakarta, an infinite city. Jalan jendral Sudirman, the main street, is becoming one of the most spectacular strips in the world: one skyscraper after the other. Jakarta has an advantage over the other metropolis of Asia: it is very spread out. Thankfully public transportation is efficient, even without a subway. The "busway" is a lane for buses only, basically some sort of city express buses. They run frequently and are very fast. Even so it takes about one hour to go from one side to the other of the city, not counting the suburbs. The bad news is that there is nothing left of ancient Batavia, the Dutch colony: history has been razed to the ground to make room for the high-rise buildings.

People are superfriendly. The city seems extremely safe. I am walking around with all my money and passports and tickets after dark.
THere is no way to go to sleep before midnight or so: just too hot.

One wonders why we can't have something like the busway in California. I think ultimately it's because labor is too expensive. Here labor is cheap, so Indonesia can create this very friendly and efficient system (there is one guy at the stop, one guy on the bus, plus the driver, the other two guys directing traffic in and out of the bus and providing what help the travelers need). In California this would cost a fortune, so it won't happen.

It's not that they don't have traffic jams. They do. In fact,it's cute that they call any intersection and any traffic light a "traffic jam". They tell you "turn left at the traffic jam" :-)

Visa for Papua New GUinea: $30
Flying Jakarta-Jayapura $190
Roundtrip Vanimo-Wawek-Vanimo $400
Busway ticket $0.40 each trip.

Thursday, May 12, 2011, 11:02 PM
Not sure when i will have internet again because tonight i fly to Jayapura (Indonesian New Guinea) and then i will immediately hitchhike t the border and cross into Papua New Guinea at Vanimo, from where i have a flight on the 15th to Wewak, the first decent city.
I also booked tentative flights for the rest f the trip. Very difficult to find connections through these jungle places.

May13 Jakarta-Jayapura with stop in Makassar arrives early May 14
May 15 Vanimo-Wewak 9:25 PX945
May 25 Wewak-Vanimo 15:35 PX944
May 28 Jayapura-Makassar 15:40 MZ761
May 29 Makassar-Kupang 12:45 MZ5840
June 2 Kupang-Jakarta 16:10 SJ255

This would give me 10 days for Papua New Guinea (which i have no idea if it is enough or not for the three rgions i want to visit), 2 days in West Papua/Irian Jaya (Indonesian New Guinea) and 3 days in Timor. It is also very hard to estimate road travel once i arrive in these places. The books say that the roads are really bad but things change rapidly in this part of the world and it might be so bad.

Now i need to buy long pants because mosquitos are going to be my number one enemy.

Friday, May 13, 2011, 05:33 AM
Indonesia is one of the few countries that still has matriarchal populations. Over the last few months i have been intrigued by the question of when humans started realizing the connection between sex and pregnancy. That connection is not obvious, and is likely to have been discovered only in relatively recent times. For example, the fact that the seed inside the fruit that we eat is responsible for the birth of an entire tree of the same kind was probably discovered only a few thousand years ago, and lead to the birth of agriculture. The connection between birth and pregnancy probably came even later.
To me this is the simplest explanation of why so many ancient civilizations were matriarchal (see my old presentation "A History of Women" ... y-of-women ) Before that discovery, women knew who their children were, but men didn't know that they had children. Therefore women and children were kept in common by the whole tribe (there were still "longhouses" in Borneo when i visited last time). Once the connection between sex and pregnancy was made, the man had a vested interest in some of the children, and the only way to know for sure which ones were his was to keep the woman from having sex with other men. Hence modern civilization.

Vanimo, Papua New Guinea
Saturday, May 14, 2011, 08:27 AM
The red-eye flight from Jakarta landed at Jayapura (capital of West Papua, formerly Irian Jaya, Indonesia's half of New Guinea) at 7am.
I hired a ojek (motorcycle taxi) to the border town of Wutung for 250,000 rupias ($30).
The ride through jungle and along the coast is very pretty (most of these little bays would be five-star attractions in a western country). One hour later i was at the border post and went through the formalities. Then i crossed to PNG (Papua New Guinea). I *love* to cross borders on foot. PNG is the 135th country that i have visited. The whole process was fairly straightforward... if you manage to find the border crossing. Then a minibus took me from Batas (the other half of the border town) to Vanimo, the first major town in PNG. I would learn later that this is also the most expensive town in PNG, and probably in the entire South Pacific. Vanimo is fascinating because it's really in the middle of nowhere: the map shows no road connecting Vanimo to the rest of the country (one week later i would find out that there is a way, but there's a reason if it's not on the map). Hence i had a ticket to fly with Air Niugini from Vanimo to Wewak the following day. The PNG embassy in Jakarta had demanded to see the ticket before issuing the visa. Now i only needed to find a place to sleep one night in this godforsaken town. The air strip is in town, therefore you just walk outside and you are in the main square. That's where i started asking about guesthouses. The shock was colossal when i started hearing the prices. The "lodge" has rooms for 200 kina ($90) and claims to be the cheapest place in town. Not bad for a town that has only 3 stores. Luckily the only ATM was working so i loaded myself with kina (being a saturday the bank was closed and there was no hope to exchange dollars or rupias).
There is an Indonesian consulate but i couldn't find it. I will need it on the way back.
The kina is very strong, therefore prices are sky high. I went to see the bishop at the Catholic mission. He helped me bargain a room for a discounted price of 100 kina at the mansion of a local magnate, John Visser.
Both Jayapura and Vanimo enjoy idyllic settings on the coast. Jayapura is nested inside a bay. Vanimo is a peninsula that breaks the beach in two.
The worst thing about PNG that hits you right away is that everybody has red teeth because they chew betelnut all the time.
The best news is that, contrary to the bad press that PNG gets, people in Vanimo are friendly and honest.
There are no travel agencies and no tourist offices: you are on your own (i would learn later that this is true in every town of PNG). Hotels only know their immediate surroundings and are usually manned by inexperienced kids. Planning a trip to a nearby town is a lottery. You can find out very little beforehand.
The Lonely Planet guidebook is wildly inadequate.

Jakarta to airport 20,000 rupias = $2.50
Airport tax 40,000=$5
Ojek from Jayapura to the border 250,000
Bus from the border to Vanimo 10 kina
$1=2.2 kina
Visser guesthouse 100 kina

Wewak, PNG
Sunday, May 15, 2011, 08:39 AM
This morning from the guesthouse i walked to the Vanimo airport, which is just one room, and boarded the Fokker plane to Wewak.
The ticket was expensive but the flight is worth the price because it flies low over the jungle. I hope the pictures from the plane will do justice to the landscape. Wewak is a bigger town than Vanimo but fundamentally similar, nested between beach and jungle. I found a free ride to town and got a room at the guesthouse on the hill, Warihe, the only thing that i can afford here ($45).
Nearby i found my first PNG restaurant (Seaview Hotel: only hotels have restaurants). One veggie omelette, potatoes and two drinks for $15.
Prices are 3 or 4 times Indonesia's prices.
These are small towns in which everybody knows everybody else. You are supposed to say "hello" to everybody. People are mostly super-friendly. All you need to do is ask. The heat is still the main problem. Too hot for mosquitoes to become the main problem.
I have not perceived the slight danger yet. I read so many warnings about the high crime of PNG. I am beginning to suspect the danger is exaggerated because these people are black.
On the ride to town i met a guide, Sebi, who owns a guesthouse on the Sepik river at Kaminabit. His price is too high, but he introduced me to Jimmy, who lives i one of the villages, Kandigai, and he gave me a much lower price to spend two days on the river and visit the Sepik villages. Unfortunately, there is no other tourist to share the costs with. We leave tomorrow morning.
There are two banks in Wewak but they only exchange dollar banknotes that are recent and in perfect conditions, like in most of Africa. The other dollar notes are worthless. I changed all that they took.
Food is the bad news for me. I was expecting poor restaurants but not this biscuit-oriented society: the stores and street stalls only sell "biscuits" (sometimes chips). Even the market has very little in the way of fruit. So far i found none of the things that save me in Africa: cheese, bread and avocado. Not even tomatoes. Note that i was the only guest at the Seaview Hotel: the chef opened the restaurant for me.

Warihe Guesthouse 80k with shared bath
Jimmy Maik

Kandigai, PNG
Monday, May 16, 2011, 08:57 AM
This morning it took forever to get ready. I was about to look for my own transportation to the Sepik river when Jimmy finally showed up. He had found five English kids. They are studying medicine here (helping at the hospital) and this is their week of vacation. Alas, they have a week, and i only have two days, so we cannot share the same boat. The kids are staying at a religious guesthouse (SIL) out of town that costs only 55 kina. The place is called Kreer Heights. We briefly exchanged information before being shoveled into a PMV (Public Motor Vehicle, aka bus). They have been at the guesthouse all the time and not really experienced real life. Useless for me. The road is mostly good to Pagwi except for an hour or so of big potholes.
The best stop for me was at the market of Tuanambe: lo and behold, they actually had cooked veggie food. I bought rice balls for dinner and some friend flour-y thing.
we reached Pagwi after 4.5 hours. Pagwi is the last village on the road and the gateway to the Sepik villages that can be reached only by boat.
Jimmy and I went to buy fuel for my trip, a whopping 440kina. Pagwi has a nice guesthouse that charges 35kina, right on the river.
We boardd the motor canoe and 30 minutes later (too dark to take pictures) we were at the village of Kandigai. Luckily Jimmy sent the five English kids to the other side of the river where he is building a guesthouse. I stayed in his house in the village. I got plenty of introduction to their lifestyle during the evening.
The villages on the Sepik have no electricity but don't expect naked people dancing around the fire. Those days are gone. They wear western clothes and have mobile phones (with signal even in the jungle). That said, everything else is still true. These villagers don't see many whites: the whole village followed me everywhere like i was the tourist attraction.
they are quiet and mostly silent, as if intimidated (i was very intimidated by their sharp machetes). They don't look friendly but the moment you need something they go out of their way to help you. Unfortunately they just don't have most of what you need: clean water, toilettes, showers, internet...
The village has 156 houses and a large school with special accommodation for the teachers. All grades. I learned later that people from this village settled another village by the lake Chambri. Otherwise, they live pretty isolated. The chief came to say "hi". He spoke in his language as if i should know it. One of Jimmy's son eventually started translating: the chief's siblings are all dead and he thinks that he is going to die soon. I told him that he looked strong and in good health. He thanked me and walked away. The only half naked person in the village.
The houses are on stilt because of the frequent flooding, and the spirit house has two stories, with all the famous carvings on the upper one. fish is really the only thing that have here. They fish, they eat fish, they smoke fish, they sell fish in Pagwi.
Neither the heat nor the mosquitoes are too bad. The whole village is covered with smoke (they smoke fish nonstop) and this seems to keep the mostquitoes away. Of course chanvces of catching malaria when you sleep in these villages are very high.
Jimmy got a gift from a German tourist: a digital camera. I taught him how to use it and changed the language to English. He is very grateful.
It was too dark to visit the spirit house. I washed myself in the river.
Jimmy brought a mosquito net for me from Wewak.
Simple bed but at least malaria resistant.
He stored all my food in a big pot, the equivalent of a bear box: they have rats.
Right now about 20 people are staring at me as i am writing in the dark using my headlamp.

Sepik River
Tuesday, May 17, 2011, 01:21 AM
May 17, Sepik River

I didn't sleep much because of the rain, although it was nice that it
cooled down the place, and because of the rats running all night long
on the roof and the floors under my bed. They didn't touch my bags.
First thing in the morning i got a tour of the spirit house, which is
basically their parliament. Women are not allowed inside. Boys need to
be initiated before they can enter it. That consists in some crude
tattoo-like marks on the skin of the chest and the back. Then Jimmy
and i visited the English kids who had slept on the other bank of the
river. They got a lot more mosquitoes and palm-size spiders. I felt
good i only had the rats to worry about.
Then we parted ways. The Sepik is huge: it is their Nile. Their whole
life revolves around the river and its countless tributaries. Jimmy
and i took a canoe to the village of Korogo. Luckily for me there was
a man in need of a ride to Palombei, so he offered some money to
travel with us. After a hour or so we reached Palembei, that has two
spirit houses full of wooden masks. These days photography is no
longer fee: you pay 5 kina per spirit house when you enter the
village. The mosquitoes here were devastating. Palembei is partially
underwater and the trail was muddy. My visit was relatively short.
Then we crossed the river to Kanganaman, which has the oldest spirit
house and some of the best masks. This time no mosquitoes so i had
time to take pictures of all the masks and the pillars. Somehow the
carving reminded me of the temples of south India. Then we took a
narrow stream (best pictures of birds) to reach the lake Chambri, the
biggest lake in PNG. Here we visited three villages on three different
islands: Aubon, Chambri itself and Timbunmar (the one settled by the
people of Kandigai, relatives of Jimmy). These were mostly interesting
for village life. We walked around the islands, spoke with the
natives. Overall the mosquitoes were not half as bad as feared.
Now i am back in Kandigai, Jimmy's house. I have been before in a
one-street town, but never in a village with no street and no
electricity. After dark the only place to gather is the sort of square
in the middle where they smoke the fish.
The children are constantly with their relatives. Parenting is a
nonstop activity, quite a contrast with western habits. Children and
mother, uncle, cousin and so on are always together, day and night,
from birth to death. I wonder what it does to the brain of modern
western people that we no longer spend out whole life surrounded by
our family as we were genetically programmed to do.
The dogs are unique: they never bother a human, whether familiar or
stranger. Dogs bark at each other, fight with each other, play with
each other, totally indifferent to the surrounding humans.

Wewak, PNG
Wednesday, May 18, 2011, 01:21 AM
May 18, Wewak, PNG
(Difficult to write because sweat dripping from my forehead nonstop)
I left the village at 5am, reached Pagwi at sunrise. The truck to
Wewak had a bit of toruble getting out of the mud but eventually we
were on our way. Not a PMV but a private business. The owner is
actually the owner of the guesthouse in Pagwi that i had admired on
the way in. He is known as the "lion" and was amused to learn that i
used to be called "the lion" too. Owner and driver spent the whole six
hours of the trip making jokes, mostly sexual in nature. The concept
of family here seems to be pretty loose (the driver has five wives).
When we reached Wewak, i went to the Air Niugini office to check
option 1: fly straight back to Vanimo using the air ticket that i
have. The flight was full. Air Niugini has flights to Vanimo only on
wednesdays, so the next one is one week from now.
I found a business that has internet access: $1 per five minutes, the
most expensive in the world. I posted on this blog just one sentence
to say that i was alive. Then i decided to scout the guesthouse
outside town where the English kids had stayed for two months. Lots of
people offered help to find it and one lady, Myriam, offered to give
me a room. She too lives in Kreer Heights. She gave me the entire
lower storey of her house. For free. That's where i'm writing these
notes now. The lady is the matriarch of the family and is well known
in the neighborhood as a benefactor.
I learned this later when i went back to town looking in vain for
food. All stores close at 4pm and the two restaurants in the two
hotels don't open till 6pm, too late if you have to catch the minibus
back to Kreer Heights.
I wish i could write more but sweat is dripping all over the paper
erasing most of what i write.
It is not unusual that people offer you a room but it is unusual that
they don't want money and that the room is a... suite. A lot of people
are superfriendly. It is hard to believe that this country has a high
crime rate.
Tomorrow i will need to find out about transportation to Vanimo (to go
back to Indonesia) and to Mt Hagen (if i decided to visit the Central
Highlands, which will probably depend on the ticket price and on
whether my ATM card works in Wewak). I also need to check about cargo
ships at the port.
The Internet is so expensive that it is cheaper to take the bus to the
airport and go talk to them in person.
It would be nice not to have to improvise every day but there is
precious little information and the prices are sky high, a nasty
Now i will finish organizing the notes of the previous days. (You will
be reading this on the blog when i find Internet access).
I noticed that I am no longer used to writing on paper.
it is only 19":00 and it feels already like midnight: absolute quiet.
I am re-hydrating after 2 days of minimal water: this house has
filtered water and i can drink as much as i like.
I have seen two of the three things that i wanted to see in PNG: the
coast and the Sepik villages. Now i have to decide if i want to see
the third one: the Central Highlands. So far no trouble but i may be
pushing my luck. The quantity and quality of warnings against
traveling to the highlands (very primitive people) are intimidating
even by African standards.

Practicalities for Wewak
SIL Guesthouse 55kina in Kreer Heights reached by minibus in 20'
(1kina) but the last minibus runs around 6pm so no dinner in town if
you have to be back on your own.

Vanimo, PNG
Friday, May 20, 2011, 01:12 AM
Early in the morning of thursday Myriam took me to all the airlines and the shipping offices of Wewak to inquire about passages to Vanimo. The option of going to see the Central Highlands is no longer an option: the ticket costs $350 each way with AirlinesPNG. The way to go would be via ship to Megang and then via PMV (bus) via Goroka, Mt Hagen, Mendi, Tari but it is unknown how long it would take me to get back. Hence back to Vanimo and Indonesia, but no flight till wednesday.The only option was to find a car going to Vanimo. Remember that there is no road between Wewak and Vanimo, but :Land Cruisers still do it when they get enough passengers. It involves a rought 10-12 hour trip, crossing a few rivers (no bridges) and the possibility of getting stuck in the jungle.
Myriam was against the whole idea and wanted me to just stay at her place the whole week but i am itching to go see the other side (Indonesian New Guinea).
The cars that are going to Vanimo stop by the market and the post office. When i was already despairing, a relatively new car stopped by. The price is 150 kina. The car already had eight passengers squeezed in the back. We drove to Myriam's place to pick up my bag. Of course, it started raining. We waited a bit but then the driver decided to start driving no matter what. The road is indeed terrifying. It's bumpy nonstop for countless hours. The 4WD is often driving through unmarked fields of mud at high speed. In the back you can feel every bump. It is not covered so you get rain, dust, insects, whatever.
Obviously these drivers do it all the time because they fly. They had told me that the trip would take 9 hours but it took 6 hours just to reach Aitape, halfway.
I was a bit worried at the first river crossing (the driver gets physically into the river to check how deep the water is before he drives through it at high speed) but then got used to it. I was surprised to see so many cars on the track. We met quite a few, all of them packed to the limit. Not many villages along the way though. Any obstacle that forced us to stop was a welcome relief for my butt and my stomach. In Aitape the driver realized that one of the wheels was getting loose: he needed to change one of the bolts. It was almost midnight and nobody in sight. Therefore we had to sleep on the street next to the car. At sunrise he found the bolt and we started the trip again. The driver was feeling bad because he had promised me to get to Vanimo by night. I know that i needed the whole of friday to get the Indonesian visa. Getting there on friday afternoon meant that i would have to spend the whole weekend in Vanimo, the most expensive place in PNG. I put pressure on him to get there as quickly as possible, but the road is just a devastating experience. We got in Vanimo after crossing the last and biggest river at 4pm, just when the consulate was closing (in any event they told me that it takes a day to get the visa). I was too tired even to be depressed. I just told the driver to drop off the other passengers. He had volunteered to find me cheap accommodation in town. As i was lying down on the grass waiting for him to return, the vendor women started talking to me and i explained that i had missed my flight in Wewak and then the car had broken down so now i was stuck in Vanimo until monday. They spoke to someone and eventually a guy showed up, Henry, who offered me a room right across from the consulate. Bingo.
So i am the guest of another generous and welcoming family. His parents Rachel and Pelick run the local DHL office, which is really just their house. Very religious people. I suspect the Christian message resonates easily with these Sepik people because it is so similar to how they have always behaved. Myriam had told me "The Sepik people are born with a smile on their face". So now the plan is to rest the weekend, write these notes, get the visa on monday, spend five days in West Papua/Irian Jaya (Indonesian New Guinea) provided i obtain the surat jalan (permit to travel inland).

Vanimo, Papua New Guinea
Sunday, May 22, 2011, 12:51 AM
Relaxing in Vanimo for the weekend. Washing my clothes, looking for food, reading. It's a small town on a peninsula with a beach on each side connected by the airport. There are two expensive hotels (the only restaurants too, when the electricity is on, the potatoes are in, and the chef is available). There is a huge Philipino logging operation that one can see from the top of the hill. As i was walking around town, Henry told me that the hospital forced the liquor store to close because too many young men like him were getting chronically sick (not sure what kind of sickness). I toured the market and tried a few of the local fruits: lau lau, caucau, pau, etc.
it is amazing how indifferent the dogs are to humans in this country.
Rachel is from an island where land ownership is passed on only to the daughters. When he gets married, the man has a choice: buy land for his new family or move to the land owned by the wife. This also encourages marriages between cousins to keep the land in the family.
Running out of paper to write everything that i am learning here. I can't wait to get to an Internet cafe in Indonesia. I bet Jayapura has plenty.
I met a member of parliament who is staying at one of the expensive beach hotels and he told me that the whole of PNG is pretty much offline. I finally found a country that is not on the Internet. Their newspapers only talk about local events so i know nothing of what has happened in the world this last ten days.
The family cooked a traditional meal from the eastern islands for me: "mumu". They put stones under and above a fire. Then they get rid of the ashes. They mix greens, roots and "taro" in coconut flour and wrap the whole thing into six layers of banana leaves (normally they would also put chicken but i explained that i am vegetarian). Then they put the package on the hot stones, surrounded by the stones that were on top the fire, so that they are warmed up from all sides. They leave it there overnight: no flames, no ashes, just the hot stones slowly steaming the food. The whole family had to work. Pelick (the father) was grinding coconut meat, Rachel (the mother) was slicing and wrapping, one of the sons was tending the fire, etc.

Jayapura, Indonesia
Monday, May 23, 2011, 06:31 AM
This was the big morning finally. I wasatthe Indonesian consulate at 9am, ready to yell if they told me the visa would take more than a day. Instead they just smiled and promised a visa by early afternoon. Then i went to Air Niugini to get a refund for the Wewak-Vanimo ticket that i did not use. The lady was extremely helpful and managed to contact the right people in the capital and get me the refund.
Then i had my last expensive PNG meal aftermany adventures. At 2pm i bid farewell to the nice family leaving them all my remaining kina (about $50),
took the bus to the border of Batas and went smoothly through the border. Did i mention that i love to cross borders on foot? Back in Indonesia the prices were immediatelya fraction of the prices in PNG. It took a couple of ojeks (motorcycles) but i was back in Jayapura by 5pm.
The cheap hotels were all full so i am staying at a relatively expensive hotel ($30).
The difference between the two sides of the border couldn't be more shocking: the Indonesian side is noisy and busy, lots of motorcycles, muezzins prayers, and absolutely no English.
Last but no least, back to the Internet world.
Now i have about 20 pages of notes to enter here about the previous week in wild Papua New Guinea (PNG)

Indonesia's Papua is even less explored than Papua New Guinea. There are only a few regions that can be reached by plane and even those require special permits from the government of Indonesia. The rest is either inexplored (400,000 square kms of jungle) or still very primitive (literally in the Stone Age). The villages of Baliem Valley were only discovered in 1938. The local people have been resisting Indonesian occupation and colonization. This is the equivalent of Tibet: Indonesia has relocated so many people from Java that now the majority of the people in Papua are ethnically Indonesian. The authorities know that westerners tend to side with the natives, and this further limits our movements. The missionaries are also discouraged, but that's probably on religious grounds (originally this was as Christian as Papua New Guinea but now the Indonesian settlers are building mosques all over the place).

Jayapura, Papua, Indonesia
Tuesday, May 24, 2011, 01:45 AM
Going to Wawema tomorrow morning at 10am and returning May 27 at 11am.
Wawema is the gateway to the Baliem Valley that was discovered in 1938. The trek normally takes 5-7 days. I hope to see something in just two days.
To get there i had to spend the morning with bureaucracy. You need a surat jalan (travel permit) to exit the capital of this region Papua First i got the air tickets, then i went to the police station and applied for the surat jalan. Pure bullshit. They didn't even check my itinerary: they just wanted 20,000 rupias. Now i want to change hotel. I don't need this $30 room with tvset and A/C so i will hire a ojek (motorcycle taxi) and drive around till i find something cheaper.
My ATM card works in Indonesian Papua too. I'm amazed. In Africa my US bank blocks it the first time i try to use it.
I finished entering all the notes about Papua New Guinea (PNG). See below. Quite an effort because of the sweat dripping on the keyboard, mouse, etc.

Wamena, Papua, Indonesia
Wednesday, May 25, 2011, 04:24 AM
I left Jayapura at 8am after a bad night in a filthy hotel. Anywere you want to go to the Papua region you need to fly because there are no roads (not even tracks) beyond this narrow region. In fact, one colossal national park is not even reachable by regular flights (only by chartered plane).
On the way to Sentani (airport town) i passed Etrop and Abepura. This is the most scenic stretch of the highway. The views rival the Amalfi coast.

I arrived in Wamena (the main hub of Baliem Valley) at about noon. The airport is where the old town used to be. You walk outside and all the old hotels are across the street. A few blocks away to the left are the various churches and missions that probably came when this place was a Dutch colony. There is however a new town to the right of the airport that is booming with shopping malls, restaurants and (lo and behold) an internet cafe. Still small but you can see that it will grow quickly. This new part of town is settled by the Javanese businessman and it looks like Java: messy, noisy, busy, motorycles and all sorts of goods.
The Indonesian settlers unfortunately also brought their mosques and muezzins and the annoying call to prayer.
Wamena is neatly divided in two by the huge police compound: the old town is full of native (black) people talking and moving around in the traditional manner, and they are mostly Christian, while the new town is like Java. Hotels are very expensive by Indonesian standards but i got a room at the Catholic mission for 100,000 rupias ($13). The pastor hooked me up with a boy from a village and hopefully tomorrow he will take me around the villages. Any black person here could do the same but very few of them speak English. Those who speak English are the official guides and they ask for 500,000 rupias a day. I met a Belgian guy who will trekk by himself for a week, but of course you miss quite a bit if you can't speak with the local people. In Jayapura i was the only tourist, but here there are a handful. I guess the Baliem Valley is becoming popular with Europeans. It won't take long before the villages get "civilized".
When i arrived i was supposed to show my surat jalan (travel permit) but no police officer asked for it. The pastor, however, told me that we are supposed to register at the police station within 24 hours, so i went there and they stamped the permit and kept a copy. There is absolutely no sign of trouble, but the massive presence of police and soldiers tell you that there is still a civil war somewhere around here.
A nice thing about Wamena is that it still has bekac (bicycle taxis) and not only ojek (motorcycle taxis). I visited the market in a town nearby where i saw the first naked man (not even in PNG) although i didn't dare take a picture of him. He was only wearing a long tube on his penis. He was just staring at the chaos of the market without moving or uttering a word.
Because this valley is at higher elevation, i finally left behind the heat. It is actually quite chilly now that the sun is setting (5pm).
So tomorrow i will trek to villages with the native boy.

The Jayapura airport is actually in Sentani: two/three hours by bemo, one hour by ojek. A ojek from Jayapura to Sentani costs 150,000 rupias. Halfway is Abepura, that has a Hotel 777 near the university campus.
Jayapura: Hotel Mario Marannu in alley behind the Kartini 110,000 rupias but filthy
No tourist info, not even a map of the city or the region
The cheap hotels are frequently full
Decent hotels in Jayapura are Defonsoro near the Aston, and Sederhana near the Yasmin.
Get the surat jalan (travel permit to the interior) from the police station near the Hotel Moata (20,000 rupias)
There are daily flights from Jayapura to Wamena for about #170 roundtrip
The airport tax is usually not included in the ticket price in Indonesia.
Wamena: Hotel Aggrek 320,000. It's difficult to spend less than 200,000 here. The villages charge 150,000 rupias per night for "home accommodation". Guides ask for 500,000 rupias a day.

Baliem Valley, Papua, Indonesia
Thursday, May 26, 2011, 05:12 AM

I rarely get excited but today was a good day. I'm back in Wamena just before sunset after a day in the villages of Baliem Valley.
I had heard of Baliem Valley but always thought of it as a legend. It feels a bit weird to actually be here.
First of all: if all the fellow backpackers who fall in love with my ideas were girls, i would have the biggest harem ever. Alas, they tend to be guys. Yesterday i met a Belgian guy who has been traveling for two years and was about to start trekking in the Baliem Valley. He joined me for dinner while i was negotiating the itinerary and schedule with a kid introduced to me by the Catholic mission, Doga. He was listening to Doga and myself discussing the plan and couldn't believe that i wanted to do in one (long) day what most people would do in 3 or 4 days; and using a kid from the village instead of the official guides. By the end of dinner he had decided to tag along. We bought food, went to sleep (he's staying in one of the expensive hotels) and arranged to meet at 6am in front of the airport.
This morning at 6am we started our trip. We took a bemo to the end of the paved road (the village's name is Uosi-something, not on the map). One hour after Wamena the road forks: the right branch will eventually reach Jayapura, while the left branch goes towards the southern coast of Papua. A few years from now you'll be able to drive from one coast to the other coast...
Then Doga led us on a trail that initially coasts the river Baliem and we entered more and more into the valley. The range to the right separates the valley from the (more or less civilized) northern coast of New Guinea, whereas the range to the left leads to mostly unexplored lands. The mountains are neither tall nor steep by California or Italian standards, but they are intimidating because the place is still so primitive. Some of the older men still walk around naked. The villages are mostly still in the Stone Age: i saw absolutely no furniture in any of the huts that we saw the entire day. Not even outside. The huts are very low. The roof is lower than my head. Inside they just sit on grass leaves. The women have their own long house. The men have their own nice round home. The men's hut had a good display of arrows. Some of them are for animals and some of them are for ... humans. The homes generally form a horseshoe. The gate is a nice arch of branches. Not much going on inside. The hike was very quiet by any standards. We met quite a few people walking between villages. Everybody is very friendly and wants to shake hands.
So these are the Dani people. They were discovered in 1938. Today the men mostly wear western clothes, but the older generation sometimes can still be seen (and photographed) hanging naked by the road. They were converted to Catholicism and we saw one church in the middle of nowhere. Beyond the mountains live the Djali (spelling?) people. Those are not nice. The Dani say that the Djali people were cannibals and they still occasionally eat the men they kill (not sure if it's only the men or also the women). The second group of missionaries were used for dinner. It's eerie to hear these people talk about cannibalism like it was a fact of life. Doga was translating in his broken English. Clearly the Dani don't like the Djali. Maybe part of what they told us is legend. The Djali don't quite mingle in the towns.
Tha amazing thing, of course, is that you don't have to go too far from a paved road to find the Stone Age. The road was paved in 2010. It took one hour by bemo to get to the end of the road. Then just 1.5 hours of walking to get to Woogi (Doga's village). I am now in an Internet cafe 2.5 hours from the Stone Age. Surreal.
I felt absolutely safe, as the Catholic priest had told me. The difficulties were the mud (some trails were impassable: people were walking into mud up to their knees) and crossing the creeks over tiny branches (yes, deep water underneath). If i had been by myself i would have probably stopped at the first crossing. Doga made it, and male pride forced me to do the same. Eventually i just got used to tightrope acrobatics.
I've rarely seen such primitive people, even in Africa. By "primitive" i really mean primitive. Their huts have absolutely nothing. Their tools are still what they were thousands of years ago. I'm not sure what keeps them from buying a hammer or scissors. Maybe don't physically have money. They do grow food though: there were cultivated fields all along the river.
Doga told us that most Papuans don't like to be part of Indonesia. He showd us one place that has a big sign (in their language) "Papua Independence Movement". Today this is mostly a peaceful movement, but, as mentioned in previous postings, the Indonesian police still requires a special permit to travel here. Doga says that some Papuans are accepting Indonesian colonization, so he fears that some day there will be a civil war within Papuans themselves. And, from what i understand, there are Papuans and Papuans: it's not like the Dani would fight along the Djali that used to eat them...
On the way back there was no bemo coming. We lay down on the asphalt and waited until a Land Cruiser stopped and gave us a ride back to Wamena.
Wamena is gearing up for August 8-11 when they have a big festival that will attract the tour groups from Jakarta. A few more years and this once legendary valley will be a major tourist destination.

The only other guest in the Catholic mission is the prettiest nun ever (a Chinese woman) with a smile that would convert even Mohammed.

Summarizing New Guinea
Thursday, May 26, 2011, 05:22 AM
Wow. This was quite a demanding trip. New Guinea is divided in two: the independent Papua New Guinea and the Indonesia's region of West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya).
First of all, New Guinea is big and what has been explored is only a fraction, and what you can see is only a fraction of the fraction. Yes, three centuries after its discovery. Every now and then linguists discover a new language, zoologists discover a new species, etc. The Baliem Valley was discovered only in 1938. There are still unexplored regions. The map shows nothing in the middle.
PNG has poor infrastructure. It's Africa in the Pacific. You must like adventure and be good at improvising.Really good. It is also very expensive, which compounds the problems of traveling. It has a reputation for high crime although personally i did not experience any threat. Malaria is widespread. It is a very tiring experience. Luckily people help a lot, and you do need their help.
Indonesia's Papua/Irian Jaya is more developed and developing rapidly. There are now paved roads to places a couple of hours from Stone Age villages. It is being colonized by Javanese people resettled by the Indonesian government. Therefore its towns are becoming less "Papuan" (black) and more Indonesian (lots of shops, motorcycles and mosques). It is a lot cheaper (even though more expensive than Java or Bali) and safer. The interior seems to be more primitive than PNG but i think it has to do with the infrastructure: in PNG it is terribly difficult to reach even the oldest towns, whereas in Indonesia you can reach even some parts of the interior with one flight, one bemo ride and a short trek. Hence you get to see for a few more years) things that would be too difficult and expensive to see in PNG.
Huge areas of both sides are virtually off-limits: either unexplored, too dangerous (no government control) or just no road/airport for the general public. Indonesia has declared a huge area of Papua a national park (Cenderawasin Bay Park near Manokwan) but there is neither a town, nor a regular flight, nor roads to visit it... PNG's Crater Mountain has been declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations but the only way to get there is by chartered flight (note that it is only 50 kms from Goroka, but 50 impassable kms). Etc.

Very little English is spoken in Indonesian Papua, like in all the Indonesian islands east of Bali. You do need to practice a bit of Bahasa Indonesia.
The Papuans hate the Indonesian immigrants as passionately and silently as the Tibetans hate the Chinese. Their children cannot go to the best schools while the children of the Indonesian immigrants get an education and money. It's exactly the same situation as in Tibet, where the Tibetans watch as spoiled Chinese kids tour their country while the Tibetan children live in poor huts with animals.

In both sides of New Guinea there is virtually no concept of time. If you ask "how long does it take" the answer is a random number of hours. I was told 10 hours for the car trip from Wewak to Vanimo which is at least 12 hours and actually took 16 hours. I was told the bemo from Wamena to the end of the paved road would take four hours: it took one hour. The trek to the first village was supposed to take four hours: it took 1.5 hours. The plane that was supposed to leave at 11am left at 1pm. When i asked Jimmy how old he is, he replied 45 but i later saw his birthdate on his i.d.: 1954.


A note on safety (and this applies to any wildly undeveloped country, from Mozambique to Papua New Guinea)
* Ultimately, you are on your own. The driver, the guide, the village chief, etc don't really care about your safety. You are, ultimately, a wallet that contains the money that they need for their family. Their main goal is to get the money (honestly), not to make sure that you don't get sick, hurt, etc. They will protect you from crime, but that's not the issue. The issues are malaria, getting stuck in the middle of nowhere, getting in town before dark, finding food that you can eat, etc.
The last of their concerns is your belongings. Again, they will protect you against thieves, but don't count on them to avoid actions that might cost you a camera or your entire luggage. If it starts raining, they still want to do what you paid them for: the fact that all your things might get wet is not an issue for them.
Ditto for your health: they will not focus on how you can avoid getting malaria or typhoid.
These are places where people routinely experience loss of belongings, all sorts of diseases, accidents, etc. While they know that "whites" need special attention to survive, it is just not part of their mindset to take all the precautions that you take for granted in western countries.
Hiring a local guide is not a substitute for using your brain. You are the one who has to protect your things from the rain, bring mosquito repellent and net, wear the appropriate clothing, stock on the food/drinks you need, take malaria pills, etc.
To travel in these places it is essential that you are in excellent health and you have a strong immune system. People who catch the flue every year are *not* in good health. Ditto for people who get food poisoning. The stress on your body will be thousands of times bigger than it is in your natural environment. You can't travel through these countries if you need to go to the bathroom all the time or get carsick easily (or get scared of anything that was not planned at the start).

Wamena Airport, Papua
Friday, May 27, 2011, 10:49 AM

Waiting at the Wamena airport for the flight back to Jayapura was a show in itself. It's a one-room airport. There is absolutely no security and no i.d. check: anybody can walk into the room. I felt a great pity for the naked native that walked inside with his bag full of handmade tools that he was trying to sell to the passengers. Eventually he just took a seat among the passengers and stared at us and at the plane on the runaway. A female officer came and politely escorted him outside. I wonder how the Muslim women wearing headscarves at all feel about these naked native men walking among them.

Meditation on the new pagans.
Before i left the USA, i met two friends who are emblematic of trents in the West. One is a girl ("A") in her 30s who would like to "date" (which really means "have sex") with men from every culture and ethnic background (she proudly lists her collection of Indian, European, African-American and Chinese boyfriends). The other one is a guy ("B") in the 20s who wants to try all the drugs that exist. When i was in New Guinea, i met the people of a Dani village who are still afraid of their neighbors, the Djali, because they used to be cannibals and still talk about human brains as if it were a fact of life. This close encounter with cannibal societies triggered some thinking about collective self-restraint, an invention that was popular for a few thousand years but is rapidly on the way out. Thousands of years ago the vast majority of people would try anything during their lifetime: all sorts of food (including human brain) and all sorts of sex (including incest). Then for reasons that remain largely obscure all "civilized" societies introduced constraints on what is legitimate for individuals to do. In some cases it was about relationships within family and state (e.g. Confucius) and in some cases it was about personal behavior (e.g. Christianity). For example, eating humans came to be forbidden in almost all societies, and incest too, and many other activities (even walking naked). For centuries the vast majority of people would try very little during their lifetimes. The things you were not supposed to do outnumbered the things you were allowed to do. We seem to be moving back to the "try anything" lifestyle of the "pagans". My friends A and B are ready to try anything. They are probably already wondering how human brain tastes.

Kupang, Timor, Indonesia
Saturday, May 28, 2011, 10:35 AM
Between Java (where the capital is and most of the population resides) and Papua there are thousands of Indonesian islands.
Those were the Indies that Columbus was trying to reach via a shorter western route instead of thelong and perlous eastern route.
I wonder about the first European traders who ventured into these hot and humid islands in search of spices. What was it like to meet these smiling and kind natives in these luxuriant jungles so far from home? Imagine how long and impossible the journey was from Holland or Portugal to Timor.
West Timor was Dutch and is not part of Indonesia, but still mostly Christian (just like Bali is Hindu). East Timor was Portuguese and is still very Catholic, and it is independent.

I arrived in Kupang after a heck of a detour because a flight had been canceled. Unfortunately, the bad news is that East Timor now requires a visa, and it takes three days to get a visa, so i am stuck in West Timor (that belongs to Indonesia) and don't have enough time to wait for the visa, go to East Timor, return to Indonesia and catch my flight to the USA. East Timor is a red dot that will have to wait for another time. I found a nice hotel by the beach. This is such a warm beach at night compared with the one i'm used to in California.

Airport to Kupang town 25,000 rupias
Hotel Maliana on the beach 170,000 rupias +

Jakarta, Indonesia
Monday, May 30, 2011, 10:54 AM
Pictures of the two weeks in New Guinea:

I spent these last three days flying to the tiniest airports on propeller jets. I have to hop to a few islands in order to get back (Biak to Sulawesi to Flores to Timor to Java).
I gave up on East Timor. So now i have extra days. Tomorrow i will decide if i go to Singapore or somewhere else before returning to the USA or if i just fly back home and save money.

This part of the world is unique in the role that water plays. Volcanic activity has created tens of thousands of islands in the Pacific Ocean. Rains have created huge rivers in all the major islands. Indonesia is a country of rivers and seas.
People's lives revolve around water like in no other place on Earth.

What a difference in prices. It took me a split second to find a room with private bath for less than $10 in Jakarta (the usual Jalan Jaksa area).

Hostel Memories in a narrow alley off Jalan Jaksa 80,000 rupias

Pictures of New Guinea

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