With only a week to see as much as I could there was no time to think about all the snakes and spiders awaiting me in the jungle. In order to meet the local tribes, you have to lace up your hiking boots and trek. As the powerful afternoon rains soak through your clothing you must forge forward using your adrenalin to force yourself across rickety wooden bridges strung high over fast-flowing rivers. It’s moments like these that leave you feeling like Indiana Jones.
Johnny was our head porter. When he was a child he took a terrible fall and dislocated his hip which has left one of his legs significantly shorter than the other. Despite the bad hand he was dealt by life, Johnny has an amazing demeanour and wore a contagious smile on his face for the entire journey. I was sincerely grateful to him for lugging my 20kg backpack so effortlessly through the jungle.
As we neared a village we were met by a group of boisterous children, some of whom were happily spinning tires ahead of them. Two members of the group shyly took each of my hands as they guided me across a slippery bridge while above us the heavens opened up and a heavy rain began to fall.
Passing through the rustic village, people came out of their humble homes to greet us with bemused smiles. No matter where you go in the world, it seems locals are always intrigued by newcomers.
I was as enchanted by this woman’s smile as she was by our presence in her village. She was returning from a day’s labour in the fields, carrying a stack of firewood on her head and the fruits of her labour in a large bag on her back. No doubt the firewood would be used to cook her vegetables that night.
According to local tradition, when a woman loses a younger member of her family, she must cut off one finger. Left fingers are the first to go. Thumbs are always left for last.
This outdated tradition has thankfully now been outlawed, though not soon enough to save this woman’s fingers.
In my opinion, this photo demonstrates how harsh the reality of life in Papua really is.
Driven by their curiosity, some locals bravely came over and sat near our group as we rested.
The rain in Papua is nothing short of torrential. When it starts it is best to run for cover. These laughing children sought shelter in their family’s kitchen to avoid a soaking. I wasn't as fortunate with miles to go to our destination.
We were pleasantly surprised to find a school in the small village. Under Indonesian law it is mandatory that all children be taught to read and write. The population is literate despite what their primitive farming methods might suggest. Time will tell if this enforced education will have an effect on agriculture.
This man in shorts stands outside his home holding four kotekas. One for each season, I wonder to myself?
A koteka is a dried, hollowed pumpkin local men traditionally used to cover their genitals. Kotekas can even be employed to transport other small valuables along with the man’s privates, much like we would use a wallet.
Entering one village we noticed the streets were empty. We soon came upon a courthouse where charges were being heard against a local man for stealing women from a nearby village. Under customary law, the man’s penance is settled by paying compensation to the village. Those gathered for the case speculated that the man would be forced to hand over 30 pigs for his naughty behaviour.
This is all the people of Ugem village. Their entire village came out to greet us as we approached. This tribe rarely receive visitors and they were determined to make us feel welcome. We had also brought along a pig as a gift which pleased them no end. To be honest, I’m not sure if it was us or the pig they were happier to meet. They made a spectacular sight in their traditional garb against the misty mountain backdrop.
As we drew closer they broke out into traditional song and dance.
Someone kindly thought to snap a shot of me on my camera as I returned from greeting the dancing tribe. What a happy surprise I got when I was scanning through my photos later that day to see that precious moment had been recorded.
Tribes stealing women from each other is a sad reality of Papua life. This photo shows the demonstration the Ugem men gave us of the war tactics they use to defend their women from would be poachers.
This tribal warrior is brandishing traditional weapons as he stands guard over his territory.
As the meet and greet drew to a halt it was time to light the fire to cook the pig we had gifted the village of Ugem.
The smell and sounds of the impending feast attracted spectators from the surrounding villages.
Making a fire is taken very seriously around this part of the world.
Before long the tribespeople begin to gather around the smoking bushes.
This child sits with a look of earnest concentration watching the men build the fire for the feast. It struck me how similarly children from all countries quietly watch and learn from their adults.
Once the rocks have been heated by the fire they are carried over to a hole by the adults. Soon the feast will be lowered into the hole to cook.
Now the women carefully place prepared vegetables around the scorching rocks. The villagers all contributed vegetables they had gathered for the feast.
Water is poured in the hole once the women have placed their vegetables inside.
Sweet anticipation. Sitting. Waiting for the meal to cook, these women must be wishing the time would pass faster.
Although the village of Ugem may not have many western visitors they appear to have picked up one of the worst western habits, smoking. I noticed that, like many westerners who smoke, most of the cigarettes were smoked when the men were taking a break between tasks.
Unfortunately, health warnings on cigarette packs haven't had any impact on them.
Not everyone was bored waiting for the feast to be ready. These village children took the opportunity to play. Although they are a million miles away from where I grew up, my heart was warmed watching them play games very similar to those which I had played as a child.
Line up time. While some yawned openly and others looked shyly away from the cameras, the village women and children were happy to pose for photos.
My young model. As I snapped her photo I couldn’t help but wonder what life held in store for her. Was she happy? What was her life like? I found myself thinking perhaps she was wondering the same about me and my life.
The ornate headdress worn by the men of the tribe is made from the feathers of the bird-of-paradise.
The family gathers together
A tribal child holding a can of Coca Cola. This is truly a scene from the 1980’s movie, The God’s Must Be Crazy.
I was not the bearer of the Coca Colas, but after watching the whole tribe joyously drink down cans of the stuff I found myself tempted to have some too. What was I thinking? I don’t even like Coke!
This old warrior must have some stories to share. I wonder how many years he has hunted with a traditional, handmade bow and arrow? How amazing that after all these years this is still the weapon used to bring home food and protect the tribe. What sort of animals would he go after with that? Time seems to stand so still here.
This little boy struck me as a Papuan Cupid. Standing amongst his family he confidently shows off his bow and arrow skills.
In Papua the young are taught to be reverent to their elders, who hold a high position in the tribe hierarchy. This man was one of the elders.
Around 200 years ago there lived an elder so loved and respected by the whole village that when he died the villagers decided to keep him around forever. They set about mummifying his remains and to this day he remains in his village amongst his tribe.
While the majority of villages we saw consisted of basic huts, the village of Ugem also boasted some rather modern houses.
The feeling of being in the village with the people of Ugem was so intense that it made parting very difficult. It was a sad moment watching them return to their village after escorting us back to the path.