Well! that’s certainly the first time I have been welcomed at an airport by a man wearing only a gourd on his cock. Admittedly, when I say airport, the structure at Wamena in the Baliem Valley, West Papua tends more towards the idea of a cow shed than what you would traditionally imagine an airport to be. This however, did nothing to make the experience any the less superb. Plenty of destinations around the world would benefit from having more old men’s scrotums on view to enliven their dull banality.
Happily for the Baliem Valley there are other attractions on offer, principally some splendid scenery, whose cool highland air brings blessed relief after weeks of relentless sweating. A Scotsman would feel at home amongst the mighty, rock strewn hills, with their dry stone walling and clumps of fern, resplendent under cloudy skies whispering promises of rain. He may even rejoice at the absence of midges and icy winters, although the overt lack of anything alcoholic to drink may take the sheen off it after a few hours (apologies to my dear Scots readers for this shameless piece of racial profiling in order to gain a cheap laugh – feel free to call me a southern poof in return).
If there is one thing that great scenery demands it’s a nice bit of walking around. Thus, with my two French travelling compatriots, Arnaud and Stephanie, we boldly sauntered off up into the hills, having sensibly enlisted the services of local guide, Onesius and perhaps more importantly, the cook Lana, to ensure that our emaciated corpses were not found weeks later, having starved to death in some remote valley. “Sauntered” probably puts a bit of a lively spin on the style of perambulation, as a sedate amble would be closer to the truth. What with I being a decrepit old git and Stephanie having only recently given up smoking, we didn’t feel the need to impress the locals with our vigour, particularly as Onesius and Lana were carrying all the food and could easily outpace us.
The first villages of the Dani tribes in the hills at the southern end of the valley just beg brochure writers to reach for the tried and trusted clichés of charming and quaint, so you will just have to imagine that I have picked some suitably sparklingly, original and creative metaphors to describe them. Handfuls of domed, thatched huts are clumped on tightly cropped lawns bordered by neatly trimmed hedges, surrounded by the militarily precise rows of vegetables on the sloped cottage gardens. This was the ordered calm of Middle England, just devoid of modern conveniences like electricity, flushing toilets, moisturizer and sofas. With a half day hike to the nearest thing resembling a shop, predominantly stocked with noodles and cigarettes, you need to be fairly resourceful to live in even these parts closest to what westerners like to think of as civilisation. Another day into the valley and its no good thinking of popping out for a pack of biscuits to go with your tea, should you be lucky enough to possess tea bags in any case. No doubt the diet largely based on a daily intake of sweet potatoes, would inspire people once in a while to take their bare, leathery feet over the jagged paths for two days to taste the finer things in life, like cream crackers and tinned pilchards.
It soon becomes apparent that the gourd is no simple fashion accessory for the more mature man to entertain the tourists, as we run into these men happily going about their daily chores with the security that the most vital organ is well protected. Sure, they are not unaware of some commercial value on their traditional attire, or rather the lack of it, as you are expected to give a small tip when taking pictures but one man did politely decline when I asked. An offer of a cigarette is a sure way to make friends though. Some sell handmade trinkets to tourists but it is hardly the basis for funding any dreams debauchery or early retirement. When signing in at the military post at the start of the trek it had been four days since the previous visitors and the only retiring early that goes on round here is going to bed after sun down, as there’s nothing else to do apart from girding one’s loins for a hard day gathering sweet potatoes or the like. The price of a necklace in one village was so derisory that I couldn’t help myself over paying the man. Hence any suggestion that rampant commercialism had totally polluted the atmosphere of the valley would be somewhat overstepping the mark.
The welcome offered came naturally to them and one old man insisted on hugging each of us when it was time to leave. Even though you would be hard pressed to find a more passionate advocate on the benefit of hugs than me and I am at complete ease hugging macho hunks or raving nancy boys there was a little voice in my head saying, “don’t touch his knob, don’t touch his knob”.
Christianity came to Papua a long time ago and along with the Indonesian government has done more to erode traditional life than anything us tourists might fear contributing to, but it still competes with traditional beliefs. Passing through on a Sunday didn’t give the impression of heaving crowds in the handful of little churches, whose twentieth century construction glared out from the hillsides, rather than settled in, as did the usual homes. Most remarkable was the fact that every single block and sheet of metal roofing had to be carried by hands for miles to get there. Pack animals are unknown in the valley, which might suggest a business opportunity in the donkey importation business.
Older women too have their own traditional signifiers, though not as immediately obvious as the men’s appendages. Regular battles with neighbouring tribes were one of the traditions that Christianity helped erode that we probably ought not be too upset about losing. To some degree ritualistic in nature, these battles rarely demanded many fatalities but women would mark the loss of a husband or close male relative by chopping off an ear lobe or a section of finger. Deaths by non violent means could also be commemorated in this way. Even today you can still shake hands with the stumpy digits of many an old lady as deadly battles continued at least until the sixties.
Spying one of the many prolific growths of Datura, a plant beloved by psychonauts and European witches for centuries for its narcotic effects, I inquired if it was used in ceremonies here. No, the local youths use it to get off their heads and party – perhaps one of the oldest human traditions there is and at least its organic, free range and fair trade.
Despite only seeing two other foreign tourists in the four days in the valley, it is probably Papua’s biggest tourist draw but is concentrated around the annual festival in August. Here, all the valley’s tribes are on show and some agencies offer dubious promises of visiting stone age cultures or even ludicrous “first contact” expeditions. What these charlatans do hint at though is that crucial bait wriggling in the minds of us nice middle class westerners, that authenticity, that primitive blood line to our ancient ancestors from the days before we evolved enough to make a mess of everything. It’s the ideal of the noble savage, living organically, at one with the environment, untouched by the consumerism and pollution we guiltily endorse. No need for the latest gadget, better credit card deal or that magic product which will make us irresistible to the opposite sex. What could better represent that authenticity than a man, naked in his coarse , brown skin, etched by a lifetime of honest toil, wearing only a headdress, a smile with a gourd on his dick.
Waiting for the inevitably delayed flight away from the cow shed airport, watching one of the old men outside, one hand gripped to the fence, gently imploring a pair of smoking Indonesians for a cigarette, a cloud of anger and sadness enveloped me. These contemptuous businessmen not even deigning to make eye contact or even offer a grunt of rejection to an old man reduced to begging for cigarettes, from those who had reaped rich rewards from the land his people had ploughed for millenia. Did they not realise that this old man and his brethren were the one thing that brought tourist money into the valley? The young Papuans, still no doubt proud of their culture were happy in Man. United shirts and trainers. Who would come to take pictures of them when the wrinkled old men have danced their last warrior dance? I clasped his hand through the fence with a bank-note, wishing I could say so much more.
I do not end on a sad note to put you off coming here, on the contrary (and particularly after reading my upcoming piece on the political situation) do come for the rugged scenery, the wonderful people and a bit of authenticity. Come, before the young men wear the gourds just to pose for tourist photos. Come, before yet another slice of the planet’s culture slips under the rising tide of something laughably known as progress. Come, to the one place on earth where the tourist industry is entirely dependent on a few old men’s scrotums.