Join me in my wanderings around the globe via these online ramblings in far off places....

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Merry Christmas, Vietnam

Vietnam is one of my favourite countries to travel in. It’s a dynamic and vibrant country with a very colourful history, a history that leaps out at you at almost every corner. The recent, post WWII history, of the French War, the American War, The Chinese Border War and the Cambodian War have obviously had a huge impact on the country that is Vietnam today. The collapse of the great benefactor that was the Soviet Union, and the need to reform their economic policies along similar lines to China led to the “open door” of 1991 and subsequent massive and rapid development and growth.

bdsc_0031Welcome to the Socialist People’s Republic of Vietnam, would you like a Rolls Royce with that? (Downtown Saigon)

DSC_0934 (2)Rolls Royce’s like above, share the streets with posters celebrating the successful revolution that created modern Vietnam

dsc_0891the giant Bitexco Tower, complete with equally giant helipad, some what symbolises the modern dynamic atmosphere of Vietnam

To be in Vietnam, a socialist/communist republic with a predominately Buddhist population during Christmas, which lets face it is technically the celebration of the alleged birth of Jesus Christ, was certainly an interesting experience.
In the centre of Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1, the area that was once Saigon, the Christmas decorations would rival any city in the world. From all around Ho Chi Minh City, in the days leading up to Christmas families flock to the city centre to view the displays, mainly sponsored by commercial entities, and to have their pictures taken standing in front of those very displays. The trend seems to be to dress children in “Christmas clothes”, loosely resembling the “traditional” outfit of Santa Claus/Father Christmas. Piled onto the standard form of transport in Vietnam, the motor scooter, families make the pilgrimage to the city centre, putting up with massive traffic jams to take their place in the crowd and snap photos of their children and loved ones in front of the various displays.

DSC_0085Christmas means dress up and get your photo taken

dsc_0105Children are dressed in a  Christmas theme for their trip to the city, usually by scooter

dsc_0103Parents “parade” their children around the main streets

DSC_0922 (2)Hitachi’s displays had an international theme, here snow falls on the Sydney Opera House for Christmas (accuracy is not important obviously)

Saigon by night has long been a sight to behold, with the city’s French influenced architecture attractively lit, but Christmas takes it all to the next level. Fairy lights adorn kerbside trees, towering high rise are decorated with everything from neon falling “snowflakes” to giant smiling Santa Claus heads.

DSC_0013 (3)the Central People’s Committee framed by giant commercial towers with neon snow flakes on the facade

DSC_0775Crowds building outside the Caravelle to view the Christmas lights

dsc_0988Massive crowds flock to the city to check out the decorative displays

DSC_0792Traffic comes to a halt as what seemed like the entire population of the city flocked downtown to “celebrate” Christmas

The Christian side of Christmas is not lost on all of Vietnam, there is a significant Roman Catholic population in Vietnam. Downtown Saigon is home to the Notre Dame Cathedral, built by the former French colonialists who ruled Indo-China until the end of WWII, and who were bogged down in a brutal bloody civil war that preceded the subsequent American War against the “evil communists”. Like most of the Catholic Churches I saw, the cathedral too was decorated with flashing Neon lights and other colourful decorations.

 DSC_0054Giant flashing neon lights positioned on the Notre Dame Cathedral in downtown Saigon

It is easy for us in the so called west to forget what led to the people’s uprising in Vietnam post WWII. After the French withdrawal and the division of the country into Communist North and non-Communist South, the regime ruling the south used brutal methods to oppress and control the South Vietnamese people, often under the guise of Catholicism, as the regimes leaders were “extreme” in their Catholic views. Buddhists, some of the most inoffensive people on the planet, were persecuted and virtually forbidden from practising their faith. Most people would be familiar with the well known photographs of Buddhist monks setting fire to themselves in the streets of Saigon in protest against the oppression they experienced under the then South Vietnamese regime.

June 11, 1963, Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk from the Linh-Mu Pagoda in Hue, Vietnam, burned himself to death at a busy intersection in downtown Saigon, Vietnam

For Christmas day itself I needed to escape the crowds of Ho Chi Minh City so I took a 40 minute flight to Phu Quoc Island for the day. Phu Quoc sits in the east of the Gulf of Thailand, close to the Cambodian border, in fact you can actually see Cambodian territory from the tip of Phu Quoc. Sao Beach, which translates into English as Star Beach but for some reason the English name used is Long Beach, is for me the perfect place to spend Christmas Day. Having lived my life in the tropics of the southern hemisphere, there is no room for a white Christmas here, and whilst I am in the Northern Hemisphere, it is technically Winter, but the beach of Phu Quoc will do nicely for my Christmas needs.

xmasdsc_0965Sao Beach, Phu Quoc, Christmas Day

DSC_0966Sao Beach, Phu Quoc, Christmas Day

But even the beautiful island of Phu Quoc can’t escape Vietnam’s brutal history. First the French, and then the Americans, used Phu Quoc as a prison for “reprogramming” Vietnamese revolutionary soldiers. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese never survived that “reprogramming”. At its peak, US Army CH-47 Chinook helicopters regularly flew hundreds and hundreds of captured “enemy” combatants to Phu Quoc where the South Vietnamese jailers used brutal torture to convince the soldiers of the error of their ways. Mass graves were still being excavated as recently as 2008. Prisoners bodies were recovered with nails driven through their skulls, fingers severed and many other obvious signs of the techniques used to “reprogram” the revolutionary soldiers.

DSC_0959a “Tiger Cage” used to “reprogram” revolutionary soldiers captured by US forces during the American War. Two prisoners would be housed in a such a structure

DSC_0382Depictions of the “reprogramming” of prisoners on Phu Quoc

Whilst I was at the site of the prison on Christmas day, a bus load of elderly Vietnamese men arrived. I asked my good friend Tan Le Phu who was accompanying me, what that generation of Vietnamese thought when they visited such a place, a place littered with the evidence of the brutal Catholic Diem Regime backed by the mighty US ,military machine. I asked “do they feel anger?”. HIs response, almost indignant, “Why?”. Why would they be angry he said, these things happened, it was a different time, lets acknowledge them and move on. And move on is what Vietnam does well, forever reshaping and rebranding itself all under the guidance of the central people’s committee. The late Senator Edward Kennedy said in 1993 in an address to the US Senate, using Phu Quoc as an example, that had the undeniable proof of the US Government acting as an accessory to the abuse of justice (such as those that took place in the Phu Quoc prison) the American people may well have viewed their government in a different light.
So Merry Christmas Vietnam! And may you have many more……

View Phu Quoc in a larger map

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Asmat to Timika: Papua Contrasts

Continued from Go West: Indonesian Papua

After doing the business in Agats and Syuru Village, it was time to head further afield into the Asmat region and drop in to some more remote villages to see if they wanted to be included in our business activities. I had my eyes and mind set on a village called Owus, which had not had organised tour groups visit for around 6 years and was prime for the activities we wanted to achieve. However behind the scene there was some kind of issue. My Florinese con-man guide who I still needed to negotiate the boat and local people to get me into places like Owus was doing his best to convince me that he had much better places to go than Owus, and for some reason he was being real evasive about Owus. I never got to the bottom of what the issue was but he did not want to go any where near the place. In the end I agreed to go to his village of choice AND Owus and I would decide after visiting both which one was better for what we were trying to achieve. To get to the outer villages we needed a local speed boat, in Agats town the boats of choice were these low freeboard, high speed, fibreglass speed boats, complete with racing seats made in Makassar. The Florinese spiv had lined up a suitable boat at a suitable price for us to go exploring the Asmat region, so we headed off, the spiv with his agenda that I couldn’t quite work out, and me with mine..

DSC_0154 Made in Makassar these boats are the boat of choice in the Asmat

DSC_0140 With my GPS, nautical charts, Google Earth images and other tools, I had a distinct advantage over my guide, who was acting very suspicious and insisting we go somewhere different to where I needed to go…………

to Owus Village by Speed Boat

One of the things about the Asmat region which has long been part of it’s mystique, revolves around the disappearance of a young Michael Rockefeller. Rockefeller had been part of a filming expedition whilst the area was still under Dutch control in the 60’s. After the end of the film expedition, which was highly criticised for starting tribal fights just so they get some pictures, he returned to “acquire” art for his family's museum back in New York. In the process he disappeared, after his boat sank. He may simply have drowned, however fuel tanks from his boat, that he had apparently used for floats after he capsized, were found near Owus village, and warriors from the area claimed to have “head hunted” him. What really happened we will never know, but his family backed by President JFK at the time spent considerable time looking for any evidence of what happened and came up with nothing.

image       image
Michael Rockefeller on his ill-fated expedition near Owus Village in the Asmat

The sea in Flamingo bay was relatively calm as we sped along at 35 knots, a serious speed indeed. It was in this bay where Rockefeller had disappeared years earlier. My Florinese guide continued to act suspiciously and started to act as if he didn’t know where Owus village was. Fortunately for me, and sadly for him, I did know where it was, as even though I had never been there before I had many modern tools such as GPS, the latest nautical charts and satellite images so I knew exactly where I was going. To keep the strange man from Flores happy, I had agreed to go to “his” village of choice first, but to reinforce the point as we passed what I knew was the entrance to Owus village I had the boat skipper stop and I pointed out I knew exactly where I needed to go, which certainly surprised the Florinese con-man. After another hour of speeding at 35 knots and the wind picking up I stopped the boat again and asked Mr Flores how much further to his village of choice for our business, he did not know…..OK, time to pull the pin all together on Mr Spiv, I told the boat driver to turn around and reminded him who was paying the bill. We changed course and headed back to Owus.

DSC_0566 Mangroves on the entrance to Owus Village

DSC_0198 Locals heading out fishing from Owus Village

DSC_0570 Owus Village appears on the riverbank

Owus was everything I was hoping for and more, just like at Syuru and the ;larger centre of Agats I was surprised at the infrastructure and government services, and again it would put most communities in Papua New Guinea to shame as far as what their government offers them. As with the earlier visit to Syuru, business was done in the traditional Men’s House. And the local community leaders were excited and happy to part of the project. Also as with Syuru they signed the deal with a dance in the men’s house and also showed off their pride with warriors “parading” in their war canoes.

DSC_0151 Community leaders meet to discuss the proposal

DSC_0185 Signing the deal in the Owus Men's House

One of the chiefs of Owus

DSC_0160 Owus Warriors ride their canoes

DSC_0169 Owus Warriors ride their canoes

War Canoes of Owus Village

A few weeks later when we brought the first group of travellers into Owus, the first group of outsiders to visit in over 6 years, we were privileged to witness a traditional spirit chase, were a jungle spirit was called from the surrounding forest and chased through the village, quite a sight to be seen. The “spirit” was reminiscent of a Duk Duk seen in the Tolai regions of East New Britain in Papua New Guinea, or the War and Peace spirits seen along the Morobe coast near Finschaffen also in Papua New Guinea. That, I guess is not surprising considering the close geographic and cultural relationships in Melanesia and similar animistic traditions amongst the different areas.

DSC_0604 The “Jungle Spirit” is chased through the village by kids, using Pandanus leaves to “assault” the spirit

DSC_0603 Pandanus leaves, used as spears and clubs bounce off the “Jungle Spirit” as it is chased through Owus village

DSC_0590 Village women cautiously observe the chase of the “Jungle Spirit” through the village

the great Jungle Spirit Chase of Owus Village

As essentially now my business was done in the Asmat, it was back to overnight in Agats town and an early morning departure for the return to Timika. By leaving at sunrise it would negate the need to sleep overnight on the beach again during the return journey and make a straight 12 hour daylight run all the way to Timika. The return to Timika, apart from a few groundings in the extreme shallow waters, was uneventful arriving in Timika just before dark. Looking forward to a long warm shower in a nice hotel in Timika, I discovered on arrival the Florinese spiv had managed to book me into the shittiest hotel and the shittiest room with no hot water and not much else. It was time to get rid if this guy all together…..a quick word to the hotel management and I was upgraded to a decent room with hot water to wash away all the salt from 12 hours of speeding across the sea. Now the next challenge I discovered was that I had arrived in Timika in the middle of Idul Fitri, the celebration of the end of the Islamic Ramadan. There was no way I was going to be flying out of Timika in a hurry so I settled in for a few days of exploring Timika.

DSC_0227 mooooooo  a local butcher in Timika

DSC_0219 Downtown Timika

P9090405 Street food! A great part of Indonesian life!

Coming from the Asmat, a fairly traditional part of Papua, and back to Timika it was such a contrast. Timika is the main access point to the massive Freeport Mine up in the central mountains behind the town, it is also often associated with the violence and trouble associated with the Papuan “freedom” groups. The central market area of Timika had been destroyed several months earlier in riots so the centre of town was just a burnt out shell of rubble and the police and military presence in the town, which was obvious and significant, hinted at the things that could happen, wearing full body armour and patrolling in serious armoured cars. The other thing in contrast to Asmat is the huge Muslim presence, made ever more noticeable by the end of Ramadan celebrations going on. The muslim presence in Papua is a legacy of Suharto's massive trans-migration program that brought thousands and thousands of migrants to work in Papua. Apart from some very high profile extremists and their bombing activities, Indonesia is actually well known for its fairly secular approach to life and Islam. And what amazed me was the dance-remix of the call to prayer complete with drums ‘n bass “doof doofing” from the top of every minaret, out of every shop front and out of every passing car. I never really expected to see and hear such a sound coming from the mosques and it was actually pretty cool. I also managed to pick up a pirate VCD of the call to prayer remix on the street as well!

DSC_0238 Heavily Armoured Police Cars give an insight to life in Timika

DSC_0236 Central Timika was essentially piles of rubble left from previous riots

DSC_0234 The mosques were in full swing celebrating the end of Ramadan and played dance remixes of the call to prayer all through the night from the minarets

Dance Remix of the Islamic call to prayer as heard in Timika during Idul Fitri

the Total Chaos of Timika by night

So from the traditional animism of Owus to the modern Islamic Timika, my first trip to Papua was sure full of contrast and of course only left me wanting more……

This post was Part 2 to this one...........

Monday, 8 November 2010

Go West: Indonesian Papua

Having spent so many years travelling through Papua New Guinea, the west side of the island of New Guinea, had until now eluded me. Finally it was time to explore the west side of this amazing island. The island is divided roughly in half, the east together with the Bismarck Archipelago and the North Solomons make up the independent nation of Papua New Guinea, whilst the west is home to two Indonesian provinces. Papua and West Papua. The central division, dating back to European Colonial times when the Dutch and the British were demarcating their possessions. The western half of the island of New Guinea being of strategic importance as a buffer zone to the Dutch and their ever important spice trade back in the day, saw the first European attempts to colonise the land (and the people). These attempts were not that successful. And really it wasn’t until Suharto’s Indonesia and it’s dealing in gold mine permits that there was really ever any serious development in the western portion of New Guinea.

781px-WestPapua_topo a Topographic map of western New Guinea, also showing the worlds largest gold deposit in purple behind the town of Timika

The naming of the western half is as controversial as the politics behind it. During the early colonial times it was simply known as Dutch New Guinea. After WWII with the independence of the former Dutch East Indies and the formation of Indonesia, the Dutch held onto the mineral rich western New Guinea and had plans to give it independence under the name of West Papua. Then the Indonesians invaded and the UN ruled a plebiscite on independence be held, the results of which we know through modern freedom of information documents was totally rigged in the Indonesians favour, with tacit approval by the US government of the day. Indonesia named the region, which the rigged election had “confirmed” as part of Indonesia, West Irian or Irian Barat in Bahasa Indonesian, until the take over of power by Suharto when he renamed the region Irian Jaya – or Glorious Irian. The Melanesian-Papuan people of the island had no such word as Irian and resented being generically called Irianese. The name “Glorious Irian” was seen as a slap in the face by many ethnic Papuans, who along with mining rights being given away offshore and Suharto’s mass transmigration program bringing in literally tens of thousands of non-Papuans from else where in Indonesia, formed rebel groups and violently opposed their absorption into modern Indonesia and fought to keep their Melanesian-Papuan identity.

wpapflagthe Morning Star flag now symbolises the struggle of the Papuan people of western New Guinea. Originally allocated by the Dutch as the flag for independent West Papua prior to the Indonesian invasion, today it is illegal to display he flag inside Indonesia.

imageformer President Suharto whose famous trans-migration program and development of gold leases in the western half of New Guinea invariably led to the resistance and independence movements amongst the Papuan people which still exist today

With the fall of Suharto in the late 90’s, a period of change began in Indonesia and many more concessions were given to the inhabitants of Irian Jaya. Again the name changed, as part of the conciliatory process, and the province became known as Papua, to acknowledge and recognise the cultural identity of the indigenous people. The name change was accompanied by many more concessions aiming at more autonomy for the people of western New Guinea. Then in a sudden move the Indonesians decided to split Papua into three Provinces; Papua, Central Irian Jaya and West Irian Jaya. As the first, West Irian Jaya was established, the move was argued in court and in the houses of government. The recent granting of autonomy did not allow the government to then split the province. The split was ruled illegal under Indonesian law. But in the mean time West Irian Jaya province had already been set up! So the next ruling allowed West Irian Jaya to remain alongside the existing Papua province. In a further concession to the Papuan peoples, West Irian Jaya became West Papua province in 2007, a very significant move considering the political connection to that exact name.

Picture1 A pre-2007 map showing the divisions of the island of New Guinea. Post-2007 West Irian Jaya became known as West Papua

So that brings us to now and I am off to visit the remote Asmat region around the township of Agats (which can be seen on the topo-map above). I was first to fly from Makassar to Jayapura on the Papua New Guinea border, just west of the Sepik River, and then down to the south coast township of Timika, the gateway to the legendary Freeport mine, the world’s largest gold deposit that Suharto had handed over to American interests shortly after taking power from Sukarno. Timika is also known as one of the centres of violence and protest surrounding the struggle of the Papuan people against alleged Indonesian oppression. From Timika I would take a local boat on a 12 hour journey to Agats, overnighting at a fishing village, and then spend several days setting up some business in the Asmat region before returning along the same path.
Arriving in Timika I was met by my local guide, a Florinese man who ran a tour company out of Jayapura. he was going to be my guide and interpreter in setting up the things I needed to set up around Agats and Asmat. After only being on the ground in Timika long enough to stock up on food and water, we were in the boat and underway to Agats.

DSC_0014 Departing Timika for the 12 hour journey to the Asmat region

sdsc_0018 Kids playing along the river outside Timika

wdsc_0036 A Hunter pauses and scans his horizons in the hunt for his dinner outside of Timika on the river bank

wdsc_0088 Birdlife throughout west New Guinea is prolific and in many cases unique

Transiting the river out of Timika

The river journey out of Timika was uneventful, yet scenic. As we headed out to sea the plan was to spend the night on a small island at a fishing village, so as to not to risk travelling and navigating in the shallow waters in the dark. Now I have been travelling in remote areas for a long time in many parts of the world especially Indonesia, and something was not right here. The guide, it appeared to me was a spiv, a con, bluffing his way through the journey without really knowing where we were going and what we were doing. This became fully apparent when just on sunset we arrived at the fishing village we were supposed to stay at, except there was no fishing village. My Bahasa Indonesian was good enough to ascertain the village had not been at that location for more than 5 years and it turns out iot was probably 8 years since this guide had actually been in the area we were traversing…..No problem, I can just use the Florinese spiv for a translator when needed,I didn’t really need a guide. And as for the missing fishing village, I suppose as long as it doesn’t rain, sleeping on the beach would suffice (as a huge clap of thunder rolls across the horizon accompanied by significant lightning…..). As the rain poured down, six of us attempted to shelter and sleep under a tiny sheet of plastic….it didn’t really work. By sunrise I and everything with us including my passport, camera, computer etc etc were totally soaked through! Note to self: never use this operator again! But no time to dwell on that stuff, we need to keep on sailing to the Asmat region, made famous by the mysterious disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in the late 1960’s, believed eaten by the cannibalistic Asmat people.

zzxxzp9050346Just on sunset we arrived at an island to stay in a non existent village…………
 zzxxp9050369 We lit several fires for cooking and warmth before the torrential rain came……

P9060370 the dodgy plastic sheet that six of us attempted to sleep under……..

the overnight "camp" site in the rain

A few hours later, without the rain pausing for even a second, we arrived in Agats. Despite transiting briefly through Jayapura and Timika in the preceding days, this was really my first taste of Indonesian New Guinea, and the first thing that struck me was the incredible infrastructure in place in the town of Agats. Compared to equally as swampy areas in the east in Papua New Guinea there is nothing like this. The entire town is built up above the mud with boardwalks and platforms, there were schools, hospitals, port facilities, all kinds of things, in modern buildings. It turns out there is not even any mosquitoes and therefore3 any malaria. I think of my friends across the border in Watam Village near the Sepik River, a very similar geographic location. They would kill for half of this infrastructure and support that exists here.

DSC_0115Agats township, Asmat, Papua

DSC_0124“Main Street”, Agats Town

DSC_0137 the infrastructure of schools and other services was surprising, and far exceeded anything one would expect in the east in Papua New Guinea

Just beside Agats township, like an outer suburb, connected by boardwalks, is the village of Syuru. Syuru was one of the villages where I had to attend to some business. Arriving in the village, I was escorted to the men’s house, or long house, where the deals would be done. After this I was treated to a display of war canoes out the front of the village. The hypnotic chanting of the warriros standing upright in their canoes simply added to the whole event.

DSC_0178 Syuru Village, Asmat

DSC_0187 the traditional Men’s House of Syuru Village

DSC_0208 Syuru Village war canoes

Syuru Village war canoes

DSC_0214 Syuru Village Warrior

DSC_0243 Syuru Village Warrior in the men’s house

Syuru Vilage Men's House in Action

Several weeks later, when we brought in the first group of travellers, the canoe event was repeated with many many more canoes. The original event hosted for me was tiny in comparison. Dozens and dozens of canoes woith a hundred warriors or more turned up for the later event, showing that my initial trip was worth while in the first place. On this later visit we also witnessed the launching of two large war canoes in a significant traditional ceremony.
 DSC_0505 Two weeks after my initial visit, the war canoe event was sgnificantly larger and more dramatic

DSC_0528 Part of the canoe launching ceremony we were fortunate enough to witness in the later visit

DSC_0534 Part of the canoe launching ceremony we were fortunate enough to witness in the later visit

But as far as this initial visit went, there were several more days left, I was yet to visit Owus village and the return transit and stop over in Timika were yet to come….


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