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..
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.
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.
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.
One of the chiefs of Owus
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.
The “Jungle Spirit” is chased through the village by kids, using Pandanus leaves to “assault” the spirit
Pandanus leaves, used as spears and clubs bounce off the “Jungle Spirit” as it is chased through Owus 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.
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!
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...........