Have you ever been in a situation, where you have so much to say, that you don’t know where to start? I’ve been sitting here for 3 minutes, looking at a blank page and trying to organize my thoughts.
“sitting here” Maybe that’s a good place to start. I’m in a rather dark, very dusty room in a wooden hut that sits on a hill with views out across the rolling hills of jungle. It’s the “Chief’s Hut” in Suangame – the last village on the way to Carstensz. Starting tomorrow, we’ll be traipsing through the heart of the jungle – for 5 days.
And even just getting here was an adventure. We packed all our bags yesterday and went to the Skycab office to weigh in. Lauren asked for seats on the first plane out today, hoping to minimize the number of roadblocks we run into between Sugapa and Suangame (more on that later) – and was told that there were none available. He put more money on the table, and then magically seats were suddenly free – and enough cargo space for all our provisions.
We were up at 5:30, expecting to be on a flight at 6:00. A few minutes before 6:00, Skycab called with the infor that they weren’t ready, and they’d call back when we should come. A short fifteen minues later, that call came and we rushed off to the airstrip. And then waited. We apparently really did have first class tickets, or they just think white people aren’t capable of standing for long periods of time, because while all the other 50 people hanging out continued to stand, within minutes a plastic stool was carried out to me and I was told to sit. This is becoming a theme – it’s about the fourth time in the past 2 days that I’ve been instructed to take a seat while everyone else stands around. Keeping mountaineering wisdom from RMI in mind ( “Don’t stand when you can sit, don’t sit when you can lie down”), I acquiesce and take my spot on the red plastic stool. And waited some more. Finally, everyone got very hectic and I received frantic motions to come. So I stepped through the hangar and walked across to board the shuttle to the plane…which was a pickup truck fitted with benches on the bed, tailgate open with a ramp to walk up into the back of the truck. I had to giggle, and asked someone to snap a quick photo before we drove out to the plane.
We climbed aboard the Twin Otter, to find most of the seats removed and the interior piled high with strapped down cargo, leaving room for only 4 passengers in the back. It was a quick and easy departure (no security checks, no safety briefing, seat belts apparently optional, and the guy behind me continuing his cell phone conversation as we rose into the air).
What a view from the flight! We took off in a southernly direction and then curved east, flying towards the rising sun. There was range after range of hills shrouded in deep, lush green; rushing rivers and cascading waterfalls coursing over cliffs and rushing through the valleys. Mist hung in between many of the hilltops, creating a very mystical scene. I snapped a couple of photos, knowing they will never in a million years come close to capturing the majesty of what I was seeing, of this amazing natural beauty. A huge waterfall far off in the distance had me longing for my Nikon and zoom lens. Just as I began becoming accustomed to and less interested in the landscape, we started to sink and landed on a short airstrip between two hills and next to the village of Sugapa.
Disembarking and unloading took a total of 5 minutes, then the plane was re-loaded with stuff and lifter right back off for the return flight to Nabire. It’ll run this route a few times today, until the clouds become too thick and planes are grounded until tomorrow. We then had to wait a while until our motorbike shuttle arrived; I guarded our stuff while Lauren wandered around paying off the airstrip dude and arguing with everyone else who felt entitled to a pay-off.
Before long, the motorbikes began arriving and we were soon surrounded by 5 of them; 3 were loaded high with our gear and supplies, the other two were loaded with us wearing our backpacks (which were also full of gear). I was wondering a few things: a) how these guys were going to drive with so much loaded on their bikes, b) how I would explain to my son this kamikaze ride over motor-cross conditions sans helmet and c) if I would even survive to tell the tale. We raced off through the village, driving past throngs of Papuans grouped along the streets, all turning to watch us go by, many calling out “Bule (pronounced Bou-la)” and pointing as I passed. Bule is a word I became quite familiar with over the course of the trip. It means officialyl “foreigner” but more accurately “white person” and was everyone’s default name for me. No one felt even remotely uncomfortable simply calling me by the color of my skin. A few short minutes after getting going, we stopped. Lauren disappeared into the police office to pay whatever had to be paid, and judging by the considerable wait, there was quite some discussion and negotiation involved. Finally, we were on the road again…for all of 90 seconds, before we pulled into the military office. Again, negotiation culminating in finally paying for two escorts soldiers (we were trying to get only one, since it’s not like we have a group of people – it’s just me!). The additional two motorcycles now joined with our group of 5, we headed off once again. As we raced out of town, I found myself actually enjoying the rice – even though I felt totally irresponsible, riding on the back of a motorcycle with zero protection and no knowledge of the driver. The wind in my hair, the novelty of driving past guys holding giant bows and arrows or wearing only a penis gourd (yes, there are still a few of those guys out and about!), made up for any negative feelings and I wanted to laugh out loud.
The good feelings lasted a few minutes, until just out of town the road turned into a dirt track, we rounded a bend, and were stopped. A pack of guys blocked the road. Once again, hefty discussions, a shared cigarette (smoking is a THING around here), and more cash exchanged hands. The day was heating up, so I was happy to be moving again and started to enjoy the ride once more. The road however very soon became increasingly bumpy and washed out. We cruised up and down grades approaching 30 degrees in places, and eventually our path turned into a single rut leading into the jungle. We continued down this treacherous path, crossing rushing creeks , bouncing over ditches, rocks and around holes – my admiration for the driving skill growing by the second, even as my prayers for survival became more frantic. At one very steep, twisty, bumpy hill, we got off the bikes and walked about 50 m. I was a bit hesitant to get back on the bike at that point. A bit later, we approached a steep, bumpy uphill segment and I saw Lauren once again climb off. I asked my driver if I should follow suit, but he shook his head and gunned it. Sure enough, with determination, a lot of leg work to help the bike remain upright over the choppy surface, we made it. The ride became stressful and tiring, my knees started to hurt and there was no comfortable way to hold on anymore. Finally, it was over, our arrival in the village of Suangame greeted by local tribespeople. Another waiting period ensued, with 3 distinct factions: motorbikes + soldiers, tribal women and children, and tribal men. I hovered about in the middle, smiling on occasion and trying to remain relaxed. Lauren finished his chat and smoke with the bikers, we snapped some photos, he paid up for the transport service and they took off.
We headed up the hill to the chief’s hut, did some supplies re-arranging while kids peeked in around the corner of the odoorways to stare at me. I handed out mini-toblerones to them and enjoyed a brief period of intense popularity. Following a quick lunch and sweeping out of the back room, Lauren encouraged me to rest while he took care of porter arrangements. Fine with me – I needed the rest! A short night of sleep and all the experiences of the day had me worn out by noon.
Oh, 2 last things before I take a nap back here in my dusty room. First, I am fascinated by the Papuans’ feet. Broad, splayed out, totally flat and with tire-thick soles. They are amazing. And second, I’m horrified by the kids’ noses. Or rather, what comes out of them. They all have thick white, blubbery excretions flowing out their noses and over their upper lip. Such cute little people, but this makes them a bit scary. Especially to germ-phobic westerners.