Trek day 1 – sketchy AF

https://youtu.be/DUR5__2Fhec The day started with lots of bustle, as porter loads got packed up and distributed and we figured out who all was going on the trek with us. A couple of anomalies about porters here: many of them are women, which is something I’ve not seen before on other expeditions. In fact, the women even seem to carry the biggest loads. Plus, lots of extra people tag along. Pretty much every porter brings someone along: a son, a daughter, a younger brother, a cousin. This turns it into a big family outing, and enables the paid porters to share their load with someone else. As we headed off into the jungle, there was lots of chattering, laughing, and singing. I’m basically peeing my pants, I’m so nervous and challenged by the trail, and they’re partying it up – while carrying at least twice as much weight as I am! So it’s kind of a fun dynamic. And then the final observation – they do this all with bare feet and with the bags hanging from their heads. WOW, right?! Through mud, over rocks, twigs and grass, through rivers and across logs, they walk the entire expedition with bare feet (most of them, some have rubber boots handed down from previous guides or clients). And our perfectly good wear-as-a-backpack duffle bags get put into homemade string bags that hang from the heads of the porters to carry. It is pretty phenomenal. Huge respect for these people! The morning chaos saw me waiting around, rather useless in the preparation, so I tried to make friends with the locals. I asked about the boar’s tooth necklace one guy was wearing, wondering if he had shot it himself. As affirmation, he disappeared and came back with a giant bow and arrow to show me. Beautiful! I kind of wish I could bring one home as a souvenir – they are impressive works of art (and pretty lethal, too). I asked if I could take a photo and was turned down; dejectedly, I turned back towards the hut when Chief William barked some orders out the door and I was informed that yes, I could take a photo. The reluctant model got in position, and as I readied the camera, he turned to face me – arrow pointing straight at me! A little disconcerting, I must say. But every time I asked him to turn sideways, the process repeated itself – I finally just took the photo with him aiming and me and then bugged out of there. Generally liking animals, I decided to try my luck with the dog. Who bared his teeth and barked at me. I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m a ghost and he got quite frantic trying to herd me out of the village. So I turned towards the kids, who had been pretty interested in the “bule” all along. Only to have a 2-year old start crying when I got too close. I am an outsider here, I don’t look right to the dog, to the babies, or anyone else for that matter. The rules are foreign to me and language a barrier; all I can do is shrug, smile, and keep looking for ways to connect. Glad I brought all that chocolate with me! It had rained all night and well into the morning, thankfully tapered off shortly before we took to the trail. Which is not a given. It pretty much rains every day in Papua, sometimes starting at 11:00 or 12:00 or 13:00, sometimes just continuing from the day before. This must be one of the wettest places on earth; making it very green and beautiful, although I wasn’t much able to enjoy that a great deal, as I picked my way along a trail designed for death. Seriously. Picture this: Steep slopes with a single footpath hanging precariously to the edge, wet, muddy and slippery from all the rain, often hidden from view courtesy of the abundant foliage growing around and over it. So it’s difficult to know where the tiny trail actually is, and where the empty space plummeting down the slope begins. Add to that the logs; gaps in the trail, and particularly impassable muddy spots are covered over with logs, mostly about 10cm (4 in) in diameter and ranging in length from 50 cm to several meters. They are of course waterlogged from all the rain, slippery as hell, and require an innate sense of balance and an imposing amount of confidence to effectively traverse. Given that the Sugagpa trail spends most of it’s length going up or down with close to no flat distances, many of those hazardous logs are also at an incline. And then there are the landslides. Luckily, we didn’t experience one real-time, but we did come across a number of sections where the trail was gone and in it’s place, there was a freshly graded, steep rocky/muddy slope demonstrating every inclination to continues it’s slide into the river below at any moment. So we painstakingly picked our way across, slowly enough to not lose footing and follow the route of the previous day’s mud but quickly enough to get out of harm’s way should the slope decide to shed a bit more landmass. Finally, there are the rival tribes of which to be wary. One of them obviously had found out we were coming, and were waiting at a key bridge, blocking our path. Being me, I see a group of people gathered up ahead and flash a friendly smile, assuming they’re just here to say hello. Yeah, right. Chock it up to naivety or a typical blond moment, clarity coming quickly with the waving of giant bows and harsh-sounding words hurled in our direction. There is no other way around, we need to cross this bridge to continue on our way – but just in front of it is a fire burning, and a group of 20-30 warrior-looking guys are milling around the fire and strewn out across the bridge. Many of them have painted faces, most of them are holding a weapon of some sort – primarily the traditional giant bows and arrows. And they all look angry. Heated discussions ensue, our porter lead talking with one of the ringleaders on the other side. And then with another one. And another. A couple of the loudly vocal guys then begin speaking aggressively to Lauren. We all eventually drop our loads, and hunker down. Cigarettes are shared, more discussion, shouting from the peanut gallery back on the bridge, shouting back. Lauren starts pulling out a wad of cash, hands some out. Two guys seem to tell everyone to move on, a couple of others shout again and still refuse. More than an hour of negotiations and a shitload of rupiah later, we finally were able to cross the bridge. I didn’t take many photos during this whole process, as I didn’t want to exacerbate what seemed already a highly volatile situation (and those bows and arrows are SCARY) – now I wish I had. After all, we paid for it and I was pissed – whatever petty issues they have with the neighboring tribal chief, it is ridiculous to penalize a visitor for them. I’d like to say that’s the difference between civilized and uncivilized cultures; but then I guess we’d all have to admit to being uncivilized given the current state of affairs in the world. The rest of the day continued much as it had begun: picking my way along the rough trail and praying for it to get better. It didn’t . By the time we arrived at camp 1 (which was a blessing, after the late start and the blockade, we had anticipated potentially having to stop at the in-between camp instead), I was exhausted. The mental effort to focus on each and every step, the physical demands of ploughing through mud, forging large cascading creeks, balancing on precipitous edges and shaky logs had taken a tremendous toll. With the shot of adrenaline arrival gave me, I gathered enough energy to snap some photos, help build the tent, hand out some chocolate, share some thumbs-ups and smiles, and then with relief collapsed into my sleeping bag.

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