WEST PAPUA, 2015
WEST PAPUA, 2015
EXCERPT FROM THE UPCOMING BOOK, "A WORLD APART"
eath motivates me. In nearly three decades of travel to some of the most remote and inhospitable corners of the planet, I glimpsed its face on four occasions. Each time, it whispered the same promise into my ear: "Live now, for I will return."
It told me I’m not unique or special, that I’m just a decaying organism like everything else around me. Its ruthless indifference forced me to redefine my priorities. Now death follows me like a shadow — not in a morbid way — but as a constant reminder of life's fragility, and of the value of each moment that remains.
My first brush with death was a result of my own foolishness. At age thirty, while most of my friends were settling down and starting families, I got divorced and quit a lucrative job in the aerospace industry to pursue a nomadic lifestyle as a photographer. I had more university degrees than I needed, but lacked real world education. For years I was buried behind stacks of engineering books, then cloistered in an office. I needed a jolt to my system to awaken from this self-induced coma. I set my mind on the island of New Guinea, a place that had fascinated and entranced me since childhood. I had devoured countless books about a dark, foreboding land inhabited by headhunters and cannibals who wore odd costumes and practiced even odder rituals. And then there was Michael Rockefeller...
This fourth-generation Rockefeller swapped his entitled Manhattan lifestyle for the raw privations of Dutch New Guinea. Now part of the Indonesian province of West Papua, it was one of the wildest, most remote places on Earth, populated by tribes largely stuck in the Stone Age. Seven short months in the jungle had transformed Rockefeller from a clean-cut student to a bearded art collector. "It's the desire to do something adventurous," he said, "at a time when frontiers, in the real sense of the word, are disappearing." This aspiration inspired me then as it still does today. I wanted to live like this mad Rockefeller; I just didn’t want to end up like him.
If you’re unfamiliar with his story, Michael Rockefeller disappeared in 1961 at the age of twenty three during an expedition to the Asmat region of New Guinea. When his catamaran overturned in the Arafura Sea, he attempted to swim to shore. It was the last time he was seen alive. An extensive sea, air and land search turned up nothing, and his body was never found. Most believe he either drowned or was killed by a shark or a crocodile. Since cannibalism was practiced by the Asmat tribes at that time, some have speculated that Rockefeller was eaten by the locals.
The Asmat world back then was a reflection of almost every taboo in the Western culture. They killed their neighbors, hunted human heads and consumed the flesh of their foes. In some areas, men fornicated with each other. They occasionally shared wives. In bonding rituals, they sometimes drank each other’s urine. These were not savages though; they were highly intelligent men who spoke a language so complex it had seventeen tenses, whose intricate wood carvings were sought after by art collectors worldwide, and whose spiritual construct of the world evolved over thousands of years in an isolated universe of trees, animals, ocean and river.
My first objective was to find a guide and some porters familiar with the terrain of Papua’s two main indigenous groups, the Asmat and the Dani. Everyone I consulted advised me of the physical and logistical challenges of reaching these areas. The Asmat lived in the lowlands, which consisted of thousands of square miles of swamps and rivers with no roads. The Dani, on the other hand, were scattered throughout the vast highlands of the Great Baliem Valley, deep within the misty mountains. If time permitted, I would also try to visit the Lani and the Yali followed by the Kurowai who lived in treehouses high up in the forest.
Using Wamena as my base, I planned two separate trips. The key was to spend adequate time with each tribe to photograph them in their natural state. I was inspired by Edward S. Curtis’ magnificent portraits of the American Indians in the Great Plains, and Irving Penn’s studio stills of the Quechua Indians of Peru. Following in their footsteps, this was to be my very first photo expedition; and despite the obvious difficulties, I remained naively optimistic. I hastily selected one guide and three porters to accompany me on the first journey to the Dani tribe. The following day, I was informed that one of the porters was struck by a car and hospitalized. Not only was this a bad omen, it was a foreshadowing of the disaster that loomed — an experience so traumatic it almost turned me away from the jungles forever.
An undertaking of this magnitude requires ample research and preparation. Most of all, it demands meticulous planning. At that age, patience was not one of my virtues. By cutting corners and rushing unprepared into a potentially dangerous environment, like Rockefeller, I almost paid the ultimate price. In hindsight, this was a lesson well served as it made me realize the monumental stupidity of underestimating nature. Everything is fine until it isn’t. That’s the reality of the jungle. A dreamy ride along the Amazon River turns into a nightmare in a split second when your dugout canoe capsizes during a flash storm. A spectacular flight over the rainforest suddenly feels like impending doom when your Cessna is tossed around like a toy inside a wall of thunderclouds. A magical drive up the Andes goes to Hell in a hurry when your Land Rover is forced to outrace an avalanche. And an exciting journey into the jungles of Papua turns to disaster overnight when your guide deserts you.
During the rainy season in Papua, charter flight schedules are dictated solely by the temperament of the skies. On this particular day, all the flights were washed out by a torrential downpour. So we headed south the next morning aboard an old Pilatus Porter piloted by a scruffy Australian with bad teeth and a worse sense of humor. Forty minutes later, we landed on a dirt strip in one of the highland villages. We then traveled by motorized canoe for several hours along a river and reached the starting point of our journey. I had anticipated the trek to be physically demanding but after two straight days of grueling mountain climbing, I began to question my motive for embarking on this insane journey. As a youth, I despised camping so a bit of mental reprogramming was required to brush the discomforts aside. The porters, on the other hand, had hardly broken a sweat.
As we approached the Dani village, a sense of relief finally subdued my beaten body – momentarily, that is, until a sudden wave of panic set in. Our arrival was marked by repeated cries of “Wah-wah-wah” by the Dani tribesmen. Images of wild naked men gutting Michael Rockefeller’s innards flashed through my head prematurely. I was exhausted and I knew my mind was playing tricks; nevertheless, at that moment, fear ruled over me like a Renaissance pope. Aside from ornate feather headdresses, fur armlets and pig tusks that curved under their noses like fancy French moustaches, a “koteka” (penis gourd) tied to the waist was the only thing the men wore. The women went topless wearing only grass skirts, shell-and-feather necklaces and some sort of woven bag on their heads.
We were led into the heart of the Dani village, a communal area with several huts made of sago thatch, tree poles and bark. As I began handing out Marlboros to the tobacco-loving men, suddenly, the Wah-wah-wah cries became more enthusiastic. The guide explained that Wah-wah-wah means “welcome” and told me to reciprocate. Wah-wah-wah. To my surprise, up close, the Dani seemed rather listless, as if they had been stripped of something, as if some reason for being was gone. They have lived in these forests for thousands of years during which they cultivated their own worldview accentuated by sacred feasts and elaborate rituals. Yet it took foreign missionaries only a couple of decades to gain their trust and spiritually "castrate" them. One domesticated tribesman proudly displayed a book that depicted the lives of the brave missionaries in the 1950s who risked their lives to spread the word of Christ to the savages. In the chapter on hygiene, it describes how they taught the locals to use water and soap to shower instead of bathing in pig fat. There was also a section on the immorality of cannibalism and headhunting. This new almighty God frowned upon such practices and forbade them.
That evening, I organized a meeting with the team to discuss my plan to build a makeshift studio in the forest. In a nearby field, using simple wooden poles and stakes along with rope, we would mount the large white canvass backdrop I had transported from New York. We would also construct a light diffuser panel made of thatched grass and leaves, and use three reflectors to manage the lighting as required. After the meeting, the guide and porters stood before me, requesting payment for the first half of the journey. They insisted it was customary for them to receive a fifty percent deposit upon reaching a destination. I paid them without a second thought and went to sleep on a dusty grass mat, my head bursting with ideas...
an integral role in their society. Beyond their monetary value, pigs are used to settle conflicts and define a man’s social status. For example, marriage is purely contingent upon a pig. One pig equals one wife, and the more pigs a man has to offer, the more women he can marry. If money can’t buy you love, here a pig certainly can. It’s not uncommon for pigless men to remain unmarried into their old age.
set out for the highlands of West Papua in 1997, almost thirty six years after Michael Rockefeller met his untimely fate. I arrived in the dusty town of Wamena, or “the place of pigs”, as it means in the local tongue — an appropriate name since pigs play
THREE LITTLE PIGS, WEST PAPUA, 2015
WEST PAPUA, 2015
WEST PAPUA, 2015
opaque I could hardly make out the mountains in the distance. I noticed two naked tribesmen standing in front of a tree, arguing. As I approached, they grunted something and pointed repeatedly toward the hut where the team was staying. I entered the dark hut and what I saw was as shocking as what I didn’t see. The guide, the porters and their belongings were gone. They had all vanished! They had taken the money and ran off into the night, leaving me stranded in the middle of nowhere. As I stood there flabbergasted, it was easy to imagine how Michael Rockefeller must have felt when his catamaran overturned.
I was completely unprepared for any kind of emergency. Without a satellite phone or radio or even a compass, I was lost. I had no way of communicating with the tribe so the prospect of finding my way back to civilization was nil. After the grip of the panic attack subsided, I relinquished my fate to the Dani. I didn’t have much choice. I would be forced to stay in this village and rely on them for my survival indefinitely until another foreigner arrived. As it turns out, the Dani had other plans. Three naked tribesmen silently guided me deep into the forest later that afternoon. At first I was certain they intended to abandon me like an unwanted pet but after several hours of walking, we arrived upon another village. I assumed then they were either going to sell me to this village or trade me in for a pig.
he next morning, a commotion of howling birds awoke me from a deep slumber. I stepped out of my hut just as the first rays of sunlight penetrated the low hanging clouds, painting the sky with hues of red and yellow ochre. The mist was so
WEST PAPUA, 2015
Much to my relief, no such transaction took place. Instead, they guided me to a rudimentary church behind the village and handed me over to a couple of missionaries from Arkansas. I was their problem now. They informed me that a charter plane was expected to arrive with supplies within a few days and I was welcome to hitch a ride with them back to Wamena. I have the missionaries to thank twice — first for rescuing me, and second for convincing the Dani to drop human flesh from their diet. Had they arrived fifty years earlier, Michael Rockefeller might still be roaming these lands collecting tribal art. And the Metropolitan Museum would certainly have an extra wing by now to house his massive collection.
Luckily, I crawled away from this disaster with no damage other than a bruised ego. I didn’t take a single photograph but I did acquire a newfound respect for the jungle. I learnt long ago that in life there is no such thing as failure; only lessons. From this one, I developed the confidence and motivation to pursue future expeditions with more intelligence. It was thus in the summer of 2003 and then in the spring of 2015 that I returned to Papua.
As elsewhere in the world, globalization has eradicated much of the mystique of the natives, and one must travel deeper and deeper into the forest to catch a glimpse of what once was. These days, in the main villages, the grass huts remain intact but they are now fitted with solar panels and satellite dishes. With some research and a bit of luck, I was able to find a few tribes that still haven’t been affected by the full extent of globalization. They too will most likely vanish within the next decade. I applied the lessons learned from my travels around the globe to finish what I started almost twenty years ago. Older and perhaps a bit wiser, I redeemed myself — with the spirit of Michel Rockefeller smiling down on me. ▪️
WEST PAPUA, 2015