All we had heard about Laos and its people instantly turned out to be true. As soon as we crossed the border from Vietnam no more tuk tuks chased after us, people smiled peacefully and greeted us with polite "Sabaidee!" as we walked along, and some vendors even had to be woken up from their naps to buy anything from them. Our first night we spent by the river in Muang Khua meeting up for meals with some friends we had met along the way. Ashley and Bo were a pleasure to spend time with, their friendly energy infectious, and we ended up traveling for a couple of days with them and trying new foods out together. So off we all set on the same river boat cruise to Nong Khiaw, and delighted in the scenes of lush green mountains bordering the calm river, the many children running along the banks and diving into the water playfully, the buffalo grazing on bright green grass, the pigs running around, the thatched huts with woven bamboo walls.
Our destination was just as beautiful, with tall rocky hills dressed in low forest overlooking the wide river that splits the town, its edges dotted here and there with women in sarongs, men in underwear and children naked for their afternoon bath. In northern Laos people dress conservatively, women wearing skirts reaching below the knees and tops always having sleeves and no cleavage; men never walk around shirtless and there are signs in some tourist places requesting that visitors follow the same code. But then there's the contrasting bathing time, where anyone, regardless of age or gender, will walk out to the river or a public water fountain or even to a faucet just outside their home by the road to bathe, and then nudity and partial nudity are absolutely natural and acceptable.
Best Lao soup!
Bomb turned peace sign!
$4 dollar bungalow by river side
We had our own turn at it a few days later, when in Luang Nam Tha we booked a tour to the national park nearby. It was meant to be a two day trek into the dense jungles of Nam Ha, and while our intention was to have a chance of finding wildlife, our experience turned out to be a wonderful cultural exchange. Our guide Bouket first took us around the corner from our hotel to the local market for some supplies. Just as Juan and I were wondering why he hadn't taken care of that earlier so that we could start with our tour on time, we started noticing some peculiar sights amongst the stands: buffalo fetus, farmed piranha, live frogs tied by their legs ready to fry... We decided to skip all that and stick with the vegetables, which looked much more appetizing.
Buffalo fetus! =(
This looks better =)
Our trek started several miles from there, at the edge of a small town where huts dried corn by hanging it from the leaves to the bottom of their raised wooden homes and men laboriously fabricated knives on small fires with artisan appliances. At one edge of the village, wide fields of rice stretched out into the sun, at the other, mild hills begun to show the forest we were to journey into. Bouket is a middle-aged man who grew up in this area. He used to venture these forests for hunting, and is now one of the many poachers-turned-guides who earn an income by taking visitors on nature observation expeditions rather than exploiting the forest in the previous, more destructive way. However he only is called in about once every two months for these tours, so to make ends meet he tends to his small farm. We soon found out though that he could easily make a living as a cook! During our hike he cut off a couple of bamboo shoots, collected some forest ferns and chopped a few leaves off of a spiny palm; soon he had that along with some sticky rice cooking up over the fire, and before we knew it we were enjoying the most delicious meal we had had in Laos yet! It was all served on wild banana leaves spread out on the ground, seasoned with some chiles and other vegetables purchased earlier in the market, and we each had our own clump of sticky rice, which we would grab to scoot the different foods up and eat up with our hands. At the end of the fantastic meal that my mouth is watering over as I write, Bouket and Cham (the second guide we picked up in town) would recollect the remaining rice from each of our clumps and stack it back together for the next meal! Whatever, everyone was clean enough and we didn't mind =). We spent the night in a thatched wooden hut, where Bouket graciously set up a couple of long cushions and blankets for us to sleep, but before that, it was bath time! Yes, with company! Down we all walked to the river, and while I was wondering to myself whether it would be impolite to show as much skin as a bikini does, Bouket stripped down to his worn-out briefs and pranced happily into the water. Then I knew we were all right =). He was like a little boy, laughing, walking down the river in his underwear, carrying a small net over his head and throwing it enthusiastically into the water. He yelled out with joy when he caught the tiniest fish, and throughout the two days would always share with great interest any little insect he'd encounter. You could tell he was having a good time just as much as we were, and actually most of our enjoyment was thanks to him! We soon realized that we would not see much wildlife on our trail, as the tour took us only to secondary forest, which is sadly hunted out without a second thought in rural south east Asia. But Bouket's genuine giving personality, his spontaneous laughs and smiles and childlike occurrences made us feel fortunate we had had the luck of ending up on a tour with him. At the end of our two days we said our goodbyes with many hugs and smiles and thanks, and as he left us he yelled out warmly: "I will remember you for a very long time!"
Resting from the sun!
Crazy woman in the forest.
Best lunch ever!
Shooting Gold Medallist.
Cool tree lizard.
Ferns on Fire
Old rusty USA ammunition box on the forest floor (Vietnam war era)
Eating my shoots with sticky rice!
Wildlife trap (obviously we didn't use it!)
Scary bamboo bridge
Albino water buffalos!
Rice harvest storage huts.
Best green papaya salad
Juan with best pork ribs and cold beer Lao at night market.
Zuela guest house
Luang Prabang was a larger town, but with all the charm in the world! With many attractions around it like brilliant waterfalls, elephant training workshops, trekking and ancient temples, one of the main ones in town is the night market. Every single night of the year one long street in the city center is closed off for hundreds of vendors to set out their merchandise. There are gorgeous crafts, antiques, beautiful hand made clothes, paintings and delicious food set up in the most orderly manner. We of course wanted to buy from everyone! The good news is that it was easy to save on food at the 10,000 kip (1.2 USD) buffets of noodles, salads, stir fries, and all kinds of vegetables. Delicious!
Great $1 street sandwich
Our last stop was Vientiane, the capital from which we were to catch a train to Bangkok, Thailand. For a capital Vientiane is surprisingly slow-moving, with few vehicles even on the main streets. We did visit a couple of beautiful temples, the Buddah Park and the night market, but probably our favorite thing here was to indulge in the food. Vientiane has great options for both traditional and international cuisine, including several french-style bakeries and the most delicious non-profit restaurant/training school we've ever been to: Makphet. Managed by Friends International (www.friends-international.org), this restaurant focuses on helping economically disadvantaged youth from the area to develop knowledge and skills useful to become more self-sufficient. In Makphet these people receive training in hospitality, high-end cooking and even craftsmanship for a better future. And I can safely say I have never in my life tried a more delicious eggplant dish than there!
Pha That Luang Temple
Cindy in Tuk Tuk
We left Laos very happy with our experience there, wishing we had more time to explore it. Beautiful country, wonderful people!
Ho Chi Minh Ho Chi Minh was OVERFLOWING with motorcycles! Before we even stepped off the bus that drove us to our first Vietnamese city we couldn't keep our faces off the windows. The wide streets seemed like a net of intersecting loud, shiny, colorful, metallic rivers. Two-wheeled vehicles in all directions, honking incessantly, weaving around each other, going the wrong way, getting up on the sidewalk, swerving around people crossing the streets. We loved it already! Our first minute on Vietnamese grounds readied us for keeping our guards up when a taxi tried to charge us $10 USD to take us literally two blocks from where we were standing. Fortunately we looked at our map before jumping in with him! Soon we were in a very decent budget hotel, excited about our upcoming weeks in this new-to-us land.
We purchased an open bus ticket that would take us at our own pace from Ho Chi Minh all the way to the capital Hanoi, north of the long country. But first we explored a little of the place we were at. We went to the War Museum, a well arranged building displaying original weapons, tanks, bombs and airplanes, as well as horrible photographs and detailed information about the war between North and South Vietnam, the awful role of the United States in it and the after-effects on its people and nature. Nicely enough though, the display ends with a section dedicated to peace and agreement of respect between nations, which does its part of restoring a little of your faith in humanity after having presented the attrocities of which it's capable. We walked out of the museum to be "attacked" by at least five rickshaw drivers offering tours of the city, jumped on to one, had a great time for about eight blocks, got viciously overcharged and decided to start heading out of the city as soon as we could =).
Bicycle taxi in Ho Chi Minh City
Cat Tien National Park Our first stop was Cat Tien National Park, where we finally got used to the idea that hard-core bargaining is part of the culture when after trying to lower the price for about five minutes to what we'd heard it was worth, we still got charged more than twice the value of our ride to the entrance. Juan spent long hours walking along the forest trails while I took to reading and going for shorter walks, and he got to see one of the most beautiful monkeys ever: the Gray Shanked Douc! Unfortunately they were really high up in the trees and he wasn't able to get a picture of them =(. The great thing about this park was it was so off the beaten track that the last five miles of the road to it were covered with different harvests spread out to dry on the sun-heated pavement. That left barely a car's width to drive on through there, and it made for a beautiful rural sight. Mui Ne Mui Ne was lovely with its long road along the beach filled with nice bars and pleasant people there for the windsurf and the night life. We stayed for a few days to enjoy the vibe and visit the surroundings. A must-do in Mui Ne is a tour to the dunes, that spread out for miles around the area! Children run up to you with long sheets of plastic, renting them for forty thousand dong (about two dollars) for you to slide down the sand hills at delightful speeds, but even without indulging in those little thrills, the mere view of the different dunes is beautiful. One has a river running through it, another is known for its bright orange sand, another is bordered by a glistening lake.
Cindy and calf at sand river
Red Sand Dunes
White sand dunes
White sand dunes
Juan carrying Cindy up hill
Na Trang A very developed coastal city it reminded us of Cancun or Jaco with its large hotels lined up along the water and cushioned stretchers for rent under thatched palapas on the sand. What we enjoyed the most here was a free little art gallery we came upon by chance. We walked in attracted by the nice tree-shaded areas and what we thought were paintings depicting traditional Vietnamese scenes, but when we took a closer look at one of them we were astounded to discover they were embroidered works of art! The detail, the lighting, the composition, the shadows... they were beautiful! This form of embroidery is typically done with silk threads, and the artists use linear stitches placed one along the other so close together that even from a close distance it's easy to mistake the work for brush strokes. This was one place where we wished we weren't on a backpacker budget so we could bring home some of these gorgeous masterpieces!
Hoi An This was both Juan's and my favorite town in all Vietnam. It's a World Heritage and easy to tell why. As soon as you walk into the city center the stone streets are shaded by trees, the elegant mix of French colonial, Japanese and mixed Asian architecture bursts with colorful crafts, silk workshops, small art galleries, Vietnamese embroidery, local and international gourmet restaurants and hundreds of tailor shops. Old women in non la (traditional conical hats) carry fruits and sweets in baskets, tourists and locals dress nicely and walk slow or pedal calmly on bicycles. During the day the bright colors of cloth lamps hanging along bridges and in the trees contrast with the sky, and during the night their lights give the narrow streets a feeling of constant celebration. Small drama clubs put up free plays, varied organized groups lead traditional games, and out of different restaurants you hear the friendly chatter of people having a good time. During our stay here we went on a morning trip to Marble Mountain, which is a tall hill near the beach adorned with temples in its caverns and famous for the astounding quantity of marble found in its vicinity. The streets around Marble Mountain are packed with shop after shop selling marble sculptures of all sizes and themes. Even the waste baskets for the mountain were solid marble! But the vibe here in the mountain, which was really only about thirty minutes away from Hoi An is completely different from the cozy feeling of its near neighbor. We remembered with the over-insisting sales and the loud talking and fast moving people that we were in Vietnam, and soon were on our way back to our little haven.
Me as street vendor
Marble Mountain ceremony.
Hue Best Vietnamese food we had in the whole country! We really wanted to try more traditional food along the way but since we don't speak Vietnamese and few people speak English, we had had a difficult time sometimes trying to figure out what people were offering us (and we weren't too keen on being surprised with stuffed cats or anything of the sort). We read about Lien Hoa and were greatly satisfied with what at the moment seemed like the most delicious fried spring rolls we had ever eaten, along with "interactive" soup served in a large elevated bowl heated by a candle, with fresh varied vegetables on the side to put in gradually as you ate along. We had such a nice meal we returned the next day and largely over-ate to the point of regret. It still tasted great though. Hanoi The capital is as busy as it gets, and to cross the street you might as well just close your eyes and cross your fingers. There's no such thing as a functioning street light or stop sign or anything of the sort, and the millions of motorcycles simply ride around you guessing at your walking pace. The best way to cross safely, as a guy we met along the way wisely said, is to "be predictable", so that's what we tried to do. Tuk tuks and vendors go out of their way to follow you and annoy you into buying something from them; in contrast, if you try to ask someone a question and they don't understand you, most people will turn away and wave their hand at you to stop. We got ridiculously overcharged once by a metered taxi that marked more than three times as much as another metered taxi that had taken us earlier on the same route... But believe it or not, all of this is part of what makes Hanoi fun! It's just so different and so demented and chaotic that it works. If anything upset us we would soon laugh it off, and we were able to enjoy some nice attractions, like the ancient Temple of Literature and the unforgettable Water Puppet show. Ba Be Juan couldn't resist the temptation and we rented a 250 CC dirt bike which was the center of attention anywhere we stopped. I personally can barely tell the difference between that and a scooter, but what I did notice was everyone's heads turning as we would ride by. We went on a six hour trip up to Ba Be National Park, hoping to see some rural areas and wildlife along the way. The devastating reality is that there is little wildlife left in most of South East Asia -even in what little forest is protected- due to the thriving market for every conceivable wild animal for 'medicinal purposes', and also for just ordinary meals! In any community market and even upscale stores it's common to see snake skins adorning drums, live song birds sold in cages, stuffed civets or deer, jewelry made with boar husks or other animals claws, rare geckos and snakes fermented in bottles of rum... There just isn't anything near to any kind of awareness regarding conservation in the popular culture. So by going to national parks and spending a little on activities in those areas, besides hopefully increasing our chances of seeing some of these wonderful creatures in their natural habitat rather than -well- dead, we hoped we were also contribuiting our little grain of sand to show that nature tourism is worthwhile. Maybe little by little people will start seeing the benefits of conserving their natural treasures. Ba Be displayed breathtaking views of its lake and the placid life of the countryside. We did manage to see three different species of snakes, which we were very, very excited about, but other than that we left the protected area with more of a cultural experience than with wildlife sightings. Juan walked past a family cooking up a dog for the national holiday (very common in Vietnam), and later we tried some delicious hand made sweets (not dog) packed in bamboo and banana leaves.
Honda Baja for our 600 km ride
Resting our butts!
Cindy at road break...
Lake at Ba Be National Park
Cave at Ba Be
Cindy in Ba Be national park
We think it's a juvenile cobra!!!!
Colubrid at Ba Be National Park
Amazing hawk! (Captive)
Eating rice from the bamboo it was cooked and packed in... Yum!
Dusty face after ride
Cat Ba Gorgeous cruise among the islands of the brilliant blue Halong Bay. We marveled at the scenery for hours on an old fashioned wooden boat, and loved the break on the white beach to just soak in the salty water after kayaking a while around it. Sadly we were not surprised at the immense variety of wildlife sold in the moving sea markets along the way. Everything from cuttlefish to sea horses to snakes to mantis shrimp to sting rays... Juan and I just wanted to jump in the water and free them all! Again though, it's all a question of culture and not cruelty, but as fast as we can we must do what's in our hands to become aware and share this awarenes with others, before we finish with what little we have left of our fantastic natural heritage.
Cat Ba National Park
Boat ride in the bay
Bay at Cat Ba island
Dien Bien Our port of exit to Laos! By then all we could think of was our next step crossing to the neighboring country. Already we could sense the calm energy of the following land. Barely any vehicles on the streets, people walking slowly, every single shop closing down completely at noon for a daily nap and opening up again for only a couple hours after. We wandered around the market, had a baguette for dinner, and said our good byes to Vietnam after a good month of exploring its charms!
Our trip to Cambodia was very short since we had lots of places to cram in to the little time we have left for traveling, but it was very impressive! We flew into Phnom Penh just in time to catch our good friends from Borneo: Susanna, Romain, Charlotte and Khai for a couple nights. Our first outing was to a couple of sites we will always remember for the horror they represent: Prison S21 and The Killing Fields. There is enough information available online to justify my avoiding going into details on the degenerate cruelty of the genocide that took place in Cambodia less than forty years ago under the rule of the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot, responsible for the killing of about three million people during the regime ( out of a total population of 8 million), but if you find yourself in Phnom Penh, do not hesitate to visit these sites. These are human tragedies we need to remind ourselves of to learn from and prevent in the story we continue to build as a society.
Skulls in Killing Fields.
After this profoundly depressing first experience, we came out into the new Cambodia, a country emerging from disaster as a resilient, hard working community. Along with bicycles over-packed with anything from baskets to live chickens to bananas, tuk-tuks and motorbikes swerving 'round corners of busy streets and merchants announcing their products loudly we found a surprising silence in elaborate temples in the middle of the busy capital, and a pleasant energy along the river's edge, where every here and there we found a dancer with a portable stereo leading a group of passers by on a casual coreograph, brightening the night.
Soon we were in Siem Reap, famous for the immense area of temples of the Angkor kingdom. Overflowing with tourists for obvious reasons, the temples -in my opinion- lose a lot of their spiritual energy but none of their grandeur. They are imposing masterpieces, covered in detail and symbolism, glorious even under the effect of centuries exposed to the torments of weather and the incessant visit of thousands of tourists a day.
Cindy feeding taxi.
Cindy feeding taxi
At Angkor Wat
We loved every one we visited, but I think our favorite was Banteay Srei, a temple located thirty seven kilometers away from Siem Reap. Juan and I got up early one morning, rented a couple of bicycles and peddaled through small towns, along emerald rice fields, across markets of bamboo crafts and sugar cane goods, and finally got to our destination, renowned for its intricate stone carvings. Though the construction as a whole is very run down and it seems that you visit only the skeleton of a great building, the details in the work are astonishing. Juan took some pictures of some of the ones that he liked the most, but really every centimeter of the temple is sublime. The expressions of the tiny characters engraved in the rock and the stories they tell seem to come alive under your gaze. We stayed for as long as we could before we raced our way back to the hotel ahead of the dark.
Cambodia, local woman
Detail of engravings on stone
Detail of engravings on stone
Detail of engravings on stone
A river cruise followed, taking us across the Tonle Sap lake (the largest in all southeast Asia), and along the vibrant Sangker river, through moving villages where people live on small boats and floating bamboo cottages, eating creatures from the water, whatever vegetables they can manage to grow on their boats and huts and also goods they purchase from passing boats. Along the way every once in a while a canoe would smoothly pull up to the side of the boat and one of our passengers would alight in what would seem like the middle of nowhere had a crowd of very ingenious river people not decided to stop and live there for a while.
River lady rowing to pick someone up from our boat
So the trip was colorful. Long an loud, for the ride took about ten hours and the motor never ceased to sound like it was preparing to take off into space, but we enjoyed every minute of it, and were quite relaxed throughout the journey. When we pulled up to Battambang, however, our state of tranquillity was quickly broken by our first encounter with the race for tourists which we would later find to be the norm during the following weeks: we hadn't even set foot on the first step off the boat when at least ten posters were being shoved in my face by people trying to get me to choose their hotel to stay in! Men were yelling in our ears from all directions, I couldn't see Juan and I could only barely see the next step I was to put my foot on without tripping! I hurried up to Juan so we could look into our book to decide on a place, but the men kept talking all at once, listing the benefits of their place, showing us the price... I was overwhelmed! At some point we gave in and followed one of the men to a place, which was fine. From then on we got used to the hassling as part of the culture, and endured it gracefully for weeks later in Vietnam. Actually I think we were pretty good at keeping our good moods and polite ways instead of becoming annoyed and rude to people who were only trying to make a living. I love traveling with my man who is all peace and sees the good in every person! Once settled we had a nice meal in Gecko Cafe, one of many wonderful initiatives throughout the area that consist of businesses focused on bringing higher salaries and training in better job opportunities to people who grow up in disadvantaged financial situations. The next morning we took a motorcycle ride along the country side and visited a temple before heading back to Phnom Penh for the night. Cambodia is full of intriguing history, beautiful scenery, intricate temples and growing visiting opportunites. Its forests and fields are also burdened with land mines, remnants from the war threatening to blow up unaware walkers several decades after the horrific events that led them to be there. Here and there in the places we visited during our short stay we would come across a group of people selling crafts, a cute little restaurant, traditional musicians playing with their toes or only one hand or holding up a flute with their elbows. All these and other stands under a sign that would start out something like "Support land mine victims by...". How does a country pull itself up after such a horrendous chapter? Somehow the Cambodians seem to be doing it with their heads held high and smiling boldly.
The best part of our flash stay in Singapore was seeing my long-time friend Diana! Diana recently got a job with an architecture firm in this tiny but defiantly modern and luxurious new country (it became its own state only in 1965!). Singapore has risen in this short time to be a most organized and beautiful republic/city, full of art and inhabited by a great variety of people from different corners of the world who seem to share an air of elegance and good manners. Extreme example: chewing gum is completely prohibited in the entire country to avoid it ending up stuck in odd spots and making the place look dirty!
Supporting their olympic team!!
We loved the city with its harmonious public spaces, tasteful buildings, great food options and apparently safe streets. We loved meeting up with Diana and exploring the iconic sites through the eyes of someone who was for the first time seeing the city as her new home. Both Diana's and my eyes teared up at a free show at the main lake, where fountains of illluminated water shot up in dancing images displaying happy moments to the rhythm of "What a Wonderful World".
Crazy mall with "boat" on top! (Marina Bay)
Singapore's famous ferris wheel: The Singapore Flyer
We loved it all, and might have stayed another day were it not so insanely expensive for two backpackers like ourselves. The best we could do for accommodation, for instance, was a fifty dollar single bed set in a hole in a wall punctured with another twenty or so bed-boxes! It was very clean and safe, and we were happy with it but it is crazy how a dollar can stretch so wide some places and be worth close to nothing in others, isn't it?
50$ "Love Capsules"
So off we went the next day on a bus out to a new (and cheaper!) destination, very happy to have shared Singapore with Diana, albeit very briefly!
Indonesia... It's hard to picture Indonesia as a single country. Spread from Sumatra to Papua and with 17,500 other islands in between it seems more like a continent. So much cultural diversity with different looking people, different religions, different languages, completely different traditions, hundreds of ethnic and linguistic groups (300!) occupying different regions. Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Flores, Timor and Bali may very well be their own country, but even such a diverse and rich country has its final frontier, and that is exactly were we set our eyes on: PAPUA.
Papua New Guinea is the second largest island in the world, and it's divided by a straight line right in the middle, splitting the island in two. To the east the independent country of Papua New Guinea, and the other half known as West Papua belonging to Indonesia, where we just spent a month. With only three million inhabitants about seventy five percent of the territory remains forest. In it, some three hundred plus tribes still live. The island once belonged to the Australian land mass, so no wonder the fauna is much more closely related to Australia than that of the rest of Asia... You cannot find the civets, cats, boars, deer, monkeys of South East Asia, but instead can find wallabies, cockatoos, echidnas, cassowaries, and tree kangaroos.
If you had to choose a single adjective to describe Papua it would have to be WILD. With 400,000 kilometers of untouched jungles full of endemic species, and home to some of the most astonishing tribes like the highland Dani, with their trademark penis gourds. The Asmat warriors from the lowlands had a reputation as head hunters and cannibals, and were left undisturbed for ages, only coming into regular contact with the rest of the world until the mid twentieth century. And with an even more fearsome reputation, the more isolated clans of the Korowai are believed to still practice cannibalism, known for living in tree houses that can be over thirty meters off the ground! These tribes were first contacted by the outside word in 1974 and still live as hunter-gatherers. The pictures of Man with wild boar tusks piercing through their skin, elaborate hats made from the delicate feathers of the magnificent Birds of Paradise, body paintings, beautiful bows and arrows and intricately crafted cassowary bone daggers called to me. I couldn't think of a more exotic place.
We left Borneo and after a day in Singapore flew to Indonesia's capital just for transit. We arrived at Jakarta late and had to take a bus to the other terminal with less than twenty minutes before we lost our plane! Cindy and I ran like crazy; it felt like we were in the middle of the Amazing Race, stopping for quick directions and resuming our race before our adviser could finish what he was saying, but we made it! As we were boarding the Boeing 737-700 to Jayapura we noticed that there was not a single westerner on board. The dark, very characteristic features of Papuans are unmistakable, resembling only those of native Australians. On board the full plane there were one hundred and forty eight Papuans, and us two. This is not a very touristy destination, that was certain. Five hours later the captain announced the end of our trip was approaching and I looked out the window. It was a very fitting arrival: the sunrise lit the forests that were covered in mist with an assortment of yellow, orange, blue and green hues. There was nothing but forest as far as your eye could see. It seemed so wild, so untouched!
We left the airport luggage-less as it wasn't as quick as we were changing planes in Jakarta, and looked for a hotel. English is a rare tongue in this place and when we couldn't speak in English at the hotel reception, at any restaurant or on the street, Cindy's recently acquired knowledge of bahasa Malaysia really came in handy!! (It's almost the same as bahasa Indonesia).
When you arrive to Papua you need to apply for a "Surat Jalan", a traveler's permit to visit particular areas. It was a Saturday and we got to the police station just before dark. The police was very kind and explained it was too late and that tomorrow would be Sunday but that it's important to give tourists a good service so he gave us his cellphone number and told us to call him the next morning. We went to bed and before we knew it we were woken up at 6:00 am to an energetic knocking on the door followed by a loud and happy "It's Alex! I have your luggage!". We did not want to waste time in the city and so we thanked Alex and called the policeman, who exceeded our expectations by going through the trouble of driving us thirty minutes away to the headquarters where he could process our permit. He was wearing the same clothes as the day before and had a tired face. He explained that he had not slept all night. It was July 1st, the Free Papua Movement's anniversary and they had to be extra vigilant to prevent anyone from rising the Mourning Star flag (the former flag before Indonesia took control, now used as a nationalist and pro- independence symbol).
"You know" -he elaborated- "they kill random people for no apparent reason, just like the two Germans last month. They want people to believe it's dangerous to visit Papua, but that's not true..."
We couldn't help but find this horrific statement a bit funny: They kill people, it could be anyone, and for no apparent reason... But its not true it's unsafe! Oh boy! Welcome to Papua.
We later learned a bit more, Papua had been under the Dutch rule and they had started a strong missionary work in the nineteenth century. That's why we found many Christian churches in the most unlikely places, and why many Papuans are Christian while Indonesia is a majorly Muslim country. When Indonesia took control of Western Papua in 1963 they named it Irian Jaya, and immediately started liquidating her abundant resources and making little reinvestment into Papua. This of course did not sit well with proud Papuans whose Free Papua movement remains active. People from the highlands seemed to feel more passionately about it. In the first three days of our stay there, seven Papuan were killed fighting the military and we learned close to the end of our trip that our guide had been in jail for six years for killing a policeman in a riot while trying to raise the Mourning Star flag. Papuans -and certainly Martinus- were really proud of their culture and they feel (and so did we) that Indonesia wants to change them. Laws that prohibited the Koteka were placed but didn't hold, and the transmigration program by Indonesian government to move landless people from densely populated areas of Indonesia to less populous areas of Papua will make Papuan independence hard to achieve as now more than a million Indonesians share the country with them. The idea of this program was to reduce the considerable poverty and overpopulation on Java and other islands, to provide opportunities for hard-working poor people, and to provide a workforce to better utilize the natural resources of the outer islands. However fears from native populations of "Javanization" and "Islamization" have strengthened separatist movements and communal violence.
But let's get back to our story.
We went directly to the airport to buy our tickets for Baliem Valley, which we had read had thick jungles and ragged mountains. Most places remain isolated in Papua, and with no roads to connect them flying is the only alternative. We wanted to visit the highlands, home to the Yali, Dani and Lani tribes. The valley and its people was first discovered by the outside world as recently as 1938, when the third zoological expedition by Richard Archibolds found an unexpected stone age population living in the highlands.
TREKKING THE HIGHLANDS We met our guide-to-be at the airport in Sentani. I was planning on hiring a guide once in Wamena, and had no intentions of hiring one before we got there as I wanted to meet with several before settling for one, but I couldn't seem to shake him off. He was a short man with a friendly face and a nice laugh. He showed me some pictures from his previous tours and before I knew it I was trusting him with a one million Rupiah advancement. He would meet us in Wamena.
Hoping to see him again, we boarded the plane. It was divided in half, with the first half of the plane serving as a big cargo compartment and the other half filled with passenger seats that you picked at your will just like in a bus. Before we lifted I looked around at the faces. Again I failed to find a single tourist. Once in the air I had my nose pressed against the window the entire forty five minute flight, looking excitedly at the endless jungle beneath us, and only imagining the people and animals we were flying over.
We landed in a chaotic airport. The air was cool and I studied the faces in the crowd. Almost everyone was Papuan,and the few that weren't were people from other parts of Indonesia that in recent years had moved there. The vast majority wore western clothing but with no shoes; here and there men wore beautiful feathered crowns on their heads, some red (Eclectus parrot), others dark (Cassowary) and a few wearing longer, astonishing feathers belonging to different species of Birds of Paradise. Many had boar tusks hanging from their necks, and red lips and teeth from chewing Pinang (Betel nut). And standing in the middle of the crowd, a man wore his koteka!
It was funny and curious to find some older men wearing their traditional (or lack of it), walking in the middle of the streets among hundreds of western dressed Papuans.
Again not a single tourist to be seen, we took our bags and met two men that said they were friends of Martinus our guide, and escorted us to our hotel. We met Martinus later that day. "Welcome to Papua!" -he greeted- "Wamena Papua. Jayapura (Sentani) not Papua". We started to plan but he seemed to have forgotten half of our conversation at Sentani and was beginning to quote us on the different expenses. We had been clear with him we didn't want porters, much less a cook and that we carried our own food. He slowly wrote carefully outlining each letter, taken by what seemed to be deep thought:
"Porter Food Accommodation Guide"
No numbers next to the headings, just that list and a total below. I would say we couldn't afford that much, and he would immediately start the list even more concentrated this time:
"Porter food accommodation Guide"
After we had reached an agreement (a lot higher than we were expecting) I looked at him in the eyes. -"NO more money for twenty days, right?" -trying to make sure there were no misunderstandings I clarified- "That's it!" -"Yes, no more money... except for the boat". -"And how much is the boat?" -"Sixteen million Rupiahs".
What?! There was no way we could afford that (over 1,500 USD). I couldn't believe that a boat ride could be so expensive. It caught me by surprise and I felt a huge disappointment burden me. We wouldn't be able to visit the remote tribes of the Korowai that seldom received foreigners and still lived as hunter-gatherers in the forests and living in shockingly high tree houses. O.K. so Plan B.... a twenty day hike to Anguruk, sleeping in the forest and local tribal villages on the way. It's a long way and the toughest part is climbing and descending a rocky peak that is over three thousand meters above sea level before getting to the lowlands. Our guide stared at the piece of paper with the previous lists on it and started to elaborate a new one:
"Porter Food accomodation..."
-"Martinus!" -I interrupted!- "WE DON'T WANT PORTERS! We can carry our own bags" -I said in the most polite manner, really just trying to make a point and be sure that we understood each other. He looked at me confused, then worried and then sad. -"Ohhhh, I think better porter. If you die I go o jail". -"Well" - I conceded- "we certainly don't want you to go to jail". Apparently descending the mountain with steep rocky cliffs and shaky wooden vertical ladders was too much for tourists carrying their own heavy bags on their back.
Once again and for the last time he slowly and thoughtfully started his list:
"Porter food accommodation Guide"
We negotiated a while until the total sum under those categories was acceptable, and after more than two excruciatingly long hours what seemed to be a mock business meeting was over. We had agreed to leave the day after tomorrow as he needed to buy supplies and find the porters.
We took a bike taxi towards the market early the next day. It was a colorful, lively, chaotic place with pigs of all sizes running around lose and playing in the mountains of trash, many men with their cassowary feather crowns, a few older men with just kotekas, loads of people selling produce, some stands with stone axes for sale, other ceremonial hats full of beautiful feathers, the pig meat laid on top of fresh green fern leaves. Still not a single tourist to be seen. Everyone looked at us. Sometimes it could be intimidating as many of the men's features made them seem angry, but when you smiled at them they would always smile widely back at you.
Birds of Paradise feathers
That night we were to meet Martinus to discuss final details prior to our departure. To our surprise he arrived with a German couple and their two teenager boys. They were going to join us. Initially i was put back by this change in plans, but after a while everything was O.K. They were real nice and would be coming with us for the first week after which they would turn around with a porter and we would continue to Anguruk.
Early the next morning we left Wamena on an old jeep and drove for about 45 minutes to our drop off point where we would start our twenty day hike. We had initially intended to carry our own food and bags and just hire a guide to show us the way, but here was our guide, four Germans, one cook and eight porters!
Off we go!
During the next ten days (before an unexpected landslide made us return earlier) we had many extraordinary experiences. Too many to list or this will become a book, but I will give you a glance at some of them.
After hiking up some nine hundred meters in altitude on a very steep hill overlooking amazing valleys and waterfalls, we stopped to regain our breath. All of a sudden, out of the blue one of our porters that was overlooking the valley gave a loud cry, and the rest of our porters ( Ernest, Franky, Emmanuel, Yang Tse, Yali, Junus, Otto, Juneh and Markus) all joined him in a beautiful spur of the moment song. We loved it!
We arrived to a magical town. A man in his Koteka working the soil of the surrounding sweet potato fields (sweet potatoes are a staple and the mayor form of agriculture in the valley; comparable to the rice of the Philippine tribes), grass roofs, great views and beautiful gardens with corn, bananas and other greens made this a picture perfect town.
Ready to sleep
On our way I had noticed a piece of branch with some strange markings. They explained it had been used to make fire. I couldn't believe it and begged them to show me how to make fire with just sticks! Yang Tse asked the this man sitting on the rock for some rattan. The man fetched it out of his small bag and gave him a small bunch. I was in awe when days later while cooking a pig with hot stones they started a fire using nothing but this. Watch the video!!!
Cooking with hot stones
We had to cross some amazing bridges, this one has absolutely no metal in it, no screws, wire or nails. It's all vines!
Every new town we arrived at would gather a crowd at the sight of us. First the kids but several adults also came to welcome the newcomers. They were fascinated by us. They didn't seem to tire of staring. Kids especially followed us all day, making taking a bath in the river or going to the bathroom in the woods extremely challenging as they would follow us absolutely everywhere we went even when frustrated by the need to poop I couldn't make them go back or give me some distance... It was really funny. In some villages we could escape quietly unnoticed sometimes and were able to take baths in the chilling waters, but naked and at altitudes above two thousand meters it was very invigorating. One day after taking a bath by the river I saw two kids filling up some gallons of water. They seemed to be concentrated in their own chore and not minding me when they started singing. I loved the song and started dancing. They looked at me and stopped singing. I stopped my dancing. They started again and I resumed my dancing. They loved it so much that on my way back to town they were all following me singing their hearts out to see me dance! Every time they stopped so did I, and sure enough, they would start again and laugh and run. I said goodbye and entered the room. I told Cindy what had happen and how much fun the kids were having. We took a nap and hours later when we walked out for dinner, they still remained outside our room waiting for me to come out. The minute I did they started to sing and Cindy captured some seconds of it. It was dark so you can't see the video of me dancing (thank God) but you can hear the kids singing full of joy.
One day Martinus pointed out a man's ears. They were cut diagonally, missing almost half of each one. -"What happened to him?"-I asked. -"He cut them off". -"What? Why?"-I asked, horrified. -"They do that when they lose someone they love, like a wife or kid" -he answered, solemnly. -"But why?" -"When you lose someone your heart is sick, your head is no O.K. It's very bad. They cut the ears or fingers also to make it better."
After that I noticed several men with their ears cut and many many women missing fingers.
Self mutilated fingers
This man wanted me to buy this artifact used to cut the fingers!!! It's made of stone and has some cassowary feathers in it. I would have loved to buy it, but the cassowary feathers made it ethically wrong to do so, going against our beliefs in conservation, so we paid for a picture.
UNEXPECTED ENCOUNTERS IN DEKAI Our mission for the rubber boots was successful. After using mainly signals to explain what I was looking for, I picked up that the term was "sapato lumpur", and from there on marched into every little shop of the market declaring proudly the word I'd just learned. By then I was getting quite comfortable with my basic knowledge of Indonesian, and jumped at every opportunity to extend it. On this afternoon, it led me right to what I was looking for, and the next day I was fit for the muddy trails of the jungle! Juan and I loved our cultural experience in Wamena, but at the same time were anxious to get back into the nature -and warmth- of a tropical forest, and we were eager to encounter the famed Birds of Paradise and cassowaries Martinus assured us were in Dekai. Dekai was only even placed on the map of Papua twelve years ago, when Indonesian government decided to extend its influence into that area trough transmigration. There is but one hotel along the road by the market, a police station and the village. Everything else seemed to be covered by jungle. Martinus picked us up the next morning with three other Papuans and two small rifles. We jumped into the pick up truck and headed off down a long dirt road being cut straight through the jungle, apparently meaning to reach all the way to Wamena. I assumed the rifles were for safety against mall-intentioned people we might encounter in the middle of nowhere. Although I tend to feel safe in general under most circumstances, I was aware of the political instability of Papua and accepted the presence of the weapons as a precaution. After a little over an hour listening to the same silly songs play over and over in the driver's stereo, the car stopped in an entrance to the forest dug out by the road's machinery. The world was different all of a sudden. Birds we could not see sung melodies we had never heard, using vocal instruments that surprised and dazzled us, urging us to leave the running motor of our ride behind and walk into the jungle. Eager to try our new camping hammocks out -a model with integrated mosquito netting and water proof shading that fit light and comfortably in our back packs- we searched for the best spot to hang them. After abandoning one where Juan almost snapped a young tree in half under his weight, we set camp in the perfect spot by the river, conveniently sheltered by leaves, where we could hear the ripple of the water over the stones, and only twenty five meters away from the fire and Martinus. Juan and I were thrilled with the success of our purchase, and were comfortably laying in our respective cocoons, talking away in the night before sleep when one of the porters walked up to our camp with the only purpose of asking us for cigarettes. We didn't have any and he walked away, visibly disappointed.
Cindy and Juan
Hammocks by river
Against my normal ease of heart, that brief encounter made me feel largely unsafe. I had sensed a vibe I did not like, a realization that Juan and I were not part of a group of friends going on a tour, but a couple of outsiders paying unknown men to take us to a remote place we knew nothing about. Juan tried to soothe me reminding me we were with Martinus, whom we knew pretty well by now, and suggested that to ease my nerves we should go over to his camp and get to know the new porters a little. We had only met them that day, and I conceded that that might help, so off we walked to their fire and struck up a banal conversation, limited to the few words I knew in Indonesian and Martinus' basic grasp of English. Presumably to break the ice a little, Martinus decided to share with us a video he has on his phone. In the three minute footage a large crowd of nearly naked men jump up and down to the beat of a shrill bamboo instrument, their faces painted, their voices deep and angry, their brows low over their eyes, their hands gripped tightly around lances and knives. The file ends with an image of the Papua flag, to which Martinus shook his head, kissing the phone and putting his hand on his chest, longing for the freedom of his people. I decided that I was "calm" enough by then and preferred to return to my hammock, trying to concentrate on the beauty of the forest around me to put myself to sleep. The early walk the next morning cleared the air for a timeless moment when, as Juan and Martinus followed the song of a bird high up in the canopy, I found myself silently drawn into the hollow center of an old Strangler Fig Tree. The feeling of vastness in this living enclosure is paradoxical, but when standing inside the rooted temple you're all but perplexed, and rather invaded by a sense of belonging that blows away all thoughts, leaving room only to the awareness of your own breathing and heart. A loud shot startled me out of my meditation. As Juan and I walked towards the point where the sound had come from, we soon discovered that it was one of our porters who -accompanied by Martinus- had shot down a beautiful red and blue Eclectus Parrot. I was FURIOUS. I stomped away in boiling ire while Juan tried patiently to explain to our guide that we did not want anyone killing the birds we were there to watch. I knew Juan was just as upset as I was seeing the wild animal put down so carelessly, but Juan somehow found room in his reason to acknowledge that we were nothing but visitors in a country where people have lived hunting and gathering for generations that reach back to the very beginning of humans in the area. There is an intricate relationship between traditional Papuan culture and birds and their feathers. We had seen men of all ages wearing them as crowns of every color, but to me the shooting of that bird by our porter in the presence of our guide was unacceptable in the face that we had told him from the beginning that we did not want to hunt. Still, Juan gave Martinus the benefit of the doubt, and established that we would continue our tour with him only if he refrained from hunting. We moved camp that day, proving the quality of our hammocks in a dense rain that lasted through the night and the entire following day. We remained enclosed in our dry capsules most of the time, coming out occasionally to share some coffee by the fire with our guide and porters, trying to ignore their failed attempt at hiding the plucked parrot they sneaked into one of the pots, pretending I didn't understand when they said in their language they were hungry for parrot. I did manage to enjoy our meal of Sago (see video and description below), and as soon as the rain calmed a little I was happy to walk with Juan on the unfinished dirt road to see what we could find on its forest edge.
Road in Dekai
Sago is a starch extracted in the spongy center of the Sago Palm Metroxylon sagu. It is a major staple food for the lowland people and is nearly pure carbohydrate. 100 grams of dry sago typically comprises 94 grams of carbohydrate and not much more.
Many large dump trucks passed back and forth, every one of the drivers offering a friendly hello that lifted my spirits. One driver in particular offered us a ride twice, trying to explain something we couldn't make out. Seeing his insistence on us going back we decided to head to our camp, where an unexpected surprise awaited. Three Papuan men met us at camp. They approached us with stern looks on their faces, paying little attention to my friendly "Selamat sore" (Good afternoon). After a few unsuccessful attempts at communicating, we politely took them to Martinus, where a serious discussion began. Concerned, Juan and I watched and listened intently. I could understand from the conversation that there was a problem related to us being there. Martinus explained that these were "Orang Hutan" (people of the forest), and that we were meant to ask them permission to camp in their lands. As we listened some more and prompted Martinus for further translation here and there, it became clear that this was a matter that was above any written Indonesian law; it was a custom directly imposed and enforced by the original inhabitants of the area, so it didn't matter that we had obediently had our local pass stamped by the police to visit Dekai, this was their forest, and they did not appreciate outsiders coming into it and possibly "taking things that are important". At this point I'm sure I heard the leader say "bird" in their language repeatedly. Juan and I did not need any more translation. I directed myself politely to the leader and apologized for the misunderstanding, assuring him in my broken Indonesian that we did not know we had to ask and that we would leave immediately. The men already had a big dump truck ready for us! I know it all sounds scary, but for me this situation was actually liberating! For me we now had a great excuse to leave the bird-hunters, and we had an interesting cultural exchange to lead us to it! When we announced our intention to lift camp the Orang Hutan graciously explained that they knew it wasn't our fault, said our guide should have known better, were very kind to help us with our bags and they even stopped us at their village to treat us to some warm dinner before taking us all the way back to our hotel! They drove off with smiles on their faces, leaving us just as pleased. Unexpectedly, the hotel was full due to some local group, and we had to find a place to sleep by knocking on doors in hope of someone's good will. Leaving Juan to guard our luggage, the first door I tried was the little restaurant across the street, and was pleasantly received by the most welcoming Indonesian family ever, who with no hesitation prepared a bed for us and some hot lemon and honey tea. Among all those smiles, despite the nine rats that we heard scurrying along the beams, rustling through our bags and -according to Juan- trying to push a sofa somewhere in the next room, I slept in absolute peace and happiness that night. I felt welcome. Before closing our eyes Juan and I reflected on the events of the day. We were both quite amused by the way we had been kicked out of the forest by the native tribe. Despite the situation, we were happy to witness people proud and protective of their land and their culture. It was obvious they had had little to no contact with any foreigner and that they wanted to make sure their identity and heritage was preserved. We wondered if they realized what the new road they were working on would do to their treasured isolation.
OUR EXHAUSTIVE SEARCH FOR THE LEGENDARY CASSOWARY Pak Jamil laughed modest and free, with peaceful, twinkling eyes and a stringy black mustache that framed his outstretched upper lip. He was short, thin and held a knowing man's posture: back straight, shoulders parallel to his rubber-booted feet, eyes humble and confident meeting ours, body and mind relaxed, with visibly no need to prove anything, his natural amiability alone enough to gain our respect and trust. He was the prized fruit of a blind search for a Papuan wildlife experience; a name we had come across by chance in a casual conversation with a seemingly professional guide in Dekai's tiny airport. During this conversation, which was greatly blurred by language barriers, the guide jotted down "Nimbokrang, Pak.Jamil" on the last page of my crossword puzzle pocket book. In a week's time we were to discover that Jamil was THE man to go to when aiming for birdwatching in Papua, sought out even by giants as the BBC for knowledge on precise spots for birds of paradise, specific bird calls and behavior, but the day Juan and I decided to jump on the public mini-bus to Nimbokrang we had absolutely no idea if that was a national park, a camping ground, a private forest or a random little village in the lowlands, as it turned out to be; or that Jamil was not a park ranger but just another Indonesian man from the community except for his passion and experience with the area's feathered treasures. That is the living ones, not the decorative crowns we'd seen men wearing in Wamena. Jamil's wife, Surip, greeted us with motherly welcoming warmth, spreading out clean sheets on our bed in a room spic and span as the rest of her simple house. Everything in it, though quite basic, had a precise position on its respective shelf, and her natural hospitality led to the delicious habit of always having a bowl of fruit and hot water for tea and coffee set neatly on the outside porch for every spontaneous visitor to help himself. I personally could not resist grabbing a tangerine every time I walked by! Juan and I were inspired to start this friendly custom in our own home as soon as we settle down. The plan was this: at 4:30 am we would meet on the porch for a light breakfast consisting of bread and butter, coffee, tea and some fruit. We then would walk across town, cut through some tall grass and enter the jungle. With the first streaks of sunlight the next morning we were already at the spot: a tall, heavy-set tree in the forest rose ominous over the others. Song preceded, then the fluttering of wings rendered invisible to us by the concealing leaves above, but after a little patience and carefully hushed excitement the spectacle began: on a robust branch cut out against the sky a "Lesser Bird of Paradise" landed ceremoniously, making Juan jerk his camera out in undeniable readiness. The handsome male made no unnecessary preludes on his stage, and immediately commenced his dance, ruffling up his feathers, spreading his rounded wings, skipping along the branch and shaking his elaborate yellow tail in a striking display of beauty and carefully contrived mechanisms of evolution to present himself as a suitable bachelor to the many females gathered around, studying his attributes for reproduction. From the forest ground thirty meters below the show we were most definitely impressed!
Lesser Bird of P[b
[/b]aradise] After spending some considerable time at that first sighting Jamil took us to some other good spots where we were able to watch a "King Bird of Paradise", some Imperial Pigeons, Cockatoos and even -completely unexpected- a Green Python!
We marched into Surip's house victorious that day. Juan could not stop reviewing the photos of his camera and zooming into the details of the snake, but there was one animal that kept taunting Juan's thoughts... We knew they were in the area, we had seen one's fruity scats in the morning, we had compared the size of our own hand next to its muddy footprint in the ground.
We had to find a cassowary! We have seen cassowary before in zoos, but just like any other animal there is no comparison to observing the animal in the wild. Juan, for instance, would much rather find a footprint of a tiger near a creek in the jungles of Myanmar than to play all day with one in captivity (I personally wish I could hug a wild one to pieces). The possibility of encountering this astonishing animal in the wild kept growing in Juan into an uncontrollable excitement that took us to some great adventures. There are three species of cassowary in the world, all native to Papua, and only one (the Northern Cassowary) can be found also in Cape York Australia. The feathers have been modified and look more like long hairs, serving tribal Papuans as adornments in ceremonial attires and instruments just as much as their meat serves as food. Nimbokrang is home to the Southern Cassowary. This bird can reach up to two meters in height and weigh up to sixty kilograms! It has a dinosaur-like helmet on its head and red piercing eyes surrounded by blue skin. The deep blue neck has a large red wattle hanging low on its chest. It lives in dense jungle, where it looks for fallen fruits on the ground. If scared they can run to up to fifty km per hour through the forest but if it stands its ground it can be deadly. Its huge legs have enormous feet with three jagged toes, the second containing a razor sharp claw reaching up to thirteen cm in length, an effective weapon that in rare cases has killed humans. Like all animals it's naturally shy of people and dangerous encounters are extremely rare, but with no doubt the cassowary receives the title for "most dangerous bird in the world". For the next two days we did not stop for anything that was not some mark that might lead us to the elusive giant of a bird. Jamil hired one of his friends, Dante, to join in and assist on our ambitious search. Dante was a tall, muscular Papuan, who made up for his lack of English by exaggerating every single one of his gestures and pronouncing the national language careful and slowly, mimicking the action that described the word and declaring after: "Bahasa Indonesia", so that we might learn a little. He was a character we increasingly grew fond of, who had the ability to keep up the suspense for hours on end as he walked silent and steadily off the trails with eyes alert, ears reacting to the faintest sounds, making us stop dead in our tracks with only the lift of his palm as he looked ahead, leaving us in a knot of excitement as we waited for our objective to pop out of the bush. Those two days we came very close to seeing one, and actually Dante was able to spot one around a corner that I missed for only a couple second! During the quest we did manage to see two more birds on Juan's list: the "Twelve Wired Bird of Paradise" and the "Palm Cockatoo", both spectacular animals, but still no cassowary. At the end of the last day we went back to Surip's happy about our time with Jamil but resigned to lay low for the next few days in the Sentani hotel, since we had already gone way over our budget. Then, sitting around after dinner Jamil asked us "Why you leave?", to which we gave him our sad answer, for some reason spilling out the numbers of our budget for the remaining days before our flight out of Papua. And then Jamil lit up our night with the shiniest proposal! He told us about an area of forest where he had heard there might be higher chances of seeing cassowaries; it was a couple hours away by motorcycle. We could drive up, walk a while into the forest and camp for a couple nights. "For me it's no problem," - he went on, referring to our inability to pay more than what we'd already considered for our budget- "for me it's good because survey area". He was clearly enthused with the idea of going on this outing, and I think a part of him also was set on tracking that cassowary down as a personal achievement. Juan and I eagerly accepted! The next day Dante showed up a little earlier than scheduled, quite effectively managing to make conversation with us through elaborate face contortions and wide gestures about the time he'd spotted a cassowary for a group of tourists. While he was rolling on the ground simulating the tourists' victory celebration, Juan sneakily tried to compliment me on how "sexy" I looked in my rubber boots. When I hushed him embarrassed, noting that "sexy" was actually a very international word possibly not decent in a Muslim country, Dante looked up at us with effusive nods saying "Ya, ya! Kasuari internasional! Internasional group kasuari!". At that point we knew we could not have found a more focused or driven man for this venture! That night we camped far into the forest. We hung our fancy hammocks near the river while Jamil, Dante and another Papuan man named Augus set up a large canvas like only real forest people would think to do. Augus is actually part of the community who owns that forest, so of course he would have the skills! First they cleared the ground of twigs and stones as best they could with their palangs (machetes). Using ferns and grass they cushioned the area they planned on sleeping on, and over that they used a third of a large canvas to cover it, while the middle served as a wall and the top as the roof, all fastened tight to the trees around them with flexible, strong vines found on site. Now we were set.
Dinner is almost ready
Like dreams, there are some scenes that can be described to detail, but to live them is the only way to experience the unique sensation of the moment. The forest was dark beneath the trees on a moonless night, but through the canopy the sky opened to uncountable stars, some of which would seem to fall into our world, twinkling in yellow hues as the flew erratically through the leaves. As our gaze followed the intermittent light of the fireflies, we noticed many more glowing gems peeking out among logs along the ground: mushrooms! It's these little wonders that remind me how magical the Earth really is, and that as humans we might be removed from this notion is not only a shame, but a great puzzle to me.
Here's a picture Juan took of the fungi that night so you can get a glimpse but please, I beg you to find the time to walk into a tropical forest and live for yourself the magic of the sight. Actually I beg you to walk into any point of nature and let yourself be wrapped in the marvel of life around you.
Cindy and Juan harvesting betel nuts
Back to our search though, apart from helping Dante and Augus collect a bunch of betel nuts, we continued the night with no more results than a good time, my favorite being when with but the lift of a finger to his lips, Dante's super power to build up suspense resulted in Juan dropping to the ground, slithering through the mud under the shrubs with his camera clicking furiously at the roots Juan imagined to be the legs of an enormous wallaby. I laughed my head off to that one! I was barely able to see through my tears on our walk back to camp. A total of ten hours were spent the next day actively searching for the cassowary. Walking through the tangled jungle, our ears and eyes alert to every movement and sound, following Dante blindly when he detected clues in the air. We stepped over countless cassowary footprints, many of them very fresh, and several times almost burst in of excitement when mistaking a feral pig for our target. At one point Juan and Dante came as close as seeing a large black blur bolt ahead of them into the bush. They were quite sure it must have been a cassowary, but all they saw was black. The most fruitful accomplishment of the day was spotting a tree, which was quite generously dropping dozens of vivid pink fruits on the muddy ground beneath it, which in turn, showed evidence of many fresh footprints to give us hope. As a last attempt, we concocted a plan for the next morning: We would build a hiding place near that tree, arrive early before sunrise and wait for the cassowary to walk up for its meal. According to us, it was an infallible move!
Cindy and Dante in hiding place
Our hiding spot was lightly constructed out of dry palm leaves and vines around a fallen log that would serve as our bench during the hours of waiting, and at 4:30 in the morning Juan and I were already quietly waiting in it, peeking out towards the tree, rain ponchos on against the drizzle that started after Dante dropped us off. We were silent. We waited. We perked up our ears to every suspicious sound. We stayed there, practically motionless for more than five straight hours. Experiencing the awakening of the forest seems only natural to me, especially having lived in the Osa Peninsula for years, and for Juan it's no different. Nonetheless, we both love it. The only way I can think of to describe it at the moment is to say that it somehow transports you to the beginning of the Earth as we now know it. When you hear the first loud calls of parrots breaking the night's rest and the darkness very gradually starts giving into tones of greys, then dark blues, then greens, then oranges... when the scratching of a forest turkey starts altering the ground and unidentifiable buzzing and chirping inject more and more life into the previously dormant black, you can't help but to feel part of... just nature! After these two nights in Papuan jungle, after the rest of the marvelous week sharing experiences with characters like Dante, Augus and Jamil, having failed in all our efforts to find the legendary cassowary we were far from disappointed. We had met wonderful people, learned a little Indonesian, seen gorgeous birds found only in this single island in the world, and experienced many little adventures we will always remember, but one thing in particular made our departure from that jungle special. As we were walking out of the forest towards the motorcycles, pulling our boots out of the mud at times and dodging low branches as we made our way along the overgrown trail, Dante once more lifted his hand to hush. A vibrating hoot-hoot, somewhat similar to that of a didgeridoo started increasing in volume from the forest. Juan looked back at me with wide sparkling eyes: the cassowary called us good bye!