Life, death and strange food in West Papua

Life, death and strange food in West Papua

Penis sheaths and mummified locals are just two memorable sights from a trip to the Indonesian region

Although technically part of Indonesia, West Papua is a world apart from the rest of the archipelago nation.

Flying into its biggest city of Jayapura, on the northern coast, I get just a glimpse of what's to come later during my trip further south. 

Yos Sudarso BayJayapura’s Yos Sudarso Bay overlooking the border between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. The non-descript Jayapura is an administrative capital and military garrison town. It has a beautiful view over Yos Sudarso Bay near the border between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. 

But it is the people I am most looking forward to meeting. As soon as I step from the plane onto Jayapuran concrete, Dani men wearing traditional penis sheaths and topless women in Dani garb dance and chant to welcome the visitors.Dani tribe at the Wamena airportA warm welcome from Dani tribal folks at Wamena airport.

An awkward welcoming party if ever there was one. 

But the best of the nation can be found by heading south from Jayapura to Wamena. There are no roads inland. Everything must be flown in, including food, living supplies and petrol.

A businessman from Java reportedly has a monopoly on the oil supply to Wamena, meaning petrol is over US$5 per liter. Food and goods cost on average three to five times what they would cost elsewhere in Indonesia.

Villagers reconstruct a bridgeVillagers reconstruct a damaged bridge by hand.

Travel toward Wamena and life becomes a lot more basic. 

Mud and rockslides are a constant threat. My truck is stopped for a couple of hours as we watch villagers reconstruct a damaged wooden bridge with their bare hands and feet.

It was one of many incredible things that I got to see during my 10-day stay in West Papua.

A typical Dani villageA typical Dani village outside of Wamena. I visit some Dani and Walak tribal villages where the people are happy and hospitable. Their huts are made of straw and wood.

They will often dance and sing traditional songs for visitors. But it is not an easy life, both physically and culturally.

I notice that many of the locals have disfigured and shortened digits, and it transpires that Dani tribe tradition calls for older men and women to cut off fingers when a spouse or other close family member passes away.

This tradition is losing its appeal as Papua modernizes. 

Tawi on sale at a marketTawi, also known as red fruit, on sale at a market in Wamena.

West Papuans living inland only came across people from the outside world about 60 years ago when American anthropologists flew in to do research. Missionaries followed soon after.

I am able to speak to some elder villagers who remember seeing the first overseas visitors for the first time. The relationship between the tribes and Westerners was rocky at first, but soon the locals were won over with increased trade and friendly contact. 

And now tourism is also a part of their lives. 

A traditional Dani mealBakar Batu, or stone back, a traditional Dani tribe meal.

The food is a little hit and miss. I am offered traditional foods of sweet potatoes, sago paste cooked in banana leaves, taro and cassava.

I am a little disappointed, but then I attend a family barbecue unlike any I have had before. Known as bakar batu or literally “rock bake,” rocks are thrown over a pit of hot coals for hours.

Then freshly slaughtered chickens and pork, sweet potato and its leaves, and red fruit known locally as tawi are wrapped in banana leaves and thrown into the pit.

The fiery hot rocks are put on top of the food and left to bake for another few hours. Extended family from around the village arrives. Communal eating at its best.

The juicy, moist chicken flavored by the banana is my favorite -- no salt or seasonings required.

Chicken baked in banana leavesFreshly slaughtered chicken baked in banana leaves. No salt or seasonings needed.

The most eye-catching food was definitely the tawi. Staining the diner’s teeth a crimson red, this pungent paste is great eating for the locals.

Tawi is mashed into a pasteTawi is baked and mashed into a paste.

They claim that it can cure or prevent a laundry list of ailments including cancer and HIV.The tawi is then eaten by hand or with the aid of a banana leaf spoon.

At another village the village elder introduces me to a 360-year-old relative … who is mummified.

To honor village elders who have contributed much to the tribe, the ultimate show of respect is to smoke the remains of the leader over a fire for weeks or months.

A mummified relativeA Dani village elder introduces me to his relative, a 360-year-old mummy.

They are kept on display and stories of their greatness are told to future generations.

But beneath the local people’s big smiles and warm hospitality, the sad fact remains that HIV/Aids is a big problem in the province and it is also one of the major malaria-infested areas in the world.

A nurse inpects a child's footA nurse inspects the foot wound of a child at the Kalvari Clinic in Wamena.

Small clinics that have funding from the Clinton Foundation, though understaffed, are determined to try to resolve this.

For a foreign traveler, malaria isn’t much of an issue if you are prepared with anti-malaria pills.

But many locals just shrug off the problem, saying they can't afford to buy the medicine, let alone take it for their whole lives.  

getting there

west papua travel

Flights are available from Jakarta to Jayapura, the capital of West Papua Indonesia. Trigana Airlines is the only commercial airline with flights from Jayapura to Wamena. They take only 40 minutes. To explore outlying villages take an excursion organized by local travel agencies.

Derrick Chang is a Canadian photojournalist based in Hong Kong. His work has appeared in Time, the New York Times, CNNGo, Huffington Post, and other Asian media outlets. He enjoys hiking from one mountain village to another, waiting for the golden light and dining on street food.

Read more about Derrick Chang