A trip to Papua – Indonesian Papua Highlands

The endless blue ocean that is the Arafura Sea meets Papua with a violent shudder of breaking surf on rocky beaches. Papua simply rises out of the water like some strange prehistoric animal. Ponderous, enormous, mysterious. The mountains climb endlessly, effortlessly towards the sky. These are some mountains: craggy, monumental- a darker kind of bruised and violent blue. This is a land stuck in time.

And the Jungle. Having traveled all over Indonesia I thought I was prepared for what I assumed Papuan Jungles would be. These Jungles dominate the landscape, cut only by muddy ribbons of rivers that force their way from the mountains behind to the distant ocean. The jungle is impenetrable. Thick, lush, a myriad of greens and browns. It is almost inconceivable that the same country that has cleared most of Kalimantan has been unable to make any impact on the dense canopy that clings to the Southern slopes of Papua. Looking down over the millions of square miles of jungle, suddenly the fact that tribes were still being discovered here as late as the 1960's makes perfect sense. Roads are few and far between, hamlets (if that's what they can be called) are rare. This is still natures preserve. Still almost untouched by human hand.

Timika, the first transit stop in Papua, has been carved out of this jungle. It is a small parcel of habitable land with impenetrable walls of trees bordering it on all sides. It literally is a city carved out the jungle. Its main reason for existence is as a base and air-link for American mining company Freeport. They have a huge copper mine operating up high in the nearby mountains. Freeport is one of Indonesia's biggest tax payers. Their contribution to Papua is the infrastructure that makes up Timika as well as projects around the rest of the Island.

After a quick 30 minute stopover, the flight continues to Jayapura- the capital of Papua. Jayapura was described once to me as being like a “Kebon Singkong” (a sweet potato field) during the day, and like Hong Kong at night. There is no doubt that this city is a small slice of Paradise. It is located on a deep water bay, the inhabitants living on houses over the water and also built right up the sides of the mountains that surround the town. The Jungle snaps at the outskirts of the city, a thick green and blue belt of trees tied tight around the inland perimeter. The view seaward is of islands and the smoky grey outline of Papua New Guinea. PNG is a mere 70km from Jayapura, not more than a couple of hours drive.

While the rugged geography maybe similar to that of Hong Kong, Jayapura is no Causeway Bay. The tallest building in the city is the towering 6 storey Bank of Papua. The Swiss-Bell Hotel and several other buildings top out at 5 stories. At one end of town is the Port and the area known as Dok I. At the other end, Police Barracks and Dok IX. In between there is an army base, commercial centre, fish market and the soccer stadium - home to Indonesia's 2008/9 champion soccer team. The city is not huge, but vibrant. This is a melting pot of different cultures and different religions. Immigrants from South Sulawesi- Bugis, live hand in hand with Javanese and local Papuans. Churches- many Catholic, are everywhere. A large Cross, illuminated red at night, stands atop the peak overlooking the city. Another- this one yellow, guards the wide entrance to the harbour. Power is supplied by a saddly dilapidated and spluttering diesel fired powerplant at Dok I. Its poor performance means nearly every major building- hotels, cafes, restaurants, government offices and hospitals- have their own generators on site.

One of the major daily habits of local Papuan's is endlessly chewing Betel nuts. Betel nuts, or Pinang as they are known in Indonesia, used to be a fruit that was the bane of British Governers everywhere. The nuts were chewed and spat out in a gooey mess in cities including Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Pinang itself is green and about the size of quails egg. The customer pops the entire fruit in their mouth and begins chewing like mad. It is crunchy, hard and oozes out a acrid and bitter flavor. The juice of the fruit stimulates the saliva glands- the chewers mouth quickly fills with liquid. This is regularly spat out and between chews the consumer eat chalk dabbed in a sirih stalk. The chalk helps to balance out the acidity in the mouth. The betel nut has a strange effect. It is for sure a stimulant and also it creates a numbing effect in the mouth. The local Papuans think it is also an excellent way to reduce gum disease. It is pretty easy to spot a Betel nut eater- the bright red juice mixed with saliva would make an excellent prop for the “Twilight” cast of vampires. Blood red teeth, gums and an occasional chin drizzled and splotched crimson. The streets of Jayapura look like they have been sprayed with blood!

End Part 1

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Comment by Matt Milletto on December 1, 2009 at 9:42am
Comment by Jason on November 30, 2009 at 9:25am
looks Great Alun !!
Comment by Mike McGinness on November 29, 2009 at 7:37pm
Beautifully written. Really brings your experiences to life.
Comment by Alun Evans on November 29, 2009 at 7:28pm
Thanks Paul, its kind of a mini version of "War in Peace" trying to condense all the notes!
Comment by Paul Yates on November 29, 2009 at 7:18pm
More! More!

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