Helping the last cannibals in Papua

We were looking for the last cannibals, rainforests, hillsides, valleys, ravines, towns and people to help in the most remote and rainiest place in the world. Ten years ago we found a lost paradise that sometimes could be a hell, a place called Irian Jaya.

Papua, also known as Western New Guinea and formerly Irian Jaya (Glorious Irian), is the easternmost part of Indonesia. It comprises the western half of the island of New Guinea, the world’s largest and highest tropical island, while the eastern half is the independent country of Papua New Guinea.

Papua retains many traditional cultures and is home to some of the richest biodiversity in the world. Irian Jaya has the largest protected area in the Asia-Pacific region, which ranges from Papua’s southwest coast to its central mountains.

Malnutritioned children in the Baliem Valley.

Malnutritioned children in the Baliem Valley.

But who protects the people from Papua?

Our personal adventure began in Madrid. We were a group of friends who loved travelling and helping others. Carlos, Cristina and Ricardo were doctors; while Paco, Jose and I were simply travelers willing to help with anything.

Irian Jaya has been under heavy Indonesian military control since a long time ago, and this was our first problem because in Madrid it was almost impossible to obtain our visas. One month later and after making many calls, finally we managed to get visas to Irian Jaya.

Our first stop was Bali, from where we flew to Irian Jaya. When I landed in Jayapura I thought that I was in other planet. Jayapura is a small city and Papua’s capital; but when we arrived to Wamena I saw things that I could not ever have imagined before…

Yalis offering us a pig for dinner.

Danis offering us a pig for dinner.

First of all there were naked people seating in the middle of the landing strip, then we saw our first koteca (pumpkin placed in men´s penis), our guide picked us at the airport, where he spoke with a group of men, who turned out to be our porters, the most important people of our expedition.

We spent our first night in a small hotel with a missionary and two scientists, the same people who traveled with us from Jayapura to Wamena. In Wamena we visited a kind of hospital where the NGO “Doctors without borders” worked. They were all good people and very kind to us.

Next morning we took our car to Wasegalep to start our adventure, as we descended the steep hill down to the hanging bridge across the Baliem river.

Yali women preparing carrying the rocks to cook the pig.

Dani women carrying the rocks to cook the pig.

During two days we explored the Baliem Valley walking fourteen hours per day, crossing hidden towns and helping people with filariasis, tuberculosis, and children with malnutrition. I played with children and heard the old stories of old people. I did not understand their language but I think in any culture old people need young people to hear them.

One day in the village of Sogokmo I heard the story of an old man, who belonged to the Dani tribe. Our guide had us meet and help us understand each other.  The man told me he was a cannibal, and he started to narrate his personal story. He told me that he loved his mountain and his family and that one day he did a terrible thing. His neighbor stole him his pig (pigs are very important for Irian people, for example if you don’t have three pigs you cannot marry) so he had to kill his neighbor and later eating him…

Incredible, he seemed so nice!

Indonesian law forbade cannibalism, but we visited places where people made fire with stones and wood…maybe they did not know what a law was!

Me with a lot of the Papuan children I was able to help.

Many children from Baliem Valley with me.

One morning, climbing a mountain in Kurima, Cristina had an accident and her leg seemed broken, she could not carry on and she had to come back to Wamena. The Danis brought her in their arms during one day and a half, as we continued our trip helping in anything we could.

Baliem valley people are really special, very nice and hospitable, so we spent lovely days there with the Dani people.

When we came back to Wamena, Cristina had gotten a crutch at “Doctors without borders”.  Her leg was broken but she wanted to continue the trip, so we flew in a small airplane to get to know the Yali tribe.

Dani children.

Timika children of different etnias.

Doctors helped Yali people with tuberculosis and other diseases. When we arrived Yalis offered us a delicious pig cooked their own way, with hot stones covered up with vegetables. It was to die for!

Our last destination was Timika. People in this area seemed unhappy, maybe because they knew how other people lived, with other – better – kind of houses and “roads”. We visited where the English and American people lived, and it seemed like another world.

In Irian Jaya there are many gold mines, that is why foreign people live there.

Danis and Yalis are happy in their world, in their paradise with their valley, but in Denpasar things are different. One week later we went back to Bali to rest, and found another world, another culture, but in our minds all of us were thinking:

“Who will protect the people from Papua?”

About Elena Cascales

Elena has been travelling since she was born. Marketing expert, volunteering has given her fulfillment and self development. She loves children and has been in many remote countries.

2 responses to “Helping the last cannibals in Papua”

  1. Cecilia says:

    What an amazing experience! It’s been a travel I’ve always wanted to do! Hope people of Papua find a guardian angel.

  2. Elena says:

    Thanks Cecilia! I hope so!!

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