THE HELICOPTER AND THE CREMATION - BACK TO THE STONE-AGE IN IRIAN JAYA
"Sometimes the lights all shining on me, other times I can barely see - lately it occurs to me, what a long strange trip it's been." / Grateful Dead
I'm high in the mountains of Irian Jaya, staring down through a helicopter's Plexiglas floor at the market town of Wamena. Barbarian Bob The Pilot is giving me and Albatross Woman a ride.
We'd met at breakfast. Friendly guy, real happy to see us and speak "American English." He and his helicopter were under contract to Shell Oil. Told him I'd never flown in one.
"No shit? Ok, fuck Shell," he said, "let's play hooky. We'll take a ride - heard there's a cremation. Ever seen one? The things're real interesting.."
Irian Jaya is the last island in the Indonesian Chain - other side of Papua New Guinea. I'd been lusting to visit for five years, ever since a guy showed me pictures on a bus from Israel to Egypt.
First time I tried - waiting for Penelope, Penny and the tickets at my favorite Chinese-run combination hotel/brothel in Penang - I collapsed getting out of bed. Maid found me raving and delirious. Carried downstairs for a bicycle-rickshaw ride to the doctor, I woke up in a hospital with needles in both arms. Had septicemia - infection of the blood. "Sorry sir, but Irian Jaya is out of the question. You need time to recuperate."
In the 1930's, two Dutch guys in a seaplane were flying over what they thought was uninhabited jungle, high in the mountains around the current town of Wamena. Landing on a beautiful and uncharted lake, out of the surrounding jungle streamed these till-then totally unknown, almost naked people.
The men are naked, except for home-grown gourds, slipped over penises, secured with string under scrotums and around waists. Different shapes and sizes for each tribe. Why wear them? They don't want to be entirely naked. Today, they are ersatz warriors - in the past, head-hunting cannibals. Their culture has been almost obliterated by Government-mandated Javanese transmigration and overly-zealous Christian Missionaries offering second-hand clothing as bribes to attend church. Yet tales are still told of cannibalism actively practiced in the unexplored high jungle.
Third try, convinced there was supernatural mischief afoot, I booked an all-inclusive, experienced-guide-provided, group tour. Easier, right? Just pay money, let someone else handle details? Might 'a worked out ok, if the tour company hadn't gone South with my money and then bankrupt.
What's better, a tour - or do-it-yourself? The Zen-like question is: what's more important, the journey, or the destination? Simply, a tour saves time, while do-it-yourself saves money. Best bet combines the two. Wanna see Angkor Wat in Cambodia? Make your own way to Bangkok - the easy part. Then book a tour with a local company for the hard part - getting to, around, and back from Angkor. African safari? Make your way to Nairobi and book it from there. I paid US$600 for the exact same 2 week safari that cost US$3,500 if purchased in America.
Fourth time, having mostly despaired of ever visiting the place, I once again ran into Albatross Woman. Though we had a very dangerous history, a hectic five weeks later found us in the decrepit chaos and ugliness that is Jakarta. Four more weeks of increasingly bizarre overland Indonesian travel brought us face to face with the paper-shuffling dullard who controlled the permits we needed to visit a "restricted" area. Another week of begging, pleading, and small-time payoffs got us seats semi-bolted to the rusted-out floor of an antique cargo plane. As the wheezing old junker shuddered to a stop on Wamena's soggy-grass runway, we blew a tire and skidded into the jungle. Any landing is a good one?
Felt like I was on the moon. First thing we saw were what looked like 2 members of the Missing Link tribe. Totally naked, with this black greasy stuff smeared all over their upper bodies, they had these things stuck on their penises. The grease was pig fat, used for decoration and warmth.
Women wear grass or bead skirts. Grass means unmarried and available. Sex is forbidden for 2 years after giving birth, to concentrate on child rearing. When a relative dies, a finger joint - never the thumb - is unceremoniously lopped off. With a local plant applied as a topical anesthetic, a string is tied tightly around the joint, cutting off circulation till it turns black. A slate knife, with hand-chipped and sharpened cutting edge, finishes the grisly job
Barbarian Bob the Pilot followed a fast-moving, rapids-filled river to a primitive, hand-made bridge - woulda made Indiana Jones a happy man. As the bridge swayed alarmingly from side to side, we watched an obviously pregnant native woman make her way serenely across.
"If ya want, you can try it yourself. Guess they built this one better'n usual - ain't fallen down in about 4 months." Albatross Woman sat in stunned silence.
We set down near a cluster of huts - middle of which was filled with folks sitting motionless or wandering aimlessly between bloody piles of meat. A crooked cremation pyre stood next to a pit filled with rocks being heated over a smoky fire. Two pigs were tied on their sides and squealing, apparently waiting their turn to be slaughtered. A guy with what looked like a stone-age hatchet was whacking randomly at bloody hunks of meat. Small dogs ran around yapping, snatching at scraps. A smoky haze filled the air.
"Last stop, everyone out."
"Last stop, everyone out," repeated Barbarian Bob the Pilot. "I gotta do a little work today. This's the cremation - as promised. Go. Take pictures. They won't mind. Ya got water?"
".you gonna just leave us here?" sputtered Albatross Woman.
".in the middle of fucking nowhere? C'mon, don't be silly," I joined in.
Barbarian Bob the Pilot chuckled while urging us out of the helicopter. "Listen, it's really cool, ya know? They don't mind. They like having their picture taken. But really, don't eat or drink nuthin', ok? Headman'll wander over. Give'm a few Rupees. Everything's cool. Have fun. I'll come getcha later."
"Man, you can't just leave us here," I pleaded, "what if something happens.?"
".what could happen? Don't be wimps. C'mon, shoo. See ya before dark."
We clambered out, watching forlornly as he disappeared over the horizon. A group of men started coming our way. Now what? Invited us inside to meet the Headman. Guy had the longest, most decorated gourd of all. Said hello, gave him a little money and then, like we didn't exist, he ignored us the rest of the day - as did everyone else. No one cared what we did or where we sat or how many pictures we took - nothing.
I watched, fascinated as the dead guy was pulled from a hut and dumped on the pyre. No announcement, no memorial, not a word. A few grunts, the fire lit, the body burned. With all the pigs dead and the meat hacked up, cooking started. The bottom of a pit lined with grass had hunks of meat tossed in, along with some heated stones. Big wooden tweezer thingies - very creative - handled the stones. More layers till the pit was filled up. Smelled pretty good.
Not eating, I wandered over to the bridge. Ok, fuck it, I ain't scared 'a no bridge. Took a tiny step onto the thing. Then another. Hey this's cool - until halfway across I suddenly noticed just how high I was over the mad river below. To add to my pleasure, a young girl started crossing from the other side. Uh, little girl? Uh, there's only room for one human on this thing? I stood frozen to the spot as she approached, turned side-ways, and passed me by like I wasn't there. At that point didn't seem important to go all the way across. I mean, I'd had the experience, right? Not wanting to put too much strain on the bridge, I waited till the girl stepped off and then followed gingerly in her path.
Returning to the huts, the cremation was petering out. Smoky embers were all that was left of the fires - the people had disappeared. I stood there in my shorts and t-shirt as the sun started to sink. It got steadily colder. I had no idea where I was. With no idea what to do, I started loudly cursing Barbarian Bob the Pilot and his future offspring for ten generations.
"Yeah, that's gonna be a big fucking help," Albatross Woman sneered. "You got a better idea?" I asked, enraged. "Yeah," she suddenly giggled, "let's go find some 'a that pig fat and smear it on each other. At least it'll keep us warm, right?" We both started roaring with laughter so loud, we almost didn't hear the whirring blades of the helicopter.
We spent two more weeks in and around Wamena - loafing, hiking, camping overnight, and visiting different tribes. Hanging around the market and talking to Missionaries. It was amazing and exhilarating, but soon enough, came time to hit the road.
Plan was to head for Koh Samui. Fly across Indonesia to the port city of Medan, ferry to Penang, train to Hat Yai, another ferry to Samui, then motorcycle taxi to The Lucky Mother Budget Bungalows. Way cheap beach-front cabins with hammocks, cold beer, and unlimited Thai death-dope.
After 4 solid days of cargo planes, private planes, puddle-jumper planes, and big jet planes, we arrived totally fucked at the port. Amazingly, there was a big new ferry leaving that night.
Following the Indonesian's unmatched incompetence at Immigration, Passport-stamping and Embarkation ticket-taking, we found ourselves stretched out on extremely comfy leather seats inside the First Class Cabin. We'd seen life-boats, lighted exit signs, emergency lamps and - wonder of wonders on an Asian ferry - life jackets. Beer in hand, chunks of fresh pineapple near by, I sat in a contented daze waiting for us to shove off.
3 hours late, we glided out into a moonless and starless night. Deep, reassuring sounds of twin diesels came from below. But an hour later, a once slow drizzle turned to a steady rain beating against the windows. The wind rose. Gentle swells became harsh waves. A squall was brewing.
People around us started muttering and moving about. As a precaution, we put on life jackets. Others did as well. We took a peek on deck. Pitch black, rain coming down in sheets, rising waves starting to toss the ferry around pretty good. We tightened the life jacket straps and retreated to our seats. Sitting rigid, we listened nervously to every creak and groan as the ship chugged ahead into the worsening storm.
After a while, despite the noise of the wind and heaving of the boat, I began to doze. The cabin went dark. I figured a small problem caused by the storm, easily fixed. Emergency lamps came on, but quickly began to dim - I guessed the batteries hadn't been properly charged. Took some matches out of my daybag, just in case.
Sitting in the deepening gloom, rain battering the windows, wind howling, I heard the engines miss a beat. Then another. Hiccups I thought, no reason to worry. But with a horrifying shudder, they shut down completely. A woman screamed in the eerie silence. A man yelled in terror. Without power, the boat heaved desperately in the waves.
A muffled explosion came from below decks. Then another. A mad stampede broke out towards the stairs and lifeboats. Unimaginable chaos. I sat frozen, clutching my silly pack of matches, no idea what to do. The middle of the Straits of Malacca, pitch black, no power, adrift in a raging tropical storm, a riot going on around me.
But that's another story.