CLEANING UP GLITTER
A LITERARY NONPROFIT & e-JOURNAL
AUGUST 2019 – VOLUME 1, ISSUE 4
by Elizabeth Reed
The burning fire of political resistance can be sparked by witnessing injustice and oppression. A trip in the early 90’s branded indelible images on my conscience that forged me into a political, non-violent activist. In1993 my boyfriend, now husband, and I took advantage of a summer of unemployment and traveled to Indonesia, hiking through emerald green rice patties and leech-filled jungles, savoring exotic cuisines. We drank the intoxicating sounds of gamelan orchestras and imbibed the vivid hues and elaborate designs of dancers’ costumes and artists’ paintings. But it was Papua, known then as Irian Jaya, that brought home to me the beauty of justice and the ugliness of oppression.
Uli and I chose to travel to Papua because of its remoteness, pristine beauty, and the chance to meet with and to learn from different cultures. In 1962 West Papua had been forcibly annexed by Indonesia and renamed Irian Jaya (which loosely means hot land rising victorious.) The archipelago’s main island, Java, was irreversibly overcrowded. With no more land to expand on, the government established a transmigration plan, resettling Indonesians in Irian Jaya, building outpost towns that displaced countless villages, and replacing centuries-old traditions with modern trends. Rebellious tribes stood together with their bows and arrows in hopeless attempts to stop the invading army which was equipped with assault weapons and aerial bombs. The unscrupulous Indonesian military ruled over the West Papuans and squelched any uprisings with superior weapons, brutality and fear. It was said that uncooperative tribal chiefs were kidnapped and thrown out of airplanes, in full view of their traumatized villagers.
We had booked a trek to Angguruk, an area in the Baliem Valley in the central highlands. Before the trek, Uli and I had to obtain government permits—a process that could only be done in person in the capital, Jayapura. We boarded a crowded bemo, a beat-up minivan outfitted with rows of mismatched vinyl benches. An Indonesian teenager sat on a cracked metal crate and collected our ten-rupiah fare. We shuffled, hunched over, to our cramped seats. On my right was a Papuan man, much darker than Indonesians who are of more Asian bearing, sporting Western clothing and a faded baseball cap over his thick Afro.
The van lurched forward, triggering a swirl of smells—a mix of wet potato peels, dried mud and sweaty armpits. A few minutes later, a group of barefoot Papuans, wearing only penis gourds—uncomfortable-looking conical sheaths made from dried out gourds and held up by a scratchy-looking vine around their waists—waved the bemo down. The Indonesian driver screeched to a halt in a tempest of brown dust. An older man stepped tentatively into the van, his toes splayed widely, a typical development of someone who has never worn shoes.
“Ten rupiahs,” the teen demanded.
The gray-haired Papuan unfolded his hand, showing a crumpled one-rupiah note.
The teenager’s almond shaped eyes narrowed. “Ten rupiahs,” he insisted.
The would-be passenger turned to his wide-eyed companions and spoke softly to them. The driver started yelling. Uli and I had listened to Indonesian language tapes before our trip. Similar to Esperanto, Indonesian is an artificial language based on words that are common to the various Indonesian islands’ dialects and have no verb declensions. For example, I go to the store is said the same way for past tense but with yesterday at the end.
After four weeks in the archipelago we could understand quite a bit of the bemo assistant’s vitriol—faster, not free, walk. The young Papuan man next to me fixed his eyes on the dirty window. The front row of Indonesians turned around, frowned with disdain and turned back, muttering and shaking their heads. The driver stomped out of the van, spitting out a stream of unintelligible venom, his forehead sweating in the beating sun. The other Papuan passengers stared vacantly at the exchange. Vista grossa, my Dad used to call it. Looking but not seeing. Seeing but not acknowledging. Acknowledging the conflict privately but not reacting publicly. The elderly man nodded sadly to the livid driver and stepped out of the van. Uli and I froze. We wanted to help. But we know this was not a scene about money, but of oppression. The driver slammed the door shut. We grabbed the back of the chapped seat as the driver floored the gas pedal. The van jerked into gear. Our necks bobbled like chickens pecking at kernels of corn.
Despite staticky phone lines and incomplete faxes, we had managed to contact a travel agency in Jayapura before we left the U.S. When we arrived at the travel agency, a swarthy Javanese man directed us to the government office where we filled out permit applications. He told us if we weren’t snoopy journalists our permits would be processed quickly. Two days later, equipped with our stamped jalat sulans (permits), we flew to Wamena, the Wild West trading post for the transplanted Indonesians and the indigenous Papuans.
Our rotund hotel owner wore a polka-dotted muumuu and turquoise flip-flops that slapped the linoleum floor. She proudly showed us a framed picture of her thin grandmother. Two white hoops the size of onion rings hung through the grandmother’s stretched earlobes. A necklace of flat round discs like white potato chips hung between her sagging, naked breasts. Her bony hips held up two four-inch rows of thick vine-fastened dried grass. Bright eyes stared into the camera, unsmiling lips closed tightly.
“I pray for her,” said the hotel owner. “They had so little then.”
Winoko, Betty, Uli, Marius
At lunchtime we met our trek guide, Marius, a Papuan in his early thirties. The cook, Winoko, was buying supplies in Wamena. The weather in Angguruk, our destination, was cooler than in Wamena. We would need warm clothes at night. The flights were often canceled because landings were completely dependent on the weather. If fog hadn’t cleared by ten o’clock, or if there was a slight wind, the flight was canceled. It wasn’t quite clear to me why that was so crucial until we saw the landing strip.
We waited through four days of canceled flights. In the meantime, we explored the area. Our hotel owner said there was a daily market in nearby Jiwika, and directed us to the bemo station, which was just a packed-down dirt lot with bemos parked wherever they had stopped. Vendors selling cowrie shell necklaces, woven plant-fiber bracelets, and penis gourds hawked their wares.
“Look.” A vendor pointed to his table covered with penis gourds. “I give you two. Only costs for one.”
I pointed to Uli. “But he only has one.”
Uli rolled his eyes.
We could still hear the man laughing as we boarded the bemo to Jiwika. We had to wait until there were enough passengers to make the trip worthwhile, which took about a half hour. The dirt roads were gutted with deep pits, and gave way in wide-swathed circles, to enormous girthed trees. The driver stopped on the shallow bank of a briskly running stream, the remnants of a dilapidated bridge floating nearby. He ordered all the passengers off, then maneuvered the now lighter van through the stream, water churning underneath the chassis. The passengers who wore shoes took them off. We waded through the swift, cool water and reboarded the bemo.
An hour later we arrived at the end station, another packed down dirt lot, this time surrounded merely by tall weeds. We followed the only dirt path up a rounded hill, the tall grass tickling my arms. A mouth harp boinged faintly. Sounds of singing children mingled with murmuring voices as we approached the top of the hill. This was the market—an area of trodden grass, where women sat in groups of five or six, whispered and smiled shyly at us. We were the only tourists. Some women wore grass skirts. Others wore red and brown beaded coils that wound just below their hips to the tops of their thighs. They were named gravity defying coil skirts by westerners. I warned Uli not to even think about buying one for me.
If the women had anything to sell, the items lay scattered on the ground—bowls made from dried-out gourds, trivets and string bags made woven from plant fibers. They shared dried pieces of salted pork and baked sweet potatoes with each other. Voices quieted, softened, and silenced as we walked by. Naked children played tag.
A woman, her body painted with a dried yellow paste, looked sadly into the distance. A Dani tribe woman in mourning. I avoided looking at her hands. It was a Dani custom for the woman to chop off a finger joint when a family member died.
Some men wore dirty shorts full of holes, but most wore the long thin gourds that looked like dried filo dough wrapped into a cone shape, stuck onto their penises. A piece of string tied around the waist and connected to the pointy end of the gourd made the whole contraption look rather painful. The Yali men wore longer gourds to hold up the multiple rattan hoops ringing their waists. In the seventies the government had banned penis gourds and handed out clothes, but the tribespeople had no soap and only the one outfit. The clothes became filthy, torn and caused skin diseases. The penis gourds won that battle.
The scorching sun beat down on our hats. In the distance we heard a van scraping to a halt. Loud voices drifted through the tall grass as two Australians, a man sporting a leather cowboy hat, and a woman carrying padded nylon bags and a camera with a gigantic zoom lens made their way up the path. The man carried nothing. His long blonde ponytail swayed from side to side as he loped awkwardly but confidently forward, using metal crutches to support his missing leg. When he stopped, his brown beard and mustache separated to reveal a small smile.
The wide-eyed women sitting on the ground whispered with excitement and stared at the man’s missing leg. The woman’s camera shutter clicked, clicked, clicked. One panicked woman gathered up her string bags, layering the piglets’ bag first, then the bag with firewood, then the vegetables bag and lastly, the bag with the baby. She grabbed her toddler with one hand, her walking stick with the other and fled into the forest.
“Take a picture of that man,” the man said in a deep voice, pointing to a Dani man wearing a bushy wreath around his head.
The men circled around the Australian, mumbling, pointing, and making faces of grave pain. Click. A Yali man tapped my arm and pointed to the one-legged man. He frowned, rolled his eyes and shook his head from side to side and let out a universal sigh of empathy. I nodded. Compassion is a universal language.
Back in Belmont I had read about an annual festival that took place some time in August somewhere near Wamena. When we discovered that the festival was taking place during our stay we were thrilled. The next day we rode a series of crowded bemos to Muliama, where the day long festival took place on an open meadow of dried out stubby grass, surrounded by blue, black and gray mountains, a treasure chest of ores and minerals that would be mined by the Indonesians. Hundreds of villagers had walked for days and weeks to come together to show off their traditional war dances and battle reenactments.
Each tribe or village had their own dress code. One village wore bushy brown headpieces and long four-inch wide cowry shell neckties over their chests blackened with charcoal and grease and penis gourds created from rams’ horns. Another group distinguished itself with painted white polka dots on their bodies and bright red fiber crowns on their heads. Animal bones had been shaped into nose rings from the size of an olive to a grapefruit, amulets for necklaces, coiled rings of arm and ankle bracelets. Feathers adorned grass headdresses, headbands, shoulder and arm bands. Some penis gourds were as tall as the men’s torsos, others made of hollowed-out cassava. Faces and bodies were painted with black, white, red and yellow stripes. Beaded strands wound around arms, legs and throats.
But most impressive were the seven and eight feet long spears—carved, painted, decorated and sharpened. Women participated in the war dances, their bare breasts bouncing as they ran, singing and yelling as loud as the men. Of the hundred or so spectators only a dozen were tourists. If the audience had any doubt about the purpose of the tribal dances, that doubt was laid to rest as one clueless tourist sat on a footstool taking photographs, directly in the path of an oncoming rush of warriors. The stool and tourist were both upended when he failed to get out of the way in time. The crowd roared with laughter. We returned to Wamena, our camera films used up.
After waiting out canceled flights for four days, we boarded our tiny plane, barely large enough for the three of us plus pilot, and the food and trek supplies. High above the road-less wilds we spotted neatly arranged quilts of vegetable fields plotted out with stone axes and nourished by a complex irrigation system using hollow tree trunks. Thatch-roofed huts and flashes of shiny metal dotted the villages’ boundaries.
“The government forced the tribespeople out of their huts, to establish a civilized way of living,” Marius said. “But the metal roofs make the houses too hot in the day and too cold at night. So, most people went back to their huts and put the pigs in the fancy houses.”
The landscape shifted from rolling hills to inhospitable masses of mountains. Nevertheless, the tribespeople had planted rows of vegetables that hugged the steep inclines. Dense green brambles and sharp rocky outcrops dotted the cliffs. Below, the velvety brown Baliem River meandered between lush green valleys, guarded by jagged jungle escarpments.
“The Yali’s first contact with the Western world was thirty years ago through a missionary,” Marius said. “Unlike others in the past, he was not killed and eaten, because the village chief accepted his gift of salt.
He is like you,” Marius nodded to Uli, “from Germany.”
Outside, Marius and Uli unloaded the plane. Tourists were still a new phenomenon for the villagers. The women gathered around me, shaking my hand. Our common language was a smile, a nod, eyebrows raised to express surprise. After Marius handpicked the porters for our trek, he led our entourage up the craggy mountainside. We hiked for two hours through thick jungle vegetation to the next village, Tingilli, where we were greeted by excited children and curious adults. As the men pitched the tents, I sat on the ground surrounded by children.
“Betty,” I said, pointing to myself, and then to a boy.
He giggled and said, “Tausen.”
I wrote his name in my journal. The children tittered and craned their necks so far over my notebook to see the ballpoint pen that the first row of children almost fell into my lap. The front row responded with indignant looks and backward pushes. I pointed to a girl. She dipped her head shyly and shook her head. Four boys pointed to a boy with golden brown hair.
“Bumbum,” they shouted.
Bumbum nodded enthusiastically, jingling his necklace of cowry shells. Another boy waved his arms like a windmill.
“Rumbut,” he said in a loud, proud voice. Next to Rumbut stood Walia, her deep-set eyes staring into Uli’s camera like a mini Vogue model. She held a little boy’s hand tightly.
“Karim,” the little boy said, with an elfin grin.
Marius came over and told us we were invited to visit the village. We hiked a well-trodden path through virgin forest, the children running ahead with glee. As the vine-wrapped trees thinned onto a clearing, a village elder, his nose and ears pierced with curled white pig bones, welcomed us. He showed us one of the many thatch-roofed huts. Women and children lived together, twenty or so to a hut. The living quarters consisted of two levels—the earthen floor with a fire in the center that blackened the rough wood ceiling with soot, and a second level, reached via a notched tree post, with straw mats for sleeping. At the age of thirteen, boys moved into the more spacious men’s huts. In a long rectangular hut used for cooking, eating, and social gatherings, women prepared supper over a fire pit. They added water to the pungent red paste of tawi, a red fruit that looked like a spiny baguette. To get rid of the cyanide in cassava, they pounded the leaves and then boiled the mash. They wrapped sweet potatoes in banana leaves, placing them between hot stones. The women were responsible for farming, cooking, and raising children and pigs, the latter used as cash. One porter had paid six pigs for his bride. The men hunted, built huts, and produced all the woven crafts.
Back at our campground, Winoko cooked delicious meals with the food he had brought—pan-fried fish, steamed greens, sautéed fresh water shrimp, and supplemented with locally grown produce to make vegetable patties, cassava cakes—and always delicious sweet potatoes, fried, boiled, sautéed, baked. We drank bottled beer or boiled water. Marius told us until the Indonesians moved in, all water was potable. The Papuans never urinated in rivers, streams or cascades. But the Indonesians did, and giardiasis was born. Winoko served everyone. First, the guests, Marius, Uli and I, then himself, then the porters. An occasional lightning bug glowed in the pitch-black night as we returned to our tent, guided by a sliver of moonlight and serenaded by crickets.
In the sleepy haze of early morning I heard whispering. A giggle. A short delicate tap on the nylon wall of our tent, followed by stifled laughs. Small bare feet padded through the wild grass around our tent. The sun stretched its lazy rays, and a yawn of sunlight fell on Uli’s face.
“Good morning.” I kissed him.
“Mmmm,” he said, turning toward me in his sleeping bag and scooping me up in a warm hug, our nylon sleeping bags rustling as I rested my head on his t-shirted chest.
A group gasp. Intense whispering outside.
“Uli, there’s a reception committee outside,” I mumbled. “Have your camera ready.”
“Good idea,” Uli said, in the middle of a yawn.
I put on my one pair of hiking shorts. We’d heard a waterfall the day before, which meant there would be a shower today. I dug out my vial of baby shampoo and eco-soap and a fresh t-shirt. Uli prepared his camera. Crouching stiffly at the entrance, I pulled the zipper tab of our domed tent. Twenty children stood arm to arm, necks stretched forward, round brown bellies distended from parasites not hunger, pressing on the backs of the children in front of them. The girls’ short grass skirts resembled belts of broom bristles. Eyes round with fear and excitement. Nervous laughs. Eyebrows arched in suspense.
I poked my head out and greeted them, “Naré.”
Bumbum stared into Uli’s camera, lips closed in a frozen smirk. Dirt patches streaked Rumbut’s cheeks. Karim held his ripped string bag in front, like a shield.
“Mama Betty!” a girl called.
“Papa Uli!” said Tausen.
His slender fingers rested at his sides, hands curved perfectly, as if waiting for his first piano lesson. A girl in the front row had fearless written all over her face. Her dried grass skirt crackled as she raised her mud-caked hands and folded her arms. With our shower supplies in hand we walked with the children. A small, calloused hand slipped into mine. I smiled at the upturned face. She beamed, straightened her shoulders and looked around, making sure everyone saw that she’d captured the prize.
Through a meadow of short, coarse grass, we descended a steep hut-less hill, and looped around a gentle bend to a sudden drop-off with a spectacular view of the Baliem Valley, a green oasis protected by impenetrable cliffs. The children sang and hummed and chattered with each other like parakeets. Then the walking slowed, and the children lined up before a bridge.
Two wide logs strapped together with sinewy vines, overlapped in the middle to stretch over the cavernous canyon below. The teasing sound of running water beckoned. The children sauntered over the bridge. I followed Uli, keeping my eyes glued to the logs. I warned myself: Don’t look into the canyon. Don’t look out into the valley. Just keep moving your feet step by step. Don’t let your knees freeze up or turn to jelly. Breathe slowly. And then there was a gap. I glimpsed the glaring abyss below us. I froze.
“Uli?” I called, my voice trembling with fear.
He extended his hand behind him and I gripped it. But even with Uli holding my shaking hand I couldn’t budge – until I felt the hands. Tiny, outstretched palms against the seat of my pants, gently pushing me forward. Sweat rolled down my back. Step by step, shuffle by shuffle, and we were over the bridge.
Still holding my hand Uli asked me, “Okay?”
My throat was too dry for words. I nodded. I turned to the young children behind me and gave them two thumbs-up. They hunched their shoulders, rolled their eyes and giggled. The path widened, curving along the mountainside, the sound of falling water crescendoing through clumps of trees and shrubbery.
In a clearing, a cascade dropped into an ankle- deep wading pool. I grinned.
“Looks refreshing, Uli.”
We spread our clothes on a warm boulder in the sun, then stripped. I went in first. The bracing fresh water washed away my sweat of fear. I stepped out to lather my hair. Uli extended his arms tentatively toward the downpour, grimaced and splashed water onto his face and chest. When I insisted he wash his hair, he groaned, clenched his jaw and for a nanosecond stepped under the water, then bolted out, shaking all over. The children’s laughter rose above the din of the waterfall. We used our hand towels and put on the warm clothes.
On our return trip across the bridge Uli held out his hand behind him, pulling me along. Small hands nudged me forward. I avoided looking at the gap that had freaked me out. Back at our tent site I peeked into a narrow three-walled shack where a deep fetid pit revealed an outhouse. I fetched my flattened roll of toilet paper and checked out the facilities. So did the children, at a respectful distance. They chatted and pointed curiously as I unrolled some toilet paper. So much for privacy.
After breakfast we broke camp and hiked on, over orchid-strangled boulders and sheared outcrops, the Baliem River just a thin bronze ribbon threading through the dramatic slopes. When a defiant cow blocked our path at the top of one mountainous peak the porters redirected us, showing us where to step on the slippery rocks and what to grab for handholds. Muhomo, our next stop, was a larger and more traditional village.
We were greeted by a crowd of Yali men wearing rattan hoops up to their chests, held in place by tall penis gourds. Sun-bleached pig bones pierced their noses. They were intrigued by our backpacks and curious about Uli’s camera. Women shied away from Uli, but they stopped their tasks to shake hands with me. Their fingers were whole, unlike the Dani tribeswomen. Children vied with each other to hold my hands. The Bible teacher offered her empty tin-roofed house for our meals. She, too, preferred the warm hut.
After lunch and a hike to the mountaintop of the next valley, Uli and I sat with the children. They taught us the tunes I’d heard on our hikes, simple pentatonic melodies sung in rounds. We taught them to sing “Frère Jacques,” all of us roaring with laughter as they belted out the bells’ Bing Bong Boong’s with unbridled gusto.
They pointed in wonder at their reflections in my mirrored sunglasses. When I offered the sunglasses to a child she recoiled in fear. Then, one boy bravely reached out, tapped the frames and jerked his hand back, as if he’d been bitten. Amidst gasps and nervous tittering, a girl touched the frames and then held on. For an hour the children tried on the sunglasses, with the others snickering and making fun of their images. They crowded around Uli and me to look through the lenses of our cameras, not leaving until the sun started to fade.
Two days later we returned to Angguruk and witnessed a scene of national and local politics. August seventeenth marked the celebration of Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch in 1949, and Papuans were forced to celebrate their involuntary Indonesian citizenship. A crowd from several villages had assembled on the hill. From the nurse’s mustard yellow clinic an Indonesian man marched directly up the hill, his stiff arms at his sides.
“Who is that?” I whispered to Winoko, our cook.
“Rijik, nurse’s husband,” he said with no smile.
Voices hushed as Rijik advanced. To his right, children inched backward, eyes squinting against the blinding sun. To his left, a motley crew of Yali men, some half-clothed, others naked, stood proudly, arms folded squarely across their chests. Furrowed foreheads pushed their bushy eyebrows over their eyes, like precipices protecting their vision. A group of forty school children clad in faded red, knee-length shorts and skirts, skinny arms poking out of their white, short-sleeved shirts adorned with red ties, saluted Rijik. The blazing orange letters, A-N-G-G-U-R-U-K, painted on the market shack’s tin roof looked ready to combust. Rijik stopped at a tree forged into a flagpole, returned the children’s salute, and snapped his sneakered heels together.
A Papuan man wearing a stained white shirt and shabby shorts carried a folded flag to two of the schoolchildren. The boys unfolded the red and white Indonesian flag, called the Sang Saka Merah Puti, that stood for courage (red) and purity (white.) They attached it to a rough, green vine that looped above the tree post, and hoisted the flag. Another boy stepped forward and read haltingly in Indonesian from a tattered book.
Yali men leaned forward to hear the boy, their rattan hoops swishing like giant Slinkys. More hesitant recitations, a vehement speech from Rijik, more barked orders and robotic responses, then the perfunctory clapping of limp hands, and the Indonesian Independence Day ceremony was over. A Yali man with small tufts of white bones stuck in his nostrils turned around with a silent scowl. A ragged, dirty Indonesian flag hung from the tip of his penis gourd.
After waiting five days with no plane in sight, Uli was considering hiking back to Wamena, a six-day hike through a treacherous landscape but I wanted no part of it. On the sixth day the plane arrived, and we left Angguruk to continue our Indonesian trip. But all the beauty of the archipelago could not erase the image of the Yali man’s simple, non-violent protest against imperious repression. That gesture took courage, but I doubted it was the kind of courage the Indonesians had in mind when they emblazoned their red Sang Saka Merah Puti.
I have thought about our experiences in Papua many times since then, especially when exercising my right to participate in protest marches, a right that feels like a duty to act on, in having the luxury to do so. Thirty years later, after many journeys together—which include raising two children with an education that includes the empathic understanding we witnessed in Angguruk, owning a house that would be a fantasy hut to a Yali, bidding final farewells to loved ones, a painful process I can only imagine as searing as the gruesome Dani mourning tradition—Uli and I still talk about the impact of that trip. How the Papuans deepened our appreciation of different cultures, cemented our belief in non-violence, broadened our respect for these original environmentalists and compelled us to contribute to land conservation.
I can still hear the children singing their pentatonic tunes in harmony, a harmony they pulled from the unpolluted air around them. Sweet potatoes have never tasted as good as Winoko’s, cut by hand, not with a mandoline, and cooked over an open-air fire, not in an oven or stove or grill. Despite living in a complicated world and leading complicated lives, the most important value I carry from that trip is that the simple things in life are what give meaning to every day—the social interaction in sharing a meal, the depth of wordless communication, the oral tradition of music and the collective craft of building a house, a community, a culture.
Tribes living in remote places, are often described as primitive. They are anything but. Papuans discovered irrigation long before lawn sprinklers. They knew what to eat and what to avoid, long before lab tests gave us those results. They knew how to heat a home during the cold season, and how to cool their hut during the hot season, long before electric heating and air conditioning were invented. Papuans have thrived because of their respect and knowledge of nature. And they have kept alive the spark of resistance with more dignity than any invader could hope to capture.