Jungle diary: I set out in search of Papua’s cannibals.
Where is it, why do you want to go there, and why couldn’t I have had normal children, my mother asks.
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The journey to Papua is not short. We drive across the border to Jordan and from there fly to Qatar, watching the latest Indiana Jones movie on our personal TV monitors and daydreaming about discovering new tribes. After a seven-hour layover, we get on another flight – 12 hours – to Jakarta, where it turns out (surprise!) the spear gun sticking out the top of Adam’s knapsack had been offloaded in Doha, Qatar.Skip to next paragraph
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Twenty-four hours and many new friends at the Qatar Airways lost and found office later, we are back on track, with a complete luggage set. We fly overnight to Jayapura, the capital of Papua, and on to Wamena in the highlands. It’s pouring rain, dark, and buggy as we leave the airstrip, and we speak not one of the reported 300-odd languages used here. Male members of the Dani tribe – best known for their kotekas, conical gourds used to cover their privates – wander around town wanting to shake hands.
We begin to realize that part of the reason so few tourists come to Papua (fewer than 800 last year, according to The Lonely Planet guidebook) is not solely because no one is as intrepid as we are, it’s also because no one is as uninformed. Traveling into the jungle, it quickly turns out, is not only dangerous, time-consuming, and physically challenging – it costs a fortune. Who knew, for example, just how expensive hiring a motorized canoe could be?
We spend days negotiating, finally putting our faith (and close to $3,000) in the hands of our newfound guide and translator, Isak. And then off we go, by small plane – the cost of which is calibrated according to one’s weight – to Dekai, a dusty village on the edge of the Brazza River.
There, we meet up with Lakor, a young cook who does not stop smiling and who knows how to make rice topped with instant Ramen noodles and nothing else. He joins our party and we spend another two days in protracted renegotiations over money while swatting mosquitoes and eating cookies filled with pineapple cream.
Finally, armed with just about enough information for a PhD thesis on motorized canoes in Papua, we pick up our travel permits from the local police chief, lower ourselves into the dugout, and motor 10 hours downriver, mainly in pouring rain, to the improbably even smaller village of Mabul.
Moving right along, we recruit four Korowai tribe teenagers who will be our porters: Gershon, who has the use of only one leg; silent Lucas; Solomon, who is adorned in colorful beads; and little Titus, whose father, we are told, was eaten by the Kombai tribe last year.
A week and a day after leaving home, we march bravely into the jungle. I immediately fall off a log and ram my left shin. The adventure has begun.