It’s the second day of bushwhacking through the jungle. I am perched on a rock, covered in mud, pulling a leech out of my sock. Adam is being devoured by giant biting flies. And Lakor, our cook, is hovering over guide Isak’s head trying to dislodge a cluster of thorns with a razor blade. I wonder, and not for the first time, what I am doing here.
The jungle is beautiful – filled with mangroves, sago palms, breadfruit trees, and thousands of different species of orchids. The thick insect life, upon which I mostly will harp from here on out, is astonishing. Papua is home to some 800 species of spiders, 30,000 kinds of beetles, and who knows how many sorts of mosquitoes. This is a place of frogs, bowerbirds, cockatoos, and parrots, where 120-pound flightless birds called cassowaries are king and wild pigs roam free.
It’s a forest so dense that you feel completely alone if separated from the others by more than 20 feet. Sound, too, is swallowed here. “Waaa!” I call out when I feel I’m lost. “Waahaa!” call back Lucas or Titus, who inevitably will be standing at just the other end of the nearest log. It’s humbling.
In this wild nature, I have become totally dependent on “the guys,” as Adam and I have christened the porters. They spend the days nimbly racing ahead – barefoot – carrying all of our camping and cooking gear. Gershon, on one leg, is a veritable human GPS system, making a sharp left at this tree, a right at this orchid, a U-turn at that shrub.
They wait for me to laugh at myself before allowing themselves to do so, even though my stumbles are comedic – getting entangled on a vine here, stuck in brambles there. Lakor and Gershon have taken to anticipating my every wobble, and take turns putting out a steadying arm for me, their timing only bested by their gentleness.
But for some reason I can’t fully relax or appreciate it all. I spend an inordinate amount of time contemplating the pros and cons of my long-sleeved shirt – humidity and sweat dictate it should be off, mosquitoes eating me alive prompt me to put it back on. On breaks from considering this dilemma, I am focused on the delicate art of not flying off the wet logs we traverse into murky swamps beyond. With an annual rainfall of about 200 inches, Papua is one of the wettest, and muddiest, places on earth.
Not helpful is Adam, who talks incessantly about how he should have gone to Paris for vacation instead, and Isak, who, it turns out, is not as good a planner as one might have hoped. We are already running out of food and drinking water. He has not brought a first-aid kit, mats to sleep on, or any of his own personal basics. He asks me to lend him a towel, toothpaste, and, sheepishly, some socks.
And the Korowai? Our first encounter with a jungle member of this tribe is, shall we say, underwhelming. The man has a bone through his nose and is naked from the waist down save for what looks like the cap of an acorn, strategically placed. But he also sports a red T-shirt reading www.komodoadventure.com. Cut video. I am worried that this is not the real thing. Mr. Korowai is not too interested in us, either.
We need to go deeper into the jungle to meet the more authentic members of the tribe, explains Isak, who has come over to borrow some mosquito repellent. The never-ending search for authenticity. Right. The sun sets, and we move farther and farther into the brush.
I feel slightly silly. Will meeting Korowai without T-shirts really bring some form of illumination? Why would it? We continue slogging along. I take my long-sleeved shirt off. And put it back on again.
I miss the corner cafe back home.