“So, tell me, do you really eat humans?” I ask Jacob, a Korowai tribesman whose family – the Dayos – we stay with on one of our last nights in the Papuan jungle.
Isak translates from English to Bahasa, and Lakor translates from Bahasa into Korowai. “I have eaten three,” comes the answer, taking the same three-tiered translation journey back to me. Jacob gestures nonchalantly to his left to indicate the direction from which the latest dinner came.
My fellow traveler Adam raises an eyebrow. I wonder if someone along the translation line has made this up for the benefit of us visitors.
Although the Korowai are often considered to be some of the last remaining cannibals in the world, reportedly eating male members of other tribes they consider to be witches or kahkhua, there is no first-hand outsider account of such behavior. University of California, San Diego, anthropologist Rupert Stasch, who spent 18 months with the Korowai in the 1990s, never saw any such activity – though he heard accounts of it occurring.
Cannibals or not, however, it’s clear they can hunt. And if I were a kahkhua, I would head to town.
“Gwak, Gawak!” a bird calls out one late afternoon. It is, Isak will later explain, a cautionary call that means a monitor lizard is nearby. The porters stop in their tracks, drop our equipment, and run. Adam and I stumble after them into the thicket, and watch as Lucas and Titus shimmy up the trees, yelping to the rest as to the whereabouts of the fleeing lizard, which they track from above. Down below, Solomon, Gershon, and Lakor race around shaking trees and letting off their own high-pitched hunting cries.
I can barely track the guys in the dense forest, much less the lizard, but suddenly, they have him cornered and the entire team is attacking the animal, killing it. Solomon lifts the four-foot-long reptile up high. Watching the video of this later, all Adam and I can make out are trees and the sound of our own voices caught in the background: “Oh, my ... !”
As the voyage nears its end, I try to think about the question that brought me deep into an Indonesian jungle in the first place: Did I learn anything about myself from the Korowai?
By and large, the master plan of looking for big answers fell by the wayside almost immediately as I settled into enjoying the simpler delights of the trip: a fluorescent blue butterfly on an orchid, a friendly afternoon chat about cannibalism, an evening lying at the edge of a treehouse, a crazy lizard hunt.
Nonetheless, I end the trip with a few new ideas about the trade-offs we “civilized” societies have made in leaving the jungle.
For while civilization has provided all of the comfort, wealth, culture, sophistication, and finery of the world I live in, to me it has also robbed us of the direct knowledge of our intuitions, our true necessities, and our natural selves.
The Korowai, in some way, represent a form of living alternative to who we could be. And while I would not like to trade worlds, I know that for me there is magic in theirs, too.
We stumble back into the village of Mabul where we began the journey a week earlier, feeling like shellshocked soldiers home from war. Heroes, even. I hold hands with the children who come out to greet me and half expect to see movie credits rolling down the scene.
I have flea bites all over my stomach, spider eggs entangled in my hair, mosquito and fly bites lacing my ankles, and black-and-blue marks on my shins. For days to come I will find cockroaches climbing out of my bag. I cannot remember ever being so thankful for reaching the end of a trip in my life – and yet at the same time, and quite honestly, a part of me does not want it to end.
I give Gershon my e-mail address. You never know. One day he might learn to read and write, or get somewhere connected to the World Wide Web, and track me down. I guess he’d also have to learn English, first, or me, Korowai.
I know the chances are mighty slim. I give him a tip. He gives me a pineapple. I think we are both a little sad. And then I get into a canoe and begin the long trip home.