Papua, Irian Jaya, the Indonesian part of New Guinea. No matter what you call it, the western half of the world’s second largest island is not an easy place to wrap your mind around. Before we came, many Indonesians and even some seasoned travelers that we met along the way coughed surprise at our plans. “Papua, that should be interesting,” they seemed to say with their eyes. There are probably two good reasons for this, one is a lack of information and the other is the enigmatic nature of Papua- a place that is growing and pushing out in places while others are decidedly traditional. In the “Indonesian” dominated areas where Sumatrans, Javans, and even the Balinese have started small businesses, the modern world can seem very close. In other places, less economically developed, Papua is probably still the misunderstood place of people’s imaginations. Who are the Papuans? Are they the imported Indonesians business men and women or are they the traditional people being quickly modernized by association with Indonesia and by tourism? Sometimes conflicts break out between the Indonesian’s imported through various government initiatives and the native Papuans making things appear to be unstable. Are the Papuans being Indonesianized or is the region become more coherent under a single language? Would Papua be more like Papua New Guinea, for better or for worse, if given more autonomy?
After two weeks here, we can’t begin to say what is true or not. Though we have tried to scratch the surface, we won’t have the time on this trip to get a firmer understanding of who Papuans are. That is a shame, for now, but also a reason to come back some day and to try again at understanding the culture. One thing we both really like about travel is making up our own minds about a country or a place. This is always highly subjective, informal and flawed but also satisfying and deeply personal. Travel binds you to a place you have been before, and for the rest of your life you will have a relationship with that place, even if it only exists in the past or in the imagination. Manu and I still follow the news in Uganda, years after our visit, because we care about the country like we couldn’t do if it was just a place on the map. But we have been there, and Uganda’s trials still concern us. In the same way, I know that Papua will fascinate me after I leave, even though I feel less connected to what I have seen so far than I have to other places we have seen on this trip.
And what about the Birds of Paradise, and the Raja Ampat Islands? Well they are part of the problem too. We chased the birds and the beautiful fishes but we didn’t chase after an understanding of the people. That comes from spending too much time snorkeling and battling the vines and thorns of the rainforest. We will just have to try again someday! I really hope that we do.
And the Raja Ampat Islands in the far West of Papua ARE very beautiful. But they are no longer the place of mystery they might have been even five years ago. It is not Bali, and it may never be, but the tourists are there and so are the live-aboard boats and the trash they dump into the same waters they bring the tourists to. There are myriad accommodations, from high priced to mid-budget and there are probably too many of them with more on the way. It is expensive to visit the Raja Ampat Islands and it was a privilege to see such beautiful reefs but we were sure the tipping point was coming. The tipping point whereby a place as beautiful as the Raja Ampat Islands isn’t a secret anymore, and all it will take are a few more direct flights to change people’s lives forever. I would be very curious to see the islands again in five years.
And as for the BOPs (Birds of Paradise), they are fantastic. New Guinea shelters some of the most mysterious wildlife left in the world. Just flying over the country and seeing that 80% is still covered in forest is amazing, especially if you have had your heart broken by driving through palm oil plantations in Malaysia. But for how long? Jamil, our amazing guide in Nimbokrang took us to an area called ‘Kilometer 8’ where the Magnificent Riflebird and Magnificent BOP can be seen amongst others. Along the way he pointed out trees marked with red spray-paint and told us that by next year this forest too would be palm oil. He pointed into the distance and said he would have to find a new area for guiding soon, ‘somewhere over there,’ he said, ‘very far, two hours far’.
So Papua is changing. We will follow the news, always curious.