The Grand Val­ley

As I stepped into this cel­e­brated val­ley, I was awestruck by its ma­jes­tic beauty. A string of soar­ing moun­tains loom­ing over a wall of for­est, a wind­ing river and tran­quil creeks tucked away amongst emer­ald fields of sweet pota­toes, all danc­ing be­neath t

Maxx-M - - WHERE TO GO - Text and pho­tos by Nanny Budi­man

Lo­cated near Wa­mena, in West Pa­pua, the east­ern­most is­land of In­done­sia, Baliem Val­ley is a myth­i­cal des­ti­na­tion of oth­er­worldly beauty that prom­ises un­be­liev­able re­wards for those will­ing to make the trek. In­trigued, I re­cently de­cided to visit. Two friends and I took a flight from Jakarta to Jayapura, the cap­i­tal of Pa­pua prov­ince. From there it was a 45-minute flight to Wa­mena air­port. Our guide whisked us to our ho­tel, the Baliem Pal­imo. This is con­sid­ered the best ho­tel in Wa­mena and is func­tional, but it clearly doesn’t live up to the stan­dards of luxury ho­tels in Jakarta or Bali. But it is centrally lo­cated in down­townWa­mena, near sev­eral good restau­rants and min­utes from Jalan Irian, Wa­mena’s main shop­ping street, mak­ing the ho­tel a favourite with tourists and vis­it­ing In­done­sian of­fi­cials. Af­ter check­ing in, we crossed the street to Blam­ban­gan restau­rant. Ibu Dewi, the chef and owner, who is orig­i­nally from Banyuwangi, East Java, greeted us and sug­gested we try a tra­di­tional Wa­mena del­i­cacy — udang sel­ingkuh, or cheat­ing prawns. The name comes from the unique shape of this Baliem River prawn, which has the body of a prawn and the claws of a crab. Its suc­cu­lent meat, mixed with Ibu Dewi’s spe­cial sea­son­ing and sam­bal, make this a dish to die for. For the rest of our stay in the val­ley, we could not re­sist savour­ing a plate of the prawns each and ev­ery night, choles­terol be damned. Wa­mena, which lit­er­ally means “tamed pig” in the lo­cal tribal lan­guage, is the cap­i­tal of Jayaw­i­jaya re­gency. The name is ap­pro­pri­ate as pigs are con­sid­ered the most vauable pos­ses­sion for mem­bers of the val­ley’s tribes. The city lies in the heart of Baliem Val­ley and is the gate­way for ex­plor­ing the se­cluded val­ley and its tribes’ unique way of life. But be warned, never ven­turein­tothe­val­ley­ony­ourown.There are no trekking maps or signs, mak­ing it very easy to get lost, which you re­ally don’t want to do. So al­ways hire a guide. News of this Eden-like val­ley was first re­ported to the out­side world in 1938 by Richard Arch­bold, an Amer­i­can phi­lan­thropist and pas­sion­ate ex­plorer. Chris­tian mis­sion­ar­ies were soon de­scend­ing on the area, but were met with much re­sis­tance and many were killed. It was some time be­fore tribe mem­bers stopped re­gard­ing th­ese out­siders with sus­pi­cion. De­spite the ar­rival of th­ese mis­sion­ar­ies, to this day some of the tribes’ an­cien­ta­n­imistic rit­u­als and tra­di­tions con­tinue to be prac­ticed. Sit­u­ated at 1,600 me­tres above sea level, the iso­lated Baliem Val­ley is sur­rounded by the soar­ing peaks of Mount Pun­cak Jaya (4,884 me­tres), Mount Trikora (4,750 me­tres) and Mount Man­dala (4,700 me­tres). Be­cause of th­ese moun­tain guards, ac­cess to the val­ley is by air only. This helps main­tain the area’s ex­otic sense of iso­la­tion,bu­ti­tal­so­helpse­plain­why­food and other sup­plies in the val­ley are so pricey. Baliem Val­ley has three main tribes: the Dani, Yali and Lani. While the Da­nis live in the basin of the val­ley, most of the Yalis in­habit the southeast of the val­ley and the La­nis live in the west. The tribes have man­aged to hold onto some of their tra­di­tions in the face of mod­ern­iza­tion’s on­slaught, and vis­i­tors can still get glimpses of what life may have been like for them be­fore the val­ley was opened up to out­siders. Most peo­ple are fas­ci­nated in par­tic­u­lar by the koteka, or pe­nis gourds, and sali, weaved dry grass worn by women like a skirt, that are still used by some tribal mem­bers. The tribes are also apt farm­ers, mak­ing full use of their fer­tile pock­ets of land and abun­dant rivers to cul­ti­vate sweet pota­toes, taro, corn and sago palms. Jibama, Wa­mena’s big­gest mar­ket, is not far from Pal­imo Ho­tel. It fea­tures rows of tin-roofed stands filled by farm­ers from the sur­round­ing vil­lages. A bit far­ther on, Wouma is a smaller but more charm­ing

as or­anges, pineap­ples and av­o­ca­dos, ferns, dried flow­ers and coiled rolls of pun­gent­to­bacco,cre­atin­gan­ex­plo­sionof colours in th­ese vi­brant mar­kets. In Jibama, we spot­ted some men craft­ing neck­laces with pigs’ teeth and oth­ers were sell­ing koteka and no­ken, a tra­di­tional bag made of nat­u­rally dyed threads that women usu­ally carry strapped across their fore­heads. And, of course, there were plenty of pigs around. This highly revered an­i­mal has great cul­tural and rit­u­al­is­tic sig­nif­i­cance for the tribes, in­clud­ing their use as a dowry — four to five pigs must be pre­sented to the fam­ily of the bride. It was their as­tro­nom­i­cal price that made me flinch; a piglet costs around Rp 2 mil­lion, or more than US$200, while a ma­ture pig could fetch an as­tound­ing Rp 40 mil­lion. Tribal tra­di­tion al­lows for polygamy and some of the wealth­ier men “buy” sev­eral wives, some as many as 11. The so­cial sta­tus of men is dis­tin­guished by the num­ber of pigs and wives they have. One of the more unique tra­di­tions is for tribe mem­bers to cut off one of their fin­gers or to slice their ear as a sign of grief for a death in the fam­ily. We saw the re­sults of this tra­di­tion in many of the vil­lages we vis­ited. Es­corted by a guide and three porters, we roamed the pris­tine val­ley, vis­it­ing some of Wa­mena’s more re­mote vil­lages in­clud­ing Su­gokmo, Yetni, Polimo and Kurima. The clear air en­er­gized us as we tramped up steep hills and along nar­row trails, crossed count­less streams on tiny wooden planks or shaky hang­ing bridges, and passed car­pets of green fields and end­less trees. Wher­ever we cast our eyes we saw noth­ing but pic­turesque scenery. We also en­joyed our en­coun­ters with the lo­cal chil­dren. We handed out packets of milk bis­cuits that they grate­fully ac­cepted, re­ward­ing us by singing Na­hosa Ni­pase, a lo­cal chil­dren’s song about a sweet potato. It is hardly sur­pris­ing their favourite song would be about a sweet potato as it is the sta­ple food for the tribes; they eat it twice or three times a day, with its leaves as a veg­etable. Our hike up the Na­pua Hills was par­tic­u­larly spec­tac­u­lar. Pro­trud­ing moun­tains pa­raded be­fore my eyes, each reach­ing up to touch the milky clouds. We drank in the sun­set from the top of the hills, a pal­ette of colours paint­ing the sky. It was stunning. Our treks to Aikima, Pabuma, Suroba, Dugum, Ji­wika and Sumpaima in the north­ern part of Wa­mena were less stren­u­ous, as the vil­lages sprawl out in the low­land of the val­ley. First we headed to the Ma­bel clan’s honei in Ji­wika vil­lage, where Wim­intok Ma­bel, a frag­ile 250-year-old mummy, is housed. It was a bit fright­en­ing, so we quickly shook hands with the clan’s chief, Konono Ma­bel, and drove to Suroba. There we were greeted by Miyagon Ko­sai, the charis­matic chief of the vil­lage. He in­sisted on ac­com­pa­ny­ing us to the next vil­lage, Dugum, where he showed us a few in­ter­est­ing spots.The high­light of the trip had to be our visit to Sumpaima. A full mock war was be­ing staged in the vil­lage by its chief, Yali, and his whole clan. The men strapped on their koteka, smeared their bod­ies with pig fat and dry mud, adorned their heads with colour­ful feath­ers and ac­ces­sorized them­selves with wal­imo, a kind of re­ally big neck­lace made of sil­ver and pigs’ tusks. Then they got down to the busi­ness of fight­ing, or pre­tend­ing to fight, us­ing long spears and bows and ar­rows. Fol­low­ing the per­for­mance we were ush­ered to Yali’s com­pound where his six wives and chil­dren greeted us with a lo­cal victory song. The Dani’s honei is made up of round huts with thick thatched roofs. There are rows of honei sur­rounded by stone walls and gates to pre­vent the pigs from es­cap­ing. Men and women oc­cupy sep­a­rate honei; women and chil­dren are for­bid­den to en­ter the men’s honei (pil­amo).There’s an elon­gated honei with sev­eral holes in the floor that serves as the clan’s kitchen. We were treated to the Pig Feast, one of the main fes­tiv­i­ties for the Dani. Fire to heat the stones is made by rub­bing a small piece of rat­tan on a lit­tle pile of dry hay. The pig is killed by shoot­ing an ar­row into its heart, and then it is slaugh­tered with a piece of sharp wood. It is then cooked on hot stones to­gether with sweet pota­toes and lots of sweet potato leaves. Af­ter­wards, we re­treated to BaliemVal­ley Re­sort for tea. Lo­cated deep within the val­ley, it is set atop a hill with a stunning panorama of the val­ley. We were breath­less as we watched the sun­set from the lobby deck, daz­zlingly in­tense reds and or­anges il­lu­mi­nat­ing the val­ley be­fore the sun dis­ap­peared over the hori­zon. As dusk set­tled in, we left Baliem Val­ley for the last time, but our mem­o­ries of this grand val­ley and its peo­ple will linger on. Yogo (good­bye), BaliemVal­ley!

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