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Danna Harman

Danna Harman

Posted: December 6, 2010 05:40 PM

"Why Papua?" my mom asks me. And where is it anyway? I have no immediate answers. But a week later I have not only found it on a map and purchased all forms of cool camping paraphernalia (think quick dry towels and waterproof socks), but also come up with a philosophy to explain the high importance of voyaging across the world to this tropical land. My mom closes her eyes, raises her eyebrows and wishes she had normal children.

The sparsely populated island of New Guinea, the second largest island in the world after Greenland, is divided between two countries: the independent nation of Papua New Guinea in the east, and the Indonesian Papua -- formally known as Irian Jaya -- in the west. Over 75 percent of Papua is covered by impenetrable jungle, and is home to an incredible diversity of plant and animal life, as well as an array of indigenous, so-called 'primitive' tribes -- many of whom have little or no contact with the world outside.

Believed to number some three to four thousand people, the Korowai of south eastern Papua are one such tribe. They were 'discovered' in the 1970s but remain isolated. They hunt with bows and arrows, subsist for weeks on roots and slugs, are illiterate, and don't wear clothing or know modern medicine. They practice polygamy, believe in witchcraft and live in scattered tree houses 25- 50 meters off the ground. They are also thought to be some of the last people in the world to practice cannibalism.

Thoughts of traipsing into the jungle to meet Korowai begin to fill my imagination.

"Are there actually tribes with no knowledge of modern life?" I wonder. "Is cannibalism still practiced?" "Is the jungle really so dense you can't get through it?"

"Might such a trip be a good way to lose weight?"

And besides all this: "Why is all this 'otherness,' so inherently compelling to me?"

That last is a good question to chew on. And the answer probably has much to do with trying to understand myself, as anything else. I'm hoping, it would seem, that seeing how others make sense of the world around them -- will give me some insight into my own.

"Good luck," says my brother. "You need it."

I set out with Adam, a TV producer and fellow searching soul, who has a month's long vacation. He packs all his unread summer New Yorkers in a special water tight pouch, buys a spear gun ("for fishing, idiot," he explains when he sees my face) and we set off, stopping for lattes and mini ginger muffins at the Brasserie en route out of the country.

The journey to Papua is not short. We drive across the border from Jerusalem to Jordan and from there fly to Qatar, watching the latest Indian 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 has been offloaded in Doha.

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, flying overnight to Jayapura, the capital of Papua, and onwards 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. Members of the Dani tribe, best known for their penis gourd attire, wander around town wanting to shake hands.

We begin to realize that part of the reason so few tourists come to Papua (under a 800 last year, according to the Lonely Planet) is not solely because no one is as intrepid as us -- but 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 also 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 three thousand dollars -- 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 re-negotiations over money, swatting mosquitoes and eating biscuits filled with pineapple cream.

Finally, armed with just about all the information needed for a Ph.D. on motorized canoes in Papua, we pick up our travel permits from the local police chief, lower ourselves into the dugout canoe and motor ten hours down the river, 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, because of polio, has 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 members of the Kombai tribe last year.

And then, 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.