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Papua a journey into the still untouched nature of the Baliem Valley

It's been almost exactly 1 year now...

Tepania in his house with his Family in the baliem valley © alexander palacios
Tepania and his family

Papua is a province of Western New Guinea, the Indonesian part of the island of New Guinea, not to be confused with the state of Papua New Guinea in the East of the island.

Jayapura Papua © Alexander Palacios
Siprianus welcome to Jayapura

When we arrived in Jayapura, we were warmly welcomed by Siprianus. He is a local and works for Papua Explorer. Jayapura is a coastal city in northern Papua, it is the capital of the Papua Province and the Western New Guinea region. From there we continue by plane to the plateau in the Baliem Valley.This flight is already an adventure itself, as the airport in Wamena can only be approached by sight and is located in a valley, the Baliem Valley, at an altitude of approx. 1600 m, surrounded by mountains and jungle. Many of the bush pilots in Papua come from well-known airlines from all over the world, looking for an adventure, being aware of the risk involved.

Flughafen in Wamena
Airport Wamena

It often happens that single-engine turboprop planes  - usually overloaded - don't make it over the hills and crash. The conditions require maximum focus and experience of the pilots to bring people and plane safely back to the ground. Two days and also about a week before our arrival, planes with passengers crashed. In both cases there was no hope for the passengers.

Our plane was an older generation Boeing 737, with a fresh paintjob on the outside, while the inside had passed its peak for a long time. I had never seen so many insects in the double glazed windows before. The interior was worn and didn't make you feel safe for the trip.

However, the flight was quick, lasting around 20 minutes, and the unique view of the Baliem Valley distracted our thoughts from the technical condition of the plane.

The Baliem Valley
View to Wamena

Wamena is a small town where all the people from Baliem Valley meet. It is a trading hub and everything from vehicles, building materials, to vegetables, animals, fruits, etc., is flown in by plane or carried up and down the mountains by the residents over many kilometers. The Baliem is non-navigable with its currents, large boulders, waterfalls and many, many twists and turns, in which people loose their lives regularly.

The Baliem River

The people from the Baliem Valley have to walk whole days to be able to sell their vegetables, fruits, chicken or pork in the town and, depending on the situation, have to cross the Baliem. Very few people wear shoes, living on bare feet, and it can happen very quickly that one slips on the unpaved paths and falls into the depths because the ground is soft and muddy due to the rain.

Als Print erhältlich
The soles for slippery surfaces

Only very few people can afford a flight and therefore they hardly have any contact with the outside world. It’s only through us tourists and the goods we bring with us that the Dani, Lani & Yali tribes from Baliem Valley realize that there is another world. They used to believe that they were the center of the world. Through us tourists they realized that they were cut off from it.

I have often wondered how they imagine my world.

Near the small town, about 45 minutes to 1.5 hours by car, depending on the weather, we find the Baliem Valley Resort, from which tours to the Dani, Lani or Yali Tribes can be started and which was therefore our starting point for the highlands. It offers comfortable bungalows and you can meet the first locals there and “size each other up”.

There is also a change going on in the Baliem Valley. Papua is run from Jakarta, and as it happens, religion and culture collide. Bali, for example, does a good job of combining the different cultures and religions in the country. It has holidays, temples etc. from all religions. In Papua, in the highlands, things are different, the people there celebrate festivals and slaughter pigs, and most of the tribe members still wear traditional clothing or let's say, a „wisp of nothing“.

Kinder aus einem Dani Tribe
The children between curiosity and fear

This may seem strange from our western perspective (Facebook is quick to block and regulate accounts), especially since the weather can change quickly. But it's normal there, and they'll probably wonder, why we wear such clothes…

For Jakarta it is uncomfortable to admit, that the second largest island in the world (after Greenland), over which they "rule", still has some savages who run around naked, having their own laws and celebrating pig festivals. Jakarta builds schools and sends people into the administration, trying to bring the cultural differences closer together. But at the same time the culture of the Dani, Lani, Yali and other tribes is fading and conflicts arise. It is only a matter of time how long Dani, Lani, Yali, Asmat or Kuruwai tribes will continue to exist before they, too, are overtaken by the modern world.

A change is coming for the people there; maybe it is similar to here where with the digital age is replacing the analogue one.

Ein Dani Stamm vor dem Eingang zu ihrem Dorf.
Dani Tribe in front of the Village

Viewed through the lens of Western democracy, one may ask the question, how can people live under such conditions? But you should also ask yourself, how can I still be human in the Western system with increasing digitalization, the pressure to perform and more and more psychological problems?

Mit einem Bambuspfeil und Bogen wird das Ferckel erschossen.
The piglet is shot with a bamboo bow and arrow.

In our capitalism we know no limits, the limits are set by our economic success. Who among us could first kill, then gut and prepare the animal on their own in order to enjoy meat? And especially to feel happy and grateful afterwards not to suffer hunger, even though having sacrified a life for that?

We instead go to the shop, buy 500 grams of meat from the weekly offer and if we don’t like it, we just throw it away.

Die Männer bereiten das Festmahl vor
The bristles from the piglet were removed and the insides were removed

There are clear hierarchies about who gets which pieces!

In einem Erdloch wird das essen gegarrt
The women cook the meat in a hole in the ground

Women have a very important role. They take care of the offspring, food and agriculture, they keep the family together.

Eingang zum Frauenhaus
Smoking is even part of raising children. Entrance to the women's shelter

In the picture above you can see a woman who is missing some phalanges of her fingers. If the man or a male family member dies, the woman is responsible and one of her fingers is amputated.

Ein typischer Anblick, kleines rauchendes Häuschen
A typical house in Papua in the middle of nowhere

A major challenge in the highlands is the weather, which can change quickly. As soon as the sun shines, it is very hot. When it is cloudy it becomes chilly, and then it starts to rain in  combination with wind and it gets very fresh. Older people often die of pneumonia and have bronchial problems. The smell that characterizes Baliem Valley is "smoky". Smoke, rather than fire, is used as a heat source. The small houses in which people live are divided into 2 levels, a fireplace is built on the bottom, and people sleep on the 1st floor, where the smoke collects.

Papua is a country with a huge diversity. Most people might think of the Asmat, who are known from stories about them being cannibals. Now you might think to yourself that they must be crazy, but what do we do because of religion or for economic success?! Are we any better? I would say we are just different and being different can always be strange and perhaps repulsive at first. But in the end we are all people who follow our instincts, cultural background and experiences. Some more, others less, and I am one of the lucky ones who have the opportunity to get to know this diversity of cultures and people.

However, I also have to take risks and often take steps into unknown terrain and hope that it turns out well in the end. The probability of dying over there is many times higher than in car traffic here. The tribes have their own laws, and often, similar as with us, they are related to money. If you are not friendly-minded towards them, things can quickly go wrong. In addition to malaria, you can choose between crashing in a plane, getting injured (blood poisoning), getting killed in a landslide or bridge collapse or simply getting hit by the machete of a tribal chief who is having a bad day, just to name a few examples.

An almost broken bridge, we had to cross it

A stable bridge

My wish is that this story and its pictures will be published in more magazines and blogs. And I would be thrilled to find more investors, who support my work as a photographer, so that I can collect more pictures of people and cultures. There are situations in which I have to cross boundaries and I don't know whether it will work out or not. By selling my works of art I can do this, and you have the opportunity to support me and thus a small part of you can travel with me.

Here are more pictures from wonderful Papua and I say goodbye with one:


Mr Palacios


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