In Indonesia among the Damudani

In 2015, I interviewed my friend Geri about her life in Korea, first alone and then with Chris, her finance. (Link) The next year we talked about the accident which had taken Chris’s legs off above the knee, their marriage, and his recuperation. (Link) Recently, Chris and I talked via Skype about his first trip to see the Indonesian Damudani, also called Dani, Danidani and Ndani. Chris was in their new home in Okinawa, and I was here in the Philippines. Thanks to Chris for the photos.

Chris’s story

About eight, ten years ago, I was in Kri Eco Dive Resort in the Bird’s Beak in western Indonesia not far from Sorong—a beautiful area, one of the last wild ones, not at all commercial. I met an ornithologist, an amazing, wonderful person, a little bitty guy you could imagine as a turkey in the woods. He could shimmy around everything. Since the divers couldn’t dive all the time, he gave tours to those interested in bird watching. He took me through the islands to show me very rare birds. He asked what else I was going to do.

“I’ve read about the Damudani in the Baliem Highlands. Is it possible to go there?”

By this time he’d gotten to know me and liked my spirit. He knew I was a high school teacher who taught humanities and was interested in working on a book. So he said, “Yes, I have friends that are of that native group, and I can hook you up.”

Since it was around Christmas time and I had a cap with moose ears on it, I figured I could do with some jolly-hollies and go there. I had my medical aid kit with pills to make sure I didn’t get typhoid fever or anything like that. I had a big Swiss Army backpack, a one-man tent and a smaller backpack which could carry food. I was wearing crocks, long pants and a bush shirt as protection against mosquitoes. Years ago I’d come up with a special spray made of citronella and peppermint oil—about four or five different kinds of oils. It worked well as a repellant. I sure didn’t want to get malaria.

To get to the highlands I first had to go back to Jayapura, on the border between Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, and then to Biak, where I could fly into this remote area. People waiting for the plane had brought all sorts of bundles, as you see in other places like the Philippines. There was a little girl with a rooster. Before the flight one of her family members picked it up and wrapped a rope around it and put it in the overhead bin. I knew then that this was going to be a different kind of trip.

When we arrived at the frontier town, many of the men meeting the plane had on absolutely nothing but their birthday suits and the gourds of modesty, these penis gourds. I met the guide, who was Damudani and who went back and forth from the town into the mountains. Occasionally he brought in tourists for only one day, showed them a little bit and then brought them back. I would be one of the first to get into the hinterland.

The guide had two other men with him. After we got provisions, the four of us left town in a truck, but about thirty or forty minutes outside town we had to set off on foot because an avalanche had blocked the road. We walked through the rocky avalanche area and came to a forty-foot drop to the bottom of a ravine. At the bottom was a river and a rickety-looking wooden bridge. On the other side were more rocks, and then we were headed up into the mountains. I asked the guide what we’d be able to do.

“Hopefully you’ll be able to bivouac, be with a lot of the people and learn what you want to learn.”

The ornithologist had told him I actually wanted to stay with them. The first night I put my tent up, and we talked, and he said, “Tomorrow we’re going to be humping through the bush.”

We got up early. It was rainy season and very wet. We had to climb way up,  like climbing Manchu Picchu, really high bluffs. The ground was wet and soggy. There was no vestige of any other outsiders. More and more indigenous people appeared. We came into a settlement area. I was walking around, starting to meet people. They had great big cooking pots and big butcher knives, and they were chopping stuff up. I was looking for my guide, and all these other folks are looking at me, and I was wondering if maybe I’d gone a little too far.

After about thirty minutes, my guide appeared and said, “You can go in.”

“Go in where?”

We went into a big round hut, shaped like an igloo or a yurt, but made of woven reeds and bramble. The floor inside was covered with rush or straw. I looked up and saw a star and a Christmas tree made of medicine bottles and then at the families, the mothers breastfeeding their babies, and as they started singing Damudani Christmas carols I thought they were probably closer than we were to what Christmas was all about. It was very beautiful, their singing in a language I’ve never heard. The preacher stood behind the podium, naked but partly covered in a gold liturgical vestment. The service was very spiritual, very free-spirited with a sense of interconnectedness to life itself. It was totally beyond anything I’d seen before, and I’d been around a little bit.

Afterwards we went outside and had the dinner made in those big cooking pots. There was a roast pig, and manioc (cassava) and sweet potatoes and yams that were all wrapped up and served on big plantain leaves. My guide chuckled at my previous consternation—he’d spotted me worrying about maybe ending up in one of those big cooking pots.

The next day he told me I could go to a more primitive environment. We climbed into the mountains. What fascinated me about the Damudani villages was that,  when you flew over the area you couldn’t see anything but  jungle, but down below the treetops there were big stone fences separating various sections, like for the pigs and for their medicinal herbs, another area for the yams, and for the bananas, all organized around the central warriors’ hut.

When we arrived, the chief and everyone else was gone except an old, blind man, one of the elders. He let me go into the sacred hut. Inside was a fire. Hanging from the ceiling were hundreds and hundreds of twisted pig tails. The wam, the wild pig, was the sacred animal. The Damudani would kill it and wear the tusks around their necks as a totem, but also as medicine. When someone was sick, they’d kill a pig and hang the tail from the ceiling. Inside the round hut, each of the warriors had his own spot with his spears and other implements. The separate spots were arranged in a circle, like the spokes of a wheel, with the fire in the center.

The only thing the blind old man was wearing was the gourd of modesty. I gave him a bandana because his eyes were kind of weepy. He tied it proudly around his neck. I’d noticed that all the Damudani had very rheumy eyes because of the smoke. They kept the fire going to keep the mosquitoes off them and covered themselves with light dust and pig fat for insulation. It got cold up there in the highlands. They’d also wrap up in a poncho or a shawl woven from bird feathers or an army blanket they’d traded for.

We spent the second night of my trip in that village, but in the morning I was told that the chief was pissed because no outsider was supposed to go into the warriors’ hut. So we skedaddled out of there.

We went up and down the mountain, and in a big open area I noticed that the others were on a little path across a rushing stream. On the other side it was very, very soggy, and they were up to their knees in mud, rushing to hack away at the bamboo and reeds and lay them down crosswise as a path across all the mud. They kept saying we had to hurry, like maybe we were being chased.

I thought, “You’re not in Kansas anymore.”

The stretch of the mud was the length of forty or fifty football fields. On the other side, we visited a village where I was allowed to put my tent inside one of the huts—not the big, central grandfather’s hut one off to the side. Sleeping inside the tent meant I didn’t have to worry about the scorpions or the highly poisonous red centipedes that got into your boots. We were sitting around the fire, eating a soup we’d made, and the guys were acting really nervous. All of a sudden I heard a sound like a freight train. It was a landslide which wiped out the muddy area where we’d been that day. The guys had known it was a possibility, which was why they’d been in such a hurry to get out of there. We wouldn’t be able to go back that way.

On the fifth day we came to a big clearing where food and other supplies were coining in on little Piper Cubs All along I’d met very interesting people. Here was a guy who swore that no matter what the missionaries and the other outsiders did, he was not going to give up his traditional customs and start wearing clothes. He spoke some English.

My guide asked me, “What would you like to do tomorrow? Would you like to go to a coming-of-age ceremony?”

”That would be fantastic.”

“Okay, we’ll take another route over the mountains. Only very rarely are outsiders allowed to watch a real coming of age ceremony, but the guys who met you….”

I haven’t mentioned this, but when I met someone, he’d grab my bicep or forearm and chant aWAsawasawa-wasa-wassawa for a minute or so while with his eyes he was penetrating straight through me. It felt like going through an MRI machine. Apparently, they thought my vibes were pretty good because afterwards they conferred among themselves and then invited me.

The next morning I was all hot to trot. My guide said we could go back through the mud and all the way down, then come back up and go over the hills. Or there was another way around the mountain which was a bit more treacherous but about two hours shorter.

I said, “I’m strong. I can go the shorter way.”

Now, ever since I was in the military as a conscientious objector who refused to carry a weapon, I’d always walked with a big staff. In Texas I’d strike the ground with it as I walked, and the snakes would feel the vibes and get out of the way. I’d been a martial artist for about forty years and learned to use the staff. It had become like a third leg as I walked. It energized me too, because I could equalize the weight when I was leaning against it and pushing up against it.

The guys I was with had big, black feet as long as boards. They didn’t wear any shoes. They just tromped across like mountain goats. I was climbing with my staff along the side of the mountain, with the guide maybe fifteen to twenty feet in front of me. The two other guys were behind me, one carrying the pots and pans and the other carrying some of the food. I was also carrying food in addition to my other gear.

I looked over the edge of the path we were on—as I said, it was like Manchu Picchu—at a drop of about four hundred to six hundred feet down into a ravine. The path had gotten more and more treacherous, from maybe three feet wide to about two feet, and now it was a goat’s path along the side of the mountain. At one spot I was edging along, and all of a sudden I noticed the wet ground was starting to slip under me. I jammed my stick down in the ground and tried to keep myself from moving any further, but it was still sliding.

“Oh, Lord what am I going to do?” My guide was fifteen feet up ahead.

Suddenly I heard a tiny voice say, “Grab me.” I looked around, and there were little red, beady-looking flowers on this gnarly, bushy stuff growing out of the stone, gnarly like the Alpine stuff called Krummholz. I never saw these flowers before or after. It was one of the strangest things ever, to hear this little plant voice connecting me to the spirit of life itself. I couldn’t even turn around, but I grabbed the bush behind me and scrambled across, spider-monkeyed across while holding onto this stuff for maybe ten to fifteen yards, all the while hollering at my guide, “Where are you?”

He came hot-footing back. I got to a safer spot and said, “Listen, this doesn’t work. Whenever you see it’s getting really bad, we have to do a belay between the two of us.”

To belay is a mountain-climbing term. You tie a timber hitch around yourself. One person becomes an anchor point, and another person becomes an anchor point, and then you traverse across between the two. You lock the rope down so the other person doesn’t get pulled off either.

We climbed on and came to the place where the ceremony would be. The chief was covered with beautiful feathers. It was clearly a very festive time because people wore features, bones through their noses, big earrings that stretched their earlobes, necklaces and all that kind of thing. Usually people just had a little something around the neck, like an amulet with a big boar’s tooth and a tuft of the boar’s hair, but not much more than that. Maybe an armband with a warrior’s insignia, maybe beadwork around the ankles. Then they’d have their penis gourd with a tie wrapped around them. Depending on how tough the area is, they might wear a loincloth, but generally they didn’t.

Now, the women had shawls woven out of tree roots, and then they wore them with a band around the crown of the head, then down against the neck and back so they could use it to carry coconuts and manioc. Sometimes it was worn in front to carry a baby. They also wore woven underwear, while the men just wore penis gourds.

The different tribes had penis gourds in and different sizes and colors. In fact, they’d use them to carry their tobacco inside and sometimes a flint set. Some of the gourds were big, about a foot and a half or two feet. Other groups would just have long, thin ones. The gourds protected them from thorns and from the heat. A young boy might wear the gourd like a topknot tied into the hair. I tried wearing one, but it didn’t work. It felt like a tough sling.

As I trotted up the hill with my guide, meeting these guys, I noticed a big, muscular man cutting up something with a great big machete, His eyes penetrated into me, but I didn’t know why. It made me uneasy enough to wonder what I was doing in this place anyway.

An area was set up for the festivities, women on the ground with the food and the big plantain leaves. People showed me the wild pig, the wan to be shot with a bow and arrow.

The arrows were long pieces of wood, without feathers but intricately carved, beautiful, There were different kinds of arrows for shooting fish, for birds and for bigger animals,

The young boys hopped around, acting out a scenario while the men watched. One of the boys hit the boar, the boar squealed, and then another one jumped up and fired an arrow into the boar, and then he hit it on the neck. Then—boom—the boar collapsed. People took up butcher knives. The women started to chop it up, and the men cut off the legs and cut the throat to drain the blood.

It was carried to a really big pit near a big fire, cut open, stuffed with manioc and probably potatoes and sweet potatoes and wrapped in leaves. It was dropped into the pit and covered with hot rocks. There are four or five layers, of rocks, dirt, green things, all kinds of vegetables, fiery ashes covered with more rock. They covered all that with dirt and then with fiery ashes all around, more dirt, more leaves, and the whole thing was covered with jungle leaves and vines.

I watched as the men strutted around like roosters. They walked up to the ten young boys, who stood motionless while the men blessed them and cursed them and hit them with sticks. Another pit with a cooked pig was opened up and the steaming hot pig fat was smeared onto the boys’ faces. They didn’t react to the hot grease or the dyes thrown on them—dark yellow like turmeric. They were blessed, and then they ran off for a while.

I was drawing in my journal what I’d seen of the pig killing when out of the corner of my eye I saw the big guy who’d been staring at me the whole time—four hours, watching me and watching me. I was out of the way, over in the corner. My guide was nowhere around, and neither was anyone else.  The big guy walked over with his big machete and threw it on the ground right next to me. He pointed at the journal as if to say, “Gimme the book.” I gave it to him. He looked at my drawing of the pig and the bow and arrow. Then he grinned and pointed at me. “Gimme the pencil.”

In the meantime, four or five of his buddies had come over and circled around me while I looked for my guide and wondered what the hell was going to happen. The big guy was looking at me and at my picture. He grinned and drew a perfect likeness of a pig.

His meaning was clear: “You think you can draw a pig? You don’t know anything. Look at that one.”

I was thinking, “Well I can draw a space ship better than you.”

Then he drew a bow and arrow to show me. He grinned and handed the journal back, picked up his machete and walked away. His friends were all looking at me and laughing. You know they were saying, “That fool can’t draw no pig.”