Onduwafi is the traditional chief of the Dani Tribe. They voted as a chief by the clan. (Ayos Purwoaji / Travelboogie)

TEXT & PHOTO: Ayos Purwoaji

Shaped like a giant bowl, carved by the winding Baliem River

When I was little, my Dad brought me souvenirs: koteka (penis sheath) and tifa. “This is koteka, traditional clothing of the Dani tribe in Wamena,” he said as he flipped through a photo album, showing naked men with wearing an outfit from dried pumpkin to cover their private parts. My father is a coffee researcher who frequently goes into the woods and empowers farmers in remote areas. Wamena as one of the best coffee producers in Indonesia is an area that is most often visited by him.

Unfortunately, spending five days in Wamena, I did not get to taste the brew of local coffee served traditionally. The I Love Indonesia Program that I was following had a tight schedule. Wamena does not only have special coffee, Wamena also has exceptional nature and culture, and those are the things that I was able to enjoy this time.

Wamena is shaped like a giant bowl. Ever since viewing from the airplane, I immediately fell in love. From the window of the Twin Otter plane flying from Jayapura, I saw the Baliem River winding across Wamena, so beautiful. Therefore when Bang Herman, our guide, took us to go trekking along the Baliem River, I was very excited.

On Sunday morning, 17th of October, we were already at Sogokmo Village, 30 kilometers from the center of Wamena. I set the GPS coordinates; marking the starting point of this trekking activity. Beautiful scenery directly spoiled the eyes. I saw plantations were bordered with stone walls; the stone walls were made without any adhesives. It reminded me of the trekking route to Machu Picchu that I saw on TV, the Travel and Living program. “They made the walls so that the pigs do not go in and destroy their plantations,” said Bang Herman.

There certainly are a lot of Pigs wandering around. Therefore there are a lot of pig traps with black color that are sometimes not visible, camouflaged among the mud and the burnt objects. And Voila, I was trapped.

After an hour of walk, I was treated with the view of a shallow creek with a dead tree across the river. Three small children were playing merrily in the water. I called them to be photographed. They smiled showing their white colored teeth which are contrast with the color of their skin, very sweet.

These children of Sogokmo Village camera, making their mother fitful as the three of them should go to church. “Where is the church located?” I asked. “Oh close enough, at Hulesi,” she smiled and continued to comb the hair of her three children. Apparently Hulesi was in fact far away.

I was short of breath walking all the way of the trekking path to Hulesi. But it all paid off with the very beautiful scenery. Just imagine a small white church on the edge of the cliff of Baliem River with a few pine trees that shaded the lawn. Behind it, you can see the curve line of the hills. When I arrived, the mass has just finished. We greeted the people attending the mass one by one, and they gave us a friendly welcome. What a beautiful Sunday it was.

Finally we continued the journey. Entering the Polimo Village, Bang Herman bought a bunch of bananas from the villagers. Before I knew it was late afternoon, the gentle sunshine collided with the back of the valley, showing an exotic semi-surrealists painting. “Wamena is Almost Heaven!” my friend said, a young adventurer who had visited Wamena before. Now, in front of the Baliem valley that stretches beautifully, I can not deny that statement.

In this valley that stretches 60 miles long lives three major tribes, namely the Lani tribe, the Dani tribe and the Yali tribe. Luckily I was able to meet all three. The most famous is the Dani tribe; they are well-known for their honai home and koteka (penis sheath). It was foretold that the Dani tribe believes that they came from a rock, just like the Asmat who believes that they originated from wood. This local myth shows their close relationship with nature. Although slowly modernization enters, along with the arrival of missionaries in the late 19th century, but natural life style can still be found in traditional villages on the outskirts of Wamena.

One of the villages is the Jiwika Village, about 15 kilometers from the center of the city. The layout of Jiwika Village still uses ancient architectural forms of the Dani tribe; pilamo (honai or home of the man) should be in the opposite of the gate, while the umma (honai or home of the women) should be at the right side of pilamo, aligned with the kitchen and pigsty in the front side.

Honai, a wooden house with thatch is the traditional house of the Dani tribe. This type of house helps people who inhabit the Baliem Valley free from the super cold air, especially at night. To keep the body warm, every honai is equipped with a furnace. Unfortunately, the smoke in this traditional heater does not have a way out, so it goes round and round in the honai. As a result, a lot of the people that lives in the Baliem Valley suffer from acute respiratory infections with a very high mortality risk.

My arrival at Jiwaka was welcomed by the Onduwafi (chief of the tribe). Bang Herman competently notified our desire to see the Mabel Knight Mummy. Reputedly, Wim Motok Mabel was a respected leader. He protected the boundaries of the area, which are the mountains and the hills; he also gave a sense of security to his people.

Mabel was a hero who continues to be remembered. He is one of the greatest leaders whose story has always been repeatedly told from generation to generation. He even became a legend that is told to implant courage in the heart of the younger generation of the Dani tribe. After Mabel died, the elderly of the village sent a couple to build a honai in the woods far from the residential area. This couple must first be purified, because this process of mummification is actually a very sacred ritual. “The couple must refrain from sin when making the mummy, it is important that this condition is faithfully carried out,” said Bang Herman. Furthermore, the corpse of Mabel was placed on the mantel to be smoked. This process takes about 200 days, and it was done continuously without stopping, so that the skin and the muscle becomes melted, just like hot asphalt, until it finally attached to the bones, becoming hard glue that will not be ruined by time.

The age of the Mabel Knight Mummy is estimated to be more than 300 years. For that long has always been in a squatting position with the mouth that is always opened, radiating courage passing through time, I was impressed. In addition to the mummy, Jiwika Village also has a salted water spring, or better known as Salt Spring. This is another form of God’s miracle in Wamena, a place located in the middle of New Guinea and is surrounded by mountains. It is almost impossible for the people who live in the mountains to be able to taste the salty taste of salt like the people who live in the beaches. However, God is fair, God created a salt spring at the top of the mountain.

To reach the Salt Spring, I went lightweight trekking with the starting point at Jiwika Village. Some small children followed us from behind. Two little girls also participated. They brought noken, a small knitted bag, behind the head. It contained necklaces and bracelets, handicrafts products. One of them was named Justina, sweet face, neat white teeth, and round eyes. “I am Su, I am a fifth grader,” she said. After crossing the fields, we arrived at the foot of the mountain. Actually itwas just a hill, when measured from ground level it is not so high. However when measured from the sea surface, it has height of a mountain, about 2100 meters above sea level. We and the Jiwika children began to hike.

After about 30 minutes of hiking, we arrived at the springs. The size is small and the spring is shielded behind large stones. The water looks turbid, but after I inserted it into a mineral water bottle the water looked very clear.

The two girls of Dani tribe showed us how they process the salt water to be brought home. First, they peel the banana trunks that they brought from home. The two girls broke down the stem into thin sheets and tore it into small shreds by hand. Furthermore, these two children dipped these soft pieces of trunk into the water; it serves as natural sponges that absorb the minerals from the water solution.

They dipped for many times, the movement is similar to a person who is washing clothes in the river, dip, knead, rub, and dip again; they did it over and over again. “They sometimes also soak the soft trunk for a few hours, like making pickles from banana trunks,” said Herman, who has lived in Wamena for 20 years.

Bakar Batu (Pig Feast) Ceremony

The most interesting attraction in the village of the Dani tribe is the Bakar Batu Ceremony (pig Feast). I watched it in Obiah Village, about 10 kilometers from the center of the city. The people of Obiah Village sang traditional songs that make me have goose bumps. The Onduwafi asked two young men to bring a pig to be sacrificed.

The two strong young men held the four legs of the pig and pulled it. An old archer released a wooden arrow that pierced the heart of the pig. The sound of ancient chants of the villagers is loud, and it got even louder and faster. A pair of men and women appeared, they ran around the pig.

Having ascertained that is really dead; the pig was inserted into the pile of firewood which is used to heat stones. It took about an hour to make these stones become very hot and the little pig loose all of his fur.

Villagers cooperated and immediately moved the super hot stones into the soil basin that had previously been coated with taro leaves. A man was busy chopping the body of the pig into small pieces with a knife made from the bones of a cassowary bird, a traditional weapon that now becomes a souvenir for tourists.

This was like an ancient hot plate system. Pigs and hipere (sweet potato) were baked on hot stones; so that the heat does not evaporate quickly it was closed with wet leaves and grass. After waiting for an hour, the grilling was done. []

Selingkuh Shrimp

Selingkuh Shrimp is the Wamena endemic, it is three times larger than the size of normal shrimp. It has very hard shells; the legs are long and hard. It has two claws like a crab which is why people like to call it Selingkuh Shrimp. (Ayos Purwoaji / Travelboogie)

WHEN GOING to Wamena, do not forget to taste the shrimp from Baliem (Cherax sp) which is unique. It is three times larger than the size of normal shrimp. It has very hard shells; the legs are long and hard. It has two claws like a crab which is why people like to call it Selingkung Shrimp. Perhaps, this species is the result of an affair between prawns with crab, the Wamena people really like this joke. Actually, these shrimp can be classified as a type of freshwater lobster. The habitat is scattered along the Baliem River. Currently there are about eight species of freshwater lobster that are often consumed by the public. Of the few people that I ask about “10 things that should not be missed when visiting Wamena”, this shrimp is one of those things. []

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