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Into the Mists of New Guinea

From the author of Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art

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Feathers, seeds, and dog teeth adorn Asmat tribesmen, who still adhere to traditional ways.

Selected by our editors as the great read from the May 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler

The town of Agats perches at the edge of the known world, the only place within 10,000 square miles of mud and jungle on the southwest coast of the western Pacific island of New Guinea that is even tenuously connected to anywhere else. There are no roads, no cars, just rickety boardwalks elevated over wetland, and it’s here, right after dawn, as mist rises from the night’s rain and the tropical colors of the blue river and green jungle are still rich, that our eyes meet—and we do a double take.

His are small and brown. He is barefoot, his hair sticks up in tufts, and his septum has a hole the size of a dime. He reeks of sweat and smoke. A handwoven bag adorned with feathers dangles over his chest. He looks feral, and in a way he is. His name is Kokai, and he is an Asmat tribesman from the village of Pirien, where there are no artificial lights, no cell signals. We met when I visited his village eight months ago. I have learned some Indonesian since, and we chat. He tells me he came to see his son but can’t get home, doesn’t have the money. I’ll pay for a boat back, I say, if I can come live in Pirien with him for a month.

It’s that simple.

We travel for many reasons: to escape, relax, learn, startle ourselves, sometimes to meet new people, sometimes to get away from familiar ones. But as visitors, we touch only the surface of a place. This time I’m traveling to be alone, to leave behind everything I know and use to define myself, and immerse myself in a village, a culture, without any filters or supports, in order to know it, feel it, subsume myself in it. Some anthropologists have done that, including Tobias Schneebaum in the Amazon and Jean Malaurie in Greenland. Only by going alone, with no connections, no alternatives, can I hope to enter a place and culture that is inaccessible not just in geography but in spirit. I have to stay long enough that I go from being alone to being accepted—if that’s even possible.

So one day I’m alone in Agats, which isn’t really being alone: My phone buzzes with incoming texts, diners fill the little restaurants, and there is a good chance I could get a seat, if I wanted, on one of the boats headed to the airstrip to the north. The next day I’m alone in Pirien, at Kokai’s tiny, smoky house, the boat that got me here drifting away. I’m encircled by a crowd of 50. This is a completely different kind of alone; I’m cut off from everything and everyone I know, surrounded by unfamiliar men, women, and children. I’m in a sea of otherness, with no control over anything. Pirien has no road, no electricity, no plumbing, no store. No one speaks a word of English. It’s total surrender to absolute foreignness, to a remote community of former cannibals. In a lifetime of travel, this is the most intense thing I’ve done.

Thirty minutes after the boat has gone, severing my connection to the outside world, the crowd melts away, replaced by a group of men. Old men, like Kokai, barbed-wire thin and muscled, with holes in their septa and wearing fur headbands with white feathers. They each shake my hand, and we sit cross-legged in a circle on the ground. Kokai brings out tobacco I’ve given him, and the men each take a palmful. They talk and smoke—smoking is big in Asmat; it’s the social ritual—knocking ashes onto the floor, adding to the dust that covers everything. They talk and talk, mostly in Indonesian, and I listen as best I can, catching the occasional word. They talk too fast, too colloquially, for me to understand. My legs hurt, my knees ache, but I sit still; what else am I to do?

When the men eventually trickle out, Kokai’s wife brings one spoon and two bowls, each with a mix of noodles and rice, then disappears into the kitchen, which is a porch with a smoldering fire. The food has no seasoning, no salt. Will it make me sick? I have no idea. There is nothing I can do but eat, so I do.

The sun is setting, the light dying. Flies buzz and land on my hands, arms, legs, the food. Kokai eats with his fingers.

Adik,” he says to me. “You are my younger brother."

Later, we smoke on the front porch. Men come by, sit and smoke with us. Packs of dogs lope along the boardwalk, through the swampy ground beneath the houses, sometimes attacking each other in a wild scrum of barking and howling. The air smells of human excrement; the toilet is in the kitchen, a hole in the floor that drops to the ground. Other houses surround Kokai’s, and each is filled with people using their toilets. The smell is pungent, rich, humid. It pervades the village. I never grow used to it.

Darkness falls, and bats pour out of the eaves. Heavy-footed lizards hammer across the roofs, sounding infinitely bigger than they are. Without a moon, the village is pitch black; I see nothing but the glow of Kokai’s cigarette and heat lightning that flashes like a World War I artillery barrage. It’s all a mystery to me.

The mosquitoes grow intense, so we head indoors, which is lit by one flame. People come and go, a constant stream of men, women, and naked children with runny noses. Time inches by. The month I have ahead of me feels like a year. I can’t envision it, so I try not to. I’ll try to never think about time while I’m here.

Time isn’t the only thing different in Pirien. There are no familiar things. No beds, chairs, tables, books, no sheets or blankets, not to mention computers or phones. Kokai is an important man, the former head of the village, but he and his wife have only a sleeping mat and (soiled) pillow, a knapsack, a battered suitcase holding a few plastic bowls and cups, and spears, paddles, bows, and arrows. Slowly, they fall asleep on the floor. I slip into the mosquito net I brought and fall asleep too.

Doing this, being in Pirien, is about my giving up a sense of self. It’s the most basic requirement. None of the wants and needs and desires I usually experience a hundred times every day have a place here. Check your calendar. Don’t be late. Lock the door. Let’s plan on tomorrow.

No. I have to let it all go. Or, yes. Yes to everything here. Yes to starchy sago rolls and sago worms and tiny shrimp that taste like ammonia and more rice and noodles than I thought a human being could eat in one sitting—because sometimes there is no meal later.

I brought bottles of water, but they run out fast; then it’s rainwater from barrels, water wiggling with mosquito larvae. It’s the village water, so that’s what I drink. But it runs out when it doesn’t rain—and Kokai says if the skies don’t open up soon, we’ll have to go into the jungle and scrape water off plants. The barrel water does not make me sick, so I suck it down.

I'm not a morning person. In a world without clocks, however, the sun dictates everything. Dawn hits just before 5 a.m. By 6 a.m. I’ve given up sleep, and emerge to find Kokai slipping tassels of cockatoo feathers onto paddles he has carved. Paddles, shields, spears, Kokai carves them all, and will sell them in Agats, his only way of earning money.

It’s often the morning when he opens up to me, patting the space next to him for me to sit. We eat flavorless dry sago and small whole fish and smoke our first cigarettes and drink coffee I brought, a luxury for him. Pointing to the weapons, he shares their Asmat names. Amun, bow. Jamasj, shield. Po, paddle. Then he shows me a scar on his arm the size of a quarter.

“From an arrow!” He slaps his arm, slaps his thigh and groin—four wounds, one from an arrow that entered his groin and came out the other side.

Otsjanep!” he exclaims, assigning the wounds to a war that split the village in two in 1964. He grabs a shield, hides behind it, advances, ducks, advances, pantomimes shooting an arrow. In a world without photography or television or recorded anything, the Asmat have remained oral storytellers, expressive with their voices and bodies, often telling of the chopping of heads and shooting of arrows and driving home of spears. When Kokai talks about canoeing, he bends forward and spreads his arms wide, becomes a canoe gliding over the sea. Once, he imitates a bat: He scrunches up, exposes his teeth, holds his hands as if he’s clinging, and he is the bat. I can see it hanging upside down in a tree.

By day three, time begins to slip by faster, to have a rhythm. I make small friendships. Kokai, Ber, Sauer, Bif—all elders—always make a place for me and tell me stories. My timing is lucky. Asmat villages are organized around clans, and each clan has its own men’s house, or jeu, often more than a hundred feet long. The men of Jisar, members of one of five local clans, are building a new one.

In a clearing along the riverbank rises a sight from the Stone Age. A foundation of poles supports the rectangular framework for the new longhouse, to which the walls and roof will soon be attached. From each of the poles looking out to the river gazes a carved face. It’s the first new jeu here in years, and celebrations will last until it is finished in three weeks.

A circle of men with drums sits in the center. Around them, others sit and lie. An old man in the circle motions to me, pats the floor next to him. Then, until the sun sets, and for many afternoons, I lose myself in tribal reverie. The men are decked out with dog teeth and boar tusks, cockatoo feathers sprouting from their hair and headbands, their faces painted ocher or black. The older men sport pig bones or shells in their septa. Sauer, the man I sit next to, is the kepala parang, the spiritual and cultural head of Jisar. He has the Asmat high cheekbones and physique of raw muscle and bone and black skin, which is smeared with war paint.

In the Asmat creation myth, a man named Fumeripitsj drummed the Asmat to life from carvings. Sauer and his jeu mates begin drumming themselves into existence, 200 beats a minute, and sing. Men dance and children dance, sweat pouring from them. Other men blow horns, which sound like foghorns, and the floor of the jeu pulsates. They move toward the river, and more men appear. Women do, too, some in grass skirts, their knees flapping as they dance like cassowaries. They howl and yell, a wild free-for-all of unadulterated joy and abandon, of culture that stretches back beyond memory. I gulp, then well up in tears. It is powerful and beautiful and unfiltered; it is pure and rich and of earth and river and mud.

My month, suddenly, is over. The boat arrives anytime. Just as suddenly, that idea—of leaving, that I have to leave—seems as strange as the idea of coming here in the first place. The hours passed so slowly at the start, but then I stopped noticing, everything a blur of heat and rain and smoke and drumming and sitting in stillness, the river always flowing, a metaphor in my mind for the slow but relentless passage of time.

The sound of an engine approaches. Kokai’s son-in-law yells, “The boat!”

The intimacy, the quiet I’d slowly built over the month, evaporates into chaos. Villagers swarm from every direction, crowding into Kokai’s house to bid me farewell. Kokai’s wife brings out sago, and we eat and talk and laugh.

Then Kokai says, “You must give money to the jeu in Jisar.”

I grab 300,000 rupiah—about $25—and Kokai, Wilem the boatman, and I, trailed by a throng, walk to Jisar. Sauer and other men are there, fires glowing in the now finished structure. I hand Sauer the money. The men start a powerful chant, punctuated by grunts and shrieks.

Sauer says I’m welcome to return anytime. I speak as eloquently as I can in Indonesian, thanking them for their warm welcome, for always making me feel at home, for sharing their sago. We all shake hands, leathery and warm, and I take my last breath of the jeu, rich with the smell of bodies and smoke.

I’d been so alone when I got here, the most alone I had ever been. Now I’m not. I’m not even sure when that happened.

We return to Kokai’s, and it happens so fast. Men grab my bags and throw them in the boat.

“Photo,” I yell, “of the family!”

Kokai and his brood stand with me as someone snaps us with my cellphone.

Then Kokai takes my hand, says “Adik” (younger brother), rubs my hand along his cheek. It is one moment, one word, one action. One moment in a month of living in a primitive village in the middle of a jungle. But that’s what life is, really, a collection of tiny slices of grace, love, and generosity that is the stuff of happiness. I arrived, alone and nervous, in a remote Papuan village to the inscrutable glare of wooden faces, and am leaving a month later with a brother. Kokai’s gesture, I think, is nothing short of benediction.

Carl Hoffman's latest book is Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art (William Morrow, 2014).

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