Rory Stewart

Caleb held a bundle of arrows in his left hand and a bow and single arrow in his right. His mother was holding her torn ears between her thumbs and forefingers. Her chin was on her bare chest. Her legs were coated with grey mud. She was shivering as she watched me and behind her the smoke, seeping out of the hut walls, mingled with the fog and cold rain. Around her was the jungle.

I had been in the jungle once before, as a child in Borneo; and the image I have of it is a child’s image which has become more childish in the intervening years. Were I to look at the photographs, I would find that most of the villagers are wearing T-shirts, that the long-house walls are decorated with photographs from magazines and that a modern school stands in the ‘virgin hunting ground’. The brightly painted shields, the silver ornaments, the tattoos and the finely woven textiles appeared only at festivals. But my impression of the warmth and colour of the Borneo forest is still true to the environment. The villagers cool off from the sun, naked in the river. The jungle is rich with bright red pitcher plants and among the clear glades of vast trees, easy under foot, you can hear the high notes of a gibbon or see a startled deer.

Twenty years later in Irian Jaya at the far end of Indonesia, the river was far from the village and bathing was rare. The moss forest was cramped, cold and difficult. There were no deer, monkey, tigers or bear. Caleb’s people, the Una, did not yet make iron, textiles or pottery. It was not a place of natural abundance but a mountain land, soaked in cold rain, where you could not see the sunset.

Caleb’s toes emerged out of the mud in a row, straight as piano keys, his feet together, his weight evenly balanced. Although his testicles were hanging free, where you would have expected to see a penis there was a thin six-inch tube of brittle gourd sticking vertically into the air. A string tied round his waist held the head of the penis gourd, his ribcage was clearly visible but around his shoulders hung the remains of a Chicago Bulls tank-top. His head was shaved. There was a hole in his nose, big enough to put your thumb through, and the shine on his face reflected the first light.

The rain had eased and the moon, which was still visible, was an eggshell blue. On the ridge of Mount Yarkon, Gunung Tertinggi, ‘the highest mountain’, the faint break of day gave way to an acid red that glowed above the ridge line. Caleb was looking down the slope to the south. Beneath the dark canopy, the forest was not uniform. First, there was the drenched, muffled, stunted moss grotto. Then there were the 11-trunked ‘kelapa hutan’ of the mid-forest; on which the descending moss revealed warped bare branches. After four days’ walk there were the hot foothills, the rivers and the thick tropical hardwoods. That was the limit of his world.

Beyond the foothills the marshes stretched for a hundred kilometres. But the Asmat of the marshes who used iron were so far away that the Una had until recently never seen carving or metal. And beyond the marshes was the sea. We were on the central spine of New Guinea, a vast island, 2400 kilometres long, marooned between Australia and the Pacific. The West, Caleb’s part, is regarded as Indonesian Irian Jaya, and thus forms the south-eastern tip of South-East Asia. Caleb’s mother’s generation had no word for the sea. The Una must once have made a heroic crossing from Asia, but they had long ago forgotten it.

It was the middle of 1998. I had taken a month out of a three-year posting in Jakarta to walk across Irian Jaya with two friends. The Indonesian economy, which had grown by 7 per cent in the previous year, was on course for a 15 per cent contraction and Suharto had stepped down as President after 32 years two months before. We landed at dawn on Irian’s northern coast to the sound of automatic weapons. And two days later, as we arrived in the highland capital of Wamena, a crowd tore the Indonesian flag off the police station roof. In Wamena we rented a four-seater plane and were dropped at a small jungle landing-strip on the border with Papua New Guinea, where we started our walk through the forest to the southern coast. By the time we had reached the Una village of Baluk the police station which had lost its flag was three weeks walk away over high jungle ridges. One could walk from Paris to Berlin in that time with much more ease.

Very few of the Una speak Indonesian and Caleb was the only person I met who enjoyed talking to me. He did not express opinions: he seemed to prefer facts. Often, when he was excited, he would remove his arm from my shoulder, pull his knees up to his chest and talk about the past in a soprano voice. At other times, he seemed in sombre mood and would drag me round the village, responding gruffly to questions like a pompous schoolmaster. He was never hesitant or doubtful.

I brought out some photographs of the Dani people of Wamena taken in the 1960s to show to Caleb. He squatted beside me, outside the village fence which adjoined his hut, so that we were looking at the plantations of taro and banana: plants the highlanders had cultivated two thousand years before the Scots started agriculture. He laid his heavy skull against mine.

‘Itu, kami tidak punya,’ Caleb said, looking at the raised spears in my photograph of a Dani war party. ‘These we do not have.’

‘I see. And these?’ I asked, pointing at the necklaces, face paint, head dresses and nose tusks.

‘Yes.’ He ran a blade of grass thoughtfully back and forth through the pierced septum of his nose.

‘Do you have them?’

‘Yes. The cowry shells are for weddings. That woman is very pretty.’ In the photograph, the young girl wore the white shells between her breasts. Her face was coated in ceremonial mud.

‘Do you have the shells now?’

‘No. Father Geet burnt them all.’

‘What do you mean, “he burnt them”?’

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