The thatched-roof homes of Wesagalep lay at cloud level, high above the Baliem Valley in Papua, the Indonesian side of the island of New Guinea. They are built on about six terraced levels of the mountain, with startling views of the valley and down to the rushing river below.
The views, and the opportunity to spend a night with the Dani people who live there, are reason enough to endure the rugged four-hour hike from the village of Tangma, the closest you can get by vehicle.
But by chance, my temporary travel companion, a 27-year-old Indonesian-speaking Romanian named Cristian, had arrived with me at the village the day before a pig-slaughtering ceremony. The reason was sad — the death of a 30-year-old village member — but we had been told that no matter what, if we found ourselves invited to a Dani ceremony, we should accept.
We had slept fitfully the night before on the wood floor of the village office, for which we paid 100,000 rupiah each ($7.57, at 13,207 rupiah to the dollar), and spent the morning horsing around with the boys of the village, who were shockingly accurate in hurling blades of thick grass and hitting us directly in the chest, which they found quite hilarious.
I wondered if the children’s accuracy was a result of the Dani people’s well-documented war traditions, but before we could ask, the mood turned serious. Men and boys started to gather outside one of the homes, known as honai, and women around another, maybe 40 yards away and one terrace down. We were awaiting the ceremony.
Men in single file lugged twisted logs of firewood, intended for a pig roast. Other men sat, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, dressed mostly in T-shirts and knee-length shorts. Some boys sat talking with Cristian — the Dani learn Indonesian in school — as a few others idly played with my leg hair, often a hit in less hirsute parts of the world.
The Dani, sometimes insultingly portrayed as “stone-age” people, are in some ways stuck between the ancient and modern worlds. The valley settlements, wedged as they are between massive mountains, were not even noticed by colonial authorities until the American zoologist Richard Archbold flew over them in 1938. The intervening decades brought missionaries and Christianity, colonial efforts to restrict their inter-village wars and, more recently, Indonesian human rights abuses and a Papuan separatist movement.
But for travelers willing to hike several grueling hours and sleep on a hard floor, visiting the Dani can be a welcoming experience. If you have an Indonesian speaker with you as I did (or, for travelers with slightly higher budgets, a Dani-speaking guide who can be booked in advance through tour operators or at hotels in Wamena, where visitors to the valley fly in), the Dani are very accustomed to visitors and willing to speak openly and at length about their lives, down to some fascinating details. For example, men and women sleep in different huts even after marriage (yet share those huts with pigs), and until recently, women had the tip of a finger amputated every time a relative died.
We had been urged to seek out the ceremonies by Markus Lageder, a German-Italian who, along with his Indonesian wife, Theodora, hosts visitors in a spare room in Wamena, a rather wretched, low-slung town of 30,000. The mattresses go for 150,000 rupiah a night.
Cristian had found Markus online (he lists the room on Airbnb but does most business by email, at email@example.com). And I found Cristian in the airport at Jayapura, Papua’s provincial capital, en route to Wamena and glommed on, happy to cancel a last-minute hotel reservation I had made for four times as much.
The couple obviously love having visitors and were preposterously generous. While Theodora was at work (for the World Wildlife Fund), Markus essentially dedicated his day to helping us organize for our trek. He lent me camping equipment and took us to the supermarket, helping us choose food for ourselves (instant noodles, Beng Beng chocolate bars) and the required gifts for villagers (coffee, tea, cigarettes and peanuts for the children).
He also took us to see the strange fruits, dog meat and penis sheaths for sale at the Jibama Market, the town’s traditional marketplace. (The local men we met were not wearing traditional penis gourds, called koteka in Indonesian; we found that only old men wore them, though everyone proudly reverts to traditional dress during the Baliem Valley Festival, held each August for large tourist crowds.) A locally written tourism guide Markus had at home made it clear in mangled English that the market was basically a required stop: “If you do not visit, I would like to say that you are lose out man.”
As if the couple were trying to set a record for cost-benefit ratio in a homestay, Theodora cooked us a magnificent dinner of sliced beef, whole fish, mustard greens and bean sprouts.
The next morning, we caught a surprisingly shiny Mitsubishi Triton to Tangma. The fare was 80,000 rupiah for most passengers, though those who sit in front rather than the dusty bed of the truck pay 100,000. When no one came to take those spaces, we were the obvious choices to upgrade, and obliged. We ended up giving the seats to two perplexed older women, who probably couldn’t imagine why anyone in his right mind would prefer the crowded back; we, of course, couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.
From Tangma, the map showed us descending to the river, crossing and heading up to Wesagalep. The hike down started out quite pleasantly — mostly a decline on wide paths, past a mix of thatched and tin-roofed houses and neatly tended sweet potato patches. Occasionally we would have to scale a rock wall using what I found to be cleverly simple wood ladders, scored logs laid diagonally — perfect for keeping pigs in but letting humans out.
We soon came to Wamerek, the first truly traditional-looking village, where a man instantly invited us in for a ceremony. But something didn’t add up — his invitation had been too quick and polished — and Wamerek, we knew, was the most accessible traditional village. It seemed like a made-for-visitors show, one we suspected would cost us more than necessary.
We moved on, and, as we approached the river, the path became narrower and steeper. I would call it treacherous and slippery, but that would be embarrassing, since we passed so many Dani who bounded along in bare feet as we struggled. A hanging suspension bridge made of metal cables and wood slats awaited us at the bottom, and we crossed tentatively as the bridge swayed. I struck my most confident pose for Cristian to take a picture, but admit that though my face said, “piece of cake,” my body language said, “Get me off this thing.” We arrived in Wesagalep in plenty of time to watch clouds descend, erasing the village’s magnificent view, leaving us feeling perfectly isolated from the world.
At the gathering the next morning, without ado, a small group of men and one woman stood in a circle before us and began to sob. Villagers began to bring pigs over and, each time, a member of the group would run back and forth with a spear, repeating a word that I did not understand. It would have been a good time for a guide; we had little idea what was going on.
Soon visitors appeared, wending their way down a steep hill, bearing more pigs. One was dead, slung over a man’s shoulder; another was hogtied and hanging from stick. And there were several squealing suckling pigs; when they arrived they were handed over to village children who seemed to delight in soothing the pigs while also clamping their mouths closed.
Attention shifted to an enclosure on an adjacent terrace below. The biggest hog of all had been let loose (it was not clear if on purpose), and a grizzled older man, maybe in his 50s, stalked him with a massive, traditional bow and arrow as everyone watched. He shot him in the midsection, almost point blank and the pig died in seconds: It was a poison barb. Then it was the suckling pigs’ turns. Two men held them aloft and a third took aim. One pig writhed out of the holder’s hands after being shot and peeled off toward a cliff, as if it were a suicide run. That led to a scramble, but eventually it was captured.
As the men began to burn the hair off the pigs — a necessary step before skinning and butchering — we decided to go. Cristian’s vegetarianism played a role in the decision, as did my need to catch a plane. So we said goodbye and thanked everyone and headed up the steep hill the pigs had been brought down — the path that wound up and down mountains and across rivers to Wuserem, our next destination, supposedly about three and a half hours away.
When we reached the village above, already panting, we stopped for a makeshift lunch of peanuts, figs and biscuits, and were joined by a group of villagers who had come up from the ceremony practically right behind us. Local custom made it unthinkable not to share our food, so we did, except for our valuable box of Beng Beng bars, which I ruthlessly hid in my bag.
The group was heading in the same direction as we were — straight up. Cristian asked where they were going. It turned out one was headed to the highest point in the region to try to get a cellphone signal. The others carried bows and arrows; I wondered if they were going hunting.
The next stretch was brutally difficult, resembling not so much a path as a stone-and-root staircase heading straight up through the woods. Our companions’ breakneck pace didn’t help, but we needed to keep up: They had promised us a clean stream above to refill our water supply.
There was no cell signal at the top, alas (I had been looking forward to it as well), but we did get a lesson in different kinds of wooden arrows: barbed for killing wild pigs; four-pronged for birds; a simpler arrow for cuscus, a rather cute rodent; and another kind he did not explain. I wondered if it was for humans — the Dani until not too long ago would frequently go to war between villages. That is more rare now, though they still stage mock wars in the August festival.
We didn’t make it to Wuserem, but instead stayed that night in a village called Togoluk, and split up the next day. Cristian’s flight was one day later than mine, and he would go exploring. I hiked on a path high across the valley before descending past more villages to another shaky bridge and entering Kurima, where there was transport back to Wamena. I was surprised to find a military base there — a good reminder that what I had just seen was not an idyllic, isolated region, but a place with a complicated past and, probably, a complicated future.