Recalibrating fashionably late in a place where nudity neutralizes class lines.
Sledding to the Poles, summiting Everest, rowing across an ocean…it’s all been done before. However, in an age when earthbound pioneer glory is virtually unattainable, I slid into a premiere—playing naked Frisbee with Stone Age natives. Someone had to do it.
Simplicity died when fashion was born. What is it about modern culture that feels the need to impose a foreign language, a way of life, and a religion on a people that live in communion deep in an impenetrable forest? The well-intended but often genocidal influence of outsiders continue as Irian Jayan highland tribes, guilty only of nudity, succumb to an alien oppression. One force driving this Aboriginal extermination is that frontiersman psychology.
Irian Jaya makes up half of New Guinea, the world’s second largest island. This Melanesian holdout is Indonesia’s least populated territory, and nothing like Bali. Torrential rivers plunge from the peaks into gorges and lush lowland rainforests before flowing out toward the coastal plains. Even today, representatives of tribes unknown to the outside world periodically emerge from the forests. In 1990, a previously unidentified group surfaced. Ambassadors of the tribe, evidently shocked by what they saw, immediately disappeared again.
Accessible only by air or after a month of hacking through a steamy jungle with a machete, the Baliem Valley was my launch point for a month-long trek into the region’s highlands, requiring a blend of valley walking, high-endurance climbing, and cliff scaling. The rugged terrain isolates intimate Dani tribe villages, which are segmented by stone fences and surrounded by sweet-potato vine gardens, canals, and steep, terraced mountainsides.
The walking routes are the natives’ prolific trade trail system. Occasionally, I pull over to let trios of bow-and-arrow toting hunters pass. Mud abounds. You haven’t officially trekked until you’ve had a boot sucked off by a foot of mud—never a concern for the barefoot Dani. In fact, the dark-skinned Afro-resembling Melanesian Aborigines still wear only penis gourds, an early model jock strap made from petrified yellow squash shells that are fitted over their genitalia and fastened skyward by thin strings tied around the waist. The old-style way to rock it.
Ruuf, my Dani guide for the first leg of my trek, led me, calm, wise, and barefoot, leaping nimbly from slippery log to log. When I lost him, I tracked his mud prints. A long, grass-mesh billum bag slung around his forehead and draped across his back contained sweet potatoes, compressed tobacco, leaves for rolling cigarettes, and a small bag of salt. His primordial briefcase also toted a palm-leaf mat doubling as a rain poncho. Upon his head, it resembled a nun’s habit.
Unsuspected downpours are common and one monsoon shower was especially enlightening. Betrayed by flooded boots and soaked by sweat inside my raingear, I caught Ruuf smiling under his temporal teepee with not even a drop of water on his petrified squash. Pausing there in the downpour, I contemplated my departure from the essential laws of human survival. Darwinian perfection gazing at a mail-order misfit; a defeated poster child of Western survival gear. I was seduced into surrendering to my innermost nomadic calling—the contents of my backpack later becoming gifts. Luxuries are often not only hindrances but also dispensable.
En route, we encountered 20 local men resting on a bluff overlooking a terraced valley and the thundering Baliem River. The shoeless posse was hauling supplies to their village 30 miles away. Suddenly, they broke into a three-part harmony a cappella, an ancestral call to unite and energize the group. Their simple spirit-lifting chant reminded me of the feeling you get when a bird or other animals hop over and sits by you in the forest—date and time momentarily wait. Sublime.
Ruuf and I shared many bowls of rice. We nibbled small fingerfulls, caveman-like, and peered about the forest. I heard birdcalls, Ruuf heard food. I showed him a photo of a girlfriend. Mixing pantomime with intonation, I attempted to inquire, “Have you ever seen the sea? He shook his head no. “What is your favorite food?” He pointed toward sweet potatoes. “What do you dream about?” He glanced down at the photo of the blonde woman and grinned wide. Archetypal humor.
People are usually more complex than what initial impressions may convey. Frequently, one of the first questions upon meeting someone is “What do you do?” for “what you do” is often misconstrued as who you are. How would Ruuf answer this question? We’ll never know. The man for all seasons and I parted with a prehistoric handshake, lasting a minute, graduating to a mutual bicepshake, adjourning with condoning nods. I headed for a nap in a village dwelling, and he ran off, in the buff and into his boondocks.
Indonesian officials have failed in getting all of the inhabitants of this wild east to support “Operation Penis Gourd,” which is designed to get them out of their traditional getup and into Western clothing. When these seniors pass on, this sartorial tradition and much of their old way of living will be history. Wave goodbye to the Stone Age and hello to naked shame.
It’s difficult to process the rugged, simple beauty of these formerly fierce headhunters and cannibals who discarded stone axes for steel in the mid-1900s. Clock time remains irrelevant here. The small, wiry women do most of the chores, such as raising the children, pigs, and sweet potatoes. They often lug up to 80 pounds of potatoes, and a baby, for miles up and down steep mountain trails. Women work the fields while the men generally walk around, chat, pose for photos, and smoke cigarettes. Intrepid prototypes indeed. The men also tend the squash-to-be-gourds, which they manipulate to grow according to the shape of the manhood sheath they fancy. I tried on a few gourds in various villages, which eventually led me to a new level of embarrassment.
Living in tidy, wood-thatched, grass-domed huts called honays, men and women sleep and pass time in separate two-story huts. I was permitted to sleep, and reflect, in honays after receiving consent from a village chief. Certain bungalows are the privilege of men who’ve established themselves as warriors. A tad rustic, if you focus on the fleas and mice, these alpha-male sanctuaries are fertile pastures for the imagination—superstitiously invested shrunken animal heads, spears, weaponry, and charms hang from the roofs.
The Dani converse in soft tones, if they speak at all. Illuminated by a well-tended fire, we sat in a circle, puffing clove cigarettes, noshing on warm sweet potatoes, enveloped in smoke. Imitating the dudes, I inhaled the clove deeply and achieved a serene cannabis euphoria. Knee-deep in nomadic caché, I accepted the silence as meditation, in a corner of the world where safety pins were once fair trade for a shrunken human head. Meanwhile, the reigning thought in my mind during the interlude was Einstein’s prophesy about not being sure about the outcome of a third world war, but asserting that the fourth world war would be fought with sticks and stones. Surely, these vanguards would endure, in spite of pressure to get online with the global economy.
I spent the next morning in church, a wooden cabin with a corrugated tin roof, packed with quasi-clad worshipers. Women and girls sat on the left side, men and boys sat on the right. A lonely dead-battery clock loomed above a makeshift wood box altar, behind it the rambling missionary preacher was the only other person wearing clothes. Seated beside me was a man wearing only a chunky beige gourd, a band of greasy chicken feathers on his head, and a clove cigarette stored in his earlobe piercing. Patiently waiting to interact with the preacher, he inserted a quarter-moon-shaped pig bone into his pierced nasal septum. Although lost on me, their discussion enraptured everyone else. The women sat quietly with net-like billum bags slung around their heads, bulging with provisions and babies. An unsympathetic gatekeeper declined to let people leave before the service concluded.
During prayer, all eyes were closed and heads lowered. Interestingly, they cover both eyes with one hand during prayers in fear of going blind. First came the peek-a-boo glances at the peculiar albino, then the restrained library chuckling. When the service ended, the women passed me to exit the church, their handshakes missing digits. I learned that the older women cut off one or several finger joints as part of a cremation ceremony when someone in their immediate family passes on. Some women I met were missing most of their fingers. Severing a corner of the earlobe is the corresponding practice for men.
Bartering also enthuses the Dani. Safety pins remain a prevailing souvenir trade item. They have become their all-in-one toolbox: surgical implement, fishhook, necklace ornament, wood etcher, earring, and so on. Velcro also makes a splash. Purchasing six-foot-long hunting arrows was one task, getting them through airport security and onto eight different connecting U.S.-bound planes was another. I still use the custom-fit gourd I smuggled home as a prop in my keynote presentation.
In Walden, Thoreau speaks of a “realometer,” a raw, instinctive gauge to rate the wow-factor of our individual convictions. Here, my realometer stayed pinned to the max. Likewise, foreign visitors can astonish these natives. My icebreaker was also my contribution: a Frisbee. They were riveted by this simple aircraft, a pie-tin cum UFO. The flying saucer captured their imagination and made them belly laugh. Initially, I was concerned that by introducing this game, I was further adding to the ruination of a traditional way of life that deserved to be preserved. My first instinct went against introducing a non-neutral item into their culture, but unanimous child happiness cemented the verdict, and it isn’t difficult to replicate a disc using preexisting items—their circular rattan “place mats,” we discovered, also flew. At this time, there was still a standing back-flip in my public entertainment arsenal, and each village ranked it up there with making things fly.
While other tradition-defying forces impose religion and outlander value, I tossed my neon-blue flying disc into the last primeval frontier, and they rejoiced wildly over it. Upon entering a small village, I’d stroll into an open area, usually the courtyard in the midst of the hut complex, and spin the Sputnik so it hovered and descended gradually into the waiting huddle. Some ran to it, some ran from it and kept on running. It was perhaps the biggest single event to hit these villages since the first invader donated matches. Now that’s Ultimate Frisbee. The Papua natives, having developed for millennia in isolation, have many unique traits including a hunting talent for throwing and launching spears. Straightaway, many of the younger Frisbee throwers advanced from having never seen one to being able to wing it 200 feet—using unconventional gripping techniques, or launching it upside-down.
I played sort of nude, too. At first my gourd was a discomfiture; some of us wage a continuing struggle against fashion. The string tied around my waist failed to hold up the hardened vegetable case that kept fumbling downward, and it itched. I didn’t like sprinting barefoot across rocky fields, and I was paranoid about injuring my exposed nutsack. I concluded that some of them intentionally tossed the Frisbee astray, so I’d have to run for it. They laughed at that too.
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Clothing optional might be optimal. The Dani, former cannibals, seem like the most gentle and hospitable people on earth. Thoreau suggested that people are rich in proportion to the number of things they can afford to let alone. Too bad we can’t let this final pristine refuge be. In a surge of serendipity, a culture that doesn’t bother to keep track of its age adopted one harmless result of the times—flying plastic.
It will be some time before Frisbees rival the importance of pigs in this quiet corner of the world. Near the end of my sojourn back in time, I entered a village and pitched the flying disc into another curious horde. This village chief had difficulty catching, throwing, and comprehending it, as did some of the other elders. His discontent with the game grew when the disobedient aircraft drifted into the pigpen, spooking the priceless swine. The chief abruptly disappeared into the men’s honay.
As the sun was setting and the Frisbee fanfare was winding down, the chief reappeared. Strutting erect, bows and arrows slung across his back, he paused in the center of the village and drew an arrow. Focusing, he aimed skyward at the hovering disc. A second later the Frisbee’s heart was punctured. Crippled, it wobbled to earth. Justice. My realometer flared. Game over—the chief retrieved the impaled UFO and retired into his hut.
The wind whistled through my gourd.
“It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes.” —Thoreau, Walden 1854