IRIAN JAYA — Indonesia. Suburbia — the word reeks of conformity. But for many, suburbia represents security, predictability and, most importantly, the comfort found in its dictum of 2.2 children, white picket fences, family dogs, and poolside barbeques.
While that may be fine for many, to me suburbia means something entirely different. It is the white bread of life, a bland, empty and depressing existence. It is anathema to everything I stand for and represents a slow, torturous death to be avoided at all costs. I have felt this way since I first threw a backpack over my shoulder and set off for Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific over 20 years ago and this inherent wanderlust is the primary reason I landed in Asia in 1991.
I came in search of adventure and something more than the predictable future that awaited me in Canada. And, oh, what a ride the past two decades have been. The people, the places, the experiences, the opportunities, the empathy and the knowledge I have gained has been invaluable. Everyone who has migrated out here has their own insights into how living in Asia has changed them. In fact if it’s true that each and every one of us has at least one book in them, then we could all spin a volume or two on our unique experiences out here.
But even exotic Asia can become a white picket fence as we age and settle into family life. The days of travelling for adventure are long gone and now we travel to relax. It's a natural progression in the cycle of life as we wall ourselves off inside a five-star, kid-friendly resort on a pre-packaged vacation. Nothing is left to chance.
Recently it dawned on me that the suburbia I had so passionately escaped twenty years ago was now starting to surround me. I couldn’t help thinking if the challenges of a physically arduous and slightly primitive expedition had truly passed me by. What did I have left? I needed to find a destination that would challenge me both physically and spiritually and it was then that I decided to go where few others have gone and that was deep into the dark-blooded arteries of Irian Jaya, Indonesia.
An incredibly lush and remote locale, Irian Jaya features some of the wildest jungles and most impenetrable terrain in all of Indonesia and no suburbia-defeating journey would be complete without a nearly 12-hour flight. Ours departs from Bali at 2am before touching down in Timika. From there it is on to Jaypura where our plane perilously corkscrews between mountains before landing in the small village of Wamena, the island’s trekking centre.
Joining me on this life-affirming journey are Max, a Venezuelan architect, and Bud, a New York psychoanalyst. The 14 porters who accompany us under the direction of our main guide Jonas help to reinforce the scope of the trek. After beginning with a leisurely day tromping through gently rolling hills in dry and sunny weather, we are rudely confronted by the first of what would be an endless series of mountains well over 3,000 meters in height. But it's early days and our passion is high, so we charge up and down these steep climbs with the zeal of explorers not yet aware of what lies ahead.
Snaking deeper into the jungle-strewn mountains, a steady, cold rain beats down on us and we respond by zipping on our North Face jackets. After a short lunch break it’s back to the ascent when suddenly a harbinger of what was to come stumbles through the mist. Bewildered and haggard, a solitary figure struggling under the weight of a large pack lurches towards us.
“Hello, have you come on your own?” I ask him.
“Of course!” he responds curtly, as if insulted. He proceeds to interrogate us in what appears to be a French accent before asking: “Where exactly are you going and how many days further in?”
We tell him we have only just begun and are heading to a Yali village, an eight-day walk.
“Eight more days!” he replies in an astounded tone. “I’ve been two days past here and it is pure hell. Rain - freezing cold, endless mud, and always climbing.”
Avoiding his maniacal stare, I glance down and notice he is wearing open toed hiking sandals and that his feet are blistered and raw. His clothes are ragged and filthy and he is utterly soaked with an unkempt mop of tangled and matted hair. For the first time, a kernel of doubt enters my mind and while it remains unsaid I am certain that both Max and Bud are also wondering: what in the name of Christ have we gotten ourselves into?
Eventually we bid the Frenchman adieu and trudge onwards into the cloud-soaked mountains as the noose of civilization loosens with every step. Marching deeper into the moss-coated bowels of the island, the rain is incessant now pounding us at every angle. Endless piles of mud cake the trail in a perilous way and suck us downwards like quicksand. Slowly, reality sets in and the fight is starting to drain energy from our bodies.
As if to remind us of our descent backwards into time, our state-of-the-art digital cameras cease to function now as their inner lenses are choked with condensation. A simple, waterproof camera is all we have left and will have to suffice for documenting the remaining days and while the conditions are miserable, they are about to get worse as we gain serious altitude. A bitter cold and driving wind begins to bite and no matter how many layers of clothing we add, we still cannot keep warm. We are soaked to the bone by the end of our daily eight-hour ordeal. But this time there will be no five-star embrace, no hot bath and no room service; only a smoky fire and a couple of tents.
Naiveté is our enemy. Unaware of such extreme conditions, our sleeping bags are woefully insufficient and any attempt to sleep, even wearing all remaining dry clothes, is a massive ordeal. We lie in the tents shivering and miserable, waiting for the morning like prisoners anxiously eyeing parole. Under such conditions it is easy to understand why primitive man worshipped the sun.
As we leave the village and make our way into a mountain pass, another unbearable wall of wind and rain howls fiercely toward us. Unable to navigate through the treacherous conditions of a steep downwards slope, we are forced to stop midday. The porters string a tarp between the trees and despite their outdoor acumen struggle for nearly an hour to light a fire. Like us, they shiver uncontrollably. In a quiet moment it finally dawns on us just how isolated and vulnerable we are. Hypothermia is a very real threat and if things go badly, there is no easy way out of here. So we huddle in desperation closer to the fire in spite of the billowing smoke that tears up and swells our eyes. Jonah would later inform us that porters had indeed perished in the mountains due to cold.
We were drained and forlorn and had completely reached a physical point of departure. The only obstacle now was mental. But we were just five days into the journey and knew full well that the most difficult part of the trek was ahead of us so our mantra was changing rapidly. One day at a time soon gave way to one hill at a time and then, finally, one step at a time.
The further we go inland, the more remote the villages become and we encounter shriveled women and men who are naked save for traditional penis gourds. Their days are spent struggling to grow yams on the thin-soiled slopes of the mountains. Their nights are huddled around fires in small huts trying not to freeze to death.
As we approach the furthest point in our journey, we enter what I can only describe as a dream-like rain forest. Descending into this impenetrable tangle of moss-covered trees and hard charging rapids, it seems like we are magically transported back in time. Soon we are crossing over raging torrents using bridges made from nothing more than fallen logs that are slippery with lichen. If we are fortunate, a trellis of vines helps us maintain our balance. If not then we rely on our sure-footed, powerful porters who stand ready to pull us to safety with vise-like grips forged from years of battle with this unforgiving environment. The physical toll is understandably starting to mount and the steep descent is making the joints throb. Bud begins to struggle, the incessant pounding aggravating an old knee-surgery, so we decide to break into two groups with half the porters pressing on with Max and I so we can reach the next stop and set up camp before dark.
Battling through the jungle, we stumble into the nethermost region of the trip - a small village inhabited by the Yali tribe. The scene is apocalyptic. Smoke spews from the roof of a single small hut that is perched in the middle of an endless field of mud surrounded by swamp. The place reeks of disease and desperation. A group of children eye us warily and unsmilingly; their distended bellies misshaped by malnutrition. I peer into the lone shelter and half expect to see the visage of Colonel Kurtz. But alas it is only a family crouched around a fire in a smoke-filled room. None of them even remotely acknowledge us. The whole experience is both enlightening and disorienting.
We pitch camp and set our tents up in the middle of the muddy hilltop as the rain continues to fall in sheets. Moving inside, we wait in a miserable state for the rest of the team to arrive and as darkness creeps into our encampment, our concern for Bud and the porters grows. Conditions are bad enough in the camp. The thought of them having to spend the night in the jungle is horrifying. But finally, and with great relief, they appear. Bud’s knee, however, has worsened and the men have taken turns carrying him the last two hours through some of the jungle’s harshest terrain. To call these men warriors would be a complete understatement.
We have managed to survive virtually everything thrown at us so far. But now we are facing our most lethal crisis with Bud’s condition. After a conference with our guide, it is determined that the nearest airstrip is at least 3 hours walk from our present location. The plan is that perhaps a good night’s rest will help Bud’s knee recuperate enough to continue. If not, we will have to carry him to the landing strip. And so we eat a somber meal inside the tents before retiring.
A brilliantly sunny morning brings a renewed sense of optimism as we set out once more. Bud is game for the trek after swallowing a handful of anti-inflammatory pills. But after another torturous morning’s walk, his knee swells up again and he barely limps into a village adjacent to the grassy strip that serves as an emergency airfield. This will be the end of his journey.
After a long discussion, Max and I decide we will complete the trek and that our lead guide will remain to assist with radioing in an evacuation flight using the shortwave at a nearby missionary post. We divide our supplies and say our good byes with a promise to rendezvous either in Wamena or Bali. While we are well behind schedule and prepare to move out quickly, both Max and I can't help thinking that we could not have left our friend in a more remote place. Our fears were well founded as it turns out because Bud and the guide would remain in this village for 3 days waiting for the rescue flights that circles a number of times each day but could not land due to heavy cloud cover.
Bud is still on our mind as we traverse what’s left of our ill-fated journey. The remaining days of the trek are no less arduous and if anything the conditions become more difficult. We follow the mountains and rivers that crash into deep and unbearably humid valleys where the sun god punishes us with his scorching rays. But progress, although gradual, is made. And as the weight of backpacks on the guides become lighter, so to do their moods. They launch into impromptu tribal songs as we leave the sharp mountains and return to the rolling hillsides. The cold and punishing rains seems like a distant memory now, the worst clearly behind us and with the end in sight we can see Wamena in the distance. There is a bounce in everyone’s step now. In fact, we are strutting with the pride of accomplishment, a taste of victory on our tongue.
It’s a time worn cliché that what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. But after the journey we had I can see why the phrase is part of our lexicon. Yes, I am feeling emboldened and alive by surviving this ordeal. Still, there is more than that. For the first time in a long time, I can see suburbia in the rear view mirror. The adventures of life are intoxicating once more. The journey continues.