two nights (part one)

January 28, 2011

Papua, Indonesia

There is something about being in the highlands of Papua, Indonesia that gives you the distinct impression that you have stepped off the edge of the earth. That perhaps here, the same rules do not apply as the rest of the world. That humans are very much second to the forces of nature. That you could disappear forever and no one would be the wiser.

After surviving the many flights to arrive in Wamena, the small capital city of the highlands, I headed out to the Tolikara district, where our AIDS project is based. The drive took four hours over perhaps the most treacherous road I have ever experienced (now for the second time). Our taxi careened over clumsy bridges and whipped around narrow cliff bends to maintain momentum as we ascended the mountains. We then braked our way back down steep hills, swerving whenever necessary to avoid hitting the many wandering pigs, which are sacred to the Dani people. It is impossible to drive this road as an outsider, as you need to know which bridges will collapse and which will not, and when to risk driving over rivers versus the mud-entrenched roads.

The taxi windshield was covered with tinting, save for a small arc in the middle for the driver to peer through. The dashboard was decorated with a yellow apple-shaped clock displaying the wrong time with a smiley face in the center. Mounted next to this was a plastic silver heart held by two hands, with a perfume-filled rose in the center and “LOVE” engraved across the side. I was grateful to be in the front seat—providing me double the space of anyone in the truck—save one thing. Hanging from the rearview mirror was a dead bird of paradise, tied at its neck, with two long sharp wire talons protruding out from the bottom like scalpels. With every pothole and bump (and the road was replete with them), the bird—seemingly very much alive—would swing violently in my direction, the wires coming within centimeters of my eyes. I stayed pinned against the seat, doing my best to appear calm. I looked at the driver, who was equally threatened by the bird with each pendulum swing away from me, but he seemed either oblivious or unperturbed.

As I tried to distract myself by looking out the windows, I was once again inspired and intimidated by the extreme vastness and beauty of Papua. The jagged mountains and hills stretch out in every direction, blanketed by dark green trees. Pillowy clouds settled lazily on the ridges all around and below us. I saw signs of habitation in snapshots. Women hauled heavy loads of mangoes or wood up the steep inclines using noken bags, worn over the crown of their heads and hanging against their backs. Men weaved past the road burden-free in traditional dress—meaning simply a penis sheath or “gourd”, and sometimes a hat. (After all, it gets cold in the highlands.)

We eventually arrived safely in the Tolikara town of Karabuga. I joined the rest of our staff, who had been conducting a two-day meeting with our volunteer AIDS trainers. The regional church denomination, our local partner, has its offices in a recently converted hospital. I was shown to the room in which I would be spending the night: the old operating room. It was small and wood-paneled; I briefly surveyed the floor for stains and assessed the smell. I saw a smaller adjoining room: this had been the morgue—where the bodies were kept “when surgeries not a success,” I was told. The room was essentially as long as an average male body would be. As night fell, I was informed that I needed to keep candles burning to deter the rats and mice. I was also told that the previous night the trainees had heard bat noises, which is a local omen meaning that place will be attacked. They had called others for assistance and had stayed awake to wait. Since no attack had occurred, they were still in anticipation. With these pleasant warnings, I lay down and attempted to sleep. But despite my best attempts to picture a happy place (one devoid of rats, botched surgeries, and dead birds), I spent the majority of the night awake, staring at the ceiling, trying to decipher the sounds of bats.

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