Indonesia’s Remote West Papua
A Wonderment of Innocence — Fak Fak, West Papua
No one goes to Fak Fak.
This is an untouched, almost undiscovered, town of brightly colored houses that look, at first, to be casually stacked up the steep hillsides that tower over the turquoise inlets that are deeply carved into the lush, tropical landscape.
Fak Fak is a workhorse fishing town in Indonesia’s Irian Jaya Bara province. It takes almost an hour, a full on cardio workout, to hike from the harbor to the crest of the town.
I am constantly offered a ride; it is inconceivable that someone would want to clamber up these streets for fun and exercise. The reward of doing so is a breathless vista of the Banda Sea knitting into the sky and, behind me, the Papuan hinterlands stretching across the Bomberai peninsula dissolving into a violet tinged horizon.
I am the first foreigner to step ashore here in over six months and am quickly befriended by a local couple. Mei is 19 years old and Christian; Yassar is ten years her senior and Moslem — they are a testament to this easy going and tolerant community.
Three Musketeers Unite
Mei and Yassar’s friendship is a welcome reprieve from the aloneness that often accompanies extended travel. For the next ten days we are a trio of musketeers convivially venturing into the verdant splendor of West Papua. I am introduced into a community that otherwise I would have been left on the outside of looking in.
Mei and Yassar and are not married yet live together in a room with a well used communal kitchen and bathroom that rents for $35 a month. For me this is a surprising part of Islam: generally considered a severe religion it graciously tolerates discrete indiscretions of human wants.
They invite me to their house perched on the upper reaches of Fak Fak’s hillside for a simple dinner of chicken and rice. The furnishings in their room is spare: a mattress on the floor, a plastic chair that also serves as a clothes dresser, a small television and DVD player (Zombie movies are the favored genre) and a rice cooker. We eat perched on the edge of the mattress intently engrossed in a love story between two remarkably well preserved zombies.
Neighbors from the other rooms wander in and out help themselves to chicken and rice while supplementing our meal with contributions of boiled fish dressed in spicy sauces. At times the conversation is animated and I lose the plot line of the zombie movie. But it is soon picked up again when our collective attention returns to the travails of the love-struck walking dead.
Near midnight Yassar is due to report for his nursing shift at the local hospital. He graciously offers me a ride back to my hotel down the roller-coaster street on the back of his motorbike. The air is surprisingly cool with a noticeable sharpness to it.
Transport in Fak Fak is, for the most part, limited to small motorbikes, ojeks, that struggle to climb the steep streets. They invariably do, often carrying two, sometimes three and more, passengers.
A Wonderment of Innocence
On Sunday Mei and Yassar invite me, along with their young niece, to a beach outing. The beach is only four miles away, as the parrot flies, but the deeply cut inlets render the distance much greater.
The four of us are tightly squeezed onto a motorbike; the niece stands in the bike’s steering well in front of Yassar who is driving. I am wedged in the middle and wonder, and fear, how Mei will manage to stay on the bike, especially as the road is both winding and bumpy.
White Beach is a popular locale and the entire town seems to have arrived and set up picnic blankets and charcoal grills. There are vendors selling Pop-Mie, a local brand of instant noodles, and cold sodas and juices. Church groups gather and sing hymns.
While Mei and Yassar visit their many friends I keep a watchful eye on their young niece. I am struck at how easily she loses herself in studying a piece of broken coral as cooling waves wash over her as she lays on the hot sand. The scene reminds of Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings and evinces a wonderment of innocence in me.
Revenge of the Condiment
At the harbor, near the small ferry dock, is an enclave of warungs, small informal restaurants, that open at dusk and serve an enticing array of local dishes. I soon have a favorite: Ikan Bakar which is a spicy charcoal grilled fish served with rice and a side dish of sliced cucumber topped with a sprig of mint.
The small bowl of sambal, used to further spice up the meal, is to be treated with caution — it is a fiery concoction of chillies. Everything is leisurely prepared to order; there is no rush — the pattering rhythms of conversations interspersed with the soothing lappings of ocean waves easily fill up the time.
Eating out at the warungs is a rare treat for Mei and Yassar and they are hesitant about ordering. I insist and ask for their help in selecting several fish for our meal. They warn me about the sambal and look on with grave concern as I heap on several spoonfuls. I soon regret my cavalier additions of the condiment.
The few times I am alone with Mei she expresses her ambivalence about entering into a mixed religion marriage. Yassar will not enter a Christian Church and Mei is a devout Pentecostal. She worries how this will affect their relationship when they have children.
Mei also wants to travel to Bali and find work there. I tell her of my conversations with resort staff there who work unpaid for months on end in the hope of securing a letter of recommendation. This tempers her enthusiasm for Bali and I hope I have not said too much. Half-remembered conversations are poor evidence to base decisions upon.
I regret offering my advice so freely. Innocent cultures place a large premium on the remarks of foreigners; we know a larger world that they struggle to comprehend.
Crossing the Bomberai to Kokas
Two days after our beach outing Mei and Yassar decide to take me across the Bomberai Peninsula to the isolated fishing village of Kokas.
The three of us climb aboard a solitary motorbike for the three-hour ride to Kokas. We are woefully unprepared for the rapid changes in the weather.
As we near the crests of the many ridges we brace ourselves for cold rain and heavy fog. From being thoroughly chilled we are then baked and dried as we plunge into deep valleys and repeat the scenario many times over.
The single road, occasionally paved, is carved through primeval forest untouched by industry. Creeper vines drape vertically like thick curtains hung from towering trees.
There is little traffic on the road and we embrace the exhilaration of a motorbike’s freedom and the keen scent of adventure.
Remnants of a Another Time
Kokas is hot and dry. It has it’s own micro-climate and rain rarely makes it here.
This obscure and well hidden community was commandeered by the Imperial Japanese Army in World War 2 as a headquarters and hospital fortress. The large, underground complex still commands the center of the village and offers a convenient short cut to the wharf. Unexploded ordnance still remains buried and I am told not to wander off of the pathways.
A vague internet reference rumors that there might be a guesthouse in Kokas. Unfortunately, the rumor proves false. Nor are there any eateries of any sort save for a lilliputian market offering a parsimonious selection of dubious looking onions. Pepsi and potato chips are available however and we heartily indulge. Mei snaps up the sole remaining package of chocolate chip cookies in the market and they round out our happy meal.
Mei and Yassar easily engage the friendship and hospitality of the villagers. Indonesians consider each other brothers and sisters. An Indonesian is never alone for long — even at the far other end of this long bumpy road of thousands of islands friendships are readily formed. I envy that.
A Traitorous Return
We are invited to stay for dinner, but it is now mid-afternoon and with a sun that will set at 5:30 Yassar prudently prefers to return to Fak Fak while there is still daylight. Three adults destabilize a motorbike and the upper passages of the road back will definitely be slick with rain.
Yassar’s assumption proves correct and we are met with freezing sheets of rain that sweep in mercilessly from the west. The return journey is trying and conversation is nonexistent; only grunts that protest our mutual discomforts.
We pass a bemo, a private passenger van that is the public transit system here, and Yassar signals the driver to stop. A short conversation concludes with me continuing onward in the bemo. ‘It is much safer this way,’ Yassar asserts. I agree, but protest that Mei should be the one who rides backs in comfort. Mei stridently refuses; I am their guest and they are responsible for me. I reluctantly climb into the dry warmth of the bemo and sullenly watch Mei and Yassar drive on cold, wet and shivering. I feel like a traitor.
Returning to My Solitary Odyssey
The Nggapulu, a steel, German built workhorse of the Pelni ferry fleet, leaves for Makassar at midnight. It will be a three day sailing and there are only four days left on my visa.
Mei tearfully demands to know when I will come back to Fak Fak. I do not know. If ever. But ‘if ever’ is harsh and I keep these fearful words to myself. We have grown close these past ten days. I do not welcome returning to my solitary odyssey.
These friendships — glittering jewels scattered randomly along the dusty roads of far flung wanderings — are cherished. Their memories give me sweet succor and the ambition to continue forward through those desiccated passages that mark the intervals between wonders.
Alternatively for the slow traveller it is a three-day sailing from Makassar to Fak Fak on Pelni, Indonesia’s national ferry line. Check www.Pelni.co.id for schedules and fares.
There are several hotels of varying quality in Fak Fak. The Grand Papua Hotel (www.hotelgrandpapua.com) offers the better accommodation.
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