Silk Road Expedition

China, 2012

My love affair with the Silk Road began long before I ever stepped foot upon it; the romanticism of West China took hold when I looked at a missionary text as a boy that described the joys of martyrdom as the Maryknolls had their heads cut off by godless Turkistan warlords.

I was not convinced. But the call of the thousand-year-old Buddhist caves secreted on oases in one of the world’s driest deserts attracted me back to China in 2000 after not having been there since the “Fall of the Gang of Four” in 1978. There I met Miss Wenhua Liu who was to become one of the greatest friends of my life and someone I shared many a great adventure with (see China 2010 in this travel photo series of another trip together). 

This time we decided to go back to see some of the highlights of from 12 years before and move East to some places we had never visited together.

We started off with exploring her home city of Urmqi, the capital of the province of Xinjiang. It gets austere very quickly once one leaves town as we made our way to the Tang dynasty ruins in the area of Turfan (Turpan) including the ancient Uygur capital of Gaochang  (856-1389 AD) and a marvelous mud architecture mosque from the Ming period. From there we made our way by night train to Dunhuang to visit the Mogao Caves with some 1000 years of Buddhist frescos beginning in 366 of the present era

I found the progression of painting styles most enlightening and was happy for the return visit. Especially not to be missed is the nearby museum that houses unexpectedly one of the greatest collections of large and important early Buddhist bronzes that came out of Tibet and were miraculously saved from being melted down to make farm tools.

We took off from there overland to visit the Yulin Grottoes named for the elm trees that line the river cliffs where the caves are found.  Dating from the Tang to the Ming, there are some unique paintings, different from the Mogao Caves and worth visiting, being some 100 kms from Dunhuang. The Jiayuguan Pass further down the long desert road has the most intact part of the Great Wall and an amazingly well preserved fort at the narrowest point of the western section of the Hexi Corridor of the Northern Silk Road. The Wei-Jin tombs were well worth a look in the same general area.

For me however the greatest discovery were the Binglinsi Grottoes some hours by car and boat to get to, but how fantastic! How exhilarating! And how maddening that, like everywhere else on this trip, I was not allowed to take photos of the truly important Wei and Sui Buddhist sculptures of the 6th-7th Centuries to share with you readers; but I can say that they were well worth the money paid for a special ticket to get into the special thousand Buddha caves…including climbing to the top of the Bamiyan-type giant sculpture of Maitreya, (the Buddha to come), carved into the cliff side 100 feet (27 meters) tall! Not for those with a fear of heights! Being the capital of Gansu, home of some of China’s most ancient cultures, Lanzhou has a fabulous museum that is highly recommended, with great dioramas of early man and the best Neolithic pottery exhibitions I have ever seen.

Sulawesi Expedition

Indonesia, 2012

Indonesia is the country that has compelled me more than any other; I became who I am today thanks to a happy chance of encountering my first ikat textiles from Borneo and Sumba hanging on a friend’s wall in Marin County on the last day of 1976.

I was told to go there and find out about them, perhaps the best advice I ever received, and go I did and have been exploring ever since.

Sulawesi has always held a special place in my heart above almost all other places, near and far, and it was a return to the valleys of the megaliths that brought my friends Joanne Leach and Imron Chan with me. The first of my 60th birthday year megalith expeditions is described earlier, if you scroll down a bit to the images titled Central Sulawesi 2011. There you will find an introduction to this remote destination. 

This time, we made our way from Makassar, home of the famed wood sailboats that ply the seas up to the Toraja highlands and across to Mamasa, a relatively isolated sub culture of the Toraja. From there we foolishly took a short cut across a dirt track, called the forbidden road for a reason. With a cliff road collapsing behind and a flash flood blocking the way before us, we had to make peace with the fact we were not going anywhere until that monsoon rainstorm had passed…it was a blessing when we finally made our way to the coast, where we followed Jalan Trans Sulawesi from Mamuju to Palu. From there the challenge got even tougher as described by this report I prepared at the time:

This was the peak of our North Sulawesi megalith expedition…literally and figuratively. The hardest point in the whole trip, the greatest suffering, the greatest reward! 

 

After clambering for hours across a changing landscape that at times had to be opened with a machete wielded by our local guide (who looked much like a Cheyenne Indian), we first achieved ancient stone cisterns mid-way up the jungle trail…they were probably ancient burial jars or water containers, our trail sometimes doubling as a river beneath our feet (forget my new shoes!), other times sinking into quicksand, pulling on vines to get up the slippery rain soaked path, humid, hot, swatting malarial mosquitoes and deep in the dark rain forest, we saw the god-king come up on the horizon in a clearing…just a few more steps, then sliding back, and a few more, we finally made it to the crest…I include myself in the shot to give a sense of scale. Note the site-specific Besoa Valley stylized almond eyes. 

“Wrap it up, I’ll take it!” I said, catching my breath! 

But better it stays where it is and has been for a thousand years…This place is so remote that even Google maps has a hard time finding it! 

It was the most fun I have had in a long time…but at times it seemed like total misery! 

However, in the moment this shot was taken, I managed to forget about all the aches, pains and bruises; it was easy to smile for the camera having gone that far! But my dread kicked in shortly after when I realized I was going to have to go down again, and that is another story…

We ended up seeing about 15 of these figures in the Besoa and Napu Valleys which completed as much as possible the mission started with my expedition to the Bada Valley last November memorialized on my birthday party invitation card of last year. And so this adventure comes to a close and another opens…

Next stop, The Silk Road! I will be there in 3 days! 

Tana Toraja, Indonesia

Sulawesi (the Celebes), 2011

The Toraja reside in the isolated mountainous interior of Sulawesi, formerly called the Celebes, plural for the many “petals” of this orchid shaped island.

Their name means “highlander” in the language of their coastal neighbors, the Buginese, and this has been my favorite place in Indonesia since I first visited it in 1980. This land is beautiful and the people fascinating but please let the photos tell the tale. In the meantime I have prepared this little introduction to help contextualize what it is you will see.

Much has been written about the Sa’dan Toraja People since their “discovery” by Western Colonial administrators, missionaries and ethnologists in the beginning of the 20th Century and for that reason I will offer only a brief introduction. Theirs is an ancient way of life that follows Aluk to Dolo “the way to the ancestors.” Rituals dating from Neolithic times and re-enforced by myth, assured fertility, status and distribution of wealth. Their houses are noted for a saddle-shaped roof, thought to recall the boats that first brought them to this island from mainland SE Asia thousands of years ago.

Headhunting was formerly a prominent feature of traditional Toraja society, but this is seldom encountered today.  However their other primary social marker, i.e. funerals of great chiefs, remains unabated.

Here we may see a sacred building housing the coffins of the deceased royalty raised on high, as well as a giant temporary village for all the guests who come from great distances. I was always welcomed as a distant cousin of the deceased, who in coming from America was showing proper respect; as such I would be given a place to sit, a cup of strong Toraja coffee with a bowl of rice and barbecue. I in turn would offer a carton of cigarettes for the relatives and bags of candies for the small children as my way of saying thank you!

Conspicuous displays of textiles, golden dagger krises and fine beadwork abound, although a sharp eye will recognize these are nearly all recent reproductions. Owing to the tremendous financial pressure to host such funerary occasions, it may be said that most noble families were obliged to sell their authentic treasured heirlooms at least two decades ago, just to pay their share in the competition to “donate” the most buffalo to a funeral ceremony of a high-ranking relative. This may be understood to be very akin to the potlach system of wealth re-distribution by the Indians of the Pacific Northwest Coast, with its regrettable implications for a downward economic spiral. But to contextualize within their culture, by this self-imposed impoverishment, they honor the dead and avoid having an angry ghosts be visited upon them, plus a major gain of status within the community, not to mention increasing the possibility they might inherit a portion of the late king’s land and thereby renew their wealth.

The integration into the deep Toraja rituals of recently woven cloths and beadwork, some even originally intended for the tourist market as seen in photos of a sarita banner hanging from a long bamboo pole in the accompanying slide show makes one question the whole idea of what is fake and what is real when it comes to tribal art because for centuries women have been weaving new clothes for ceremonies, or to replace damaged pieces and to have something to barter.

 

We speak of a dynamic culture not a static one. And in a hundred years, won’t anthropologists take great interest in cloths we see now as recent but by then will be antique and the ceremonies that we are now fortunate to see and to share will by then be the stuff of legend?
 
The slow rhythmic dancing in circles of different clans to pay homage to the dead would always be followed by the raising of stone megaliths and great animal sacrifices, especially the slaying of sacred water buffalos, (the most precious being white albinos worth twenty times a normal buffalo).  This is the Toraja animal totem par excellence and you will see stylized images of buffalo heads on tomb and granary doors and even churches where although parishioners sing very loud in the choir it can be said there is but a thin veneer of Christianity, the “new” religion, that overlays Aluk to Dolo.

Shown in these photos is just such a funeral ceremony, followed by images of the traditional burial grounds in cliffs and caves. The presence of effigies of the dead called tau-tau, little people, may be seen in cliffs, as well as a mix of ancient and modern wood tombs.

There is also the image of the wife of my friend Camma, the Queen of Batutumonga with her young child, lest we think only about death and funerals. Just before her picture, are shots I took of photos from an old family album showing amongst other images, the last great king, and her relative, sitting in state, while the family prepares for his funeral that could be years away.

Please note as well the great tongkonan ancestral houses, many covered with the horns and jaw bones of past buffalo and pig sacrifices; in their architecture, these structures represent an ancient Austronesian diagram of the cosmos: the world of animals below, the world of humans on the mid level and the realm of the ancestors in the highest reaches of the building which is where heirlooms are kept. In one slide you will see there is a photo of me with my friend Laso, the king of Kete Kesu. I need not point out the size difference!

It was fun to introduce my traveling companion Imron who had never been to Tana Toraja, the Land of the Toraja, and in this way view for myself all of the wonders fresh and anew. So too, I would like to share some of the images I took along the way with you, respected reader!

I close the slide show with a contrast between two of the buildings we encountered on our way to the Makassar airport six hours away from Toraja Land, down the winding mountains and along the scenic coast lined with Muslim fisherman villages. The first shows a house composed of interlaced leaves, plaiting being the earliest form of architecture as practiced by the ancient Austronesian migrants (possibly 2-3000 BC), not only to make walls for their buildings but also to make the sails of their boats. We contrast this with the compelling if not somewhat intimidating architecture of a newly built mosque, reflecting the relatively recent import of Islam to which the Bugis and Makassarese took refuge in the beginning of the 17th Century.

Central Java

2010

I have over the last thirty plus years learned to speak passable Bahasa Pasar “market Indonesian” and it has served me well most of the time. But the trip to visit the Asmat in West Papua made me very much aware of the limits of my language skills.

Conversing with people who were known to be cannibals until very recently and who still have a rather ”hungry” look about them (see 2009 Spice Islands Journey for images) makes you want to get every nuance right in your communication. I longed for the subtlety of language in making contact with the Asmat, really wanting to understand the symbolism in their woodcarvings and costumes meant, in their own words. So when six months later the opportunity presented itself for me to take up an intensive Bahasa Indonesia course of study for ten days in Yogyakarta, Central Java, I jumped at the chance. My good friend Sandra Sardjono had received a grant to study classical Javanese and already having been there awhile knew about schools in the area. She introduced me to Alam Bahasa, a school used by diplomats, business people and travelers intending to stay for a longer duration to develop their language abilities. I took a class in the morning and one or two in the afternoon depending on the day. I can highly recommend this school and you should speak with my new friend Swanny, the marketing manager and tell her I sent you! 

Alam Bahasa

Following classes, the rest of the day I would go out to catch the sights and sounds of old Jogja, including the kraton (court), The Sonobudoyo Museum, the markets, the Water Palace, Jalan Mailioboro, the Museum Affandi, the Cemeti Art House, home of Joga’s most avant-garde contemporary art scene and had fun trying food stalls and restaurants serving local flavors. On weekends, Sandra had arranged a jeep and driver to take us out on expeditions and for this I am most grateful. We managed to make it to all the important archeological sites of the region, some of which I knew from visits to Central Java in the old days, while others were new to me. I had not been there for 15 years and it was great to see the ruins with a more mature art-historical perspective, not to mention having a native Indonesian who is getting her PhD on the subject as one’s traveling companion to help explain things to me. It could not have been better! 

The images you will see in this sequence begin with 9th Century Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist monument. Its architecture is in the form of a mandala, with the vertical stepped rise equating with moving into progressively higher spiritual realms. The best time to get there is very early just after dawn as the light is better for photography and there are fewer crowds. It is of interest to note how much the students on holiday, all in Muslim garb, seem to enjoy the monument and take pride in their Buddhist heritage, while the thousand year old Buddhas look on with Mona Lisa smiles of bemusement. On the monument one  is quick to notice the repeated bell-shaped architectural elements called stupas, which are a primary motif of Borobudur.  This shape has long been the symbol for the non-representational form of the deity recalling the place where the Buddha’s ashes were placed following his cremation; at Borobudur original sculptures of the Buddha may often be found inside the stupas, which is special to experience.

The bas-relief carvings on the sides of the monument describe the nature of the Buddhist cosmos and tell tales of the delights of heaven and the pains of hell. Included among the many narratives are large sailing ships that offer insights into both early boat architecture and the implied scale of maritime trade. (These are of course of particularly great interest to those of us who are so fascinated by ship cloth textiles from Lampung, south Sumatra) Seen as well are stories from the Jataka Tales which tell of Buddha’s earlier incarnations, and heroic tales like Sudhana’s search for the Ultimate Truth.  I did feel more enlightened after circumambulating the holy place, so long lost under the ash of a volcanic eruption from nearby Mt Merapi, still a threat today!

 

Nearby and part of the greater Borobudur complex is perhaps my favorite site, Candi Medut. This is a small jewel of a Buddhist monastery that was built before Borobudur and features three giant (3 meter) seated stone images: that of the Buddha Vairocana, still of exceptional beauty with the equally masterful depictions of Avalokitesvara, and Vajrapani to his sides, each meant to liberate devotees from their body, speech and thought karma respectively. Other Bodhisattvas and their tales may be found in the bas-reliefs surrounding the inner and outer walls of the temple. There is an ancient tree on the grounds that local children play on. 

Prambanan, the 9th century Hindu temple complex, was likely created as a political/spiritual answer to Borobudur and Sewu (another important early Buddhist monument on the grounds of Prambanan). Its construction represents a change of patronage for certain and probably a change of dynastic rule from the Buddhist Sailendra family to the Hindu Sanjayas. The deeply spiritual site features temples in honor of Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu, the Hindu Trinity, the Trimurti. There are smaller candis in honor of the mounts for these great Gods, the bull, Nandi, the goose, Hamsa, and the eagle, Garuda.

Prambanan is also known by the mythical name Loro Jonggrang, with the tale of how it became so named being a good one, worth repeating here. In brief, two rival kingdoms are situated next to each other, one ruled by a worthy king and the other by a demon prince. The demon invades and slays the good king in a great battle. While there, he spies the dead king’s daughter, so beautiful in her grief and mourning. He decides he will wed her and she finally relents but only if he can meet two conditions: the first, that he build a well and second, that he build 1000 temples in a night. After he succeeds on the first using his super powers, Loro Jonggrang tricks him into going into the water and she tries to kill him by having an avalanche of stones fall upon him which he narrowly escapes. But so love smitten is the demon that he continues to follow through on the second task. Again, using his supernatural strength he is able to make 999 of them before the sun rises. However, in order to avoid marrying him, she tricks him yet again into believing he had completed all 1000 with first light. When he realizes she had succeeded keeping him from fulfilling his pre-marital duty to her,  to get the job done, he became very angry and turned her into the last temple.  And thus did Loro Jonggrang the princess become Prambanan Loro Jonggrang. Other temples on the site include Candis Lumbung, Bubrah, Sewu, Morangan, Plosan, and others beyond.

As we walked around the Prambanan grounds, we had the extraordinary experience of witnessing the most important gathering of song bird lovers from all over Indonesia. They came at the invitation of the local sultan for a competition of whose bird could make the most beautiful song. A thousand birds were in exotic bird cages tweeting away in the old and best sense of the word “to tweet.” All this taking place on the grounds of this holy site…very cool… 

Our last adventure took us to Candi Gedong Songo (literally, House Nine, referring to the number of temple sites spread over the site) probably the most remote temple site of Central Java. It is so high up into the mountains, and came with such a steep incline, we had to use horses to climb. But this was a most memorable day because not only did we view a progression of temples on this ancient royal site beautifully situated on a very nice day weather-wise, on the way down we were able to drive between the mountains to get to Solo, the “splinter kingdom” of the ancient Mataram dynasty to meet with our good friend Rudolf Smend, the great batik expert from Germany for a walk through the Museum Batik Danar, almost certainly the world’s greatest collection. It includes a great restaurant right there on the spot, because studying the batik carefully, one can get very hungry!

Following that, they took me directly to the airport and set me off to Bali for a lovely three day stop before moving on to see Robyn Maxwell’s magnum opus, Life, Death and Magic at the National Gallery of Australia, the finest Bronze Age and Tribal Art themed combination show that any of us will ever see!

Portraits of Ethiopia

2011

One of the implications of arriving at the age of 60 is that one senses there is no time left to waste and if there is somewhere one has always wanted to go, better to hit the road now… time is awastin’! For me, Ethiopia was just such a place!

In the early 1970’s after my mother passed away, our family house in Tiburon near San Francisco  became something of a commune with many of us six kids coming and going and at various points taking refuge under the roof, plus we rented out rooms to students, the most memorable being Sarah Bekele from Ethiopia. She became a real member of our family as hers became part of ours. She was of  Amharic ethnicity and from her we learned not only to enjoy their delicious national dishes but to cook them as well! And I have been advised ever since that I am one of the few white guys who can cook doro wat chicken stew just like a native.

We were all students at college together and there were several things I noticed about Ethiopians  as a group. The women were exceptionally beautiful, the men strikingly handsome, and all were highly intelligent! They spoke of their homeland with homesickness and sadness, for its natural wonders and rich history but also with the grief that came from the disastrous losses their families had to deal with following political upheavals upon the collapse of the long reign of the emperor Haile Selassie.  This brought on a very bad patch of frightening totalitarian rule by Mengistu Haile Mariam and they could not go home.

The urgency of my visit felt less pressing and could wait until peace finally came to that country which came about in 1991 but by that time I was more deeply than ever involved with Indonesia.  I had to wait for yet another twenty years for the light to go on that if there was to be a time to visit the land of my sister Sarah Bekele, this was it and with the aid and encouragement of my friends Cindy Bendat who was already heading out to the Christian North and Bobbi Wagner of Lost Frontiers Travel who was setting up a trip to the malarial Omo River area to visit the Animistic tribes as well as hit Harar in the Islamic Southeast and on to the most dangerous of all, the Afar of the Danikil Depression, a land of dry salt lakes, giant camel caravans, “other-worldly” sulfur pond formations, volcanoes, and sorry to say, vicious kidnappers and murderers, as tragically  was proven only two weeks ago when another adventure group was set upon by marauders. We traveled with at least one machine gun guard in every Land Cruiser but if you hit bad luck this would hardly help!

Suffice it to say that I took lots of pictures! Thousands in fact! And although others have done it, and done it better I hasten to add, I would like to share these images of people I met along the way and thus offer a Portrait of Ethiopia!

One of the greatest features of digital photography is that the image that is taken can be shared with the subject immediately. This made for a positive interaction, part business negotiation and part flirting with the camera. Some people were very shy but nonetheless permitted me to photograph them; others bordered on being true exhibitionists, thrilled to show off the beauty of their physicality, body paint and floral decorations.

The sequence of portraits begins in the North with the Tigray and Amharic agriculturists, practicing an Orthodox Christianity since the 4th Century; they are especially famous for their stone carved churches on the top of mountains. I climbed some of those mountains and I can say it would be much easier if I were an angel and could have flown!

The people we visited in the South were fascinating and offered a unique expression of the human body as an artistic medium. This was especially true of the Surma who although culturally related to the hostile Mursi, live in a more remote and inaccessible area and are therefore less spoiled by tourism. The women are famous for their lip plugs and scarifications while the young boys and girls put on great displays of body paint, some patterns of which they feel resemble animals. I got along well with the natives because I followed a long time rule that has served me well among the headhunters of Indonesia, “Don’t mess with their women folk!” irresistible though they appeared at times…

Included as well are the Karo People, also known for body paint but a different style. The Hamar were perhaps my all time favorite tribe with their red ochre hair and proud bodies ready to dance. The photos you see were mainly taken at an innitiation ceremony for a young man of marriagable age, with many lovely young women to attract his fancy! The Borana are known for beads as the Muslims are for hennaed beards. The Afar do not take kindly to photographers and I of course respected their wishes. But in due course I hope to show some of the wonders of the land they inhabit, the driest and geologically lowest in the world and amongst the most seismically active. Looking into a boiling volcano lake after a 12 km hike at night up a slope rising thousands of meters was a personal best and made me feel that old saying is true: You are only as old as you feel, and I can tell you after that I felt “over the hill” literally and figuratively but it turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of my life… And now I will stop with my going on verbally so, seeing as how I can never say enough to adequately describe the wonders of what I saw but rather, and  speaking of old sayings, let these pictures be worth a thousand words each!

Spice Islands Voyage

2009 trip to the Maluku Islands of Indonesia

Islands: Flores, Lembata, Timor, Kisar, Sermeta, Babar, Kei, Aru and Asmat 

If a picture is worth a thousand words then these images add up to much more than I can possibly write. This was a dream trip that I had procrastinated for decades to begin but could not put off any longer after receiving the encouragement of two old friends, the Asmat travel expert Phyllis Hischier and Bruce Carpenter, Indonesian culture authority in residence. When I heard that Dirk Smidt, former chief curator of the Leiden Museum, Netherlands and an old PNG “hand” was coming, I was doubly intrigued. I signed up for what would be a life-changing and life-affirming journey by sea through the Spice Islands.

The vessel was out of Australia with a mixed crew and a great chef. We often ate the fish we caught on poles that day. I won’t soon forget the fresh sushi we shared and when I say fresh I mean it as seldom known before. By night we traveled from point to point, waking up to a whole new place of adventure. This was my first cruise and it was very appealing, thanks to the fact that we had some exceptionally intelligent and good-hearted shipmates on board. And travelers they were indeed, with me having gone to the fewest number of countries of all present, and I am up to more than sixty. I can assure you it does not happen often that I am out traveled… 

Most of the islands we hit between our jumping off place on Flores (east of Bali, several islands) and West Papua, some thousand kilometers away, were approachable only by sea. Thus, they could hardly be described as ruined by tourism, so seldom did they see a boat come by. The local people always greeted us with a dance on the beach or in the village. Such performances were demanded by adat, the customary law that regulates their lives and which is very related throughout the Moluccas and yet every island was different in interesting and unique ways. Some were very traditional, pagan and magical, while on others the missionaries had done their work well but all that is required is to be sensitive to the subtly of the all-pervading, ancient Austronesian Culture that is right below the surface, even among the most fervent of Protestants and Catholics.

The strongest and most satisfying tribal encounter for me was on Timor. I much admire Timor adat and the photos will tell it all. Babar was another favorite followed by Kisar in terms of strength of traditional culture. On Aru we visited a village on the edge of the sea to buy mud crabs for dinner that had never seen a white person, whereas Kai Island was very Christianized despite being so remote, and very welcoming. Exceptionally nice people all!

To be honest, I went on the trip so that I might better know Indonesia, the land of my dreams, to fill in gaps in my travels. I did not have high hopes for the Asmat part of the trip but was I in for a surprise!

I knew this “wasn’t Kansas anymore” with our visit to the Catholic Church in Sawa that was filled with Asmat symbolism and a Corpus Cristi that was nothing less than a masterpiece of tribal sculpture. The priest had made it is life’s work to help preserve traditional Asmat culture and protect the villagers from outside exploitation.

Although some degree of cultural assimilation to the modern world could be seen in the men’s tee shirts, there can be no question the far up river, the tribal people Phyllis arranged for us to meet and the Jiwi ceremony we took part in was in no way compromised either by our presence or by the efforts of the missionaries downstream. What we saw was only part of the Doroe ceremony that lasts months, performed with the men of a secret society wearing full body suit “masks” in which they become the spirits that will drive the ghosts of the dead from the village. In this way, they help to maintain harmony and balance with the ancestors, the spirit world and the rest of the living!

Hanging out in the men’s house crowded with brown bodies in the dark, lit only by a fire and some light coming through cracks in the grass walls, I recall the pungent odor of sweat in the air, our collective eating barbequed sago dough and after the chewing betel nut. It was then I passed around an apple, the first they had ever seen. The men smelled it and passed it on and finally it returned to me and I bit into it and they were shocked that it could be eaten and then I passed it again, this time encouraging them to try it…this was well received and found to be enak, “delicious!” I was one of the only white people they had met who could communicate with them in my passable Indonesian, and for this they were pleased. This helped me to serve as interpreter for Dirk Smidt to buy artifacts for his museum in Holland, respectfully bargaining while at the same time trying to record the way the object was used and the symbolic meaning of its graphic designs; well, this was some kind of personal best for me as an adventurer, hanging as I was with the people whose relatives are said to have eaten poor Michael Rockefeller, of this journey I will never forget!

We went from far up river to the big town of Agats for an auction that rewards native carvers for new styles of artistic expression. After seeing what they are doing, I can recommend that they go back to their traditional art. But ironically since classical Asmat carving is so religious in nature, making adat figures for the market breaks down certain taboos and therefore it seemed to the Catholic priest a good thing they keep customary art work “private” and promote the tourist carvings to stop the erosion of culture… While I feel that to be a worthy goal, the new material is not my cup of tea! But my trip through the Spice Islands to visit the Asmat was!

I close with this quote by Michael Rockefeller from 1961:

“It’s the desire to do something adventurous,” he explained, “at a time when frontiers, in the real sense of the word, are disappearing.”

Asmat Island
Timor Island
Lembata Island
Flores Island
Sermeta Island
Babar Island
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