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Searching for Cannibals

"Papua New Guinea?" my mom asks me. I have no immediate answers. But a week later, I have not only found it on a map, but also come up with a philosophy to explain the voyage.
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"Why Papua?" my mom asks me. And where is it anyway? I have no immediate answers. But a week later I have not only found it on a map and purchased all forms of cool camping paraphernalia (think quick dry towels and waterproof socks), but also come up with a philosophy to explain the high importance of voyaging across the world to this tropical land. My mom closes her eyes, raises her eyebrows and wishes she had normal children.

The sparsely populated island of New Guinea, the second largest island in the world after Greenland, is divided between two countries: the independent nation of Papua New Guinea in the east, and the Indonesian Papua -- formally known as Irian Jaya -- in the west. Over 75 percent of Papua is covered by impenetrable jungle, and is home to an incredible diversity of plant and animal life, as well as an array of indigenous, so-called 'primitive' tribes -- many of whom have little or no contact with the world outside.

Believed to number some three to four thousand people, the Korowai of south eastern Papua are one such tribe. They were 'discovered' in the 1970s but remain isolated. They hunt with bows and arrows, subsist for weeks on roots and slugs, are illiterate, and don't wear clothing or know modern medicine. They practice polygamy, believe in witchcraft and live in scattered tree houses 25- 50 meters off the ground. They are also thought to be some of the last people in the world to practice cannibalism.

Thoughts of traipsing into the jungle to meet Korowai begin to fill my imagination.

"Are there actually tribes with no knowledge of modern life?" I wonder. "Is cannibalism still practiced?" "Is the jungle really so dense you can't get through it?"

"Might such a trip be a good way to lose weight?"

And besides all this: "Why is all this 'otherness,' so inherently compelling to me?"

That last is a good question to chew on. And the answer probably has much to do with trying to understand myself, as anything else. I'm hoping, it would seem, that seeing how others make sense of the world around them -- will give me some insight into my own.

"Good luck," says my brother. "You need it."

I set out with Adam, a TV producer and fellow searching soul, who has a month's long vacation. He packs all his unread summer New Yorkers in a special water tight pouch, buys a spear gun ("for fishing, idiot," he explains when he sees my face) and we set off, stopping for lattes and mini ginger muffins at the Brasserie en route out of the country.

The journey to Papua is not short. We drive across the border from Jerusalem to Jordan and from there fly to Qatar, watching the latest Indian Jones movie on our personal TV monitors and daydreaming about discovering new tribes. After a seven hour layover, we get on another flight (12 hours) to Jakarta, where it turns out -- surprise! -- the spear gun sticking out the top of Adam's knapsack has been offloaded in Doha.

Twenty four hours and many new friends at the Qatar Airways lost and found office later, we are back on track, with a complete luggage set, flying overnight to Jayapura, the capital of Papua, and onwards to Wamena in the highlands. It's pouring rain, dark and buggy as we leave the airstrip, and we speak not one of the reported 300 odd languages used here. Members of the Dani tribe, best known for their penis gourd attire, wander around town wanting to shake hands.

We begin to realize that part of the reason so few tourists come to Papua (under a 800 last year, according to the Lonely Planet) is not solely because no one is as intrepid as us -- but also because no one is as uninformed. Traveling into the jungle, it quickly turns out, is not only dangerous, time consuming and physically challenging; it also costs a fortune. Who knew, for example, just how expensive hiring a motorized canoe could be?

We spend days negotiating, finally putting our faith -- and close to three thousand dollars -- in the hands of our newfound guide and translator Isak. And then, off we go, by small plane -- the cost of which is calibrated according to one's weight -- to Dekai, a dusty village on the edge of the Brazza River.

There, we meet up with Lakor, a young cook who does not stop smiling and who knows how to make rice topped with instant ramen noodles and nothing else. He joins our party and we spend another two days in protracted re-negotiations over money, swatting mosquitoes and eating biscuits filled with pineapple cream.

Finally, armed with just about all the information needed for a Ph.D. on motorized canoes in Papua, we pick up our travel permits from the local police chief, lower ourselves into the dugout canoe and motor ten hours down the river, mainly in pouring rain, to the improbably even smaller village of Mabul.

Moving right along, we recruit four Korowai tribe teenagers who will be our porters: Gershon, who, because of polio, has use of only one leg, silent Lucas, Solomon, who is adorned in colorful beads, and little Titus, whose father, we are told, was eaten by members of the Kombai tribe last year.

And then, a week and a day after leaving home, we march bravely into the jungle. I immediately fall off a log and ram my left shin. The adventure has begun.

It's the second day of bushwhacking through the jungle and I am perched on a rock, covered in mud, pulling a leach out of my sock. Adam is being devoured by giant biting flies. And Lakor, our cook, is hovering over Isak's head trying to dislodge a cluster of thorns with a razor blade. I wonder, and not for the first time, what I am doing here.

The jungle is beautiful -- filled with mangroves, sago palms, breadfruit trees and thousands of different species of orchids. The thick insect life, upon which I mostly will harp from here on out, is actually astonishing. Papua is home to some 800 species of spiders, 30,000 kinds of beetles and god only knows how many sorts of mosquitoes. This is a place of frogs, bowerbirds, cockatoos and parrots, where 120 pound flightless birds called cassowaries are king and wild pigs roam free.

It's a forest so dense that you feel completely alone if separated from the others by more than 20 feet. Sound, too, is swallowed here. "Waaa" I call out when I feel myself lost. "Waahaa" call back Lucas, or Titus, who inevitably will be standing just the other end of the nearest log. It's humbling.

In this wild nature, I have become totally dependent on "the guys" as we have christened the porters. They spend the days nimbly racing ahead- barefoot - carrying all of our camping and cooking gear. Gershon, on one leg, is a veritable human GPS system, making a sharp left at this tree, a right at this orchid, a U-turn at that shrub.

They wait for me to laugh at myself before allowing themselves to do so, even though my stumbles are comedic -- getting entangled on a vine here, stuck in bramble there. Lakor and Gershon have taken to anticipating my every wobble, and take turns putting out a steadying arm for me, their timing only bested by their gentleness.

But for some reason I can't fully relax or appreciate it all. I spend an inordinate amount contemplating the pros and cons of my long sleeve shirt -- humidity and sweat dictate it should be off, mosquitoes eating me alive prompt me to put it back on. On breaks from considering this dilemma, I am focused on the delicate art of not flying off the wet logs we traverse -- into murky swamps below. With an annual rainfall of about 200 inches, Papua is one of the wettest, and muddiest, places on earth.

Not helpful is Adam, who talks incessantly about how he should have gone to Paris for his vacation instead, and Isak, who, it turns out, is not as good a planner as one might have hoped. We are already running out of both food and drinking water. He has not brought a first aid kit, mats to sleep on, or any of his own personal basics either. He asks me to borrow a towel, toothpaste and, sheepishly, some socks.

And the Korowai? Well, our first encounter with a jungle member of this tribe is, shall we say, underwhelming. The man has a bone through his nose and is naked from the waist down save for a half acorn on his penis -- but is also sporting a red t-shirt reading Cut video. I am worried this is not the real thing. Mr. Korowai is not too interested in us either, takes the tobacco we offer, and wanders away, shrugging.

We need to go deeper into the jungle to meet the more authentic members of the tribe, explains Isak, who has come over to borrow some mosquito repellent. The never ending search for authenticity. Right. The sun sets and we move further and further into the brush. I feel slightly silly. Will meeting Korowai without t-shirts really bring some form of illumination? Why would it? We continue slugging along. I take my long sleeve shirt off. And put it back on again. I miss my Brasserie cafe back home.

In time, we settle into a jungle routine -- walking all day, breaking in the afternoon for a meal of rice topped with ramen instant noodles, looking for streams to bathe in, and, in the evening, thwacking our way to a tree house and requesting permission to join a Korowai family in their home for the night.

Each night offers a different family and a different experience, but the pattern is similar. We hoist ourselves up the shaky wooden poles onto the tree house platform, pump hands vigorously for some time with everyone, saying "manop, manop" which means "good, good," and then hang out entertaining one another and eating slugs (them) or pineapple flavored cream biscuits (us) until bed time.

The Korowai and Kombai live in the trees to protect themselves from floods, animals and other tribes, and move every few years in search for more game to hunt. These tree houses come in all sizes, but typically have thatched roofs and bamboo partitions between men and women sections. Dog bones, sugar cane arrows and cassowary feathers decorate the rafters.

The scenes within are usually chaotic, filled with chatting, coughing, spitting, babies crying and small pigs and dogs making a racket. As Isak promised, the deeper we travel into the jungle the more those we meet seem "authentic" and "primitive." By the end of the week we are staying with a family -- the Nandof -- that seem as excited by our otherness as we are by theirs.

I sit around with the women of the family who are topless, wear skirts made of sago fiber, decorate their hair with tiny mice bones and tails and wear dog's teeth as necklaces. I can't stop taking photos. They, in turn, cant stop reaching out to touch my white skin and light hair and falling over laughing.

I give the young girls earrings as gifts. They share them easily, taking out the red threads worn as earlobe decorations out and giving them to me in return. We pass around their babies and share some sago root patties. I give my pen to a teenager, who watches me write in my diary -- but she can not figure out how to use it. She gives me a small boiled banana, which tastes exactly like a potato.

Over in the "men's section," Adam is blowing up balloons we have brought from home and twisting them into crowns. Soon, everyone, children and elders alike, are adorned in squeaky pink and blue balloon hats -and nothing else. Isak, a born again Christian, asks the Korowai to bow their heads as he says an evening prayer. Animists, but respectful, they do, closing their eyes and clutching the balloons so they don't fly away.

Bedtime happens at about six, when it suddenly becomes pitch dark. I try reading with a torch for a while, but the light attracts bugs that go flying directly in my eyes and I give up. We suggest boiling water for the next day, but no one seems to be listening to us. Isak asks to borrow some calamine lotion.

I can't sleep. Lying close to the edge of the tree house I worry about rolling over and off the edge. A German tourist toppled out of this very family's old tree house a few years ago and died, the Korowai tell us. "One leg here and other there," they say, describing the event and shaking their heads. I can't bear the uncomfortable wooden slats of the floor, but don't dare budge too far in any direction. I drift off to sleep, my dreams filled with falling.

In what seems like the middle of the night, I wake and watch the old men preparing the sago patties on a smoldering fire nearby -- spitting into their palms to knead the root. A mental note regarding eating sago patties from here on out is made. A little girl with what looks like ringworm marks across her body has cuddled up near me. I pull my hand out of my sleeping sheet to see what time it is. 10pm.

A piglet in the corner begins to squeal. I need to pee. I flash the light again. A mosquito bites my thumb. 10:02. I close my eyes, put my head on my smelly knapsack, squashing the camera inside, and try shifting without actually budging. A small dog walks over me. 10:03.

I am up long before dawn, and watch the sky light up in various shades of red and grey. It's raining and the tree house sways gently. I notice the clothes I hung up to dry have become, if possible, even wetter. A wild pig darts under the house snorting, and the 30 odd Korowai strewn around me begin to stir. For some reason, I start giggling. A feeling of inexplicable delight and amusement at the situation descends upon me. I take a deep breath and am present, in the here and now, and content.

"So, tell me, do you really eat humans?" I ask Jacob, a Korowai tribesman whose family -- the Dayo -- we stay with on one of our last nights in the jungle. Isak translates from English to Bahasa and Lakor translates from Bahasa into Korowai. "I have eaten three," comes the answer, taking the same three tiered translation journey back to me. Jacob gestures nonchalantly to his left to indicate the direction the latest dinner came from. Adam raises an eyebrow. I wonder if someone along the translation line has made this up for the benefit of us visitors.

Although the Korowai are often considered to be some of the last remaining cannibals in the world -- eating male members of other tribes they consider to be witches or "kahkhua" -- there is no first hand outsider account of such behavior. Reed College anthropologist Rupert Stasch, who spent 18 months with the Korowai in the '90s, found no evidence of cannibalism, despite being told by tribesmen of it occurring.

Cannibals or not, however, it's clear they can hunt. And if I were a kahkhua, I would head to town.

"Gwak, Gawak" a bird calls out one late afternoon. It is, Isak will later explain, a cautionary call meaning a monitor lizard is nearby. The porters stop in their tracks, drop our equipment and go running. Adam and I stumble after them into the thicket, and watch as Lucas and Titus shimmy up the trees, yelping to the rest as to the whereabouts of the escaping lizard, which they track from up above. Solomon, Gershon and Lakor down below race around shaking trees and letting off their own high pitched hunting cries.

I can barely track the guys in the dense forest, much less the lizard, but suddenly, they have him cornered and the entire team is whacking the animal to death with fists and sticks. Solomon pulls his poisonous tongue out and lifts the bloody four foot reptile up high. Watching the video of this later, all Adam and I can make out are trees, the sound of our own voices caught in the background: "Oh My God!"

As the voyage nears its end I try to think about the question that brought me here in the first place. Did I learn anything about myself from the Korowai?

By and large, the master plan of looking for big answers fell by the wayside almost immediately, as I settled into enjoying the simpler delights of the trip: A florescent blue butterfly on an orchid, a friendly afternoon chat about cannibalism, an evening lying at the edge of a tree house, a crazy lizard hunt.

But, nonetheless, I end the trip with a few new ideas about the trade offs we "civilized" societies have made in leaving the jungle. For, while civilization has provided all of the comfort and wealth, culture, sophistication and fineries of the world I live in -- it has also robbed us of the direct knowledge of our intuitions, our true necessities, our natural selves. The Korowai, in some way, represent a form of living alternative to who we could have been. And while I would not like to trade worlds, I know there is magic in theirs too.

We stumble back into Mabul where we began the journey, feeling like shell shocked soldiers returning home from war. Heroes even. I hold hands with the children that come out to greet me and half expect to see movie credits rolling down the scene.

I have flea bites all over my stomach, spider eggs entangled in my hair, mosquito and fly bites lacing my ankles, and black and blue marks on my shins. For days to come I will find cockroaches mysteriously climbing out of my bags. I cannot remember ever being so thankful for reaching the end of a trip in my life - and yet, at the same time, and quite honestly, a part of me does not want it to end.

I give Gershon my email address. You never know. One day he might learn to read and write, or get somewhere connected to the World Wide Web, and track me down. I guess he would also have to learn English too, or me, Korowai. The chances are mighty slim. I give him a tip. He gives me a pineapple. I think we are both a little sad. And then I get into a canoe and begin the long trip home.