Oh Dani Boy
No classy hotels, little food,
no beer and lots of rain? Sounds resistible? What if this same area
was chock-full with bizarrely dressed men and women observing weird
traditions in an environmentally correct manner? Such a spot is
West Papua's Balim - also known as Baliem - Valley in Indonesia, just west of Papua New Guinea,
with which it shares a border.
the Balim and adjacent valleys are attractive hiking areas, the
real draw is the primitive Dani people, their customs and dress.
classic Dani village is a rectangular, muddy plaza, encompassed
by a long thatched kitchen, pig pens, one or two mossy huts for
the women, and one double-decker hut for all the village men, married
wishing to fulfil their conjugal obligations, visit their wives'
huts, or take advantage of the ample greenery around the spread.
The top floor of the men's hut is also occupied by their mummy.
This character, the crouched, smoked, apparently screaming corpse
of a long dead chief is dragged out for tourist photos, on receipt
of a substantial contribution to the current chief's Buy a
Pig Fund'. Pigs, special occasion food only, are either killed slowly
and ceremonially by bow and arrow, or exchanged for a wife. Village
chiefs often have several of each, and treat them with roughly the
same degree of care. Generally there are no grander ambitions than
possessing a pig or a wife , although cigarettes are an all-consuming
staple diet - when pigs are not on the menu - is sweet potatoes
cooked over a friction- started fire, in a smoke-choked communal
kitchen. Pots, pans and other utensils do not exist, so neither
does alcohol, lacking containers for fermentation.
most colourful and photogenic part of Indonesia's Baliem experience
is Dani fashion. The well-travelled Dani male, outside the central
town of Wamena, wears feathers in his hair, pig fat mixed with soot
over the upper body, face and hair, and an enormous, inconvenient,
stretch penis gourd. Curly or straight, the koteca is 30 -50 cm
long, light brown, and held erect by one string around the waist
and one around the testicles. Pig tusks through the nose, war paint,
and a bundle of spears are optional extras.
females also go topless; single women in grass skirts,married
ones in woven, coloured string skirts, well below the waistline.
The only reason that gravity does not complete their undress is
that the skirts, given to them by their husbands on their wedding
day, are as tight as a tourniquet, hugging the thighs and lower
buttocks. All is not revealed, however, since the women also wear
a kind of long string bag moored around their scalps, serving both
form and function.
plaster orange mud over their torsos and faces for several months
after their husbands die. In addition, what at first may seem to
be an epidemic of leprosy, turns out to be the result of removing
one finger joint for every dead relative. The amputations are initially
concentrated on one hand, so eight joints missing on one hand is
commonplace. Older women often have all fingers cut down to stumps.
spite of this self-mutilation, the Dani women still manage to deal
with most of the daily chores (potato cultivation, wood collection,
cooking) while many men consider themselves overworked if they have
to do more than light a fire.
Dani, like most eccentric ethnic groups overexposed to Western
practices, are changing their ways. Out goes the spectacular koteca
, in comes tatty shorts, out goes the bare-chested mama, in comes
the sad, shabby, sack lady.
next time you are in Bali, pondering your life over a Margarita,
consider giving your liver and wrinkles a rest in Dani land, and
take home memories and photos that will be with you long after
your tan, and the Dani, have gone.
to do it:
Indonesia's Baliem valley is warm and wet for much of the year.
January to March is said to be the most comfortable season. July
and August are the busy months; less seats, less rooms, more tourists,
Balim's main town, and the market area in particular, is an agreeable
introduction to the Dani, but for the real thing you should visit the Balim and adjoining valleys, taking at least two or
three days, and staying in Dani villages - probably in the men's
experienced English-speaking guide with some knowledge of Dani
language is vital for a full exploration of such an alien environment.
Few Dani people speak English, and inter-clan rivalries may affect
their information and en-route contacts, so unfortunately some
of the best guides are from other islands in Indonesia, such as
Sulawesi, and not natives of the culture at all.
are convoluted and often wet and slippery, so a guide and hiking
boots are equally useful accessories, though not essential.
If you are not wild about having sweet potatoes for three meals
a day, critical foodstuffs, such as chocolate and peanut butter
can be found in Wamena, supplemented, with luck, by vegetables
bought on the trail and cooked by your faithful retainer - in
his own pots and pans. Alcohol is not available in any form in
are rampant all over Indonesia and the West Papua's only city,
Jayapura is malarial, so check the malaria page
Baliem Valley Pictures in Indonesia
Pictures West Papua or for more Indonesia weirdness try Sulawesi's Tana Toraja