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Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Discovering the Remote Islands of Indonesia - Page 4

Written by Roger Marks
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Asmat Tribal Greeting and Traditional Ceremony


Just after sunrise our ship anchored in Flamingo Bay. Crossing the river bar at the high tide was crucial, as we had only 3 meters under the keel. The Asmat region is located in one of the largest mangrove swamps on earth. Houses are built on stilts and raised boardwalks connecting the community.


The Asmat people are perhaps the most feared headhunters on Earth. They are also cannibals—or at least they used to be. There is speculation that cannibalism occurs today in more remote areas. The Asmat, numbering approximately 70,000 today, did not have regular contact with outsiders until the mid-20th century.

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As we approached the village of Syuru, our fleets of Zodiacs were met by dozens of dugout long boats with hundreds of Asmat warriors paddling, standing up and chanting in unison. At first they were hiding along the river bank, but after the chief signaled to them, they paddled out and surrounded us. It was an overwhelming sight, and an amazing photo opportunity. Both men and women paint their bodies on ceremonial occasions, which was the case when they came to greet us and escort us to their long-house. Once on shore, we gathered near the long-house for a ceremony that dates back centuries, and maybe even thousands of years. The Asmat people, at the time of first contact, were a stone-age culture, but they are really people of the forest and they consider themselves the “tree people”. The ceremony we witnessed dates back centuries. The war canoes gathered at the river mouth, where the warriors worked themselves into a frenzy before storming ashore. We saw many men with pierced noses, wearing wild boar tusks. Some of the women were bare-breasted. In earlier times, before the missionaries infiltrated the island, the Asmat wore very little clothing, if at all.

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As part of the ceremony that we witnessed, the Asmat men carried a fresh cut tree from the forest, which was to be carved into a Bisj Pole, which honors the dead. Traditionally, a cycle of revenge ensues, ending in the ceremonial killing of an enemy. After a lot of dancing and chanting and a reenactment of “revenge” among the people, we are invited into the long-house to view and purchase wood carvings. We were certainly glad that we were honored guests and not enemies. The long-house was very crowded, filled with tourists from the ship and locals displaying their goods. The floor was made of matting from leaves. At some point, one of my legs went right through the flooring as I fell on and through the matting. Fortunately the matting was soft and did not cut my leg. Some locals and tourists helped me get up and then I decided to head for the nearest exit. I was lucky both legs did not go through the matting and I did not drop to the dirt ground which was perhaps 10 feet below the long-house. We returned to the ship for lunch and a leisurely afternoon aboard.

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Visit to the Asmat Village & Special Dinner


The following morning, we took the Zodiacs ashore and had a guided walk around the capital of the region, Agats, to see the markets, mosque, churches and monuments. We also visited an Asmat Museum which had an enormous and amazing collection of Asmat art and artifacts. In fact many renowned museums around the world have collected Asmat art. We had the opportunity to purchase art works at a local gallery. We saw some beautiful wood carvings at the gallery, each for around $1,000. But the shipping cost was around $4,000 since the shop only shipped in containers rather than on the individual item so we had to forego purchasing any Asmat statues.

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The entire town of Agats is built on stilts and as the tide comes in, everything around is flooded. Motorcycles have arrived to this part of the world, but luckily they are all electric and very quiet. The market was interesting, especially in view of the limited amount of crops they are able to grow. Many different kinds of local fish were on display. We walked along some of the board walks passing houses and a playground area where teenagers were doing traditional dances. We boarded the ship late morning, and in the afternoon, we did a Zodiac ride, exploring one of the mangrove tributaries for an hour and a half, looking for more birds and wildlife. We saw a number of parrots, and mudskippers lined the muddy banks and were entertaining as they skimmed the mud.


(Page 4 of 7)
Last modified on Friday, 02 September 2016

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