A Papuan Feast: The bakar batu
West Papua, Indonesia’s eastern most territory, is a land full of contrasts. Tropical forests and paradise beaches, from where the Allied Pacific offensives where launched during World War II, or sky high mountains rising 15,000 feet above sea level, snow capped peaks and isolated valleys where an agricultural people developed complex irrigations systems thousands of years before Mesopotamia. With over 250 languages, dozens of tribes, a complex political context, a troubled history and a very uncertain future, West Papua is a difficult place to understand. Here, I want to introduce you to a more simple side of this beautiful place, its cuisine. Lets have a feast, let’s have a bakar batu.
The bakar batu is an ancient way of cooking large amounts of food, and each tribe has its own style. But the principle remains the same. You first need to dig a hole, its size depending on the number of guests you are expecting.
Long grass is carefully set into the hole in order to insulate the future content of the hole from the earth. In fact, the hole is going to become a kind of giant steamer with an in-built source of heat.
Meanwhile, youngsters light a large fire on which large stones are piled up. These stones are going to heat up for a couple of hours, and become extremely hot. Children are pushed away to avoid accidents, as the stones sometimes explode, sending pieces flying in all directions.
Once the stones are red hot, they are set on a nest of grass.
They are then covered with another layer of grass, then a layer of sweet potatoes, sweet corn, ferns, taro and more of nature’s edible gifts. This layering of stones and vegetables is repeated, with the addition of chicken or pork. If you are vegetarian, no worries, the meat can be separated from the rest by a layer of banana leaves which will prevent the juices from flowing all over your veggies!
A juicy mix of water, oil, spices, salt, chillies etc. is sprinkled over the whole thing, which is then closed up tightly. All you have to do now is wait while the stones bring up the heat, slowly steaming all that deliciousness to a perfect consistency and taste. Just sit, relax, smoke some cigarettes, tell some stories and discuss the latest events of the village.
Once the giant parcel opened, the food is shared amongst all the guests. You can now stuff yourself with corn, sweet potatoes, ferns, chicken, pork and taro, with a delicious sauce of the Pandanus fruit, an amazingly oily and nutritious food with potent curative powers, according to the Papuans. Enjoy!
Wamena, Life, death and strange food in West Papua
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Although technically part of Indonesia, West Papua is a world apart from the rest of the archipelago nation.
Flying into its biggest city of Jayapura, on the northern coast, I get just a glimpse of what’s to come later during my trip further south.
Jayapura’s Yos Sudarso Bay overlooking the border between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. The non-descript Jayapura is an administrative capital and military garrison town. It has a beautiful view over Yos Sudarso Bay near the border between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
But it is the people I am most looking forward to meeting. As soon as I step from the plane onto Jayapuran concrete, Dani men wearing traditional penis sheaths and topless women in Dani garb dance and chant to welcome the visitors.A warm welcome from Dani tribal folks at Wamena airport.
An awkward welcoming party if ever there was one.
But the best of the nation can be found by heading south from Jayapura to Wamena. There are no roads inland. Everything must be flown in, including food, living supplies and petrol.
A businessman from Java reportedly has a monopoly on the oil supply to Wamena, meaning petrol is over US$5 per liter. Food and goods cost on average three to five times what they would cost elsewhere in Indonesia.
Villagers reconstruct a damaged bridge by hand.
Travel toward Wamena and life becomes a lot more basic.
Mud and rockslides are a constant threat. My truck is stopped for a couple of hours as we watch villagers reconstruct a damaged wooden bridge with their bare hands and feet.
It was one of many incredible things that I got to see during my 10-day stay in West Papua.
A typical Dani village outside of Wamena. I visit some Dani and Walak tribal villages where the people are happy and hospitable. Their huts are made of straw and wood.
They will often dance and sing traditional songs for visitors. But it is not an easy life, both physically and culturally.
I notice that many of the locals have disfigured and shortened digits, and it transpires that Dani tribe tradition calls for older men and women to cut off fingers when a spouse or other close family member passes away.
This tradition is losing its appeal as Papua modernizes.
Tawi, also known as red fruit, on sale at a market in Wamena.
West Papuans living inland only came across people from the outside world about 60 years ago when American anthropologists flew in to do research. Missionaries followed soon after.
I am able to speak to some elder villagers who remember seeing the first overseas visitors for the first time. The relationship between the tribes and Westerners was rocky at first, but soon the locals were won over with increased trade and friendly contact.
And now tourism is also a part of their lives.
Bakar Batu, or stone back, a traditional Dani tribe meal.
The food is a little hit and miss. I am offered traditional foods of sweet potatoes, sago paste cooked in banana leaves, taro and cassava.
I am a little disappointed, but then I attend a family barbecue unlike any I have had before. Known as bakar batu or literally “rock bake,” rocks are thrown over a pit of hot coals for hours.
Then freshly slaughtered chickens and pork, sweet potato and its leaves, and red fruit known locally as tawi are wrapped in banana leaves and thrown into the pit.
The fiery hot rocks are put on top of the food and left to bake for another few hours. Extended family from around the village arrives. Communal eating at its best.
The juicy, moist chicken flavored by the banana is my favorite — no salt or seasonings required.
Freshly slaughtered chicken baked in banana leaves. No salt or seasonings needed.
The most eye-catching food was definitely the tawi. Staining the diner’s teeth a crimson red, this pungent paste is great eating for the locals.
Tawi is baked and mashed into a paste.
They claim that it can cure or prevent a laundry list of ailments including cancer and HIV.The tawi is then eaten by hand or with the aid of a banana leaf spoon.
At another village the village elder introduces me to a 360-year-old relative … who is mummified.
To honor village elders who have contributed much to the tribe, the ultimate show of respect is to smoke the remains of the leader over a fire for weeks or months.
A Dani village elder introduces me to his relative, a 360-year-old mummy.
They are kept on display and stories of their greatness are told to future generations.
But beneath the local people’s big smiles and warm hospitality, the sad fact remains that HIV/Aids is a big problem in the province and it is also one of the major malaria-infested areas in the world.
A nurse inspects the foot wound of a child at the Kalvari Clinic in Wamena.
Small clinics that have funding from the Clinton Foundation, though understaffed, are determined to try to resolve this.
For a foreign traveler, malaria isn’t much of an issue if you are prepared with anti-malaria pills.
But many locals just shrug off the problem, saying they can’t afford to buy the medicine, let alone take it for their whole lives.
Flights are available from Jakarta to Jayapura, the capital of West Papua Indonesia. Trigana Airlines is the only commercial airline with flights from Jayapura to Wamena. They take only 40 minutes. To explore outlying villages take an excursion organized by local travel agencies.
Raja Ampat, trip to Raja Ampat in West Papua
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Raja Ampat – a place that not only sounds magical, but most people don’t even know of. Raja Ampat is situated on our beautiful planet and was on our travel list a few years ago.
After diving trips to Komodo Islands and Alor (both in Indonesia), it almost seemed that our list could not be topped with a better (dive) vacation. We got curious after reading an article about the discovery of unknown species and the hidden skulls on the islands around Raja Ampat. After getting together all available information, we finally bought the tickets to Sorong in West Papua (also known as Irian Jaya). You have to know, flying in Indonesia is not always the smoothest (plus I’m a little scaredy-cat when it comes to planes) and getting to Sorong needed a change of planes in Makassar. We stayed in Makassar in Sulawesi for a two day stop-over until we continued our journey.
Arriving with Merpati Nusantara Airlines in Makassar.
The Merpati flight to Sorong was quite bumpy and you couldn’t see much because the sky was covered with thick clouds. No land could be seen during the descent, therefore the landing approach was going to be difficult (I might add at this point that Sorong Airport does not have landing lights, so if the pilot can’t see he even won’t be guided by those lights). After circling for half an hour, the pilot braced himself and went down through an air pocket that opened up – it was one hell of a hard landing!
Sorong is a prospering jungle town focusing on upcoming oil findings. We booked into the hotel opposite of the airport (because it was first of all the “nicest” place and we would be picked up from there the next day) and started to explore the area.
Getting ready for the race…
The crowd is watching the race carefully.
Who will be the winner?
Even with these “little” bikes, a crash can happen.
After that we (of course) walked around the local market and I think that we must have been one of he few white people there to do so (ever). The market was as colorful as elsewhere and the busiest place in town. The minute we arrive, we were the talk of the day and we were followed by a huge crowd.
On the next day our boat was ready to leave. It took about one hour to get to Pulau Kri. Back then, there were not that many resorts in Raja Ampat but we booked ourselves into a very beautiful resort, which was run by a Dutch, called “Kri Eco Resort“. It really turned out to be a great choice; everything was organized, all the dive gear (I only brought my own Octopus & BCD) and dive boats were in order, the staff was fantastic because they looked after everyone’s well being all the time and the food was delicious. The bungalows where also very nice – simple, but nice. They were built right above the water as you can see in the picture. It was wonderful!
The resort on Pulau Kri in Raja Ampat.
Diving around the islands of Raja Ampat is … how can I describe it … simply breathtaking! Literally, after the first dive you want to immediately do the next one or never even leave the water at all. I was busy diving 3-4 times a day, always with one dive guide and group of maximum 4 people (nice!). I did cave dives, current dives (where you get sucked through small waterways between islands) & night dives. It was simply an unforgettable experience to dive with great Manta rays, sharks, or turtles. The reef is untouched and I couldn’t explain what kind of color explosion happened down at 40 meters. Truly fantastic!
Diving with a school of Baracudas in Raja Ampat.
Diving in these “lake-like” surroundings was fantastic.
But not only the underwater scene of Raja Ampat was magical; we went on boat tours to uninhabited islets, walked along untouched beaches, ate freshly picked coconuts by our dive guides and we visited villages hardly ever seen by western people. If you know hard-core divers you’ll know that they are usually not very interested in things above water but we wanted to get to know the paradise we stayed in for three full weeks. The villages were surrounded by virgin jungle and the locals were more than friendly. Everyone greeted us with open arm, smiled and especially the kids were so excited that we were there with our video- & photo equipment. They had a blast when we showed them their pictures. But, even at these remote places we met one Chinese man who traded for coffee, exotic birds, sea cucumbers, and other strange or protected animals (that have a high price and are used as Chinese medicine). He was definitely not happy to see us wandering around there…
Uninhabitated islands can still be found in Raja Ampat.
The kids got so excited when we showed them their own video.
This is just one of the many fantastic beaches in Raja Ampat.
Me with a bunch of kids in tow.
With the boat we also passed strange looking rock formations with little caves where human skulls were places … nobody really knows how and by whom they were brought there. The people of Raja Ampat are afraid of the dead and therefore cemeteries are far away from the villages. The graves are usually covered with a little house and these constructions really did look a bit spooky even to us…
Human skulls in Raja Ampat.
A typical graveyard in Raja Ampat.
All in all, the trip there was one of the most memorable ever. Whether you’re a diver or not, Raja Ampat will take your breath away.