West Papua offers a rich example for reflecting on travelling to trouble spots, or “adventure tourism”. Most references on the web to West Papua are about Asmat art and adventure holidays, while almost nothing is said about the genocide that has been happening for the more than 30 years of Indonesian occupation. This is easy to confirm with a little serious research. But what kind of research do people do before spending a fortune on their adventure among the former cannibals of West Papua? And when they get there, what do they actually see?
Most of West Papua is off-limits to tourists, which should raise suspicions immediately. In the Asmat area, tours are heavily supervised by Indonesian officials. Until 1991, the “Visit Indonesia Year”, people were beaten and imprisoned for performing traditional rites. Later tourists were escorted into their traditional places and now tribesmen are on display.
When the tourists come, the near-naked Asmat tribesmen perform for the cameras, but once the show is over and the tourists are whisked away to another safe place, the tribesmen are obliged to wear western clothing. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what is happening in West Papua.
The adventure holiday is a symptom of acculturation in the west, offering the illusion of exotic experiences, with heat, mud, annoying insects and basic accommodation to make us feel we are “in touch” with nature again. Yet, compared with the reality, it is as bland as going to see an Indiana Jones film.
The impulse to travel is closely related with another deep human impulse, the social act of telling stories, which in turn responds to the big question: Who are we? One way of trying to situate ourselves is to gaze into the mirror of the “Other”, perhaps as a way of identifying who we are not in strange landscapes. But how other is the “Other” when he or she is part of nature: part of human nature?
The Asmat respect the laws of harmony in their harsh environment, which is not merely a set of physical attributes but an ethical concept, where everything, material and spiritual, must occupy its proper place to bring harmony to the cosmos. Life does not separate man and nature, but is a set of interacting elements where humans are called upon perpetually to re-enact nature’s drama, re-creating through art, ritual and ceremony, and with the assistance of all of nature - animal, vegetable and mineral - the eternal, moment of a coming into being. Their land tells a story of origin and continuity so complete and well ordered that there is no need for the “progress” that is imposed on them, destroying their sacred world, which is beyond temporal adjustments and “the arrow of time”.
The tourist enters this timeless world governed by a tight schedule and sees only fragments: mangrove swamps, crocodiles, war canoes, dances … If there are signs that the genocide is happening, it is too uncomfortable to think about. Yet, is knowledge something to be acquired selectively for our own use, or is it responsibility towards our fellow human beings and ultimately ourselves?
In the technocratic West, for all our interest in pristine places, we are little disposed to look “back” to recover long-lost truths about our place in nature. “Primitive” people tend to be seen not as a living memory of part of ourselves but as alien objects, for some photographic trophies of adventure holidays, For others, they are troublesome occupants of land they would mine, or an exploitable resource for their art or knowledge of medicinal herbs, and even deplorably backward beings and better out of our way, as the dark annals of genocide reveal.
In today’s world, innocence is the luxury of the few. James Baldwin went still further, “It is the innocence that constitutes the crime”. The traveller to trouble spots should be aware of this, even though real knowledge can be extremely problematic.