Sunday, April 12, 2015

what happens if you kill death?

last week i heard a story that is so crazy that i have to write it down before it is forgotten completely.  sometimes in this life i meet people who are extraordinary and it is a blessing to be able to share these stories with whoever still reads this blog.  hope you enjoy.

Peter is a swedish man who escaped his country about thirty years ago to avoid military service.  he's since become a man of various pursuits throughout the indian ocean, some tasteful some not, and he's nonetheless collected a few tales that are unlike anything i've ever heard.  i got to split a morning coffee and spliff with him last week on the shores of one of indonesia's tiniest islands next to his extremely attractive indonesian girlfriend under the backdrop of jungle covered mountains and endless sea.

my new friend told me the story of his adventures in papua some ten years ago.  he and some companions hired a ship to take them to the far western edge of the greater papua island where they would begin a long trek by river and land across the central front.  the indonesian half of papua is very untouched and rarely explored by foreigners.  it is laden with malaria and about 20% of the locals will die from the horrible disease.  the people are tribal and very territorial.  they live among the trees and still practice head hunting should a member of a different clan wander into their territories.  having said this, most of them have never seen a white person before, they have been told stories by their elders but they don't know many things about the world beyond the jungle island.  they have a diet which consists mainly of a tree (i forgot the name) that is felled with great effort by the men and prepared by the women who withdraw a sweet sappy substance from the inside providing enough calories to survive.  they are naked people and sleep on large tree leaves stabbed into the ground like something from a jungle adventure story.  they carry bow and arrow of two sorts, one for animal and the other for human.  should a person wander into their territory it is fair game not only to shoot them but to eat them.

peter arrives on this island with a small group of friends and he is to meet Tuta, a papuan man who spent some time in england.  he will serve as their guide however it must be known that there are over 600 active languages in papua, few of which bear resemblance to each other save a few key words and a couple basic expressions that are similar throughout the land.

the group manages to cross the river and make their way into the center of the island over the course of a month.  they have four months to cross the island where their ship will be waiting in the north, there is no other way out.   as it goes, they pass many tribes.  some of the people to the west have seen white people, others have only heard of them.  they practice caution among the people of the river and are often greeted with arrows aimed at their bodies.  tuta continues to offer peaceful greetings to the people as they pass and each time peter can feel a coin being flipped in the air, only luck will preserve them.  their goal is to find this tribe virtually untouched by the western world.  once in the early 70's a dutch missionary braved the island to find these people and he was the first foreigner to make contact.  he wrote of his stories on his return to indonesia however was killed of unknown circumstances.  the tribe had almost completely been forgotten.  peter and his crew are to find these people only out of a lifetime of curiosity and tiny whispers of the lost people's existence.

then it happens.  five weeks into the trip they find their way to the tree-harvesting people of central papua, greeted by a hoard of pygmy hunters each with arrows designed to hunt humans aimed at their bodies.  not a one of these warriors have heard of the white people yet a very old man of the tree village noticed the commotion and came to investigate his curiosities.  this old man probably saved peter's life for he remembered the dutch missionary from many years ago and assumed peter was the child of the lost explorer.  what he said to the hunters to spare peter's life was something nobody (not even myself, the listener of this story) will ever forget.  translated from tuta, the elder asked the hunter who aimed his bow at peter's heart from one meter away, 'do you see this man?  this white man?  he is death.  death has come to our people.  we could kill him and we could eat him as we are said to do but what would happen if you killed death?  would death seek revenge on our people?'  the young hunter thought about it for a long time and with great disdain he lowered his bow and allowed peter to enter the village.

the rest of the story is for me to enjoy and not share however i wanted to illustrate something i've learned from this.  i walk these dusty village roads in far off villages as a white person, death.  i'm the far off product of missionaries and capitalists who come to small communities and seek profit.  the islands are now accommodated to honeymooners and backpackers who complain about the difference of 50 cents in the price of their accommodation.  these people come from all over and leave beer bottles laden on the beaches and sometimes take the younger girls of the village, younger by thirty years sometimes, i've seen it.  it's a shame.  do the white people mean the death of a culture?  i'll never know.  do they bring disease?  colonization? destroy the natural world around us?  do we build resorts and claim island adventure only to rob people of their lands?  is this not the same story warned about from the native people of the americas?  the aboriginal australians?

i'm a wanderer.  i walk the earth and i used to ask many questions.  i thought that when i got older i would find these answers however now i've just learned to stop asking questions.  i'm a listener now and i gather the stories told to me by those who have wisdom.  sometimes i gather this wisdom from other travelers but usually i take it from the people i am blessed to experience in my travels.  i'm learning things about this world that i can truly feel in my heart are endangered.  wisdom is dying.  the earth is dying.  i'm no optimist, perhaps the last of a great line of people who warn others of the impending doom, death is coming.  shame on us.  just be good to people.  i think i know why i had that dream a few weeks ago about the owl, just leave it alone.  i'm a teacher now and a learner for life.  listen to the things i've learned because death is waiting for us and when i leave this place i want my hands to be clean of my people's mistakes.