It had been a long run up the broad, shallow river, the color of milky tea. We were packed shoulder to shoulder, sitting on the rounded bulwarks of our Zodiacs, the rigid inflatable boats carrying us from our small expedition cruise ship, the Caledonian Sky, to our day’s adventure. At first, the sight of our six Zodiacs speeding in formation upriver—with brightly colored parrots flying overhead and herons flapping away at our approach—had been a thrilling spectacle. Now, after an hour in the hot sun, the main thing keeping us awake was our sore backsides.
Then, up ahead, the lead Zodiac slowed. Mike Messick, cofounder of Zegrahm Expeditions and our Expedition Leader on this voyage, and Leksmono Santoso, our Indonesian expert and agent, stood up. We could see them consulting, and Leks pointed ahead. Only then did we see that a line of dugout canoes was arrayed across the river in the distance. Our boats all gathered together, and we motored slowly forward. Soon enough, we could see that each dugout was filled with six or seven imposing bare-chested men, most adorned with white pigment on the face and body, and wearing crowns, armbands, and necklaces of feathers and animal fur.
As we neared the dugouts, the men suddenly burst out in hoarse and threatening shouts, shook their boating poles and paddles, furiously splashed the water, and flung clouds of mysterious white powder at our Zodiacs. Seeing us all cowering in the face of this chaotic and intimidating display, Leks gave a broad smile, threw up his arms, and shouted “Welcome to the Asmat!”
The Asmat people are an ethnic and linguistic group inhabiting a vast territory of coastal southwestern New Guinea, a region also called the Asmat. They were not in regular contact with Westerners until the 1950s and remain one of the least assimilated cultures on that wildest of islands. Their tradition of headhunting and ritual cannibalism is one reason why they were given a wide berth by early Western explorers. Eventually, however, their extraordinarily skilled and powerful woodcarvings became known to the outside world, drawing collectors—most famously Michael Rockefeller, heir to the Rockefeller fortune, who disappeared on a collecting trip to the Asmat in 1961. While it will never be definitively proven, a recent book has argued persuasively that Rockefeller was killed and eaten after his boat overturned. So, when Asmat warriors perform a traditional village “greeting,” complete with threats to demonstrate their intimidating strength, no amount of preparation beforehand will keep you from being intimidated.
Zegrahm is one of the very few expedition companies to visit the Asmat and is able to do so only because of the expertise and long connections of Leksmono to the area. The village we were approaching, Komor, had not received visitors in seven years.
Their “greeting” complete, the village men broke into wide smiles and escorted our boats to shore, where the whole village had gathered to watch the spectacle. The Asmat region is mostly low-lying swamp forest, with tides that reach far up the shallow rivers. Villages are built on slightly higher ground, but many are seasonally flooded, and the houses are raised on stilts. As each of us clambered off the Zodiacs, we were taken by the arm by one of the villagers and gently escorted over the muddy banks and up to the village. There we were approached by a dignified older man who, without warning, mashed a handful of something both mushy and gritty on the top of our heads. To this day, I have no idea what it was. Then, we were presented with a gift to wear—a feather crown or a “dilly bag,” the woven sack, worn like a necklace, that is the ubiquitous carry-all in New Guinea.
This ceremony concluded, our escorts led us to meet his or her family. After introductions, conducted with great goodwill, if considerable mutual confusion, we climbed into the dim longhouse for speeches of welcome, translated by Leks. As a token of hospitality, a tin bowl filled with large and squirming “sago worms”—the grubs of a giant beetle—was passed around. Many of the expedition staff felt that the rules of hospitality required us to partake of this treat, but that left us with a difficult choice: “pop” the cocktail-sausage-sized grub with our teeth to expose its creamy goodness, or swallow it whole. Personally, I chose to swallow it whole, a decision I instantly regretted as I could feel the sago worm squirming as it made its way down my throat.
We then gathered in circles with our hosts for what was described as an “adoption ceremony.” Our social anthropologist Shirley Campbell later explained that we were standing in for deceased members of our “family.” In the course of sharing—with gestures and a few mutually understood words—our own families and our own lost loved ones, a powerful and mysterious connection was made.
At last, it was almost sunset, and past time to begin the long return trip to the Caledonian Sky. The tide had dropped, and the expanse of riverside mud was far wider than earlier. The villagers had thoughtfully arranged a line of dugouts across the mud for us to cross, with poles driven into the mud for handholds. Waving farewell to our new friends onshore, we piled into the Zodiacs and headed downriver under a spectacular sunset, with scores of giant fruit bats flying overhead on their way to the night’s foraging. An incredible end to a day we will never forget, a day possible only thanks to the experience, skill, and adventurous spirit of Zegrahm Expeditions.