The Asmat is an almost indescribable sight to behold. From the the fiercely painted warriors aboard canoes and the smoke-filled men’s house to the grass huts and meandering boardwalks built on stilts and throngs of scantily-clad men, women, and children, everything you see and experience is undoubtedly surreal for the Western traveler. And, this was only our first Indonesian stop on our Papua New Guinea to Bali expedition.
The Asmat people are the indigenous coastal dwellers of southwest New Guinea. They were once infamous for their headhunting, but are now known for their unique art and culture. We had the great privilege of visiting four villages, each getting more remote and untouched by the 21st century as we went along.
Our first encounter was in the mouth of the Asewetsj River as we set out to visit the village of Syuru Besar. Here, traditional war canoes surrounded us, each full with whooping men and boys who escorted us into the village. Once ashore, we witnessed the traditional canoe ceremony where two fellow travelers were launched out at sea, then perused local handicrafts in the men’s house. We then walked to neighboring Agats (also the Asmat administrative center) and visited the museum and local shops.
We moved on to the smaller traditional Asmat village of Ewer. Once again we were welcomed by warriors aboard canoes and escorted into the men’s house. Here 12 clans sat in their respective section of the house and each clan “adopted” two Zegrahm travelers into their families. Not only were travelers given new names, but their faces were also decorated in lime and each received traditional headpieces made of cuscus and feathers.
Our final stop in the Asmat came a day later and was simply prefaced with “We are going in deep” by our expedition leader, Jeff Gneiser. After our hour-plus Zodiac ride, we rounded a river bend and were greeted by the village of Owus. But before we could even snap a photo of the picturesque grass huts on shore, we were met by painted warriors who not only surrounded us from all sides, but boarded our boats, drumming and chanting, carrying bows and arrows and shields, and firing lime powder out of bamboo pipes. Given the circumstances, we were glad to be considered welcome guests.
After landing on shore and witnessing a faux attack on the village, we were led into the men’s house to learn about and, dare we say, savor the Asmat delicacy of sago. These white worms were served based on your preference—either live or cooked over an open fire—and were enjoyed by travelers and staff alike. The villagers had some very fine examples of Asmat art for sale on the boardwalk and the Zodiacs returned to the ship considerably heavier than when they had left.
What a wonderful introduction to Indonesia!