The Rainbow of Wamena, Papua

The Rainbow of Wamena, Papua

The Jakarta Globe
Barry Manembu

It is said that you haven't seen Papua until you travel to Wamena.

This may sound like an overstatement. What makes this town, situated at an altitude of 1,600 meters in the heart of the Cyclops Mountains, so special?

While the inhabitants of Wamena seem ready to embrace modernism, they adhere to traditional rituals and values.

One landmark that demonstrates the fusion of traditional values with new dynamism in Wamena is the town's traditional market.

A mere 10-minute drive from the airport, the Jibama traditional market is a cultural melting pot. Both sellers and buyers come from different indigenous tribes, such as the Dani, Lani and Yali, as well as different ethnic groups from across the

archipelago: Javanese; Bugis, from South Sulawesi; Manadonese from North Sulawesi; and Batak from North Sumatra.

As the sole marketplace, Jibama provides basic necessities for the highlanders of Wamena: food and clothes.

Roast pork is a traditional favorite in Papua. And yes, the pig, or wam as it is locally called, is a symbol of wealth and is used in various rituals.

The Dani people in particular use pigs as currency, especially when bartering for wives. Yes, polygamy is the Wamena norm.

A pig could sell for about Rp 1.5 million ($131), while the larger ones often sell for Rp 25 million to Rp 30 million.

Aside from pork, Papuans are also fond of pinang, or nuts from the areca palm.

In fact, it is the habit of chewing pinang that contributes to the reddish stains on many Danis' teeth. It is quite common to see red splashes on the ground, or even on the wall, of spat-out pinang. You can find signs all over Papua, including at the main airport, prohibiting the chewing of pinang.

Wamena does not grow many areca palms, so the nuts are imported from the provincial capital of Jayapura. But the people of Wamena love their pinang so much, they pay a high price fir the nut, making the pinang business a very lucrative one.

Most pinang vendors in the market come from South Sulawesi Province, and business is so good that it is not unusual for them to be able to afford a ticket to Saudi Arabia for the hajj pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.

Strolling through the colorful market, I realized that nothing was particularly cheap, but I hunted for souvenirs anyway.

A Rp 50,000 tag hung off a "sengkan," a lousy handmade bracelet. After haggling, I only managed to get it down to Rp 40,000.

But, hey, that's Wamena for you: Everything's expensive.

It takes almost 10 hours to get to Wamena from Jakarta. You have to change to a small plane at Jayapura to get there.

The cost of basic commodities is high, as many have to be flown in. A 500-milliliter bottle of water, for example, costs Rp 9,000 and a liter of gasoline costs Rp 30,000, almost six times its price in Jakarta.

For cooking, many use wood as a source of heat. This is party because the price of kerosene and LPG gas are incredibly high, not to mention that they are also scarce.

At Jibama, a small bundle of firewood costs Rp 10,000. But when kerosene supplies diminish, the price of wood soars.

Unfortunately, bad weather often prevents planes from flying into Wamena — no plane means no kerosene.

According to a villager, kerosene could not be found anywhere in town in September. Firewood climbed to Rp 25,000 - Rp 30,000 a bundle.

But luckily for me, my timing couldn't have been better: I enjoyed great weather and a full supply of kerosene, which kept me warm in the cool Wamena breeze.