Travel Journals by Hilary Hopkins

November 1 - 15 2012 / Indonesia: Bali to Australia

In Which We See Our Ninth Total Solar Eclipse
Part 5 - Asmat People, and The Eclipse

Part 5 - Asmat People, and The Eclipse

So today my 98th country, the former Irian Jaya, now known as West Papua, and we are to dock in Asmat country.  Early morning I am out on deck in the deep humidity . 

The ship has come up a smallish brown river which we understand from the captain must be navigated carefully as there is not much water under us.  Ahead at the end of a small crescent bay is a border of small buildings; that’s where we are going to spend the day.

But to the right and left is green, green with some emergent trees.    We are at anchor and so the engines are relatively quiet, and there is no one else around, and, ever so faintly on the morning air, I hear birds in that forest.   How desperately I long to go in there, to walk in there, to look closely at those  plants, hear those birds above me, smell that air around me.  Not that kind of a trip though.

Feeling quite grumpy, I get the ill-considered breakfast and go back to the cabin; there are supposed to be a thing in which “war canoes” surround the ship.  Whatever, you know.  These guys do not do war canoes any more.

Well maybe they don’t but it turns out they do a great simulation of same!    The announcement comes that the war canoes are getting ready to come out (they have concealed themselves in a curve of the bay behind the forest), so I go out on deck.

A tremendous great spectacle really!  About 30 long narrow dugouts (like the one I traveled in in Papua New Guinea so many years ago), filled with viciously-screaming  and yelling men, many of them painted and wearing headdresses and brandishing spears,  knife out towards the ship.  If I were an enemy I would be majorly terrified, all right.  They split into two groups, one slicing along the port side and one on starboard, the men standing up in their boats and paddling hard,  yelling, chanting, screaming, and waving their weapons.  Back and forth they go and everybody takes many pictures.   

I see that there are kids in most canoes, also painted, some of them bailing, but most just looking.   Of course the men would not take children in their canoes if they were warring, so we are safe!

Time to board the zodiacs.   Oh!  I say fervently to our Aussie guide in our zodiac, How I wish we could go THERE! pointing to the mangrove forests.  Why not? he says, and radios to the others that we are going over to the mangroves, and pretty soon all the zodiacs follow us.  He has never been here but of course, as a naturalist, he can launch right into his show and tell.  I feed him a line about the pneumatophores, and he smoothly takes it.  A little crab is seen climbing up a tree.   I just drink it all in, and I think he is pleased, too.  This is the only natural history experience I will have on this trip. 

Zodiacs and canoes mingle, black faces and white, holiday-makers and warriors.  Our boatman attends to the hand signals of the nearest canoe-man, who directs us between two canoes.  The zodiacs and canoes ebb and flow.  Behind us, a massed group of canoes presents a wide front; the guys are at an apex of fearsomeness and one of them, naked, in the front, anoints himself with a white substance and dances in a frenzy, his substantial penis flopping up and down.  Many pictures are taken.   Some of his buddies are laughing.  It’s clear, when you look into their faces, that the folks are having a party time with this. 

Disembarking the zodiacs is technically a dry landing but one has to negotiate a sort of crude ladder, with plenty of help.  It’s a lot like the ladders I had to climb up to get to my sleeping place, in those villages so many years ago in Papua New Guinea.  I make it and I guess everybody else does too.

They live in the mud here.  The tide goes in and out and they all live in the tidal mud.  They have built their houses and entire little town up on platforms or stilts, with elevated walkways connecting everything.    Of course, all the debris goes into the water and now, at low tide, rests on the mud below the walkways.  But there are greens, too, kind of gardens between some of the houses, and although some of our fastidious number are shocked, shocked I say, about all of this, I think it’s ingenious.  Outhouses are situated above the water.  What else should one do??

There will be a ceremony at the Men’s House, a haus tambarans such as I saw in PNG.  All 98 of us gather along the walkway fronting it.   Touchingly, they have decorated the men’s house with fresh plants, strips of bamboo leaves and fronds of other leaves, and there are little stairlets leading from the walkway to the house, and those, too, have been newly decorated. 

It was a lot of work, to do this for our visit.

There is a ceremony involving a large carved pole, called I think a bis pole, which is brought out from the house and mounted in front of it, by a bunch of the canoe guys who are clearly enjoying themselves.  Women dance and shout from the opposite side; we’d been told what this was all about but in Aussie I couldn’t really understand it.  Some of the women are bare-breasted and they enjoy bounding the girls around; everybody in town wears tops so this is their chance.   Some of them dance well and others, the younger ones, are hesitant.   There’s kind of an insult-trading thing going on, or an exchange of threats, but since we can’t understand the language we just have to interpret body language, which is pretty clear.

There are some local guides, and they explain to us that we can now enter the Men’s House, where there are things to buy, and we can take pictures.  The way over involves another difficult little ladder, but I make it in, though not very gracefully. 

Inside, with sinking heart I see that so many people have laid out their wares, so neatly, so hopefully, in the dimness, women sitting patiently, men watching us, the kids with their mothers.  The air and heat stifles.  There is very little we can buy since nearly everything has feathers, or shells, or animal skin, all things the Australians will not allow into their country when we enter it in two days.  There are some wonderful things too which are ok from that point of view but which are far too large, and what would I do with them?

The hopeful , heartbreaking display of these lovingly made objects is about more than I can take.  I ask our local guide, Do the people understand that we cannot buy so many of these things, that it’s not that we are rejecting their art but that we cannot buy.  He says, yes, he has told them.  But do they understand WHY it is that we can’t buy the things, bring them into Australia?  Yes, he says, I told them it is for conservation.

To whom, then, will they ever sell these art works?

A horrible thought: did they make these just for our visit?

The sweat pours down my body.  I can’t think when I have sweated so much water.

When we leave the Men’s House we are free to walk around.  I make pictures of course, and the folks make pictures of us, at least some of them.   I share my family pictures with a mother with three little kids.  She gets it right away and holds up three fingers, pointing to each of her kids.  She’ll remember me and I will remember her, in this tiny, limited place. 

Lots of the littlest kids are naked; one little boy hustles towards us on his club foot, walking expertly and briskly along the walkway.  I think they are mostly fishermen here so probably he will be all right.  In the damp ground next to one house three young boys are playing marbles.  They have several kinds of games they play with the blue marbles (which I see for sale in a little shop later) and they love having their pictures taken.  

Through an open window a wall covered with school-type pictures is seen.  Is this the school?  I ask our guide.  No, no, the school is in the town over there; this is somebody’s house and they put up the pictures to help the kids learn.  There are charts of animals with their English names, the multiplication tables, the alphabet.  Lots of the kids practice on us: Hello.  And giggle fiercely when we answer.   Kids’ noses are running, and I hear a lot of coughing.

Back on the ship for lunch, a woman at our table says, well I couldn’t stay, I can’t stand seeing so much poverty.   Why do people like this come on these trips?  Does she think the poverty defines the people?

After lunch we return but this time to the larger part of town; its walkways are sturdier and some are covered with cement.  This seems a fairly prosperous place; houses each have a nice walkway with a gate, and many of them are surrounded by flowers and big trees.  A cat is seen, and some snakes in the mud.  There are a few chickens.  We’re taken through the market area, which, different from other markets we have seen, is a long row of shops on either side of the cement walkway.  Folks are selling commercial goods of all kinds—clothing (a Winnie the Pooh bag) and packages of stuff, and fresh vegetables.

Of course we have an entourage, and as we pass by one shop, where there’s a Spider Man towel or something, one of the kids behind me, trying out his English, mutters “Speeder Man.”  “ Spider Man,” I say back.  He and his buds laugh their heads off and practice: Spider Man, Spider Man.

Our first stop is Mr. Alex’s Gallery, where, we have been told, there are “significant carvings.”   It’s almost unbearably close in there, in three dark rooms, and I see right away that there is nothing I want at all.  It’s too hot to wait inside so I go out.  There are three little boys out there and they are shyly observing me.  On impulse, I point to a row of some kind of small bags of something hanging up at the store next door. 

One, two, three, I count.  Four Five Six they continue with glee.  So we have a lesson.  Using my notebook and pen, I write the numbers and we count them together, and we get all the way to 20.  I tear off the sheet and give it to one of the boys, and then for each of the other two we do it all again, and for John when he comes out.  He films me, ever, always a teacher. 

The three little boys go to show their friends the little gifts I have given them, the written papers.   Wonder what will happen to them?

There’s a fine museum, called the Rockefeller Museum in honor of that Michael Rockefeller who disappeared I guess near here in the 1960’s.  Here works of art have been collected so that they do not vanish away to New York and other foreign places, but stay here in their homeland.  There are some remarkable pieces which I record with my camera, but I do not covet any of them.  I guess I just like my little Dragon.

Lots of waving farewell, amid the men laboring to unload a ship filled with cartons of water bottles and Coke. 

Our zodiac approaches the ship and a woman is heard to say, Oh, it must not be very deep here, the ship looks so high. 

Another sea day and I had another nightmare last night about not finding a good place from which to view the eclipse (if indeed we will get to see it, as the weather has not looked terribly promising).  So this morning we went out on deck and I have firmed up my plan to make off with a free-standing chair (one of only four that I can see would work on the entire ship).  I will take it before dawn tomorrow morning, hide it in our closet, and bring it out before dawn on eclipse day.

Right now, my stomach is upset—I hate the food on the ship—and I guess I will just go back to the cabin, take a pepto bismol, and tuck in, again.

Successfully made off with the chair, at 4 a. m. and not a soul around along the wet salty decks; my prize  is now stowed away in our closet—only I realize now that I snuck it a day early.  But tomorrow is eclipse day and so we will have it.   All’s fair here especially since there are so few decent viewing places on this ship.

Today we came back to our own—Thursday Island in the Torres Straits, Australia—and score really big right off the bat.  At a bank of pay phones (remember pay phones?) we got to talk to our daughter, at long, long last!  I had to punch in many numbers, but it all worked, although of the four phones there, one sounded funny, one was covered with ants, one had no dial tone—but the fourth one worked!  We were triumphant and so terribly happy and relieved.  She said her sister is fine, had gotten her power back, that our cat sitter had not called with bad news about the cat, and that she herself had gotten at the end of a three-hour line to vote, but had been plucked out of it, with her cane, and taken to the front of the line and allowed to vote in a handicapped booth.  She said the line was enormous, stretching several blocks.   I’m proud of her and I’m proud of everybody who stood in that line, and lines like it, all over the country.

Right after we talked to her, we found a funky tiny coffee shop and John had hot chocolate and I had a cup of good coffee.  We were surrounded in some senses by our own, as I say: blacks and whites mingling and going about their business.  The English language.  Things we could deeply understand.  We loved it! 

Now everything’s ok: Barack won, the girls are ok, the cat is ok.

The ship has been rocking and rolling a lot, and the turquoise sea is lined with whitecaps, and the wind is quite fierce.  While waiting for a little bus tour, we walked along the water a bit, so I could see things growing.  There was a nice variety of invasives and weedy things on the beach, little composites  and convovulvus and a mint and some cloverish stuff, a small scallop shell drilled by a snail, some mistletoe in a tree, a large stinkbug, gray and white and with lovely long antennae, and some of those Aussie ants with the neon-green abdomens  walking on John.   The wind pushed us and the water.  The trees.

On the little bus tour we were taken to an old fort, first built in the 19th century and used right through WWII and beyond.  A horrible claustrophobic place; the community is trying to make a museum of it but I doubt many people go there.  From the top of the hill on which it sits you can see all these other islands that lie in these waters, and even, if the guide can be believed, mainland Australia on the horizon.

We drove to a cemetery in which are buried many Japanese and other pearl divers.  There are wonderful pearly shells to be found below the waters, and they punched buttons out of them, until plastics came in and displaced this business, much as synthetics fabrics did the wool business all over the world.  Lots of the pearl divers died, of course.  A horrible business, perhaps worse than mining.  I took pictures of some of their resting places.  Some were decayed to mere mounds with numbers.  There were several stillborns or babies, and I placed a small purple flower at one. 

There were some very elaborate graves with Buddhas and vases and tiles and artificial flowers, some quite recent. 

Alongside the road were tall termite mounds, but it took one of our number asking the guide about them for me to tumble to what they were, or even see them.  And she never talked about them.  Funny how blind people are to the ACTUAL world around them.

As we’ve done most days, we did some napping after we reboarded and had the awful lunch.  Now it’s just the eclipse, and the complexity of the long trip home, and we are done.   I have my doubts about whether we will see the eclipse, but no doubts about getting home.

A sea day.  Nothing to do.  Some lectures, most of the packing, the final anticipation, the final nervousness.  This ship is being sold, I guess, and tomorrow will be the last day for her crew and for her as Orion II.  So the place is being more or less closed up around us.   Another two-hour dinner, some conversation but I am so very tired of this and so very much long for our quiet livingroom, our Cat, our modest dinners.   To bed, all in readiness for the hoped-for eclipse tomorrow.

It’s 3:58 am and the alarm has been set for 4:00.  I woke up at 1:30 with a pounding headache (I think from the over-seasoned soup last night, I can feel it).  Somehow the ship’s engines seemed to be right underneath my pillow and the noise and vibration and the headache meant I never got back to sleep.  It’s time anyhow.

In 15 minutes we’re ready and creep out on the silent, dark, damp deck.  We inspect our chosen location, at the stern just at the curve of the railing, where there is a small bit of room.  We hurry back to the cabin and bring out our contraband stolen chair from its hiding place in the closet—and good, there’s another one on the deck back there too, so we grab it and settle ourselves in our corner.  The wind has died down a fair amount and it is warm but not sultry.  There are lights on the shore over there, yellow and pink.  We look up to a clear dark sky—there’s Saturn and Orion with its nebula, and the Pleiades. 

We’ve got our spot, we’ve got our gear, and it’s not raining and in fact seems clear.  We know how to do this.   We’re delighted and happy, all alone at first.   Lee the snorkel person joins us.  Grabs a chair, “You guys have done this before.  I’m gonna stick with you.”

A few others are seen, and one deck above the crew begins to set up a small breakfast.   I get a coffee—there’s even a little ledge here, a handy shelf on which to rest the cup and my notebook.  

The sky begins to brighten.  There are a few clouds, but maybe we’ll get lucky.  Lots of other boats are seen on the horizon, and we can see the horizon now. 

J uses a folded-up pillow for a camera beanbag.   I make notes.  Lee practices with his cardboard-and-welders’ glass rig.

The Captain hangs the ship right in place now, and we have a perfect location.

Maybe we’ll get lucky.  The sun rises.  Garlanded with lacy dark clouds, he shows—to my eyes through binoculars—a distinct though narrow band of green above.   

The glitter path runs along the water.  Glitter, glisten, glow, glister, gleam.   I make some quick pictures of people now lined up along the railing, using their cardboards.  

Seven minutes to First Contact. 

Four minutes.  I look as intently as I can, unblinking.  Hello our Star…and YES, yes, indeed, there it is, that first faint shadow on the northwest limb:

First Contact.  “First Contact—“ I say, and again, louder, “First Contact!  We have First Contact!”  A minute or so later, Alex the astronomer makes the announcement on the loudspeaker.  But I did it first, again. 

“Looking good, looking good folks!” exults Alex. 

All wait, look.  I eat a little, scurry around taking a few pictures of the ambient scene.   Not many people with big rigs this time; there are about thirty or forty first-timers and they don’t bring a lot of stuff.

A few speckles of sunspots are about to be eclipsed by that sharp dark creeping crescent.  They are easy to see on the partial, dying sun.

31 minutes to totality.  This one is going fast, fast.  There are some clouds.  Not many.
I want to find a place to go inside of myself.  There are all these people around.

26 minutes to total.   The light has begun to change.  Subtle, subtle.   Darkening, oily water.   Sun is weakening and there is nothing we can do about it.  Nothing we can do about it.  The wounded dying sun!

23.  I am starting to get uneasy.  The wind rises and cools.

21 minutes.   Now I can make quick glances at the rapidly-dying sun.

I’m so uneasy—so uneasy!  I don’t like the rising coolness and the falling light. 

Oh dear.  17.



I stand at the end of that fading light across the water.    11, 11 minutes of light left—


Only a little little crescent left of light.  I’m starting to shake and I’m starting to fall into the dark

That man standing behind me looks darkened, all darkened and strange.  I tell him so.  His wife says, what?  STRANGE!  STRANGE!  YOU LOOK STRANGE!    I shout at her!

6—6 minutes  I HATE IT HATE IT  the big pearl hangs there horribly

yesyesyesyesYES   I can’t control my agitation and howl and cry and moan and John holds my hand tightly but it doesn’t help


That bright bright diamond explodes briefly and then the dark sucks it in and rises around us all

All the cries around me mount into the dark and spiral into that black hole.  The corona runs into the dark sky and the chromosphere glitters and glitters pink and orange

Screams pierce the dark

And then the diamond appears again and all is well and everyone rushes from all parts of the ship to the upper deck.  Corona beers and mimosas are handed around and that delightful joy suffuses everything.  We are all happy. 

So now in the hours ahead we’ll be sucked back into those vortices of travel and be home again