The classic Dani village is a rectangular, muddy plaza, encompassed by a long thatched kitchen, pig pens, one or two mossy huts for the women, and one double-decker hut for all the village men, married or single.
Men wishing to fulfil their conjugal obligations, visit their wives’ huts, or take advantage of the ample greenery around the spread. The top floor of the men’s hut is also occupied by their mummy. This character, the crouched, smoked, apparently screaming corpse of a long dead chief is dragged out for tourist photos, on receipt of a substantial contribution to the current chief’s ‘Buy a Pig Fund’. Pigs, special occasion food only, are either killed slowly and ceremonially by bow and arrow, or exchanged for a wife. Village chiefs often have several of each, and treat them with roughly the same degree of care. Generally there are no grander ambitions than possessing a pig or a wife, although cigarettes are an all-consuming short-term interest.
The staple diet – when pigs are not on the menu – is sweet potatoes cooked over a friction- started fire, in a smoke-choked communal kitchen. Pots, pans and other utensils do not exist, so neither does alcohol, lacking containers for fermentation.
The most colourful and photogenic part of Indonesia’s Baliem experience is Dani fashion. The well-travelled Dani male, outside the central town of Wamena, wears feathers in his hair, pig fat mixed with soot over the upper body, face and hair, and an enormous, inconvenient, stretch penis gourd. Curly or straight, the koteca is 30 -50 cm long, light brown, and held erect by one string around the waist and one around the testicles. Pig tusks through the nose, war paint, and a bundle of spears are optional extras.
Most females also go topless; single women in grass skirts,married ones in woven, coloured string skirts, well below the waistline. The only reason that gravity does not complete their undress is that the skirts, given to them by their husbands on their wedding day, are as tight as a tourniquet, hugging the thighs and lower buttocks. All is not revealed, however, since the women also wear a kind of long string bag moored around their scalps, serving both form and function.
Widows plaster orange mud over their torsos and faces for several months after their husbands die. In addition, what at first may seem to be an epidemic of leprosy, turns out to be the result of removing one finger joint for every dead relative. The amputations are initially concentrated on one hand, so eight joints missing on one hand is commonplace. Older women often have all fingers cut down to stumps.
In spite of this self-mutilation, the Dani women still manage to deal with most of the daily chores (potato cultivation, wood collection, cooking) while many men consider themselves overworked if they have to do more than light a fire.
The Dani, like most eccentric ethnic groups overexposed to Western practices, are changing their ways. Out goes the spectacular koteca, in comes tatty shorts, out goes the bare-chested mama, in comes the sad, shabby, sack lady.
So, next time you are in Bali, pondering your life over a Margarita, consider giving your liver and wrinkles a rest in Dani land, and take home memories and photos that will be with you long after your tan, and the Dani, have gone.
How to do it:
Indonesia’s Baliem valley is warm and wet for much of the year. January to March is said to be the most comfortable season. July and August are the busy months; less seats, less rooms, more tourists, more expense.
Wamena, Balim’s main town, and the market area in particular, is an agreeable introduction to the Dani, but for the real thing you should visit the Balim and adjoining valleys, taking at least two or three days, and staying in Dani villages – probably in the men’s hut.
An experienced English-speaking guide with some knowledge of Dani language is vital for a full exploration of such an alien environment. Few Dani people speak English, and inter-clan rivalries may affect their information and en-route contacts, so unfortunately some of the best guides are from other islands in Indonesia, such as Sulawesi, and not natives of the culture at all.
Trails are convoluted and often wet and slippery, so a guide and hiking boots are equally useful accessories, though not essential. If you are not wild about having sweet potatoes for three meals a day, critical foodstuffs, such as chocolate and peanut butter can be found in Wamena, supplemented, with luck, by vegetables bought on the trail and cooked by your faithful retainer – in his own pots and pans. Alcohol is not available in any form in the valley.