Reconnection with Old Friends

Some things never change. I have missed sitting with friends in the river during a hot afternoon, getting caught up on village news.

Elliot and Evan spent much of their time in the river as well. It took them a while to adjust to village life, the heat, lack of familiar food, no running water or electricity, bathroom facilities or electronics.  But as most kids do, they adapted and eventually made friends.


Arriving in Fayu Territory

Several years ago, due to increasingly frequent raids by neighboring tribal groups, chief Kologwoi decided to move the main group of the Iyarike clan away from the Klihi river where they were exposed, 15 miles upstream toward their hunting grounds on a small tributary known as the Dirouw.

I didn’t know what to expect as we took off from Faui on the short 20 minute flight to Dirouw. I had last spent time with the Fayu in the summer of 1998 helping my mother with her school in Foida. Many of the people I knew as young children were now adults with children of their own.

As I got out of the plane and rubbed foreheads with the Fayu it felt like I had come home.

“It has been a very long time.” they tell me, “but now you are here with us!”

Village Life

The village of Faui is situated alongside a clear mountain river at the edge of the towering central mountain range. The world’s only tropical glaciers and highest point between the Andes and Himalayas, the Carstenz Pyramid (Puncak Jaya) loom above, hidden in the clouds. The people of Faui and surrounding area speak a tonal language (comprising 8 tones), Iau. Though a completely different language than Fayu, it is descended from a common Lakes Plain language.

Travel to the interior requires prior approval and travel permits, known as a Surat Jalan. You must check in with both the police and military outposts (if present) at each location you’re traveling through. Faui has both a small military barracks of about 8 men and a police outpost of around 4. While everyone is friendly, these positions are held by Indonesians on hardship rotation from Java and other non-Papuan islands. Their facilities are protected by rows of 50-gallon drum barrels filled with rocks: there is a fine line between law enforcement and an occupying force, but right now, relationships seem to be good.

We stayed with Janet in her village house, spending the remainder of the day setting up our sleeping bags and mosquito nets, as well as helping Janet unpack. Alistair, master of all electronics, got to work hooking up the solar panels and diagnosing a faulty inverter. The boys had their first taste of sago though declined the roasted grubs that came along with it.

This was my first visit to Faui. My parents had visited on occasion, including a trip my father and brother made canoeing across several river systems and trekking through the jungle from Fayu territory to Iau. At the time, it was the only place with a functional airstrip to catch a ride on the Helio Courier back to Danau Bira.

The village includes a school and a basic medical facility, along with the government posts. Villagers live in huts spread out between fruit trees, vegetable gardens, and pathways. Chickens with identifying bits of string tied to a wing or leg, pigs, and dogs roam about freely.

We spent the next couple of days introducing the boys to village life, bathing in the river just before dusk, going to bed shortly after sunset, and rising at daybreak.

We decided to go out on a jungle trek the day after our arrival. The trail through the jungle was challenging. I had already sunk knee deep into the mud on several occasions and was faced with the realization that I was no longer a 20 something haphazardly gallivanting over tree trunks and through swampy river beds.

Now to my defense I was wearing my sandals. Unfortunately, though, they only contributed to my fall as I slid down a muddy embankment landing firmly with my sandals half off on top of a layer of sago thorns. The inch-long thorns embedded themselves into my heel as well as the bottom of my left foot. I was already behind the others (got to stop and smell the roses) and now was saddled with the task of pulling the thorns out of my foot. The two Faui villagers with me and I had a bonding moment. Sago palm thorns as no fun to pull out.

Giving the injured foot a rest, we took a dugout canoe several hours upriver to the village of Tirumo the following day. There is nothing like a spending several hours on a river weaving through the jungle landscape, how I had missed this! There is something about the never-ending sea of green that is compelling and calming.img_8859img_8867





In many ways, I was an unusual little German girl: I herded goats in Nepal as a four-year-old and spoke multiple languages before the time most children start school. Yet, as many little girls do, there was a superhero I idolized. My heroine had a name: Aunt Janet. In my mind, she was the most beautiful, talented, and awe-inspiring person I had ever met. I was about eight years old when I first met her: between times we were not in Foida with the Fayu, we lived at a forward staging base called Danau Bira on a small lake in the hills on the edge of the Mamberamo Lake Plain. Aunt Janet had long red hair that reached down almost to her knees. She had a soft voice, and when she spoke to me, her eyes would sparkle. I wanted to be just like her when I grew up.

I’ve now known Janet for almost 40 years; I still want to be like her when I grow up. Janet works as a linguist in Papua. She has spent the past four decades creating, documenting, and refining, a written language for Iau, one of the tonal lakes plain languages along the Van Daalen river. She is now seventy years old and has no intention of retiring.

I was thrilled when she invited us to spend time with her in the village of Faui, where she has lived and worked for the past several decades.

Faui is a beautiful little village set next to a cool mountain river that flows into the much larger Van Daalen: a perfect place to begin our trip through the utterly remote lakes plain jungle and swamp to reconnect with my childhood and teenage home and people.

Lake Sentani

Elliot and Evan in the PC-6

Faui Airstrip

Wings equal Shade

The walk to the village from the airstrip

Faui homes

Dugout canoes at Faui