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.