Experiencing the Asmat

It was the third time in two days that my party was attacked by Asmat war canoes. If I were Kira Salak, say, I might have considered this cause for concern. But as the show was carefully orchestrated by my expedition cruise line, I did what everyone else in my zodiac did – raised my camera and started shooting.

My experience among the Asmat – former headhunters who occupy a swath of Indonesia’s West Papua province on the island of New Guinea – caused me to reflect on the nature of an “authentic” cultural experience, and on its increasing rarity in the modern travel scene. While it is still possible to stumble on a village wedding or temple ceremony, and to experience the extraordinary spontaneous hospitality that often ensues, I suspect the majority of us now experience the arts and rituals of native peoples in theaters and hotels. Tour operators create excitement around the possibility that we’ll see an iconic cultural form, while we all know perfectly well that we will. Two days of simulated attacks in West Papua represented for me the extreme form of this cultural packaging.

So I wonder,  is the fact that the Asmat warriors met us with Chinese designer knock-offs under their battle gear, and barely repressed smiles as they tried to spear us, something to be lamented, or something to be embraced as a statement of the way things are now?  Would our experience be labeled inauthentic because it’s no longer the way it used to be, or would the inauthenticity lie in pretending they don’t live differently now? Whatever the answer, I know that the question in no way detracted from my pleasure at the experience, or at the time spent in their remarkable company.

So I hope the Asmat’s hospitality to us was indeed, as we were told, a treasured opportunity to share their culture and to see it valued, and not just another day at the office. And I hope you enjoy this photo tribute.

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