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“How come little brown tree-dwellers in Papua have come to be considered as suitable objects for staring at — as exotic extras on the theatrical stage of tourist spectacle?”

You’ve spent 10,000 years getting there. It’s not pretty but it’s yours—the swamp, the forest, the tree house where you live. Bigger and stronger tribes drove you down from the better land higher up the slopes, so you retreated to a godforsaken place thick with reptiles, insects, and malarial encephalitis. Southern Papua’s rain forests are hell; but at least you feel safe and alone.

Then Zurück in die Steinzeit comes along—a party of Germans looking for tourism’s outer edge, an unknown and uncontacted tribe, a forest fastness to outfast any other. They have their cameras ready and this is what they’ve come for (Zurück in die Steinzeit means Back to the Stone Age)—stark naked little guys with bows and arrows and funny-looking penis sheaths and living in trees. They’re up there on a kind of platform gesticulating: even at $8000 a seat this show is worth the price.


It seems that everywhere today people spend lots of time staring at other people. In some Third World villages they do it because time hangs heavy on their hands. In First World cities they do it because time hangs heavier—the rich, who read less and play more and suffer a surfeit of channels as well as food, are often bored out of their minds. So the bolder of them go on tour to the ends of the earth where “extreme ethno-tourism” can be enjoyed by venturing into the last strongholds of tribal man.

In his book about the tourists now exploring such domains Lawrence Osborne describes them as “a sophisticated variant of the ecotourist.” He concedes in The Naked Tourist that “they are not anthropologists by any means,” but goes on to claim that “they share the anthropologist’s ethos: subtle, invisible contact with fragile and remote peoples, extreme sensitivity, a light touch.”

Now one doesn’t want to be picky. Mr Osborne writes well, is funny, and is highly informative. For all of this we can be grateful. Besides, he unsparingly describes his own motives for joining one of these adventure groups. But in all seriousness, is it possible—is it even imaginable—that a commercial tour operation run by a one-time tennis player from Wisconsin, who inveigles his way into tribal territory, and marches up to the foot of somebody’s tree house in Papua so his customers can meet its occupants, actually represents the “anthropological ethos” with its subtlety, sensitivity, and ‘light touch?’

Who said they wanted to be touched anyway? And even if the touch was light—and a recent BBC film about the man in question, Kelly Woolford, throws some doubt on this—why on earth do westerners imagine they have a right to behave in this way? Would they like a prying cameraman to kick in their own front doors and walk through the house?

How come the little brown tree-dwellers have come to be considered as suitable objects for staring at as if they were architectural ruins like Greek temples, or geological oddities like Monument Valley? In other words, as exotic extras on the global stage of commercially theatricalised tourist spectacle?

For broken and ruined cultures, as in much of Aboriginal Australia, it may be best to put aside the old-time way of life and move on. For some other marginalised tribal groups in industrial societies that seems to me equally true. But it’s not the case here. These inaccessible old-time Papuan cultures are in working order. If the Indonesian government is leaving the people alone, if they’re harming no-one and are happy enough with their lives, why should they be treated as a legitimate target for overripe, underworked, idle, escapist voyeurs?

For that’s what Lawrence Osborne self-confessedly is. He suffers from ennui—compounded with the slothful disease of the spirit called accidie. Work of some kind might be a cure, but that’s not what he wants. He wants out of New York. He wants to escape. He knows intimately what it is to be distracted from distraction by distraction and he’s had enough. An Englishman of middle age who lives on Manhattan, “It came upon me quite suddenly,” he says, “like a mental disorder unknown to psychiatry: the desire to stop everything in normal life, to uproot and leave.” And as one of the city’s permanent transients this wasn’t hard.

Osborne recalls Baudelaire observing that “life is a hospital where every patient is possessed with the desire to change beds,” and from this we can see the therapeutic role the far-away Papuans in their tree-houses are supposed to play. But Osborne’s main reason for travelling so far from home is that the journey itself is an adventure. That’s what Back to the Stone Age offers—exoticism beyond compare, well-organised deals

“touristified and packaged for visitors like myself, the harried escapists of a hemisphere so rich it no longer knows what to do with itself but move.”

The tourist trade

Tourism has a long history. The term “Grand Tour” was first used in a book by Richard Lassels called The Voyage of Italy in 1670. It described, writes Osborne,

an informal journey through the Continent for young British aristocrats, who were usually accompanied by a tutor called a bear leader as they made their way through a galaxy of cultural attractions in France, Switzerland, and Italy. The Tour, as it came to be known, arose because of the new wealth of the English, which made them Europe’s most affluent tourists, but it also expressed an uneasy inferiority complex, a need to Europeanise the manners of their uncouth progeny—their ‘raw boys,’ as Tobias Smollett called them.

For many years the preferred destination was Italy. But some Grand Tourists were less interested in the Colosseum or the marvels of Florentine painting than in the excitements of Venice and Naples: these cities “were the Bangkok and Manila of the Age of Enlightenment”, writes Osborne, and the entertainment they offered had little to do with ruins. The Tour not only improved the mind, it acquainted the body with the diversions pointed to by Daniel Defoe when he wrote in 1701: “Lust chose the Torrid Zone of Italy, Where Blood ferments in Rapes and Sodomy.”

The author claims that Italy’s development into “the world’s first truly tourist nation” could never have happened without prostitution, or without “the reputation for sexual ease that eventually lured English women as well.” Yet Italy’s two most lasting contributions were more mundane: the infrastructural model for the tourist trade it provided (hotels, restaurants, theatres, brothels), and the experiential possibility of personal growth and development in other cultures and balmier climes. One might like to think that it also helped young men mature, but Boswell’s Italian experiences merely confirmed his rackety ways. In Naples, he wrote, “My passions were violent. I indulged them; my mind had nothing to do with it.”

Historically, perhaps, the author of The Naked Tourist doesn’t go quite as far back as he might. Long before Thomas Nugent wrote a guidebook called The Grand Tour in 1749, and long before Richard Lassels wrote The Voyage of Italy in 1670, Pausanias, sometime in the second century AD, wrote a Guidebook to Greece. Mary Beard tells us in her useful little book The Parthenon (2003) how by that date Athens was both a university town and “a notable high spot in the ancient ‘heritage trail’; its monuments were tourist attractions almost as much as they are today.”

Monuments of course can stand anything. Monuments don’t care. Voyeurs may stare rudely at a monument forever without giving offence. But living people are different. Certainly something altogether different is involved in marching onto their turf and staring voyeuristically at the last stone age populations on the planet. Do the tree-dwellers in southern Papua need harried western escapists? Or would they rather be left alone?

East to Papua

From New York the author skips eastwards port by port—to Dubai, to Calcutta, to the Hedonopolis of Bangkok, to Bali, and finally to Papua itself. In Dubai the resident sheik is building an Arabian folly—several follies in fact—with endless villas on miles of artificial water frontage to house thousands of billionaires. In the contrasting poverty of Calcutta Claude Levi-Strauss had found only filth and vultures, but Osbourne revels in nostalgie de la boue: “I felt I was inside a nightmare to which I had taken a liking. No relatives, no friends, no phones ringing, no connection to anything: just a city teeming with birds and goats, with millions of strangers sleeping outdoors.”

Economy class visitors to Bangkok find its medical services unignorable (the Thais have “reinvented medicine to make it something it has never been in all its short if illustrious history: a pleasure”). A million patients a year come to Bumrungrad, the biggest private hospital in Southeast Asia and a complex where along with restaurants, shops, and galleries, hundreds of treatments are gathered under one roof, including a Cosmetic Surgery unit famous for its “sex reassignment surgery”. After thirteen cowardly years Osborne decides it’s time for dental repairs, gets surgery that would have cost $8000 in New York for $383, and notes appreciatively that the female staff were “hand-selected for attributes little associated with the rigors of dentistry.”

And so to Papua’s people in the trees—and to Mr Kelly Woolford, the man whose trekking company Papua Adventures runs First Contact tours. Lawrence Osborne finds him a generally attractive figure and I think he’s right. Though naively boyish, Woolford certainly knows what he’s doing. Long ago Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock foresaw an expanding recreational industry in which “the experience-makers will form a basic—if not the basic—sector of the economy”. Identities would be consciously refashioned, and leisure would be redefined in therapeutic and experiential terms.

Transforming experiences for the too-comfortable and the bored is exactly what Woolford sells. He tells Osborne that his last client had been a British investment banker who “thanked him afterward for changing his life.” They’d met the Kombai, and the miracle-working combination of hardship en route, and authentic tribals to stare at on arrival, worked wonders. This, says Woolford talking to Osborne, often happens with the very rich:

Because everywhere is like everywhere now. It’s all a bore.

So they want a transformation?

Don’t we all?

In the course of their therapeutic tour the visitors inevitably change the tribal people themselves, the very ones they have come to see. Even though the Korowai and the Kombai are interested in modern clothes, and some wear them whenever they can, Osborne realizes that “eventually it must always occur to an indigenous people that their primitivity is what is most valuable about them in the eyes of outsiders. Primitivity—always naked and in feathers—is the one economic asset they possess.” If they appear in ragged jeans they will seem corrupted; and corrupted primitives could never provide the needed therapy.

Adventure tales always require An Ordeal. Osborne struggles through dense sago palm swamps, miles of thick slime crossed over a network of fallen logs. “Soaked in a toxic mix of sweat, DEET repellent, and black mud smelling of fermenting beer—the rotting sago palms”, he stands on an unstable log and crashes into the swamp, to lie there like a stricken animal under lashing rain… But after these excitements the key question we asked at the beginning remains: what exactly will be the relation of the voyeur to the viewed? How is it negotiated?

There’s supposed to be a protocol for visiting tree houses, “a delicate diplomacy whose rules must be followed to the letter.” Emissaries are sent with gifts, usually tobacco, asking permission to enter the premises. But if they do not receive permission what then? Or if the people are found to be less than pure and pristine, wearing western clothing or ornaments—not “uncontacted”—how will Woolford respond? His clients have paid $8000 each for their tour. He has boldly claimed to introduce them to natives who have “never seen a white man before”. Won’t everyone be compromised if the claims are not true? And what are the stories of others who have been on First Contact tours?

Michael Behar’s report

Outside is a magazine about travel, gear, bodywork, and exotic cultures. On its website you can read about the no-fall zone on Everest, all-mountain jackets, the Djidji River in Gabon, Reinhold Messner and eco-friendly jeans and killer squids. One of its contributors is the writer Michael Behar, a former editor at Wired and National Geographic. Last December he was holding forth about sex in space (‘The Zero-G Spot’), but more to our purpose is a report he wrote in February 2006 about a Woolford trek.

Well-researched, it contains facts and opinions from prominent anthropologists who know the region. But readers of Outside magazine don’t want too much of that. For a teaser Behar describes Woolford’s hazardous inaugural trek in 2003 when “eight tribesmen emerged and pointed arrows at their heads.” Questioned later as to why he went along, an Austrian veterinarian says “I like to see things that other people haven’t—I guess that’s a problem I have. My wife tells me to leave the natives alone. Sometimes I wonder why I go.” So it appears that for this man ethno-voyeurism is a form of trophy hunting. His wife disapproves, and says so, but it makes him look good back in Vienna.

Behar himself joins the second trip in 2004. They’re going into the same region, and he wonders aloud if the tribe they’re planning to meet are the same guys who in 2003 “chased you out of the jungle.” Yes, says Woolford, “But the hope is we can soften them up with tobacco, then convince them to take us farther upriver to the next tribe.” One remembers Osbourne’s “ subtle, invisible contact with fragile and remote peoples.” It doesn’t sound like that. It sounds more like old-time trinket-trading. It is knowing and guileful: suck one in, then suck the rest. “If we make friends with these guys from last year,” says Woolford, “they will be able to take us to the location of the other guys… You can’t just barge right in and bust into their camp. They’ll be angry and we’ll lose everything.”

That’s how they proceed, cautiously day by day, until suddenly

All hell breaks loose. There’s hysterical screaming and shouting. It’s the natives, who leap through the back of the bivouac. Twigs are snapping in every direction. I hear bare feet slapping the mud, more yelling, and bursts of frantic, hyperventilated babble.

Within seconds the natives have surrounded us, almost entirely camouflaged by the jungle. They’re about 40 feet away. To my right I see one lean out from behind a tree, then pull his bowstring taut and release it. I wince, then exhale. The bow is empty: no arrow.

Another man does the same to my left. Then two others move to within 20 feet and twice more pull and release their bowstrings. It’s a show of force—they could have shot us dead already if that was their goal.

Enter the BBC

But is it a hoax? Maybe the arrowless bows indicate a set-up? Did Kelly Woolford organise the whole thing in advance? Is this in fact a piece of engineered showbiz right at the last frontier? A new documentary by Indus Films for the BBC, First Contact, allows those of us who can only stare at natives vicariously on television make some sort of judgment for ourselves. It contains video from the 2003 trip (which looks very convincing), accompanies the engaging Englishman Mark Anstice into the jungle, and follows Woolford step by step on another venture.

It also has interviews examining the ethics of the whole operation, and here George Mionbot of The Guardian, Fiona Watson of Survival International, and I myself, are broadly in agreement. Each of us are interviewed, and our comments are edited here and there into Mark Anstice’s Papuan journey, alongside his own doubts and ruminations. None of us are comfortable about what is going on. We all see serious risks—Ms Watson emphasizing the well-known fact that visitors bringing diseases no more serious than the common cold have in the past wiped out whole tribal populations.

Yet everyone from Osborne to Mark Anstice finds Woolford sincere and likeable, a romantic nature-boy genuinely in love with the terrain and its people. This comes through strongly in the film. His naivete is however a worry. And when push comes to shove—when in the BBC film he fails to persuade the Papuans to allow him to visit their village—it starts getting a little ugly.

He speaks with annoyance to his loyal Papuan assistant and claims to have been let down. He looks with irritation at one of his hosts wearing a necklace of plastic beads, then roughly fingers it, making the helpless little man shake with terror merely because his chosen ornament doesn’t fit Woolford’s vision of Uncorrupted Primeval Man. The plasticized necklace also doesn’t fit what Woolford has told the BBC he will deliver, and he evidently feels it makes him look like a fraud. Yet this is only because what he is offering his clients, a once-only never to be repeated eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, is essentially absurd.

Consider the following. The BBC show Woolford’s party of visiting tourists handing on surplus clothing to the Papuan tribal people, much of it bright red, warm, and useful at the colder altitudes in the interior. Chances are this will be traded with people further up into the mountains (just as the plastic necklace was traded)— the self-same pristine people Woolford may be looking to visit next year. And if he does visit them? With another party of tourists at $8000 a head? Then he’s going to be disappointed yet again. These “uncontacted” tribal people may indeed never have stood eyeball to eyeball with visiting Europeans, but they will have certainly heard of them, and will already have been corrupted—standing there in Woolford’s very own discarded clothing!

Their world, our stage

Much is made in the BBC documentary First Contact of the possibility that the whole thing is a hoax, a conspiracy between the tribal people and Kelly Woolford himself. He himself regards such suspicions and accusations as entirely crazy—and I must say I agree. The notion that either this amiable American or anyone else could direct, control, and manage these independent tribal people—let alone do it conspiratorially or invisibly from afar—deserves all the mockery he throws at it.

His onsite Papuan agents speak the language of the bush people only awkwardly, if at all. Elementary misunderstandings continually occur. The people themselves do not use a calendar or daily timetable, and every field anthropologist knows how extraordinarily difficult it is to know what is going on, or where, or when. Confusion builds upon confusion—as indeed it does when, contrary to Woolford’s initial understanding, the people refuse to allow the BBC party to proceed.

What the entire “first contact” tourist operation provides is yet another illustration of our insatiable need for theatricalized versions of life to take us out of ourselves, and the commercialization of exotic “experiences” for harried urban escapists willing to pay for their pleasures in Bangkok or beyond. In brief, we demand the world as spectacle, life as theatre, existence as exhibition—with more and more people staring at more and more people, directly as live tourists or indirectly through a thousand screens, while voyeurismo takes over the world.

Posted in Tribalism, Notes.

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