Engros: Supported by Stilts

October 12, 1991

Daniel S. Weld

Approaching the restaurant, we were greeted by a half-blind Iguana. My expectations for a luxurious resort on the shore of Lake Sentani ``with waterskiing and bungelow-style accommodations'' were fulfilled as we passed a murky pen of scrawny goldfish, fenced off from the lake (and shielded from the lizard) with cheap screening. I left Margaret to go wash my hands. As anticipated, the western-style plumbing was broken; next to the sleekly sculpted wash-basin sat a large bucket of water and a plastic scoop. Even the drain had been disconnected --- it now emptied to the floor and drained outside through a hole in the wall. The image reminded me of the morning's visit to the Museum Negiri: the lights had flickered on and shut off with a disorienting frequency. Our study of the Asmat trophy sculls and stuffed Birds of Paradise was continually suspended by the shroud-like darkening of the display cases. Coincidentally, we had brought headlamps, and they proved invaluable.

Rejoining Margaret on the lakeside porch, I admired the establishment's taste in decorations: Marlboro posters and the ubiquitous yet vaguely incomprehensible picture of the national mascot, a purple rhinoceros draped with a sash reading ``Visit Indonesia Year 1991.'' Sipping my cold Bintang, I gazed over the expanse of water to the lush green foothills rising steeply from the opposite shore. Behind them, cloaked in clouds, the tangled jungle rode rugged mountains up to a height of 16,000 feet.

From across the lake a boat approached: a thirty-five foot dugout canoe chiseled from a single massive tree, powered by a 40 hP Yamaha outboard and carrying twenty Dutch tourists with room to spare. The tourists stepped up on the craft's magnificent carved prow, hopped onto the dock, and clamored into the restaurant for their package feast. I reclined, relaxing to the rhythmic sound of the sheet metal roof banging in the stiff breeze, and reflected on the previous night ...

We had just returned from a week-long trek in the stone-age highlands where we gingerly crossed rushing torrents on frayed bamboo suspension bridges, greeted penis-sheathed (but otherwise naked) Dani tribesmen with the traditional embrace, and ate steaming-hot sweet potatoes fresh from the embers in a smokey honai (a circular, thatch-roofed men's hut). Dazed from the return to civilization and facing a 48-hour layover before our next flight, we decided to visit Engros, a small fishing village supported by stilts in Jayapura bay.

A few crowded and confusing bemo rides brought us to the appropriate police station where we acquired the necessary permits and stamps. Finally we made our way to the Abe beach where we bargained with a youngster for passage on his motorized outrigger canoe (called a Johnson by the locals despite the now uniform use of Japanese motors). The price set, we shed shoes and climbed aboard to cheers of a troupe of children who had clustered by to witness the transaction. A fresh wind relieved the tropical heat, but spat droplets of salt spray as I tried to photograph the receding shore. After rounding a small headland whose limestone cliffs were carpeted green down to the tidal mark, we headed for Engros.

As we neared the fishing village, our view improved, quickening our pulses. The community was unlike anything I had ever seen: perched entirely on stilts atop flooded mud flats, the network of docks, ramps, homes and porches was nowhere connected to land. Nearby, however, the barest finger of a barrier island provided shelter from the surf of the outer harbor. Golden afternoon light bathed the ramshackle houses of the suspended shanty town as we coasted to a landing in search of a room for the night. Margaret set off towards the tiny steel-roofed church in search of accommodation while I made friends with the crowd of giggling-shy children that had flocked to welcome us. She returned in failure so we pushed off and motored over to some nearby shacks that were disconnected from the main village. Eventually we were directed to the home of the Kepala Desa (village chief) whose wife shyly agreed to host us while constantly apologizing for her unworthy house.

A quick investigation confirmed the dwelling's basic nature. The bleached-grey planks of the front dock were warped and not fixed in place, yielding treacherous cracks and holes. The patchwork siding was similarly aged, but was adorned with a sequence of potted cacti and other decorative plants. Inside, a half-hearted attempt at a linoleum floor gave way in a few yards to the same coarse sequence of irregular boards. It was disconcerting to see the fluid glint of waves beneath one's feet while in the living room. In the rear of the house sat a large wood-fired stove surrounded by blackened pots, and greens soaking in plastic bowls. Behind was another dock/porch with a small screened area for the toilet (simply a hole in the floor), and nearby a separate stilted pen held the family pig. No room contained a bed or even rattan mat, but our host was so friendly and the surroundings so unusual that we chose to spend the night. The {\it Johnson} pushed off and buzzed shorewards. We sat on the dock with our new friends, watched men paddle outrigger prahu to floats and pull in nets gleaming silver with fish, smelled the salt air and breathed the aroma of aging seafood.

As the sun and waning moon set over the mountains, we practiced Indonesian with our Betel chewing companions. In markets previously I had found the red leer induced by the nut somewhat disturbing, but tonight I tried the stimulant. Alas, although my tongue grew numb and saliva became copious, the taste was too bitter for long endurance. I soon spat the fibrous mess through a crack in the planks to be whisked away by the irresistible tides.

We discovered that 630 inhabitants lived in the stilt community and that, besides the national language, Bahasa Indonesia, they spoke an indigenous dialect unintelligible to any of Irian Jaya's other peoples; our guidebooks prophecy of Babel appeared true! As darkness fell, our family lit a kerosene lantern. We were told that the village had electricity when the Americans were here (WWII), but now no longer. Other relics of MacArthur's campaign were the pitted and corroded sheet metal roofs of the town's houses (also forming the tiny church's proud steeple). These apparently had been salvaged from marine wreckage of Japanese and U. S. warships.

We were beckoned inside for dinner in the front room and seated in two lonely chairs. Despite our previous pleas that we had recently dined and wanted only what the family would normally eat, a humble feast appeared: steamed clams, tomato and fish stew, spicey-sauced spinach and a huge bowl of rice with glasses of intensely sweet tea to drink. The ten members of the extended family sat at the perimeter and encouragingly watched every bite.

Completely stuffed, we retired to the dock's cool breeze and continued our conversation with the Kepala Desa. Soon, out of the darkness, a small fleet of prahus appeared. Youngsters climbed up onto the porch (the tide much lower now) and scampered past us into the front room. Singing soon followed and we determined that this was the weekly Bible School. Eventually the participants retreated to their outriggers, paddled home, and the hymns gave way to the muted sounds of sea birds and the distant crash of breakers on the far side of the barrier island which was barely visible in the night 100 meters away. We drifted quickly to sleep despite the unyielding planks that formed the bedding.

We awoke just before dawn when the family's children, who had already eaten breakfast, tiptoed onto the dock, shifting the angle of our wooden ``mattress'' with a sequence of loud creaks. Gracefully, they climbed into a prahu and paddled off to school on the mainland, a journey that would take between 30 minutes and two hours depending upon the tides.

The breakfast scene mirrored dinner. The myriad attentive eyes prevented relaxation, but the food was delicious: pancakes from sago-palm flour rolled with coconut and brown sugar and a plate of sweet donut-like dumplings.

When offered the services of the Kepala Desa's son as a chauffeur, we jumped for the prahu. Margaret paddled bow while I sat in the middle with my camera. The town receded as we hugged the shore of the barrier isle, peering through the shore's tangle of undergrowth. After an hour we pushed through the mangrove maze and beached the outrigger in the mud. Here the island was especially narrow and 10 meters of trail brought us to the crest where mangrove gave way to sago palms (whose starchy trunk core, suitably pounded, filtered and cooked, we had just eaten) and a deserted white sand beach. While our companion dozed beneath a palm, Margaret and I seized the opportunity to bathe. The turquoise water seemed warmer than any heated pool in my experience.

Returning to the village we paddled past the misshapen and mostly submerged wreckage of an unidentifiable WWII ship. Peering down through the clear water at purple sea urchins upon the corroded remains, it was difficult to imagine the massive scale of the global conflict and its effect on the community here.

We landed again at the main complex of the stilt village and barely had time to explore before our Johnson rumbled to a landing to take us back to the mainland. We thanked our hosts, haggled a bit over the price, but made a donation to the town and bid them farewell. It was a wonderful and friendly view of an alien life style: completely different from the others we witnessed on the island of New Guinea.

My beer is drained, but most recently it was Singha, not the Bintang with which I started this tale. In the intervening days, we have been transported (it must be magic!) to Bangkok. Outside our floating cafe flows the major canal. Illuminated by an incongruous combination of neon green lamps and the purple sunset glow, I write this account. Incongruity is the word that captures this city best: hairless, orange-robed monks clutching autofocus cameras and pondering the purchase of ice cream, shanty town settlements with filthy huts illuminated by the flicker of a color TV, densely packed shopping malls studded with tiny shops selling computer software or fried noodles. The only point of solidity appears to be Buddhism --- magnificent temples gleam with gold stupas and jade statues. In the brown canal floats discarded offerings: a tiny yellow flag rising amongst saffron flowers nestled in a float of green.

But our adventures in Thailand are another story...