Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Selling of the Last Savage

by Michael Behar
from The Best American Travel Writing 2006

How can you not like a selection that begins with a sentence like this: “I’m somewhere in a godforsaken rain forest on the north coast of West Papua, Indonesia, and I’m ready to get the hell out of here.” Talk about gripping. The rest of Behar’s account is no less so as he recounts his experiences on an expedition called First Contact, an exploratory trek in West Papua in which participants attempt to make contact with tribes who have never seen outsiders. Several times throughout the piece, Behar questions whether First Contact is a hoax. We’re never entirely sure if it is, mainly because, even after all that he experiences on the trek, Behar is never entirely sure himself. One thing Behar is sure of though is his very real fear when, at one point, members of a native tribe rush out of the bush shooting arrows above his head. If it is a hoax, it is apparently very well done.

Besides the question of whether there are even “uncontacted” tribes left to be discovered, Behar questions whether it’s even ethical to “contact” these tribes if there were. At one point during the expedition, Behar says, “That’s when I notice that their hands are trembling. They look absolutely terrified. A wave of guilt washes over me…‘We shouldn’t be doing this. They’re really freaked out.’” Is it ethical to seek out remote jungle tribes just for the cheap thrill – if $8, 000 a pop could be considered cheap – of getting a peek at a people never seen before? Consider this: What if you, living the way that you do, eating the way that you do, were the out-of-date oddity (Brave New World anyone?)? How pissed off and terrified would you be if some scary-looking stranger invaded your home, inspected your life, and took pictures to show the amazed family back home? I don’t know about you, but I think a lot of people might do what some West Papuans do: shoot first and ask questions later.

At one point during the expedition, Kelly Woolford, the creator and leader of First Contact, says to Behar, “Papuans are scared of the unknown.” The question is: At the end of the day, aren’t we all?

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