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Beyond The Picket Fence

Columnist: Sherryanne De La Boise
(her mother resides in Stronghurst)

Cannibals in Agats Part 3 of 4

Chicago is an elevated city, built over swampy land. Downtown is one story above ground.

Hard to notice, as the concrete goes from the first floor of every building to the ones adjacent and across the street. But, every building has a lower "ground" floor, above its basement.

Don't believe me? Drive along lower Wacker Drive. Or, the south side of the Art Institute and look down to the ground level train tracks.

So, it doesn't seem strange for the capital city of the cannibals, Agats, to be elevated. I really only notice it in the poverty-ridden areas, where the coverage of the tidal floodplain is rickety, wooden. Although known to the ancient Egyptians and Chinese and later to the Dutch traders, the Asmat, being cannibals, were left alone. Agats was established in 1938, closed for WWII, and re-established in 1953 by Roman Catholic missionaries. Currently, the Indonesian government is using Agats as a base for transforming the Asmat into citizens of the 21st century: middle class taxpayers.

The smell is horrific, what with Turkish toilets (squatters) that empty, not into plumbing, but directly onto the floodplain below, which is rife with plastic bottles and worse.

A daily high tide would wash it clean, but there is a severe drought, made worse by an angry tribal leader upstream refusing to provide drinking water from his reservoir. It's like how you never know how much roadside litter there is, until no one picks it up. All their litter is washed out to the ocean. Please give up plastic containers and bottled drinks.

I had put my hand into the river's water, as we were transported from our vessel to the shore.

Folks who live on clear-water rivers don't understand the feel of water the way that those of us do who live by the muddy Mississippi.

We can feel the remains of cut trees, the debris from flooded towns, the clean of late Summer, the leaves of Fall.

This water feels polluted, like the water of the 1970's. I'm confused: There is no industry upriver.

The large, concentrated city population, that no longer spends time on the river, and the drought have polluted it.

We climb 24 crumbling concrete steps to get onto the wharf. A giant ferry is parked on the wharf's end. Crowds of Asmat are teeming to get aboard. They are very angular, with kinky tufts of black hair; wide cheekbones tautly covered with brown-black flesh; eyebrow bones that jut forward, overhanging and shadowing their dark, piercing eyes; and a menacing scowl. Police everywhere. Are they trying to prevent pickpockets? People are jumping off the wharf to swim in the dirty water and climbing out beside us on the concrete steps.

No, I have jumped to conclusions. So desperate and thirsty, people are being shoved off the wharf into the river below and have to climb out. The ferry captain has been upriver to fill tanks and is selling muddy water to the throngs, which they will boil to use. 80% of the water is spilled in the madness.

Police have been hired to form a line to help us disembark and not get shoved into the river. Confusion reigns. I grab my husband's hand and run. We have to get off that wharf. With his sensible walking boots and camera gear, he would sink.

We are escorted to the Museum Kebudayaan dan Kemajuan Asmat, a museum of tribal carvings (then shaken down for donations).

Using a cell phone mounted to my chest, I take pictures, to study for the next few nights to help me, when I travel far inland.

Their elaborate carvings emphasize the veneration of ancestors and can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NY) and the Tropenmuseum (Amsterdam). Many of the figures were carved to hold the life of the person until retaliation for their death is complete. At that point, the carving is "empty," with no reason to keep it and thus, can be sold. We then go to a shop to be able to purchase items, as seen in the museum. The carvings are beautiful with gallery prices. My husband is shocked that I purchase nothing.

The traders that run the cavernous shop are all Indonesian. They sell to the Sydney, Hong Kong, New York and European galleries.

I'm looking around for ay native Asmat and not seeing one. Scooters zip past us, with double and triple teenaged riders. All are laughing Indonesian or Chinese. I pop into a bank branch. Same.

The only time I see an Asmat is roadside, sitting squat on a blanket, selling bits of fish or sage palm. Never in a store. Never in a police uniform. They are impoverished immigrants in their own country.

My late father-in-law sold newspapers in NYC during the depression. He was not allowed to go home until every paper was sold.

This is true for many women in the markets all over the world.

So, I purchase the entire blanket of goods of one woman, give the food to my fellow travelers to try (half of them will refuse) and then hire her to be my guide, leaving the group.

She wants to show me the public parks, but the police at the gate will not let an Asmat enter. She offers to wait for us, but I want to see where she is living, where she shops, what the economy is for her. Reluctantly, she takes us into an area of terrible poverty, to a two room shack on stilts, very similar to the one she would have left in the village, but even dirtier. No grass skirts. Everyone has western shirts, shorts and skirts. The government requires wearing bras, which they hang on hooks, as soon as they enter the shack (Until this pandemic, I did not realize that most of my friends do the same).

I wear comfortable sandals, yoga pants and a tunic dress. She wears a blouse and a long skirt (and a bra). I am white, fat. My skin is moist. She is emaciated, dark. Her skin is flaking dry.

I carry three water bottles. When I gift them to the children in her hut, it will be the first time they have seen ice. And they are city children.

Piled in a corner are cans of fish and Coke, with an open fire in the middle of the hut. She proudly shows me that they have a bed, used as a sofa. There are more than ten adults and countless children who stay in this hut.

She left her village to go to middle school. There was not money for her to do high school, so she came to the capital city, for a better life (i.e., for lots of capitalist goods like pretty teacher clothes, laundry and cars).

While the men are common laborers, she sells food her family brings weekly from the village.

The police want her to sit in the special Asmat market, but the stall rental fees are high. So, she sits by the side of the road until the police chase her off. It reminds me of the Ethiopians selling phony watches in Manhattan.

I cannot rent the stall for her, even for a day, because jealousy runs rampant. It would put her life in danger.

I cannot send her a box or even a postcard from another place, as she has no address. She does not smile, because she is an Asmat. I do not smile, because she is an Asmat.