A trip in search of undiscovered tribes in West Papua, Indonesia, might sound like a bizarre idea to some, but for freelance journalist Michael Behar, this sounded like a good story. In front of an audience of 50 to 60 people at the McCormick Tribune Center, Behar discussed his extraordinary experience in West Papua on Thursday for the 12th Annual Greg Hinderyckx Travel Writing Lecture.
Behar had freelanced for several magazines, includingOutside, when, in 2004, he discovered Papua Adentures, a Web site that offers a “First Contact” expedition to the Papuan jungles to meet tribesmen who had never been in contact with Westerners. After extensive research, Behar submitted a pitch to Outside, who accepted his proposal.
“Now, at that point, I was a guy from Seattle who had done some technology writing and I had this mad idea that I could be an adventure travel writer and make a living out of it, but I never really thought anyone would treat me seriously,” Behar said. “And when they did, I kind of freaked out, because now I was committed to spending a month in the jungle with someone [the travel guide] who seemed a little wacky looking for potentially hostile tribes.”
In September 2004, Behar embarked on the journey the Papuan forest with photographer Stephen Dupont, travel guide Kelly Woolford, another traveler and half a dozen porters. Behar described the trip conditions to the audience with the help of pictures of the pouring rain, the smoldering heat, and the camps made out of branches and leaves.
On the fifth day of the trip, the party encountered a group of natives in a shelter, who reacted apprehensively to the presence of the group. Behar showed a video of the scene. The audience members looked silently as the screen showed a bushy green forest, with the alternating cries of the natives and Yakobus, one of the porters. The natives quickly scattered, only to start circling Behar and his group, barely visible behind the vegetation. The porter, despite the language barrier, convinced the natives to go back to their shelter, in which he and the photographer were able to enter.
After this encounter, Behar said he and the photographer were rather skeptical: Was this a real undiscovered tribe or just a hoax? The natives had lined up, as if posing for pictures and seemed rather muscular, despite the absence of protein on this part of the island. However, Behar recalled distinctively that their hands were shaking, “and that’s real fear,” Behar said.
After the encounter, the group returned to their bush camp. Behar said he and his photographer ready to give up on the trip and get out of there as fast as they could. However, that night a group of natives attacked their camp, “shooting arrows right over our heads. They came out of nowhere,” said Behar. “To be honest, if I’d had a weapon on me, I would have opened fire on these guys.”
Five minutes later, the natives all lined up once more and sat for a couple of minutes, refusing the tobacco that Yakobus was offering them, before receding into the forest.
Once Behar came back from this daunting trip, he made numerous phone calls to anthropologists to figure out if they had seen actual undiscovered natives. Although they had doubts, none were able to tell Behar for sure that these were “fake” tribesmen.
After three additional weeks of researching, Behar published his article in Outside. Behar was interviewed by several radio outlets, including NPR, regarding the piece and although he has since traveled to places such as Brazil and Rwanda for some of his stories, his Papuan experience remains paramount in his career.
“The reporting and the writing of that story really changed my perspective on the developing world,” Behar said. “That may sound a little bit grandiose, but it honestly made me question my ethical responsibility as a writer and as a traveler.”
On Friday, North by Northwestern got a chance to interview Behar.
Listen to a clip of Behar discussing why he needed to travel and the importance of seeing the world.
Listen to a clip of Behar talking about quitting a job to travel around the world.
Listen to a clip of Behar explaining how his father’s travels influenced his own.