05.11.2008

Wamena is the most popular ethnographic location in Papua. In this town you can spend a few nights with real wild Papuan tribes, go hunting with them or floating down the river in a pirogue. This is the only tourist venue in the Papua Province.

The day after a visit to the studio of a local rock band sharp at 6 a.m., Bob and I were already at Nabire airport trying to arrange a charter flight to Wamena. Our principal requirement for the flight was for the plane to make several circles around the summit of Carstensz Pyramid on the way to the final destination to give tourists a chance to take photos of the mountain. Nabire is a home to three airlines only – Aviastar, Trigana and Susi Air. Aviastar turned us down immediately, saying that they simply had no aircraft for the charter, with all planes being busy on regular flights. At Tigrana I spent a long time speaking with the manager who tried to convince me that circling Carstensz Pyramid is impossible, since it involves traveling along completely different air routes that have to be coordinated with Jakarta. Nonetheless, he was willing to arrange a charter flight for us, bringing a plane over from Jayapura or Biak, but we could leave only the next morning. This mostly satisfied us. I gave him the go-ahead to start the arrangements, while Bob and I decided to visit Susi Air office also to keep our conscience clear. I must say that the offices of Trigana and Aviastar were sufficiently representative (as far as offices of small airlines could be in a tiny Indonesian town on the northern coastline of the Papua Province). They could accept our payment via bank transfer only, not in cash. Besides, there were a lot of complications that are normally involved in ordering a charter flight. After all, it’s not like we were buying a pound of sausage at a grocery store. The Susi Air office was a cramped one-room barn-like structure with a single company representative accompanied by hundreds of flies. They seemed to coexist quite comfortably in an apparent state of some final stages of symbiosis – after I invited the manager outside to talk in the fresh air, the flies seemed to feel the invitation included them as well and circled above us for the duration of the entire conversation. The conversation was brief and consisted of just a few phrases: - Charter? Sure, will be ready in 30 minutes.

- Payment? Of course, cash before departure is good.

- Around Carstensz? Sure, no problem. Who cares who, where and why you fly?

Everything boiled down to this: we pay cash and taking off. Despite a higher per-hour charge compared to the prices offered at the Trigana office, there were also more benefits – you pay and fly immediately. As an onlooker, you must have sensed immediately that something was amiss here. But we were not even asked to pay anything in advance.
We were told to come to the airport in half an hour, check out the plane and the pilot, pay up and fly. Thirty minutes later we all gathered at the airport, completed all the formalities to get to the lounge via the front entrance. There we were shown the plane - a 12-seat CESSNA, and the pilot - a white male pacing back and forth on the tarmac and talking on the phone proactively gesturing. We were told he was making arrangements for our flight. At ease, we paid the money and sat in lounge seats waiting for the announcement of our flight. Ten minutes later we were asked to wait half an hour more so the pilot could have breakfast. We agreed, seeing the white male leave the plane and head toward the terminal. The first thirty minutes flew up quickly, with all of us being captivated by Alexei Novosiolov's stories of the kinds of planes, their technical parameters, and the planes he piloted. The following half an hour also passed quickly, as we watched another small plane land on the airfield - a PILATUS plane quite unlike the one we were supposed to take. Alexei started telling us excitedly about the differences between a Cessna and a Pilatus, saying that the Cessna was faster and had better design, while the Pilatus was at least 20 years old. An hour later we came to our senses and asked where our pilot was. That simple question seemed to have puzzled the Susi Air representative. It even seemed that the flies constantly circling above him even froze for a moment in the same kind of stupor he was in. For half an hour more Bob and I tried to get the airline representative, who suddenly lost his gift of speech, to talk. Then it took us another 10 minutes to put all things together and realize that they were trying to fool us and fly us not on the Cessna, but on a cargo plane with a bunch of parcels, which had to be first offloaded at the town of Mulia before the plane would fly to Wamena. A photo-op circle around Carstensz was out of the question. Indignant, we naturally refused to fly and returned to the hotel after reclaiming all our money. Things had been happening contrary to plan since morning, and the only upside to this situation was the unique aircraft insights we got from Alexei. The only thing that kept our hopes up was the fact that the captain of the BELL helicopter was arriving tomorrow, according to schedule, and that perhaps on November 4 we will leave for the base camp. So, on November 3 we decided against repeating our attempt at flying to Wamena, but instead meet with the pilot to discuss everything without haste.

On November 3 they charged us the advance fee for the helicopter flight to base camp and promised we would meet the pilot that evening. In the evening they called and said the pilot would be arriving only on the morning of November 5th. Already driven to a certain limit by a similar situation with yesterday's charter, we decided to reclaim the entire advance pay and not pay them anything until we board the helicopter. As a result, on November 4 we had a ton of spare time and urgently needed to do something about it. We decided to have another attempt at arranging a charter flight to Wamena without making any extra demands in the form of photo-op circles around Carstensz.

Bob and I spent the entire evening of November 3 calling on the phone, trying to arrange a plane for the following day, but neither Trigana nor Aviastar could offer us a charter. Imagine our surprise at getting a call around 10 p.m. from the same fly guide from Susi Air and offered his services again. As I had no other options, I agreed on condition that I would pay 50% of the amount once all tourists were onboard the plane and the remaining half after everybody was safely back on the ground. I stayed in Nabire to resolve issues of gear procurements for the base camp. You may say I was crazy to be dealing with the same person who had fooled us once, but this is Indonesia and this kind of business is order of the day here. It does not happen otherwise, unfortunately. We negotiated the plane we would take, Cessna or the old Pilatus, till midnight. The price was roughly the same for both options, with Cessna being more expensive but faster, and Pilatus cheaper but slower. Converted to Indonesian rupees, the difference was insignificant. On the morning of November 4, I’ve got a call from the airport at 7 a.m., the caller informed me that we would not be able to use Cessna that day, only the Pilatus option was available. It was reluctant to fly the old Pilatus, but we had no other choice. After waking the guys and discussing the situation with them, we decided to fly anyway, at which point we were immediately shocked by a price increase of 30% over yesterday's price. We started to haggle. In the process the other side would keep rushing us, saying that unless we left within the following 5 minutes and wouldn’t pay the whole amount, the plane would take off, leaving us in Nabire. Having learned how to play by local rules, we continued to bargain for another thirty minutes, eventually forcing the counterparty to cut the price nearly by half and agree to our condition that we would give them 50% of the fee only once we were onboard the plane. After we made a deal, we were virtually stuffed into a car and rushed to the airport at breakneck speed as if it was really a matter of seconds. To be frank, we did not hold out much hope that we would fly anywhere, but all this commotion provided at least some change of scenery compared to our daily routine. On arriving at the airport, we were quickly ushered into a one-room barn-like structure with flies, weighed on scales, and rushed back into the car that drove onto the tarmac via a back entrance and seconds later stopped by a brand-new, shiny and oiled plane of the PILATUS series. This was an absolutely new model that even Alexei hadn’t have piloted. This plane could make twice as good time as Cessna. Perhaps it was the reason why we’d managed to have the price halved, since the number of flight hours also decreased precisely twofold. The pilots were two white Americans who politely invited us to board the plane, buckled everybody up and explained safety rules. Fifteen minutes after our arrival at the airport, the plane graciously picked up speed on the runway and took off heading for Wamena. I waved them goodbye and returned to town to finish other business.

That was the news. Stay tuned for updates.

P.S.: Mother, so far I had no time for Dorian fruit - perhaps today I will be able to visit the market and take a photo for you. Kisses.

P.P.S.: Fifteen minutes ago I got a text message from the guys, saying they landed safely in Wamena.