First published in The Daily Telegraph 23rd November 2021.
Not so long ago, I went to track down an old friend – a friend who lived in the forbidding Central Range of Papua New Guinea, tucked away in one of the most isolated settlements on the planet. A few from the community did venture out, it was said, but only rarely. No footpath led there, and no footpath led away.
Meeting Korsai (centre of the Yaifo group) 30 years ago
Together with a handful of Papuan friends I set off up the mountain through a rugged treescape that was, thanks to its permanent cloud cover, less mapped than the Amazon. Through the mist we climbed, just as I had on my visit of almost thirty years before. And as I slogged upslope, I became more and more determined to discover why this hamlet, just two hundred or so individuals collectively known as the Yaifo, had chosen to remain so isolated.
Finally, we arrived. There was consternation, suspicion – much worrying activity with bows and arrows – but soon this gave way to recognition and joy. I hugged my friend. ‘Benedik! Benedik!’ he kept repeating. In turn I repeated his name – ‘Korsai! Korsai!’ – and for a while just these two shared words seemed enough. A pig was killed, I passed around pictures I’d taken of us still in our prime, a generation ago.
Later, Korsai and I had time to reflect properly on our lives – mine that of moderately typical Westerner, someone who was able, back home, to order a pizza or cab with a few taps on his phone. And his life, one restricted to the moss-laden trees. Why then, had he stayed up here? What was to be gained from a – let’s face it – rather damp place that had a complete absence of modern healthcare.
For, though there were people in the world as remote, the difference was that they – the last remaining bands of nomads in Brazil and the Sentinelese Islands – were scared, cornered, on the run. The Yaifo, on the other hand, could easily have headed off to Bisorio, the American mission station down in the lowlands, as all their neighbours had. Back in the 1980s the evangelists had certainly offered plenty of inducement, including free medicine, T-shirts and salvation. I put it to Korsai: ‘Didn’t you ever feel you were missing out?’
‘Not for long! Off our neighbours went, and we were left alone on the mountain. And we loved the missionaries – because they’d taken those neighbours away! We didn’t need to worry about being attacked anymore. Also, we didn’t have to get up in the night to attack them!’
Now the Yaifo women could go off to tend the gardens without fear; the gardens were expanded and no-one ever went hungry; health dramatically improved.
A selfie with Korsai on my return a few years ago.
This unlikely triumph of the Yaifo – the Americans eventually left, leaving those they’d enticed down the mountain in the name of God not only in the fetid swamplands but with a highly infectious skin fungi – stayed with me long after my departure. Against all odds, these steadfast people had pulled through.
And this set me thinking more widely about what it means to be isolated – not be able to get a doctor, a Pepsi, a decent mobile connection. Achieving a state of isolation is, in a sense, the attraction of going on holiday – we wish to distance ourselves from our humdrum lives or worries. We seek out where we might ‘switch-off,’ be disconnected – the empty beach, the distant care-free bar. Others go yet further, trekking the Fjords or riding the Mongolian steppe, seeking lands beyond the horizon of our everyday. And then there’s Bhutan, the myth-clouded land of the Thunder Dragon.
Far from welcoming us back – the country is one of the few yet to announce a date for re-opening, post Covid – the Himalayan kingdom is not sure it ever really wanted many of us in the first place. ‘High value, low impact’ is the policy – and that means weeding out impecunious backpackers on the one hand, and mass tourism on the other; they’ll limit themselves to those who are helpful to them.
The odd thing about Bhutan, of course, is that the country is, far from being a relic of the past, somewhere in various ways ahead. When the government – it’s a constitutional monarchy – began experimenting with tourism in the 1970s, they set up a National Happiness Index, establishing a body tasked with polling the populace on nine ‘key areas’: health, psychological well-being, good governance, education, ecology, time use, community strength, living standards and culture. Thus, they banned plastic bags back in 1999. Put another way, the lessons we have learned from Covid – for example that there are pleasures to be found beyond mindless consumerism – the Bhutanese discovered before us through their own, voluntary isolation.
But back to Yaifos, and their own rare perspective. Throughout the 20th century, the other inland communities in PNG had ended their isolation. The many opportunities presented by our post-modern existence beckoned, and one by one they chose to join us or were forced to. ‘Prepare to be assimilated,’ as the Borg say, and the Papuans loosened their allegiance to their own ways, surrendering their independence – and often identity – for a chance to take part in the general human endeavour. But was it worth the swap?
This was the very question put to me, up in the Central Range, not by Korsai but the younger Yaifos, those whose lives still lay ahead. A doctor SOUNDED a good idea, they said, but was it? Having a road SOUNDED great too, but was it?
At the time, I replied that it wasn’t for me to say. All I knew was that our lives weren’t perfect, and nor were theirs. But, since my visit, Covid has rendered not just the Yaifo but whole nations isolated. Just like that lone mountain community we too find ourselves standing apart. And many of us too are seizing the chance to take stock, weighing up what you lose when you gain the world.