I’ve done a lot of traveling in the last 7 years, and one thing I never fail to procrastinate on is keeping an up to date journal. I think I might have out-not-done myself this time, though. The last entry written before last night, when I buckled down for a long haul and a cramped hand in Kuala Lumpur Airport, was for Brandon, Manitoba back in early July. I wouldn’t recommend this kind of record keeping for anybody, but the silver lining was potent – I just relived the past nearly 3 months of this campaign over the course of a collective 10 hours. And since it’s past time that I send out a blog anyways, I’ll call the situation inspirational.
I was walking my bicycle through the crowded, narrow alleyways of Amsterdam’s Red Light District a few days ago. It was about 6pm, still light out, and even on a Monday night the Dutch capital’s famous debauchery was in evidence all around me. I’ve never been particularly drawn to sightseeing, despite having travelled so much, and while Amsterdam is certainly a city I’ve always wanted to visit, I felt no different here. The stunning and unmistakably Dutch architecture lining the famous canal system, arching symmetrically away from the central tourist area, still just felt like having a wander. I prefer the adventure of meeting new people over seeing new places, every time.
It was during these few hours that I took away from events and planning to just go and see the city, however, that I enjoyed a special moment. A drunken Englishman was roaring his approval for the city and it’s many carnal amenities from out the front door of a cafe, when a smile broke on my face and I realized,
This is not a normal trip.
While in Edinburgh a few weeks ago, I stayed with a few members of the Free West Papua Campaign there. Along with organizing events in the city (of which there were 3), they also helped to put me in contact with the campaign’s HQ in Oxford. This led to me eventually meeting the campaign’s founder Benny Wenda, along with his family. We shared a West Papuan meal, shot some footage together (thanks to Dominic Brown), and exchanged motivation for the road ahead. I was also given a gift. Another West Papuan was with us at the time, who for safety’s sake will remain anonymous here. As we were leaving the Wenda’s house to go to the campaign office, he gave me a noken – a traditional hand-woven bag from the highlands of West Papua – with both the West Papuan Morning Star and Canadian Maple Leaf flags on it. I’d never seen one like it before.
“That’s because there is not one like it,” he said, “It was made for you by women from the Mee tribe in West Papua. My tribe. Our people at home know about the campaign and they wanted you to have this gift.”
Part of traveling is collecting souvenirs. Whether you’re a buyer or a scavenger, it’s nice to have physical objects to remind you of your experience. This is one item that I’ll always treasure, as it represents not only where it was received, but also where it was made and what is is for. I designed this campaign to be a Canadian contribution to the growing international movement for peace in West Papua, as a bridge across the Pacific Ocean. As much as one can call a souvenir transcendent, I will here.
A few days after my time in Oxford with Benny and co., I found myself myself disembarking from the overnight ferry which travels between Harwitch, UK and the Hook of Holland. Country #5! There were a few cyclists on the ferry, and two Canadian couples as well. As we passed through customs, I saw them each head off in their various directions, while I was greeted by 3 of Arnold Ap’s sons waving a Morning Star flag. Traveling can be hard. The lack of stability and home sometimes makes me feel uneasy, so an enthusiastic welcome like this helps. It wordlessly communicates that I have a home here, even if just for a week. That same night I was given first go at a beautiful West Papuan buffet, in the company of West Papuan children, parents, uncles and elders, all of whom were there as either refugees or the children of refugees. I spent a full week in the Netherlands, cycling from the Hague to Rotterdam and back with Oridek, his brother Erisam and a dutch supporter of the cause, doing 2 presentations, and having a brief meeting with members of the foreign affairs committee in The Hague.
I also had some time for being social, and I was lucky enough to be hosted by a young guy in Amsterdam who took me out to what was apparently a very local bar – a privilege not to be overlooked in a city so mired in tourist-centric nightlife as this one. Between these few drinks and everything else, the thought was still at the forefront of my mind.
This is not a normal trip.
But, I guess, it’s not really a normal job. I am Pedalling for Papua, and with every West Papuan I meet along the road I am reminded that nothing about this situation is normal, nor should our reactions to it be. I’m lucky enough to have been given the mandate and the privilege from enough members of this community to feel justified in carrying their message, and regardless of the nature of the journey or how far behind I get in documenting it, I’ll continue to do so with a sense of singularity and focus about the mission.