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Puncak Jaya, part 6: the Children of Bali

November 19, 2013 by

You missed part 5? read it here

The very last leg of my Indonesian trip sees me in Bali: while Bali is world-famous for its beaches and zen/meditation/yoga environment, it is also rich of mountainous and more remote areas that don’t get touched much nor exposed to developed tourism. This is where we will be in this post.

Thanks to a collaboration with Summit Stories’ partner BCP (Balinese Children’s project), I am conducting workshops about international culture and entrepreneurship at local schools in rural parts of Bali.

Ubud PenestananThe Bali Children’s Project (BCP) has been working with young people and their families in rural Bali for 20 years and is dedicated to improve life through education. As many communities in Bali are very underdeveloped and don’t benefit from tourism, BCP was founded on the belief that when children are empowered to realize their potential, they will be able to access more opportunities and as a result give back to their villages and their communities. Conscious of Bali’s unique cultural heritage, BCP programs are designed to integrate the demands of economic progress with the island’s traditional values.

Among BCP’s many programs (they currently support more than 200 children, enabling them to stay in school and finish their education), BCP helped create a dozen village pre-schools and kindergartens, administer a micro-investment scheme for impoverished families, and runs health initiatives that include sex education and HIV/AIDS awareness (as HIV/AIDS is becoming a growing threat in Bali). You can read more about BCP here.

Ubud BangliDuring the course of several days, I had the opportunity to spend time with BCP’s staff and meet more than 100 children aged 6-14 while talking about Summit Stories’ journey around the world (mountains have a very important spiritual role in Balinese culture) and entrepreneurship.

The goal was to instill curiosity and inspiration by means of sharing experiences, examples and principles from the outside-of-rural-Bali world. Typically, these children, when they manage to finish their studies or if they don’t marry at teen-age, pursue the obvious career in the hospitality industry, likely in low-paying and low-skilled jobs. Often this is due to lack of ambition and self-confidence or more simply of accessible role-models. ..Ah (before you ask) internet access is far from being a basic right or even a privilege amongst these communities, therefore limiting the access to and diversity of information we are used to.

I presented Summit Stories’ journey and guiding principles (to the amusement of the children who have never seen so much snow or even the snow in fact, – loud “wows” where heard across the room as my photos arose).  And success stories of local small entrepreneurs in various parts Munduk Rindigitof the world (whether a runner-farmer turned businessman from Africa or a former Nepalese porter who leads a successful trekking business).

Passion, motivation, setting goals, preparation are concepts that are to different degrees very familiar to all of us, but hardly framed as attributes for personal and professional development in many other realities and societies.

I feel very privileged to have met these children and their families and, while facing a language and cultural barrier, I believe we successfully brought a very new and fresh perspective to their learning. I am curious to see whether these workshops (both the ones I held and the others that BCP sponsors) trigger a desire to explore additional and different topics and maybe paths in the future. Wouldn’t be amazing if the workshop (or the model spearheaded by TED) could be replicated by motivating travelers when they visit or volunteer for local schools?

I would love to hear any feedback or comment you may have with regards to this model of knowledge sharing through short 1-hour workshops and whether it could be implemented in a scalable way (with all the necessary adjustments as far as content, context and delivery).



Puncak Jaya, part 5: the Gold Mine

November 15, 2013 by

You missed part 4? read it here

My idea of a gold mine was a dark tunnel, some small wheeled carts and a bunch of short people digging with their pick  and singing aloud (another version would include an old bearded and armed pioneer ready to jump on his horse to run and register the newly found treasure at the nearby village). Well, as with Santa Claus, the actual thing is very different: none of the above exists (not even the dark tunnel!!), rather massive Caterpillar trucks, a more than 3,000ft-deep multi layer pit, a 40+miles long mine area with processing facilities, villages, schools and hospitals. Jaw-dropping impressive. After all is the largest gold mine in the world (operated by the US-based Freeport and the Indonesian government).

We had decided to take the path through the mine as quite a few team members were sick and problems with the porters would have made our way back via the normal route difficult. A decision that we knew would be a big gamble as the security at the mine and their policy do not encourage (=welcome) trekkers on their premises.

A short 1-hour trek and we get to the edge of the mine where the huge trucks (whose tiresIMG_1661small are 8ft/2.5mt high – imagine their size!) unload the debris from the digging and the massive explosions deep inside the mine pits. We don’t venture further because of the continuous traffic of the trucks and the strong rain and we just wait to be spotted by the mine security- which eventually happen mid afternoon. We are soaked. After several discussions, one member of the team is hospitalized due to injuries, dehydration and fatigue, while the others are denied access (fortunately given basic food and drinking water): we resort to find shelter in an abandoned container which is in more than distressed conditions. Dark is coming and we better get organized for the night: we cover the holes and window-like openings to prevent the wind and the incessant rain to get in and my German-Austrian-Swiss fellows develop an highly advanced engineering system to funnel the dropping water outside from the ceiling using whatever we find around.

The reasonably cold and wet night leaves us fairly tired in the morning and whatever leftover snacks we have provide some form of breakfast. We start brainstorming about the possible scenarios at hand and a second interaction with the mine security team, initially confrontational then turning more understanding, shows that we risk being here for a while. A satellite phone is put to great use and several local embassies are contacted to try and unlock the situation – our confidence and mood were at their lowest this morning and now start improving as we receive reassuring messages that actions are being taken. The wait begins and I roam around and look at the rocks and stones on the ground: I keep stepping on golden nuggets and stones with a golden layer. If this is pretty much an abandoned area, imagine what the rest of the mine contains!! After all, I find afterwards, this mine produces 1 million ounces of gold yearly – almost $1.7billion, down from 2.6 million ounces in 2009 - and employs 20,000 people, mostly locals, therefore being a critical contributor to the economy of this region.

This makes me wonder what the other mountains and hills around the mine, including Puncak Jaya itself, hide, given that they are part of the same range and the same rock formations, and whether they risk facing a similar destiny in the next 10 years or so. Mmmhhhh!

It’s getting dark and we are readying for another container-night, when red-blue lights illuminate the walls: it’s security informing us that we will be driven to the mine’s police station. This is good news: our calls for assistance worked and we will spend the night in a proper building, though we don’t know what chain if events this will trigger.

Which we quickly find out: the Indonesian foreign ministry and the presidential office have been contacted and willIMG_1685small be informed of the situation following what will be a 7-hours long interrogation in the night by the police who wants to know (and needs to report on) our conditions, motives and reasons for being there – A 10pages report is eventually prepared and we are asked to approve and sign it, before it is sent up the ranks.

A few hours sleep and a convoy with fully armed escort and armored vehicles is ready to bring us back to the airport – the area will drive through from the mine is often theatre of ambushes and shooting, as the presence of the mine is fiercely opposed by the Movement for a Free Papua. The police chief tells us, in case of ambush, to stay inside and not to move until he tells us so – I (want to) think more to scare us than anything else, though similar incidents happened in the recent past.

IMG_1691smallThe uneventful drive ends at the regional police station, where I go through some more questioning and a crowd of journalists and photographers awaits us: the news of the lost trekkers and the rescue operation of the brave police assisted by the benevolent mining company will make it to the front page of several newspapers, to the amusement of some journalists and the trekkers. Here is another article on the Jakarta Globe (correction: it was 10 of us..).

My last reflection goes to the future of this area and how its mountains, jungle and people will be affected in the future: such a vulnerable ecosystem with a weak voice in the large scheme (few hundreds trekkers/climbers come here yearly and Papua with its marked cultural differences is only politically part of Indonesia) may be so easily destroyed by materialistic ambitions (native Americans and Australian aborigines are just obvious examples). I am exploring what it takes to make it a Unesco-protected world heritage site.

It has been a wonderfully rich and intense expedition, which I would re-do tomorrow. The last part of this journey will be the collaboration with Summit Stories’ partner BCP (the Balinese Children’s project), whose mission is to support rural Balinese communities with educational programs : I will conduct workshops about international culture and entrepreneurship in local schools in rural parts of Bali.

To be continued…

Puncak Jaya, Part 4: Summit Day

November 11, 2013 by

You missed part 3? read it here

It’s an incredibly warm night: we expected a freezing alpine-grade cold (we are at 4350mt/14000ft after all), bad weather and rain. Instead we are welcome at 2am by a calm and clear night (almost full moon) and remarkably warm! We quickly dress down and after a warm tea and brief breakfast, we are set to go.

IMG_1599smallIt takes about 1 hour to reach the steep slopes of the long mountain wall, where we wear helmet and harness and start our long-awaited way up. Despite the clear night, it’s pitch dark and the headlamp helps little in setting the best route up. To our surprise, it’s fixed rope most of the way up, and we do make good use of our ascenders. The occasional shower of stones and rocks from above make us regularly look for cover. I proceed smoothly and the rock climbing training of the past few months proves highly helpful – it eventually turns out that only my almost-new boots will not fully enjoy the sharp limestone of the Pyramid and will keep its permanent signs.

Past 5am and the first lights of the rising sun cast shadows of the steep lines of the walls and illuminate the upcoming next challenge: a vertical wall of about 50mt/160ft, rated 5.8, that leads to the summit ridge. It looks pretty intimidating, but there are a large cracks and a good amount of good holds. Well, climb on!

A couple of times during the climb, I wonder what keeps me away from sitting on a comfortable couch and the daunting task of turning the tv cable on (..!!!…). Yet once I put the first foot on the summit ridge and look around me, the view is unforgettable and makes me forget the doubtful (and WTF) moments I had on the wall – which won’t be the last ones, it turns out soon.

A few minutes to breathe it in and glimpse at the tiny camp down down there at the bottom of the mountain – a steep way up indeed and all in all in full safety.

A short walk on the tiny ridge and I get to the next little adventure – it looks like a video game, remember Pitfall? (If you don’t know what I am talking about, you probably were not old enough to even watch the Olympic Games in Moscow ;) – That is the (in-)famous Tyrolean traverse we had read so much about. A Tyrolean traverse involves using a fixed rope across a gap between two points using one’s hands and legs. To make things slightly more terrifying, this traverse us about 20mt/70ft long and lays on a deep 500mt/1,700ft feet vertical drop (hence the importance to know how to be safely and have good muscles).

While technically moderately demanding, it was probably one of the most frightening mountain experiences I had so far. Even if you know that the ropes are solid and super-safe, you can stop thinking in the back of your mind about that remote possibility where an angry eagle will attack you while crossing or a massive earthquake with a thunderstorm will shake the island and release the bolts that keep the ropes fixed (!!! Some imagination eh?!).

When off the ropes and on solid ground (relatively speaking), the ridge to the summit is a very exposed narrow path that still shows quite a few tricky hazards: two large gaps between walls that require rappelling and a couple of jumps of faith. As the sun rises and brightens the tiny trail, the sharp profile of the summit plateau becomes apparent and screams of joy and celebration echo around. Few more minutes and some more scrambling and I finally reach a cloud-free and limit-less view from the summit of the Oceania continent. Success!!!!

What a climb! I really tested my limits and all the training I have been through in the past IMG_1609smallmonths (especially indoor and outdoor rock climbing) proved essential. Plus that stubborn and lucid persistence that is absolutely necessary in the mountaineering kit.

And… This is just half of it of course, because we need to make it back to camp all the way back. We spend 30minutes or so on the summit enjoying the view: the ocean is just visible and the vertical profile of the mountain we just climbed is truly jaw-dropping (we also see the massive Freeport mine in the distance – the largest gold mine in the world).

and now off back to camp, jumping across the same large gaps, crossing through the Tyrolean again, and a long self-rappelling down on the vertical walls. the very excellent weather allows us not to experience the rain on these steep rocks – it would have certainly been another challenge (the rain eventually makes its appearance as soon as I am off the wall and walking back to camp – I don’t mind it, it is very refreshing after such a wonderful and long day).

More on the gold mine and Indonesian police in the next post.  To be continued…

Puncak Jaya, Part 3: a Muddy Jungle

November 8, 2013 by

You missed part 2? read it here

And we are finally ready to go, no major disruptions today. It will be 5 days of trekking in the Papuan jungle until we reach the high camp at 4300mt for the summit push. The overnight rain made the skies super clear and the sight over the hills is very energizing.

IMG_1486smallWe all wear our knee-high rubber boots per the precise instructions of the guides: we shall expect a combination of very wet and muddy trail and a fair amount of river crossing. We will get dirty! The dream of every child! Ah!

And the expectations are quickly met: not even 20 minutes into the trek and a blobby mud is crawling up my legs and starts layering on my pants. Any attempt to limit the damage is hopeless, oh well this is the way it’s gonna be.

It also turns out that walking with the rubber boots in deep mud is a demanding physical workout, as the feet get often stuck deeply all the way to the knee and it takes a good amount of strength to pull them out. After few days of this, I totally understand how many people refer to the approach to camp as the hardest part of the expedition.

The fun continues with the river crossing, sometimes by means of a bridge (sort of), sometimes by practicing own balance skills on the mid-size logs laid across. And some rivers are simple streams, others are roaring masses of water probably worth a good class-4 rafting (maybe we should do that on the way back).

The next five days are between 6-8 hours long in this muddy and rainy rat-race to get to camp in time to anticipate a heavier rain. We continuously go up and down the hills of this largely un-inhabited jungle (at least to our eyes), hoping to gain enough altitude to feel the high camp closer. The landscape around us is becoming fairly monotonus and we barely spot any animal or bird (which maybe is a good thing) – figure the excitement when the papuan porters capture a mouse (that may have eventually turned in one of those chicken nuggets we had for dinner) and one of the kids kills a bird with his slingshot!

To be continued…

Puncak Jaya, Part 2: Tribal warfare

November 5, 2013 by

You missed part 1? Read it here.

Squeeek…squeeek…amplify it in dolby and multiply it by 30: this is our wake-up call today at about 6am. Ah, the sound is originating from the dozens of pigs that are let out of the huts where the Dani people live to crawl around camp in search for food. Maybe we get bacon for breakfast, we hope?! That would be yummi! Nope, just the natural wake-up call.


We observe the view of the jungle on the hills from camp, we pack, we get breakfast, and … we are not so ready to go. It appears that, as part of the inevitable process, different local tribes (Dani and Moni, who live and own land here) claim rights to the passage of the expedition through those same lands and want to be rewarded accordingly. Plus, some groups are not represented in the porters crew. A standoff that looks eternal to us just begins. We imagine that it will be matter of time and all will be solved, until we notice that the men of the different tribes carry arm-long machetes, knives, bows and arrows and rifles. Naively we explain that by defending against the dangers of the jungle.

Then the negotiation heats up, nobody is allowed to move and suddenly tension erupts: the groups start fighting, throwing stones at each other, mulling machetes and knifes. Our initial curiosity at the evolving events turns quickly into freaking fear and we are urged by the guides to find shelter in a nearby hut. That was CREEPY!

Fortunately nobody gets hurt and peace is restored, and so are the negotiations. Researching a little bit afterwards, I learnt that Dani and Moni occasionally engage in ritual small-scale warfare between rival villages, with much time spent preparing weapons, engaging in both mock and real battle, and treating any resulting injuries. Well, if they wanted to impress us, they certainly succeeded!!!!

Few more hours go by and the other team gets clearance to go. We are camp-bound for another day, hopefully without having to go through a similar negotiation tomorrow (certainly the pig-screaming wake up call…)

To be continued…

Puncak Jaya, a trip to a remote tribal land

November 1, 2013 by

I am very thrilled to report back on my recent expedition to West Papua, the farthest eastern island in Indonesia. We climbed Puncak Jaya (Carstensz Pyramid), a 4,884mt-16,024ft mountain that is the highest island peak in the world. The expedition has been exhilarating and extremely eventful: jungle crossing, tribal warfare, exposed technical climbing, golden nuggets, 7-hours long interrogation from the Indonesian police are some of the experiences I will never forget.

The Papuan advenIMG_1358 small vrsture begins with a short flight from the airport of Timika to the tiny village of Sugapa, situated at the very footstep of the Jaya range and in the middle of the jungle. The airstrip competes in length with the one in Lukla (Nepal), so there is no room for errors (and gratefully there aren’t!). The excitement is palpable amongst the team not only for the upcoming mountaineering challenge but also for the encounters with the local tribes and the luscious equatorial jungle we have read so much about.

Our team is as international as it could be: US, Canada, Mexico, France, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Indonesia and Italy are represented, and as many as 250 high-altitude summits have been conquered in total (lot of strong legs and wills here!).

As we land, a fleet of motorcycles awaits us: we expected excitement but a parade goes a bit too far! Well, it turns out that we will be driven by (and on) those motorcycles to the small village where the trek begins. Driving downhill at ticketable speed and zigzagging around pigs and piglets, we reach the initial destination (a big hut) where a large crowd of people of all ages gathers – curiosity is reciprocal: ours for the first encounter with native Papuans, theirs to position for the selection of the porters duty. As a matter of fact, the local micro-economy gets a significant boost from the passage of expeditions, that bring load of bags and equipment (and $$) that need to be carried across the jungle.

The selection process of the porters is lengthy and full of loud requests and arguments (which we obviously don’t understand), and that we will learn later are not only a critical part of the process itself but also cause of significant ‘attrition’.

Three long hours and we are ready to go…on another motorbike ride to the beginning of the trail. Las Vegas roller coaster is a joke in comparison: picture a scooter with some motocross features, an unpaved downhill path (not even a road) full of rocks and mud, locals racing against each other with us in the back seat (no helmet of course) silently praying all possible gods that no tire will explode nor a wild piglet will suddenly cross the road. ….Exactly!

The last thrill of the day is a rush against time to get to camp (named Sanggama) before it gets dark – in the hope that both tents and bags made it there. Glimpses of huts made of branches and the surrounding jungle are just a brief anticipation of what to expect next

To be continued…

A remote tribal land

September 10, 2013 by

Yes, it is exactly 30 days away. A region that is home to more than 300 different tribes, including some who remain un-contacted and never met ‘westerners’, who speak more than 250 languages, endemic wildlife that include many weird and wonderful creatures as cassowaries, dugongs, echidnas and tree-dwelling monitor lizards (some I never heard of before).

This is Papua, the planet’s second-largest island, which together with the rest of the island of dani manNew Guinea hosts the second largest virgin rainforest after the Amazon. As a result, much of the region is covered by impenetrable jungle: the multi-day crossing of this jungle will likely be the highlight of the upcoming expedition, along with the anthropological and cultural experience of meeting the Danis, a local Melanesian tribe. Worth noting, the Danis still dress in their traditional way and many male members of the tribes wear for example the “Koteka”, or penis gourd.
In some regions of the island (hopefully not the ones I will be visiting) tribal warfare, headhunting and cannibalism are still practiced. Wow!

West Papua, part of Indonesia, is also at the center of a very heated geopolitical debate, as the vast cultural differences between the tribal people and the Indonesian government often erupted in fights and guerrilla. The island also hosts one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines: the tribal people resent (and actively fight) this presence, not only because of the minimal benefit the natives receive, but also under the belief that the mineral extraction displaces the souls of their ancestors.

dani hut #2

Oh right, why heading there? Papua hosts the highest mountain of the Australian continent, Puncak Jaya (4,884 mt /16,024ft). Puncak Jaya was named “Carstensz Pyramid” after Dutch explorer Jan Carstenszoon who first sighted the glaciers on a rare clear day in 1623. The sighting went unverified for over two centuries, and Carstensz was ridiculed in Europe for saying he had seen snow near the equator.


And it seems that the equatorial climate puts siesta time in effect between 1pm and 5pm, so I am really curious how quickly I will adapt to local customs…?!

A Dani man from the Baliem Valley performing a traditional ceremony – Anoek de Groot; Dani village hut – Papua Trek