Manokwari: Birds, Flies and Cleaning Businesses

Flies lazily buzz through open french windows…

…looking out on to the quiet streets of Manokwari.

It’s been 3 months since I left my soul-crushing research position in England to travel to West Papua, in search of the elusive Wilson’s Bird-of-Paradise, a creature that I had spent months examining under a microscope for the sake of DNA analysis.

I no longer harboured any scientific pretensions about my mission.

This trip was catalysed by the guilt that I felt for destroying so many beautiful feathers. This bird was already classified as ‘Near Threatened‘, yet this clearly had not stopped the hunters of this bird finding plenty of samples for us to test back in the UK. The question was: how well had these numbers been regulated and was there a chance that our greed for DNA data had affected the population of this creature?

I’ll admit to a certain amount of disorganisation on my part.

I’d left home in a hurry, so consumed by my intent, I threw my belongings in storage, cancelled any direct debits I had and essentially fled the country, with no plan for when I arrived in West Papua’s provincial capital.

With just a bag of quickly packed clothes and a toothbrush, I felt like I was backpacking again rather than embarking on a Grail-like quest. Thankfully, I’d saved enough money to last me a while in West Papua. I’d barely looked into the history of the country, preferring to focus instead on the biological prize that I was in search of. So, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that the British Pound was exceptionally highly valued in Indonesia.

I found lodgings in the slightly grimy flat, just outside of the small city centre, on my first day. The tired looking landlady seemed relieved to have some regular income, as I entered she took down the ‘Room for let’ sign hanging in the window, just beneath a much dustier sign advertising a ‘Cleaning franchise for sale‘. Evidently her rooms were in much higher demand than her business acumen.

Although Manokwari is the largest urban settlement on the Papuan islands, you can hardly describe the city as ‘built up’.

The rain forest environment that dominates the equatorial islands loom on the edges of this vibrant city, a constant reminder of the thin line that separates the city dwellers and the hundreds of tribes that still live in jungles, undisturbed by civilisation or technological advancements.

If I’ve got any hope for witnessing the Bird-of-Paradise, then I’ll need to meet a guide that can take me into the heart of the jungle and lead me to the sample collectors, the source of all the precious DNA that I had been testing back in the UK. Unfortunately, it’s been harder to find this person than I had originally expected. Although the town is teeming with tourist guides, whenever I explain my situation and that I’m travelling alone, they lose interest immediately.

Most of these opportunistic locals are looking for an easy job: a big group of tourists that they can shepherd around a small patch of forest just out of the city limits and then herd back into the city for a night spent at restaurants that they’ll already have a special arrangement with. They don’t want to take one, poor-looking scientist into the heart of a wilderness that they had worked hard to escape from, all in search of an elusive bird that might not even exist anymore.

I have enough money to last me years here in Manokwari – I’m just worried that my real purpose will get slowly eroded by the cheap beer that I can’t seem to stop drinking…

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