Memories of Irian Jaya (Papua)

To even the most intrepid mind, Papua represents adventure and frontier. The island itself is split in two; the west side is called Irian Jaya and belongs to Indonesia, while the Eastern part is Papua New Guinea.

So how did my pale white ass end up in a place like this? I was sent there to work in 2012 for a company called WMI, my first oil and gas job. I had no experience in the field but was put there to basically smooth out communication between the Indonesian team and the Russians running the project. This is a collection of memories from my year and a half in Irian Jaya.

***

Some photos from the rig in Papua:

I’m flying high over the jungle in a 16-seater single-engine plane. I’ve never seen so much untouched land beneath me in my life. When I say there’s nothing here, I mean NOTHING is here. It’s a pure, untouched jungle for hours on end. Sometimes, the dense green landscape is broken up by a winding river, a mountain, or a little clearing where mining or drilling operations are taking place. The clearings look like little brown postage stamps on an otherwise deep green landscape.

I can’t help but think about what might happen if the plane goes down here. Even if I survive, I’m f**ked. Snakes, crocodiles, and mosquitos rule the swamps, and an Irishman has no experience with any of these three. I just push it out of my mind and try to focus on the rugged beauty of the unspoiled landscape.

***

It’s a few days into my first hitch, and I am sweating bullets. I’ve decided right from the outset that I’m not going out here to play the white man in charge. I get into the mud with the Indonesian and Papuan guys and shovel shit half the day. This draws quite a crowd of other workers who are pointing and wondering why I am working.

Later, one of them comes over and tells me that I don’t have to do that kind of work out here, but I just keep doing it every day anyway. I am deeply uncomfortable being ‘in charge’ of people who clearly know more than me about everything, so this is all I can offer to try and win their respect. Eventually, it gets the job done with most of them.

***

I’m in a container storage unit looking for some chemicals and see a big white bag on the floor. These bags are used for storing drilling waste like rocks and dried mud. They’re about a cubic meter, and when they’re full, cranes lift them into a pit. I go over to the bag, open it, and jump back in fright.

“Sorry, boss!” a little dude yells and jumps to his feet. He’s been taking a nap here instead of working. I just laugh, and he goes back out to the site. A few weeks later, I found him sleeping in one of these again outside. I told him if he’s going to do it, please do it in the container because a crane or truck might drive over the bag without knowing he’s in it. He nods, and the look on his face says he never contemplated that scenario.

***

On our crew are two Papuan guys, Frenkie and Riki. I’ve developed a good relationship with them both, and they invite me to go out into the jungle a bit with them. I’ve been curious to go in but also haven’t ventured too far because of the aforementioned snakes and crocodiles.

Frenki and Riki have already told me that before the rigs came to town they hunted in the jungles every day, so I guess they know what they are doing and go with them. I clumsily hop over logs and small streams while they leap over them barefoot and traverse the jungle with mastery.

Out of nowhere, Riki picks up a stone and throws it with lightning speed. He runs over to where it hit and picks up a huge black crab or something that looks like one. “Dinner” he laughs. I realize that if the system collapses, I am at the bottom of the food chain, and guys like Riki and Frenki are going to be firmly at the top. I didn’t even see that crab, but he saw it move from meters away and had taken it down before I even realized what was going on.

***

I’ve been back to Jakarta for some rest and recreation and am headed back to the rig. We’re on the runway on Sorong in our little single-engine plane again.

“Gentlemen, fasten your seatbelts,” the pilot instructed us. The familiar sound of the engine starting up and the propeller’s whirring begins. After about 30 seconds, we hear a big thud followed by everything winding down.

Everybody eventually gets out of the plane and is standing on the tarmac. We’re instructed to go back to the hotel and stay for the night. It ends up being three days.

Turns out the engine fell out of the plane right there on the runway. I shudder to think what might have happened if the engine fell out a few minutes later during takeoff or mid-flight.

That’s the last time we ever took that plane. From now on, a Lionair plane takes us out. It’s much more comfortable.

***

There’s not much for sale in Papua, but when we get off the little plane, we have a boat ride upriver before we get to the rig. On the riverbank, there are a few little merchants who sell water, coffee, tea, etc. I walk over and order a Coca-Cola.

The merchant smiles at me and asks if I want to try a Papuan speciality. I say OK, and he brings out a white powder.

“Wow, narkoba?” I ask, inquiring if it is drugs. I don’t want it if so.

“No, no, no!,” he tell me. “Bukahn narkoba…But will make your dingdong hard!,” he tells me in English.

I laugh out loud at the sales technique and decide to try it. It never did what he claimed. I did get a slight buzz off it, though.

***

One day I wake up in my container pod and put on my gear. One of my teammates tells me it’s tools down as there’s a gas leak in the well, and it’s not safe to drill. I go out for a look and notice everyone mulling around. Some guys are playing cards, others are drinking tea, and nobody is working expect the drilling team.

For a solid four days, a massive flame burns in a gravel pit. It’s the height of a couple of houses and just as wide. They have to burn this off because it could create a spark and an explosion in the well. It’s the first time I realize how dangerous it really is to work in this sort of environment. We’re a service team and aren’t on the main drilling floor, but it’s still a moment where you realize what sort of elements you’re fucking with by drilling massive holes in the ground. I will never forget those flames, and suddenly all of the over the top safety rules make a lot more sense.

***

I’m in the dewatering unit when a Chinese guy in orange overalls appears. He shakes my hand and smiles.

Suddenly, three more guys appear and just walk into the unit. They all pull out cameras and start snapping photos of everything.

I text my boss, pak Andy, and tell him what’s happening. “STOP THEM!” he tells me. Turns out they are trying to steal the plans for the unit so they can take them back to China and manufacture them on the cheap.

I was totally blindsided by this, and when I tell them to leave, they just smile, bow, and leave without any fuss. It’s one of the most bizarre encounters I have ever had.

***

After a year or so, I moved to a rig in Java. It’s way more fast-paced and nowhere near as fun as Papua. I remember those early days out in the last frontier fondly. I got to really learn and practice Indonesian, my team was full of good guys who helped me learn what I needed, and while it was hard work, it was one of the best experiences of my life.

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