Raffaele Among the Korowai

Paul Raffaele describes his adventures (and misadventures) in Indonesian New Guinea, reporting on the Korowai

Lepeadon, the "fierce man" of the Letin clan. (Paul Raffaele)

Paul Raffaele, who lives in Sydney, Australia, has written many stories for SMITHSONIAN, on subjects from child warriors in Uganda to Australian killer jellyfish. In April, he ventured to Indonesian New Guinea to write about the Korowai, believed to be one of the last tribes of cannibals in the world. In the emails that follow, Paul describes his adventures, and misadventures reporting this story to SMITHSONIAN editor Carey Winfrey. Raffaele begins by assuring Winfrey that an infection he picked up in New Guinea is nothing to worry too much about.

The whole story, “Sleeping with Cannibals” is in the September, 2006, issue of SMITHSONIAN magazine.

April 25th, 2006

Paul: I didn't mention the mess on my arm to you because I didn't want you to worry. It's Ok, no pain, and if it's not cleared up by Monday the doctor is sending me to the School of Tropical medicine here in Sydney.

The worst of it is that the doctor says the infection has become deeply set in my body, so that when I've got a scratch that, too, resists Betadine and becomes infected. It is this, he says, that's causing gas to form in my stomach, blowing it up to the shape of a soccer ball. The distension causes a lot of pain, like a knife in the guts, and it lasts a few hours before it goes down for an hour or so and then blows up again, and once again hurts like hell. So, the past few days I've either been trying to escape through sleep or dozing and feeling forlorn, but he has me on a strong antibiotic specifically for skin infections and I know that in a few days I'll be Ok, and so I'm not worried.

As I've mentioned before, this comes with the territory. I feel blessed because I seem to have an immunity to malaria, and all this other stuff is minor league in comparison. Sydney Possuelo, in Brazil, has had malaria 39 times and carries pills in a capsule around his neck to take whenever he gets an attack. David Greer in Dzanga-Sangha is one of the toughest blokes I've ever met, he runs through the jungle with the pygmies clad in shorts, no shirt and no shoes. And yet I saw him curl up within himself with the pain in the darkness of his room, oblivious to the world, when he got yet another attack of malaria while I was there for a story.

So, I'm fine by comparison.

April 25th, 2006

Carey: You're a tough bird, I'll admit; still, at our age, we have to be more careful than we were when we were a few decades younger. I'm sure [a mutual friend] mentioned your infection but in fact it didn't really register on my addled brain. I thought he was merely--well, hardly merely--referring to your scabies problem. In any case, I hope the antibiotics work; this is nothing to take lightly.

April 25th, 2006

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