[Updated at 6:57 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013]
Jeremy Bally was pedaling his bike across Vancouver, British Columbia, when he was struck with an awe-inspiring idea: he would cycle the globe — 12,000 kilometers in all — to raise awareness about the situation in Papua, Indonesia.
The campaign was the perfect combination of two interests, bike riding and political activism, he said.
“So I thought why not combine the two together,” Bally said in interview with the Jakarta Globe during his short stop to Jakarta.
The 26-year-old sketched out a route and a goal: ride his bike across seven countries, making stops to speak about the situation in Papua and collect postcards and video recordings expressing support for the restive province's political prisoners.
If Bally was successful, Papua would be one step closer to becoming a household name, he explained.
The journey began in 2012 as Bally cycled across Canada, traveling to dozens of cities and town on an awareness-building roadshow. Bally's presentation touched on several issues facing the resource-rich province, including human rights violations, environmental destruction and political pressures in a place where a low-level insurgency for independence has simmered for decades.
“I try to attach a lot of different themes to this whole campaign like ukulele, bicycling, environment," he said. "That way there’s a lot of different angles that people can pick up from."
But holding talks in Canada wasn't enough for Bally. He continued on to the United States, pedaling from city to city as the tour entered its second country. Six months later, Bally had cycled his way to a country half-way around the globe, hopping from the United Kingdom to Europe to New Zealand before landing in Australia.
There was much work to be done, Bally explained. While Papua has become something of a cause celebre in certain activist circles, the province has yet to grab global attention.
“I’m surprised how little people know about Papua, even in Australia which has close proximity and so much more politically relevant," Bally said. "That’s where the bicycle part came in, it draws people’s attention and curiosity to what I’m campaigning about.”
The 26-year-old became interested in Papua during his time as a human rights campaigner with a youth organization. Bally met with several Papuan refugees in Canada and was put in touch with several other Papuans in exile via Skype.
“And I discovered that Papua is shockingly beautiful and it is the gem of biodiversity,” he said. “I became obsessed about Papua and the stories about Papua.”
Bally's route included detours for Papuan communities abroad. He stopped in each location, listening to stories of violence and oppression they faced back home in Indonesia. Some told Bally how their family members were killed by the Indonesian military, which still maintains a huge presence in Papua despite Jakarta’s promise for greater autonomy and political freedom.
These stories were recorded and layered under an animated video that is project at each stop of the roadshow. In each city, the words of Papuan refugees played to a crowd as Bally strummed his ukelele and performed shadow puppetry and spoken word poetry.
“It turned more into a performance," he said. "That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted it to be engaging so that people are curious about this place called Papua."
Curiosity, he hoped, would eventually lead people to be engaged, educated and inspired to participate in building a peaceful future for Papua. And there’s a huge sense of curiosity from the people who attended Bally’s presentation even when seeing him riding on his bicycle covering huge distances and obstacles.
The general reaction was shock, he said, knowing that Papua have vast mineral wealth and yet access to health care and education is scarce. They were also concerns about the world second largest rainforest and Papua’s bio-diverse marine ecosystem which are slowly being lost to logging, mining, fishing and environmental pollution.
Bally said what he hoped for is dialog adding that he believed that international attention and pressure is key to resolving the decades old conflict plaguing this region.
On Monday, Bally landed in Jayapura and mounted his bicycle to hand-deliver 40 postcards written to Papuan political prisoners at the Abepura Prison. The postcards, collected from those he met along the way, expressed support and solidarity with the prisoners — many who were arrested for their participation in peaceful protests on charges of treason. There are currently 67 political prisoners in Papua, according to the website Papuans Behind Bars.
“Also a lot of the people who I met wanted to make video greetings to the prisoners and so I have them recorded on my iPhone," he said. I think that would give a huge moral boost to [the prisoners]."
As for the cycling part, it proves to be one of the hardest part of his campaign.
“There were days where I was just blown away by the beauty of where I’m going through. It is an amazing way to travel,” he said.
“But there are other days where my butt just hurts.”