“I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.”
-Mary Anne Radmacher
[A note before I begin: As with my last blog post, because the internet is so weak I haven’t been able to link these to the full-sized versions. But the PNG gallery on my zenfolio site is coming along, slowly but surely. The files are still uploading, but I’m hoping the land files will be done by the time I go off the grid in the Solomons in a few days. My PNG trip was a photographer’s dream, so I’ve only inserted a small percentage of photos in this post. I think the best way to get a sense for the place is really to scroll through the photos. I’ll update this post once the photos are all uploaded.]
Papua New Guinea is a country I’ve long wanted to visit. My uncle Bill used to tell stories of his visits here many years ago, and I knew it was a visit that always stayed with him. So when I planned to spend 6 months traveling to some bucket list destinations, I knew PNG had to be on that list. Because of its reputation as a relatively dangerous place to visit and the difficulty of visiting the remote corners of the country on one’s own, I opted to sign up for a group trip through Trans Niugini tours before hopping on a liveaboard dive trip for some diving.
Immediately upon arriving, I found the people of Papua New Guinea to be extraordinarily helpful and friendly. Through an unfortunate series of events that I won’t dwell on, the folks from Virgin America took all my rechargeable AA batters but two, leaving me unable to use my underwater strobes. Since I’m heading to a relatively remote area of PNG to go diving, I did not want to be left strobeless, so I asked the tour company if they’d help me find some. The helpful guides drove me to two stores near the Port Moresby airport to find the batteries, and we were successful. But it actually turned out to be a good thing. I spent some time getting to know the guides, learning they played in a band together, and I got to see some of the area around the Port Moresby airport. And aside from the guides, all the local people were so helpful. One gentleman working at the first store (which carried rechargeable batteries but was sold out of AAs) even went in the back to check a recent shipment and called another store for me. Such helpful people, and I immediately realized why Bill loved meeting the locals here.
We headed back to the hotel and that evening, we met as a group for a brief introduction followed by dinner. It was a great group of experienced travelers, and we were all extremely excited for the adventure that was in store for us.
Days 1 and 2: Mount Hagen Show: The “Sing Sing”
Our first, and most anticipated stop, was the annual Mount Hagen show, where dozens of tribes from nearby regions (highlands, lowlands, and coastal areas) visit to demonstrate their traditional songs and dance, complete with full tribal costumes and makeups. We flew to Mount Hagen to meet with our local guides, who would drive us directly to the show. Our guide told us it was a photographer’s paradise, and that was very true. The colors, the sounds, and the sights were simply stunning. In fact, I was immediately overwhelmed, and I didn’t take that many photos the first day, instead, taking in the sensory overload. (Well, I guess “not that many” is relative… Only about 150.)
First, a little about New Guinea, which was a helpful prequel to the show. Jacob, our local guide who was from the Mount Hagen area, told us a bit about his life and the country. In this part of PNG, the first language of most people is Pigeon English, but every tribe has its own language. (While we were told that all people speak Pidgeon, we would later learn that while that’s true in Hagen, it’s not true in the entire country.) In total, there are over 800 languages spoken in New Guinea. While each tribe speaks its own language, they also can understand the neighboring tribes’ languages as well. While Pigeon English is written, the tribal languages are not—they are only spoken. English is the official language taught in schools, but we would later learn that only approximately 1-3% of the population is literate in English (although most of the people I met spoke it quite well).
Each tribe is also divided into clans, and further into subclans. Many people still practice polygamy, with only the richest men able to have multiple wives. (And they marry within the tribe, but not within the family, although it was unclear to me whether that line was drawn at subclan or somewhere else.) Wealth is determined by land, wives, and pigs. Not coincidentally, tribal wars also happen over those three things, in that order. And no, I’m not talking about how things were 40 years ago. While New Guinea has modernized somewhat, it is still a tribal culture, which is one of the things that makes it one of the most fascinating people to visit.
We learned a lot more in our drive to the show, but it was too much to really take in. Likewise, as soon as we arrived at the show, it was truly sensory overload. As soon as we turned down the road toward the arena, we saw the groups of dancers preparing along the side of the road, finalizing their costumes and practicing their “sing sing.” While I had seen photographs, I didn’t expect it to be as authentic and traditional as it was. Our first sight was a group of barebreasted women wearing grass skirts, stunning shell necklaces, vibrant face paint, and incredibly ornate and intricate headdresses made of the feathers of the numerous species of stunning tropical birds who reside in New Guinea, including the birds of paradise.
Our bus turned into the parking area, which was surrounded by vendors selling assorted artifacts and goods. We quickly passed them by to find our meeting place in the arena (which is really a large field surrounded by a fence—much like a fairground). We were told that we’d be unable to stay together since it would be a frenzy of activity inside. And it was true, we were able to walk around the arena viewing the various groups (although it was a bit questionable about what exactly was permitted and what wasn’t), and we all dispersed to take in the show from various angles.
As the groups came in the arena, I was truly surprised at how diverse they were—different facepaint patterns and colors, different types of headdress (made of feathers, moss, mud, whole birds, leaves, and various other resources), and different costumes. One of the first groups to arrive was the famous “mudmen” who spread mud on their bodies and make masks of mud. Another fascinating group was a group of skeletons following a man dressed as an ape, but we learned was a “giant.” One more group had clay pots atop their heads with fire burning in them, and I later learned they were roasting insects inside. And of course, there were dancers and singers galore. A helpful young woman who was a guide in training (although I didn’t completely understand that was her role at the time) ushered me around the stadium and told me where the groups were from. I was surprised at how far some had come for the occasion, and I only wish I had absorbed more of what she told me, but the whole experience was so overwhelming.
The first day of the sing sing, I spent most of my time wandering about trying to take photos, but mostly just absorbing the experience. More than once I got teary eyed with the authenticity, particularly thinking of the fact that the dances and costumes are more or less the same as when my uncle visited decades ago, and indeed, probably hundreds of years before that. For no group was that more true that when I observed the huli wigmen—a group known as fierce warriors who inspire fear in all those who come across them. They truly had a menacing look, often with sticks and bones pierced through their nasal septum. And while I have no doubt today it is, to a certain extent, for the benefits of the tourists, they still have a fierce, menacing look on their faces, seeming to warn everyone they are not to be trifled with. And of course, their stunning headdresses, made of human hair that traditionally they must grow themselves for years, are topped with the seemingly endless tail feathers of birds of paradise. Seeing them reminded me of the story my uncle told many, many times about his interaction with them. He was with a German tourist and upon meeting them, one of the wigmen slyly elbowed him and remarked “I don’t like Germans, too salty.” (It’s entirely possible this story wasn’t entirely true. For one thing, I’m actually not sure the Hulis ever practiced cannibalism—despite common misconceptions cannibalism was practiced across the country, only in certain areas. But it still makes for a great story, whether it happened or not. After all, the title of Bill’s memoir was “These Stories Are True, I Think.”)
The Famous Huli Wigmen:
Around 2:00 the rains regularly roll in in this area, and we were told that the dancers quickly will scatter to protect their lovely headdresses and cherished feathers. We learned that was true, and the crowd began to dissipate. The group reunited and we were all giddy with the experience, already planning our photos the next day, now that we knew what we were doing. Unfortunately our high was diminished when one member of our group had her phone snatched through the window of the bus as the thief sneakily acted like he was posing for his picture, only to reach inside and grab the phone. It was a harsh reminder that while most people are friendly, there are still those who are not, and unfortunately this country still has a relatively high rate of this type of crime. (But this isn’t the end of this story… stay tuned.)
After the sing sing, we were escorted to the Rondon Ridge lodge, where we would spend the next two nights. The lodge is atop a ridge on a mountainside, overlooking the valley and the city of Mount Hagen. The lodge was stunning and the view beautiful, and we were all excited to return to the show the next day.
We got up in the morning and were taken to show grounds, this time early enough to watch (up close) the various groups applying their makeup. I once again paired up with Tracy, the trainee who had escorted me the previous day, and she took me around to various groups, including the school where many of them were staying. Much like girls getting ready for prom, many of them blushed and exclaimed “sorry, sorry, we’re not ready yet!” as I walked in. Everyone was friendly and thrilled to pose for pictures and show me their makeup techniques. Tracy showed me that some of the feathers in their headdresses were not merely feathers but whole birds, stuffed with their plumage creating a colorful crown. She and some other trainees also showed us how they chewed the beetle nut, which stains their teeth bright red, and I was surprised to see that the nut was not red inside at all—instead it is a reaction with “mustard” (which may or may not be mustard as I understand it… I’ve no idea) and lime. It was a lot of fun talking to the local people and getting to know just a few of the people behind the stunning costumes.
One group wanted to paint my face, and since I had no small kina, an Australian man paid for me to have my face painted. Unfortunately, once we started, they wanted more and more money, and when one man heard I was American he had his two small boys put on their best sad faces and said “spare us.” Those moments are heartwrenching, but unfortunately common in developing countries. Tracy eventually suggested we leave them, so we headed back into the arena for the day’s sing-sing.
This time, I had a front row seat for the action, and rather than spend my time meandering throughout the arena watching the different groups, I stayed while each group came and performed its sing-sing in front of our tent at the side of the arena. Jacob and the other guides explained the significance of various groups. We learned that there were several widows’ groups, typically with body paint of all black or white, which were widows and their children. We saw groups from various areas of the country, and began to see the differences and similarities depending on what area of the country various groups came from. And we saw men’s groups and women’s groups, although several contained individuals of the other gender. I asked Jacob why a man joined a women’s group and his response was simply “because he wanted to be in the women’s group.” It was refreshing that it was really no more complex than that. And of course, he was sure to point out the women in the next men’s group to show me it went both ways!
Finally, when the groups had all entered the arena, a few of us took some time to mingle amongst them and get some pictures with the dancers in costume. I made sure to have my photo taken with the huli wigmen, among some others. Again, everyone was incredibly friendly and happy to oblige. In fact, during the two days, a few people even asked for my photo, including a group of young people from Mount Hagen visiting the hotel. I also snapped a photo of a little dog dressed up for the occassion.
It was finally time to leave the sing sing, and we had all had a wonderful time. The second day, I took about 8 times more photos than the first. It was a truly incredible experience.
After a brief and unremarkable stop to a local supermarket, we headed back to the lodge. We had the option to do one of two nature walks—a short 20 minute walk or a longer hour walk through the forest. I chose the long walk and it was incredibly pleasant. Our guide, Joseph, is an expert birder who learned the birds when hunting with his father as a small boy. When we began, we saw an enclosure where some larger animals live, and we were fortunate enough to see a wallaby and a tree kangaroo. I never even knew the latter existed until this trip, but apparently there are kangaroos that are arboreal! It looked more like a bear. As we continued, the forest was calm, cool, and serene. A creek flowed beneath us as we walked through the muddy, but otherwise relatively easy trail. Finally, when we reached the top, we saw a bird of paradise. It was far away, but I did see a black spot with a long tail, so I am sticking with my story that we saw a bird of paradise.
Finally, I spent the last evening overlooking the valley of Mount Hagen, and the clouds rolling into the valley. It was a lovely vantage point.
Days 3 and 4: Lake Murray
We awoke early the next morning for the ride to the airport. On the way, our guide received a phone call that the missing phone had been retrieved from the thief. We never learned the whole story, but apparently someone at the resort called security who talked to someone who knew someone, etc. etc. etc. It ended in a bribe and the return of the phone. Apparently, this is relatively common in Papua New Guinea—the phone itself has no value, but is stolen in hopes of a reward in return. It was a lesson in how truly connected the people of this country still are. In a tribal community, everyone in a clan really does know each other, so they can usually get to the bottom of what happened. At any rate, it was a happy end to that part of the story.
We arrived at the airstrip and eventually boarded a small plane destined for Lake Murray. We ascended over the mountains, and while clouds still filled the valleys, the view was stunning. We could see rugged mountaintops and lush valleys below. As we descended toward Lake Murray, I was surprised by its vastness. Small islands dotted a huge inland expanse of fresh water. Several people were there to greet us, including our guides, who showed us to the boats that would take us to the lodge. The rest of the people hanging out were mostly children, who came to see us, a novelty, and the airplane.
Lake Murray is in the western province of New Guinea, which is one of the largest provinces, but the least inhabited. The lodge is the newest of the Trans Niugini lodges, and it was built by bringing all the materials in on a barge—everything from building materials to salt and pepper shakers, including gravel and cement. Only the wood was not brought in, as it was used from local materials, along with the meticulously hand-woven internal roof of the lodge and a few other decorative items–all woven from Sago palm. The local people all lived on-site while they built the entire lodge by hand. Most of the tribes here welcomed the lodge and the opportunities and resources tourism would bring to the area.
There are five tribes in the Lake Murray area. Each speaks its own language, and they are completely different, such that none can understand each other. Our guide, Smith, explained that we would visit two villages today, taking a walk of approximately 30 minutes through the area. Both of these villages were from the same tribe. Moreover, we learned that the five tribes in the area are currently peaceful with each other, which is not true of all areas of the country.
After lunch it was time for our first excursion in Lake Murray. We again boarded boats which took us to Pangea, a small village in the Kuni tribe. The people were there waiting. Dozens of children rushed to the shore to watch us approach. We climbed out of the boats and were greeted by adults, children, dogs, and a baby cassowary—a bird that looks prehistoric. Our guides explained that they would grow to be vicious and deadly, but that as young birds they were extremely docile, and would follow you almost like a puppy. We’d later learn how true that was.
The reception we received in this village was truly remarkable. We were only the third group to visit this village, meaning this was only the third time most of them had seen white people. Smith explained that many of these people still believed that we were the spirits of their ancestors returning to them (which, as we learned in the terrific film First Contact a few nights previous, was what the tribes of New Guinea originally believed when the Australians came into contact with them for the first time.) I think everyone in the village that day lined up for a view. The most entertaining part of the visit was the children, and taking pictures of them. We would take a photo, then show them the photo on the back of the camera, and they would squeal with delight and excitement. The joy was palpable, and the interaction was very special.
We headed through the village toward an old church and associated buildings once established by Australian missionaries, followed by everyone we had met. Smith explained that when PNG obtained its independence, the white man had left, and as a result, the administration had gotten much, much worse. He explained that the government is very corrupt, and it has gone downhill. We asked whether there are any leaders who provided hope for the community, and he explained that there were not.
We then headed on (with our growing following) toward what used to be an airstrip, but is now a long piece of grassy land. When the planes landed, they ended their taxi by driving uphill, and to depart, they raced downhill back the same direction. The children ran ahead of us down the airstrip to tell the others that we were coming. And, like a dutiful puppy, the cassowary chased after them (along with the actual dogs). At the airstrip, Smith led the group in singing their national anthem, and we sang ours in return.
We continued toward the last village, where we met more people, took more pictures, and enjoyed more time with the people. We also got our first close view of the pigs that were viewed as currency. I got a particularly close view when I thought I felt a dog sniffing my leg and looked down to find it was a piglet.
Eventually, it was time to say goodbye, and we boarded the boat for the return trip to the lodge. By this time, I think everyone from both villages had joined our group, and they all lined the banks of the lake to say goodbye. We waved and thanked them for a lovely visit, and headed back to the lodge to relax for the rest of the afternoon and evening.
The following morning we gathered for a tour of two more villages. First, we visited Mutin, which has people of both the Kuni and Pari tribes, which was in its second year of receiving visitors. It was about a 30-minute boat ride from the lodge. As before, the people of the village were lining the banks of the lake awaiting our visit. For today’s visits, the villages had prepared cultural programs to show us some of their traditional dress and traditions. Several of the children and a few of the adults had their bodies painted black with charcoal and their faces painted white. They demonstrated how they weave goods from various parts of the Sago palm, and we learned that the craft is passed down from mother to daughter. The local people showed us a traditionally-made fish trap, and explained how the worm is fed into the trap by wood, and then when the fish puts its head in to catch the worm, spines keep it from pulling its head back out. We also saw a man crafting a roof from the Sago palm fronds. In addition to the people, several dogs and a piglet greeted us as well.
The chief of the village also lined up with his granddaughters. He was dressed in western clothing, while the granddaughters all wore traditional attire. And while they put on stoic faces for the camera, when showed the pictures, their faces lit up with smiles just like all the other children. That was particularly true of the little ones, while the older girls seemed a bit more like typical teenagers. The elderly women were also nearby and were eager to shake our hands, with one woman taking my arm in her hands and sharing her charcoal body paint with me.
We wandered through the village, seeing the church and the elementary school. One local gentleman was in traditional garb, with a shell from the sea used as a penis gourd. We saw the dugout canoes traditionally used for fishing or travel, although in light of our visit they were unused at the moment, with only the dogs lazing about inside. We continued showing the children the photos we had taken of them, as delighted by their reactions as we were by seeing the photos. We also saw some crocodiles the local elementary school teacher had taught. They were about 2 years old, and he would keep them for another 6-7 years before killing them for their meat and selling the skin at the market.
After showing us around, the village asked us to tell them where we were from, and Smith gave us a map of the world to illustrate. We all went around and told them where we came from. I tried to tell them about how cold Chicago is in winter, but I suspect it’s difficult for them to even fathom. A group sang the national anthem for us, and then the church choir asked to sing for us. We were shocked at the talent, and loved the beautiful four-part harmony as they sang the songs the missionaries had taught the villages long ago. When it was finally time to say goodbye, we pulled away in our boats, and they sang to us as we departed. More than one tear was special. We didn’t think it was possible to top that experience, but we would soon learn we were wrong.
After stopping for lunch along the banks of the lake, we proceeded away from the lake up the river to a remote village—Upovia, of the Pari tribe. Although missionaries had visited at some point, this village had never been visited by tourists, and most of its residents had never seen white people before. As soon as we arrived, we could tell that they had taken special preparations for our visit. The people were lined up on either side of a sign welcoming us, and in front, there was something of a bamboo fence concealing those behind it. It was a symbolic barrier, and they explained that once it was broken, they would open their village to tourist. They had prepared a ceremonial welcome for us.
The men standing behind the bamboo barricade began to sing a traditional song, and after they did, they removed the barrier and stepped to either side, asking us to pass in the middle, saying “welcome to our culture show” as we passed. Children were then revealed standing beneath the welcome sign. They sang the national anthem, and again parted and asked us to pass through, repeating the same welcome.
Next, we were taken to a group of women, who sang for us their traditional song, while a man in traditional dress danced with a drum behind us. After the women, the young men sang for us, along with an older man who led them. Finally, we were escorted into a shelter with benches, and the men in traditional garb performed a dance, which involved beating a drum while hopping in a circle. We learned that this is inspired by the mating dance of the bird of paradise.
Again, we were asked to tell them where we were from, so we did so while the entire village stood watching. They then invited us to come look around the village, and the residents showed us around, where we saw the school, a basketball court, a volleyball court, and a soccer field. They explained how they extract wood from the Sago palm, and proudly identified which homes were theirs. One thing I was surprised about in this village as in the others, was how well some of the adults spoke English.
As I passed through the village, I took pictures of some children, and showed them to them where they were just as excited as those in the previous villages, although some were a bit scared of us and stayed in the back. One of the other visitors, Carol, and I decided we wanted to play with them and have some fun, so we were making funny faces and dancing for them. I demonstrated “dabbing” at her suggestion, and then pulled the only dance I could think of out of my head, which was the Macarena. We then did the hokey pokey with them, and that was the real winner. They played along, and the entire crowd (which was probably 100 children) giggled with delight when I “shook it all about” with my whole self.
Sadly, after all that fun, it was time to say goodbye. As I walked toward the boat, one of the guides told me that one of the young women wanted to present me with a gift. She handed me a bundle of beautiful black cassowary feathers wrapped with a woven rope. I thanked her and continued on, while two older women presented me with strings of beads, saying they were for dancing with the children. When we got in the boat, they began singing to us, and I could not contain my emotions.
Visiting this village was one of the most special moments of my life. The organizer had so carefully planned everything, wanting it to be perfect, and presenting each portion of the “culture show” in a carefully planned order in ceremonial fashion. But while we certainly loved every part of that, what really made this special was meeting the people and playing with the children. And when I returned to the lodge, I unwrapped my cassowary feathers, only to reveal that they were carefully woven together to form a beautiful traditional headdress. I can’t even imagine the effort that must have gone into crafting it, and it is one of the most special gifts I have ever received.
Day 5: Kalawari
Of course, we could not spend all of our time in Lake Murray, so the next day we said goodbye to the wonderful people at the lodge and boarded a plane for the Kalawari region. After a bit of a bumpy ride over the mountains, we descended into a valley, watching the winding rivers and their hairpin turns at the bottom of tree-covered hills. We could see the stately lodge atop a ridge, with the main building modeled after the traditional spirit houses of the region. We landed on a grass strip, and after a 15 minute boat ride and 10 minute truck drive up the hill, we arrived at the lodge.
Kalawari is a relatively small river region with 6 language groups, including the Yokoin tribe that we would visit that afternoon. The Yokoin tribe were fishers, hunters, and sago makers, and traditionally were cannibals. They killed the enemy, believing that when they ate them, they would take their strength and become more powerful. Unlike the Sepik tribes, they were not headhunters, however. Chris, our guide, was himself from the Yokoin tribe, and he explained that they had been the top warriors, and as a result, the Yokoin have the best fishing and sago-making territories.
Unlike the other parts of the country we had visited, the tribes in this area do not raise pigs or view them as currency. Instead, a few men in the village are skilled hunters, and they go out to hunt wild pigs at night whenever they want to eat meat or for a celebration. They have well-trained dogs that track the pigs, sometimes biting their legs so that the hunters can catch up to them and spear them. These dogs also help hunt cassowary during the day. There is virtually no hunting with guns, and the only guns in this region are illegal and homemade. (Guns are generally illegal in Papua New Guinea, although some people do have permits that require them to remain concealed.)
We learned that when the people in this need to buy or trade goods, they must travel 2-3 days to reach the nearest town. They first take a boat for at least a day, and then spend the night and take a bus for 6 hours to get to the market. While the government has a policy that there is free healthcare and education in this country, there is no place to get it. There are buildings near the lodge that once housed doctors but they were long since abandoned, with the doctors isolated and unable to get supplies.
That afternoon, we headed back down to the river and took a boat to the nearby Kundiman village of the Yokoin tribe. There, the residents demonstrated the traditional methods of making Sago. Chris explained that this was not merely for our benefit—this is how the people of this village still make Sago, which is their primary food source.
Sago is made from the pulp of a tree, and is virtually all starch with little nutritional value. First, one of the men of the village demonstrated splitting the log to separate the pulp from the bark, and then hammering the pulp to break it down. A few members of our group gave it a try, and Chris explained that both men and women perform this task. Then, a woman took the pulp in a basket woven of reeds to the river, where two dug out logs had been formed into a method of collecting the sago extract. She used a hollow coconut to pull water from the river, and placed it into the basket of Sago pulp. The milky water that came from the basket was then collected, and would ultimately be used to make the Sago flour. After the water runs clear, the remaining pulp is discarded into the river. The extract is allowed to sit for 15-20 minutes while the sediment settles to the bottom, and it is then dried to form the flour. We had the opportunity to feel the flour, which feels like cornstarch.
The people of the village then demonstrated how they form food from this flour. There are two primary methods—pancakes and pudding. To make the pancakes, a scoop of sago is poured onto a skillet, and it is then spread out to form a pancake. Once one side is cooked, it is flipped, and the pancake is ready to be interesting. The pudding was more fascinating (although extremely unappetizing). First, the sago flour is dissolved into a small amount of water, which is continuously stirred. Meanwhile, a pot of water is simmering nearby. A woman used leaves as potholder to life the boiling cauldron and pour the water into the Sago. Before our eyes, it immediately congealed into a glue-like substance—the “pudding” to be eaten.
For flavoring, the best parts of the bark (as determined by methods long ago discovered by the Yokoin’s ancestors) are burned in a special manner to form ash. Water is filtered through the ash, and this flavored water can be used to cook vegetables and meat. The village demonstrated how small fish related to a piranha mixed with “vegetables” (really just leafy foliage from the jungle) were boiled in the flavored water.
After some time mingling with the village, we headed back to the lodge for a talk with Chris to learn about the area, and for dinner. After dinner we were treated to some entertainment by the Kalawari bamboo band. The band has learned songs from listening to radio signals from across the world, and copying what they hear. They used stacks of bamboo to form a type of instrument, which made different tones when beaten with the sole of a flip flop. The music was very entertaining, and the best part was seeing how much the band members seemed to enjoy playing music.
Days 6-8: Sepik Region
The next day, a small group arose early to go birding in the hopes of seeing an elusive bird of paradise. We set off on a boat a few minutes down river, and then took a short walk into the woods. We were rewarded by both a male and a female 12-wire bird of paradise. They aren’t the most spectacular of the birds, and the plumes of the males are 12 wires hanging of the backside, as the name suggests, but we were still thrilled to see these unique birds.
After breakfast, we headed off toward our new home for the next 3 nights, the Sepik Spirit. We remained on the Karawari river, but this time proceeded to the Sepik region. That afternoon, we visited the village of Manjamai. First, we saw a fishing demonstration, and the women showed us the traditional methods they used to catch fish from dug-out canoes. Here, the people are entirely dependent on fishing and Sago for food. While a few gardens are visible along the banks of the river, gardening is only possible during the dry season, and even then, a heavy rain may cause a flood that washes them away. Occasionally the men will hunt for pigs and cassowaries, but they are used for food rarely, perhaps eating pig only once or twice per month.
After the demonstration, we disembarked the boats to visit a school with children ranging from 11 to 19 years old. They performed the national anthem, another national song, and two dances for us. They also had prepared questions for us, which they read and we answered. We learned from the teacher that the school is new, and although the government promises free education, the funding from this school has not yet come. She said that next year they will receive the money, but we all feared from what we have seen that this may be just a hope and not the reality. As a result, we saw school rooms where the children sit on the floor, with no desks, chairs, books, or any other resources apparent.
The state of this school is not unusual in Papua New Guinea, unfortunately. One national with whom we spoke walked 27 kilometers each way to go to school when he was a boy. And while the government says that they provide free education, the parents still are somehow forced to pay hefty fees on the promise that the money from the government will come eventually.
But regardless of their circumstances, the children seem to love their teacher and be full of laughs. Before we left, we did a performance of the hokey pokey, and they heartily joined in.
After leaving the school, we saw a traditional demonstration of war canoes, where the men showed us the rituals their ancestors took place in when fighting, and killing, the enemy on the river. They carried the fallen enemy back to the village where they showed us a traditional celebratory dance. After the demonstration, we spoke to the village chief, who told us he was the counselor for the village. However, he explained that they had gone four years without a meeting due to lack of funds. We also asked about healthcare and whether the children had any vaccines. They told us the children used to be vaccinated, but no more. There is no money for vaccines.
This was a common theme throughout our visit to Papua New Guinea. It became quickly apparent that corruption in the government runs rampant, with little of the money earmarked for certain regions actually making it down to the local communities and tribes themselves. In recent years, things have deteriorated, with the money and resources the villages used to have drying up. Yet with all of this corruption the people remain cheerful and hopeful. Our guide told us that the opposition party is the strongest it has been in over 40 years, and while they just had an election, in eighteen months the prime minister will face a potential vote of no confidence. With the dire situation facing people in these remote areas, this remains a source of hope, even in the corrupt government.
The following day we again boarded small jet boats to set out for the village. First, we visited the two parts of the village of Minimbit. Although they are the same village, the two parts are from different clans of the Iatmul tribe. The first was inhabited by the clan Mailambu, and had approximately 300 people. The second, smaller part of the village was home to the Mandali clan.
In this visit, we witnessed a reenactment of an ancient method of resolving disputes. This ritual was traditionally conducted in spirit houses or the men’s houses, and women were not allowed to participate. A carved wooden stool was placed in the center of the ring of men. The stool represented the spirits of the ancestors. On stop of the stool were 3 bundles of straw. One by one, the men approached the stool, stated their opinion on the matter, and then swept the straw against the stool. If someone disagreed with the person who had gone before, he would beat the stool with the straw strongly to show his displeasure.
The guides explained that unlike the highlands, this area was relatively peaceful because they settled their disputes in this manner. However, the ritual is no longer practiced, and now the areas have elected officials and policemen. Because they aren’t always respected, the tribes sometimes take law and order into their own hands, and fights ensue. Four boys in one of the villages we visited are in prison for five years for burning down the village of their adversaries, including a men’s house with the ceremonial stools.
Like many other countries, Papua New Guinea has courts that resolve such disputes, but unfortunately they are tainted by corruption as well. Indeed, the prime minister has stayed court orders to arrest him. And while there has been an investigation against him, he fired the investigator. (Sound vaguely familiar?) Despite lacking the actual authority to overturn court decisions, he continues to evade prosecution.
At that village, we also had the opportunity to see the men making the traditional wooden crafts for which the Sepik region is known. I watched a man put the final touches on a drum shaped like a fish, and I was immediately drawn to it. Thanks to the extreme generosity of two of my fellow travelers who brought it back to the states for me, I am now its proud owner.
And of course, as with the other villages, we had the opportunity to meet with the people from the village.
That afternoon we visited our guide’s village of Mameri—also a member of the Iatmul tribe. At this village, we met the chief and several counselmen. We learned that while counselmen are elected, chiefs were chosen long ago, with the title passed down from generation to generation. The chiefs are still an important part of village life, responsible for helping to resolve disputes among the inhabitants.
The following day, it was time to visit what was probably the most remote area of our trip—the blackwater lakes. We had a full-day excursion to two villages, waking early in the morning to take the jetboat through the river and to the lakes via our guide’s “shortcut.” Because the river levels had been high just a few days before, the water was murky and was not the black, tea-like consistency that is the reason for the lakes’ name, but the region was beautiful nonetheless.
First we visited the village of Kabraman, of the Kabriman tribe. This village housed what used to be the highlight of the trip—a large spirit house. Unfortunately, a year or so ago it collapsed in a large flood, having been gradually worn away over the years by termites and rot from the rising water. The sepik is a very flat region, and while we were there in the dry season, we could see the water lines on the stilts below the houses. Typically the rainy season brings raised water levels, yet they are not high enough to destroy the homes. But from time to time, a huge flood washes everything away, forcing the people to seek higher land or live from canoes. It was such a flood that caused the spirit house’s demise, although it was just the straw that broke the camel’s back in light of the termite infestation.
The village housed large totems, some in the ruins of the spirit house, and others elsewhere in the village. The ornate wooden carvings are there to invoke the spirits of the tribe’s ancestors. And while it would have been nice to see the house intact, it was interesting to see the ruins nonetheless, and in some ways, that was more indicative of the general state of repair in Papua New Guinea. We also saw the carvings throughout the village; even the canoes are carved with crocodiles.
The women of the village also showed us a ceremonial dance used in the initiation process for a woman when she begins menses. In the Sepik region, the process of becoming a man or a woman still invokes centuries of tradition. The villages continue to practice the process of scarification. For the men, when it is time to transition to manhood, their skin is carved with razor blades, on their chests, arms, and backs, with a pattern reminiscent of a crocodile. The man is then believed to have the spirit of the crocodile, which is revered in these areas. It wasn’t entirely clear whether all men have this done, or only a subset—we met one man in his twenties whose scars were relatively recent but had older tattoos, and he said that he was not expecting the ceremonial scars, so he chose to get tattoos (which do not have traditional meaning, but he got simply because he wanted them). Others said all men undergo this ritual, so I suspect it may vary from tribe to tribe, and perhaps even village to village.
Many women undergo this ceremonial scarification as well, and it is up to a woman’s family as to whether they choose to subject her to this. Any woman who will become a midwife must undergo the ceremony, and she is quarantined from the rest of the tribe while being instilled with the knowledge of the other midwives and elder women. We learned that if any family wants a woman to have an important rule in the village, they will chose to have her undergo this process.
After leaving Kabraman, we visited Tanguimbet, also of the Kabriman tribe. This time we were able to see the results of scarification up close, with several men and women displaying their scars. It looks tremendously painful. Not only do they cut the skin with razor blades, but they fill it with ash and other materials. Accounts varied as to whether this is to prevent infection or to promote the raised appearance.
At Tanguimbet, we saw another ceremonial dance, this time with a woman who was currently living in the family home and preparing for her ceremony. It is difficult to know the pain that is coming to her.
And with that, I had completed my final village visit in Papua New Guinea. It’s a remarkable place, and I learned a great deal about its culture and people. On our final afternoon and evening, our group discussed what is to become of this amazing place. We learned that the young people now learn the culture in order to demonstrate it for tourists, but they lack the understanding of the centuries of beliefs behind it. In ten or twenty years, it may be gone (or at least, significantly degraded).
It’s difficult to know how much of this is good, and how much of it is bad. Missionaries and subsequently tourists have brought numerous western items and traditions to Papua New Guinea. It is hard to deny the positive effect that things like education, medicines, and mosquito nets have in alleviating suffering. And certainly from a human rights perspective, the elimination of headhunting and cannibalism is difficult to criticize.
But the benefits to the every day life of a Papua New Guinean living in one of these remote areas appear, at least to this outsider, relatively small. The medicine doesn’t reach the far corners of the country. Many children remain without education. And those who do receive it, understandably, often leave the villages for the promise of a better life (although with the importance of family and community, they still send money home and take care of their families).
Yet the western influence is pervasive in terms of the erosion of this rich culture. Except for special occasions or for the benefit of tourists, people wear western clothes, which are totally unnecessary, difficult to keep clean, and can even cause infection. The masters carvers who create the beautiful works of art for which the sepik region is known are dying out, and the young people who replace them may be able to recreate the aesthetic, but they don’t understand the meaning.
The people of this region see tourists like us and they long for a different life. I cannot fault them for that. It would be cruel to see these children with bloated bellies and hope that they continue to subsist on Sago and bony lake fish. But at the same time, it’s difficult to look into the future and see much improvement for them, while I fear the culture will be washed away. I only hope that Papua New Guinea can find a way to improve the lives of its people, while maintaining its rich cultural heritage.