HEART OF DARKNESS
A local writer uncovers a new spirit of adventure in raw and wonderful Papua New Guinea.
My idea of the perfect vacation is to get lost—go as far away as possible from everything familiar. As a passionate traveler and adventure junkie, I have climbed to the Mount Everest base camp, dived among WWII wrecks in Truk Lagoon, trekked the Amazon jungle. I have assisted in orthopedic surgeries in a converted carpet factory in Katmandu.
But no previous adventure prepared me for the time tunnel that brought me to Papua New Guinea (PNG). There, a precarious balance of 21st-century reality co-exists with Stone Age rituals and some of the world’s most exotic tribes.
Papua New Guinea conjures images of primitive and fierce warriors engaged in headhunting and cannibalism. This is the island where Michael Rockefeller was presumably killed and eaten by locals in the early 1960s.
For me, those compelling National Geographic images of spear-wielding tribesman with brilliantly colored face paint and bamboo nose piercings whispered, “Come hither.” It was all so exotic. And while I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of a tribal “payback” dispute or the object of a sorcerer’s spell, I was more than ready to venture to this heart of darkness.
Our 10-day journey started in Sydney, Australia, where our group of 13 seasoned travelers met Greg Stathakis, our Santa Barbara-based tour guide. Having led trips for PNG Travel for more than 30 years, Greg was knowledgeable about everything: local customs, politics, what to buy where and for how much! He had cultivated warm and lasting relationships with local people who were keen to share their life stories with us.
Our feet first set down in Port Moresby, the gritty capital of PNG. Port Moresby has landed on quite a few “Top 10 worst” lists due to violent crime carried out by “raskols”—the pidgin term for rampaging gangs. Hotel security guards carrying semi-automatic weapons underscored this dubious distinction.
We were in and out of the capital quickly, but we did enjoy our visit to the National Museum, which houses a wonderful collection of artifacts and antiquities from all over the country. And we enjoyed the impressive Parliament building, conceived as the centerpiece of PNG’s newfound statehood and independence from Australia in 1975.
Our itinerary was to take us to the Sepik River, the heart of food, transport and culture for its local villages and world-famous for the rich variety of artisanal masks and carved figures. Then we would see the lush and mountainous Highlands, the last part of the country to be explored by Europeans. Here, tribal fighting remains a popular pastime.
Our journey through time would culminate with the Tumburu Sing-Sing, an annual, off-the-charts extravaganza of a competition where different tribes parade their traditional costumes, plumage and makeup to the beat of their indigenous music.
For three enchanted days, we journeyed along the Sepik, visiting remote villages along the Karawari and Blackwater tributaries. A nine-cabin riverboat, the Sepik Spirit, served as our comfortable, air-conditioned floating lodge.
Each morning a hardy meal was prepared before we boarded an open-air launch that motored us past cargo-laden dug-out canoes and naked children splashing along the riverbanks. Their parents fished or cultivated sago, a dietary staple from the pith of the ubiquitous sago palm.
Only 300 or so tourists a year venture into the remote villages of the Sepik River Basin, so our visits provoked much curiosity, not to mention a rich opportunity for locals to display their handiwork. This area is considered the cultural heart of PNG and indeed, just when I thought I would not buy a single additional “artifact,” there I was, negotiating “first price” and “second price” (i.e., the final price) for yet another special treasure.
We visited several spirit houses (Haus Tambaran in Tok Pisin)—the ceremonial, spiritual and social center of tribal life FOR MEN ONLY! Happily, an exception is made for tourists.
Craftsmanship is intrinsic to life on the Sepik. Carved, woven and painted pieces are imbued with magical powers of revered ancestors who protect the village from famine, warring enemies and evil spirits. These objects are also central to another Sepik area tradition: The Initiation.
There were constant references to this prestigious rite of passage, and we knew that it was of vital importance for the spiritual wellbeing of the community. But details remained sketchy.
That is until John, our boat captain, held us spellbound as he shared his initiation experience with us on our last night on the boat. Needless to say, it is quite rare for an outsider (and white man) like John to be invited to partake in this sacred group event.
His initiation lasted only two weeks, whereas for most young men it involves enduring several months of seclusion in the spirit house. During this time, they learn their clan’s ancestral secrets, which are passed down orally from generation to generation.
John explained he and other initiates had to abide by many taboos: They could never look at or speak to women during this time; they couldn’t allow the sun to touch their bodies; and they were forbidden to touch themselves in any way (no scratching those pesky mosquito bites). If any one initiate broke any of the taboos, all paid the price—a good flogging.
The initiates also endure taunting and painful rituals that toughen them for life and rid them of any residual femininity. The painful skin-cutting process on both chest and back, which forms keloid scars, mimics the scales of a crocodile, the patron of the Sepik … primeval creator of Earth itself … the ultimate symbol of power and manhood.
I won’t get into the graphic details, but suffice it to say our group was riveted … right up to the point when John took off his shirt and showed us his heavily scarred skin. Certainly not a rite of passage for the faint of heart.
Implanted in the ground close to the entrance of the house were two pointed stones about 3 feet tall, darkly stained at the top. We learned they were Blood Stones, once used to proudly display headhunters’ trophies. The village kids, one dressed in a T-shirt with a picture of Obama, couldn’t wait to have their pictures taken next to these unsettling mementos of the not-too-distant past
I loved the Sepik area and was sorry to leave the river’s tranquility and the gentle pace of life along its shores. But new places and experiences awaited us at our next stop: life at another altitude—the Highlands.
Home for the next few days was at 7,000 feet above sea level. To get there, we took off from a grass field (the local airport) in a 10-seat, twin-engine plane. We flew over lushly rugged valleys and towering limestone peaks to the town of Tari, home to one of the most recognizable cultures in PNG: the Huli Wigmen—straight from the pages of National Geographic.
These strapping men, resplendent in their yellow and red painted faces, ceremonial wigs and leaf skirts, were somewhat intimidating. This was the real deal … not a Disneyland version of “Warriorville.”
White man first discovered the Highland peoples in the early 1930s. The tribes here are the least west-ernized anywhere on the island, and traditional beliefs rule the day. A man’s wealth and importance is still measured by accrual of pigs, wives and land and is usually the source of bitter tribal conflict.
Each day we ventured into the forest slopes, where the lives of indigenous people are lived as they were 100 years ago. Women do most of the work—raising the children and pigs and cultivating the garden. The men hunt and are the village “soldiers”—stoking generations of tribal conflicts with the time-honored tradition of exacting “payback” (compensation) for transgressions. Tribal fighting is as much about their culture as car travel is to ours.
The Huli Wigmen are all about their celebrated ‘do’s. We went to the jungle beauty parlor to watch young men perform a series of coif-related rituals under the tutelage of a Huli wigmaster. In Huli society, before young men can marry, they must grow a beautiful head of hair, which, at the point of perfection (a full, smooth afro), is clipped and made into a highly prized wig. Add some cassowary feathers and flowers, and you have the renowned Huli ceremonial wig.
PNG traditional society is a culture of male dominance over women. This was especially evident in the Highlands, where the perceived dangers of female substances (especially blood) and sexuality are so powerful, they are thought to threaten male health and masculinity. Women are at once powerful and in need of subjugation.
A Huli village woman talked to us in hushed tones of her previous husband’s abuse (a chronic problem in PNG) and confided that she put a spell on him by adding menstrual blood to a dinner she prepared. He did indeed get sick, and she was released from the marriage. However, she did have to pay back the bride price (a combination of pigs, shell money, flour and rice)—plus interest. Fearing deliberate sabotage by their own wives, Huli men will often take the precaution of cooking their own food.
We had our own up-close-and-personal experience with Highland sorcery. Much to the embarrassment of our hotel manager, three of our fellow travelers had their hiking boots stolen one night. Humiliated and upset, the manager offered a reward for the prized shoes. He also let it be known that if the shoes were not returned, a pig would be slaughtered, casting an evil spell on the culprit. The next person to befall some unpleasant fate (including death) would be presumed guilty and compensation would be exacted.
That did it! The shoes turned up the morning of our departure, exactly where they had last been seen. No pig had to be slaughtered; no spell had to be cast.
Our last stop—and the grand finale—was the Tumbuna Sing-Sing in Mount Hagan in the Western Highlands Province. While there are larger Sing-Sings, the Tumbuna show is one of the most traditional and intimate. Aside from one other tourist group, the rest of the audience was local Highlanders.
Sing-Sings are major cultural events in the lives of the Highland people. The Tumbuna festival celebrates “Taim Bilong Tumbuna,” the time that belonged to the indigenous people. It takes place at a traditional ceremonial ground.
We arrived early to watch the tribes prepare for the spectacle. We were backstage at a fashion show. I watched as they applied bright yellow, red, black and white “war” paint to their faces and the finishing touches to psychedelic headdresses made from human hair, shells, ferns and Bird of Paradise plumes.
I didn’t know where to look first, as a dozen clans in an eye-popping parade, rhythmically dancing to the beat of Kundu drums, proudly showed off their wildly flamboyant costumes. The dances come from different cultural wellsprings.
Some are traditionally performed at Moka ex-changes, a complex system of trade that relies heavily on pigs as currency for status in the community. Other groups of dancers celebrated tribal myths, such as the Mud Men, who wore grotesque clay masks and long, bamboo fingers to appear as returning spirits and frighten their enemies. Body decorations such as shell necklaces and kina shell breastplates were conspicuous displays of wealth.
When the music stopped, we all had plenty of time to whoop it up and interact with our highly spirited Highland wantoks (friends in pidgin).
Day after day I had seen extraordinary things on my trip. But while I was there in the actual vortex, I couldn’t possibly digest the power of the experience.
I was now back home in LA, where a million cars crowd the roads, where hospitals treat the sick, where courts rule on complicated property cases. In the same moment, thousands of miles away in the South Pacific, life goes on.
I couldn’t stop crying. The emotion surprised the hell out of me. While poring over my photographs oneday, I was hit by how touched I had been by the warmth and sweetness of these people with the warring persona.
In Papua New Guinea, I got lost … and found what I had been looking for.
Papua New Guinea — taking a trip back in time
Greg Stathakis, a retired Santa Barbara high school teacher, has led groups to Papua New Guinea for each of the past 28 years. My older son, Billy, and I joined him in May ’07 for the trip of a lifetime.
A bit of history
PNG occupies the eastern half of the world’s second-largest island, located 100 miles north of Australia. It’s a relatively new country, gaining independence in 1975.
Although English is the official language (Pidgin is the second), over 800 languages are spoken in this country that is only slightly larger than California.
PNG is remote. There are daily flights to and from Australia but not many other ways to get into the country easily.
Europeans discovered a thriving interior culture only in 1933. The Japanese occupied the coastal areas during World War II, and Allied forces retook the country in 1944. The outside world has paid little attention since.
That’s surprising because of what PNG offers visitors. Its coral reefs support more species than the entire Caribbean. The tropical mountain forests are home to a dozen species of birds of paradise and an array of orchids found nowhere else. The tribes of the Highlands offer glimpses of wildly different cultures, and, for the shopper, PNG is ground zero for primitive art.
Greg visited PNG in 1978, and he raised questions with the tour agents about how they did things. They challenged him to do better and he’s been doing so ever since.
Late one night I discovered his website (www.pngtravel.com) and e-mailed him a few questions. He responded within minutes and we talked for over an hour. I sent in my deposit the next day for the 11-night tour, which cost $7,450 per person including all meals and in-country air.
Billy and I flew from Los Angeles to Brisbane, Australia, connecting to PNG’s capital city of Port Moresby. A van met us curbside and took us to an old dock outside of town. There we caught a launch for the 15-minute ride to Loloata Island.
Loloata Island Resort is a 22-cabin dive resort that is normally full on weekends with locals escaping the oppressive heat of the capital. During much of our stay, though, we were the only guests.
We spent our first morning with a dreadlocked divemaster, a missionary on his way home and a school of 100 toothy barracuda. On later dives we watched half-inch pygmy seahorses hang between the branches of sea fans and observed rare scorpionfish devour their prey. It was good diving.
After a few days we returned to the capital, where we met Greg and an interesting group consisting mostly of American retirees who had stories from nearly every country in the world. Then we flew an hour north on Air Niugini to Mt. Hagen in the Western Highlands.
Elections were scheduled for the end of the month, so hotel security advised we not leave the grounds unescorted because of volatile crowds. It was probably good advice; several people were killed that weekend in election violence.
But we experienced only full-faced smiles — and not just from people at the hotel who were paid to be nice to guests. At the central market, vendors clamored to have their pictures taken and then laughed at their images on the digital cameras. At a middle school where we took some supplies, students mobbed Billy and had him autograph their caps.
Greg built our trip around the Tumbuna Sing Sing, an annual festival of tribal dancing. Such gatherings offer often-warring tribes a chance to meet on neutral ground. Participants included batmen, skeleton people and warriors clad in feathered headdresses and beaded loincloths. Each took a turn singing, chanting and dancing (or, in the case of the fierce Asaro mudmen, glaring). Then they staked out their own spots and continued to perform, often drowning out a competing clan.
Watching the audience was almost as interesting; it consisted of 40 “expats,” a word locals use to refer to anyone from outside PNG, and several hundred “nationals” (not “natives”).
The East Sepik Province is a 45-minute flight and a world away from the Highlands.
It is almost scarily remote. There are no roads nor electricity. It is hot, steamy and malarial. And it offers spectacular art.
We landed on a grass airstrip and transferred to the Sepik Spirit, a 40-foot vessel that served as a comfortable base camp for our next few nights. We rested in air-conditioned cabins and during the day visited villages in a speedboat that was better able to navigate narrow river channels.
Missionaries have a long history in the region. In Timbunke we met Father Carlos, a young priest from Paraguay.
Traditional spirit worship seemed to thrive in the Catholic villages, and Father Carlos’ church is designed like a spirit house, each of its supporting posts carved by parishioners from a different village.
In what Greg called the Village at the End of the World, we saw Mass celebrated next to a magnificent spirit house in which young teens undergo a year of initiation into manhood. Those rites culminate with each boy’s back being sliced with bamboo slivers and packed with mud to produce a scarring that resembles the revered crocodile.
In another village, the influence of the missionaries seemed less benign. There the spirit house had fallen into disrepair, the dancing had stopped, and the carving had been redirected from masks and figures said to house spirits to dolls for the tourist trade featuring outsized genitals.
The missionaries had a role in curtailing headhunting — and not so long ago. Our guide, Chris, said his grandfather had seven heads to his credit.
There aren’t many tourists on the Sepik River. In four days we saw only one craft (a supply boat) that wasn’t a dugout canoe. Our captain said that fewer than 50 foreign travelers had been on the river since January, which was understandable given the complete absence of a tourist infrastructure, despite the wealth of art for which the region is noted.
The pieces in the New Guinea Sculpture Garden at Stanford University are all from the Middle Sepik Region. In Mindimbit, we met one of the master carvers who had visited Stanford in 1994. Vendors there were accustomed to visitors and were vocal about the need for them to buy local crafts.
In contrast, another settlement we visited sees no more than two groups of travelers per year. Greg struck up a friendship in the late ’70s with the chief, so he is one of the only foreigners whom they see on a regular basis.
At the riverbank, children surrounded us, giggling and hiding behind their mothers. Masked dancers led us through the village, and we were admitted to the upper floor of the spirit house typically restricted for initiation rites.
Back on land
We left the Sepik for Ambua Lodge in the Southern Highlands near the Tari Gap. At 7,000 feet, the lodge is well above the malaria line, and morning treks spotting birds of paradise were exhilarating. It’s a glorious place, the recipient of multiple awards for environmental and cultural sensitivity before “going green” became trendy.
The Highlands are the home of the Huli people, PNG’s most aggressive clan, we were told. Even today, the chief job of Huli men is preparing for, engaging in and negotiating settlements of tribal warfare. Fights are over prestige, measured in land, pigs and women (in decreasing order of value).
It’s not a woman’s world. Our guide, Paulus, paid 30 pigs for each of his two wives. He chose them on their willingness to work hard and bear children.
In the Huli world, women are feared because, as the givers of life, they are also thought to be able to take it away. In the most traditional villages, men are in touch with women only for procreation; they otherwise eat, sleep and live in men’s houses.
Worth a visit
PNG has its issues. Raskols (street thugs) effectively close Port Moresby to nighttime activity. The subsistence economy of the villages does not translate well into the cities, where AIDS is prevalent. The loyalty to clan over country makes curbing the exploitation of rich natural resources even more difficult than in many developing countries.
Yet it’s a fascinating place, closer to my childhood recollection of National Geographic images than any place I’ve seen. Almost to a person, nationals asked us to write to them when we got home or to tell friends to visit. It’s well worth a look, even by the most jaded of travelers.
Papua New Guinea — Spirits, sing sings and the woman thing
by Clark Scott, Birmingham, AL
From everything I’d heard, read or seen about Papua New Guinea, it was death itself to go to that little-visited island off the northeast coast of Australia. A recent Internet story included the capital, Port Moresby, on its Top 10 Hells on Earth list, and everyone said the country was crawling with venomous snakes, disease, rampant “raskols” (the PNG term for robbers, murderers and rapists) and tribal wars — just the kind of place your grandmother told you never to go.
I wasn’t worried about the danger, really, despite the stories. Of course, there was the guide who picked us up at the Port Moresby airport, his face bruised and his lip cut, hugely puffed up and badly stitched, with black threads hanging down his chin.
Our guide assured us his injuries were merely accidental. He had been blindsided by a beer bottle the night before — a wild swing by the jealous uncle of a girl he had been chatting up at his local bar. He said his friends had beaten up the uncle afterward, so everything evened out.
PNG is all about payback, I would learn. Compensation makes its world go ’round.
“5 Killed Over Pig”: that was the headline I recalled while our guide told his bar-fight story. It was from a Reuters article noting that five people were killed and dozens injured at a peace ceremony when a fight broke out between two tribes over the best way to serve a pig. The fight escalated into a 5-day war involving over 2,000 Highland tribesmen.
So why go to a country like that? My wife, Josie, and I went for different reasons.
I went because a Paris dealer in PNG artifacts had told me great stories about an idiosyncratic people who carved beautiful art inspired by their belief in spirits and who practiced strange customs, drank and gambled a lot and told wonderful lies. To me, it sounded like the most twisted place on Earth.
Josie wanted to visit the country’s middle-of-nowhere rivers and mountains and get a firsthand look at the relationship between the sexes there (famously studied by Margaret Meade).
To play it extra safe, we traveled with someone experienced in PNG’s ways, Greg Stathakis, a retired Santa Barbara schoolteacher who has been taking small groups of visitors and large bags of welcome first-world staples — everything from T-shirts and candy to school supplies — to PNG every year for the last 30 years.
Don’t knock Port Moresby
We began our May ’08 tour by hitting the highlights of Port Moresby, including the Parliament House and the botanical gardens plus the National Museum, which surprised us with its beautifully carved masks, totems, headdresses, drums, canoes and antiquities from all over the country. It was dimly lit, almost too dark to see. Apparently, the cost of electricity was more than the museum could bear.
Visiting the local fishing villages outside the capital, we got our first up-close look at the way things are in PNG. The houses were pieced together from scrap metal and perched on stilts in the water, offering an open window on the inhabitants’ lives, with people sleeping and eating and bathing on the narrow palm planks that served as their porches. The modern skyscrapers of Port Moresby in the distance created an odd contrast.
We learned some Tok Pisin (pidgin English), the most widely spoken language in this country with over 800 indigenous languages. The “Do Not Disturb” sign on our hotel door read “Yu No Ken Kam Insait.”
We were warned not to go downtown alone and to never wander outside our walled and guarded hotel compound at night. But the only mildly threatening encounter we had was with a security guard on the hotel grounds.
He asked us where we were from, then began to tell us about himself, punctuating the story of his life with frequent, wild hand gestures. He said he came from a village in the Highlands and that he was very poor. He said he’d like to tell us more about himself and asked for our room number so he could come by that night to talk after he got off work at midnight.
Another hotel guest came along just then and we bolted. Fortunately, there was no knock at our door at midnight.
Magical spirits along the Sepik
We left Port Moresby the next day and flew inland on a tiny, chartered plane to the remote Sepik River region. We spent several days there, making slow time on the Sepik Spirit, a 9-cabin houseboat, visiting palm-enveloped villages by motor launch along the way.
The winding, Eden-like Sepik, Karawari and Cros Meri rivers are set in a jungle near nowhere. The mostly naked villagers don’t get many Western visitors, but they create much of the art for which PNG is famous.
Our Sepik days were a stunning visual experience, filled with art finds and pleasant exchanges with the villagers. We especially enjoyed the children, who followed us about, giggling among themselves. They were shy at first, then delighted when we asked them their names and shook their hands.
The only sign of danger was the “blood stone” we saw in front of a spirit house. A long time ago, we were told, the villagers used it as a hard surface on which to ritualistically lop off their enemies’ heads.
The most interesting sights were the spirit houses themselves. Not only were they remarkable architectural works, they held each village’s closely guarded secrets — the important carvings and other artistic representations of the magical spirits and ancestors that many in PNG still believe influence every aspect of their lives.
No one dies of old age, disease or bad luck in PNG. Someone in a neighboring village cast a spell or some evil spirit did it. And, for that, there must be compensation, so there are lots of tribal wars.
Noting the tininess of our tiny plane, we flew to Tari in the Southern Highlands, the home of PNG’s fiercest warriors, the Huli Wigmen.
The Huli Wigmen are all about bone and bamboo nose piercings, face paint and big hair wigs shaped like mushroom caps and festooned with the feathers of birds of paradise, cassowary and other birds intertwined with woven grasses, twigs and flowers. They love to dress up in their finery for any occasion, but they adorn themselves fantastically for every day.
We were told that the men have an innate fear of women, whom they blame for stealing their power to give birth. They believe too much contact with women, even their wives, could reduce their powers further, so they live in huts with other men.
The men take care of wars and manage the interaction with spirits. The women do all the work. They grow the yams that are the Hulis’ primary diet and raise the children and the pigs.
We stayed at the Ambua Lodge, a compound of thatch-roofed guest cottages set high in the lush, green mountains. Everything natural was outsized, from the spiderwebs large and thick enough to trap birds to the tree-size ferns and bright, blooming flowers as big as dinner plates. Unlike Port Moresby, there wasn’t a hint of danger there, at least not since the robbery five days before.
A bartender had been fired by the lodge, and he came back with his clan packing shotguns to demand compensation. The police wouldn’t answer the call. They were from another tribe, and if any of the Hulis were injured the police would have had to pay. The lodge’s security guards backed off for the same reason.
Because long negotiations and pontifications are a part of the culture, the lodge’s management and the disgruntled bartender haggled for 10 to 12 hours before they finally agreed on how much he would steal. He didn’t touch any of the tip envelopes in the safe addressed to other employees, because they would have come after him for payback.
The guests were never in danger, we were told. It was just between the bartender and the lodge.
Violence and compensation also enter into domestic relations. One of the lodge’s employees, Alice, told us she had divorced her husband because she was tired of his beatings. As a result, her family had to repay his family the bride price of 40 pigs plus interest — a hefty sum, arrived at after tortuous negotiation. Over time, she would have to repay her family out of her wages.
Alice was an educated woman with one foot in tradition, trying to gain a step on a better future. She was impressive all around and it had cost her a lot.
Tumbuna Sing Sing
Our last stop in PNG was Mount Hagen for the Tumbuna Sing Sing. It was to be the grand finale of our visit, that dazzling burst of fireworks at the end of the PNG “show.”
A sing sing is a big gathering at which a dozen or more tribes decked out in all their glory advance on each other and the audience, singing and dancing and waving their weapons. Every tribe has its own signature look and its own special moves.
One tribe might be painted black and white from head to toe to look like skeletons doing the walking-dead-man jangle, while another, their faces painted red, their eyes and lips outlined in vibrant white and wearing brightly feathered headdresses, jumps up and down as if trying to reach the sky.
My favorites were the mudmen, whose big, mud-sculpted heads — covering their real heads — perched on their shoulders like monochromatic jack-o’-lanterns. Their whole bodies were caked in matching gray mud and they stalked rather than danced, striking ominous poses while they clicked their long, sharp, bamboo-sheathed fingers threateningly at whoever caught their eye.
The major festivals are held several times a year and are attended by anywhere from a few to a few hundred tourists and many times that number of PNG nationals. At this particular sing sing, after their initial explosion of singing and dancing, the tribal participants alternated between mugging for the tourists’ cameras and becoming lost in the motion of their own music again.
As the day wore on, there was less mugging and more communal dancing and singing, with huge circles forming, men and women all together with their arms around each other’s shoulders, jumping up and down, going ’round and ’round.
For me, from the first moment the tribes rushed onto the field in a huge swell of clashing colors and sound and movement, it was sensory overload. I didn’t know quite what to make of it. You could say the same about Papua New Guinea.
The hardest thing about PNG isn’t the potential for danger; it’s that it’s so full of contradictions, you’re never sure you really get it.
But see for yourself. It won’t kill you.
Greg Stathakis knows which way to look crossing the street in Papua New Guinea. He made sure we dodged danger and gave us the inside scoop every step of the way.
You can contact Greg by calling 800/676-1241 or visiting www.pngtravel.com. The cost of our trip was $7,450 per person, not including international airfare.
Readers Recommend: Tour guide for Papua New Guinea
I recently returned from a wonderful trip to Papua New Guinea, headed by Greg Stathakis. As a world traveler who has been to more than 100 countries, I can say that he is one of the best, if not the best, tour leaders I have experienced. He is tuned in to what is going on and what his flock needs at any time. With Greg, we were able to go into areas that were relatively remote while always feeling safe. If anyone is interested in this fascinating country, he’s the way to go. Next trip is May 12-24.
Greg Stathakis; (800) 811-4621, (805) 708-9008, http://www.pngtravel.com .
Stepping into a different world on a journey to Papua New Guinea
by Knox Bell
Paddling a dugout canoe into a primeval, dimly lit old spirit house along the Blackwater Lakes of the Middle Sepik River area; watching Huli wigmen don their body adornments, and being welcomed with friendly smiles and waves from women laden with heavy bilum bags full of sweet potatoes: these were just a few of the many unique cultural experiences enjoyed by my daughter Kristin (age 43) and me (70) on a trip in May 2013 to Papua New Guinea.
We spent two weeks in PNG, along with 10 strangers (all of whom became good friends), on an adventure trip organized and escorted by Greg Stathakis of PNG Travel (Santa Barbara, CA; phone 800/676-1241).
The crowning event of this cultural journey was the Tumbuna Sing-Sing, held near Mt. Hagen. This is one of the three principal sing-sings, or Highlands shows, held in PNG each year. The other sing-sings are held in August and September and are larger, but this May sing-sing was a more intimate experience. There were only 30 of us tourists, in total, among more than 200 performers representing 10 different tribes.
Each tribe had its own distinctive costume, dance, headdress and ornamentation, including seashells, leaves, grasses, flowers, feathers and paint. Some dancers added mud, and others added oils, unusual headbands and woven bush material. Each performer was very colorful.
The performers seemed happy to have their photos taken, without asking for a fee, and were even willing to be observed and photographed as they decorated themselves and prepared for the dance performances, preparations which took a couple of hours!
Sydney to Port Moresby
Our trip started with two days in Sydney, Australia, where we enjoyed informative walks around town and had a talk each day from an expert about PNG. One lecture was given by two retired schoolteachers, a husband and wife who had taught school in PNG for 18 years and raised a daughter in the remote areas of the Sepik River. The other talk was presented by a collector who specialized in PNG artifacts.
Our tour leader, Greg Stathakis, who has traveled annually to PNG for the past 33 years, provided us with lots of information about what to expect in the land of Papua New Guinea. With such advance preparation, plus the reading and investigation I had done over the prior year, I felt in a good position to get the most out of my journey. However, the actual experience was even better than I had anticipated.
We spent two days in Port Moresby, the capital of PNG, before continuing on to the Highlands. There was plenty worthwhile to see in this big city.
We visited the exterior and interior of the Parliament House and were lucky to have a lecture and Q&A session with one of the assistants of a parliament member. We also visited with an environmental activist and heard how the growing mining industry (oil, gas, gold, minerals) is clashing with the traditional culture and the environment.
An authority on the artifacts and culture of PNG escorted us through the National Museum and the recently upgraded Nature Park.
To reach Mt. Hagen, the third-largest city in PNG, we took a one-hour flight from Port Moresby up into the Highlands, where we had Q&A visits with Huli wigmen and local tribesmen.
We had lots of questions about the “bride price” paid by a man to marry his wife and had discussions about how the first wife gets along with the second and third wives. While these cultural traditions seemed very different to me, I soon realized that their traditions have worked very well for them over the past two millennia and that our Western ways seemed very strange to the members of their older generations.
As an attorney, I was especially interested to learn about disputes and their resolutions in PNG. For example, if a member of tribe X were accidently injured by a member of tribe Y, the entire membership of tribe X would feel that tribe Y should pay some reasonable “compensation” to tribe X (such as, perhaps, three pigs, a feast for the tribe or $100). Such compensation would be made on a tribe-to-tribe basis rather than its just being between the individuals who were parties to the injury.
If the compensation were not paid promptly, the members of tribe X might feel entitled (or even obliged) to extract a payback injury against some member of tribe Y.
I was told that such traditional methods of dispute resolution are still practiced regularly in lieu of the new legal system that was created after PNG became an independent nation in 1975.
The Sepik River
Leaving the Highlands to explore the Sepik River area, we took a one-hour flight in a single-engine airplane that carried eight passengers, landing on a grass airstrip. Our tour included accommodation on the Sepik Spirit, a chartered, air-conditioned ship/hotel with nine guest rooms. Many side trips in a small speedboat took us into tributaries and the small, remote villages of the river basin.
During our visit, there were unusually high floodwaters. One villager said that he had been living in the second floor of his stilt home for three months without being able to set foot on the ground. He used a small dugout canoe to move about.
In one village that I visited on a Sunday, people were attending a Catholic church service on dry land. About a half mile away, I saw about 100 small canoes parked in one area, the churchgoers having rowed in from their flooded village to attend.
Many of the larger villages (500 or more people) in the S
epik River area each have their own “spirit house” or “men’s house,” with its unique A-frame construction, palm-leaf roof, a ground floor and a second floor.
Many of the tribe’s artifacts are stored on the second floor, including elaborate masks, shields, totem poles, headdresses, woodcarvings, drums and baskets. We were allowed to enter the sacred areas to view such artifacts, and many items were offered for sale.
The spirit house is also the place where young men go through a grueling 6-week “initiation” process, culminating in a ceremony involving body scarification. Numerous small razor-blade cuts are prevented from normal healing by rubbing mud into the wounds. It seems that after six months or more, the young men are very proud of their decorated bodies.
In addition to being introduced to many unique cultural traditions on this trip, we were able to observe what is becoming a more modern, Westernized population in and around the cities. This means cell phones, T-shirts, denim, trucks, cars, radios, TVs, liquor, stores, paved roads, etc.
Many people still walk wherever they need to go, and I saw very few bicycles and no motor scooters. People will hop a ride on a local PMV (public motor vehicle), a privately owned truck or bus that travels from area to area, generally within a 10-mile range, offering low-cost rides to local people. PMVs were often heavily loaded with people and cargo.
While we were warned to be wary of pickpockets, none of us experienced any problem. In fact, we found locals to be exceedingly friendly and genuinely happy to see Western travelers enjoying their country. Smiles beamed everywhere.
My planning for this trip involved the usual Internet searches, followed by phone calls to five tour operators. Initially, I selected Trans Niugini Tours, one of the largest operators of tours to PNG. However, after further investigation, I switched to PNG Travel (with a 14-night land tour at $9,300 per person) because I felt that Greg would provide more personal attention to details.
A trip to PNG is very expensive, regardless of which tour operator is selected. This is because in-country travel has to be done by airplane, and there are very few hotel alternatives — all of which are expensive — and there are very few travelers.
While the fully escorted tour with Greg was about 10% more expensive than the Trans Niugini tour (both of which were less expensive than most other PNG group tours), I found that the extra expense was well worth it. I received a lot of “value added” extras, such as Q&A sessions with interesting locals; daily written information about local history and culture; attention to details and matters that can go wrong, and prevention of mishaps and problems in this “land of the unexpected.”
Since visiting PNG was a once-in-a-lifetime travel experience for me, I do not have plans to return. However, I strongly recommend that well-traveled people put PNG on their own bucket lists and that the trip be made within the next few years before more changes occur, as change will certainly come soon.
Papua New Guinea: ‘Like everywhere you’ve never been’
As I gingerly scooted from the jet-powered flat speedboat into the primitive, man-made, dugout canoe on the Sepik River in the Blackwater River Basin of Papua New Guinea, my thoughts ran wild as to how I found myself crouched with trepidation, the unforgiving sun beating down on my red face, knowing the renowned malaria-carrying mosquitoes were prevalent in this river basin — and all I could think was, “Please don’t tip over.”
Remembering that Papua New Guinea was on my adventure “bucket list,” I smiled and soldiered on …
Welcome to the parallel universe of Papua New Guinea, where brides are still purchased from their families for a sum of currency, foodstuffs, plus a large number of pigs. Tribes and clans all share in the compensation. Their wealth is counted in pigs, kina shells and land. Ninety percent of the land in Papua New Guinea is owned by the tribes; it is passed down from generation to generation.
“Fighting, killing to protect our land, this is who we are,” one of our guides told us. “War is fun, like rugby.” Axes, spears and bows and arrows are used; guns are outlawed. These men are proud warriors, we learned. They never kill women or old people. They would carry out a grandfather, then burn down his house. Eventually, the tribes abandon fighting, hold arbitrations, declare a truce, then begin warring again.
There is a deep-rooted belief in “payback,” known as the “wontok system.” Whatever you have, you share with your clan. You must contribute to your tribe’s compensations, as well as settle each member’s vengeance debts.
Occupying the eastern half of the world’s second largest island, Papua New Guinea is 100 miles north of Australia. European explorers didn’t even enter the rugged interior until 1933. Gaining independence from Australia in 1975, it is still remote, difficult to traverse, dangerous, primitive, and its culture has retained a foothold that modern civilization has not changed. Most of the millions of people in the South Pacific’s largest and wildest country still live as rural subsistence farmers. Few wear shoes. Some have never seen an automobile. Even with the mining and petroleum booms, progress is difficult.
Violence is often caused by conflicting land claims. Under tribal law, there are no deeds, no surveyors, no records, no legal, binding proof of ownership. Contracts are only binding when every member of the clan agrees. American companies working on an enormous pipeline project have constant problems, with clan members arguing over ownership of every tree, bush, blade of grass. Until compensation is agreed upon, all work ceases. It is three steps forward, and two steps back.
Papua New Guinea: A people and countryside, refusing to be spoiled by outsiders, where spirits and sorcery are being grafted to modern ways. A polygamist, male-dominated society, where remote tribes speak 750 languages, caused by towering mountains almost impossible to traverse. Pidgin English is most commonly used. It is a Commonwealth country where “Missus Kwin” (the British queen) still reigns.
Frightened by years of news reports about cannibalism, tribal warfare, crime and disease, with dire warnings from friends running through my head, I began my adventure in Sydney, led by Greg Stathakis, a retired Santa Barbara teacher, who has made Papua New Guinea his home away from home for the past 33 years. The relationships he has fostered with the “nationals” created an unparalleled experience.
It was magical.
Landing on a grass airstrip, traveling by bus, canoe and charter planes, we immersed ourselves in the Papua New Guinean world for two weeks. For three nights, we floated on the riverboat, the Sepik Spirit, into remote villages, unreachable by land. Awaking to the squawking of jungle birds, filtering through the mists, I felt transformed. In the most hauntingly ethereal of New Guinea’s hidden places, the Sepik is a hot jungle region with no roads or electricity; everything is submerged during part of the year. Every man, woman and child has a dugout canoe.
Scaring us to death, a war canoe appeared out of nowhere, with villagers in full paint, spears in hand, whooping and yelling.
That was our “welkam” — in English, welcome.
To reach the spirit houses, we disembarked from the canoes, to hoist ourselves up a crudely constructed log ladder. I was fearful of falling. Even with a local on each arm, lending strength, I stopped, midway, unable to move. All the village men and fellow travelers were up at the top, shouting support. I looked up, saw the smiles on all the faces around me, and continued up the widely spaced, slippery log rungs.
In the male-dominated spirit house, the men (local women are not allowed) shared their tribal customs, dancing, retelling legends, sharing spectacular artifacts, which are reasonably priced for sale. Guests are rare; competition for the few tourists is great. (There are only about 5,000 tourists a year in Papua New Guinea, and in the Sepik area probably fewer than 600). Their genuine warmth was infectious. The physical risks were warranted. This was a special place.
Rites of passage for young men were evidenced by the crocodile pattern that was scarred on their bodies. Sequestered in the spirit house for months, boys are taught the rites of their tribe, culminating with an excruciating scarification ceremony, the “certificate” of their initiation.
We flew into the cooler, mountainous interior of the New Guinea Highlands, one of Earth’s last pioneer lands, where tribal life remains as it always has. When asked about an official census count, a project leader for a natural gas pipeline, staying at the Ambua Lodge with us, shared that every time he brings his bulldozer through the bush, hundreds of nationals appear, adorned with traditional grasses and not much else. Pockets still exist where stone axes still flash and no white faces have ever been seen. No one knows how many Papua New Guineans are in the Highlands.
In the land of the Huli people, everything is about men. Helpfulness, kindness and cooperation are encouraged in Highlands children, but something changes by adulthood, where their way of life is dominated by men’s antagonism to the women who bear and nurture them. One of the last groups to be brought under government control, the men take great pride in their colorful appearance and traditional ways. An elite group of “Huli Wigmen” are segregated together, growing their hair into specially crafted wigs, some of which are used for ceremonies, others are “everyday” wigs.
We enjoyed unscripted interactions with the local people, while every day presented dancing, ceremonial bride price enactments, walks through the rainforest, successful early morning bird-watching to find the elusive national bird of paradise, and a plethora of visual treats watching colorfully dressed locals walking barefoot with their rainbow-colored umbrellas along the roads.
The day arrived for the biannual Tumbuna Sing-Sing Festival, a dazzling gathering of South Pacific tribes in the little town of Mount Hagen. Locals walk for miles over roadless mountains to reach the sing-sing, with precious feather headdresses protected. It is a gathering of tribes, where local people dance, chant and perform in full traditional costume. Decades ago, a sing-sing of hundreds of nationals was successful in ceasing constant warfare.
A tradition was born.
For hours, we were able to mingle “backstage” in the open fields, among the locals applying their intricate, wild makeup, costumes and props. A photographer’s paradise: No one paid attention to us; we were “flies on the wall,” watching the event unfold. Observing how carefully the feather headdresses were prepared, each national would stop, posing for photos with the observer. I have never felt more welcome.
Viewing the performances with only 25 tourists and hundreds of locals reenacting ceremonial chants, songs and dances was an overabundance of color, thrill and stimulation. Mudmen, skeleton boys from the Avi Village, among many others, were wearing bones, feathers, grass aprons and pigs’ teeth necklaces.
The scariest, most painful part of the trip? Sticker shock at the cost. No matter who one travels with through Papua New Guinea, prices are approximately $800 per person, per day. Worth it, if one can afford the journey.
Traveling in Papua New Guinea can be challenging. With almost no tourist infrastructure and limited information available, it feels like you are stepping into the unknown. But this is why I found this country so compelling. Anything can happen in Papua New Guinea: canceled flight hops, tribal warfare, storms and pockets of crime. It is also the most thrilling, unpredictable, intense, unspoiled country I have ever experienced.