When we started telling friends and acquaintances about our next travel destination, the most common response (aside from “where the heck is that?”) was “why Papua New Guinea?”
We chose Papua New Guinea because it’s one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. There are more than 800 spoken languages in Papua New Guinea — more than in any other country in the world — and even more tribal groups, each with its own unique identity, art, costumes, music, dance, architecture, and rituals. There’s a certain thrill we get from immersing ourselves in a culture that is new to us, and we fully expected that thrill to be magnified by the diversity in Papua New Guinea. Boy, were we right!
One of the reasons for the great variety of cultures is Papua New Guinea’s extremely rugged geography. Historically, tribes were isolated from one another by the mountainous terrain, leading to the development of very local traditions and languages. These days, many people speak an English-based pidgin called Tok Pisin in addition to their local languages, allowing them to communicate more widely. We couldn’t really understand the spoken form, but we had fun deciphering phrases from the phonetic spelling that appeared on billboards, signs, and products. We also met plenty of English speakers, who happily chatted with us or translated for us.
Even today, the geography makes it tough to travel within Papua New Guinea. The capital city of Port Moresby isn’t connected by road to any other major cities, for example. As a consequence of the difficult terrain, the country is one of the least explored by foreigners. Scientists believe there are still undiscovered species of plants and animals, and even uncontacted people.
We feel like we barely scratched the surface of what Papua New Guinea has to offer. The wealth of cultural traditions we encountered is like nothing we’ve experienced before, and we invite you to see it through our eyes.
We traveled up the Sepik river on a traditional log canoe like this one.
It was a long trip up the river.
Arriving at Kanganamun village.
We stayed in a house similar to this one.
The next day, villagers prepared for a sing-sing: a festival of traditional music and dance.
People came from other nearby villages to attend the festival.
In this region of the Sepik river, boys become men through a ritual where their skin is scarred to look like a crocodile.
We were watching the Kanganamun village sing-sing festival when we were approached by a man with a joyful grin and an oversized, disheveled shirt. He introduced himself in a soft voice, saying, “My name is Alfons Sak. With a K, not with a C. It’s S-A-K, not S-A-C like a bag!” Alfons went on to tell us that he used to be an English teacher when he was young, but he no longer has students. He was hoping that he could practice his English with us, and we were of course glad to have his company.
He told us stories about his father and his grandfather, and about the village in the old days. His family was one of the first to settle in that particular region of the Sepik river, and therefore he owns a bigger parcel of land than most. “My land goes all the way from over there,” he explained as he pointed far in one direction, “to over here,” and he pointed in a different direction. “I built my house with my own hands.” Everyone in the village lives in similar wood houses built on tall stilts, just like the one where we stayed.
Alfons used modern woodworking tools to build his house, but he explained that previous generations used sharpened stone axes. “In fact, I found an old stone axe head buried in the soil when I built my house. Would you like me to show it to you?” We had hardly said yes and he was heading to his house to retrieve it, returning in no time. “This is it! This tool most likely belonged to my ancestors, and they used it to build their homes and to carve wood figures.” As we paused to appreciate the significance of this historic artifact, Alfons stated, “I would like you to have it.”
We could hardly believe his words. Though we truly appreciated his generosity, we were also reminded of historical accounts we had read in preparation for our trip. They described westerners who came to the Sepik area in search of traditional art. These foreigners gave the local carvers very little in exchange for beautiful wood carvings. In many cases locals were paid in cigarettes — previously unknown in the area, but to which they quickly became addicted.
We told Alfons that we could not accept his offer. “But you are good people and I would like you to have it,” he insisted. We explained that he was holding a relic, a window into his family’s past, into a culture that is quickly disappearing. He insisted some more. We explained some more. In the end, we were able to convince him that bringing home a photo was for us as special as bringing the real object.
Alfons shows us the stone axe he found.
The Sepik river area is world-renowned for wood carving. Many international art museums include pieces from this region.
Vincent is a wood carver. He learned from his father, who spent five months at Stanford University helping create their New Guinea Sculpture Garden.
The spirit house.
The Mount Hagen sing-sing festival is one of the largest cultural events in Papua New Guinea. Once a year, tribes from different parts of the country gather in Mount Hagen for two days, to show off their traditional costumes, dances, and songs. We heard that there were more than 50 different tribes represented at the sing-sing. We were very glad we timed our visit to coincide with this festival.
We had the opportunity to talk with members of several groups, and to learn about their heritage. They passionately described their beliefs, patiently answered all our questions, and generously allowed us to photograph them.
Getting ready for the festival.
The “skeleton men” of the Narku tribe paint their bodies with black charcoal and white clay to resemble human skeletons. They explained to us that by disguising themselves as dead people, they become invisible to the frightful spirit that is responsible for taking the lives of their ancestors. In their traditional dance, they stagger around in a jerky caricature of re-animated skeletons. Eventually, they surround another tribe member dressed up as the huge, furry spirit monster and attack it with spears and axes to avenge the deaths of their ancestors.
“I see dead people…”
The “mud men” come from the same tribe as the skeleton men, but decorate themselves differently and tell a different story. They spread mud all over their bodies and cover their heads with heavy masks made of clay, then move in a slow, somber dance. The mud men explain that they are honoring their ancestors by imitating the appearance of the spirit that emerges from a cave after burying their dead there.
We encountered several groups that make wigs from their own hair, including the Magara tribe and the Kaapupin tribe. They told us that it takes two to three years to grow enough hair for one wig, and that it takes a full day to assemble it. Though these groups make wigs using similar techniques, their wigs have different shapes and decorations, reflecting their distinct tribal identities.
A whole bird serves as decoration for this man’s wig.
Bea showed a curious wig man how to use our camera.
We saw many people with intense blue eyes, including the chief of Paiya village.
The coastal Bombongara tribe wears headdresses that depict boats, masts, and sea animals.
Some of the people attending the show have their faces painted, too.
Selling tobacco leaves.
We did lots of snorkeling in Milne Bay, sometimes with dive master George.
We snorkeled to an uninhabited island where we met locals taking a break from fishing.
On the way back, George set up a fishing rod… just in case.
And a 40-pound wahoo took the bait! We had wahoo ceviche for dinner that evening.
Cooking plantains and cassava in coconut milk.
A reminder of the head-hunting and cannibalism that took place in Papua New Guinea not so long ago.
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