After long flights and layovers in Hawaii and Australia, we arrived today in Port Moresby, the capital and largest city of Papua New Guinea. It was nice to meet Karl Grobl, the professional photographer who will be guiding us, as well as the small group of amateur photographers who we’ll be traveling with. We’re all excited to be here!
Today we visited a neighborhood in Port Moresby where the houses are built on piers and stilts over the water. It’s not a wealthy part of town — quite the opposite. Because Karl and his local connection are friendly with the tribal leader of this neighborhood, we are welcome. We played with the kids and talked with the adults (in gestures and pidgin English) and explored the maze of piers and houses.
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 took a flight to Wewak, a small city on the northern coast. This puts us within reach of the Sepik River, our destination for tomorrow. This evening, we walked to the nearby shore and relaxed beneath palm trees as we watched the sun set over the Pacific.
We spent the day in motion. First we drove from Wewak to Pagwi, then when we reached the Sepik River, we boarded a boat — a traditional hollowed-out log canoe, but with a modern outboard motor. The boat took us up the river for about an hour, then we disembarked at a muddy landing seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We followed a footpath through the bushes for a few meters, and suddenly emerged into a clearing with many traditional thatch-roofed houses, each built on sturdy wooden posts to raise it above the ground. This is Kanganum village, where we are spending two days and nights. The village chief welcomed us and we were shown to the house reserved for visitors, a simple longhouse containing a long row of mosquito nets suspended over sleeping mats and little else.
We had a bit of time in the afternoon to walk around the village, acquainting ourselves with the dozen or so houses and the spirit house (a larger ceremonial gathering building). Then we returned to the boat and headed out into the broad, winding Sepik river to enjoy the sunset. Upon our return, we had a simple dinner and then crawled into our sleeping bags… or rather, atop them, as it was a hot and humid night.
All the residents of Kanganum and the neighboring villages gathered today outside the spirit house to hold a sing-sing: a festival of traditional music and dance. Throughout the day, small groups of people clustered together to help each other get ready — putting on traditional costumes made of specially selected leaves, woven bark, and grasses; painting faces, arms, and legs in intricate patterns; adding feathers and beads. We got to see all these preparations up close, which made it even more rewarding to witness the traditional dances that came next.
In the evening, we joined the village chief and elders in the spirit house for a ceremony held by firelight. Listening to the chanting and rhythmic drumming was magical.
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.
Today we returned to Wewak, again taking a boat down the Sepik river and then driving the rest of the way.
We flew from Wewak to Mount Hagen today. Although these cities are only about 150 miles apart, there are no roads connecting them — they are separated by pristine wilderness covered by thick jungle and jagged mountains. So we flew back to Port Moresby and then on to Mount Hagen. The plane was almost turned back due to low visibility at the high-altitude airport, but then the clouds cleared enough for the pilot to make a safe landing.
We spent the day at a small village called Paiya, where a local festival was being held. We got to meet the village chief and watch some of the preparations. Then we saw a series of traditional dances. Each dance was performed by members of a different tribe, and they all had different costumes, body paint, and dance styles. There were grass-skirted women, wig men, skeleton men, and mud men, just to mention a few.
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.
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.
Today we attended the Mount Hagen annual cultural show, one of the biggest sing-sings in the country. It was amazing to see all the preparations, then enter the arena to see an entire football field covered with over 50 different tribes performing a wide variety of traditional songs and dances.
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.
The Mount Hagen cultural show continued for a second day. We explored more of the activities and gatherings outside the main arena.
We visited a local market this morning, where we got to see the wide array of fruits, vegetables, meat, and clothing available for sale. In the afternoon, we returned to Paiya village to get some extra time for photographs of the chief and some of the tribal costumes.
We returned to Port Moresby and used the rest of the day to review the zillions of photos we took at the sing-sings.
Today we flew from Port Moresby to Alotau, then we drove to Tawali Resort, located at the easternmost end of Papua New Guinea’s mainland. We watched local villagers fishing from their canoes at sunset, and made friends with the cute kids who hung out with us on the pier.
Today’s highlight was a boat trip to an uninhabited island. The island’s owner (who lives elsewhere) permits visitors to use the island by day. We enjoyed fantastic snorkeling among the nearby coral reefs, then had a nice picnic lunch on the beach. We walked all the way around the island, along the way meeting a family that was fishing, and a group of kids who were diving in search of big shells. On the boat ride back to the resort, the skipper caught a big wahoo, which the hotel later served for dinner. We ended the day by paddling a kayak out on the bay for sunset.
The local village invited us to a festival today. We got to see traditional dances and food preparation. The village kids loved it when Eric showed them videos of themselves that he recorded on his phone… he had them running and jumping and laughing. We finished the day with a short hike to a nearby waterfall and a cave with a pile of human skulls — a reminder of the (hopefully obsolete) practice of head-hunting among warring tribes.
We flew back to Port Moresby today. We’ll spend one final night in fascinating Papua New Guinea before our three flights back to the US.