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Thursday, January 03 2013 @ 02:34 AM EST

Papua New Guinea - Land on Edge

Cruising the Sepik

Ever since I was in my twenties, I have heard of the PNG Sing-Sing festivals. After over 35 years, I have finally made it to experience one of the truly unique, colorful and honestly human displays of cultures that I could ever imagine. Below is a tale of my adventure and my overall thoughts as I experienced the good and bad of this country. I hope you enjoy this and give thought to going in the near future.

I have travelled now to over 80 countries in my life and I must say, upon my return from Papua New Guinea, this has been the most difficult to assess as to how I felt about a trip. There certainly was a heaviness associated with being there due to the hardship PNG was experiencing that few countries are going through without having to be at war. We went at a time when provincial elections were occurring and apparently was not a safe place to be. The Australian government, PNG’s primary support, actually issued stern warnings not to be in PNG during this time, but those having tour groups based in USA, for example, were not as aware and off we went. The primary concern was that there may be explosive fights between internal tribes at any moment based on the election outcomes. We were fortunate in the end that the election post-carnage did not affect us.

As an antithesis to feeling this heaviness, witnessing the unique tribal community and being with the ever-friendly people (NO pan-handling) along with the beauty of PNG brought me many wonderful and unforgettable memories.   National Geographic called the Sing-Sing events here one of the top three cultural activities in the world a few years ago. Although the charm of the past is quickly dissipating, the Sing-Sing events were well worth the cost and effort to get here.

Does this intimidate you?

There indeed were not many tourists around and it is not a place where I would recommend going on your own, unless you plan very well, have some internal connections and experience good old solid LUCK. Our trip went well in that internal flights went as scheduled (4 in all) and we had no change in schedule or harmful impacts to our bodies. One group we met had to reroute the plan as their guides were mugged and all of their money taken. I met a few couples on their own where they had many complications and were often stranded.

Just a week before we left, they arrested 17 people in Madang for cannibalism. Really. Although tourists are not really a threat here, local cannibalistic tribes find sorcerers and witch-doctors from other tribes as when eaten, all their wisdom and spirits are passed on to them. Apparently they had eaten the fresh brains of four other tribal men and then made soup from their genitalia…again, really. It does still happen.

The most haunting event came at a time we were going to the hotel in Mt Hagen. We were passing a group of people along the country road when apparently a little girl crossed the road behind us and did not see a truck barreling down the other side…speeding and drinking beer. Our driver stopped suddenly as the other truck struck the girl and killed her instantly. In addition, the truck overturned and also killed 2 of the 3 people. We reversed to see if assistance was needed as we would typically do in the USA. The guide went out, but we were held back as our safety would be severely compromised. Apparently, according to the tribal customs, people will retaliate against those who contributed to the death of someone such as this. I was told that if the driver had not died, he would have been dead in a short time. It was extremely difficult to watch the mother with the child and the hectic commotion of the people sobbing. And…there would be no police or further assistance. This WAS heavy.

Hagen Tribal Dance

Anyway, to start the trip, we landed in Port Moresby and spent a brief night before flying off to Wewak. Port Moresby is a tough place to be with over 80% unemployment and very bad living conditions throughout. The majority of the people, as with the rest of the country, spend their time chewing beetle-nut. There were probably 10 times more beetle-nut “stores” than all the other stores combined. Hotels and bigger stores were surrounded by high walls and fences very similar to a prison. We were not able to leave our hotel and walk around.

After flying and staying in Wewak for a night, our next stop was the famous Sepik River. We drove 5 hours to the river itself on a very poor road. Upon arriving, we got into one of their dugout canoes for a 3 hour cruise down the wide Sepik. Not really comfortable as we sat on the floor of this canoe hollowed out of a large tree, but it was at least propelled by a 40hp engine. Along the sides were huts and thick vegetation with scores of birds. Famous for the crocodiles, we did not see any.

We arrived at our first stay on the Sepik, which was the most primitive on the trip, a home-stay. No water, toilets, electricity or other common “luxuries”, just a large hut. There were 6 of us on the tour and I being the only male traveler. Here, we all shared the same hut or literally a single room. Fortunately they did supply us with one very important thing…mosquito netting as they were everywhere and of course, malaria was common. Not much sleep that night.

Hey Dad(s), Can I get your advice?

Before going to bed though, we went further down the river to visit another tribe who had some young men going through the crocodile initiation ritual of becoming a man. For 2 long months, these young men stay in the spirit house to enable them to be taught by the elders and more importantly, complete the rite of passage by permanently cutting much of their back and shoulders with small incisions to ultimately resemble the scales of a crocodile. Apparently this is extremely painful and takes all day to administer. It was noticeable with many of the older men as they still retained these throughout their life. I would take a tattoo any day!

We were lucky in that the Crocodile Festival was being held in Ambunti during our time on the Sepik. This was not planned on our trip, but we were able to spend a day there to experience our first Sing-Sing. A Sing-Sing is a gathering of tribes in PNG to allow them to display their unique culture, dance and music. The ultimate reason, as started over 50 years ago by an Australian, was to peacefully share traditions and create a shared goal. The Crocodile Sing-Sing ended up being quite unique as it composed primarily of the river tribes, much different than the hill tribes. Although not big, it was absolutely superb sharing the grounds with many of the local people dressed in their local costumes. All the tribes share a common thread by displaying feathers of many of the local birds, mostly on the head. While this was truly fantastic to see, it has taken its toll on the birds remaining in the wild as many are clearly endangered, such as the fantastic Bird of Paradise. On the good side, the tribes are learning from this and take great care with storing their feathers for long periods of time in order to reduce hunting.

I brought my portable Canon Selphy printer with me and started using it here with great success. The people opened up with smiles and conversation as it permitted me a chance to gather a tribe and shoot them. Watching them watch the print come out was exhilarating…oo’s and ahh’s. They went back with a great quality print too….proudly.

PNG Version of Mercury

We were able to spend a night at a Catholic church grounds after the festival. We had separate rooms and a shared SHOWER! First in 2 days of heat and humidity. Also, I had no chance of recharging my batteries during the Sepik trip as electricity rarely exists.

Next stop was Mt Hagen….the LONG way. Although close by as the crow flies, we had to drive back 4 hours to Wewak for overnight and then take a flight the next day back to Port Moresby and then on to Mt Hagen. Upon arriving we made it to the hotel, which was called Magic Mountain Lodge, high up in the hills…I believe around 9-10K feet. What a difference in that it was so cool, but yet quite damp. Jackets are required. Charming place with separate huts, electricity (sometimes) and water, although not always hot.

We spent three wonderful days attending Sing-Sing’s with the first being a small festival called the Paiya Culture Show in the local village near Magic Mountain. This was perhaps for me, better than all the other events as it was so intimate and allowed for us to be really close to all the local people. We came early and sat with them as they applied their make-up, got dressed and prepared for a show we attended later. The amount of effort and time for them to apply their bodies was mind-blowing, with exception of the Mudmen of the Asaro tribe, who donned their famous mud helmets. According to history, the Asaro tribe was being invaded and they ran out into the muddy swamps located nearby to escape. As they became covered with mud, they scared the challengers aware as they appeared to resemble the spirits.

Huli Wigman - Mt Hagen Sing-Sing

One of the most bizarre events took place here as one of the most famous tribes, the Huli Wigmen, also appeared at this festival, but with very unique guests. With them were three Lido de Paris dancers fully garbed in their hot pink feathers which absolutely towered over the short Wigmen. A French artist was filming a documentary on the exchanging of cultures across countries and had some Wigmen go to Paris and then dancers come back to PNG.

In addition, this was the only place where the famous skeleton Omo Masalai tribe of Simbu and Enga tribe appeared during our stay. I would consider the Omo tribe to be the original zombies as they strutted about in that fashion. The Enga tribe had the best personalities and decorated in pitch-black charcoal faces. 5-6 other tribes also attended, including a woman’s tribe and several others were extravagant colors from the Hagen regions. I was not able to capture all of their names.

We spent the next two days at the much anticipated Mt Hagen Sing-Sing. Did it meet my expectations after wanting to go there for so many years? Yes, despite the city and challenges. The festival was held at a smaller venue this year as the normal venue was owned by someone who apparently lost in the election! Plus, tourists and tribes were down in numbers, again due to the elections. All in all though, over 54 tribes appeared and created for me unbelievable memories.

Without doubt my favorite tribe was the Pimaga tribe. I cannot explain it, but I connected so well with many of them and became close to them throughout the two days. Their village would be one place I would love to return to someday. Their people were coated with one of three colors completely. Yellow for the young “bucks”, red for those of higher rank and then black for the head of the tribes and specialty members, such as witch doctors. They went to great lengths to show me their weapons and how they were made and used. The main “chief” was the most interesting. He never smiled and had such a presence, but was always communicating visually.

Enga Tribesman applying makeup

We would go to the Mt Hagen Sing-Sing early and were able to be with the tribes as they put on their makeup and outfits. Very rewarding for shooting. My wife took her dolls and some dresses and was able to generate great smiles from them as she took pictures. It should be noted that the locals were extremely photo-friendly. Never shied away or asked for anything. Again, the prints I generated were well worth carrying the printer around.

The majority of the time, the tribes would enter this soccer field and start dancing and yelling, ok, singing in their ways. The tourists would mingle around and enjoy the various tribes as they wished with no formal event stopping the action. It ended up being a mass of humanity in an unforgettable way with so many differences with not only the local tribes, but the tourists as well. Let’s get together and love on another!!

After this was all finished, we moved onto our last destination, Tari. This was a 9 hour van ride…bumpy, dusty and full of risk. This was not on the plan originally, but due to improvements to the area, was added as deemed safer. We had four guards with us. Mobil Exon has started a new Liquified Natural Gas plant in this area, so much of the infrastructure was being improved and required more police action.

Tari is the home of the Huli Wigman and we spent a couple of days visiting local tribes in a more normal habitat. This was very interesting with many ways. Much of what is traditional is changing due to the drilling in the area. We had very interesting conversations as to the value of this and the impact on the locals. It is good that the plant is employing more people and adding much needed infrastructure. On the other hand, the change from who they were to where they are going is extremely drastic and placing great burdens on the society. Cost of goods and expenses have sky-rocketing and PNG is now NOT an inexpensive country. Simple meal as much as $30. Then there is the corruption…everywhere and many of the locals do not benefit. It will be very interesting to witness this area in the next few years.

The Chief

As for the villages, we were able to attend the “Wigman University” where a young man will attend for 18 months to primarily grow his wig. In addition to being educated by the local wise men, much of the time was spent growing and shaping their hair until it is finally finished and carefully cut off. During this time they do not wash it at all and have attendants working the hair with picks and combs. After cutting off, they keep these wigs for all of their life to use as needed for ceremony. They can do this repeatedly as well and some go 4-5 times.

We also visited a Huli fortune-teller, which had the bizarre practice of keeping the skulls of 7 generations of his fathers. So, brightly colored in red and yellow, the highly-esteemed man used them to determine predications. Quite unusual.

We flew back to Port Moresby and bought some excellent souvenirs. Then on home. The more time passes, the more fond I am of the wonderful people I met and the experience of the Sing-Sing’s. The people did not put on a show, but came in peace to offer others the chance to see how unique and special their tribe was...very human. I do have interest in reaching out deeper into some of the local tribes, such as the Pimaga tribe, to really witness their life up close, and hopefully one day I will. BUT, will it ever be the same? Certainly not and my greatest fear is whether these people can retain much of their traditions and customs as they become more sophisticated. It is a special place and worth all the challenges it presents.

Editor's Note: See many more images from Richard's trip in "Papua New Guinea" here on TPN, or on Richard's SmugMug gallery.

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I should mention that I have some additional PNG images on my Member Gallery here on TPN.  Also, I have many more available on my website:  Thanks!


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