We were on the river about four hours a day, traveling from one village to the next - although passing several others along the way. The banks were frequently lined with houses on stilts. The exception was a patch of the jungle totally denuded by a Chinese lumber company. I was told by one villager that it was an illegal operation, and many said it was because of corrupt politicians; and the local people didn't benefit. From the size of the operation it was clear they plan to take out many acres - threatening the livelihoods of the locals, and damaging our world ecosystem.
While on the river we had a guide/interpreter (Celestine), a boat driver (Roy), a cook (Dennis) and a bowman and general helper (Dennis). That was just for Judy and I. We also stayed one night in Roy's house, where his sons shyly stared with curiosity at these strange tourists. Dennis cooked over a small fire in an iron pot on the floor of our hut. We mostly ate sago, which is sort of like peta bread. I lost six pounds.
All the spirit houses we visited had a platform on the edges for men from different clans. In the middle was at least one fire kept always smoldering, and long, hollowed out logs used as drums. Some spirit houses had a second floor where they housed masks, and other objects used in ceremonies.
Only initiated men could enter in the spirit house. The initiation included the scarring, and also instruction in how to make a dugout canoe, how to build a house, and men were also instructed on the lore and history of the clan. Not all men were eligible. Recently, marijuana has been introduced but not accepted. Pot smokers were considered, "Not right in the head." and could not be initiated. The accepted drug that most people used was beetle nut, which turns their mouths red, and rots their teeth.
One of the highlights of the trip was when the Chief of this village came back with seven crocodiles. The whole village turned out, and the men and boys put down palm leaves and skinned the crocs and dressed them to eat.
Because we had given Chief Ronnie sandpaper for his mask making, and bags of coffee and sugar, he gave us a crocodile tail. It turned out to be the best meal on the river we ate.
I can totally understand why people on the river traditionally didn't wear clothes. It is like a steam bath in the jungle! Men traditionally only wore penis gourds, and the women were topless with short grass skirts. With the influence of Christian missionaries, they now wear dirty Western cast-offs. Even today for the children it's "clothing optional."
The gentleman above is wearing a hat of cassowary feathers, a large bird similar to an ostrich which produces these long, black hair-like feathers. They are known for being quite dangerous, and can gut a man with their large clawed feet.
At the Crocodile Festival the announcer boasted they had attracted a thousand tourists. As far as I could tell it was only a few dozen. As a tourist, this was great for me and for taking photos. I was ushered through a crowd of locals to get right up next to a performing group. Groups would actually ask me to come over and take their photograph. The nature of the performances was very different than the highlands groups performing at Mt. Hagen.
This sing-sing was organized by our tour guide, Chris Karis of PNG Frontier Adventures, in his own village. It was primarily to cater to a photography tour group. They were an obnoxious, intrusive bunch who had a sense of entitlement that treated the rest of us like uninvited interlopers. I don't believe they treated the local people with the respect they deserve, sticking a ring flash in the face of performers and telling them where to stand, and how to act. It made me fearful that when we arrived at the big sing-sing in Mt. Hagen we would be competing with a wall of paparazzi. The exception was their hired professional, Karl Grobl who was quite gracious to me, and helpful when I had a camera issue.
Our trip was arranged around this big 2 day event, which unfortunately, Judy missed the first day being sick from the food. We had flown back from Wewak to Pt. Moresby, and then up to Mt. Hagen where we were with a different tour group: Paiya Tours, owned by Pym Mamindi. I saw all these photographers with very long, telephoto lenses and feared I wasn't going to be able to get close to the performers. Someone also told me there would be one hundred thousand people there. We were also cautioned about the danger of inter-tribal violence and drunkenness. None of which proved to be true. The performers spent about three hours putting on their face paint (and in some cases painting their entire body), and also composing the feathers on their headdresses. In some cases that included whole, stuffed parrots or complete bird wings. They were often head bands of green, iridescent beetles; and elaborate shell breast plates.
After putting on all their face paint and costumes the various groups would march, dance and sing their way into the football sized arena. They would continue to dance and sing, along with all the other groups - each singing their own songs. Combined with an announcer on a too-loud PA system, there was a cacophony of sound; combined with a profusion of colors. The tourists, most of whom were photographers, were a few hundred and at times I faced a wall of them; but mostly could avoid them. I could also get right inside of groups dancing in a circle, or right next to a line of dancers.
There is a great process whereby a clan welcomes a new bride into the community. The form two lines facing one another, hold hands, sing and shake their heads together. It was depicted at the Mt. Hagen Sing-Sing by the Borma Tanim Het Sing-Sing Group from Simbu Province.
While in the Mount Hagen Highlands we also visited a local village, attended the Paiya Sing-Sing and one of our best experiences was visiting the Mud Men of the Kulga Clan. It was just Judy & I, and they put on a show for us (see video). The Clan originally was routed by a larger clan, and devised a plan to get their land back. They made their mudmen costumes, hid out in the cemetery and scared away the larger clan who thought they had encountered ghosts.
This Sing-Sing was organized by Pym, the owner of Paiya Tours, specifically for his guests. It included many of the dancers who performed the next day at the big Mt. Hagen festival, but it was a smaller venue. It was set in the Paiya Village which was a picturesque forested area.
Mt. Hagen is the poorest, dirtiest town we have encountered in our travels. There is trash everywhere, all the shops are battened down with guards and shutters, and residences are walled in. It is not someplace that is safe for a tourist to walk around unescorted. On the other hand, we went to the local produce market with our guide, Raphael; and encountered smiles and people proudly posing for pictures. We were clearly welcomed, and I regret we didn't have the opportunity to go back. I was particularly impressed by the character expressed in the faces we saw.
I feel a bit like Edward Curtis, the photographer who chronicled the American Indians in the 19th Century, trying to capture their cultures before they were gone. The Papua New Guinea tribes were not even discovered until the 1950's, and they had lived for hundreds of years isolated from the rest of the world. The influences of Western "civilization" on these cultures has stopped the payback intertribal warfare, collection of skulls & cannibalism - for the most part - but has brought with it poverty, drug addiction, crime and a destruction of their proud traditions. It is my hope that we, the Western World, don't rob these people of their natural resources and cultural heritage.