Papua New Guinea
When I tell the United reservations agent that I'm trying to get to a festival in Papua New Guinea, she pauses. (And says)
Res. Agent: "Don't wander off alone. Remember what happened to that Rockefeller kid?"
Cannibals, I think. Fantastic! It conjures up adolescent fantasies of adventure--the stuff of Robinson Crusoe and Indiana Jones--the romance of exotic danger.
Papua New Guinea is a wonderland for wannabe adventures like me. For hundreds of years, Westerners thought the rugged mountains of the Highlands were uninhabited. It wasn't until 1930 that gold miners stumbled into the interior and found a thriving culture of about a million people. Nowadays, tourists like me visit the Highlands for the privilege of seeing these "long-lost" tribes.
But the days of man-eating savages are gone, replaced by a new threat. Again and again, I'm told: "Watch out for the rascals." It seems kind of quaint. Like, "Beware the full moon." But in Pidgin - the colorful mix of languages that serves as a lingua franca for Papua New Guinea's almost 800 native dialects - the word rascal refers to everyone from petty thieves to killers. And it takes more than clove of garlic to ward them off. When I arrive in Mount Hagen, the sleepy provincial capital of the Western Highlands, the first thing I notice about my hotel is SERIOUS FORTIFICATIONS: tall fences topped with barbed wire, patrolled by a small army of security guards.
In another situation, I would just buddy-up with a local guy who could act as part guide, part bodyguard. But this time, I book my guide in advance. You see, tour companies reserved all the rooms during the annual Mount Hagen festival, known as the Sing-Sing. So to find a place to stay, I MUST buy a package trip. Which I hate doing. For one thing, I can usually travel cheaper going solo. Especially in a poor country like Papua New Guinea, where I could live on twenty bucks a day. A tour costs three or four times as much. And the idea of a package trip just seems so bland. But I don't have much choice. So I sign on with a local company, called Paradise Adventure Tours. As it turns out, a lucky move.
Sing-Sing is a Pidgin word for a motivational chant of tribe spirit that resembles a cheerleading routine. You might Sing-Sing to honor a marriage, to get the troops pumped up for war, or to seal the deal at a peace ceremony. Every tribe performs its rituals differently. So when groups from all over The Highlands descend on Mount Hagen to "Sing-Sing" simultaneously, the result is a cacophony of competing drums and voices and a cornucopia of color. Black skin caked red with face paint. Warriors with headdresses of exotic feathers stretching several feet into the pale-blue equatorial sky. Around and around the football pitch they parade, immune to the humidity, stomping and singing.
All around me, Americans, Europeans, and Japanese jostle to snap the perfect picture. For these several hundred tourists, it's a chance to be a junior National Geographic photographer. The performers pose with the patience of fashion models.
But nonetheless, pleasing tourists isn't the main objective here. This is competition. A proxy for warfare.
War is deeply ingrained in the culture of Papua New Guinea, and it is a subtext underlying the festival. With the synchronicity of soldiers, the men march, wielding ornamental spears and stone battle axes. Elijah Honn, who runs Paradise Tours, says the Sing-Sing was established over 35 years ago in part.'
Honn: "... to do away with the tribal warfare that our tribes used to have...It was a way to bring unity and to make friends for so that the tribes can know each other."
My morbid curiosity aroused, I seek out Bill Hargrieves, a British expatriate who moved here 30 years ago to become a farmer. He's learned some of the rules of warfare, Papua New Guinea-style."
Hargeives: "Well, this is years ago, when they used to fight with bows and arrows and spears. They all get up in the morning and get ready to fight and go to the fighting ground. There's always a set fighting ground. And then they'd fight and not too many people would get injured because it was mostly bows and arrows...And they'd run forward and run back. Backwards and forwards, and a few people get killed. And when it's time to knock off, they'd knock off and go home."If a warrior was killed, the other side would compensate the defeated team. And with balance restored, both sides would celebrate with a Sing-Sing.
My first experience with tribal life comes at a feast organized by Paradise Tours in the mountains about a half hour outside Mount Hagen. For the benefit of us tourists, a mix of Americans and Australians, the villagers will slaughter a pig and then cook it over hot rocks. Pigs are highly valued in Papua New Guinea, so this feast is an honor. And part of that honor, it seems, includes having our group witness the ritual killing of the animal. Our local guide, Dan Mark, sets the scene.
Mark: "Usually when we kill a pig, we used to get a big stick. This stick they're going to use to kill the pig. How do you kill pigs back in Australia? With a gun?"
The sow, secured by a rope, trots out before us. One of the village men, done up in black ceremonial face paint, positions the pig to face us.
I shudder, but can not move my eyes from the spectacle. The first blow does not finish the job, and the club strikes again. And again. I lose track of the number of blows.
Mark: "If you want to move close and make a clear picture, you can."
For the next half hour, we watch as the villagers eviscerate and butcher the pig. Now I eat meat everyday, and have no right to get all squeamish. But I had to ask myself: Is this what I wanted? Hadn't I looked forward to getting close enough to death to taste it?
These questions don't linger long. I strike up a conversation with our guide Dan, who looks a bit like Richard Pryor, only with a full beard and a few extra pounds. He invites me to visit him that night to see how the regular folks live. A night out in Mount Hagen. With about 20-thousand people, this is a big city in Papua New Guinea. It has many paved roads, and intermittent electricity...at least on the main streets.
The dirt path on which Dan and I are walking is completely dark. We blindly make our way to the home of his clansman, a local policeman. In a spartan kitchen plastered with posters of Jesus, I sit on the only chair, the two men on a fold out bed.
We talk about movies. They adore Sylvester Stallone. We talk about economics. My host makes more money showing videos at night than he earns on the police force, but he loves being a cop. And we talk about tribal warfare. At this point the cop really comes to life. Just goes off about these super warriors from his village who can dodge bullets.
Cop: "They call him Rambo in this country. Rambo...and they know how to use AK-47, M-16, M-60's... If you have time, we can go up to the village and meet the Rambos that kill people."
I say, "Sure...let's go." Just to test them. But they call my bluff right back and ask, 'When should we leave?' I steer the conversation in another direction. 'Where do these gun-totting warriors fight? On some kind of open battlefield?
Mark: "There's no big field where everyone comes to fight. Your home. Your village. Your garden. That's the battlefield..."
Dan says tribal enemies murdered his uncle two days ago. That they've burned his village to the ground countless times. And to Dan, all of this makes perfect sense.
Mark: "Actually, we don't just kill somebody for the sake of killing. We kill because we have reason to kill...there is a reason for tribal warfares. The main reason is we fight for land. We fight for woman. And we fight for pigs."
So if you flirt with a man's wife, or steal his property, you could start a little war. And, the attack may not be man to man.
Mark: "Spiritual warfare. I'm talking about black magic...they use their black powers to attack one another. Your black powers must be strong in order to defend you. If it's weak, you die. You're a dead man."After talking for over an hour, we stumble back up the dark dirt path, past black silhouettes in the moonlight. So far, I've felt completely safe in Dan's company. Now I wonder if I've become a target for his enemies. Rascals and warriors and evil spirits.
Moments later, my paranoia jumps into over-drive. As we make our way up the street, a male voice shouts, 'Mi kilim white man.' A group of young men laughs. "Don't worry. He's my friend," says Dan. I force an unnaturally wide smile just as we pass a sign that reads, "We make coffins. Adults and children."
My guidebook says, "Don't leave the hotel at night in Mount Hagen. And definitely stay away from places that serve alcohol.
For two nights in a row, I go out after dark with Dan and drink at the pub. And both nights, I am treated like a celebrity. Everyone wants to shake my hand and buy me a drink. I feel absolutely welcome.
The next day, I take a twin-propeller plane across several mountains to the small town of Tari, in the Southern Highlands. Now, most of the 5 million people who live in Papua New Guinea today don't put on traditional duds everyday, except for the Huli. Huli 'wig men.' These men mimic the Bird of Paradise, growing their curly hair into bowl-shaped nests. They decorate their bodies with feathers, sprigs of grass, and shiny ornaments. One man at the airport sports a crown of red and green Christmas tinsel.
I've come here to spend time with the Huli in their nearby villages--the only tourist from Paradise Tours on the excursion. And again, I have exceptional luck with my guide, Steven Wari. We shop for provisions--eggs, rice, and canned meat - then head for the hills.
After a cramped hour in a public bus, we trek up a muddy trail to top of the mountain, where we find a village - a few thatched huts surrounded by imposing wooden fences. I half expect a battlefield, where enemies attack in the night. Instead, village life is tranquil. We hike through hot, tropical forests during the day, past clearings where women stoop over hillside gardens, looking after sweet potato, passion fruit, and pigs.
The village men sleep separately from the women. At night the old guys gather around the fire in the men's hut. Maybe because it rains so often, there is no hole in the thatch roof. So I end up peering at them through a cloud of smoke that stings my eyes.
The old guys sit bare-chested. Or wear second-hand button-down shirts. But down below, they all dress in traditional aprons of woven tree bark, with bushy tails of broad, green leaves across their butts. They pass the time smoking or taking turns on a primitive mouth harp.
The men are soft-spoken and generous. At meals, they wait until I, their guest, have eaten before they fill their plates. They smile easily and often, and don't strike me as dangerous. I ask my guide Steven if tribal warfare is still common here, and he tells me about the time he and his group of tourists ran into some locals fighting.'
Wari: "And we were walking through that road. There is no any other way to go. And some of the people said, 'Steven and your group, we cannot throw any arrow to you. But we are fighting among each other. To Huli to Huli, and in our clan. So you can go. Come from other side to next other side. So we did not find any trouble, or they did not throw any arrow on us. Some of us were taking very good pictures. Some of us had very good video camera, and then they take very good video pictures. So we spent like 10 minutes there, and then we go."
Secretly, I hope that I will see some warfare. It becomes my quest. The next day I do see a form of fighting - only the invisible kind. "Don't tell the missionaries," Steven instructs as we scramble into the bush. Behind a fat tree, we meet a man Steven introduces as the "witch doctor." The witch doctor shows me what looks like a shiny cannon ball.
Witch Doctor: "This stone is very special for killing enemies in far away distance. Some people who want to kill the man*who killed his brother or his cousin or his related. They normally hire us with some money and pig...and then we be going to tell this stone to kill the enemy in far away distance."
The witch doctor turns the stone over to reveal a dull rough patch about an inch wide. Every time a man is killed with this stone, Steven says, the crevice in the surface widens."
Wari: "So this is big space there. It has been killing 2- or 300 men from this stone."
"This is not for tourists," Steven says. He means the stone is not a display copy, but a real weapon in the tribal arsenal.
On the morning of our return to the airport, we are supposed to travel by public bus. But instead, Steven uses his own money to hire a private truck. Our driver is a mechanic, and everything in the truck seems coated in grease. I sit in the front seat trying not to touch anything. As we cruise through the mountains in silence, I stare blankly at the cracks in the windshield.
All of a sudden, we stop. Steven talks with some local women, and then explains the situation. There's a rumor that some "rascals" are going to ambush passing cars. It's Friday. Payday. I take out my wallet and passport, and begin to stuff them down my pants. "What are you doing?' he asks. "That's no good. They are going to strip you."
Steven anticipates the attack will come around the next bend, and walks ahead to scout.
While we wait, the driver tells me that last December, near here, he came upon some men with guns, blocking the road. He threw his truck into reverse, hit the gas, and escaped. But the rascals got off several shots. "The bullet struck right here,' he says, pointing to the crack in the windshield. "Another foot in this direction, and it would have been my head."
This, I think, is "not for tourists." Not a stage show, real trouble. Just then, another truck pulls up. The two men talk. Then our driver says to me...
Driver: (First in Pidgin, then-) "This man is a policeman. You should have to go with him."
So Steven and I cruise to town standing up in the back of the cop's pick-up truck. The wind in my face is exhilarating. We have no trouble with rascals.
Near the airport, I come upon a large chorus of women wailing. They are mourning - waiting for a plane carrying the body of one of their clan. When I see their grief, I am ashamed of having come here looking for tribal warfare. Like it was an amusement or a game.
For weeks now, the thunder of drums has been echoing in my head. As I sit at my computer trying to write, I see the faces of strangers who instantly treated me like family. Is my story fair to them? In a way, I came looking for trouble. Just like a visitor to the U.S. might fixate on gangs and drive-by shootings. And the threat of robbery exists in cities from Berkeley to Bombay.
So, is Papua New Guinea a safe place for travelers? Any place is safe, I think, if you have the right guide. In Papua New Guinea, I'm Jeff Tylers for The Savvy Traveler.
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