My Papuan adventures: going back to the roots.

PNG Ambunti Crocodile festival tribeswoman

I have recently travelled to PNG (Papua New Guinea) and the experience was so extraordinary that I decided that I would write this post, even though this might be a bit off track from the usual articles I publish. But I guess there is logic in that as, in hindsight, it’s also quite consistent with the philosophy of this blog…which is to veer off the beaten track!

When I told family and friends I was going to Papua, it sent them shivering, most telling me it was a crazily dangerous thing to do.

It’s true that Port Moresby is regularly crowned as one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Not an award to be proud of, but the city is true to its grim reputation: people are warned against walking its sad streets to avoid violent acts of banditry perpetrated by Raskols[1] that regularly make the headlines of local – and sometimes international – news.

Then there are all these stories about head hunters and cannibals and mysterious tribal customs made famous by anthropologists such as Margaret Mead and Bronislaw Malonowski that still feed our fantasies of a wild and bloodthirsty people.

But off I went to PNG, to spend some time with my husband (who is posted there) and then head to the East Sepik province to visit Spirit Houses and attend the annual Crocodile Festival in Ambunti (East Sepik province).

Travelling in PNG is not for the fainthearted. Park your expectations for the usual creature comforts; lodging is rudimentary, and when you do find toilets, they are likely riddled with roaches! You’ll find no taxis or UBER, instead prepare for long, languorous trips in traditional wood canoes (but they do boast engines!).This is part of the package when visiting PNG and it brings you closer to its people and their real living conditions.

For the first nights, we stayed in a guesthouse in a tiny village called Kaganamun. It was a small bamboo house poised high on stilts that turned out to be the home of our cook’s father (in hindsight, I wonder where the family slept while we took their bedrooms!).

The house was Spartan. The main room held two small wood stoves (the smoke is a remedy against mosquitoes), and a table and four plastic chairs (two were almost clean!). Interior walls, also made of bamboo, didn’t even reach the ceiling and thin curtains were used instead of doors. Mattresses sat directly on the floor, luxuriously covered by mosquito netting. As for the shower, the picture below tells in all: it’s frugal washing as there is no running water! There was also a toilet that was a bit complicated to use.

 

PNG Kanganamun guesthouse

Our guesthouse in Kanganamun

PNG Kanganamun guesthouse Kitchen

The Kitchen

PNG Kanganamun guesthouse Kitchen

The stove

PNG Kanganamun guesthouse

Inside the guesthouse: the main room with the corridor leading to the bedrooms

PNG Kanganamun guesthouse

The bedroom

PNG Kanganamun guesthouse

The shower (blue curtain) and the loo, opposite to it

PNG Kanganamun guesthouse

The shower

Living a few days in this village, in these conditions, mingling with kids and locals, was an awakening. The people turned out to be extremely peaceful and welcoming, proud to show and explain their traditions. I was also stunned by their great sense of aesthetic so evident in their crafts, from wood carvings to traditional dance costumes and paintings; such exceptionally vivid creativity flowing from people situated in the middle of nowhere.
PNG Kanganamun kids PNG Kanganamun kidsPNG Kanganamun kids
Sadly, the world lacks access to most of their stories and legends as they are not written down. These are still taught by oral tradition only to those who have been initiated. The initiations are still happening today in Spirit Houses: it is a long and painful process during which the body is ritually scarified.

 

PNG Palembe Spirit house PNG Palembe Spirit house PNG Kanganamun Spirit house PNG Kanganamun Spirit house PNG Kanganamun Spirit housePNG Kanganamun scarificationsPNG Kanganamun scarifications

 

Resources on the island are scarce, resulting in such dire living conditions, that the gap with our western standards of comfort is immense. People have few belongings: there are no closets in the houses, no TVs, no computers. Nobody’s hooked on social media (though some have mobile phones) or chasing Pokémon-Go (though people were chasing them in Port Moresby: talking about globalisation!)!

Is this bad? I’m not at all sure.

When I think of what we stock in our houses, in closets over-flowing with so many useless things from cellar to attic…and yet we never seem to have enough.

This trip brought me new perspective. Does a good life require so much “stuff”?

Who is right? Are we? Are we content with our rat race? Are our kids really happy with all the things we spoil them with and that they never seem to appreciate?

Of course it’s not all paradise under the coconut trees. Domestic violence here is commonplace. Early pregnancies deprive women (or shall I say girls) of their childhood. Currently, there are no health facilities nor is there a school, at least not easily available. There used to be a school “nearby”, meaning a two-hour walk away. Students were happy to get up at 5 o’clock and walking for hours through the dark forest to attend. Consider how we sometimes have to drag our children into cars and buses to get to their air-conditioned, well-equipped schools!

It got me thinking about simple living. Maybe we should consider decluttering our homes and life; of making some easy changes in order to rediscover simple joys.

I’ve noticed that this subject is topical. These reflections are gaining traction, with books like Dominique Loreau ‘s “Art de la Simplicité – How to Live More with Less” or Marie Kondo’s “Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” becoming best sellers.

As for the myth of the sanguinary Papuans, I don’t want to gloss over the realities of crime and poverty, but these smiling people always extended us a warm welcome even during the densely crowded Crocodile Festival.

The festival in itself was a one-of-a-kind spectacle! In all my travels, I’ve never seen anything like it. It was a bit like the carnivals we have in Belgium or in Rio (but on a much smaller scale). A riot of colours, body paint, feathers, shells and, of course, live crocodiles that some dancers wore like living garments, crossed over their torsos. The vibrant tribal dance costumes were stunning; I was so awestruck it was impossible to catch all of their intricate details.

PNG Ambunti Crocodile festival tribeman PNG Ambunti Crocodile festival tribeswoman PNG Ambunti Crocodile festival singsing group PNG Ambunti Crocodile festival singsing group PNG Ambunti Crocodile festival kid PNG Ambunti Crocodile festival kid PNG Ambunti Crocodile festival tribeswomen PNG Ambunti Crocodile festival tribeswoman PNG Ambunti Crocodile festival tribesman PNG Ambunti Crocodile festival tribesman PNG Ambunti Crocodile festival tribesman PNG Ambunti Crocodile festival tribesman PNG Ambunti Crocodile festival tribesman

 

I found Papuans to be very welcoming and genuinely happy that we took an interest in their traditions. I met one man, dressed in impressive warrior attire, who told me to take his photograph back to my country and tell my people how peaceful Papuans are.

 

PNG Ambunti Crocodile festival tribeman

 

I photographed a group of old people who were so happy to see the picture I took of them, that they surrounded me laughing and we all shook hands.

 

PNG-Ambunti-Crocodile-festival-singsing-group

 

I really hope they will continue their traditions for a long time and that we are not going to spoil them with too much of our Western world.

I have discovered authentic friendly human beings far from all the clichés we lazily romanticize them with.

It reminds us that we should approach others with an open mind. Preconceived ideas can really prove wrong, and limit our experiences.

It reminds us that travelling should be far more than just flying to faraway destinations, taking nice pictures to feed our Instagram and Facebook accounts.

It’s a journey that makes us grow as human beings. Discovering new cultures and other people should invite us to reassess the way we see the world and sometimes shake our values tree. It can be an internal voyage that prompts us into the exploration of ourselves and a reflection on our life views. It allows us to gain a new point of view.

That’s what we should strive for. That’s what makes a successful travel. That’s flaneuring.

 

Warning: Travelling in PNG is not something you do solo. The trip must be organized. You travel with a guide that knows the country well, a cook (sometimes the guide can be the cook) and the canoe driver. In case of interest, shoot me an email and I can advise you on a trustworthy organizer.

 

Travelling to Port Moresby? Check my mini Modern Flâneurs’ City Guide.


 

 

[1] Raskol is a Tok Pisin (Pidgin English, the language spoken in PNG and or Pacific Islands) word derived from the English word rascal and is currently used in PNG to refer to gang members or criminals in general.

 


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