February 11, 2009

Who’s your papua?

I don’t know what drew me to Papua New Guinea. The fact that I don’t know anyone who’s been there, probably. Not only did I want to take this round-the-world trip so I could be spiritual and shit, I wanted to see as much of the planet as possible, especially cultures different from mine. And that I did.

I couldn’t find much about PNG tourism online besides some random travel blogs, and I didn’t get a guidebook, so I chose a city in the mountains and a city on the beach and bought some plane tickets. As I passed a bookstore in Cairns before my trip, I popped in to see how much the PNG Lonely Planet would cost.

“Why would you go there?” the main behind the counter asked.
“I don’t know. Because nobody really goes there,” I told him.

He then berated me for planning such a trip alone. He guaranteed I would be raped and robbed. Awesome.
I did a quick search online about crime in PNG and saw some stories about men being skewered when accused of sorcery. And then there were the stories about women killing male babies to stop tribal wars. Hmm….

Not giving in to the rumors (I try not to believe rumors ever since Donnie D spread one about me being a lesbian in junior high.), I packed up my bag and hopped in the plane.

Upon arrival, an Austrian man behind me in the visa line assured me I would be raped and murdered in PNG. He advised me to turn right around. I started to get a tad worried.

I had to stay one night in the capital city where they recommend tourists don’t walk outside even in daylight. So, I basically sat in my room and stared at the wall, freaking out, then convincing myself it would be fine, then freaking out again. Then convincing myself it would be fine. I am still in the PNG airport as I write this, so I haven’t yet escaped alive. But here are the two stories from the mountains to the sea:

TARI – the mountains

Until now, taking a pill I found on the bathroom floor of a night club in Mexico was probably the stupidest thing I’d ever done. And before that it was probably buying stock in Sirius Satellite radio because some guy at work said to (ahem, dave gassman). And before that it was probably trying to show off by riding seated on the roof of an old Buick.

But arriving in Tari alone is now the crowning moment of my stupidity. I might have been better off taking 100 Mexican bathroom pills at once. At least that is what I thought upon arrival to a town whose inhabitants still remember the day when the first white men ever stepped foot on their land.

From the plane above Tari, the country looked fake, a series of rivers criss-crossing perfectly like freeways. And the amount of untouched green was shocking. This is what happens to a country when Westerners don’t barge in, claim the land for development, and kill off the natives. The whole ride there I had my fingers crossed that Steven, my mountain guide, had received my letter (Handwritten. There are no phones or emails.) and was waiting for me at the airport. I reassured myself that even if he wasn’t there, I would be ok. The shuttle driver who had dropped me at the airport had said, “Tari is safe. Most of the tourists who go there usually come back.” I would be fine, I told myself. Thank goodness for my newly acquired meditation skills.

When Tarians first saw the ‘whiteman’ in 1930, they thought he must have a 2-foot penis. Their mouths hung open as they marveled at everything he brought and wore. The pants were especially mysterious since they’d only ever known grass skirts. They figured the pants were necessary to hide a honker of a sausage. This alone illustrates how different the cultures are and why I wanted to meet these people. It was not that long ago! Many still wear grass skirts. Many have still not seen a white man (this is evidenced by a toddler who freaked out at the sight of me!). And only 30% wear shoes. They are still quite tribal, they all carry machetes the size of their legs, they live in grass huts, and they still pay for their brides with pigs.

Since the majority have never even dreamed about getting on a plane (they don’t have birth certificates which means they don’t ever really apply for passports), they all gather to watch the planes land 3 days a week. It’s just a 24-seater puddle jumper but it is a big deal for the Tarians. I exited the plane to the tune of hundreds of curious warrior faces:

And Steven wasn’t there! The trusty mail service must not have been able to deliver my letter within the 5 weeks I had allotted. Um…just a nominal amount of shit in my pants. Some man named Patrick asked if I needed accommodation. I vaguely remembered reading about a Patrick on some blog, so I went with it. It was either head out into that crowd alone or with Patrick.

The airport was a landing strip and a hut. Patrick led me through the crowds of staring faces to another sort of hut/hotel place where I left my backpack to follow Patrick on a tour of his village. I gave my backpack a long look goodbye. It could have been our last moment together.

We walked on the dirt roads through puddles and over hills to get the Patrick’s village, named ‘P’ after him. There wasn’t one person who did not stop to stare at me as we walked by. Many said hello. Many shook my hand. All asked Patrick what the hell I was doing there. I asked myself what the hell I was doing there. I couldn’t help but think that these people could murder me, and bury me in one of their huts and nobody would ever find me.

Since it was Sunday, Patrick led me to his evangelical church. Services had just ended and an immediate crowd enveloped me as we walked into the yard. They were utterly shocked that a white woman was in their village. Many tried to touch me. I just smiled. I was sweating. And uncomfortable. And I didn’t know where to look or what to say, as very few spoke English. And what do you say to a crowd of staring kids? You ask if you can take their picture. Instant bonding! They loved it. They wanted me to take more and more and show them the image on the screen.

I was enthralled with the timewarp of village life, and I ended up grabbing my bag from the weird hut place and bringing it to the village to stay with Patrick’s sister, Janet. For some reason their family is one of the few who can speak great English. Janet, a very proud woman in love with Jesus, lived in a neighboring village. There were hundreds of other villages surrounding P, and most got along well with each other. However, as Janet reminded me quite often, Tari is the land of the unexpected, and there could be a tribal war at any moment. In fact, she said, I would probably see the ‘women in red’ in the village market at some point. She explained that those were women who dressed in red every day for a week after a tribesman was killed. This let it be known that the tribe was asking for compensation. When a man is killed, the murderer has a chance to be forgiven if he gives an adequate amount of pay (perhaps 50 pigs and maybe 30,000 kina [$10,000 US]). I doubted I would see any women in red, my naïve self thinking that nobody really got murdered that often. But, low and behold, they were the first people I saw on our trip into town.

This of course made me nervous, but Patrick and Janet assured me that, as a foreigner, I was nobody’s enemy. Tribes had enemies from the past. If a murderer was not able to pay his compensation, the victim’s son would one day kill a relative of the murderer long after the original crime had been forgotten. Then, that victim’s son would one day kill a relative of that murderer. And it will go on and on until the end of time, starting with some murder that nobody even remembered. With so much death and not much value given to life, I never actually felt very comfortable during my time there, my anxiety slowly inching towards pre-meditation stage each time I passed a villager sharpening his meter-long machete.

The fact that many of the people in PNG are always high did not do much to assuage my panic. I would guess that 95% of the villagers in Tari chew betel nut. I don’t know how the hell someone thought of it, but the mixture of a nut, a mustard seed, and lyme (yes, lyme! The kind used to clean bathrooms.) gives a big buzz. AND, the combination turns the entire mouth red. Some peoples’ teeth had been stained permanently from a lifetime of chewing (Many chew their first betel nut as toddlers!). Others didn’t have many teeth left. The sad part is that someone told the villagers that chewing this is good for the teeth, so many chew instead of brush. And it just ruins their mouths. There are many red spit stains all over town. Not only is spitting considered acceptable at any time, picking the nose is just fine to do in public. And there is no running water so no opportunity to wash hands. Janet was absolutely okay with picking her nose, touching pigs, shaking hands in the market, and then cooking my food. I really had to talk myself out of being grossed out. It’s all about becoming one with the culture, I would tell myself.

I got to know the village people, and I saw their hard warrior shells fade away as soon as I smiled and shook their hands. From birth, they are trained to be mean and harsh. But they really are caring and sweet. Their whispers even sound like yells, but they often lead to big red-toothed smiles once they’ve warmed up. We often stared at each other in wonder, smiling.

I spent 3 nights in the village with Janet in a state of imbalance – one third of me stressed about sleeping in the ‘land of the unexpected’ and two-thirds of me truly intrigued. During the days, I would take a tour with Patrick to see neighboring villages and meet different tribes. And during the night I would stay with Janet. Janet was pretty big time in the community. Her house, unlike all the others, was made of metal. And, although she had trouble spelling ‘good morning’ in her own language, she was a teacher and quite popular in the town. She would parade me around at night to show all her friends that she was the one housing the white woman. Everybody knew me. Everybody watched me wherever I went. I was a celebrity. And I have to admit, I absolutely hated it. I couldn’t do anything on my own. Being an only child and someone who cherishes alone-time, I grew quite frustrated by day 4. I mean, Janet had her kids walk me to the toilet! She’d dug the toilet hole a block away to keep the smell away from her house. Of this, she couldn’t have been prouder.

By day 4, I told the family I had to move on. I had 5 nights in the town, and, although I thought the village was interesting, I wanted to see Tari from a different perspective. I went to search for that Steven guy who was supposed to have picked me up. I found his place. He wasn’t there; he happened to be off trying to get a divorce from one of his three wives. His friend let me in, and I stayed there. It was a simple grass hut, and I did not sleep a wink. I could hear the rats in the walls and I awoke constantly, shooting straight up onto my bed with a shoe as a weapon.

Since Steven and Patrick and Janet all badgered me for more and more money, I was out of Kina by my last night, and there ain’t no ATMs in Tari. I had to use my credit card, and there was no way a man in a grass hut would accept one. I was forced to spend a buttload on a night in the Ambua lodge, a 5-star resort with its own airstrip so its big-time patrons (diplomats and businessmen) do not have to make their way through the hoards of warriors at the Tari airport.

Thankfully, for the luxurious price of the hotel, I got personal tours of waterfalls and one-of-a-kind suspension bridges made only of cane. A famous birdwatcher guy even took me birding. I saw a King of Saxony and a Bird of Paradise! Woohooo! I mean, who can say they’ve been birding in the mountains of Papua New Guinea? It was worth the price of admission and it also made up for the fact that, despite the 5-star status, there were rats in the walls there too!

Here are some things I found fascinating about the Tari villagers:

– Men must pay for their bride in pigs (between 30-60) and money (around $8,000 US). It sort of means that they own the woman. According to one villager, it is the woman’s job to “make the man famous.” That is their main goal, and if it takes more than one woman to do that, the man is free to buy as many wives as he needs.

– Even if a couple is actually in love (and I am not sure that happens much), the families will not let them marry unless the man can pay the bride price.

– No couples are ever actually seen together and they don’t sleep in the same houses.

– They have never heard of cheese, sunscreen, pizza, Michael Jackson, or pretty much anything pop culture. Not even email. (Patrick, however, did ask me how the US elected a black president! I responded that it wasn’t about the skin color. It was that he was best for the job.)

– There is so much water running through the town that they each have a diverted stream of natural water that acts as their shower. It’s freezing but quite refreshing.

– Pigs, goats, and chickens are everywhere, either grazing to get fat or on sale in the market. A little piglet costs about 14 US dollars.

– At first I thought everyone looked very old for their ages, but then I realized that nobody knows how old they are. They stop counting after 10. When asked, they just make up a number. According to Janet, her father died 4 years ago at 135 years old. And she, although she looks 45, claims to be 28. If that’s the case, her father was getting it on at age 104 and her mother gave birth at 82.

– I shouldn’t have been worried about getting raped. According to the beauty standards there, I am hideous. A woman should be beefy and have rough hands. This implies she is a good worker. I often could only tell someone’s sex by whether they were wearing pants or a skirt.

– All their clothing is second hand from Australia or the states. I don’t know how it gets to them. But they all wear old shirts with expressions on them that they don’t even understand. It was rather hilarious to see a warrior guy with a T-shirt that said, “I’m with stupid.” The guy in the Bears shirt had never heard of the Bears or Chicago. I schooled him. He now knows they are the best team in the US.

– They think women should hide during menstruation. And whatever they do, they cannot talk to men during this time at all.

– They are all very resourceful and use every part of a plant or animal. Nothing is wasted.

– They are all excellent landscapers and gardeners. Everything comes from their gardens. Dinner is whatever is ripe that day: mostly sweet potatoes, pumpkin, corn, bananas, or taro.

– They are proud of everything they have or do.

– There is no electricity, and the lights they use are run by D batteries. They are obsessed with D batteries and digital cameras and anything with pictures on it. I showed them my going away present from Cata, a quilt with pictures printed on it, and they freaked out. They called over all the neighbors to see and begged me to send them one to hang on the wall.

– When I said I was from USA, Janet thought I was from the United States of Africa.

– They are very selfish, understandably so since they are very poor. But they asked me to give them everything — my shoes, my backpack, etc. When I said I would buy them groceries for the dinner that night, they placed the entire market in the bag.

– They have never heard of global warming, the environment, or the idea that trash should be placed somewhere besides the street.

– They live on a breathtaking mountainside with views of puffy clouds and green mountains. But they have no idea how beautiful it is.

– They think we’re crazy. When I tried to explain abortion, it actually sounded more insane than buying women with pigs. “Yes, you kill the baby while it’s inside of you…”

On Friday, when I was set to leave, Patrick and Janet and their whole families were supposed to bid me goodbye at the “airport.” They never showed. It could have been because they already leeched me of all my money. But I think they probably heard I was alone in the forest with a man (the tour guide at the lodge). That’s another thing about the Tarians — they love gossip.
I never saw them again, and I am just fine with that. They didn’t have one last time to ask me for my sunglasses or sandals. My time with them was intense, but it was…eye opening. And I would do it again (but with someone else next time).

Alotau – the beach

I didn’t realized I had been holding my breath the entire time in Tari, but I truly exhaled when I got on the plane. I noticed so many of the other passengers weren’t wearing shoes, and i realized how lucky I am to have been able to see such a culture before it becomes more and more Westernized (there is talk of an international airstrip in Tari). Still, I was glad to get to the beach.

I met the entire ex-pat community of Alotau. All of a sudden, I was dancing at a party with all the bigwigs of the small beachy town. I went from village celebrity to socialite. Much higher than I ever got in LA (Although, yes, I do still have fans from my ‘Dog Eat Dog’ fame). I partied, went diving, and met some Americans who took me on a 7-hour mountain hike during which the wet ground turned into a Slip & Sllide, and I slipped and slid.

Also, I met several very nice locals who helped me try my first (and last) betel nut. I actually inserted lyme into my mouth. And chewed it. And spit red stains onto the street. IT WAS SO RANCID. It tasted like acid poo. I felt a bit high but mostly nauseous.

And that was Papua New Guinea. It was intense, insane, beautiful, hilarious, fun, exhausting, amazing. And it left me wanting more. I only met the tribes from one small region. But there are heaps more. Some hold ceremonies in which their teenagers become men by cutting themselves with razors and bleeding for 2 weeks. Some are cannibals who eat their own. I am there! Who’s with me?


Jeff February 20, 2009 at 9:11 am

considering i was scared for my life in india….i don’t think i could hang in png…that’s crazy!

emilydenis February 21, 2009 at 11:32 pm

I think, pretty much, all I can say is wow…

S-e February 23, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Joder tía, no sabes qué envidia me das, envidia sana no te creas ;-)) Enhorabuena x haber salido viva de Papua.


LOVING. LIVING. SMALL. February 23, 2009 at 6:07 pm

you are fierce! can’t wait to hear about your next location! be safe! xx

cata February 24, 2009 at 10:57 am

You are the bravest, most insane person I have ever met! I am glad you and your shoes and items got out alive. I’m gonna pass on PNG, but I’m all in for Thailand!

venus2bfab February 25, 2009 at 2:27 am

U got some cahooneys lady! So awesome. So good! Looking forward to more of your travels. And please be careful!

Meredith February 25, 2009 at 8:43 pm

I guess I never told you about a book I read in college called “Where The Spirits Dwell,” by Tobias Schneebaum. He’s an ethnographer who ends up kind of falling in love with an Asmat dude… if I remember correctly. It’s been almost 10 years since I read that book. Anyway, I’m glad you went. Now you can come back and give me a first hand account of it all. I’m proud of you and also happy that you’re OK!! xo

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