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Papua New Guinea Journal

Updated: May 2, 2019

October 13-26, 2016

I have wanted to visit New Guinea since my first semester of graduate school at the University of Kentucky in 1973, when Professor Phillip Drucker assigned this culture area to me for his ethnology class. Reading all the classic ethnographies of the island, including those of Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson and others, thrilled my budding anthropological mind and planted the seed of a bucket list experience.

Forty-three years later I found myself on a cramped Quantas flight to Brisbane with nine fellow Road Scholars and a tour guide, toting a carefully packed bag weighing less than the 22-pound limit for the small planes that would carry us across vast expanses of jungle.


From Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea (PNG), we flew to Mt. Hagen, the principal city of the Highlands, then boarded a jeep for the lovely Rondon Ridge Lodge overlooking a deep valley. Like all the lodges we stayed at, the lobby was filled with tantalizing artifacts we couldn't buy because of the weight restrictions.

PNG is one of the least urbanized countries of the world, with more than 80 percent of the population practicing subsistence farming. In the Highlands the staple crop is sweet potatoes.

Outside of towns, people live in thatch-roofed houses with vents for indoor cooking fires. Walls are made of woven reeds.

Our first local guide, Michael Wandau, took us to his homestead, where his six-year-old daughter was beautifully dressed in the traditional finery of the Melpa people, and his wife demonstrated the weaving of bilum bags, the ubiquitous carry-all. The wife had covered herself with dried leaves to camouflage her modern clothes.

In Mt. Hagan, a large modern apartment building was under construction.

Performance art (sing-sing) is highly developed in PNG. Several reenactments of historical events, ceremonies and dances were staged for our benefit. Most of the ceremonies are still part of the culture but performed at different times. One of the most extraordinary was the Mudmen performance, relating the famous story of the tribe that frightened away enemies who had stolen their land, by covering their bodies with mud and scary masks to appear as ghosts of the ancestors.

We spent four days on the Sepik Spirit, a small cruise ship built in 1989 to resemble a traditional spirit house.

Day trips to villages were made in jet boats.

Our next stop, Karawari Lodge, was also built like a Haus Tambaran (spirit house), with every piece of furniture a work of art.

Locals navigate the Karawari River, a tributary of the mighty Sepik, in narrow dugout canoes.

Villagers reenact traditional clan warfare and cannibalism, followed by a victory dance. 

People along the river smoke fish for sale in Wewak, the provincial capital of the Sepik region. 

A Catholic chapel welcomes the faithful for Mass once a month by a visiting priest. Most citizens are Christian, although animism and ancestor worship are also practiced.

Lunch on the jet boat.

A Huli Wigman at the Wig School in Tari. Students pay 300 Kina (about 100 US dollars) to study for 18 months at the school, learning the ceremonies and lore of the Wigmen, and letting their hair grow for wig-making. Rituals to make the hair grow include ablutions from a sacred water hole three times a day (below). A finished wig can sell for 600 Kina.  Only men who have never had sex with a woman are allowed in the school.

A cassowary bone dagger doubles as a secret money pouch.

Pigs are everywhere. People invest their savings in pigs instead of bank accounts. Marriages are sealed through a bride price typically involving 30 pigs and 100 Kina.

At Ambua Lodge, located at 7000 feet in the Southern Highlands, we stayed in separate cottages surrounded by lovely gardens.

An afternoon was devoted to women's role in Huli society. Below, a 16-month-old infant is carried in a bilum bag while the mother hauls a load of bamboo. Our instructor, Jocelyn Teke, on the staff of Ambua Lodge and divorced herself, related the difficulties a woman faces to get divorced because she has to repay the bride price.

Women are responsible for planting and tending sweet potatoes and raising pigs. The pigs forage for worms in the soil.

Tucked among the garden plots are the family graves, build to resemble houses.

Huli men perform the Victory Dance in a perfect line that rotates as the men bounce up and down to the drum beat.

A family is happy to let us take their picture.  We were told by our guides that we could take photos anywhere and of anyone we wished, without asking permission. People say "Thank You" after being photographed. It is not impolite to stare at others in PNG society.

Inside a home with cooking fire tended by the boys' grandfather.

Boys at a men's house eat sweet potatoes cooked with hot stones in an underground pit. Our guide said about 40 percent of adults still live in separate men's houses and women's houses. Those who live in family houses are those who earn wages or "live on money."

Our group were seasoned world travelers who had been to many places. One member commented "I'm glad we caught them mid-culture," that is, only partially modernized.

The Parliament House in Port Moresby, built to resemble a spirit house.


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