Sunday, September 04, 2016


Selfie Sticks, Machetes and Security Guards in Papua New Guinea

Tari Villages and the Highland Tribal Festival

Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the Highland Tribal Festival has been on our travel bucket list for quite some time. Almost two years in the planning, and plenty of money later (holy cow this was an expensive trip), we can check this one off our list. As you know we have been to a country or two, but we are definitely not immune to new cultures, people and basically how things are in other countries. I'm not sure what surprised us more: our completely enclosed compound of a lodge with corrugated metal walls; machete yielding locals; or our unexpected constant security guard.

First off we ended up doing this entire trip with a group of 7 people from from Santa Cruz. They were a group of divers who have been friends for over 30 years and travel together quite often. Their age range was from early 50's to early 70's. The fantastic thing was we got along with them really well. It easily could have been bad with them being a group of Trump loving Mormons. (Who wants that????) They had wanted to do the same tribal festival and diving area, and since they used the same exact guy at the travel agency we used, we ended up on the same itinerary.  

A few things we learned in Papua New Guinea:
  • There are over 820 different languages spoked throughout the country with Pidgin and English being the most common. 
  • Before paper money their currency used to be pigs and Kina sea shells. Their currency today is named Kina and the Kina shell is still a very important part of their tradition which is apparent in their tribal dress. 
  • Tribal conflicts still happen which can make it very dangerous for tourists to travel to certain areas. We were told of a story that occurred not too long before we were there. A tourist bus had been hijacked and the bus stolen because one tribe felt another tribe owed them the bus. Which is one of the many reasons why we had a security guy with us the entire time. I  have no idea if he had any weapons on him but I wouldn't have been surprised if he had. 
  • In our first town we went to, Tari, alcohol was illegal to keep the tribes sober so they wouldn't fight. Most of our group wanted beer so we had to send our driver and guide out to buy it on the black market. 
  • The local boys and men used their machetes as a tool, a weapon, as well as a fashion statement. At any given time driving down the road I would guess at least 70% had machetes with them. 
  • This is still one country where we can freely take photos of the locals (after asking) without them asking for money in return. A few in our group brought Polaroids which I thought was a great idea and the locals were mesmerized by them. Unfortunately, this is sure to change in the coming years.
There were definitely many, many times I was glad we were with a group as opposed to it just being Troy and I. There is absolutely safety in numbers. I knew from research that PNG was unsafe but we were not even allowed to leave our lodge. Our first hotel, the Nenege Loge, had a 10 foot corrugated metal wall surrounding the entire compound. We were not even allowed to walk out the front gate. If we dared to venture near it the gate guard would gesture for us to go away.

At the end of one of our days we convinced the driver to stop at the "grocery store" so we could buy water because the lodge ran out. When our guide said we could go inside we were all excited at the prospect of being "allowed" out of the vans to seeing something of the town. We couldn't scramble and get out fast enough. The store itself was something else. All the products were behind bars. There were no aisles to walk up and down, definitely no grocery carts. You had to know what you wanted and had to ask for it. And of course, us as a group of white people, attracted an audience, but not in a good way. As word spread we were there, more and more locals started to come inside. As we're pooling our money together (hindsight we knew it was not a good idea) our driver, guide and security guard are standing watching this, they're getting stressed and all of a sudden the vibe got a little too tense and we were "ushered" back to our van while our guide finished buying our water. 

On with the trip...

Our first stop was spending 2 days visiting the Hedmari village to see the Huli Wigman and the villages associated with them. The Huli's are the largest indigenous group in PNG and are known for their "wig hats" they grow and make from their own hair. At each little village they had souvenirs they made for us to buy. One of the things they were selling was one of the Huli hair hats. Yes, made out of human hair. I'm all for unusual souvenirs but that would have been too weird having a hat made out of someone's hair in our house. 

We met the Bachelor Boys. A family pays for their sons to live at the bachelor village. They don't interact with women, sleep in the same village or eat their food. They learn to build houses, fires and make the hair hat. They spend at least 18 months there before leaving to marry. 

Next up was the Widows. Their name says it all. They all live together and wear white clay during their mourning period. In the past they used to prepare their deceased husbands by tying their bodies into the fetal position, placing them on top of a raised platform which would allow the decaying body to drip down into the earth. 

We then saw a girls initiation dance which celebrated their transition into womanhood. 

The locals also cooked lunch for us in the village which was called a mumu. Rocks are heated up over a fire then the chicken, potatoes, vegetables are piled on top of banana leaves which lay on top of the hot rocks and then more leaves are piled on top with the whole thing being buried by dirt. It was good but was probably the chewiest chicken we have ever had. 

On our way back to our lodge our Santa Cruz group had school supplies and wanted to stop at a local school. Even though it was during the week the school was closed for a few days because one of the teachers and the head master got in a fight. There was a rumor floating around that someone's ear got cut off during the fight. It's all fun and games till someone loses an ear....

Onto Mt Hagen for the tribal festival 

This was the highlight of the trip and the main reason we came to PNG. To say I was excited about this is an understatement. This trip was also for our 20 year anniversary so it was extra special to us. This was a 2 day festival that brought close to 100 tribes together to share their tribal dress, songs and customs. And we almost missed it!

We had a flight scheduled from Tari to Mt Hagen on Friday which gave us plenty of time to get there, visit the local villages and ready to go early Saturday morning for the first full day of the festival. I wasn't the only one excited. The entire group was buzzing with crazy energy.

Don't Fly PNG Airlines Because You Won't Fly

So we're at the airport, the weather was drizzling with a low cloud cover but nothing to be concerned about. Here comes our plane...and there it goes! What??? It didn't even land. What then followed was 5 hours of various members of our group calling the Mt Hagen airport, talking to the Tari airport crew and being told multiple variations of a similar lie which was the plane couldn't land because of weather (although another plane did land) but there would be another one coming for us. After several hours we realized we were stuck so we tried calling a charter helicopter and plane company to see if it could get us there. In the mean time the Tari airport is small. Two shacks - one for check in and one for the "departure lounge". This building consisted of a counter, bathrooms and about two dozen chairs. There was not even a soda machine. Because it was unsafe we were not allowed to leave so we had no way of getting food or water. 

By 2pm we knew we were not going anywhere so we had to find a place to stay that night. By this time after talking to numerous “higher ups” at the Mt. Hagen airport we were promised a flight the next morning at 9:05am. It was only a half hour flight so we were happy with that. We knew Nenege Lodge wasn't an option for us to stay that night even though it was just 5 minutes down the road. How did we know this? Because we saw the owner at the airport and when she knew we needed a place to stay she didn't offer her lodge to us. She just nodded and said hmmm - almost like she was thinking “Sucks to be you right now!". We knew she had sent her staff home and had no provisions to feed nine people unexpectedly. What are we to do?

A member of our group knew of a great lodge, Ambua Lodge, about 45 minutes away so we called them and they said they could accommodate us. I thought we were very lucky they had room for us at such a last minute notice. They sent a van to pick us up and off we went. This road took us in a different direction then we had gone before so now what we see are the locals are not only carrying machetes but they are carrying shotguns as well. It was on this route we found out about the tourist bus hijacking I had mentioned before. Yikes!!

Remember how I just mentioned I was happy the hotel had room for us? Ended up they opened the lodge for us. It was closed! They had to call in their staff on their day off. This place slept probably 100 people and we were the only ones there. Even though this place was gorgeous it was a little creepy being the only guests. The overnight gate security guy had a machine gun and the lodge hired local guys to hang out around the property for additional security (because clearly the machine gun is not enough of a deterrent).

Besides tipping the staff heavily, another way we made up for them coming in was we went crazy in their gift shop. I have never seen a group go so insane shopping! This shop had amazing stuff - plus it was cheap. I honestly think all of us combined bought 1/3 of the shop. And yes Troy and I joined in. We were told the various masks around the lodge were for sale so we started roaming the halls looking to see what they had. At the end of a dimly lit hall on a lower level there were two - 2 foot tall wooden statues. We were originally told they were not for sale but Troy talked them into it. I promptly named them Thing 1 and Thing 2. 

The next morning we're on the bus heading back to the lovely Tari airport ready for our 9:05 flight. Well... a flight came, landed, we did the happy dance then found out it was not our flight. Once again we were told more lies about where it was going, that it was coming back for us, that this info was wrong and our flight was on the way but was late because it mechanical issues....It was so heartbreaking as hours started ticking by. This part of the trip was the only part I had waited for. We were so frustrated by the lies.  As it became apparent that the same nightmare was about to happen we took the steps to charter a bus for the 8 hour ride to Mt. Hagen resigning ourselves to having missed the first day of the festival. The bus showed up fueled and ready to go. We gave ourselves a deadline of waiting for the plane of 1-1:30pm because we knew it wasn't safe to travel by road too long after dark. Don't forget we still have no food or water so we sent one of our amazing guides / locals who hung with us both days at the airport out to buy water, bananas, cookies and bread.

1:30pm…just as we're giving up our flight finally came. We could not have bee more happy and relieved to not only be on our way but to be leaving the Tari airport. We're thinking the festival will go on for another few hours into the early evening and so we’re anxious to get going. We get to Mt Hagen and what does our guide tell us? The festival is over for the day. What??? Whatever. We're here. At least one day is better then none. I am so relieved and happy! I honestly can't believe we finally made it. 

The Mt Hagen festival, also called a Sing Sing, is one of the oldest. It is a way for the tribes to peacefully share the traditions of their costumes, art, initiations and sing songs. I thought we would be in a stadium watching all the tribes but no, we were on the field right with them. Just as I thought all the tribes had arrived I would look at the entrance and still see many more lined up to come in. I cried! I was so happy to be there. The colors, costumes, chanting and drum beats was overwhelming. I kept dragging Troy around "Let's go over here, get their photos, ooh the mud men, let's get a selfie, let's go over there! " At that point I didn't care what else happened on our trip. I was where I wanted to be. We went crazy with our selfie stick. I know the people with their fancy cameras and big lenses were laughing at us but I didn't care. We got the best photos ever!

My favorite were the mud men. Story behind them is the enemy invaded their camp so they hid in the muddy river. When they emerged covered in clay they went back to the village to find the enemy was still there. The enemy thought it was evil spirits so they fled. The tribe elders realized this was a great way to keep their enemies away so they decided to make this their battle dress. But they thought the mud was poisonous so instead they made masks with strange features, fierce eyes and ugly ears. 

When we checked into the hotel the night before we were told the town had a water shortage so the water is only turned on after 5pm. But the second night we were there, at 5pm we found out the towns water pump was out so even though the water was on the pump didn't work. Therefore was no water. A few in our group got sick the next day. We think because there was no running water we're not sure how the kitchen prepared food. Troy and I were two of the lucky ones who did not get sick. 

Onto diving at Kimbe Bay on the FeBrina Liveaboard. 

Our first night before getting on the boat was spent at a plantation resort called Walindi. When we arrived we were told checkout time was 8am which we thought was quite unusual especially when everything we read said 10am. This is what we found out: Allen owns the FeBrina boat which docks at Walindi. One of the hotel people's dog bit Allen, Allen kicked the dog which pissed off that hotel person so they decided to take it out on Allen's boat guests (us) by kicking us out of our rooms at 8am. How stupid is that? Some office person found out about this and said we could stay until 2pm

Normally the first night on a boat is spent steaming to the first dive destination which is normally 8-12 hours away. But we were diving close the first two days so instead of staying tied at the dock overnight and moving in the morning to the first dive site. However, the boat starts and the crew pulled 100 yards from the shore and anchored for the night. WTF? Reason they did that is because otherwise the crew will go home or to town and will be late to work the next day or not show up at all. This was the owner's way of keeping all the crew on the boat.

The diving was pretty amazing. Normally we dive flat reefs or walls with nooks and crannies, the occasional swim through or maybe a pinnacle. But because the entire area we are in is surrounded by volcanoes (we even came across one that was steaming) our diving area was a huge under water caldera so our reefs were unusual shapes like knobs and saddles and fingers. At times I would stop just to admire the landscape. 

This was probably the most amazing soft and hard coral life we have ever seen plus the amount of fish life. Schools of barracudas and jacks and rolling fields of stag horn coral with thousands of small damselfish swimming around. 

Talk about being in such a remote area. We could see land the entire trip but at night there were no town lights, not a single plane flew over us and there was only one ferry boat which we saw the first day. And of course we were the only dive boat! One day two village kids paddled out to us to bring papaya, coconuts and beans. This was normal so the crew was ready to trade with soap, sugar, rice and noodles which were packages of ramen noodles. We found out the kids have no idea how old they are. If you ask they say 2. When they are clearly 10-12. The only other people we saw was on our last night we moored near a small beach island and two boats of fisherman showed up at dusk and camped for the night. When I first saw them, for a brief moment I was afraid they were pirates. Silly me. 

It was a long time in planning, flying there and back took over 5 days, the Tari airport fiasco was just that  - a fiasco - but this was an amazing trip! We met great people from Santa Cruz; bought more souvenirs then we have on any other vacation; didn’t get sick (which is always a bonus); and we celebrated our 20th anniversary (although it’s not until November)! Next up, Maldives in March! Woot!

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