Who put all that paint into my face?

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Oceania » Papua New Guinea
September 24th 2006
Published: October 17th 2006
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Aspiring Huli WigmanAspiring Huli WigmanAspiring Huli Wigman

Growing his first wig.
"Who put all that paint into my face?"
Half the face was covered with a thick layer of black paint while the stubble have been pasted with what looked like whipped egg white. The well built upperbody naked, oiled and decorated with bracelets, tussocks and a huge red disk around the neck showing a pearl-white quartermoon. We stopped dead in our tracks. Those were Highlanders getting ready for the show. Excitement run through our veines: facepaintings! Hadn't this been the true reason for our trip to Papua New Guinea? Of course we had read about active volcanos, superb diving and snorkelling, paradise-like islands, very distinct wildlife, big rivers, exceptional carvings and traditional village life. All this we hoped to experience, but the main reason why we had come to this great island spending the same amount of money in five weeks that had brought us in six months through half Australia, the trophy we wanted to take back with us was this: pictures of painted faces. We gingerly approached the group of maybe twenty lads in their twenties and hesitantly took out our camera asking one of them if it would be allright to take a picture. "Of course!" they laughed, "as many as you want. And when we have finished we will paint your face as well!" We spent a whole hour watching the group getting prepared. After black and white there was red and yellow paint carefully applied, the famous highland hats and hairdresses were put in place, the body decoration completed and finally the trousers exchanged with a lap lap and ass-grass: the merry unistudents had transformed into twenty very proud and I must say very attractive warriors!
When we finally dragged ourselves away from this sight and moved into the arena, adrenaline once more shot through us: there they all were: the famous Asaro mudmen with heavy clay-masks and their typical slow dance-movements (these masks are really heavy, I have tried one!), Black Feathers from Simbu Province with enormous feathery headdresses and the arguably most fotogenic group of them all: the Huli Wigmen with their decorative yellow-based face painting, red bodies and selfgrown wigs. It really was a spectacular sight! While Nico took our camera (one of the only moments during our trip that I hated only having one camera with us) to capture this wonderful event on film or rather memorycard, I moved along the groups taking notes about their appearance and their whereabouts.
I learned interesting facts like that the wigs with downpointing ends showed that the bearer has killed someone. Or, that it is legal to hunt bird of paradises only for Papua New Guineans and only for their personal use, that is for their traditional hairdresses. (Fortunately, those hairdresses are valued highly and used for generations, otherwise the birds would be gone soon, judging from the amount of feathers used for a single piece!) I also learned that the show included a mister and miss competition where lucrative prizes could be won - one way of making the fun event financially bearable. (Other options are to sell food or drinks, or to bring back to the highlands a truck full of coconuts for the home market...) At big shows like Goroka the dance groups are paid for showing up, but the amount is often not even enough for the travel costs and we never had the feeling that money was the motivation behind it all. Even at Goroka Show where the sheer value of camera material on display and all the white faces dazzles everyone we always thought that the festival atmosphere was very authentic.
Preserving culture and tradition is the official function of culture shows and they actually seem to be on every school´s curriculum. Those events are organised to keep a unique diversity of cultures alive which too easily might get completely lost in the westernization and modernisation Papua New Guinea is striving for. We have met members of the modern town generation: English as their only (!) language (most people speak at least three languages), unable to decide if a mango is ripe and not daring to open a coconut in case they might hurt themselves. But even for those town kids traditional body tatoos, dresses and face paintings had a huge fascination (as for everyone else who has ever attended at a festival...) So, while those students usually discuss the uncapability of the national politicians, the unsufficiant fundings for roadwork and education and dream about a scholarship to the well organized Australia, today, they spoke about culture diversity, the importance of traditions, about independence and their pride to be Papua New Guinean. And they did so with emotion, what gave the whole show a very authentic feeling.
In the first place, to be part of a show, especially to be part of one of the hunderd colorful groups at Goroka Show is definitely an experience for every dancer. If there are tourists around, even better. After all that work it is much more fun being looked at, admired and photographed than not. "Take one more picture, and this time don´t cut the headdress!" It is also tiring to be a model of course and once a most attractive Mount Hagener warrior even moaned: "Everybody is staring at me." - "Well, it was you who put all that paint into your face...!"

Preachers, politicians and black magic
We met John on the boat from Samarai to Lae. Actually John was travelling all the way from Port Moresby, a four day journey in total. But John was ready to bear the hardship because John was on a mission. His mission could probably be described like this: To convince a bunch of farmers that one paragraph of the bible offers so much more help in life than another. If he is lucky he will even find somebody who hasn't heard about the holy book at all, but I doubt it. John was a preacher for Destinies Fellowship of Churches (not to
Catholic Home, KiriwinaCatholic Home, KiriwinaCatholic Home, Kiriwina

The installed water pump convinced the people in this village and the Catholic church got the deal.
be confused with the guys from the Fellowship of Destiny) and he had just disembarked on his salvation and miracle crusade. (If you want to cure your ulcer just come to his meeting.) Not so long ago John used to be a busy businessman but then he had a dream one night where he must have seen a lot of things. Whatever it was it surely changed his life. What I am trying to say with many words is a) Anyone can have a dream and thus b) anyone can become a preacher and thus c) It seems that every third man in PNG is a preacher. As dreams can be various and because a lot of dreamers from overseas have also found this missionary dream country there are about 400 different churches (just a guess) in PNG today - and probably one more tomorrow.
With that many churches spraying their doctrines around the country, believe it or not, there is still space for witchcraft and sorcery. Nobody really understands how it works (except for the witches and sorceres or course) but they are a very powerful and very much feared thing. While on the Trobriands it is sometimes used to adjust the rainpatterns for another man from Milne Bay the consequences of magic were less favorable. He hasn't visited his mother who is allegedly a witch because he is afraid that she would "eat" his organs in order to nourish her dark powers. But then again also to be on the knowing side can be quite risky. While we were in Morobe a sorcerer got murdered by his angry family members after a couple of mysterious deaths in the village. And it doesn't stop here. A politician from Simbu province has, so we were told, already hired a couple of witches to help him with the campaign for the 2007 national election. Sometimes there seems to be just no other way than to get involved with a bit of voodoo. Whether they are going to jinx the ballots or whether strange things are going to happen to the contrahents during the final phase of the election campaign one can not know. One can only wait and see.

A word about safety
From the newspaper we learned that the number of crimes in Lae, PNGs second largest city, has dropped drastically in August compared to the previous month (thefts down from 40 to 24, robberies halved from 10 to 5, murders down to 4 compared to 9). But even with this reassuring statistic in black and white locals advise against the use of public transport and certainly you should not wander around after sunset (rapes down from 9 to 5). As it happens we were travelling home late that night after having lost track of time at a singsing (our first one) and were now pent-up in a PMV (public motor vehicle) with a horde of people. A drunk preacherman (earning some extra kina as a bus conductor) offered to bring us through the night. (An often better option is to try to stick to fellow women passengers.) The air was sticky and the atmosphere crackling but we got home safely running the last 300 metres from the bus stop to our accomodation. The next day we learned that there had been an attempted armed robbery at the supermarket where we shopped a couple of times (that´s plus one for the September statistic, I guess).
So what is this statistic worth? Probably not much (a sorcerer had also been killed by his family members that day). But it has
Cry for freedomCry for freedomCry for freedom

We met a group of refugees fighting for an independant West Papua and against the Indonesian transmigrasi project.
to be said that apart from that one night in Lae we never felt particularly unsafe. It is true, though, that we have come across some incidents during our five weeks in PNG. When we arrived in Port Moresby there was tribal warfare going on in the city and neither buses nor taxis were operating for a short time because of various flying objects in the air. In Goroka we met a Japanese guy with his arm in bandages after he has been attacked with a knife to separate him from his camera bag. This happened near the market at the middle of the day and thus is probably the scariest story of all. A Croatian traveller had his wallet stolen from his backpocket during the Goroka show. Several attempts were made to access my pockets at the show but they could all be defeated. The wallet of an English trekker also disappeared at the base camp of Mount Wilhelm but miraculously reappeared later.
While the security situation is not as bad as the (Australian) media picture it, the chances of being involved in one 'thing' or another are clearly existant. If you go there be careful but think positive
Skeleton-Bridge on the way to Mt. WilhelmSkeleton-Bridge on the way to Mt. WilhelmSkeleton-Bridge on the way to Mt. Wilhelm

If you miss it you are stuck. And yes, it did happen.
and you will most likely have an extraordinary experience.

Conquering Mount Wilhelm
With 4509 metres above sealevel PNG's highest mountain is not the roof of the world, but for a point where you can see two coastlines on both sides it is quite an altitude. In any case as the highest point we had ever climbed in our lives Mount Wilhelm was most likely to raise our pulses high.
We were a group of four when we set off for the adventure from Goroka - a Briton, a girl from Sweden and a Swiss couple. In Kundiawa Bonny, our guide, whom we had previously met in Goroka (the show is a good place to pick up customers I guess), waited for us with another customer who judging from his "I have walked the Kokoda Trail"-t-shirt was obviously Australian. He had the trek prearranged with a tour company and Bonny was supposed to accompany him safely to Kegsugl where all of us would stay for the night. To complete this international group a Japanese fellow jumped onto the 4WD pick-up which would bring us the 50 km or so to Kegsugl. The road got terrible as soon as we left
The airstrip of KegsuglThe airstrip of KegsuglThe airstrip of Kegsugl

You have seen the road, you have seen the airstrip. Now, the choice how to get here is all yours.
town and it never got better again. The wheels glid and spun around trying to handle half a metre of mud. Our sensitive bottoms lost some of their sensibility and our guts had to deal with the fact that all the bridges had been stripped off the wooden planks leaving behind only the iron skeletons to drive on. To our great surprise it didn't start to rain, the car didn't get stuck and we got safely to Martin's Place at Mondia Bridge, our guesthouse for the night. Bonny left us behind to bring his Australian customer to a different guesthouse (Betty's) closer to the track's start and to make sure that a guide and porter for him were organised. As mentioned before the trip was prepaid, probably well prepaid...
We enjoyed the night's cool temperatures under a warm comfy blanket. (Almost like home). Refreshed we left Martin's Place early in the morning and arrived at Betty's some one and a half hours later where we washed a bunch of strawberries in the clear fresh stream and enjoyed heartily those sweet fruits offered to us by villagers. The track from Betty's up to the lakes leads through beautiful bush and we even heard and saw some bird of paradise - the species we know well from the typical hairdresses seen at singsings. On the way we found our guide again - the dearly paid tour company had clearly been incapable to organise a guide for their customer and we had to face the problem that Bonny seemed determined to act as a guide for two groups at the same time (of course expecting double payment). Luckily for us, our Japanese companion had arranged for another guide and was flexible to share. After some discussions, lunch, a couple of cardgames, dinner and some more discussions, we ended up forming one big group with two guides, a spare guide and Bonny's wife as leaders (she has never climbed the mountain before) and six customers, or rather five as the altitude had us unfortunately already lost one of our trekking mates. The night was short: At 12 o'clock we got up happily greeting the almost clear (but unfortunately moonless) sky, and less happily greeting Bonny who confessed that he had forgotten to bring a torch. (And such a guide wants double payment...) We started at 1 am with six lamps for nine people. After one hour five were still working and another hour later we still had four torches which were bright enough to illuminate more than the odd moth flying by. At this point our starting group had already split up into three parties: James with one of the guides (and two torches) in the lead, Bonny with his personal customer behind and us in the middle with one lamp for five people... Nevertheless, we made good progress and soon the sun sent its first rays of light playing colourfully with the waves of fog and mist. We witnessed the wonderful sunrise only a short climb beneath the actual summit which remained hidden in the clouds. There were no views from the top, no two coastlines on either side. But still, we had done it and the views on the way back compensated us for what we missed on top. We had lunch at the hut after ten hours walking time and then continued all the way down to Betty's where we hopped onto a car for the last bit. At Martin's Place a big bucket full of hot water waited for us and we enjoyed an improvised shower before we gratefully fell into our comfy beds again.
We would never see our guide again. He disappeard with half of the money we had paid the guesthouse for accommodation and the service provided. (We don't know why they would allow him to take it in the first place.) We paid all our other helpers but kept his salary for a more honest person... It's a shame. He would actually be a very knowledgable guide.

Find more stories and pictures on our Lovelyplanet-Homepage.

Planet Portrait

* Top 3:

Visiting a singsing

Snorkelling under the Samarai pier

Conquering Mount Wilhelm

* Our route: Port Moresby - Alotau - Kiriwina - Samarai - Lae - Madang - Uedisis - Goroka - Kegsugl

* That was bad: Our guide at Mount Wilhelm (Bonny). Even though a knowledgable man he wasn't playing with open cards; A traditional show organized by (Toni Taori) on Kiriwina was not worth the money. (You will see so many more interesting things along your way.); Malaria tablets; The diving equipment at Jais Aben

* That was good: Friendly and helpful people everywhere; Amazing fruit and vegetable markets; clear water in rivers and the ocean; great souvenirs; The service of the Jais Aben Dive Resort.

* That was different: No harassment of street sellers. No is usually accepted as an answer. On the other hand there is not much bargaining (except in the most touristic places). An object has a price; take it or leave it.

* Recommended guest house: Eco-village-stay with Blasius in Uedisis (one hour north of Madang); Lutheran guesthouse in Madang

* Visa: Two months available at Jacksons airport for 100 kina.

* We paid for a meal: Between 3 and 25 kina

* Money-saver tip: Throw in as many stays in a village as possible; don't fly too much. There are boats going nearly everywhere (it just takes time as schedules might be a problem)

Planet Pictures

Additional photos below
Photos: 22, Displayed: 22


The rotting pier in SamaraiThe rotting pier in Samarai
The rotting pier in Samarai

You have to see how many fish live under it to believe it.

20th October 2006

Thank you!
I'll be moving to Moresby soon and will be living there for 2 years. As I have never been to PNG yet it was interesting to read your stories and see your photos.
23rd October 2006

Hi guys, great to get another update on your fantastic journey. This one about PNG was great to read. Yes, in the comfort of Aus we do get an impression through the media of a somewhat lawless and AIDS affected community in PNG, but as in all places (as you know) visiting the general population usually uncovers pleasant, friendly and hospitable people. I am more than a little jealous of your terk up Mt Wilhelm, but not so sure the little old legs could do it so easily these days. BTW, Kristina has skipped off to Hanoi in Vietnam for a couple of weeks (use up some of my FF points). Keep us posted on future travels. Cheers, Andrew.
23rd January 2007

Thank you for puting up this pictures and promoting culture and tourism in Papua New Guinea...So much of the usual Negative publicity from the Mostly Australian Media.
25th April 2011
Another great group from Simbu Province

what a nice
12th October 2012
Girl and bubble, Kiriwina

Amazingly beautiful - That is the Isle of Love special - so innocently beautiful
12th September 2013

travellers to be careful.
travellers need to take a special precautions in png of criminal activities. it is much safer to choose a local tourist guide.

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