Whilst living remotely in Papua New Guinea and diving reefs that are barely explored to any extent, I have found myself wholly focused on being beneath the surface as often as possible. Seven months have flown by and the dawn of realization hit me last week like a freight train at full speed; Other than speaking to locals and my dive crew I had barely learned anything about the local area above water, so its time to find out more about these land lubbers….
Coincidentally I had a friend visiting from the UK so the timing was perfect to get involved with whatever was on the tourism menu for a week. The first planned excursion we set out on was the organized ‘Cultural Tour.’ Up to this point I had heard about the tour from many customers with the majority of them being highly satisfied with the 3-4 hour excursion into the adjacent fjord. Obviously you cannot please all of the people all of the time so I have also heard a few comments of the tour being “too staged.” Time to formulate my opinion….
The Tour leaves at 9am from Tufi Wharf with a 15 minute boat ride into the MacLaren harbor Fjord. We coast slowly into the fjord which is formed by the protruding land on either side reaching out into the Solomon Sea. A multitude of Rain Forest trees interlaced with Mangrove and Coconut trees, all clinging to the steep slopes leading up to mother natures natural & neatly trimmed grass lands cresting the ridges. As the high natural skyscrapers crawl closer, the boat slows, the engine runs silent & the local wildlife sweeps into your ears as if the bass has just been tweaked up on a live music festival. Hornbills shout out as they soar overhead, the air rushing over their large wings creating a reverberating noise that reminded me of hundreds of ducks landing in formation on a lake when I was a child. Well this isn’t a bad start to the excursion my inner monologue announced…
Shouts of “Oro, oro, oro” (Welcome, welcome, welcome) signal our transfer from the dive boat to local outrigger canoes, the engines of which are 2 traditionally dressed locals with a paddle each (These guys and girls are powerhouses!!). Working together with very little communication between them, my paddlers pick their way along the river as it reduces in width and depth, dodging unseen underwater hazards and barely breaking into a pant, let alone a sweat during the 40 minute journey.
I have to say, this was fantastic and dare i say it, very Zen. The birds chorus continues, the visual complexities of the mangroves reaching down into the cool water and much akin to a scrum half from Japan attempting to pass the New Zealand front row, the sunlight breaks through the high canopy by a few inches only to be consumed up by the overpowering darkness and its contrasting colors.
Settling the canoes at the riverside we have a short stroll through the jungle to an opening next to the rivers next bend. William (the tour guide and local expert) explains that the villagers we will be meeting today live in various locations higher up in the hills surrounding us and come to this location for the tour. William is a local guy who co-ordinates all tours and village stays on behalf of Tufi Resort. His prelude provides us with a history of the area, the stories of cannabalism and PNG as a whole. The explanation leaves me in no doubt that we are not visiting the Tower of London and listening to tales 300+ years old, merely a few decades.
As William drawers to a close the jungle chorus falls into silence preceded with a few bird squawks as the audio turns to the screams of a human. Two warriors hurriedly approach us with local cries whilst aggressively brandishing spears. William explains that this would have been the initial contact with any stranger when foreigners first started to explore PNG. He continues to explain that communicating that you are not an enemy is the best way forward. “Tofu” (meaning friend) resonates through the group in a prompt and military (if not nervous) fashion.
A short walk along the banks and we are invited to pass through a palm leaf open door with 2 local girls throwing flowers over our heads and again calling out “Oro.” In the clearing ahead we meet a woman and a teenage girl. They are demonstrating how the women’s facial tattoos are produced. Historically all women who come of age receive the tattoos but the modern girls do have a choice so the recipients are reducing in numbers quickly. The demonstration uses the ‘ink’ made from wood and embers to mark the skin and if this young lady where to continue then a thorn driven through the spine of a leaf would be the needle to penetrate the skin. The whole process can take up to 3 months and is traditionally done in private so no one could see the results until the process was complete.
A little further on and a few more local men then demonstrate how to make fire with the natural products found in the jungle. I’ve seen (and used) many variations of creating fire but I can see that this style is very efficient. Pinning a dry branch on the ground by sitting on it, Virgil uses his bush knife to scrape the bark away and notches a smaller hand-held branch into the shape of a carpenter’s pencil. Using both hands he rubs the pencil over the stripped section of branch and almost immediately smoke starts to well up into the air. It took a few attempts (maybe the branch was not dry enough) but he managed to lite his hand rolled tobacco from the embers.
Moving back towards the river we came across 2 more locals making Sago. Sago is a staple in the local diet, much like a flour or dough it is extracted from the meat of the Sago tree and is drawn off by creating a mulch and washing it (by hand) through a leaf filter. The water is then drained off and the Sago is left as a white resign clinging to the catch trough. It is then scraped up and allowed to dry in the sun.
Once wrapped in a palm purse it can be transported and stored for up to 3 months. It’s a lot of hard graft and to produce the quantity we saw today took over an hour (after preparing the Sago washing stand).
Once the Sago is dried in the sun it is then cooked for a few minutes in a leaf fire before being wrapped in the purse.
The final presentation is a Sing Sing group. Sing Sing is a Papuan tradition that is used for welcoming people, parties, presentations, demonstrations, ceremonies, at any given opportunity really, the Papuans love a good Sing Sing. Although this one comprises of 4 young girls and 4 men I have seen Sing Sing’s with over 40 dancers being involved. Personally, I think they are great and gives you a real feeling of the link between the compassion Papuans have with their heritage and the warm welcome you receive almost everywhere you venture.
Following the Sing Sing there was time for a few group photos with the villagers and then a short walk back towards the canoes via an open area where you have the opportunity to purchase local products such as mini outriggers, cups & shell jewelry.
To conclude, I think that any individual thinking this is a staged demonstration is completely correct, but the best exhibition I have experienced in many a year. The setting is natural, the processes are unique, the villagers are locals and if you are looking to be the invasive individual who expects to just walk through a village and be nosy then I would ask if you would open your front door for strangers to walk on through as they so wish. The demonstrations and explanations from William work hand in hand which provides a very fluid demonstration/ experience with a fantastic historical value.
Working in Papua New Guinea I can see the eagerness within most remote villagers chasing after modern technology (it reminds me of a teenager NEEDING the latest iPhone kudos in their lives), but they also live quite a content life with no real link to the priorities of time. If you ask a local how old they are, then a very common reply would be “say 38 or 39” which just goes to show the cultural differences between PNG and the western way of life. Battling the hardships that the western world have long forgotten, such as simple medications, hunting & fishing to feed the family, no running water or electricity, I highly commend and appreciate how the locals live; and I must say I’m also slightly jealous of their simplicity of life in such a beautiful part of the world that thankfully hasn’t been destroyed by the invasive foreign exploitation as yet.
In no way is this a sales pitch but my honest opinion when I say I would highly recommend the tour to all that plan to visit Tufi, it is an experience you are not going to receive anywhere in the world & I would be very surprised if you would ever forget it. The sheer beauty of the whole process, the knowledge gleaned and of course, the awesome setting and pictures for the scrap-book.
My next blog will be my reflections on a village home-stay that I have booked…..I expect more great experiences, like/ share/ follow to keep up to date with my next adventure in Papua New Guinea.
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