Land, Women and Pigs

A typical PNG sunset

(Greg) We have been on the road for almost a year, putting ourselves into the middle of some of the wildest, most untouched places on Earth. We are pretty salty veterans, so I thought it unlikely that we would be wide-mouthed and pie-eyed by anyplace or any people again. Then we came to the Sepik river basin and the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Everything about this place exceeds hyperbole. It is greener and more fertile than Hawaii, more warlike than the Maoris of New Zealand, more chauvinist than Archie Bunker’s house and more uniformly friendly than any country we have visited.

The testosterone here is intimidating. The men all look like the baddest dudes IN THE WORLD. But every time we smile, they smile back broadly with nasty teeth and blood red tongues stained by chewing betel nut. Even the nineteen year old cool guys on the corner smile and wave back.  This is significant since Dana and I have been doing a nineteen-year-old-cool-guy test in the 27 countries we have already visited.  Our thesis, until recently, was that there was an implicit universal prohibition on any nineteen-year-old-cool-guy from smiling and waving at visitors.  The antithesis was proven in Papua New Guinea. And believe me, if any of the scrawny nineteen-year-old-cool-guys from India or Borneo or Peru saw the PNG guys, they would abdicate alpha male status to the PNG bad asses in nanoseconds, just after they wet their nineteen-year-old-cool-guy pants. If only that would happen, waving and smiling would truly be universal.

A local chief with four of his five wives

But even smiling testosterone can alter society in problematic ways. The men of the highlands state outright that they value and defend three things: land, pigs and women. In that order. A local highlands landowner recently sold a bit of his land to Exxon Mobil for the equivalent of US$100,000. He proceeded to buy 50 cases of beer and 300 pigs (at about $300 each). He then bought his third and fourth wife with 200 of the pigs, slaughtered 10 of the pigs for a big Mu Mu while drinking the 50 cases of beer and that is that.

Tough smiling guys like to fight too. Clan battles still happen today in the Highlands.  They call it Highlands Football. When a clan has a dispute over land, pigs or women (in that order) that cannot be resolved by the council of elders, it gets resolved on the field with bows, arrows, spears and, increasingly, homemade firearms. Our guide has been pierced by arrows on 4 different occasions including one nasty one that went through the front of his knee, broke off and the arrowhead had to be pulled out the back of the knee by a friend using just his teeth. We saw the scars. I showed him mine, but felt a bit too much estrogen pumping through my veins to actually tell the story.

Our Sepik friend, Mark

Headhunting and cannibalism are not a too distant memory in the Sepik River valley either. We went deep into small tributaries and spent a night with a tribe who proudly showed us the cannibal victory dance. We saw lots of skulls too. On the way out of this village in a little dugout canoe, Dana was talking to Mark, one of the villagers accompanying us back to our camp. Mark was 47 years old and, though he had never killed a man, had eaten a few in his youth. Seriously.

In the face of all this, missionaries have fought a good battle here for the last 60 years. The first were killed and eaten, but they persevered and now some 90% of the population affiliates with some form of Christianity. This has slowed the tribal fighting, begun to limit polygamy and created the beginnings of a social safety net with schools and hospitals and all the things that a pitifully corrupt government should but does not provide. However, the people we have met clearly see western religion as just a mixer in the cocktail of their magical spiritual beliefs. There are lots of active witch doctors and magic purveyors and all forms of worshipped spirits. We met the Wabia Spirit Dancers today in the Highlands town of Tari. They are 6 older men who are hired to chase evil spirits from a person who is sick. I asked them how these spirit dancers are chosen to be spirit dancers. I was told that it is inherited and that they all exhibit “some secret magic of the midget.” “The midget?” I ask. “Yes. He is a little man who is a spirit from the water who can be good…but can also be bad. He is a midget.” At that point, imagining one of Santa’s mean elves, I abandoned my line of questioning.

Oner of the magnificent Huli Wigmen

These guys are powerful and honest and blessed to live in an extraordinarily bounteous place. Though things are changing at a blistering pace (“from the stone age to the space age in one generation” is an oft heard phrase here), we have not met a more genuine, varied, intriguing and intoxicating group of people. Papua New Guinea has a tough reputation but, in our experience, it is undeserved. For any reasonably adventurous traveler looking to see and experience cultures before they invariably disappear, we would put Papua New Guinea at the very top of the list. It is hard scrabble real.

A Wabia spirit dancer

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One Response to “Land, Women and Pigs”

  1. What an extraordinary destination and superb post. We can not imagine you wrote this with a bad stomach and with mosquitoes buzzing nearby to boot.

    The pictures are rare and vivid – imagining that behind and all around those portraits is a matching village, and that you and your family IN that village, suggests an outrageous adventure.

    Mark makes for a memorable portrait. Glad to hear he was friendly.

    Good on you for getting out there to see Papau New Guinea up close, and thank you for sharing.