Likes & Dislikes

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“After the capital, most tourists take a boat cruise up the Sepik River in the north part of the main island. This is the best way to see the various ethnic groups inhabiting the country, which each have their own language and customs.

The river originates in a high mountain chain near the Indonesian border and forms the most important trade route between the interior and the coast. Lakes, lagoons, backwaters, waterfalls, and swamps line are all to be seen en route.

Tours generally depart from the town of Madang, where you can buy excellent hand-made craft items. The smaller islands all have their own unique character.

The Trobriand Islands, much studied by cultural anthropologists, celebrate a series of spectacular festivals between May and September to mark the yam root's harvest, which is their staple crop. A rare treat for the traveler’s palate.

Even for seasoned global travelers, this country on the world’s second-largest island is a very special experience, and there are few sights in the world with as much sustained beauty as this famous waterway. Numerous broad rivers flow down the valleys before taking an enchantingly leisurely, winding course to the sea, while the highlands are dotted with almost alpine pastures.

Accommodation is safe and comfortable, while well-planned activities and capable guides await the adventurous globetrotter.

Papua New Guinea owes its notoriety to two things: extraordinary natural diversity and cannibals. The island's topography shows huge differences, with mountains, highlands, swamps, and vast cliffs alternating with one another. The wildlife is also breathtaking, and the almost virgin rainforests provide a habitat for many species of animals and plants.

The tribal customs of Papua are the third attraction, attracting many ethnographers and filmmakers to the island.

Unfortunately, as is the case in most developing countries, the country is plagued by a lack of infrastructure and rising crime rates, but don’t let such problems dissuade you from visiting this remarkable country. (2015)

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“The Highlands' mountains are mostly formed from limestone, and the “bellies” of the mountains hide many caves. Walking in the Whagi river valley near Mount Hagen, a fiercely gesturing Marcona Papuan appears in front of us. Bob tells us that the man is willing to show us the secret cave in which the corpses of their comrades killed in the tribal war during the fifties were placed for a couple of kina. We decide to seize the opportunity, though we still don’t realize that reaching the place requires an exhausting hike.

Initially, we pass fields of taro and kaukau (sweet potatoes) surrounded by groves of pandanus, then start climbing the mountainside. The entrance to the cave is in a well-disguised place – if you don’t know where it is, you won’t find it. We get in through a narrow opening, barely visible in the twilight, but as we shine our flashlights, the skulls and fading corpses glint. A shocking sight! The cult of highly respected ancestors is still alive today. In many places, the Papuans store their deceased relatives' bones and skulls, often making them into fascinating objects of daily use in their huts or else storing them in another adjacent building.

Many causes may lead to the outbreak of tribal wars: the capture of a stray pig, the abduction of a woman, or simply an accidental or deliberate intrusion into tribal territory. Here, everything has its precisely defined value! In a relatively food-poor environment, the price of pigs rivals that of gold in some places. Piglets are so highly esteemed that they are walked on a leash, and it is not uncommon for Papuan women to breastfeed them!

The busiest stretch of road in the Highlands connects Mount Hagen with Lae (pronounced lay), the large port city of the east coast. The poor-quality concrete road runs through several provinces, i.e., several tribal areas. From the West Highlands to the East, you have to cross the province of Chimbu and a notorious pass. When we were there, this was the section from which the news of fighting had previously come. There was no problem until we had to slow due to a landslide at the pass. Then, from out of the bush, with a rousing battle cry, about thirty Papuans in grass skirts charged out, armed with bows and arrows, stone axes, and scrub-cutting knives. The bloodshed was delayed because, fortunately, the police showed up, and the attackers, as suddenly as they came, fled into the forest. In the old days, it was a mark of pride to have gone to the white man’s prison, especially when imprisonment for a few days was imposed because of having eaten the flesh of a slain enemy. Today, however, cannibalism has long been outlawed, and much more severe penalties are imposed for roadblocks and tribal warfare.

We head for one of the most striking rivers of the island’s rich fluvial network, the Sepik. The engine of our small propeller aircraft rises to an even hum, and as we take off from the Highlands, the mountain's slope and the forests expand. Blindingly white cumulus clouds cast dark spots of shadow across the uniformly lush landscape beneath us. As far as the eye can see, there is no trace of human settlement, as though this paradisal world is completely uninhabited… But among the lush vegetation, especially along with the well-situated waterfront areas, many small villages hide.

We land in Wewak. Here on the Bismarck Sea, the port city and its environs suffered greatly during World War II as a result of attacks by Japanese invaders. Today, that past is evoked by some remaining wreckage, numerous tombs, and a few monuments.

Our final destination is Angoram. This village along the Sepik can only be reached overland from Wewak. The dirt road leading into the seemingly impenetrable tropical rainforest is a tough ordeal, even for four-wheel-drive SUVs. To travel nearly two hundred kilometers takes at least four hours; still, it has been at least a month since the last great downpours of the rainy season.

Dusk is falling by the time we get there. We are on the edge of civilization, and there are hardly any stone or brick houses in the village, no electricity, and only a limited quantity of water. All the manufactured goods available in the tiny shops have been made here in the country. We can't expect chilled beer or soft drinks or even cold fruit in the absence of functional refrigerators. However, a large supply of tropical fruit, including pineapple, banana, and papaya, is slowly rotting on the market counters.

A number of log canoes rest on the riverbanks, having brought the inhabitants of villages near and far to the market. Carving out such a canoe requires serious expertise and takes a few weeks. Carving boats is a separate craft. Despite this hard and persistent work, if we wanted to buy one, it would cost us twenty dollars at most.

Around Angoram, the Sepik river network widens; the landscape is characterized by shallows, swamps, and broad bays. Due to significant fluctuations in the water level, huts are built on stilts here. Even the huge communal houses, decorated with carved tribal motifs and protruding roofs, rest on meter-diameter wooden poles. But this construction method also has another advantage: the unexpected attacks of dangerous crocodiles cannot seize these raised houses' occupants.

The Papuans, knowing the value of crocodile skin and tourists' interest, set up crocodile farms and showcase captive reptiles for money. The local men are mostly engaged in fishing, the women in raising children, doing household chores, cultivating kitchen gardens, and producing sago flour. The thick logs of the cut-out sago palm are placed on frames by the men, and the soft insides of the palm trunk are cut out with axes. In the process of washing and cleaning, however, women play the main role.” (K. Elter, 2017)


 

Papua New Guinea - village scene - Elter photo

Papua New Guinea - awesome - - Elter photo

Papua New Guinea - nose piercing - Elter photo

Practicals

Transport

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Papua New Guinea - passenger ferry - Elter photo

Papua New Guinea - a plane of Air Niugini, the national airline - j.k. photo

Food

“I ate only tuna and the cheapest vegetables or fruits in the region, in industrial quantities. Healthy at least, I hope. By the way, the local cuisine cannot be compared to the world-famous gastronomy of Southeast Asia, which seems geographically close. It is practical as if the whole country is on a diet because they eat almost exclusively unseasoned, cooked, starchy vegetables, and sometimes fish on the coast.
In the Highlands, the vegetables in question are usually sweet potatoes or other potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, and tomatoes, and on the coast, roots, yams, and “saksak” squeezed from the fruit of sago palm, which looks like they’re just cooking some mysterious, gelatinous material in the hopes that something edible will eventually emerge. Supposedly it tastes divine.
Cheap canned tuna is popular. In an average supermarket, there are at least two complete aisles of tinned products of this kind.
There are many varieties of vegetables and tropical fruits, but unfortunately, these are quite difficult to obtain, because unlike in many parts of Asia, these are not sold everywhere at the side of the road, but almost exclusively in the central markets of the city. (2017) "

Shopping

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Papua New Guinea - charming souvenirs - Elter photo

Papua New Guinea - Port Moresby - Koki, the iconic market - K. Elter's photo

Papua New Guinea - Port Moresby - supermarket - y.s. photo

Fun

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Papua New Guinea - beauty contest 2018 - Elter photo

Papua New Guinea - making themselves picture-perfect for the tourist crowd - Elter photo

Papua New Guinea - heart-warming performance - Elter photo

Papua New Guinea - drummer womenfolk - K. Elter's photo

Public safety

Thefts, car break-ins, armed and gang robberies, rape, pickpocketing are common across the country.

Public safety is deficient in the capital, Port Moresby.

Don't walk alone in the streets after dark.

Banks and ATMs and their users are popular targets for criminals.

For some reason, the number of crimes committed is higher during the Christmas period.

Particularly unsafe is outside of Port Moresby. The presence of police leaves is not efficient, so the raskols (“gangsters” in Tok Pisin) are free to do their criminal acts.

Tourists are advised to stay away from crowded events. 

Violent tribal and ethnic conflicts have almost become permanent in some parts of the country.

Consider carefully taking a taxi or public transport, because criminals like to target tourists traveling on such vehicles.

Somewhat safer to go around in a rental car. But: If you travel by car in the countryside, it is safer to join a convoy. Sometimes even convoys are vulnerable, as gangsters stand roadblocks.

,, All residential houses/compounds and offices are in a heavy security environment including razor wire-topped fences, secure walls, panic alarms, thick iron grills on all windows/doors, 24-hour security, wireless connectivity to security firm control rooms, etc."


Papua New Guinea - Pls note that the real, local bad guys wear ordinary clothes and have a preference of gun - Elter photo

Health

Don't drink tap water or any drink with ice cubes. Water can be contaminated.
Malaria is common throughout the country, especially during the rainy season (October to May).

Be very careful if locals offer you to chew Betel nut. This nut is a narcotic derivative, and its use quickly creates an addiction. Under the narcotic effect, you may become unable to control yourself.
What is certain, that your teeth will be marked with a very dark red layer, and its removal will need dental treatment.

The psychoactive betel nut is more and more popular in Papuan New Guinea.  Growing addiction creates a dangerous health problem. Almost half of the population chew betel but, which was once reserved for sacred events only.  Even children chew it. Many adults uses this drug every day from morning to night.

Papua New Guinea - male beauty - teeth care after skin care - Elter photo

Papua New Guinea - toothpaste ads - Elter photo

Others

1. In Papua New Guinea, homosexuality is prohibited by law, and if caught in the act, even tourists can be sentenced to severe prison terms.

2. The sting of jellyfish in the surrounding seas can be fatal.

Papua New Guinea - gentleman - Elter photo

Papua New Guinea - Bilum, is a traditional woven string bag worn mainly by women by hanging from the head. - K. Elter's photo

Papua New Guinea - on the way home from the market - K. Elter's photo

Background

Papua New Guinea - national flag - upper right a raggiana bird-of-paradise is silhouetted - j.k. photo

Destination in brief

Papua New Guinea in brief

Papua New Guinea is located in Oceania, in the southwestern part of the Pacific Ocean. The country is situated on the western half of New Guinea Island (the island’s other half being part of Indonesia). 

Papua New Guinea is about 150 kilometers (93 miles) north of Australia.

Size: 462,840 km² (178,704 mi²)

Capital city: Port Moresby

Population: 9 million (2021) - Papua New Guinea is one of, if not the most, heterogeneous nations in the world. There are hundreds of ethnic groups indigenous to the country.

Language: There are 3 official languages: English, Hiri Motu, and Tok Pisin. The latter two are somewhat based on English. Over 850 indigenous languages are spoken.

Religion: 95% Christian, but many locals mix elements of local indigenous religious practices and traditions with their modern Christian beliefs. 

For centuries, cannibalism was not only part of tribal life, but also an essential element of religious practice. In the late 19th century, European colonialists outlawed cannibalism. Some tribes in remote areas may still practice eating human flesh. Tourists, however, are never part of the menu.

Form of government: Papua New Guinea is a constitutional monarchy. The Head of State is Queen Elizabeth II.

Papua New Guinea gained full independence from Australia in 1975.

Currency: Papua New Guinean kina (PGK)



Most frequent surname: John

Safety: Rates of sexual violence are among the highest in the world, and assault, theft - especially car theft - rates are also high. Tribal and ethnic strife are quite common in some areas of the country.   

For those who are not highly experienced travelers, it can be risky to visit the country without joining an organized tour.

Public transportation and the tourist infrastructure are underdeveloped.

When to go?

Best timing: May-October
December-January is too hot, October-November too rainy.


Major tourist attractions: Varirata National Park, Parliament building in Port Moresby, Tari Basin, cultural festivals, Sogeri Jungle Village Trip


Geography

There are many volcanoes still active in the country. It is dangerous to approach them.
Landslides, tsunamis, earthquakes can occur. During the rainy season, there are severe floods, which often cause fatalities. Roads become impassable.

There are many dangerously venomous snakes in nature around. 

Papua New Guinea - Garewa village - beach - j.k. photo

Papua New Guinea - Papuan landscape - K. Elter's photo

Papua New Guinea - a bird-of-paradise - K. Elter's photo

Papua New Guinea - Blyth's hornbill - K. Elter's photo

Nowadays

In Papua New Guinea, political life is very poorly organized and primitive, backward, and/or confusing in many ways. That comes primarily from mixing traditional, age-old tribal values with the liberal facade of democratic politicking. And there are many very backward tribes in Papua New Guinea mixed with some bright individuals who overcame tribalism, plus a very cynical crowd of pure opportunists."

, Village people's life is not terrible, though they often have very little or no cash. Food gardens guarantee that they are well-fed, and they are surrounded by people in their village who they love and who love them. Medical care is difficult unless these folks live near a major center; health care is unobtainable. The folk medicine they have used for thousands of years is most effective for psychosomatic ailments but not effective for more complex health problems."

For many people in PNG, primary loyalty is still to the tribe (the wantok system) rather than the state or the government. Given the level of instability in national politics, this makes at least some sense.

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“Papua New Guinea, which is in fact very heterogeneous, has always been famous in the Western world for its inter-clan fighting, cannibalism, and bounty hunting – even if only a small percentage of the local cultures participated in such activities. However, while traditional tribal struggles seemed to have plateaued for the last twenty years, the situation is now said to be worse than ever. In addition to bows and arrows, and revolvers which were mostly for show, tribal armaments now include machine guns, grenades, and foreign mercenaries, while the older generation, the traditional leaders, have been replaced by a new generation. They are no longer bound by the former rules of warfare but have found that they can most effectively raise their in-group status through ruthless killing, even when it is completely unnecessary. Some tribes have turned against their violent youth, but only in some places has this halted the escalating violence.

This is the most colorful island in the world. And there is no shortage of tribes and ethnic groups. Papua New Guinea is among the most linguistically diverse places on earth: this country of around seven million people has almost a thousand languages, meaning an average of one language per seven thousand people – one in seven of the world’s 7,000 currently spoken languages is native to this island. Blessed with high mountains, deep gorges, impenetrable rivers, and rainforests, both words and people find travel difficult, so we can only speak of a unified nation-state within certain carefully defined parameters.” (2017)




Papua New Guinea - Port Moresby - shanty town -Elter photo

Oceania - Papua New Guinea - Port Moresby - modern - Elter photo

Papua New Guinea - stilt houses - Elter photo

Papua New Guinea - classroom - j.k. photo

Papua New Guinea - village scene - z.j. photo

Papua New Guinea - village kids - j.k. photo

People

Papuans are very talkative.

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“Almost all of the nearly seven hundred tribal groups scattered across the island of New Guinea have their own unique folklore, and especially dress. For them, tattoos, hairstyles, clothing, and body painting are all part of their traditional, ancient culture. It is also important what kind of event they are attending since it dictates what they should wear: they prepare and dress differently for an inauguration ceremony, a marriage, a funeral, a war, or just a ceremony related to their religion.
While on the Indonesian side, in the Baliem Valley, penis gourds are the prevalent form of male accouterment (and by the way, I note that the size of the gourd is not necessarily made to fit the member in question but is rather reflective of the wearer’s position in the social hierarchy), the more reticent men who inhabit the forests of Papua New Guinea more typically wear a skirt made of leaves or grass, or a long, almost ankle-length fabric skirt. In other places, men prefer loincloths. In more urbanized areas, of course, pants are common. Women’s lower bodies are also covered with skirts of fabric or grass.

Because Papuan families are relatively large, with at least five to six children per family on average, women carry the youngest child on their backs at all times, even when digging or hoeing in the fields. Presumably, this is why the practical bilum, or mesh bag held on the forehead, became widespread. Its prevalence means that is considered an almost indispensable item of female dress. It is very rare to see a woman on the trails or by the roadside without a bilum.

The Baliem Valley in the west is comparable to the Asaro Valley in Papua New Guinea in terms of tribal folklore. Both regions encapsulate in miniature the settlement-geographical and ethnographic features of the whole island. Namely, both are relatively small areas inhabited by many different ethnic groups with different customs and languages. Organized annually by the Lutheran Mission, which carries out charitable activities throughout the Asaro Valley, a folklore festival of the surrounding peoples is held. Seventeen ethnic groups live in the valley, which is approximately fifty kilometers long. Alarming mudmen are known from the accounts of travelers and now also in connection with tourism. Nowadays, these Papuans only smear themselves with the light-colored, fine-grained mud obtained from the nearby river if some notable event justifies it or if a tourist group happens to show up. They get the money made at the ceremony… Yet fifty or sixty years ago, the frightening get-up and mask were part of their survival practices: they wanted to intimidate and keep their enemies away from their tribal possessions. Another tribe lives in the same valley; the male members paint their bodies with the gloopy black resin of a bush plant. And for the same reasons, a few hours’ walks away, in the province of Enga, the Papuan warriors painted their faces a brilliant color (yellow) and wore a wig made of their own hair (wigmen).

One can imagine how difficult it would have been in the early 1960s to explain the essence of parliamentary democracy to people accustomed to this life, persuade them to vote democratically, accept the need for a nomination, or agree to avoid warfare – at least during this period! It was a difficult time… In 1963, Indonesia occupied the western half of the island, known as West Irian, and the need for change also arose on the Australian side. In 1964, the House of Assembly was formed, a parliament in which members had to be elected. Political activists were in a difficult position since the correct expressions did not exist in the Papuan language, and it was almost impossible to get anywhere. We heard a lot of interesting things from those years! One candidate, for example, stunned his people by promising that if he was elected, though would be able to gain power over neighboring tribes using whitening injections and thus gain the entire Highlands for themselves. Another candidate planned to marry Queen Elizabeth II, so that, as he put it, all the wealth of the new wife would pass to the Papuan nation…” (K. Elter, 2021)

Papua New Guinea - man - j.k. photo

Papua New Guinea - character - d.l. photo

Papua New Guinea - locals - d.l. photo

Papua New Guinea - tattooed woman - t.r. photo

Papua New Guinea - local beauty - m.l. photo

Papua New Guinea - village ladies - z.n. photo

Tourist etiquette

1. Conservative dress habits prevail in many parts of the country. Don't wear beach destination clothes or any provocative dress.

2. If you come to a rural community, be respectful, and try to establish a good relationship with the village elders.

Attractions

Port Moresby

Population (in 2021): 290,000 in the city area and 391,000 in the urban area

Papua New Guinea - contrast - Elter photo

Papua New Guinea - Port Moresby - port - K. Elter's photo

Papua New Guinea - Port Moresby - parliament building - K. Elter's photo

Mount Hagen

“The vast plateau which rises in the island’s interior is home to many untouched landscapes and fascinating societies. The “capital” of the Highlands is Mount Hagen; this settlement, with about fifteen thousand inhabitants, is the best base for a series of excursions into the region.

Arriving on a domestic flight, we see behind the glass wall of the airport a small, barefoot Papuan man in a sort of loincloth, apparently waiting for one of his relatives. His nose was pierced, with a tribal ornament in it, and around his neck was the indispensable polished shell, the kina, after which the nation’s currency was named upon independence. We wanted to make a phone call about accommodation from the arrivals lounge, but none of the machines would “swallow” the coins we had. That’s when the “Stone Age tech guy” approached us, proudly pulled a phone card out of the recesses of his loincloth. "Use this, the device works with it!"

Mount Hagen, as the largest city in the area, is modernizing at a rapid pace. Former huts and more modest buildings are being replaced by concrete and brick buildings, the electricity supply is expanding, there is a modern post office (with internet access) and almost everything the locals might need is available in the shops.

The town is named after a nearby mountain of the same name, which in turn commemorates a governor of the former German colony. In 1933, after gold had been discovered in the highland, two brothers by the name of Leahy and a fellow prospector called James Taylor managed, with great difficulty, to reach  Mount Hagen on foot. They were the first foreigners to reach this distant landscape and report back to the outside world of the many ethnic groups in the area. Later, a runway was set up in a forest clearing, thus incorporating the isolated settlement into the “bloodstream” of the country.

Even at the airport, they were advised to hire a local guide who knows the area well and can safely lead us between the tiny villages of the Waghi Valley. The $130 a day cost, while a bit steep, is well worth it: on the very first day Bob brings news that the next day the Bishop of Lae will visit one of the nearby villages and a singsing (dancing&singing) ceremony is being held in his honor.

On hearing of this prestigious event, the people of many settlements are gathering, bringing Papuans dressed in their festive best on the backs of dilapidated flatbed trucks. The ceremony takes place according to a specific choreography. First, the village leader, dressed in a suit and tie, greets the bishop and his entourage, who also greet the assembled crowd in the Motu language. Since the population of this village has long since been converted by Lutheran missionaries, dancing and singing begin only after a group prayer. Axes and stone axes, spears and bows, which are also indispensable in dancing, come to the fore, and barefoot people in grass skirts begin unselfconsciously singing, then dancing in a circle. The master of ceremonies permits no let-up; people keep moving in a sort of ecstasy until sunset.” (K. Elter, 2017)

Papua New Guinea - Mount Hagen - Enga dancers - m.c. photo

Hanuabada, a stilt house village

Papua New Guinea - Hanuabada - stilt house village - K. Elter's photo

Papua New Guinea - Hanuabada - K. Elter's photo

Papua New Guinea - Hanuabada - K. Elter's photo

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