Embracing life, PNG-style

Fiona Harper
Filed on July 6, 2012
Embracing life, PNG-style

Watam, a quaint village in Papua New Guinea, encompasses you into engaging and impromptu warmth — putting paid to all past trepidations about terms like ‘cannibalism’

Sylvester is looking for a wife. Sort of. Chatting in his grandmother’s kitchen, as other family members lurk inquisitively in the shadows, he tells me he’s single. I get the impression he’s pretty happy about it. Tradition, however, dictates that he find a wife to bear his children who will in turn care for the elder generation. I wonder if he considers me a potential candidate as he proudly shows me the features of the kitchen, picking up a battered frypan beside the open pit fire as he tries to tempt me with fried sago. Not dissimilar to a pancake in appearance, though tasting rather more like unsalted cardboard, I politely decline. Despite the bright afternoon sunshine, the kitchen is rather gloomy, the only light source being gaping holes in the thatched roof, palm frond woven walls and rough-hewn timber floor.

I find it hard to concentrate on Sylvester’s words as he shows me through the elevated hut, feeling rather unsteady underfoot. The uneven rickety boards have an unsettling spring to them so that I reach for the walls to steady myself. Chooks are visible through the holes, scratching around in dirt turned to muddy slosh from recent rain. Recalling a conversation with our expedition guide Justin Friend, who also happens to be one of seven chiefs of Watam village, when he described falling through the floor of a neighbouring hut, I’m not reassured by Sylvester’s nimble, light-footedness as he darts across the room.

While he has been showing me around, other family members have gathered near the open-sided platform that serves as the front door. “My grandmother would like you to sit with her,” he says shyly. How can I not, given the warm hospitality I’ve been shown by being invited into their home? Eyes cloudy with cataracts and her mouth a slash of scarlet from chewing betel nut, a mild stimulant that has a kind of stuporific effect, we sit cross-legged on a mat overlooking the village.

Despite there being over 800 languages in Papua New Guinea, we don’t need any of them beyond sign language, as we laughingly try to communicate while the extended family gathers to ogle the odd-looking foreign woman.

I’ve lobbed into Watam village on the banks of the Sepik River as one of our daily shore excursions with Orion Expeditions. Sailing across the Coral Sea from Cairns in northern Australia, it seems as though we’ve drifted back in time. One of the world’s great rivers at over 1,100km from source to sea, the vast Sepik region is mostly fertile grasslands on the northern coast of the island of New Guinea. The river is integral to the villagers, who rely upon it for water, food and transportation. Remote and with little access in or out except by sea, cultural traditions are still much as they’ve always been, with a few noted exceptions. Indeed with very few foreign visitors venturing into these parts, our small group of travellers are very much a curiosity. With historical links to cannibalism still lurking in the recent past, it’s kind of hard to fathom, given the warm welcome we receive.

Ancient and spiritual rituals form a large part of daily life on the Sepik. Spirit houses, known as Haus Tambarans are adorned with elaborate wood carvings. Traditionally, these houses were lined with ornately-carved shields decorated with the faces of ancestors and ancient spirits. Cannibalism was practised as a means of nullifying the powers of one’s enemies, with the victim’s head hung in the doorway to discourage women and uninitiated males. These days, spirit houses are still the domain of males, though thankfully human heads are no longer required as a deterrent to enter.

With my ship’s departure to our next port of call imminent, I reluctantly 
leave Sylvester’s family. Though not before they generously present me with a delightful colourful woven basket along with a beaded shell necklace which Sylvester’s been wearing around his neck. I’m terribly embarrassed that I have nothing to offer in return, and can only hope that our shared conviviality has been enough. In a moment of panic, it occurs to me that perhaps Sylvester’s necklace offering is some kind of ancient tradition of securing a bride PNG-style, particularly when he asks me to write down my address in Australia.

He proves to be the perfect gentleman though, escorting me to the zodiac waiting on the beach, waving goodbye from the shore, his crocodile skin drum slung across bare shoulders. I feel as though I’ve made a lifelong friend.

Back onboard Orion, it seems I’m not the only one who was equally touched by the villagers’ warmth. Congregating around the bar at sunset, my fellow passengers exuberantly swap stories. Of gorgeous children clambering to hold the hands of the dimdims (as foreigners are called) and show them around their village. Of ladies sitting in the shade weaving baskets keen to share a laugh while demonstrating the art of weaving palm fronds into intricate patterns. Of village men kicking back in their elevated huts calling out friendly greetings. Or traders at the impromptu wood carving market on the grassy village square engaging in shy conversation.

A visit to such a far-flung village is one of those travellers’ treasures, part of the extraordinary charm of cruising PNG, taking the path less travelled. While the dreamy landscape is filled with lushly forested mountains blooming with ridiculously pretty blossoms and the sea is peppered with kaleidoscopic fish inhabiting coral gardens that scuba divers drool over, these are not the main attractions. It is her people that draw visitors in, revealing the country’s true charisma. Warm, engaging people like Sylvester, who await travellers adventurous enough to venture deep into PNG’s heart.