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Papua New Guinea

Tribal culture and colorful tradition mix with some tense moments on the southwest Pacific island.

August 01, 2004|Mary Altier | Special to The Times

Mt. Hagen, Papua New Guinea — Men painted like skeletons with white paint and charcoal terrorized the crowd with primitive bows and arrows. Mudmen wearing huge heads crafted from dried mud shook weapon-like 6-inch fingernails menacingly.

Forty years ago, visitors had a lot to fear from Papua New Guinea's indigenous groups, who were accustomed to killing and eating one another. These days, though, they have left their age-old rivalries and cannibalistic practices in the past, instead celebrating their disparate cultures. At the annual Mt. Hagen Cultural Festival and Sing-Sing, representatives of the country's myriad tribal groups gather to sing, dance and laugh together, keeping alive their traditions on this remote enigmatic island in the southwest Pacific.

Papua New Guinea takes up the eastern half of New Guinea island, the world's second-largest after Australia, its geologic cousin about 100 miles to the south. Irian Jaya, which belongs to Indonesia, occupies its western side.

Many visitors travel here for the superb diving and snorkeling, but I came here two years ago to delve into tribal cultures that had intrigued me since a visit to the Indonesian island of Sulawesi nearly two decades ago. Mt. Hagen's August festival gave me an ideal excuse to visit and hopscotch by plane to see the nation's other natural and cultural attractions.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 04, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Papua New Guinea -- An article in Sunday's Travel section about Papua New Guinea said that New Guinea was the world's second-largest island after Australia. Australia is a continent. New Guinea ranks second after the island of Greenland.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 08, 2004 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Papua New Guinea -- An Aug. 1 article about Papua New Guinea incorrectly stated that New Guinea island is the world's second-largest island after Australia. Australia is considered a continent. New Guinea ranks second after the island of Greenland.

Getting to and traveling in Papua New Guinea is not easy. Outside its capital of Port Moresby, the country has limited tourist facilities and infrastructure, and hotels book up fast during festivals. For convenience, my husband, John, and I booked an unescorted 10-day group tour with 15 other travelers through Trans Niugini Tours, which arranged our transportation, hotels and meals.

Crime was another worry, and we thought we'd find safety in numbers. The State Department, which warns travelers of violent crime against tourists in Port Moresby and in Mt. Hagen, advises against taking public taxis and buses in mostareas of the country and recommends traveling with a group. It was valuable advice: A couple of times, the tour company got us out of potentially dangerous situations.

Three colonial powers

We landed in Port Moresby on Papua New Guinea's southern shore and the next morning flew to Mt. Hagen, a Highlands city with a frontier feel. Today, the Highlands is the most agriculturally productive and densely populated area in the country, but it was not until the 1930s that the Western world discovered that the region was inhabited.

Through the centuries, three colonial powers squabbled over New Guinea. By the mid-1800s, the Netherlands controlled the western half of New Guinea, now Irian Jaya, and Britain and Germany divided up the east.

At the beginning of World War I, Australia wrested control of the German part of Papua New Guinea, and six years later, the League of Nations granted it sovereignty over the eastern part. In 1975, Australia gave Papua New Guinea its independence.

Australians first ventured into the Highlands for gold, finding instead verdant valleys sliced by rivers and streams and mountain peaks such as the 14,880-foot Mt. Wilhelm. Here, as they had for thousands of years, women tilled the fertile soil by hand, planting sweet potatoes and greens; warriors painted in fierce colors and markings protected them.

But life is not so bucolic in Mt. Hagen, an unattractive, sometimes unruly town. We settled into the simple, motel-like Kimininga Lodge, which was less than a mile from the Sing-Sing, the celebratory dance and festival that would begin the next day.

Early Saturday morning, we found only a few performers when we arrived at the muddy festival grounds. Soon, people hauling cardboard boxes filled with cowrie shells and tropical bird feathers came trudging slowly across the rain-soaked field. We watched as they painted their faces and bodies in bright pigments and adorned themselves with large shells and plumage in primary colors.

Men peered into broken shards of mirror as they transformed themselves. Wives straightened their husbands' long tails made from the feathers of the endangered bird of paradise. Parents dressed and painted their children. Then each troupe lined up under signs handwritten with the names of their groups and waited.

Suddenly, the ground shook with the pounding of bare feet and the rhythm of chanting and hourglass-shaped kundu drums covered with lizard or snakeskin. We watched as the first group danced into the informal arena.

They were followed by rows of armed warriors, who swept across the field in a nearly impenetrable line. They simulated battles they had fought through the ages, though at the end of the day, the fierce combatants put down their spears to accept orange Popsicles handed out by volunteers.

There was a palpable sensation of tribal and clan loyalty. Even after the festival ended, the dancing and singing continued for several hours, the field vibrating with chants and drums.

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