‘We advise you to exercise a high degree of caution in Papua New Guinea because of high levels of serious crime. Car jackings, assaults, bag snatching and robberies are common. Walking after dark is particularly dangerous. You should also consider travelling in a convoy or with a security escort.’
I’m going to Papua New Guinea tomorrow and this is the travel warning on the Australian Government Website. Hmmm… That’s a bit scary. Why on earth would I want to go to PNG? It’s a question I’ve been getting asked since I decided to make the trip. Tonight, I’d like to tell you why.
I think my fascination began with my Dad’s National Geographic collection with images of colourful, painted faces and beautiful head-dresses made from bird of paradise plumes. This fascination grew with stories told by my ex boyfriend who worked in the highlands. He used to tease me that his workers had offered him a local wife in exchange for a couple of pigs.
And after travelling through Europe, Asia, Africa and South America, I still have that desire to find a place untouched by globalisation. I want to retrace the adventurous footsteps of those first explorers to a lost paradise – a world of head hunters, mysterious ceremonies and deadly tribal battles. I want to see the simplicity of life long gone from western society – vibrant cultures built on strong family and tribal foundations, still light years from the 21st century.
These days it’s almost impossible to find this and on a planet crowded with seven billion people, isolated primitive cultures are getting pushed to the brink of extinction. But Papua New Guinea comes close. It’s one of the last places on earth to be affected by Western influence. Tourism is still in its infancy and so are most services and facilities. Many villages still don’t have electricity. The country is one of the worlds least explored, culturally and geographically and many undiscovered species of plants and animals are thought to exist in the interior. As recently as the 80s there will still men in the highlands wearing nothing but penis gourds and bones through their noses!
One of the reasons for this is the island’s topography. It is so rugged that roads only service a small portion so the only way to get many places is to walk. Through the middle of the country runs a spine of jagged jungle covered mountains that are so steep and impenetrable that it was thought to be too inhospitable for habitation and wasn’t even explored until the 1930s. Astoundingly, explorers in search of gold discovered over one million people living in fertile mountain valleys in cultures that still used bows and arrows and stone axes.
And from the late 1800s when missionaries arrived trying to save the souls of tribes by converting them to Christianity they never reached more than 20km from the coast. The terrain, tropical diseases like malaria and the fact that some Papua New Guineans were cannibals stifled their cause.
And yes, cannibals did exist. And victims weren’t just occasional poor person who had mistakenly wandered into the wrong place. Some tribes would plan a raid for years and murder an entire village of about 50 people. They would slit them open with a cassowary bone, gut them and chop off the head, arms and legs. They would then tie the torso onto their back like a backpack, put the head in a bag and carry an arm and a leg over each shoulder and head back to their own village where they would feast for days.
Because of its topography Papua New Guinea is one of the most culturally diverse countries on Earth, with over 850 indigenous languages and cultures. And out of a population of just under seven million over 80% still live in traditional societies and practise subsistence-based agriculture. So apart from big towns like Port Moresby and tourist resorts there is still little need for money. Their currency is even called the Kina, after a type of shell that many still prize more highly than cash.
On my trip I will be visiting cultures that still believe a woman becomes pregnant when a spirit of the dead enters her while she is bathing, where shaman can invoke the rain to come and where the more yams a woman receives, the more powerful and rich she is.
Unfortunately though, it is hard to stop progress and Papua New Guinea is full of natural resources that mining companies want to get their hands on. With them comes the introduction of new technology, education, government, law and beliefs have been responsible for vast and dramatic changes to the way in which many Papua New Guineans live and see the world. The hand down of traditional values and knowledge is being replaced by western education and capitalism. These changes are invoking dilemmas for Papuan New Guineans as they lose their traditional identity and the youth grow up in a different world to their Elders.
The sad reputation of crime and violence that the Australian Government website warned me about is largely due to this cultural breakdown. Young men known as ‘Raskals’ come to urban centres driven by the current of consumerism and commodities – seeking money, cars and western goods and shunning the traditional way of life.
So this is why I want to go. To get there before it’s too late. To explore remote villages surrounded by rainforest and towering volcanoes – still far enough away from urban centres to be truly hit by globalisation. To swim in some of the most pristine waters in the world where tourism is still non-existent; and to encounter cultures that still value the knowledge of the elders, that believe magic is real and the cycle of nature and it’s bounty is prized over the value of a dollar.
I want to see it before Western culture sinks its teeth in even further and before their traditional way of life is wiped out forever. That’s why.