Oceania Papua New Guinea

Experiencing Tribal Culture in Papua New Guinea

How to describe Papua New Guinea? It seems a lot of people don’t know much about it, unless you’re really interested in birding, since it’s more or less the only place you can find birds of paradise, or linguistics, since it has over 800 living languages, making it the most linguistically diverse country in the world. The main reason for that is that PNG is largely tribal, even today. Outside of the capital, pretty much all of the land is owned and run by various tribes. There are so many cultures being represented there, and it’s a really interesting place to see how modern technology is being incorporated into their existing cultures instead of steamrolling their traditions.

They also have tribal law. When you look at the warnings on the US State Department website, they’re pretty aggressive. Essentially, they say that if anything happens to you outside of Port Moresby, the US government can’t help you. At the time of this writing, the country is at “Level 3: Reconsider Travel,” and portions of the country, including the Highlands where I was, are listed as “Level 4: Do Not Travel.” One of my coworkers, who lives in Australia, was shocked that I was going there due to what he’s seen on the news about it. Just now, as I was fact checking something for this post, I googled Port Moresby and found that 15 people died in a series of riots yesterday and the country has declared a state of emergency. Traveling to Papua New Guinea was absolutely worth it and was one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been, full stop, but it is definitely something to be aware of and to prepare for if it’s somewhere that interests you.

I went with Wander Expeditions for this trip! This was their very first tour to PNG, which added to the adventure. In truth, I’ve been wanting to travel with them for ages, but often times I had planned out too far in advance to coordinate the trips that looked most interesting with them. This time, they dropped it slightly earlier than usual and I was already planning to be in region! I had a broader Australia trip planned to visit a friend, so I could adjust the timing of that to fit with this. I joined the recommended flight from Manila and worked backwards to spend the time in Seoul at the beginning of this trip, so it worked really well. I loved traveling with Wander – the Papua Expedition really was a fantastic group of people, and I had an absolute blast.

Kind of obsessed with their Parliament building, ngl
As seen while we were driving through the capital, poor tree kangaroos!

We started in Port Moresby, which is the capital city. Our flight arrived in the morning, and after sorting through money and logistics, we did a tour around the capital, including their Parliament building, the National Museum, a local fish market, and lunch before we headed back to the airport. We were supposed to fly up to Mount Hagen that afternoon for the cultural festival, but what we didn’t realize was that to flying Air Niugini means that a flight delay or cancellation is almost inevitable! After several hours of waiting around playing cards and making friends, we were sent back out of the airport, where we had to wheedle a hotel out of Air Niugini for our extra night in the capital. The next morning, we were back to the airport to try again, and luckily the morning flight left more or less on time!

Not my photo, but from someone else on the trip that had a drone! Such a cool shot.

The Mount Hagen Cultural Festival is a whirlwind of colors and tribes and activity, and it was such a chaotic introduction to the Highlands! Fun fact, the Mount Hagen Cultural Festival is not put on for tourists, but is meant for the local tribes to have a place to come together and exchange culture and ideas, and to reduce tribal tensions. It’s been going on since 1961.

We dropped our stuff off at our hotel and got there in the midst of the tribes arriving! I think their entrances were my favorite part, because they had the highest energy and often a more choreographed piece than later in the day when we were all walking around the field. To set the scene a bit, the festival took place in a large open field surrounded by a tall fence. Once you got within the boundaries of the fence, you could go anywhere you wanted – there was a market selling food and drinks, the area where the tribes spent time during the day, the area where they all entered, and a market where they sold arts and crafts. The arts and crafts were fascinating – I ended up buying a painting, but there were also necklaces made out of animal teeth and jawbones, and a lot of other materials that I don’t think I could have brought back to the United States.

This picture makes it so clear I’m in the process of sunburning
One more selfie with the artist 🙂

One of the other fun things you could do was get your face painted! I did end up doing that, and loved this design that I got. After the face painting, I stood out even more as a foreigner. I would say that it seemed like most of the locals were happy to have us there, as I don’t think they get that much tourism, and they were excited to share their culture with us. People asked me to take pictures with them, and I often wanted to take pictures with the dancers and their amazing costumes. It was fun and overwhelming and truly a once in a lifetime experience.

I love going to grocery stores abroad
Check out this security guy’s weapon!

While in Mount Hagen, we did run a couple other errands – going to a grocery store, getting alcohol, and a few people wanted to get specific souvenirs. One of the strangest things is that as a foreigner, you are basically traveling between walled compounds. From the guarded hotel to the fenced off Cultural Festival grounds to what was basically a strip mall behind a barbed wire fence, and any other time we were in the bus with the windows closed. There’s a lot of civil unrest, with tribal tensions, poverty, and people who come to the cities and urban centers to try to compete for the limited number of jobs. It was a strange experience to be shuttled between the fenced off areas, and we ate dinner in our hotel both nights we were there for safety reasons.

The next morning we left Mount Hagen and headed into the countryside. Our next three days were staying with the tribes! The countryside is gorgeous, mountainous and lush and nearly untouched. There’s so little development in the country that the only way to get from the capital to the Highlands is by plane because there are no roads from Mount Hagen to Port Moresby. That said, I was very impressed at the cell reception and roads within the Highlands, both of which were quite excellent.

This mask is unreal and absolutely terrifying

We were staying in a kind of thatched bungalow. We had one night at the first place and two nights at the second. While we were there, members of the tribes would put on shows for us, explaining the origin of the traditions and where the specific clothing or body paint came from, and then putting on a performance of it, often with singing and dancing. They explained that these are reserved for special occasions, like weddings or funerals or other festivals, depending on the specific tradition.

Behind the scenes with the Skeleton Tribe!
The monster is defeated!
My parents inform me that they did not love getting this picture from me in the middle of the night

The highlight for me was the Skeleton Tribe. For their demonstration, we all hiked down to a river. From my understanding, theirs was sort of a play about their mythology, about overcoming a monster by working together. It was so cool, their body paint was amazing, and the setting was unparalleled. We also hiked up to the top of a nearby mountain for one of the demonstrations, which had one of the most amazing views I saw in the entire country.

A few animal encounters along the way: (1) I have never seen such large spiders as the ones spinning webs between the trees, and I hope that I never do again. (2) In our second accommodation, my roommate Lucy and I had a third roommate – a weird bug with a stinger that we tried to drown or wash down the drain. The bug stubbornly did neither of those things and instead lived in our sink for the duration of the trip. (3) In our first accommodation, there was a rat in our ceiling. I had heard a squeaking noise and thought it was a bird, but we spotted it with a headlamp. I lived in fear that it would fall on me in the middle of the night.

Please trust me when I say this is the least graphic photo of the pig roast. Fascinating to watch but I’m not going to post pictures of the entire disembowling.

One of the other cool cultural things that we were invited to was a full pig roast. We could go to as much of it as we wanted, including the full butchering of the pig. Even though I don’t eat meat, I think it’s worth seeing more of the process where food comes from. In a lot of places, there are markets where you have a lot less processed versions of what you’re going to eat, but so much of what we find in American grocery stores is processed beyond recognition. Anyway, it was super interesting. The actual killing seemed pretty quick and humane, and then we watched them prepare it. The guys doing it would point out specific organs and explain what they were doing throughout the process. The pig was cooked over the fire under leaves/palm fronds and dirt, alongside potatoes and plantains that were wrapped in foil for the sides (and vegetarian portion).

The next day, we drove the rest of the way to Goroka and took a flight back to Port Moresby. We had taken the morning flight to give ourselves a buffer, since everyone had international flights leaving the next day. So we ended up having a chill afternoon at the hotel, which included some time by the pool in gale force winds and another dinner at a hotel, although a much nicer one this time. A pleasant and relaxed end to our week in PNG, and given the chaos of the next portion of my travels, I was glad we had the rest day.

Do not take this photo as endorsement of Air Niugini as an airline!

Leaving PNG is a whole other story and is going to get its own post, but the week I spent in Papua New Guinea was incredible. The experience was unlike anything I’ve ever done, and while the destination is certainly not for everyone, I am SO glad that I joined this trip and got to explore the region. For anyone who is considering going, do your research first but don’t let it scare you off – the rewards far outweigh the risk.

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