The Bird’s Word Blog
Spirit Houses and the Crocodile Society: Life in Papua New Guinea
Bob Rosenberg wrote stories during his travel to Papua New Guinea, where he was off the grid for ten days….no news, no phone, no email, nothing at all. After returning, he sent Journeys pages and pages of fascinating stories, some of which are excerpted here.
Heading into the heart of PNG
Today we begin sailing “up-river” on the mighty Sepik River, the world’s third largest after the Amazon (#1) and the Congo (#2). We are on a small river boat, not that much bigger than Bogie’s African Queen, in quest for our own Colonel Kurtz.
Our journey will take us into the heart of Papua New Guinea and to about eight different stone age tribes (Conmei, Manjamei, Mumeri, Tungunbut, Kabriman, Minimbit 1&2 and finally, the Tambunan, the best artist in PNG). This last tribe we visited in the Sepik region, the Tambunan, was where Margaret Mead did her pioneering anthropological studies in the 1930’s.
There are two weather seasons here. There is the “hot” season when the weather is hot and wet. Then, there is the “wet” season when the weather is “hot ” and “very wet”. So far, we have been incredibly lucky with bright, hot, sunny days and the rain coming only in the early evening, when we are back on ship. (Could this be Camelot? Nah, don’t think so with the temperature at 96 degrees and the humidity at 100%.)
Crocodile Societies and Sing-sings
The villages we visited are quite authentic… No Disney-like tourist traps….No electricity in the multiple-family open houses, all built on stilts to avoid the river’s seasonal floodings. These 20 X30 ft, raised platforms are like giant lofts with each family allocated it’s own section of the floor for their hammocks, cooking pots and private possessions. In some, the roofs were low to keep in the heat of the fire during cool nights and to contain the smoke of the fire as an effective anti-mosquito device.
At each village, we were shown a different slice of their customs and everyday life. We might see fishing or hunting techniques here, cooking or weaving there. If we were lucky, we would be invited into the men’s “spirit” house to see an initiation into manhood or into the woman’s “spirit” house for their equivalent rites.
A particularly fascinating rite was the initiation into the Crocodile Society, something we were not permitted to see (thank goodness!). The crocodile is the most powerful spirit on the river and is believed to be immortal. Young boys as a rite of passage to manhood and a manifest sign of personal bravery are invited into the spirit house for this revered ceremony. There, held by their uncles or some other matrilineal male elder, they are permanently scarred by razors and mud is then rubbed in to make the wounds pucker and to prevent them from healing. By constantly scraping off the scabs, as the cuts try to close, it puckers the skin further, giving their torso the rough texture of crocodile skin. Sometimes, the boy’s sister will simultaneously volunteer for a mini-version of this very painful procedure as a sign of filial devotion and personal bravery. By personal observation, only a handful of the villagers were so “honored.”
After our experiences in the village and on the river, we will slowly wind our way through PNG by charter plane, boat and four-wheeler up into the Highlands and beyond. Our final stop and the purported highlight of our trip is the Goroka Sing-Sing. Here all the tribes will compete with each other for awards and bragging rites for the best costumes, facial painting and adornment, music and dance. It promises a fabulous photographic opportunity.
Sharing experiences is key
Someone once asked me why I spend so much time putting these blogs together. Here’s your answer: Besides it being fun to do, it dramatically enhances the enjoyment of my trip. By using my camera and video phone on site, I add one layer to the texture of the experience. By then writing about it, I then add another layer on top of that. Visually, think of it as going from “hearing” a singular instrument to a concerto to a full fledged symphony. Lastly, sharing any great experience with the person you love, your family or friends, is one of the great privileges and needs of being human.