Low Bandwidth Travel – Part Deux

Some things work in PNG … and some things don’t. We have been having some telecommunications difficulties recently with our rinky-dink global go-anywhere SIM cards, and have also been seriously starved of internet access (well, internet access below $15 a day, and that actually works when you do pay the money). So, what to do?

Well, the answer is: (warning, Geek alert)

  • Buy a prepaid local SIM card from Digicel PNG (these are absolutely everywhere, perhaps surprisingly)
  • Set it up in my iPhone (so far, so good, and there are instructions for this)
  • Subscribe to a prepaid data service
  • “Fudge” (from first principles / guesswork / a little white hat inspiration) the Digicel internet tethering APNs to allow the iPhone to act as a data access point
  • Physically wire it to my laptop (I don’t have an iPhone 4, so I can’t do this wirelessly)
  • Use Connectify on the laptop to set up a wifi hotspot to help out any other tourists in need (and possibly recoup some of my initial SIM card investment…)

And there you go. 100MB of data? 20 Kina (about $10). The feeling of smug satisfaction for having worked out something like this while out in the bush? Priceless!

Caption: Checking the blog comments, while bird of paradise spotting at the Kumul Lodge in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea.

Critterwatch! Tourists

The Mount Hagen Show is a photographer’s dream. Unfortunately, it attracts serious photographers.

We are happy to take a few photos, but we try not to let it become the raison d’etre of our travels. Not so the loathsome critters that flood into Hagen armed with massive telephoto lenses, bulky camera bags, hugely over-engineered camera mounts and deeply offensive attitudes – nothing is allowed to get in the way of their perfect shot. Don’t get me wrong, we met some really lovely and deeply interesting people in Hagen, but we were slightly ashamed of some of the antics of our fellow tourists.

A few guidelines, in case any of them are reading:

  • You have a 300mm zoom lens on your camera. This means you don’t need to stand six inches away from a performer and jam your camera in their face. If someone you are photographing is visibly flinching from the physical intrusion of your huge optics, you are probably a little too close (I got into one or two “little discussions” after jamming my own camera right in the face of someone who had just jammed theirs in the face of a performer)
  • If there is a group of performers dancing in a circle (facing inwards, as many of them do) it is a little rude to push your way into the middle of the circle to take photos outwards
  • Similarly, if a performance includes walking forwards and backwards (which many also do) try not to stand physically in the dancers’ way
  • If you can, avoid physically manipulating someone whose language you do not speak to get them to pose for your best shot. Grabbing someone’s chin and angling it this way and that is a bit obnoxious
  • The people you are photographing are people, not animals. If someone has posed for a photo for you, say thank you. Do not look at the photo you have just taken on your viewfinder, shrug and walk away
  • Please try to be less ugly

We had an amazing time at Hagen. Apologies, therefore, for this little piece of vitriol. However, by carving it out and putting it here we can avoid it impacting our memories of (and posts on) the rest of the show.

[Please note: the last photo above is actually Rolf – a very nice German guy. The photo I took of the obnoxious Australian who had the most intrusive photographic manner got deleted, as I didn't want to remember his face]

The Mount Hagen Show

So, we finally move on to the Mount Hagen Show. The show, or Sing Sing as it is called locally, was one of the main reasons, if not the main reason, for us coming to Papua New Guinea. It was certainly why we were in the country on this date (and it had been difficult to schedule our flights around it) so we had dangerously high expectations.

ALL of which were met. The Mount Hagen show is absolutely, jaw-droppingly amazing. Hopefully the 20 photographs below (culled after long discussion and at great emotional expense from an initial 330 photos) will do the place some justice.

You stand in the middle of a rugby pitch surrounded by several hundred performers, all dressed up to the nines in banana leaves, bird of paradise feathers, full body makeup, masks, drums and sticks. All of them are dancing and swaying and marching and singing their hearts out.  It goes on for two full days. It was only after a few hours of being overwhelmed by all this that we found out that half of the performers had actually stayed away. You see, their party had won the recent parliamentary elections, and they had stayed away for fear of violent reprisals from the losing side (welcome to PNG!).

The routine of the festival starts early in the morning, watching the performers arrive on the backs of buses and trucks and slowly metamorphosing from their usual street clothes into their performance costumes. Slowly the singing and dancing grows, before each group parades into the arena and joins an ever growing throng of pulsating, vibrant colour. At about 2pm the tourists and performers disperse – the tourists back to their enclosed hotels, the performers back into the surrounding shanty towns, from which loud chanting and singing can be heard late into the night. Despite Mount Hagen officially being a dry town (particularly around election season) the home brew industry must do a good trade at this time of year.

Alongside a relatively virulent strain of photographer tourist (see elsewhere) Mount Hagen also attracts a fascinating group of world travelers, amateur anthropologists and others attracted by interesting and difficult places. Our dinners in the evening were full of tales of tribal village stays in the 1960s, bushwhacking through WW2 trails in the deepest, darkest South Pacific and the occasional glancing reference to life on the ground during the Vietnam war. All pretty eye opening and awe-inspiring for a couple of humble office workers, I can tell you.

We wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Escape from Sepik River

4 days on the river. I was tired, filthy and more than a little smelly. James’s stubble growing efforts were threatening beard-y success. We were down to our last packet of instant noodles and just the non-spicy tuna. Things were looking dire. Time to make a break for it.

Oh and we also a flight to catch.

We hatched a cunning but foolproof escape plan: overnight in Pagwe then catch a PMV into Wewak on Friday morning. Watches synchronized, we leapt from the canoe (hindered only slightly by the 10 kilos of sculptures we were by now carrying) into the throbbing by-lanes of Pagwe, alert and ready to go.

Instants later we successfully made contact with our friend in Pagwe, code name “Mike”, posing as the local guesthouse owner. Plan phase 1 successfully completed, we moved straight to “Mike”‘s Phase 2 briefing where our local contact immediately proved his value to the mission: there are no longer any PMVs to Wewak on Fridays.

We were stuck up the Sepik River without a paddle. Or indeed a canoe. We turned to Plan B, but cast it aside rapidly due to its fatal non-existence.

A brief consultation with “Mike” provided us with Plan C: ask anyone in town with a motorized or indeed semi motorized) vehicle if they’d take 2 smelly tourists plus 10 kilos of sculptures on the 3 hour journey to Wewak. Bribe where required. Use force if necessary.

We met some local counter-resistance: bare refusal to co-operate; outrageous pecuniary demands. We remained stalwart, but the truth was that our time was running out. Time to send in our chief negotiator. Trained in a ruthless London / New York investment banking operation he strikes fear into the hearts of snake oil salesmen worldwide. They call him James.

I don’t know what his tactics were, nor do I want to. Within 10 minutes of his deployment into the field, we were installed in a vehicle with an ex-missionary tour guide and 3 cowering colleagues. 3 hours later we arrived into Wewak, walked into the finest hotel in town and were immediately granted a 20% discount (we REALLY looked like we couldn’t afford it).

Operation successful.

Food Review – Tuna’n’Noodles

The Sepik is a wildly fertile part of PNG. Fish gleefully jump out of the water at the mere approach of a dugout canoe (to prove this, Josh, our guide, casually leaned out of the boat, stuck his hand in the water and immediately retrieved a fish. Small, but perfectly edible. Respect). Every family will have a “garden”, more akin to a small farm, where they grow staples (sago and bananas), but also a wide range of supporting fruit and veg – coconuts, peanuts, papaya, pineapple, potatoes – you name it, it probably grows here.

We were sort of expecting to eat whatever the locals ate – namely fish and sago together with whatever fresh veggies looked good that day. And we did get to try a sago pancake one day (perhaps as reward for having brought about 70kg of sago flour back to the village in our canoe), which was described with uncanny accuracy by our kind host Sara as “sort of like a biscuit, sort of like rubber”. Indeed. For the record, should you ever be presented with a rubber biscuit, they actually taste ok.

Anyway, as it turned out, we were eating two meals a day: breakfast of bread, jam and peanut butter; and dinner of tuna and noodles (sometimes with an egg mixed in – ooh the excitement!!). Quite why this was, we’re not sure – whether most westerners reaction to rubber biscuits is more negative than ours, whether they feel their local produce is somehow not up to standard, or whether they simply have no desire to eat tuna and noodles themselves, so foist it on us, I just don’t know.

Anyway, for those inclined, below some notes on achieving tuna’n’noodles perfection:

  • Follow the noodle manufacturer’s instructions re cooking. They know their stuff. When they say 2 minutes, be guided by it. You’d be surprised by just how unpleasant 15 minute-cooked noodles can be
  • 1 sachet of instant chicken flavouring between 2 portions of noodles is sufficient for this particular recipe. Two would just be crazy and may well provoke attention deficit disorder
  • Spicy tuna is the only way to go here. Ordinary tuna just won’t cut it – in some sort of unforeseen emergency where you don’t have canned spicy tuna to hand, I guess you could improvise with chilli sauce
  • Eggs, if added should be boiled not just cracked over the noodles and left to cook themselves….they’ll only really cook if using the 15 minute cooking time and then the whole thing forms a sort of congealed lump that you really should seek to avoid….

[As an aside, should you have no tuna (for example, when your expensive hotel in the Highlands refuse to serve you lunch and you have to break into the emergency noodles), you can easily make a tasty pad thai – just add a few leftover peanuts and some piri piri sauce. Tasty and exotic!]

Just follow these simple instructions and you’ll have such a feast on your hands that you’ll be eating it 3 days in a row! We did!!

Lucy – enjoying tuna and noodles, for the third time

Tasting Notes – Banana Home Brew

So we are sat by the bank of the Sepik river at dusk, gazing out at the sunset and looking down at the deeply suspicious mineral water bottle beside us. Home brew is considered a scourge of Papua New Guinea, contributing to drunkenness, alcoholism, laziness and some pretty spectacular bouts of violence that occasionally flare up into tribal warfare. At election time the whole country goes “dry” with the only source of a drink being either overpriced tourist hotels or illicit hidden stills. It’s meant to be pretty vicious stuff. We HAD to try some.

Buying home brew on the Sepik is like being a teenager all over again. With the help of your guide you have to find a dealer who sells “the stuff”, get scoped out to make sure you aren’t “the Feds”, slip “Timothy” a ten kina note, hide the bottle in your pocket in case your guest house manager disapproves, find some coca cola to mix it with (of course avoiding questions as to why you suddenly need coca cola out in the bush), find a quiet place to drink it, get rid of the empties etc etc. Deeply sad I know, but it’s all actually really rather exciting.

So, the tasting:

  • Initial appearance: mildly disconcerting, as it comes in an old 500ml mineral water bottle with a broken seal. Enough for four grown men, apparently
  • Colour: clear, with perhaps a slight hint of oily murkiness. Although that could have been the old plastic bottle
  • Aroma: surprisingly banana-y and aromatic, but with a hint of petrol. Which isn’t that surprising, given it comes from mashed up bananas left in a petrol can, then distilled using a rubber hose. A human taster takes the role of the perhaps-more-usual thermometer to make sure that it isn’t poisonous, but that it still has that home brew kick
  • Taste: actually not that bad. There is clearly scads of alcohol there, but it doesn’t completely overpower the taste of bananas. It is most similar to rum, albeit with an unusual and testy zing which we attributed to the meths left over from the dodgy distilling process. Coca cola hides the taste of the meths pretty well, leaving a banana Bacardi & Coke taste. Mmmm.
  • After effects: no doubt horrific, both in the hangover and going-blind stakes, but as professional taste testers without a spittoon handy we only had a small amount before handing the rest to our guide to dispose of as he saw fit

The view from our home brew spot (the local equivalent of behind the bike sheds, I guess)

The Sepik Way of Life

Life on the Sepik, in some ways, seems completely unchanged and unchanging. Most women get up at about five, then paddle their dugout to a good fishing area, where they’ll fish until they have enough fish both to eat and to smoke (later to be sold at market). Later they’ll spend time looking after the kids, tending the garden and any livestock, and cooking the family meals – this last performed squatting over an open fire, typically inside the (highly flammable) wooden and palm thatched house. Men, on the other hand, have a more sporadic approach to hard work – a typical day will see them hanging out in the village spirit house, smoking and perhaps working on some carving to offload to suckers like me and James. Once in a while, however they put on a spurt of activity – only men can build houses (a necessity before one can marry) or dig out a canoe. Men also hunt, mainly for crocodiles which they kill for the skin, mainly with spears or bush knives, exactly as they have done for the past hundred years or more. There’s no running water, no electricity, no TV, no books.

And yet, everywhere one looks, there are the artefacts of modern life. Most people have a cell phone (we never quite figured out how and where they charge them up given there is little or no electricity down river). In a couple of villages, there’s a generator, used in the village guesthouse where the tourists stay but also clearly “borrowed” from time to time by the rest of the village. The village shop sells cigarettes and Coca-Cola (sorry Tek). And the timeless rhythm of the river has of course been most radically altered of all, through the introduction of outboard motors.

There’s definitely a feeling, though, that the Sepik people have taken from the modern world only what they really value. Even in villages with generators, it’s extremely unusual to see electric light in any village houses – what’s the point when there’s plenty of daylight time? The traditional forms of crop harvesting are still used (including the insanely time consuming extraction of sago flour from the sago palm – chop down tree, grate, mix with water, leave starch to settle to bottom, extract, dry) and there’s no machinery used (again, why bother – the plots are so small they don’t really lend themselves to modern farming equipment). Houses are still constructed entirely out of bush materials with no nails, and no locks (there’s no crime – what would you steal?) and are capable of being built by the owner with a little help from a friend or two on the hard parts (putting the upright supports / stilts in place). It’s an entirely organic mixture of old and new and it seems to work pretty well.

The Sepik culture, too, is a curious amalgam of the old traditional kastom ways and the newer ideas espoused by the many missionaries in the area, most clearly articulated in the local church with its mixture of Christian and kastom iconography. Somewhat understandably given that they provide the majority of healthcare and education to the region, the missionaries enjoyed great success at first, with most villagers nowadays proclaiming themselves as Christians. This is undergoing something of a backswing however, with more and more people returning to the traditional ways. Spirit houses, which were abandoned in some villages at the height of the Christianity boom, are being rebuilt and the old kastom ways (use of a clan system to clear up any village disputes; worship of river spirits; initiation ceremonies – including skin cutting) are being revived.

This – oddly – appears partially to have been driven by tourism. One of the fears about going on this sort of a trip to see the “authentic” lives of those less well off than you is that the excursion turns into something like a safari trip – oooh, look at those funny indigenous people doing their funny indigenous things – whilst behind the scenes, the funny indigenous people take off their costumes, relax from their forced poses, and continue with their really very normal day to day life, cursing the tourists for fools as they do so. In the Sepik, there’s more of a feeling that the tourists, with their remunerative interest in the kastom ways, provide an excuse for the villagers to retain some of these traditions and in many ways have revived village pride in customs which they had been taught by the missionaries to despise. No, I don’t for one second believe that the entire area has genuinely reverted to the type of kastom tradition prevalent in the area 50 years ago – and nor would I want to force that kind of stagnation on a region – but rather that the continual presence of (minor – maybe 2-3,000 people a year) cultural tourism has allowed a kind of hybridization to take place which should act to protect some of the older ways and provide an alternative to the blind acceptance of the missionary credo which was (from the sounds of things) becoming commonplace.

The economic impact of modern day life is harder to express. Most people are what we started to refer to as “subsistence affluent” – that is, the quality of life achieved through a subsistence way of life is very high given the area’s fertility and widespread availability both of required food types (protein, starch, vitamins) and building materials. But everyone needs cash for fuel, salt, cooking oil, cigarettes… and we were amazed to find a sort of middle class angst that had set in at least in some villagers – the never ending worry over school fees, despite the fact that this is a country with a 75% unemployment rate and an education guarantees you nothing (our guide, Josh, was a college graduate unable to find work outside the village). School fees can cost around US $2,000 a year if you have a few kids, and I still have no real idea quite how many smoked fish it would take to generate that sum. Provide food and lodging for a tourist for the night, though, and you’re $75 up. We’re one of the best cash crops these people have.

Hotel Review – “Rodney’s House”

One of the joys of traveling is watching your own expectations shoot rapidly up and down the scale depending on your surroundings. In San Diego “Rodney’s House” would be a cheeky little boutique hotel built around a homely bar, perhaps with occasional winking references to Only Fool’s & Horses to titillate homesick expats. Rooms would be $175 a night and would come complete with retro hairnets in the shower and bangers & mash for breakfast.

On the Sepik, “Rodney’s House” was a house. Built by Rodney. Out of sticks.

We were two days into our trip down the Sepik River, and our guide Josh (whose professionalism was deeply suspect by this point, but whose honesty, charm and enthusiasm was not) was wondering where we might stay the night. Fortunately his mate Rodney had a house nearby, so we slept there. On the floor. It was great!

Dinner was a gourmet feast of eggs (boiled in a kettle) with Kwik-Kook noodles (using water from aforementioned kettle) and tinned tuna. From our experience on the Inca Trail, we were half expecting our (hired and paid for) cook to rustle this up for us. Unfortunately “Cook” was one of many Sepik euphemisms, and there was a comic interlude when we looked at Josh, he looked at us, we looked at him, he looked at Lucy (being a woman and all) and we decided to prepare dinner ourselves.

We had a beautiful view of the river which runs through the centre of the village, with local kids as young as three paddling dugout canoes back and forth. It rained gently, so we read until dusk, at which point we retired to our mosquito net in the corner and pulled our travel towels over us for bedding. The local dugout makers had stopped adzing tree trunks so the village was quiet, other than the local boar-pigs trotting around underneath the house rutting and scuffling into the night. We breakfasted by the river on peanut butter and jam sandwiches, washed in the local waterfall, packed up our motorized dugout with our daypacks and a few local carvings and we headed off upriver.

We loved it. Five stars.

Spirit Houses of the Sepik

One of the main reasons we wanted to head down the Sepik is its reputation as the cultural treasure house of PNG. The villages are insulated from the outside world due to the difficulty (and, prosaically, expense) of getting up and down river. As a result, the Sepik is an area where tribal traditions are still kept very much alive, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the village Spirit Houses.

In the Sepik, gender roles are pretty well defined: women do the unimportant stuff (cooking, cleaning, farming, fishing, trading, looking after the children, managing the household finances) while men do the important stuff (chewing betel nut, smoking, carving the occasional crude statuette, discussing initiations and how best to placate the crocodile spirits this year). OK, so they also hunt from time to time, build the occasional house (once a decade or so) and hollow out the occasional canoe. Tough life, eh? So that they have an appropriate place to do all this important smoking, chewing and discussing, they build themselves a whacking great frat house in the middle of the village. Did I say frat house? Sorry, I meant Spirit House or – interchangeably – Men’s House.

There is probably some long, hack-journalistic riff I could carry on here about the amusing similarities between frat houses and Men’s Houses, but I won’t. To do so would be to belittle the Men’s houses, which are utterly spectacular. By far the largest structure in any village, they loom over ten meters high on heavily carved hardwood uprights, gables faced and crowned with sculpted eagles and wickerwork demons. Inside their dark and smoky interiors sit terribly, majestically scarred village men, their skin cut in literally hundreds of places during bloody teenage initiations which are virtually indistinguishable from torture. We don’t have any of our own photographs of these “crocodile skins” as we didn’t think it appropriate, but my God are they impressive in the flesh.

The rest of the Spirit House (all of which are utterly off-limits to local women and children) is full of ritual carvings, statues, masks, costumes, massive drums, spears and shields. The level of craftsmanship is variable, but can be extremely high. Everything on display is for sale, with the carver of each piece no doubt sitting within earshot chewing, smoking etc. and eager (but not undignifiedly so) for the cash. Needless to say we went a little crazy, coming out with two beautiful carvings, one statue and two ceremonial spears, all of which are currently on their way to my parents’ house in London (Hi Mum! Hi Dad!). Each village, although no more than a few miles apart, has its own distinct traditional style – the people at the post office were able to tell exactly where we had been by the carvings we were trying to send home.

It was while we were sitting on the river bank drinking homebrew (see elsewhere for the suitably flippant tasting notes) that we had an exciting invitation. There was going to be a crocodile skin cutting ceremony in the neighbouring village the very next day. Would we be interested in attending? Bear in mind that these ceremonies involve bloody, lacerated, eighteen year olds screaming for their mothers while being held down by their uncles and sliced repeatedly with knives. While this isn’t normally something we would go out of our way to attend, given we were on the Sepik at the (pretty rare) moment when an initiation was taking place we couldn’t say no. Unfortunately, after an excited night we awoke to find out that the ceremony had been postponed by 24 hours. Would we be able to delay our departure for a day to witness it? This was, unfortunately, a hard No as we were due in Mount Hagen for the – even more spectacular – annual Sing Sing. So we declined, even though the invitation was repeated by the elders when we passed through the relevant village itself.

We make no bones about this in the other posts: travel in PNG is difficult, uncomfortable and expensive. But being able to see such extraordinary places, with ancient, alien traditions being kept alive in deeply taboo circumstances? Absolutely worth it.