skull Good Hair Day skull
skull Tari basin, Papua New Guinea skull

Proud Student

November 6

We had to be ready for our tour at 9 am so we still got to sleep in a bit; toasty warm beds are hard to get out of. I think both of us were very excited. The tour had been arranged and demonstrations had been booked, meaning in the villages we visited people would “dress up” for us. Well not completely. As we saw at the market, that was in no way for tourists, the older generation still dress in the grass skirts, fancy headbands and other bits and pieces but in colder weather add a t-shirt or coat. A few younger guys were dressed up but I think only to please a “grandparent”. We don’t usually go for touristy, fake, shows; they can be awkward for both the performers (usually young people who do it like a part time job at McDonalds) and us. But…here the people we will be seeing are the older generation who up until recently lived and carried on exactly as they will be demonstrating. In fact, some still do live according to those beliefs and customs, although not many.


By 9:30 am we were off. Our guide was Steve, the same guy we talked too yesterday on the way back from the market. Our first stop was the Wig Men!

Traditional Huli culture is highly developed and strikingly executed in dress and personal decoration. They wear head bands, bright make up on their faces and, usually, a cassowary quill through their nasal septa. Strands of beads, shells, seeds and bits of bones with large pieces of Kina shells, random animal teeth or even shiny bits of metal or dart ends attached are hung in layers around their necks, arms, legs and over feather & fur head pieces. They are very fancy and I honestly had troubles figuring it all out. Huli men also wear decorative wigs made from human hair. The wigs were normally their own but as the tradition dies out more men just buy them from other Wig Men. Wig Men can’t grow wig hair after their married, or even if they’ve had “relations” with a woman. It’s only for bachelors.

Spring water is the secret

If a bachelor would like to become a Wig Man he must enroll in “Wig Man School”, pay tuition to the teacher and then follow all his rules. If he breaks any he gets kicked out, no refund. The boy’s parents would usually pay the tuition of 200 Kina or 200 Kina worth of shells or pigs. Usually boys who are 15 or 16 years old go to the Wig Man School for the first time. They can return as many times as they wish as long as their parents can pay and they follow the rules. It takes 18 months for a full wig to be grown at which time the student goes to a specialists so it can be cut off and sewn into a wig.

We are told normal people cannot grow a wig. Cannot or not supposed to, I couldn’t figure that out. To grow a wig you need the special spells from the teacher, follow his strict diet, sleep as he tells you and pretty much anything else he thinks of. Like the three times daily watering of the hair. All the students line up alone the spring with the teacher at the front of the line. He has some leaves and chants and casts spells on the water, I think asking the spirits for help. The students bend over and splash the spring water on their hair. Then they stand up and drink from a bamboo shoot, spitting half the water in the air (and on me and my camera) so it lands on their hair. They can’t wash or comb out their hair while it is growing but can use a long “fan” comb that looks like a chop stick to scratch or pick out the lice and/or bugs. Gross!

Not sure I'd drink from it though.

One of the students gently lifted up his hair to show us how thick it was and I was amused at how the teacher oh so carefully put all the hairs back in place afterwards. There were three students at our demonstration. The first was working on his 4th wig and was 10 months in. The second on his 3rd and also 10 months in. The third on his 6th and 18 months in. The third guy seemed upset that this would be his last. His parents have decided it’s time for him to come home, settle down and start a family. Wig Men are only supposed to go home if there one of his parents dies or there is a clan war. Otherwise they live close to their teacher.

After the watering of the hair demonstration we went up to meet the specialist. He was in charge of cutting it and making it into a wig. There are two kinds; everyday wigs and ceremonial wigs. Everyday wigs are for (duh!) everyday use and if sold go for 600-700 Kina ($300-350 CAD).

A finished Wig

Ceremonial wigs are worn to welcome visitors, get the ladies attention or used in spirit dances. Ceremony wigs come in black or red (red died with clay, black died with – GAG - pig fat) and sell for 1000 – 1600 Kina ($500-$800CAD). Wig men must always grow an everyday wig before a ceremonial wig, or only every second can be a ceremonial wig. Now scissors or knives are used but sharpened bamboo shoots used to be used, ouch! A specialist will get about 100 Kina for any wig he cuts and shapes. It’s all very serious and prestigious. When a wig man eventually returns home he is a very eligible bachelor.

Oh and the wigs can never be touched by women or children and if a women is on her period she can’t even come near it. And what will happen? The weather turns from sunny and warm to foul. Blame it on a woman, typical of men!

Some of the ceremonies
(Click on picture for link to videos, appx. 15MB, 15MB, 10MB, 2MB)

Fancy Dance

We all shook hands and thanked them for their demonstration. It had been a very interesting look into a unique custom. Next we traveled down the road to another “yard” to see a sprit dance. They are normally only performed at night but what tourist would venture out into this crazy country at night? So they do a short version during the day. Spirit dances have been passed down from generation to generation to generation. Actually all the customs in PNG are passed down and taught through word of mouth and watching because nothing is written down.

Like at the wig men demonstration (and the others today) they start with a formal welcome. They thank us for traveling all the way to their village, spending lots of money (you’re not kidding there) and taking the time to visit them. This guy explained that other villages around PNG have lost most, or all, of their traditional customs but thankfully Tari gets visitors who are curious and come to visit helping them to keep theirs alive.

Friendy Faces

Then they did a ring-a-round-the-rosie type of dance with drums made of tree trunks and possum skin. When they were done they explained the dance. First, and no surprise here, only men can do it; usually about 15-20 at a time. Normally before they start the dance they hack up a pig and throw it into the bushes or cook it over a fire so the spirits they are calling to can eat. They wear fancy head pieces made from cassowary feathers, beads, shells, bit of recycled metal and knitted bits. They also wear grass skirts that are usually what women wear but men don them for dancing. Oh and they are painted with bright makeup and/or caked with mud. Again very elaborate and fancy. They have dances for many reasons. To bring back a loved one from the brink of death (you’d think a bunch of men dancing in the dark around a burning pig in makeup and feathers would scare the poor person to death), to encourage plants/gardens to grow, to cure a family or tribe of a plague or sickness that has taken hold, for the newly married to ensure a long healthy life filled with kids…pretty much they dance for whatever they “desire”. They believe if they believe in the spirit, whatever they desire will come true. After the dance we all shook hands and thanked them. Again, it was very interesting. A bit creepy, but interesting. I think when you envision wild tribal dances with half naked men dancing around a smoking fire – this is what it’d be. I have no need to see it first-hand.

Stop! No Females!

After the dancing men we went to a Guest House to have lunch. We’d packed snacks but it had a covered area we could sit under and a toilet (the word toilet being used loosely here). My travel agent curiosity took over and I took a look around. This guest house is advertised at the road as “clean” and goes for 70 Kina /person /night ($35 CAD). I’m not sure I’d stay if it was free.

After lunch we headed back out to the main road and we turned onto a side road. I had a laugh when the driver turned and apologized for the bumpy road. As opposed to? We haven’t seen a smooth driving surface since crossing the PNG Indonesia border. Cute.

A little drafty in back? And inside the mens tent.

We were headed to a families “house”. It was called the Napas Village and was where this family have lived for generations. The land gets passed to the eldest son who gives his brothers a plot on it. It’s more a small compound with only one way in, through a wooden fence with a tiny door. When you walk in there are two paths; one to the men’s hut that women and children aren’t supposed to use and one that will bring you to the rest of the compound. The rest of the compound has the women’s and children’s huts and, in this case, the brothers wife’s hut. All is surrounded by mounds of vegetables, fruit trees and flowers. It was very organic and green. We were given a welcome by the man whose land we were on and then invited into the hut. Even I could go. We walked through a small door into a dark smoky, low ceilinged room. It was actually divided into two, the front being where they sleep and cook over a fire. The ceiling was dripping with some sort of black residue from the fire that went all day and night. They had no furniture and almost no belongings. They had a few clothes, bark to lie on, some arrows…not much. This was pretty cool. This is how these guys, four men, lived – today! Beside the fire were a couple of sweet potatoes (a staple in their diet) they’d picked fresh from behind the hut. Can you imagine; you get hungry so instead of the store you walk behind your hut and pick something.

The women's hut, where the pigs live and the front secion where they live with the kids...and kittens.

After we got the tour we headed to the women’s hut. Babies (and I will soon find out, pigs) is women’s work so children live with the women. At age 7 or 8 the boys go live with their fathers and learn the men stuff (how to make fancy headpieces) and the girls stay with their moms to learn women stuff (gardening, pig care, grass skirt making and how to respect men). Also interesting, and I think it’s for all of PNG, is that girls cannot run around naked after about 6 months of age but boys can until age 7 or 8. It has to do with the Bride Price (I’ll explain in a bit) but very unfair if you ask me. We were invited into the women’s hut and again it was divided into two rooms. One for sleeping and eating and – yup you guessed it – one for the pigs! The women live with the pigs. Now we’ve been told that pigs are very important and were and are still used as currency – but come on! In the back of the hut, separated by a thin wall, is a few pig stalls. The pigs aside, the women had two low bunks on either side of the hut with the fire between them. Other than that there was no other furniture and very few belongings. It is a very simple life.

After the women’s hut we headed further into the yard. It was beautiful with paths between the mound gardens and fruit trees dotted here and there. I’d say if there was a proper house with a modern toilet in here somewhere I could move in…without the pigs. The chief (I’m not sure what to call him) gave us a demonstration of how to use a bow and arrow and James took a turn. A few ladies and a curious, young naked boy had by now joined us. I seriously think they are as curious about us as we are of them.

We headed still further in to where the medicine man hung out. He’s not the type who is any sort of doctor or helps or heals; in short he gives new couples the birds and bees talk. Everything to do with “relations”, as Steve puts it, is kept very secret. Steve even admits after spending 14 years working in Port Moresby he still had no idea what men and women did together once married. Once married they work until they can afford to buy a pig for the medicine man then go visit him. A few family members come along (for morale support?) and they cook the pig and eat it all, including the fat; especially the fat.

Feeling a little over dressed.

He then passes on life’s lessons. He also talks about the importance of gardening, staying clean, healthy and so on. He does a little ritual with water, ginger and something else (sorry) in a bamboo shoot where they drink half and spit the other half over them (wait this sounds familiar). Then he has them plant a ginger shoot in a special garden. He will watch the plant to make sure they are following his instructions. He says if the plant dies they are not living by his rules. If they do, not only does the plant grow but they will have a long, happy child filled marriage. After they drink from the bamboo tubes they get hidden in the jungle (shade) so that they won’t dry out – or your marriage. You only have to do this for your first wedding. He figures by the second you’d know all you need too. Oh wait, did I mention the men can have pretty much as many wives as they can afford, or get the 31 pigs for?

31 pigs? As we’ve been told – no pigs, no wife! The bride price is what a man must pay for a wife. The 30 pigs (10 big, 10 medium, 10 small) goes to the family and the last one (big) goes to the mother as compensation for her breast feeding her. Honest, I couldn’t even begin to make that up. The marriages aren’t always arranged by the families but they have to agree to it. If you can’t come up with your 31 pigs then usually your relatives will all pitch in. The bride’s family usually gives you a few months to gather them up. If, as Steve put it, nature makes you do something you aren’t supposed to do then the bride’s family will make you marry her and come up with the 31 pigs. If you can’t, in the time given, they cut down your trees or burn your stuff.

A little cutie! A big cutie! And common women's clothing

Looks like the medicine man has had a bit to much to smoke.

Surprising, unlike cultures where the women who are prettiest or whitest so they look like they are too well off to do any sort of manual labour attract the men’s attention; PNG men prefer something completely different. A sturdy, unkept, messy haired, dirty nailed girl will attract the most attention. Simple – she looks like she is a hard worker, not afraid to get her hands dirty and will be able to look after the men. Sheesh! What a culture. With tv, books, internet and what not, kids in PNG are finding out about the birds and bees on their own, or from friends, so this tradition will likely die out very soon. Some parents still insist on it, but not many. Normally the wife moves to the men’s place and he builds her (and her pigs) a hut. How romantic.

Leaving the little village we passed a man, with his family, carrying a gun. James asked Steve what he would be hunting for. Not hunting, we were told, self-defence. His tribe had killed someone in another tribe and they would be out for vengeance so he carried it to protect his family. He was expecting trouble. Deep in thought we headed home. (James’ Note: I don’t think I would last long in a society where your life was at risk anytime a sibling did something dumb)

Getting out of the car we realized our PNG Lonely Planet had been stolen. I had asked Steve if it was safe to leave it in the car and was told yes. Guess not. We had a copy on the computer so it was really no big deal, just inconvenient. We were just pissed knowing that it would be of no good to the thief and he likely couldn’t even sell it. We are realizing this isn’t an area many backpackers visit. It was likely on the side of the muddy road before we even noticed it was gone. For the rest of the day we hung out in the main Lodge enjoying the fire and view.

Over the last two days we’ve talked with people at the lodge, Steve and read some articles about the Tari area and PNG as well. I thought I’d just lump it together for easier reading. Please keep in mind all this information is second hand and might be a little off or outdated.

I didn't know Blaine & Barry did bridges as well as docks!

The Tari area has a population of 350, 000 + people. Half of them are from the Huli tribe which is the largest ethnic group in the highlands. The Huli women, as usual, do most of the work while the men show off their finery, plot war and grow their hair. The Huli has 1 common language and 1 common culture. Religion is 50/50 in this area. Half christian (Seven Day Adventist, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran) and half traditional. The rest of PNG has a much larger mix. Everyone in PNG is buried in graves when they die. A small hut is built on top for the spirit to live in. Schooling is not free in PNG (although there is talk to make it free). If your parents can’t afford to send you then you can’t go. Some families make it a priority to send the first born son all the way through until university. Grades 3-6 cost about $60-$90 CAD per year, grades 7 and up around $150-$300 CAD per year, up to $500 CAD per year for high school. University is $3000+ per year; more if they have to move to school. This doesn’t seem like much but when you earn your cash selling tomatoes or sweet potatoes it can take a while to save. Sometimes relatives will pitch in. Much of the older generation still don’t realize the importance of formal education and a lot of kids, especially rural, just don’t go.

About $100 CAD worth of Kina shell.

Steve, our guide, has had a more modern lifestyle. I’d guess he’s about my age and although his parents are old enough to have lived here long before the white man came (when pretty much everything changed) he was raised in a more modern way. His life seems to be a mix of the old and new, mostly new. He’s from this area and is Huli. He scored high enough to get into university but his parents couldn’t afford it. He ended up living in Port Moresby for 14 years before returning home to do nothing for a few years. He eventually got married (paid the bride price of 31 pigs with the help of his relatives) and got a job as a tour guide. He has two young children and lives a half day walk from the Lodge, where he works. It was interesting talking to him; he remembers the way it used to be but is part of the changes.

James’ Lengthy Note: I figure the highlands are interesting enough to include my own impressions along with Susan’s. Having been entirely isolated up until 80 years ago, the different areas are in various states of adapting to the rest of the world. The Southern Highlands is the area that has stayed closest to their traditional lifestyle, but it is clearly changing. Watching the video of the first arrival of white men, you can see that within a short while they had incorporated things like discarded Kellogs boxes, and tin can lids into their fancy ceremonial dress, which shows it isn’t exactly the best parts of outside culture we bring with us. When you see the basic huts and gardens, there are definitely some other things that haven’t changed much in the past century for most of the people in this area. There is an obvious spectrum from the older people, many of whom still mostly live the way they would have before intrusion from the outside, to the young people who seem to limit themselves to a little fancy headdress. I figure within a generation the traditional ways will be mostly gone, reserved for the rare special occasion; this is the case with most the rest of the highlands. Even the spirit dancers we saw told us that most villages/clans no longer practice it…but if someone gets sick, etc. they will hire them to perform. I feel very lucky to see this slice of culture before it disappears. The mud men in Goroka (a later Susan blog entry) is how I imagine the Huli in another generation, very similar to aboriginals in North America, where for the most part the traditional way is passed on to remember it, not necessarily to practice it. Although when you hear that even the Christian pastors have a few wives, maybe there is still a ways to go. Other side note- in our trip we passed through many villages without power but we kept seeing cell phone towers, which seemed odd. Until one rest break on the PMV when I noticed that the cell phone company would have a little shipping container/office with a small generator where the locals could charge their phones (for a small fee of course). It is humbling to realize that there are senior citizens in rural Papua New Guinea wearing clothes made of the same grass as their house that are more technologically advanced than me when it comes to phones. I think this speaks volumes of the quality of service that bell canada and rogers have made available to me.

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