From a fenced-window car, I see barbed wires. Everywhere. I also watch kids on the streets carrying machetes bigger than themselves. I have just landed in the deep mountainous interior of Papua New Guinea’s Southern Highlands – a place that has long set in the very edge of my imagination. On Thomas’car – our local guide – we head from Tari town to Tari’s countryside, in the center of the Huli country in the Hela Province. I’m pretty aware of PNG’s reputation for being especially dangerous, overrun with gangs of hoodlums and terrorized by violence. But I’m also mindful that Papua New Guinea is without a doubt among the most culturally intriguing frontiers left on the planet. I am traveling in a place that both frightens and excites utterly – because it feels like the real thing.
The island of New Guinea – a region of the southwestern Pacific Ocean north of Australia and the world’s second-largest island – is an incredibly long journey from anywhere – in many ways. Nineteenth-century colonial history divided it. The western half, formerly known as Irian Jaya, is split between West Papua and Papua and comes under the jurisdiction of Indonesia. Since 1975, the island’s eastern part – Papua New Guinea – has been independent after 60 years under Australian rule. And this is where I am, in a southern highland valley – Tari – which was one of the last places discovered by Western civilization, sometime in the 1930s.
PNG’s Highlands are a chain of mountain ranges and intermountain river valleys that support thriving agricultural communities. It’s abundant in mining, oil and gas reserves. Highlanders live in clans and are comprised of several different tribes scattered across the Highland plateau surrounded by impenetrable mountains. It’s here where more than 200 languages are spoken and where the highest concentration of tribes in the country resides – tribes that have long kept little contact with each other. It’s also in these mountains where aggression is more prevalent, owing to the isolation topography. I hear stories of cannibalism still running deep in this part of the world and that tribes fight mainly over three things: land, pigs, and women – in that order.
After a short drive from Tari town, we arrive at Lawanda village, which is home to the local Tura tribe. In this pocket of the Highlands, there are no hotels, but “village stay.” So we spend the following nights at the only available accommodation in the province – Thoma’s guesthouse – where my husband and I are the only foreigners. Later in the evening, after we join Thoma’s family for dinner, I notice all the females leaving the place to spend the night elsewhere. “The women sleep in a separate hut,” explains Thomas. “We can’t share the bedroom with any woman, even if they are our wives,” he goes on, “They bring us bad luck.”
In the early morning of the next days, we hike the nearby mountains. We go through deep gorges, crisscrossed by vine bridges, where waterfalls plunge through the triple-canopy forest and hear rare species of birds in a distance. We visit the surrounding villages and come across fortune tellers who use skulls of their ancestors to foretell the future. Then, we meet the Huli wigmen – the largest tribe of the Highlands – who have lived in the Tari region for more than 1,000 years.
“Huli traditions are as old as these hills,” says Thomas, as we approach one of the central locations of the Wigmen. The Hulis are famous for growing ornamental wigs from their own hair as a ritual of initiation into adulthood. “Young Huli boys from 15 to 25 years old enter the bachelor school for up to three years”, says the Wigmaster. “They come here to learn the processes of becoming a man and the fundamentals of Huli traditional costumes: from growing their hair to collecting feathers and making armbands.” “During this period, the boys are forbidden from contact with any women. Even their mothers”, he says, “We only accept virgin boys in the wig school.”
In the process of growing their own wigs, the boys must wet their hair with holy water three times a day, to keep it soft. Certain types of food should be avoided. Besides, they must adopt a special sleeping position on a neck rest with a wooden bar that can be raised as the volume of the wig increases. As the hair grows, it is gradually shaped using a circular band of bamboo, into a shape resembling a mushroom. After eighteen months, the hair is cut away and woven into a traditional Huli wig by the Wigmaster. Additional adornments, such as parrot feathers or red ocher, are usually added to the wig. Some are for everyday use, others for ceremonies known as singsings.
As I talk to the Wigmen (Thomas translates the conversation), I do learn, it turns out, that the human-hair wigs are not only a critical symbol of strength for the Huli tribe. It is also an essential component of their culture and an element of resilience. “I enjoy it when I see that the boys from the bachelor school have finally learned what discipline is,” says the Wigmaster proudly, “It means they have become men.”
With their bright yellow-painted faces, grass skirts and homemade drums, it’s obvious the Highlanders’ talent for personal decoration. I am aware of larger singsings held in Mount Hagen and Goroka, in Western and Eastern Highlands, where we find most of the travelers in PNG. But in the end, it’s the remoteness that makes Papua New Guinea like nowhere else on earth. And there is something in Tari that makes it feel real, like a land lost in time. In its isolation, I see value – not as an exotic spectacle to be watched, but in the culture it represents.
For details on this trip, please e mail Nanda on firstname.lastname@example.org