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A Memory-making Trip to New Guinea

Local resident Nancy Bailey recently embarked upon a vacation that took her from the mountains of Johnson County to Papua, New Guinea and on to Australia before a final stop in Jakarta, Indonesia. Her memories and photographs allow us to leave American culture behind for a short time and gives us a glimpse into a world so very different than our own.
Papua, New Guinea, or PNG as it is commonly referred to, lies in the southwest Pacific Ocean. It is located on the eastern half of New Guinea, the second largest island in the world. Gaining its independence from Australia in 1975, it remains a sovereign state under Queen Elizabeth II. Approximately seven million people inhabit PNG, with the majority of its residents living in isolated traditional village settings. Most of the people are Melanesian. Theirs is one of the most primitive and oldest cultures in the world. Much of the country is covered in tropical rain forests. The climate is hot and humid with vividly colorful orchids that grow in the wild.
Although Tok Pisin, or Pidgin English, is the official language of the country, there are approximately 800 different languages spoken throughout the villages. Bailey explained that tribes have their own languages, and there are often many tribes in close proximity. Consequently, a family living in one hut may not speak the same language as their next-door neighbors. Not only is language a barrier, but often different tribes have their own rules. Tribal warfare is not uncommon in parts of PNG. According to Bailey, less than 50 years ago, head hunting and cannibalism was still practiced.
Most of the people in this remote country live a primitive lifestyle along the rivers in small huts where there are no roads, and boats are used for travel along waterways. Their diet consists of leafy vegetables, fish, various fruits, taro root, bananas, sweet potatoes and yams. “They eat what they grow,” Bailey said. She explained that sago palm, a main staple that is pure starch with no taste is cut and hollowed out. The pulp is then removed and filled with fish and various vegetables. Clothing is scarce and often optional, except in the presence of Western visitors. The Sepik River, the longest river on the island, is renowned for its mask and totem carvings made of exotic woods.
Throughout much of PNG, women are considered taboo. “Women are dangerous,” Bailey said as she explained local beliefs. There is a large distrust of women and they are often treated as inferiors. “They (men) don't touch food a woman made because she might poison them,” she said. Huli men, who live in the central mountainous region of PNG, will often prepare their own food. According to Bailey, women can be killed because the men believe they can cast evil spells.
Unlike most of the world, married couples do not live together. The women are in charge of raising the pigs, the children and the gardens. “Pigs are the most important to have, then land and then a wife,” Bailey said. These animals are often used to pay for their brides. As young boys approach adolescence, they move out of the hut with the women and children and into the hut to live with male family members. It is at this time that family lore and clan genealogy is passed down by word of mouth. According to Bailey, the person with the greatest knowledge is the one that is considered the most powerful.
As a rite of passage, the young men endure painful cutting rituals that they believe will harden them and turn them into men. Self-scarification, the cutting and branding of skin, is common in this culture. Razors are used to make deep cuts repeatedly, forming a pattern. The wounds are then rubbed with ash and mud from the river in order to cause an infection, leaving thick, raised keloid scarring. Often the chests and backs of the men are carved into patterns that resemble a crocodile, believed to be the most powerful spirit by natives living along the Sepik River.
Despite the conversion of many to Christianity, people continue to hold onto their pagan customs. “PNG is seeped in worship and spirit fear,” Bailey said. Ceremonies are an important part of their culture and an integral part of their lives. The country is famous for its Sing Sing where tribes gather together in traditional dress and perform various rituals, often involving pigs, dancing and singing. According to Bailey, these rituals are always performed by men. The natives ascribe to the powers of the “Spirit Doctors” and the “X-Ray Man.” This indigenous people believe the job of the x-ray man is to determine if the physical problems of the natives are physical or not. The spirit doctor has been charged with getting rid of the believed evil spells that have almost always resulted from a woman.
Bailey and her daughter, who lives in one of the urban regions of the island, trekked through the dense rain forest for close to two and a half hours one day as they explored PNG. “I learned I could do a whole lot more than I thought I could do physically,” she said. Heading to Queensland, Australia, she met up with her daughter-in-law and her two youngest grandchildren. Her son, who works for the United States government, and his family live in Indonesia. “The trip was meant to be what we refer to as a memory making trip,” Bailey said. Home once again, she holds her special time with her family close to her heart.