The mighty Sepik river in Papua New Guinea and its residents

Sepik – Source of Life (uncut)

On the verge of modern society, just in this very second, a crocodile hunter surveys the shores with a flashlight in search for prey, a wizard is secretly speaking the magic formula to curse an enemy of his clan, Kenny’s four wifes argue who is going to cook the donuts today, and somewhere in the hinterland a boy receives an ancient totem by the act of scarification. That’s probably why they termed Papua New Guinea “the last frontier on earth”, and this documentary points out why they’re actually right.

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Images: Crocodile Festival Ambunti/ Sepik and its inhabitants

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 Episode 1 – After the Cargo Cult – Rural Exodus

Port Moresby – Once again I’m going through my accommodation options. Mapang Missionary Home, the valve for Christian consultants has rejected my request for a bunk nonchalantly. Fair enough, I only aimed to understand how a modern apostle is fishing for fresh souls in a city whose griefs are frequently featured by international newsrooms. However, there aren’t plenty of great alternatives for a thrifty nomad’s budget, but the “Chicken Shed”. The ad on Airbnb advertises an abundance of advantages in a pseudo-romantic way; Chicken Shed – It’s a simple shed / living quarters. No rooms. Just a big living space. Floor is of basically dirt ground. The perfect place for Those Who wish to experience genuine local living. Outdoor shower and pit toilet. It’s not cozy. It’s rough and tough. – Only 10 USD / Night.– Contemplating adjectives to define a solo journey through Papua New Guinea’s hinterland, “rough and tough” is what you would automatically come up with. Never would I dare accusing the indigenous society for the lack of entrepreneurial spirit, as these folks had been dominated by ancient tribal rules until today. Thanks to the pressure of competing amongst the best, and given the insatiable thirst for progress – „entrepreneurship“ had been drilled into our minds for centuries, whilst these distant lands remained economically untouched until only a few decades. Picture a catapult slinging the curly-haired Melanesians from the era of self-sufficiency straight into the globalized presence. En route there was just enough time to put on T-shirts and to study the Bible which the missionaries obligingly translated into a new universal language called Tok Pisin. Even today, roughly three lifespans after the first attempts of civilizing and converting the Islanders, Papua New Guinea has not gotten over its reputation as a Shangri-La for rushing cannibals, inter-tribal skirmishes and bloodthirsty Raskol gangs. Speaking of cannibalism; those blasphemous tribal groups, who had eaten the first European missionaries including their shirts, belts and leather shoes, are more after internal political feuds these days. Chances to end up in a saucepan surrounded by snarling savages, have become vanishingly small since the persistent infiltration of the Christians. Well, they still casually wander their isolated little villages armed with machetes or such, and the insanely strong homebrew „steam“ and “Warrior Dark Rum” won’t cater for a balanced character, but most of the Warriors are tamed and know well who’s friend and who’s foe. Mostly. Every now and then, an incident makes for serious media attention and manager of the tourism department Mr. Emil Tammur is called out to whitewash his undisciplined Team Papua once more. With the country slipping back to the “NO-GO ZONES” after the indelicate hostage-taking in Milne Bay Province, Emil has again a lot on his plate since yesterday. Alert level 4, announced the US Department of State, diligently warning the general public not to travel PNG by blacklisting various regions together with Yemen, North Korea, and Syria. Ignoring such sporadic petty little matters, one will find the island nation leading the Champions League of diseases – where a polio outbreak competes with horrendous HIV rates and a haven for malaria. Additionally, the Sorcery Act from 1971 had been dissolved per 2013, not only does this allow the masters of black magic to hex their enemies again, but it also incites people to blame whomsoever for practicing black magic which usually ends up in getting the machetes out, followed by revenge, and so on. Whilst the bush-folks strive to conserve occultism, naturopathy, polygamy and hunting practices (in short – grand cultural diversity), a rampant capitalism is continuously knocking at their doors. Meantime, the reasonably modernized port cities like Lae, Madang or Moresby are plagued by other sorrows, especially nowadays since the villagers coming in search for a job, which isn’t really awaiting them. Papua New Guinea has always been a strange but fascinating destination that only seems to exist to cater the world with fairytales and controversy.

May it be fate that my taxi driver couldn’t locate the address of the “Chicken Shed“, thus I’m being dropped off at one of Moresby’s cheapest hotel bunkers framed with barb wire. Cheap for PNG conditions means a modest amount of 100 USD a night for a even so modest comfort. I have been warned several times; “Get yourself Wantoks as soon as possible.” A Wantok (taken from Tok Pisin for “one talk”) is basically a friend or acquaintance, someone who at best is a member of the extended family, and worst case has one out of the 800 tribal languages in common. I have no contacts and will consequently sleep my way down from a proper hotel bed to the wooden floor of the average joe. “Where do you go?” – Inquires William. The man is about forty years of age and has stopped growing at the age of twelve, in the height at least. A legitimate question from the roundish hotel security guard, what the city is lacking on sights, it easily compensates with dubious neighborhoods. Cruising randomly through Moresby’s streets as a “white man”, is not quite recommendable. “I shall come with you,“ I’m told. Personal Escort Service has never been my cup of tea, but there is only a little time for some chats with locals, so I’ll tag along, confirming with a ghetto handshake, we head out. Just to stop after some meters in order to stack up betel nut (Buai) supply. William announces himself as a “leader” – pausing his tale only to spit out some Buai juice – to be more specific, he’d be a leader of two roads. In case anyone of his clan encounters a problem, William’s phone would be ringing, and the short man disengages with a quick-witted squad from the same tribe to determine and, if necessary, to settle a solution. Thus, they seemingly look after their kind. “Take care, this Raskol will rape you and throw what’s left on the dump,” mocks the Buai seller flashing a red-brownish smile. “Nah, do not worry big brother,” I’m being soothed by William and his ghetto handshake.

We join the queue at a steel cage. A mini-hatch serves enough steel free cavity to swap fried chicken legs against Kina. It almost leaves you with the feeling that there was an issue with disappearing chicken or Kinas which eventually sparkled the boom of a grid rods industry. William is in great spirits, it seems as if he hasn’t got much fried chicken lately. Which he acknowledges as gratefully as tactically, whilst he waits for me to pay. We stroll on – hand in hand. My bodyguard points out the local highlights; the bus terminal and the Catholic University. Every now and then, he’s having a chat with one of his Wantoks, whilst others are passing without a word, but gazing gangsta, yet others greet in a heartfelt manner. A quick walk through the department store next door illustrates the structure of a strange urban society: imported shampoo and razor blades (anything with a value higher than 5 Kina) are stored behind steel bars. A pair of uniformed guys armed with a shotgun are guarding the hatchway, these security precautions are then topped by the Chinese shopkeeper who squats adequately on a tennis umpire chair in order to spy kleptomaniac activities. Those who, after all, can’t resist and embark on the path of sinners, may risk the threat of draconian penalties, and besides they’ll be messing with the mighty creator. Outside, a priest with the voice of an angry Drill Sergeant praises the infinite love of the Lord, shall all kneel down and listen. Obviously, only those who join the club will be safe and gifted with salvation. At times, he adores his wisdom with epic breaks to recharge with worldly significance, then he’s bashing on with an anointed Kungfu tongue. For over a century, that’s exactly how the modern world preachers have been addressing millions of Melanesian sheep that needed to be saved, even they did not know that they were in danger. Given a christen rate of currently 96 percent, you can only clap applause for the Roman Curia.

So, let’s face the next milestone; “Get your identity card. Now!”— suggests a billboard. The advantages of such a card are just grand: voting right, bank account, (better) job opportunities, driver’s license, social integrity, et cetera. With only 500,000 of the eight million population being cataloged, PNG’s government had thrown 230 million Kina (70 million USD) into the NID campaign to register their compatriots. Eventually, the campaigners installed an identity card outlet run by public servants in every hick town. So the crowd flocked there with great excitement, throwing themselves bravely into bureaucratic trenches, switching off a company of hieroglyphic forms, then they waited for the promised future in shape of a free identity card. And they still wait by today. Because the card printers did not work, the filled forms mystically disappeared, and in William’s case, the whole branch disappeared because the rent wasn’t paid on time. “PNG – Expect the unexpected,” the security guard points out sarcastically – A phrase which is also used by Papua’s tourism department to excite the travelers for all the fun surprises lurking in this country. “Come, I show you downtown,” dictates William. The closer we get to the center, the more square blocks, banks, state-owned enterprises, hotel facilities and offices of foreign investors are piling up, whilst the number of armed guards increases disproportionately. As usual, it’s the same plot as with all downtowns on this planet. Restless people are rushing through gray corridors with severely limited views, others are drinking sugar with coffee flavor of that chain with the largest marketing budget, most are working behind gray facades which respond to the other gray facades, and daily they leave this misery altogether just to be right on time for the traffic jam. Those who can put up with it without decaying mentally or physically shall prudently peer off into a greyish future. Those lazying around for too long, not coping anymore, are probably squatting now somewhere on the roadside begging the restless bunch to share some fortune. Following the international code of conduct for guided tours, I tell William how impressed I am by the beauty of the city. If Moresby were not as fairly small and unspectacular as it actually is, I would have to seek excuses allowing me to return early to my barb wired hotel. Most Papua New Guineans commit to the rural exodus, whilst I voluntarily confess to the urban exodus.

“A good time to go home,” smirks William and goes on rhetorically, “from now on only the bugs are crawling on the streets,” – No, he doesn’t mean the cockroaches, but the shady folks. Outside the hotel fence, his colleagues scatter around a little fire that conscientiously cremates the litter of the previous days. Above, the full moon shines in an unusual ruddy-brown. And somewhere between astrophysical phenomenon and Papua New Guinea’s everyday life, I’m getting tangled in a real satire, as the pseud Christian prophets happily dismiss my rational explanations of how the moon might have passed directly behind the earth and into its shadow. “The return of the Messiah is upon us,” a guy next to me shouts out loud. Opposite us, another fellow believer takes it further: “When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood” – It’s quite foreseeable, just browse the Bible chaps! Oh well, once again humankind is threatened by the rise of a judgment day, not only in Papua New Guinea, everywhere else in the world where megalomania is on the loose thanks to biblical folklore. In fact, unusual celestial phenomena such as auroras, eclipses and blood moons cause panic since we made it down from the trees, they are considered signs for upcoming natural disasters, wars, and plagues. Unfortunately, there is always natural disasters, wars, and plagues somewhere which apparently justifies any sort of speculations. So then, Apocalypse Soon! We’re all going down. After all, assistant chef Maria-Theresa from Mount Hagen thinks straight. Throughout her 50 years of life, she had prayed consciously and behaved well, virtually free from sins she doesn’t worry much. What about Manuel, who’s a big fan of John’s revelation? He currently prays more often than usual, therefore he should be fine too! But what will happen to all the accursed pagans who still believe in the vortex of our solar system and the lunar eclipse? Not quite surprisingly, Manuel knows; “You’ll get a free ride into the maws of the underworld.” Almighty! May you kindly save me, at least from all this chatter. To have a language in common surely has advantages, as it lets me communicate with some ambassadors from PNG’s 800 different cultures, yet we still see the world differently. I might be all wrong, perhaps the devil’s brood is sharpening their lances, hysterically laughing, and maybe such a judgment day isn’t that bad for humanity, so it will ultimately work out with the long-awaited Utopia. “Maski long Planti toktok (enough talking) big brother, fancy some Warrior Dark Rum?” William is setting the course for a ghetto handshake.

Episode 2 – Deceptive Heritage

En route to the Sepik’s mouth, I’m scanning the canopy of a pristine jungle. Think of all the secrets this thicket still bares to date, all the plant and animal species it had seen flourishing or dying out, and what sacrifices it will owe the progress of civilization! Apart from tropical umbrella drinks or strange island chants presented by even stranger looking bush-folks, travel agencies would most likely bait their Sepik customers with such fine words like “explore” or “discover”. Nonetheless, the era of magnificent expeditions is probably over. German explorer and scientist Friedrich Hermann Otto Finsch surveyed the stream by steamship already back in 1885 and termed the waters „Kaiserin Augusta River“ after Augusta Marie Luise Katharina of Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach. A grand expedition explained Augusta’s son and later Emperor Friedrich Wilhelm to the public. Obviously, it was about the expansion of the German colonial empire and their supremacy over the Pacific. In 1912 Father Eberhard Limbrock started his journey through the watercourse in search of virgin souls. So, the idyllic coastline near the estuary called Vaviak became Wewäk and after the takeover of the Australian administration ultimately changed to Wewak. One might compare Vaviaks destiny without hesitation with the destiny of so many acclaimed destinations. Based on years of field research (yes it’s mine) there’s a magic formula regarding the global exploring hierarchy:

bacteria > animals > prehistoric nomads > settlers > biologists, missionaries and military > diseases > traders, administrators and government investors > expats > strey dogs > possibly further military > possibly invaders > more missionaries > hippies (or surfers) > backpackers > tourists > private investors > no more animals > digital nomads

I’m well aware that I’m being too late, but many visitors tend to forget this sequence whilst „exploring” PNG territory with their 400mm zoom lenses and safari outfits, followed by a care-free and hassle-free time at the pool. Even more perverse if rolling in with an all-inclusive prepaid cruise, where the modern adventurers from upstart towns spend thousands of dollars for a week-long trip but rarely leave their floating fortress. Wondrous tourism. According to the in-flight magazine of Air Niugini a visit to the Sepik region is only half-perfect, if you’d leave without experiencing the “Crocodile Festival” in Ambunti. Others name it cherry picking – as PNGs tourism department almost exclusively targets tourist with extensive budgets. That’s also why this made-up showcase (at times termed as „cultural heritage“) would be reason enough to pursue in other directions, but a meet and greet with the tribal representatives from all depths of the Sepik region might turn out beneficial anyway. After all, I have flagged down two goals for this region, I strive to be one of the last witnesses to see how modernity seeps into the last untouched cracks of the planet, and thereby interact with the folks that completely depend on the Pacific’s largest rivers system to date. This quest might justify the support of a local expert?

The Joseph K. case (Part 1) – Email dialogue

Hi Joseph, I’ll be flying to the Sepik region soon. From Ambunti I’ll make my way Either downstream or upstream. For several reasons I might need a guide for some days. Are you interested? – Best, Claudio

Hi Claudia, Yes i can guided you for one or two weeks as possible you want. – Joseph

How much would you charge me per day …? – Cheers, Claudio (not Claudia – that’s for females)

So Claudio, I can Directly Arranged everythings for the tour for you. The coast is like k1000 a day. If you do two weeks will cut down. This coast includes like: car to and from, food and water, accommodations, villages fees, motor canoe hire, crew, fruits and vegatables – Thanks, Joseph

I’m on a tight budget. Unfortunately I know too well what I could get out of it. Hope you understand – Regards, Claudio

Thank you, I understand you now. You can do your self thanks. – Joseph

Apparently, Joseph K. and I won’t get along. I knew it was nonsense. He knew I knew it was nonsense. I’m quite aware that everything here in PNG that is powered by an engine devours a massive amount of Kinas, most of all because gasoline prices are exorbitantly high and the Sepik can only be traveled by canoe. But I’m also aware that a local family of four can easily survive a whole year for the estimated daily rate of 1000 Kina (300 USD). Logically, this means someone pockets way more than necessary. Josephs answers as well as the fact that the Sepik basin is as large as Denmark (approximately 42’800 square kilometers) with no ATM to help out on the way, I’ve decided to tweak my travel budget again. Assumably, the canoe captains won’t accept credit cards. Wewak – The inconspicuous financial center of the Sepik region. Today is payday, which forcefully welcomes everyone from the outskirts (remember; as large as Denmark) to withdraw cash in town. Let’s say anyone who has actually managed to get an identity card, and therefore was allowed to open a bank account, and ultimately even found an employer which transacts Kinas online. What appears like a bank run after a crisis, is sort of monthly routine for tiny Wewak. Quite a few of the patiently queuing account holders have endured a two-day journey. Until recent years, paydays were also the favorite day of the raskol gangs which toured about with their homemade shotguns and rusty machetes. I consider myself lucky that at this moment only a scruffy fellow is staring fanatically through the glass at the average annual PNG salary I’m cashing out. Reproachfully I’m staring back at him, without changing anything about the situation. I rather know my death date than his ulterior motives. But it’s imaginable that he is one of the 7.5 million accountless guys, and that’s why he’s just surveying the mystery of cash advances in detail, thinking of what astounding benefits could be involved when having such an account and a short term loan.

The cargo cult has reached the 21st century – In place of Western cargo which was simply glorified as divine gifts, folks are now amazed over paper money that rushes out of the slot of a talking metal box. Cautiously I slip back to my hotel thinking of my impending adventure. Finally outdoors again! In the lobby, just next to some glossy brochures featuring Papua motley festivals (all organized by the state to attract wealthy foreigners) there’s also a leaflet of MAF. For nearly 70 years, the Mission Aviation Fellowship is dropping their holy messengers directly into the herds of lost sheep which were hiding successfully in Papua New Guinea’s hinterland for millenias. All four minutes (sic) a MAF aircraft is starting or landing somewhere. Even the mission statement sounds promising: Sharing the love of Jesus Christ through aviation and technology so that isolated people may be physically and spiritually Transformed. One can only congratulate the PR department of the flight operator on such esoteric modesty. “Physical and Spiritual Transformation” – Once tasted, seduced forever.

Why would they line up altogether at 11:00 at night for the six-hour trip to Pagwi, I’m asking the minivan driver. “More safe, raskols sleep”, follows the pragmatic answer. Hence, the caravan of minivans cruises bumper to bumper towards Pagwi Waterfront at video game speeds, where the passengers scatter immediately into the „PMV“ collective canoes that have already gathered. Although they all have plenty of time, nobody really wants to waste a second here in transit risking to miss the next motorized dugout at an afar junction. Today’s morning tastes like diesel and dried fish, as several captains just unloaded a new delivery of market ladies, whereas the trucks only equipped with wooden planks to sit on taking them straight in again. Even here on the Sepik, a tight schedule of public transport has gained control over the citizenship. Whilst the first fully packed canoes disperse in all different directions, I’m lazing in the grass, waiting for my captain’s sign. An old man joins me, his lavish grin compensated for the burden of a crooked back. No, not the act of aging was responsible, but a ship propeller that tribal enemies pulled over his neck. You might come up with the idea that the scares are indicating this incident, but the stigma which stylishly adores his upper body reveal that he had attended the Sepik-exclusive scarification ritual when he was a youngster. Once being scratched open by a razor the traditional totem will then express a man’s lineage to his mystical elders – The mighty Sepik crocodile. Now he shall officially call himself a “crocodile hunter” although this nickname isn’t really flattering for western standards. “Peter would do,“ the old man proposes. He had been informed by the Buai seller that my journey leads to Ambunti. Spontaneously he allowed himself to contact his brother Nelson, an Ambunti native, to prearrange my accommodation. I’m only keen because Peter isn’t promising any sort of wellness oasis, but the bare essentials. Pausing only for a few minutes here at the gateway to the legendary Sepik, I’m impressed to be already part of the Wantok system. And I’ve not even dared to ask for it. Together with a good dozen bearded locals, I set off. Once the whole lot has been neatly stacked into the belly of the dugout, self-made “bush-cigarettes” are getting into the focus of everyone’s attention. An easy thing to do, just take some fresh tobacco leaves (Brus) and wrap them into a scrap of newspaper from The National. Quite recently, the rumor spread that PNG’s government have “asked” some journalists to conceal the dirty stuff for the sake of national interests. It’s now the third month of the at first temporarily announced newspaper boycott, which was declared by the educated one-tenth of all Papua New Guineans via Facebook. Ironically the ill-informed newspaper boys didn’t sell many copies ever since but smoked the headlines in satisfaction. The vulgar yoke of a Melanesian everyday’s life.

The Sepik headwaters rise in the rugged Star Mountains and meanders eastwards through hilly landscape, lush valleys and tropical rainforest until it eventually flows into the Pacific after 1126 kilometers. Although the stream is considered Papua New Guinea main traffic artery, only very few gravel roads connect the mighty river with the outside world. Nonetheless, for almost half a million people who inhabit the Sepik Basin, it is nothing short of a miracle – the eternal source of life. I’m surprised to notice that Francis is drinking water straight from the river, thus glancing at him blankly until I realize that I glance at him blankly. “No worries,” says the school inspector – as long as the infamous mining company PanAust is waiting for approval, and as long as the loggers don’t rage as intended, our waters remain clean, even drinkable. But that should change rather sooner than later. Chased by a picturesque twilight, we reach the small hamlet of Ambunti. Nelson is already waiting for me at the jetty and beckons me over. My above-average glimmering complexion must have betrayed me. During our handshake, scenes from “The Green Mile” flash up immediately, because Nelson looks in every way like Michael Clarke Duncan aka John Coffey, if he were to shake out a little mouse from his hoodie, it wouldn’t surprise me much. I’m guided leisurely along the Lodge which is reserved for well-paying “explorers”, then we continue strolling across the soccer field which is about to mutate into a colorful show off by tomorrow morning, and eventually, Nelson points to the wooden shack which he casually promotes as being a bit “tough”. Outside of the holiday season, it is the place to live for “tough-proofed” vocational students from the surrounding villages who aim to complete a three-year carpentry or mechanics apprenticeship. The room concept might be classified as Feng Shui fatal, but the latrine is within sight and a flooded shared shower is just around the corner. A mosquito net with fist-sized holes is awaiting better times on the deserted wooden floor. Neither does the artificial light of a television nor a light bulb disturb the rustic ambiance – Ergo the manifested nightmare of every couch potato. “Perfect! That’s all I need!“

Today and tomorrow Ambunti pays homage to the icon the Sepiks – the crocodile. Different tribal groups are invited to showcase their traditional songs and dances. Before the event kicks off and drags his onlookers into a strange world of cultural diversity, it’s the sponsors’ turn. And one of the kindest patrons is just flying in by helicopter. The CEO of PanAust is literally throwing off a suitcase full of Kinas and vanishes just as quick as it came in. Even decades after various greedy multinational companies began to exploit all raw materials, the shady game still goes on. The presumed loser is once again the indigenous population. Until now, the PanAust which is hypocritically based in Australia but of Chinese origin waits for the green light to proceed with their six billion US Dollar investment. According to the research of Papua New Guinea Mine Watch, the revenue will be split to 50% on Pan Aust, to 30% to the PNG government, and 20% on Highlands Pacific Limited. If you sum up these figures, the actual landowners remain Zero! Instead, they will be getting contaminated waters with cyanide and sulfuric acid, which is used to separate the precious gold or copper from the ore. The helicopter is drifting towards the horizon, and Nelson shakes his head sorrowfully. The day the PanAust starts operating, the traditional lifestyle of tens of thousands which depend on the Sepik and its purity will change dramatically. Since 1975, the Papua New Guineans gained independence from Australia, just to depend now on their own corrupt politicians. „Any solutions?“ I’m questioning Nelson. „We pray!”

To escape further speeches, I’m heading over to crocodile farmer Jack, who manages 120 crawling chainsaws. He buys the smaller versions from Swagup’s famous crocodile hunters or other villages and feeds them until they are chubby enough. When they’ve reached the average size, he’d skin the crocs and sell the tail meat on the market – a sequence that Jack is visualizing with the well-trained body language of a butcher. The exquisite scaly crocodile skins will then embark on a journey to the port city of Lae, from there it’ll be sent out to the sewing workshops of Hermes, Dior, and Gucci. In order to invalidate my prejudices in terms of sustainability, Jack promises that every single traded piece must be accompanied by a form which includes the species description, weight, measurement, location, date, and signature. The catch is limited by law to a minimum size, whilst other species aren’t even allowed to be hunted. So the Sepik crocodiles enjoy at least on paper certain rights. Jack is carefully wrapping some Brus into a newspaper article from January and turns his attention towards his breed. What’s going through his mind? Conspiratorially giggling he leans sideways and says: “Crocodiles are like people, they never change their character and remain unpredictable.” Armed with a bottle of Warrior Dark Rum and a spear Jack’s buddy is loafing about. Yesterday, they didn’t catch any, his crocodile squad was too drunk, so no live-skinning today at the festival as the organizers had previously scheduled. In the past, no one would have even thought of harming these armored amphibians. Primal fears? Certainly! But most of all because the tribes along the Sepik believed to have descended from father crocodile and it would be like hurting their own kind. It’s sort of a fun fact that the very first Crocodile Festival has been financed by the WWF. Eleven years later, the lawyers of nature are no longer among the sponsors, and the same organizers suggest live-skinning and crocodile tail for dinner. As Jack mentioned, the money economy has reached this territory only two decades ago but is now influencing their lifestyle intensely. Thus, they’ve moved away from an age-old crocodile worship to actually kill or farm crocodiles so that they can cross-finance essentials like rice, transport, and education – Stuff they had not needed until recently. Meantime, brain researchers claim that facing money trouble is blocking our ability to think straight.

Half naked actors prance on the soccer field, swinging their living crocodile mascots through the air to the beat of Kundu drummers. Another clique presents a chaos of warlike battle cries, conch trumpets, and spear-fumbling. Other have decided to torture their instruments in a hypnotic monotone way. “Veeery traditional,” comments Nelson, without disguise his sense of sarcasm. I won’t judge, but am not quite convinced that guitars really are part of the Sepik cultural heritage. What certainly is impressive, is the variety of outfits, the carefully applied tribal body painting, but also the authentic group dances with chants in endless loops, which still make up the weddings and other social celebrations. “… And Christmas” adds a guy with a crocodile necklace and swings his hips and the crocodile off into distance. I take some photos. Capturing Odors, that would be a thing! Just at that moment, it would enhance the scene with the necessary authenticity, because it smells awfully exotic, like an unparalleled blend of bush, Brus, Buai and sweating armpits. A precious note you could bottle and name “Eau de jungle – Awaken the warrior within you“. Is it possible to recognize a place only its very taste? Paris? London? Ambunti? Close your eyes and tell me the scent of your home!

The Joseph K. case (Part 2) – News via bush phone

As I casually complain to Nelson about the shamelessness of some tour guides I mention just as casually Joseph K. – My host smiles cheerfully. The news have spread a few hours ago to Ambunti via bush phone – Joseph K. is imprisoned. The case? He supposedly has stolen 50,000 Kina (about 15,000 USD) from an Israeli couple a few days ago. Money which they have paid him in advance to arrange the trip.

Episode 3 – Insect Tribe (Riverine Romance)

Moses doesn’t shake hands, he squeezes them. With closed eyes, I would have hallucinated a heavyweight champion, but his clumsy facial features, the typical African complexion, and his motoric moves rather indicates a Papuan double of cartoon bear Winnie the Pooh. Moses is Nelson’s second cousin, and thus my Wantok from Swagup. My upcoming visit to the famous crocodile hunters was first intensely discussed by the two relatives: Nelson: “You, take care of this fellow!” – Moses: “Okay”.

Prior to our departure from Ambunti, the freshly painted representatives of the “Insect Tribe” are about to pick up their reward – the fuel for the return trip and a few Kinas, which is barely sufficient just to compensate for the lost time in the garden. As the organizers skimp, the troop immediately cancels the final performance and marches down defiantly to the collective canoe. Remarkable how !37! powerfully built men, and I, are able to fit in one motorized dugout. However, this only works because half the passengers hang on the wooden railing with half their butt. Squeezed between spears and sweaty bodies I’ve just enough room to roll my eyes in order to overlook the bosom of nature. Upstream we cruise along tropical vegetation, only every half hour a sleepy little village appears, other than that jungle braves all sorts of wilderness. Cumulus clouds are reflecting in the brownish water as if we were to plow through a herd of grazing sheep. On the horizon, beyond the fertile valleys, the four-thousand meter high mountains of the New Guinean highlands rise. Kenny calls me out of my daydreams: “No worries, you’re in good hands”. A soothing slogan which Moses accompanies with a thumb up. As if the two brothers suspect that I previously just realized what sort of situation I’ve put myself into. After all, I’m heading straight into the depths of the Papua New Guinean bush together with a bunch of hunters and gatherers which I hardly know, but without any contact to the outside world. A queasy thought? Certainly not! I trust people and within all the enriching years outside the comfort zone, I fine-tuned the sense for them so that I am able to separate friend from foe with ease. Nonetheless, in the little-explored island nation of Papua New Guinea, where there’s certainly no shortage of problems, a visitor is valued. Especially when he or she curiously investigates on the local characteristics and thereby treating the indigenous folks with respect. And now, upon arrival at the cliff of modern society, I’m delighted to jump into the unknown.

The region knows only two seasons – wet or dry. During the rainy season, the water level rises up to seven meters, leaving the river residents little choice, but to move exclusively by canoe to buy barter for food, to hunt, or to simply visit their mates in the stilt house next door. Now, in the dry season, however, our captain maintains greater caution as we navigate at walking pace through the tangled tributaries of the Sepik, deeper into Wonderland. No phone signals are sneaking into the remoteness around tiny Swagup. Very few generators are humming, satellite dishes I find none. There is neither a road lighting nor roads that need to be lit. Some naked children with machetes roam the footpath which connects the roughly 50 stilt houses. The houses are accessible by a pair of improvised stairways, one for the women, one for men, each leading up to the spacious rooms with a fair sized fireplace. Moses passes me to Kenny, suggesting that he’d have more room on the floor. That surprises me because Swagups very own village Casanova already stows four wives in his stilt house. Plus two children and three cats. With the moral verve of a boulder Kenny reveals their principle of plural marriage (and it couldn’t be more simple) – One woman, one house, one garden, one canoe. Unfortunately, he’d be short on Kinas for so much equality, therefore, the four wives share his house, the garden, the canoe and himself. Outside the Islamic realms, I have never faced polygamy so far. “Well done,” I comment, but consider at a harem with four jealous women more sort of self-flagellation. He met Kathy, Glenda, and Wendy just around the corner. Caroline, however, is originally from the village Kawai. She was purposely married to Kenny to settle a generation-long spat between two clans. With Kathy and Caroline Kenny has one child each, the rest would need to wait until he has gathered enough money for the education. The prevention by “traditional tampon” (I hesitate to ask for details) brought some positive changes. Seems as if the womanizer is still able to calculate despite his alarming testosterone levels. Let’s question that, is a man really able to quarter his love? Kenny can, because he doesn’t love any of his wives. It’s more kind of practical agreement. He is no exception, the front-runner in PNGs Casanova League lives a few hours by canoe upriver in Aum together with his 12 wives and 96 children. And in the Indian town of Baktawng, there’s Ziona, who rocks a large family with 39 wives and 94 children. World Record! I therefore confidently stick to my theory; Caroline makes delicious donuts, Wendy gets the laundry the cleanest, Kathy is good with children and Glenda is prettier than the other three together.

Anway, is such a constellation compatible with everyday’s life? Caroline waits with responding until the next morning, now since all the others are somewhere outside, she can tell me. “Yes and no!” But that’s how their society is prospering. The man plays his power play, and the woman obeys as diplomatical as possible. Or she gets beaten. A few months ago, a new law came into force, granting the women equal rights. Ever since women and men are laughing about it. Usually, a troubled man who wants to soothe a situation may quote the endemic credo as followed; “I’ve already paid,” – by saying this he refers to the bride price, which he handed over to his wife’s parents. From now on, the woman is his possession. In many parts of Papua New Guinea, the man is responsible for the hunt, the garden and not least, the wars, whilst women are useful for fishing, cooking, washing, raising children, and for bartering bits and pieces at the local markets. This social structure won’t change that soon. Fine then, I’m sitting on the floor to watch Caroline smoking fresh fish. So do the three cats. Outside, Wendy is cruising through the yard with her machete to prevent an invasion of snakes, and Kathy chops out the starchy juice from a sago palm together with the children. All of a sudden, a grotesque scenario of the past is crossing my thoughts, an era when marriage contracts were as immoral as headhunting when it was quite normal for a woman to get pregnant by several chosen ones, and family planning was more of a group activity. And now, here, my modern worldview is slightly getting distorted and leaves some space for a real parallel world. What I condemn as wrong and right, or what my girlfriend thinks is right and wrong, all this arose from a subjective spiritual knowledge that has been consolidated over the last few decades by the progress of civilization. Per se, all point of views are country-specific, obviously intelligence-specific, sometimes gender-specific. I’m not a huge fan of Nations which are hiding half her population in the kitchen, just as I’m puzzled about the headlines of more than 50 percent divorce rates, or babies from the laboratory, and the childless country to be – Japan. Since the dawn of time, we have tried a lot, and still, the ideal way seems to remain unclear. By the way, where are Kenny and Moses?

In the shadow of layered Sago leaves that form the roof of the Hausboy men have gathered to discuss the investment of a cocoa-dryer. Normally, such important issues would be sorted in the traditional Haus Tambaran, where also revenge maneuvers are planned, or village disputes would be settled. But the so important house of customs got damaged from the previous flood, and there’s no money for the restoration. Thus village chief Tom has elected the Hausboy to serve as the center for important decisions. Traditionally, it is the place where the boys go at the age of 10 to learn about hunting and ancestral worship until they will be married with parental support. Upon marriage, the man moves into the stilt house of the wife until they are capable of building their own house. The topic „cocoa-dryer“ continues. Perfect time to have a chat with Kenny’s neighbor Samuel whose presence is already noticeable from the other end of the village due to his booming bass box. Lolling on the wooden floor we listen to “Best of House Music”, which sonicates every corner of Samuel’s hut with riot. Until his generator finally runs out of fuel. Despite his church membership Samuel also indulges in the sins of polygamy, although he married wife number two only because he wasn’t able to host all his guests adequately. Pause for thought – then he’s kicking off with a report on Swagups curiosities, and his second wife serves us tea. Although the village is one of the first settlements on the Sepik, their ancestors lived in the outskirts of Ambunti district. At that time there was a dispute between the founders – the two brothers could not agree on who owns which betel nut trees, or how to draw borderlines across their gardens in the jungle. The younger brother Wolou Mamcoil aka The great ancestral warrior of the Insect Tribe had heard enough and ventured with a bunch of companions a day’s journey upriver to eventually found Swagup. That was roughly 200 years ago, henceforth he called his guild “The Insect Tribe” and they would ornate the war canoes, paddles, and shields with the symbol of the praying mantis. The majority of the approx. 300 villagers belong to the caste of insects, and some 60 counts themselves among the Muu (the crocodiles), then there are the eagles, pigs, kasawari, possums, et cetera. What sounds a bit like some badass nicknames for local bush gangs, actually defines a man’s lineage, his hunting practices, and special abilities. Samuel, for instance, is responsible for the possums and calls for them if hunting stocks and thus the proteins are on a decline. His cousin Lesley, however, seizes power over the mosquitoes. Superficially speaking, this extraordinary skill may impress little, but in reality, it serves well to sow chaos and to annoy your rivals to death. My wantok Moses masters the rats, what makes him unofficially a “Rat-Caller”. Don’t ever dare to upset peaceful Winnie, he just calls a crawling rat army by means of secret chant to gnaw away an enemy’s legs. At least the inventories. Currently, peace reigns on both banks of the Sepik and Moses recruits his nibbling squad only if absolutely necessary. But just one generation ago, such black magic anchored in anyone’s repertoire of survival strategies. Headman Tom comes by and gets served a cup of tea from Samuel’s wife number two. Not surprisingly, Tom is also blessed with mystical powers. In case he’d sense that a food shortage due to a drought period might threaten the village, he orders the tide. To perform the ritual, the druid must rub his whole body with special little leaves. Once he’s tormented by infernal itching he sings the age-old spell Masalai, which will get him into trance. If Tom is successful (and he always was), it rains throughout the Sepik basin. These days the aged weatherman avoids the exhausting ritual because of his asthma and high blood pressure. „My special force would possibly kill me,“ he emphasizes.

Episode 4 – Crocodile Handbag

Strengthened by Kathy’s turtle stew we prepare the canoe. Kenny decided to go for the dugout made of hardwood because it’s kind of “crocodile proof”. While spears, flashlights, and machetes are tucked, I’m thoughtlessly eyeballing the village idyll. Just until a fish somersaults directly into my face, a scene that even puts a sporty smile on Moses’ unsporty face. For a good hour, we cruise out of Swagup, heading kilometers into a depth of field that never stops, only the neon green wilderness on both banks restrains the horizon. Before we finally go crocodile safaring, Kenny and Moses have to look after their gardens which happen to hide somewhere in the middle of Papua New Guinea’s jungle and are only accessible by machete power. No later than tomorrow, the freshly chopped slopes will surrender to a vigorous vegetation. Surrounded by cocoa, vanilla, and star fruit trees we investigate a pile of dirt. Moses believes to find the breed of the Faul bird, supposedly it’s the perfect season now. And he’s guessing right – after an hour of digging, we retrieve three huge oval eggs. Kenny trips into the thicket to pluck to edible leaves, and Moses, driven by his inexhaustible fetish for Buai disappears in a palm crown to harvest betel nut. Meantime, I’m keen to prove myself useful, so I’m chopping some twigs and start a fire. Until I watch Moses hysterically hurrying back from his quest to get the wood pieces out of the fire. Apparently, I’ve just attacked and burned the defenseless Sumum – a mighty spirit tree. Back in the days when the region was still seized by revenge cycles and genocides, Swagups’ ancestors would feast on Sumum tree barks – it provided them superhuman strength on the battlefield. Charged with many ancient success stories, the spirit tree is regarded as sacrosanct til today. They say it only slumbers, waiting patiently until the guild of local hero Wolou Mamcoil one day celebrates its magical comeback to fight a tribal war backed by rats, mosquitoes, eagles and Sumum.

Kenny wraps the Faul eggs gently into leaves and grills them until the floating fetuses reach medium raw. In the clearing at the canoe parking, we doze towards cooler hours. Only the ripples of the life-giving river can be heard, whilst fist-sized butterflies are fluttering about, ants bite, birds swarm out, and somewhere out there a silently stalking crocodile has no idea yet what will happen soon. With the waning evening sun, we move on to the camp – a small outpost where Swagup’s huntsmen spend days, sometimes weeks in order to chase monster lizards and to escape their two to four wives for a while. During the rainy season the croc hunters would wade through the swamps in form of a human chain, focusing the spots where they have observed a crocodile mother laying her eggs earlier the year, then they just skewer indiscriminately into the shallow waters. Other hunters, however, hang some bait on the shore overnight and wait for good. Kenny suggests option three – the most reliable of all methods. So we disembark, straight into a striking Milky Way, which bends from one to the other bank of the Sepik in perfect symmetry. The sort of nightly landscape that makes you want to burst into spontaneous applause. Distant storm clouds discharge in front of even more distant galaxies, and the nature theater still leaves enough horizon for the meteorites which are rushing sporadically across the sky. “Flying crocodiles,” our elders fantasized, explains Kenny and peers off into the distance, happily contemplating the enormous fun we would all have if a crocodile suddenly whipped up along the skyline. I’m frowning at him, meanwhile, Moses fumbles with his flashlight along the mangroves. Within a blink of an eye the ray of light strikes a crocodile’s retina, which reflects red. From now we only whisper as Kenny navigates the canoe smoothly towards the alleged victim. Armed with the genetic set of a prehistoric huntsman and the obligatory spear our Moses sticks on the dugout’s bow until we are close enough.

For more than 200 million years the crocodiles inhabit the earth. A good third of that time they possibly just had fun at the beach taking care of their crocodily business, whilst other days they’ve defended their habitat successfully against the dinosaurs, but tonight they compete with the titans of natural selection. Ironically, some decades ago, the Sepik crocodiles were still worshiped. Who dared to annoy them, got punished with a strange disease – So the folk belief. “Nonsense” propagated foreign missionaries, and then they took the boobies into prayer. With the burgeoning money economy and the associated urge for education, the legendary tribal symbol mutated once and for all into prey and their admirers became executioners. And who, frankly, can blame them? In three hours of safaring, we catch two mini crocs which after snarling defense ultimately surrendered Moses’ speer. On the way back to Swagup Kenny describes the business side of the croc hunt – which is literally their main source of income. The market prices depend on the species, wherein a freshwater crocodile generates around 40% less than a saltwater crocodile would yield. It also depends on the size. If the amphibian is caught alive, the price is determined by the length, whilst the Endangered Species Act restricts the trading on a minimum span of 27 and a maximum span of 51 centimeters. Crocodiles under a length of 27 centimeters are plumped up either in in-house cages or at crocodile farmers like Jack until they reach a legal size. Dead crocodiles, however, are getting skinned immediately, and their scaly armor will be divided into four quality levels. Today, Moses caught two freshwater crocodiles, both measuring some 40 centimeters, because of the damaged skin they’ll be rated “quality grade 4”, which can be sold for only 5 Kina (1.50 USD). If he would have caught a ten centimeters larger saltwater crocodile alive, they could have made up to 400 Kina (120 USD). The catch is sold mainly to middlemen in the area of Pagwi as a canoe trip to the main exporter in the coastal city Lae would simply be too expensive. Kenny is pointing out that the crocodile business isn’t running too bad, bottom line it funds the education of Swagup’s offspring, additionally, they can buy a sack of rice every now and then, or new batteries for their flashlights. What if the hunters would be running out of crocodiles in the near future? Then, Kenny draws away to a secret location on the Sepik, snakes crocodile-like through the water, scans crocodile-like the area, and crawls crocodile-like back ashore to call his crocodile clan by singing the magic spell – the unique consecration of the “Crocodile Caller”.

Glenda cooks the two crocodile tails, Caroline fries donuts for tomorrow’s market, and I’m just sitting around amazed by the sparsely furnished room. Let’s say, I steal all their possessions; the pot, the desk lamp, the holey T-shirts, the mosquito net – basically all the modern knickknack they call their own. What would they do? Apart from feeding me to the crocodiles, they would wake with the morning sun, as usual, maintain their gardens, as usual, chew their betel nuts, as usual, hunt for wildlife and feed the family just like so many generations before they already did. But what, however, may happen if I take away your smartphone, your bank account, and your current job. How long could you survive? Despite all the advantages our civilizational progress evokes, this night again, I fall to wondering who the masters of life really are.

Episode 5 – Wantoks

Daybreak. Kenny meditates over his trip calculation. To apply for the teaching position in Swagup, he must deposit his request in Wewak personally. Neither a postal service nor an e-mail account helps him to avoid this Odyssey. Kenny speculates with a one-week absence, as well as a budget of 200 Kina (60 USD) for all the collective water taxis and minivans – Equivalent to roughly 40 freshwater crocodiles grade 4 or 300 sold donuts by Caroline. Just three days later enough passengers gathered to join us for the ride downstream – chartering an engine powered dugout would have blown up our both travel budget. Swagup waves goodbye. Even Moses beckons as dazed as ever. We don’t get far today, but Kenny is prepared. In the little village Yambun, we stay with his Wantok Vivian, a second or third cousin of him. Ingenious wantoks – the foundation for social cohesion, seemingly essential for a country in which no one would ever dare to visit an unfamiliar place without having any connections. To show my appreciation, I suggest Vivian to help her cooking, or at least to hang the mosquito net, just something that would protect me from the feeling of dispensability. As Charming as determined, she refuses. In here she cooks, in here she beds down. But one day she’d come over to Switzerland, where ever this country may be, and then she expects to experience the same. Tragically, so we presume both, that day will never come. Vivian has not even made to the capital Port Moresby within the previous 54 years.

Kenny is sitting only a frew feet away, but he has gone into a glazed trance which I decided I would go and investigate later after I had got to grips with some of Caroline’s donuts some village chatter. “Sharing stories” is equally important as chewing Buai thus everyone’s favorite activity, if Papua New Guinea can call one little thing its very own holy relic, then it’s time – time to loll around to watch the nothingness, and to chat. Whilst the western world is crowding the libraries to get the latest title of Tips for happiness (if they’re not busy meditating yoga and such in search of healing), team Papua knows neither ambition nor meditation, and that’s what makes them so appealing. In many cases, they remind me of infants who are trying to understand the world by asking tons of questions uncoordinatedly. Assumably people living simple lives are happier because they can not exploit their hopes and dreams, instead, they travel in their imagination and build castles in their hearts. They possibly still see miracles. I, however, want to hear their stories, as they appear to be equally strange and enriching. For inspiring conversation, you usually go to meet in the houseboy. Again, I spontaneously forget nine of the eleven newly introduced names, which happens quite often because of the sheer amount of people that are introducing themselves every day. After all, I remember Morris and his brother Taylor. Because Taylor would have carried me off straight into the jungle to hunt bats or to meet with headmen who were believed lost, or in order to catalog medicinal plants – „Up to my taste,“ Taylor points out. And Morris finally clarifies what kept my thoughts busy me for weeks: Why is the land of self-sufficiency so damn expensive? Morris sighs, the answer is simple. „Our government borrows money from the World Bank every four years, which in turn increases the cost of prices on everyday goods and services, that’s plunging the country into deflation. With the borrowed money they support the whatsoever mining projects so that can repay the funded loans – A closed circuit with only a few profiteers, that has lead the country to the unofficial nickname of „Papua You Gimme“.

Tomorrow is market day, Vivian and her fellow salesforce get all available dried fish, bananas and sweet potatoes out of their closets. To move Yambun’s harvest including the outpatient traders to Pagwi economically, the husbands have knitted three dugout canoes together to one motorized raft. Inside the float, they store all the dried fish and other bits and pieces and cover it with wooden planks for the crowd to sit. And since everyone aims to make it to the PMV trucks in time, we start to disembark close to midnight. There is not much to admire, especially because after a few minutes it starts drizzling, followed by a cyclone-like downpour until at some point I no longer know what’s coming from below and what from above. I wonder if Swagup’s village chief Tom is still alive. “We must hide,” Kenny grins mischievously and throws a tarp over the two dozen passengers. Those in the middle are kindly asked to stretch their arms so that the water can drain aside. I don’t sleep a second. A washed-out horizon greets us in Pagwi. Kenny hugs me warmly and immediately disappears in a minivan. And I’m surveying the jetty for a ride to Palambei. Jacob is on his way there too. Whilst he presents himself as Guest House owner, famed Top Tour Guide, accredited chief of culture, aka Palambeis “Big Man”, my seismograph starts to bud, warns me that something might be wrong. A trap? Does the great Jacob compensate something with these superlatives? But I’m not putting my luck at risk today and jump into his canoe. Then, as I catch the Big Man inflagranti while weeping, so he drops the glamorous facade. Last night his wife Patricia has passed away. A snake ambushed her under the stilt house as she was collecting some firewood. After three hours the poison seeped via blood circulation into all her vital organs. She died on the way to Wewak. And all of a sudden I realize that I’m actually riding in a funeral canoe together with Patricia’s closest relatives. Emalda whines bitterly – Together they had cooked, they educated the children and watched the house. Like a sister Patricia was to her. She wipes away some tears and introduces herself as Jacobs second wife.

Episode 6 – Post Mortem

With the outboard motor going silent Jacob mentions that he’d be happy to host me for some days. Eventually, I’d help him financing the moaning ceremony every night I’m staying in his guest house. The event lasts no longer than an entire week. In the past, a typical moaning session lasted for several months, but nowadays no one can afford such intense farewell-parties anymore. Whilst Patricia is buried, some family members are preparing for the post-mortem inspection, as no one here seems to consider her natural death. Stereotypically, the neighbor is the suspected killer – “A powerful wizard,” mentions Jacob with both of his eyebrows about to meet in the middle of his face. In order to strengthen Jacob’s suspicions with the necessary touch of drama, young Emalda starts sobbing loudly. Like most of his compatriots, Jacob believes in the power of Sanguma – the magical damage spells which may cause deaths, illness or crop failure. Under the Sorcery Act from 1971 Sanguma Magic as well as slandering innocent people was strictly prohibited, but the law had been dissolved per 2013, allowing the sorcerer basically to get back on what they’re good at. Ever since the rumor mill flourishing again. Patricia’s son Cleo prepares a bamboo pole. In one opening he’s stuffing a rag of mother’s blouse, a tuft of her hair, and some of her saliva, which Cleo had consciously taken on Patricia’s deathbed. Then he hangs seeds from the breadfruit tree to the other end and paints five rings around the bamboo. Scanning the situation I find another marked bamboo pole stored in the overhead storage room, just below it hangs a tiny piece of wood with the inscription: Clarence 11/05/2013. – Cleo’s son died just a year after his birth. “Jealousy,” says grandfather Jacob, hoping to get the same conclusion during today’s bush forensics. The evil warlock whom Jacob is blaming would be on his heels for quite a while now, driven by his jealousy on the Guest House business, the two women, and of course the status of a Big Man in Palambeis society. A couple of relatives are bringing earth from the freshly shoveled grave into the house of mourning. “The earth includes Patricia’s Spirit,” explains Cleo and stuffs it carefully in the bamboo pole.

Patricia’s brother Richard helps him carrying the investigation stick outside. Both hold the bamboo with only one loose hand each. Now intimate questions will be asked and Patricia’s Spirit responds henceforth by leading Cleo and Richard into whatsoever directions. “Only the bamboo can reveal the truth,” announces the visibly curious Jacob. A good quarter of an hour, the duo roams through the garden led by a precarious bamboo. Although no one is quite sure, the Big Man decides as followed – Eureka, it was jealousy! Speaking of jealousy, this pretty much links to any Papua New Guinean, whilst retaliation is often applied by a whole clan. For this purpose, folks would preferably hire a “Contract Wizard”. No one knows exactly who the magic hitman actually is, whether he ever had committed to the case, or acted of his own will – only their anonymous presence appears to be undeniable. Well, it’s at least been said that they can curse someone with a fatal illness or kill by remote-controlled snakes. In the village, next door the son of a primary school teacher died a few weeks ago, whereupon the irritated father summoned his traditional coroner. After the pseud-judgment, some family members went for a meetup with the arbitrarily accused witch. As punishment, they cut her head and upper legs open by the use of machetes until they’ve spotted a police canoe passing by. Some landed temporarily in the jail. But as the sorceress generally didn’t enjoy a magnificent reputation, her abusers bought themselves free with a symbolic amount of Kinas.

Although the mystical background for Patricia’s death may be clarified, her spirit is neither appeased nor free – Suddenly, I  hear the bestial roaring of a pig – which has just been sacrificed to usher the final separation of Patricia’s spirit and her body. But its death automatically triggers an act of revenge within the spirit world. Patricia’s Spirit now teams up with the spirit of the dead pig, and together they are taking revenge on her killer. – Yes, the event of dying in PNG is damn complicated. Same for taking revenge. That happening shall also clarify why pigs in Papua New Guinea are considered as valuable as women. I spend the rest of the day with Richard and his marijuana on the Sepik bank. Glancing beyond our little campfire reveals the silhouettes of about 200 mourners, which have by now made themselves comfortable in Jacob’s garden – and there are more and more coming. “Good stuff hey ?!” Richard points his bearded chin towards the neighbors on the other side of the river and says solemnly: “We barter! Weed for radios, Weed for fish, weed for batteries. Every now and then Sago for fish or vice versa.” They used to be sworn enemies and heads have mutually chopped off in order to eventually pile them in the trophy galleries. Until that one day when Palambei rushed over in their war canoes once more to loot and lynch (no one knows anymore who had started). As they were used to, the whole lot of children, women, and elders tried to escape, but a village beauty wasn’t running fast enough. One of Palambei’s invaders was able to grasp her. And married her. The war was over, village brotherhood sworn and Richard’s grandmother was named the heroine of both river banks.

Jacob has pitched a little tent next to the grave, as he’s traditionally not allowed to leave Patricia’s side for a week or so. Today’s the last part of the spiritual ceremony. Richard volunteers and thus I tag along, following him to the Haus Tambaram. Embraced by palm trees the ancestral worship house sits on a perfectly trimmed lawn with the “Blood Stones” just nearby – the name refers to a tormenting past in which indigenous tribesmen had smashed their head trophies on these bloodstones in order to celebrate their triumphant rampage. Such macabre customs are long gone, thanks to the energetic influence of German missionaries. A merit of Christianity – as to mention some good things about mass converting at times. The Haus Tambaran with its nickname “Paiambit” is also the Hausboy here in Palambei. Additionally, it serves as a vault for all the strange artifacts and carvings of worldwide fame, which brought the tiny village onto the radar of many international art collectors. Last but not least; Sukundumi rests here – CEO of all Sepik spirits. And right now, Sukundumi is watching how a puzzled chicken slaps against a wooden post. With its death, Patricia’s spirit is finally released from earthly anguish. Whether I enjoy my time in Palambei, asks village council Aaron Maling, who in turn receives all my pent-up questions. Richard seemingly senses what this will be all about and waves a goodbye. At the very beginning, there was Sukundumi. He created the land, the Sepik, everything. Then, along with the crocodile spirit, he created mankind. At will, he transforms from the shape of a crocodile into a human, a snake, a bat, and if he can’t decide, he possibly goes for half pig half fish. On the recommendation of the missionaries, the spirits were promoted to agents of the one real God, and Sukundumi got degraded for Head of Departments. Aaron points to the almighty relic of their ancestors, also known as Sukundumi’s favorite place in the Sepik – A rotten chair.

The Joseph K. Case (Part 3) – Grand Finale

A week and 2000 Kina (four guards à 500 Kina) after his arrest, tour guide Joseph K. is on the loose again. The Bush telegraph just reported that Joseph K. rented himself a village bitch from tiny Yanburu for not more than 1000 Kina per day, and is currently riding her across Papua New Guinea’s hinterland. On expenses of an Israeli couple of course. Aaron explains that Joseph K. has also traded Palambei’s artifacts and artwork to a German collector without paying the bills. Since the authorities have failed several times to tame the thief, Palambeis’ wizard clique would now decide on his whereabouts. Aaron swings his index finger to the rotten chair. Provided that all clan members agree (no one doubts that), they will sacrifice a chicken (neither should this be doubted) to get in touch with Sukundumi who will put Joseph’s life an end.

Episode 7 – Crocodile Men

Palambei is one of the last seven places in the Sepik basin where the scarification ritual is performed until now. With the traditional houses in other villages falling gradually apart and a fair part of the youth already staying away from the razor blades, the tradition wanders on the edge of extinction. According to local customs, the boys enter the Haus Tambaran when reaching about ten years of life. If they feel mature enough for the ritual, they move over to the Spirit House “Nambaraman”. Once in a while, outsiders come here for the initiation. But only if the parents can afford it. Normally, the scarification-master, his extense stock of betel nuts plus the compensation for his absence in the garden, and the recovery costs for their boy sum up to at least 300 USD for the entire four weeks. Two weeks ago, a set of 15 boys went through scarification, one student didn’t make it because of an exceptional high blood loss. Whereas the survivors sit now all joyful on their little stools and fan the flies off their bodies.

Their wounds had been cleaned two days after the procedure with a natural oil and mud in order to prevent infections. With the scars winching elegantly around the chests, the back, and the upper arms, the totem tells the story of the crocodile – thus their ancestors. Symbolically, the young men meant to be separated by these ornamental scars from the women’s world and charged with the power of the crocodile spirit. There are two different designs to chose from, which mainly differ by a striking emblem on the back. I suspect a star, as a synonym for the vastness of the Sepik, or maybe a diamond that imitates the purity of the river. “Crocodile vagina”, correct me, Aaron. Having the option between female and male crocodile scars, the scarification provides more equality than PNG’s society. Ironically, the boys know nothing of this circumstance and are looking forward to showing off with their cool star sign. Actually, they have no idea what will happen to them during the three to four weeks in the Nambaraman, I’m informed by Espie and Norbert, which were both initiated at the age of 16. Immediately after receiving the cultural totems the boys will learn the tactics of crocodile hunting, natural history and about the enemies which had fought their grandfathers. In roughly two weeks, then they will be released into the wilderness as „Crocodile Hunters. Whereas the official nickname “Crocodile Man” is only given to them who have studied on to become a Warlock.

Aaron is such a crocodile man, unfortunately, he won’t tell me what sort superpowers he’s possessing. At least, he reveals the secret of a magic formula, which probably is the most crazy at all. The very first time Aaron had heard about the of teleportation was from his uncle, who once called the spirits, then traveled at the speed of light to Australia, stole some biscuits, and beamed himself back to his stilt house before dinner. Too bad that the trick only works with smoked human flesh. Too bad that the trick only works with smoked human flesh.

Anyway, here’s how to practice the magic spell at home (please follow the sequence properly):

  • Fetch some human flesh of a close family member, preferably a finger, heart, penis, or vagina, so the sorcery works best. Tip: sneak in at night, and use the element of surprise
  • If you cheat, and you’re using instead flesh of your enemy, the spell requires compensation, which is either the life of your wife or your firstborn
  • Smoke the human flesh slowly until you’ve reached “well done”
  • Rub a piece of that very flesh around your lips, then enjoy eating it next to a fire
  • Say the spell and check what happens
  • Following these steps, you are now strong enough to talk with the powerful spirit and to catch it
  • Travel anywhere, quickly and inexpensively
  • Tip: Use the trick for attacks and to surprise your foes

Sepik 2018 – the ritual is still practiced secretly in Palambei and elsewhere. Aaron tells me that the studies of teleportation had been offered to him. Quite an honor some would say, but Aaron hesitates; “The old teacher has even smoked human flesh in stock, but I am afraid of the compensation.” Aaron’s wife, his firstborn, and the Australian biscuits industry will thank him.

Back with the mourners, at the small campfire on the river bank with Richard & Co. The ideal place to admire how the daily “San go don” (Tok Pisin for sunset) plays with beguiling color combinations and releases the stage right on time for distant storms that pounce on the mirroring Sepik with full force as if all wizards, druids, and witches call their spirits simultaneously. Every now and then a beam of a flashlight interrupts the natural spectacle. I trust that fumbling with flashlights is apart from “Sharing Stories” the nightly favorite of every Sepik dweller. They’d passionately shine from the shore at passing dugouts, logging vessels, or just lighting up suspicious activities in the opposite village. Whether it is boredom or precautions only Sukundumi might know. I picture the same scenario without the flashlights, T-shirts and solar cells, that’s how it must the have looked like centuries ago; Mothers breastfeed their offspring, men talking the talk, midges bite all of them, a parrot’s doing a mating call, naked kiddos flit around and whip stray dogs to flight, and one guy with the crocodile spear wades down to the shore. Richard lights a joint. If he’d miss something I’m asking him; “Not at all, I don’t feel comfortable in the city, I’m a village boy – a Mangi Peles. Out here I decide about my time.” With him having said the keywords “time” it occurs to me that I have already survived two weeks without my mobile phone. Even now in Palambei, no check-FOMO, mostly because their cellular antenna is down since already three months. Rumor has it that the Digicel technician from Wewak was eaten by crocodiles. Everything in this moment is live, people laugh together, cry together, praise or insult others – no heavenly conditions, but the real life with all its emotional hardship. It is my last evening in Palambei and I memorize it all, this mystical tropical world and its tales, the secrets of Sukundumi and his Sepik – The source of life where it begins and, for most ends.

Adolf is picking me up, “PNG Time” (two hours later than agreed) with his mini dugout. Together we row to Kaminabit, a hamlet on the Lower Sepik. I get the smaller women’s paddle. And the women’s place at the lookout. The singing Adolf, in turn, balances the canoe from the rear with one of his feet on the shaky edge. Downstream from Kaminabit it turns out getting either inconvenient or expensive, or both. In the Haus Tambaran, I discuss my travel options with the local village council. Either I may purchase a canoe for some Kinas and paddle through pirate-infested waters to Angoram. Alternatively, I could also hire a captain who brings me to the nearest village – but no farther. Or I’ll jump on the water taxi and jet back upriver to Pagwi. I place myself in front of the canoe, next to the 1,775 fish. A smelly delivery which is on its way to a crocodile farm in Pagwi. Henceforth, all the circulating fishing ladies will be kindly asked to contribute something. We are truly on a divine mission. Per fish, the farmers will pay 1 Kina (0.30 USD). After deducting the gasoline costs the crew remains around 700 Kina to restore their village church.

Episode 8 – Expect the Unexpected

Policeman Nelson lets me doze a few hours on his floor until the first collective transport arrives in Pagwi. To Wewak nobody wants this morning, instead, I’m sharing the ride with a caravan which drives to Yambi for the weekly market. Hundreds of villagers flock here to trade their tobacco, vegetables, coconuts, cat fur and God knows what – Until the peaceful setting escalates into a street fight. And in this tumult of shouts, machetes, and slingshots Nelson is firing a warning shot. Hearing gunpowder soothes the situation for a few minutes, then it rekindles again. Now the whole bunch of market women seeks shelter in the trucks. Although I already sit for a few minutes in a minivan with driver Ignasius who has announced a journey to Wewak, I’m watching the wild west scene in discomfort. A stone caught the side of our vehicle, reason enough for Ignasius to drive off for good. On the way to the main road, I see the market stalls getting looted by anarchs stacking batteries and tobacco under their arms and running all over the place. One last scene to remember is how a clique marches over to lonely Nelson, ready the solve problem by machetes. Besides, they seem to be well aware of the fact that they’d probably have to sacrifice one or two from their own ranks. We roll on and gradually the adrenaline dissipated. „A normal market Saturday in Papua New Guinea,” comments Eduard who’s sitting next to me, adding that this fomented chaos was part of a plan to eventually chase the traders away and rob their goods.

Under the pretext that individual travels in developing countries may cause many issues, caution would be better outsourced to the tour provider. At the same time, one would miss the most important lessons, such an exotic citizenship can provide. And last of all, thinking critical, who are traveling solo, will always be blessed with local support. In fabled Papua New Guinea, the only thing that might get stolen is what couldn’t be more relative anyway, and that is time. By all means, Expect the Unexpected!

Images: Crocodile Festival Ambunti/ Sepik and its inhabitants

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