Experiencing Huli culture

Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Tari, Papua New Guinea
Everyone in the group was excited to see the Huli people and Huli warriors. This was supposed to be the material of "National Geographic" articles. Still though, our reception in Papua New Guinea had been anything but friendly up until now. The different wave lengths of thinking were palpable. Service, friendliness, congeniality – not go mention hygiene – were all completely varied concepts between our two cultures. The locals simply didn't make a welcoming impression, and I surely wasn’t the only one to feel this way. As politically incorrect as it may be to say, in the 50+ countries I’d visited I’d never experienced a people that had such intense body odor. Between the unwashed clothes and the unwashed bodies, the odor was often almost overbearing. 

The morning for us started with a bird-watching tour, on which 6-7 of us participated . We drove further along the main (unpaved) road but didn’t see any of the famed birds. We did though see many large trucks traversing this highway, which at least gave us some cultural insight on this sightseeing tour. The views were spectacular. As the sun rose the fog started burning off. In the valleys and in between the mountain and volcanic peaks was a thin veil of clouds. It was majestic. And when the trucks weren’t roaring passed, we could at least hear the birds we couldn’t see. Along the road we also saw a couple of wrecked trucks. We were told that the drivers go for 3-5 days from the coast in to Tari, mostly hauling pipeline for a gas plant. Invariably some of the drivers drink and/or fall asleep behind the wheel. At one recent wreck not all of the cargo had been unloaded so there was a guard with a machete making sure things didn’t disappear.

After the bird-watching tour, the rest of the group joined for the Huli culture tour . This was going to be interesting. Our first stop was to see a traditional sing-sing of the Huli warriors in traditional costume and make-up. Between the headdresses, face-paint, and body odor, these guys made an imposing impression. It really was a completely different culture. The dance and singing wasn’t intricate by western standards, but it was so interesting to see that for this culture that dance and chant had remained almost constant for thousands of years.

From there it was off to the hair-growing camp. Here men are, under the supervision of a shaman, growing their hair for 18 months in order to create the wigs for the head-dresses. This was such a bizarre concept. These men’s sole purpose is to grow their hair. They do not wash themselves for 18 months, but rather a few times of day are led by a shaman to a creak where his blessed water is sprayed on their hair and prayers spoken. As one can imagine, the smell was potent. The shaman was able to tell if these men were pure enough to gain entry into this “school”, and through the help of smoked substances, was able to gain a spiritual capacity through which to help their hair grow . Ok.

The third stop was a village to see how the family structure worked. Here ladies were weaving rope and drying palm leaves that were used as blankets. Men demonstrated their arrow shooting ability and how they made fire. Perhaps the most funny and interesting was when a bench broke under the weight of some of our group and the head women of the tribe let out a diatribe to her men who made something of such poor quality. It was quite a spectacle. She also decided at some point it was too hot so took off her top, which was quite an unnecessary sight.

Following a rudimentary lunch, many in the group were eager to cut things short or call it quits. The impending daily afternoon thunderstorm was also nearing. Indeed, by the last stop – a visit to the medicine man – it was starting to drizzle. Only 5-6 of us decided to pay that area a visit. We instantly noticed through a unique scar that one of the medicine men was also one of the Huli warriors . Perhaps they have multiple roles, or perhaps everything was a bit staged; it was hard to tell. In any case, here a boy was suffering from the passing of his ill-willed father. The father, apparently not a good man, had tainted the spirits of his ancestors, so the medicine men were wanting to heal the boy’s illness and appease the ancient spirits. All of this was uncovered by the medicine man reading the mud through which he ran a stick. He then proceeded to a creek where he conducted a ceremony with a variety of rocks. A dance was then conducted as the rain started to pick up. Hilariously, the Huri men then produced umbrellas under which they stood. The mix of this ancient culture with medicine men under rainbow-colored umbrellas as we stood there in the rain was too much. We cut the demonstration short and returned to our bus. It was incredibly interesting to see how this culture lived – and perhaps still does live. At the same time the tour was a bit much for the group to handle and it was time to call it quits .

In the hotel they showed a film called “First Contact” that showed what happened when the Australians first came to Papua New Guinea and how the indigenous reacted. It was extremely interesting. There was film footage of when the first aircraft landed in certain areas, how the locals reacted to the gramophone records, how they thought the tin can was a gift from the ancient spirits, etc. The film was a perfect compliment to the tours that day.

The rest of the afternoon was spent planning the following day’s flights. We, along with one of the PC12s piloted by Uli and Urs, were going to break from the group the following day and head straight down to Australia. The others, for more of a romantic beach holiday, were going to head towards Fiji. For us the most direct airport from which to conduct exit customs was Daru. Still though, we hadn’t heard if customs was going to be possible, and then also no news on if indeed even jet fuel would be available for sale there for the PC12. After long discussions, we decided to forgo landing there and just leave the country without customs. Hopefully this would save us time, aggravation, and money. After the debacle at Vanimo, the last thing we needed was to be holed up in Daru just for a stamp. What we just weren’t sure about is how the Australians would react if we didn’t have the proper GenDecs or exit stamps from Papua.

As with every other day on this trip, tomorrow was going to be an interesting one….
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