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The Smiles of Papua New Guinea

Author: Ann Swinford
Date of Trip: May 2014

“When you smile, open your eyes really wide. Smile with your whole face. The Papua New Guineans smile with their whole face.” This was the advice of my guide Greg Stathakis, who has been to PNG thirty three times.

He was right. We walked through the market and everyone smiled and wanted their picture taken. They didn’t want to be paid for the pictures, they enjoyed the interaction with us, proudly displaying their vegetables. PNG is a photographer’s dream. People are very happy to see you and have their pictures taken.

PNG gets a lot of bad press, but we felt safe throughout our trip. I was a single on a group trip to PNG, booked though PNG can be difficult to negotiate and although I have traveled completely independently in the past, I thought it was prudent to join a group.

Our guide, Greg Stathakis, is a gem. I have never had a guide who is this good and pays so much attention to detail and education. Before I booked, he was able to send me contacts for recommendations, which were enthusiastic. After I booked, I got periodic emails from Greg with pictures, articles and recent news items on PNG. He also sent complimentary DVDs- I had a choice of movies like “First Contact” which is original footage from the 1930’s when the Leahys from Australia first met the Highlanders or Attenborough’s Birds of Papua New Guinea. He provided much useful detailed information and he helped keep the interest and excitement up. I could send him questions from my reading and he gave me useful insight and information.

The trip began when the group met in Sydney. This allowed us to meet with his friends Helen and Paul Dennett who have lived in PNG for 17 years and still travel there often. They answered questions about art and culture and provided helpful perspectives. . We flew into Port Moresby from Sydney on Air Niugini, which provided better food and service than I have had on most of my recent flights in the US. Both Hollywood movies and local documentaries were provided for the 4 hour flight.

We began our tour in Port Moresby. The Airways Hotel is clean, modern with free WIFI in the lounge and western food. We visited the Parliament Building which has a soaring entrance built to simulate a Haus Tambaran or spirit house of the Sepik. The façade contains the declaration, “ We assert by the virtue of the constitution that all power belongs to the people acting through their elected representatives” and is decorated with mosaic tiles which show the country’s natural riches from the land, sea and sky.

Port Moresby feels safe from a bus. Our guides were insistent that we not walk alone or venture out without them. As a result, we had no difficulties and I had no concern for my safety.

We then went to the Mount Hagen in the Highlands, staying at Rondon Ridge, which is a scenic one hour drive from town. The lodge overlooks Mt Hagen which in the morning is shrouded in fog. Each room has a sitting area and en suite with reliable hot running water and electricity. As lovely as the rooms are, I spent my time in the lodge sitting area which has a panoramic view over the valley and the flower and water gardens on the property. At Rondon we took a nature walk and visited a local school. We were visiting an upper level class and CJ, one of our group, gave a little talk in both Tok Pisin and English to the class. She even cracked a couple of jokes that all the kids laughed at. Our group decided that our song for the trip would be “You are my Sunshine”- something that we all knew the lyrics to. It was a bit embarrassing to have the locals sing their inspiring national anthem which says, “O arise all you sons of this land, Let us sing of our joy to be free, Praising God and rejoicing to be Papua New Guinea”, and answering with “You are my sunshine” but our efforts were appreciated. Near the end of the trip a village Head man said that he had never been sung to by white people. Well, that was a challenge, so I began the hokey pokey so that we could have dancing and singing and we did 3 verses much to their delight.

I went to PNG because I saw a picture of a Huli man and said, “I must see this with my own eyes”. I was not disappointed. We showed up at a Huli Village where tribesmen were preparing for a dance. We were able to get up close and take photos of the fierce-looking Huli warriors. When I told them that I came to PNG to see THEM, I got the occasional smile.

Prior to the trip I went to museums to see the art. It didn’t speak to me and I figured that I wouldn’t spend any money. I was so desperately wrong. The Sepik was an Art Fair on Steroids. The local work was amazing. The local villages did not know we were coming until they heard our outboard motor. They would run and get their art and meet us at the dock. We were lucky enough to enjoy the Crocodile dance at Yentchen and a welcome dance at Kanganaman.

Kanganaman is an iconic Sepik Village where we were welcomed by dancers wearing huge woven straw outfits-effigies. In the picture you see I said to the dancers, “Boy, it’s really hot outside, how are you coping?” I got an answer in fluent English, “Yes it’s really hot in here!” I answered, “Thank you! This is a wonderful dance and I appreciate you doing it for us!” It was such a lovely moment.

We enjoyed the Haus Tamboran and then we learned that one of the locals, Vincent Yarame, 43, is a renowned carver. We convinced him to take us to his house and here in the middle of the Sepik, with no running water or electricity, he showed us a gorgeous sculpture which is destined for a collection in Canada.

The highlight of the trip was the Tumbuna Singsing with dances about a dozen tribes. Their preparations, carefully donning makeup and costumes was part of the excitement. During the dancing we could get up close and personal since there were only about 20 tourists there. After the parade of dancing tribespeoples, we went out onto the field to talk and dance with the dancers. While dancing with a group of women and I said, “The women dancers have so much more energy than the men. You are beautiful!” The response was, “We do more work than men and we are stronger and dance stronger”. I was not surprised.

I have been all over the world, and I have seen amazing scenes and people and animals. As far as people are concerned, immersing yourself into PNG is an opportunity second to none. Greg Stathakis is an excellent guide and interpreter of the culture. He can introduce you to people on a level you would never get without him. We got to talk to guides and women intimately to understand their culture and views of the world. This part of the world is changing very rapidly and the time to go is now. I am trying to figure out when I can go again.

Things to know:

All trips to PNG are relatively expensive, because of the mining booms and scarcity of dependable accommodations.
Dates of tour were May 10-24, 2014
Tour cost: $9300, inclusive of all meals, accommodations, touring for 14 days, sharing a twin bedded room, which included 2 nights in Sydney, and 12 in PNG. Single supplement depends on availability.
Agent: New Guinea Travel, 800-676-1241 or
Flights were extra: Delta from DTW to SYD and BNE to DTW for $1920. AirNuigini SYD to POM and POM to BNE was $820 Charters in PNG were about $2550.
I spent about $300 US on artifacts but could have spent much more. Greg always seemed to have extra kina in his pocket and was a local bank in a pinch. I changed money in Australia from US dollars to Kina.
PNG VISAs are complimentary on arrival. Australia Electronic Visa is $20 AUD available on line.

Customs: Australia is very worried about products coming in due to agricultural restrictions. If you can avoid staying in Australia after being in PNG it would make things easier. Australia will sequester your artifacts overnight for $30 AUD and then accompany them and you up to the luggage check the next day to insure that the artifacts leave the country.

Clothing: Laundry prices were variable. I took a clothesline and washed most of my own. You do need a polartec for the highlands, which can get chilly, layers to something lighter for the Sepik, which can be warm and humid. The mosquitoes mean business, so take DEET.

If I go again I will bring much more bubble wrap and a complete roll of duct tape for packing artifacts. I will bring a larger duffel (mine was 22 X 15) and throw in a collapsed box or two. This will not have put me overweight but will protect my artifacts from the thugs at the airlines. Luggage limits were 22# checked and 15# carry-on. They weighed the checked piece.

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