By Ericka Hamburg
Below us, the Sepik River twists through a carpet of spongy green vegetation, like a squiggly brown ribbon of toothpaste. A patchwork of villages -- straw boxes hedged by strips of cultivation-- hug its curves. The pilot of our plane (little more than a winged SUV) searches breaks in the mist for a dirt landing strip.
Soon, we’ve dropped down through the clouds, landed, and spilled to the ground, to be met by villagers, dogs, handlers, and a rush of steamy air.
The MV Sepik Spirit, a roomy box of a boat, awaits. We settle in to our rooms in happy anticipation of our riverine safari; four days among the artistically-prodigious Iatmul people. Reciting the itinerary twists the tongue; Tumbunum, Mindabit, Kaminibit, Palembai, Kanganaman.
The first outsiders to penetrate Papua New Guinea’s interior faced extreme discomfort; mosquitoes, leeches, being smothered in a black shroud of flies. Steep serrated ranges and impenetrable hidden valleys isolated its inhabitants from outsiders and each other, with a history of clan wars, head hunting, cannibalism and general mayhem.
Today we’re coddled tourists, glimpsing village life, taking snaps, spending kina.
Our first visit is bustling Tumbunum, with an established history of western contact. The hum of our motor means commerce; from the deck I see kids and dogs race along the floodplain to meet us. Stairs cut into the steep river bank mud are redefined by some quick work with a shovel.
We ascend through a gauntlet of masks, decorative carvings, hooks, totems, stools, woven animals, and phallic gourds, a gesture to tourist demand. Bilas, jewelry fashioned from shells and seeds, and billums, woven string carryalls, are spred in profusion across palm leaves.
I notice a captivating carved bat. The artist stands besides it, and behind him, his wife and a graduated lineup of seven children, two inches apart in height.
“Flying fox,” he says.
“Yes I know – I like them,” I say.
“They are very sweet to eat,” he says.
The blak bokis, or fruit bat, is a clan symbol and recurring visual motif.
The world’s museums house signature art from this region, appropriated over years of past expeditions. But high quality work is still being created, and good carvers are rock stars. Art sales supplement a subsistence living from fishing, hunting, and cultivation. A mask can translate to medicine, mosquito nets, pigs, or outboard motors for dugouts.
Villagers dress for the occasion, shelving shorts and t-shirts for woven penis gourds, faces slathered in white, elaborate shell headresses. Perhaps the heightened exoticism increases sales.
In Mindabit, a sinewy gent taps me on the shoulder, gestures me to follow. We dosey-do through dangling clusters of orchids, past skittering chickens and pigs, and stop at a small muddy enclosure. He has captured two medium-sized crocodiles, or pukpuks, and wants me to take their picture.
Crocodiles loom large in Sepik mythology, in carvings, masks, and as canoe prows. These penmates cling to each other in sleep, their fate uncertain.
We return to the market, where bargaining is minimal; first price, second price. Back onboard, our treasures are labeled, sprayed for insects, and added to the growing pile of artifacts to be shipped home.
The Spirit Houses, or Haus Tambaran, that anchor Sepik spirituality soar like tropical cathedrals. These are men’s places, mostly off-limits to women and visitors.
But in Kanganaman we are welcomed inside; I haul myself up the log ladder into the cavernous smoky darkness. Light leaking through the split palm floor reveals a solemn wall of guys dispersed among stunning ritual objects; spirit masks, an elaborately-carved orator’s chair, and sturdy hooks, formerly used to hang skulls. The humidity is dense; the grass below a fifteen-foot drop.
Beneath the Haus, carvers rest in the shade among more stunning ceremonial wares, awaiting customers. By this time, many of us have spent our limit. But this is our last Sepik village; we are unlikely to return.
I reach deep into my pack to forage for more kina.