From threats to tales: experiencing the Sepik

Trip Start Jul 14, 2009
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Trip End Aug 09, 2009


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Where I stayed
Kanganaman guest house

Flag of Papua New Guinea  , East Sepik,
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

We woke to some lovely bird sounds – but mostly to the crows of the roosters … which seemed to start around 3am, just as we stopped hearing sounds of men returning from the men's house. (The radio/boom-box stopped a little after midnight.) It was also fun to listen to the sounds of the village waking up: the roosters, women talking, kids laughing (and whining). I stayed under my mosquito netting, just taking it all in.

We did eventually get up and hang out outside for a bit before breakfast (paw paw, pb&j sandwiches, coffee). After breakfast, Albert shared a map of the Sepik with us, showing us the highlights we would be missing. Another trip, I guess.

After all the women of the village set off for market, we followed them. The track seemed a bit less muddy than yesterday, despite all the traffic.

At one point, Albert found a woman making sego and asked her if we could view what she was doing. We crossed the small creek to find her sitting near a fallen palm. She had an adze-looking tool and was shaving the base of the palm. The shavings will later be combined with water, then pressed into a clay bock. It is later combined with banana into a paste that is fairly sweet to the taste.

As we were saying good-bye, three women, on their way to market, said something to Albert. He turned to us and said, "We’re lucky. This is their private road. Yamokers are not allowed to use it, but they say we can. The other road is so bad, but this one is good." (NB: “road” equals single-file foot track through grass.) So we started to follow the women … but very soon we heard a man yelling. We turned to see a large, shirtless man carrying a machete, running towards us, clearly saying that we could not use this trail. Albert and the women tried to argue, but he was having none of it. So we retraced our steps to where we had crossed and went back over to the trail we used yesterday. Another, younger man, also appeared, blocking our way up the trail. As we walked down “our” side, we could hear the older man yelling at the women, clearly furious that they had extended an invitation to us. Given the reputation of PNG men for domestic violence, we hope the women are okay. We asked Albert if the men had wanted us to pay to use their road, but he said, No, it was just a taboo.

Soon, we reached the market. No one was buying – all were selling, but we don’t think the people from the river had arrived yet. (The market is about half-way between the river and the inland villages and functions both on barter (sego for fish) as well as on exchange for cash … but you better have exact change, because no one seems to carry any cash.) We bought pineapple and tried a piece of cooked sego, which tasted like chewy banana pancake. But the weather was really hot, and the bugs were attacking, and we’ve seen markets before, and we were already over an hour late for our canoe, so we opted to get going.

Finally reached the river and climbed on board our pirogue. We had a nice long trip down the river. Most villages are not visible from the water, but we could see the trails heading back towards them. We made a brief stop to see a not-very-interesting Spirit House – though the crocodile masks were interesting – and at the boatman’s house for food.

We arrived just before lunch at Kanganaman, our village for the night. The guest house here is lovely: surrounded by hibiscus hedge, the house is raised and has a covered porch with cane chairs and a table – very pleasant and welcoming. First, we swam in the river, to cool off. It was very pleasant, but the river is so muddy, you can’t see your hand when it’s three inches below the surface. We were told that no crocodiles swam here – and opted to believe it. It was either that, or stay very hot and sweaty. After our swim, we sat on the porch and had lunch – not local foods but tomatoes, cucumbers, crackers, rolls, and spam … also pineapple and bananas.

After lunch, we walked to see the Spirit House in Kanganaman village. Much larger than the others we have seen, with two stories (although nothing is upstairs). Also, it’s the only one we’ve seen without grass hanging below the rafters, hiding the interior. Instead, they have a wall of plants built around the whole lawn and building, to hide the men when they’re inside. They plan to replace one of the main beams and have built a ramp/scaffold for that purpose.

While we were here, Albert explained that their ancestors would bring back the skulls of enemies killed in battle. They would pull the flesh off the skull, mix that flesh with the meat of dog, and feed it to the young boys, in hopes to make them strong. The purpose of mixing it with dog meat was to reduce the chances that the boys would develop the taste for human flesh. Yesterday, Counselor Mike had told me that the people of Yamok were not cannibals but that the river people were. Yamokers tried to fill in the stream to prevent the river people from coming inland. From what we saw yesterday, I think inland people and river people still don’t like each other.

Our next stop was a village across the river, with two Spirit Houses. We had to walk about 20-30 minutes inland. The path had no shade, but we carried parasols, which helped very much. In the first House, we sat and enjoyed green coconut, then went upstairs to shop among the carved artifacts. Found one we liked (cane woven on the outside of a mask) but decided to check out the selection at the other House. We didn’t’ see much we liked here, so we returned and purchased the other artifact.

Then we walked back … so hot! … and had another swim once we were back at the guest house. We sat on the porch again, but the setting sun started to pour in, and, without a breeze, it became very hot.

Dinner was river fish (good – but very bony), sausages, cabbage, rice, pineapple, and bananas.

Once dinner was over, and we had enjoyed the sunset, we set out for the Spirit House. It was almost dark by the time we arrived, but the moon was full – and the sky was clear – so we were able to see the shapes of the spirit masks well. We were the first to arrive, but, soon, others began to appear. We arranged ourselves on one of the shelves that act as seats, and Albert, very thoughtfully, surrounded us with mosquito coils.

We spent the next several hours in the Spirit House. Sometimes, the men just talked, which is what they generally do at night, and drank super-sweet tea. But they also played drums and bamboo flues and Albert told us stories. Paul and Keegan offered betel nut, tea, and sugar to the chief to thank him for allowing us to visit the Spirit House.

When the men played the drums, one or two would stand at each drum. It seemed like one would call out the name of a rhythm (e.g., “Hi-Vol”) and then they’d all play. I asked if this were the case, and one guy said Yes … but someone else said they’re just sounds for different things, like when the men come to do work for the Spirit House, like cutting the lawn, or announcing flying foxes. Not sure I see the difference, but never mind.

The long (2.5 metre?) bamboo flutes are played two at a time .one man plays the “song” and the other plays the “dance”. First, two old men (“masters”) played the flutes, then the old man played with a younger man, who is learning. Every so often, when they played alternatively, it sounded like a didgeridoo, without the extra rumble. The flute music continued into the night. Once it started, we no longer heard the sound of the boom box elsewhere in the village. Albert says the village goes quiet when they hear the drums or the flutes.

Albert told us three stories … well, two and a half, as he had to cut one short, as it contained clan secrets that he couldn’t’ share. The third, he gave us a synopsis but could not provide details because it contained clan secrets as well.

But here’s the first one:

A woman used a stone axe every day, and used it so hard, she broke all its teeth. The stone axe spirit was very mad. One day, the woman’s grandmother asked her to go fishing, saying they would leave early the next day. The stone axe heard this, and, at dawn, assumed the shape of the grandmother. They got to the lake and climbed in the canoe, then the stone axe spirit worked its magic to make the woman need to pee. The woman got off on a log in the middle of the lake, and the stone axe revealed itself and abandoned her. The woman cried, then asked the fish to tell their crocodile father to come save her. The fish did, but the father didn’t believe them and sent and series of creatures – turtles, other fish, his first born son – to verify. Then he went himself, saw the woman, rescued her, and brought her back to his home. They married, and she became pregnant … but instead of giving birth to a boy, she laid two eggs, which hatched, revealing eagles. Through the two eagles, she got a new grass skirt and was eventually returned to her brothers’ house. The eagles stayed with their crocodile father.

It was an interesting story. I don’t know if it has a moral or is just entertainment.
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