Dressed to Thrill
Published: June 2009
By Bob Morris
In Papua New Guinea, life's a runway. Fashion writer Bob Morris makes a pilgrimage to style paradise
People go to Papua New Guinea for all sorts of reasons. Prospectors go to mine for gold. Biologists go to study the DNA of some tribes and the medicinal practices of others. Margaret Mead went to observe how children are raised. Tourists go to hike Mount Wilhelm, a tropical mountain with snow at its peak. They also go to scuba dive in the pristine waters and to see the world's greatest variety of birds of paradise (the flying kind).
Me?I went for the outfits. And I wasn't disappointed.
"Most Papua New Guineans are exhibitionists," my friend Nancy Sullivan, an anthropologist who has lived there for 11 years, was telling me as we cruised the Solomon Sea on our way to Papua New Guinea's Trobriand Islands. "They dress to make an impact." It sounded good to me. After all, I'd just come from the fall Fashion Week in New York City, where even models behave like zombies on the runways, and the rest of us—writers, buyers, editors, and others—work at being so deeply understated that smiling too much, or wearing anything besides black, is considered a statement.
Imagine my delight, then, as I stepped onto the Trobriand island of Kaileuna and met people decked out for daily life with shells, feathers, party streamers, and rubber bands. We saw face tattoos, straw armbands stuffed with flowers, pop-top rings in ears, and frangipani garlands on heads—a lost world of great hair, makeup, and jewelry. Even the baby girls were wearing tortoiseshell earrings and necklaces of red chama shells. It's never too early, it seems, to accessorize in the Trobriands.
"Being as beautiful as possible is considered an obligation in Trobriand culture," said Nancy as we made our way around a village of straw huts on stilts ringed by well-tended gardens. "It's a way of expressing family wealth, pride, and creativity." Bronislaw Malinowski, a Polish anthropologist who lived on these islands during World War I, noted that teenagers are encouraged to explore their sexuality before they marry. For Trobrianders, seduction, by beauty or by sorcery, is as much a part of life as are gardening and fishing. "Here, beauty is a vehicle for getting your way," Nancy told me.
All this preening explains the continuing success of the Kula Ring, the traditional trading system. Prominent Trobrianders bearing treasures visit partners on neighboring islands, and the flashier a man (and the canoe he rides in on), the better his chance of a good trade. And what are these men trading?Jewelry! Big, bold necklaces and armbands of giant kina shells are the status symbols. In Papua New Guinea, more is definitely more.
We saw some pretty extravagant styles on our second night in the Trobes, when islanders from Tawema village came aboard our modest cruise ship, a catamaran called the Melanesian Discoverer, for a "sing sing." While men with flowers in their hair played guitars, a dozen young women did a gentle line dance for us. "We came all the way here," joked one passenger, "and they do the macarena." It's true that the dancing looked familiar, but there was something otherworldly about it too. It wasn't just the red banana-leaf skirts, cockatoo feathers, and skin rubbed with coconut oil and sprinkled with yellow petals. It was the way the women and children looked us in the eye when they asked us to dance. We couldn't refuse. Even Marian, an optician from Asheville, North Carolina, who had a migraine, couldn't hold back. She danced as if possessed.
We felt we'd fallen under a spell. After the performers left, Theodore, the ship's shy engineer, started strumming a guitar and singing, Elvis-style, "I can't help falling in love with you." I got out my ukulele and contributed "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." We'd been granted permission to be as silly as we wanted.
After a week at sea (playing kazoos, pennywhistles, and ukuleles, and doing the hokey-pokey in villages), we stopped at the Siassi Group, islands northwest of the Trobriands, in the volcanic belt between New Britain and New Guinea. While these islanders aren't as flashy as the Trobrianders, they're hardly minimalists. In a village on Malai, four men appeared wearing sailboat-like headdresses, grass skirts, and leg warmers made of gauze from the local dispensary. They beat their kundu drums, chanted a ceremonial song, and let me enter their circle to sing "Anything Goes." Before we left, a group of giggling children attacked Nancy with flowers for her hair. Free makeover! "You hold still," they yelled at her in Tok Pisin, one of Papua New Guinea's few standardized languages (there are more than 800 dialects); the name is pidgin for "talk pidgin." When she asked them to pose for a photograph, they practically ran us down to get into the frame. It was a reverse paparazzi thing. "Thank you," they all said after we took their pictures.
No, thank you.
It isn't just the people who have exhibitionist tendencies in Papua New Guinea. The land, which makes up the eastern half of the second-largest island in the world (Irian Jaya, part of Indonesia, occupies the western half), is so extravagantly mountainous that many villages are still unreachable by road. The flora and fauna are equally extravagant, and the trees and sky are dense with unusual forms of life: tree kangaroos; flying foxes; Queen Alexandra's birdwing, the largest butterflies in the world. In the mountain highlands, where wild orchids attract botanists from all over, 38 of the world's 43 birds of paradise can be seen lighting out from treetops, trailing their foot-long tail feathers like so many Isadora Duncans. Divers say there are more fish per cubic foot in these waters than anywhere else—trumpet fish, surgeonfish, clown fish, which change sex according to necessity.
Despite all this, Papua New Guinea has a dicey reputation, and many tourists remain leery. Marauding gangs in some of the cities have been making international headlines for years. In July 1998, a tidal wave crashed into a 20-mile stretch of the country's remote north coast, killing 1,500 people. And, of course, the world can't seem to forget the 1964 disappearance of Michael Rockefeller, who was photographing the Asmat people in Irian Jaya when he vanished. Since head-hunting and cannibalism were practiced then by some tribes—and may still be—people continue to wonder whether Rockefeller was killed and eaten.
Cannibalism. Tribal fighting. Voracious mosquitoes. Malaria. Drenching heat and rain. Impassable mountains and active volcanoes. These liabilities have restrained exploration, exploitation, and rampant tourism alike. Sub-stantial contact with European influences, in fact, goes back little more than a century, to when England and Germany shared sovereignty. Papua New Guinea later became an Australian territory, and remained so until gaining inde-pendence in 1975.
Seclusion has its privileges. Unlike American Indians and Australian Aborigines, the natives of Papua New Guinea have retained land rights to most of the country and its rich resources. Foreign timber and mining companies there have been more constrained than in, say, Brazil or Malaysia. And although Papua New Guinea is listed among the poorer countries in the world, subsistence living, for much of the population, means great fishing and farming. Yes, the government is underfunded and thwarted by competing tribal interests. Yes, families are in need of money for malaria medicine and school fees (school is not free in Papua New Guinea, and illiteracy is high). But on the whole, and despite urban unemployment that has given rise to the gang problem, poverty does not pervade Papua New Guinea the way it does Africa or India. The country is too rich in natural resources. "This is paradise," Nancy says. Paradise with an edge.
"In the mind of the wildest bush native," Margaret Mead wrote in a letter home in 1932, "the Sepik [River] stands for mosquitoes, crocodiles, cannibals, and floating corpses—and I can assure you we have seen them all." Except for a few mosquitoes, Nancy and I saw none of the above. After taking a riverboat from the spectacularly remote and comfortable Karawari Lodge, we spent two days on a motorboat touring villages along the Karawari, a tributary of the Sepik. Not so long ago, the river people of Papua New Guinea were headhunters. Many ceremonies, especially male initiations, included head-hunting raids. Villages were under constant siege. By the 1950's, however, the missionary and colonial presence curtailed ritual killing, and an atmosphere of peace prevails.
We didn't see any skulls mounted over the tambaran, or spirit houses, that we visited. We did, however, see a lot of self-decoration, most notably scarification. During rite-of-passage initiations, young men are subjected to a ceremonial skin-cutting, which symbolically cleanses them of their mother's blood and leaves them with skin on their backs and arms that resembles crocodile hide. Face- and body-painting are also popular. In the village of Yimas, the women and children were covered in mud patterns that make Versace's look tame.
While the Sepik region is known for its muddy colors and muted fashions, the area around Tari, in the southern part of the highlands, is where every fashion mistake you ever owned has landed in happy hands. If you threw it away because it was too gaudy, shiny, froufrou, or Cher, it will show up in Tari, where secondhand clothing is a booming business. Nancy calls it "the Land of Shaft." I called it heaven. The bumpy road from the airstrip in town to the first-class Ambua Lodge farther up in the valley was an endless fashion display. We saw men in fake fur, ski goggles, giant feathers, and velvet bell-bottoms, all mixed to create hilariously flamboyant looks.
If elegance is refusal, as Diana Vreeland once said, then the Huli of Tari must be the yes-men of the universe. Huli males don't need a special occasion to paint their beards white or their faces yellow, to put cassowary quills in their noses or feathers in their baseball caps. And the accessories—everything from bone daggers to vinyl pocketbooks. I saw one man wearing a blue blazer and rep tie over a grass skirt. Another had a fuzzy toilet-seat cover around his neck. It was all beyond John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier—or even John Waters.
Part of this unbridled, childlike extravagance may have to do with the fact that these highlanders were some of the last people in Papua New Guinea to encounter Europeans. (The film First Contact includes footage of tribes seeing white men for the first time, in the thirties.) Indeed, modernization has come so gradually to Tari that the transition has been relatively smooth. Ritualized fighting is still part of life (although never directed at tourists), along with a system of theatrical ceremonial exchanges between clans.
Anthropologists describe the highlanders as protocapitalists. That would certainly explain the prosperity of the fat witch doctor Paija, whom Nancy had been to see several times before. "That love potion you gave me didn't work," she told him in Tok Pisin. "The day after I put it on my face, my boyfriend broke up with me."
"He'll come back," Paija said.
"And that health potion," Nancy continued. "After I drank it, I threw up for two days."
"You were just ridding your body of toxins," said Paija, who was wearing face paint, an apron of leaves, and a pig's tusk through his nose. "You look as young as can be!"
If there's something you want from life, Paija will come up with the potion to help you get it. I bought some gingerroot wrapped in twine to ensure that my upcoming flights would connect safely, and, against all odds in a country of airline cancellations and absurdly long delays, they did. "Everybody uses Paija," Nancy said with the snobbery of a socialite. "He's very good."
No fashion trip to the highlands would be complete without a visit to the great hairstylists of Papua New Guinea, the bachelor-students at the Haroli Wig School. Because women are considered pollutants in many highlands cultures, these young men live together in isolation for up to three years or more, steeling themselves for the rigors of marriage. We were welcomed to their forest compound by the school's elderly headmaster, who charges either 200 kina (about $75) or several pigs for tuition. He teaches his students magical incantations and dietary practices that speed hair growth. After each disciple's hair has grown into a lovely round shape—a process that generally takes a year and a half—it is cut off and made into a crescent-shaped wig, dyed red or festooned with plumes and flowers. Such wigs are worn pretty much all the time by the notoriously vain Huli men.
Life at this wig school is a nonstop beauty regimen. Students wash their hair with purified water four times a day, say blessings over it with a ginger leaf, and sleep on coiffure-preserving headrests. "We grow our hair for personal beauty," one bachelor said proudly. An institution even more self-absorbed than Canyon Ranch! I had traveled halfway around the world to find myself with men who freely admitted that they lived for their hair. When they showed me the little trough of water they use as a reflecting glass, I asked if I might take their picture looking into it, Narcissus-style. "We'd love that," they said.
I needed nothing more from Papua New Guinea, and flew home after that. Back in New York, instead of suffering from culture shock, I felt more attuned to the status-conscious, style-obsessed culture of Manhattan. Remarkably, too, something seems to have changed among the fashion cognoscenti since I left. People—well, at least women—are finally starting to take to the new romantic ideas that have been supplanting minimalism on the runways. Feathers, fur, beading, and color, it turns out, are having a fashion moment. Smiling is, too. Of course, it's not the full-tilt exuberance of Papua New Guinea. But it's a step in the right direction.
Papua New Guinea has a bit of a public-relations problem, but that shouldn't stop you from visiting. Just be smart about where you go. The State Department currently advises caution when traveling to Bougainville Island, because of civil unrest, or to Rabaul, near two active volcanoes, but these are not essential stops on the tourist route. The cities — in particular the capital, Port Moresby, as well as Lae and Mount Hagen — are hardly vacation spots, either. Port Moresby is the seat of the country's disaffected gangs, and robbery is a problem. Since most international flights land there, travelers are wise to be careful. Check into one of the two clean, modern hotels near the airport — Airways Hotel (Jacksons Parade, Mile 7; 011-675/324-5200, fax 011-675/325-0759; doubles $63) or Gateway Hotel (21 Douglas St., Jacksons Parade, Mile 7; 011-675/325-3855, fax 011-675/325-4585; doubles $80) — and visit the city's few cultural sites during the day.
Road travel at night in Papua New Guinea is generally to be avoided. This caveat rarely affects vacation plans, since most travel within this mountainous country is by air or water. Join an organized tour, or commission one for yourself (see The Facts, ). If you stick with the itinerary, you'll have the right kind of thrills.
For comfortable, safe travel within Papua New Guinea, consider having one of these companies plan your trip, or join one of their tours.
Melanesian Tourist Services Coastwatchers Ave., Madang; 011-675/852-2766 (or, for brochures only, 310/785-0370), fax 011-675/852-3543, www.meltours.com; 10-day Madang-Trobriand Islands cruise $2,970 per person, double, not including air transfers. This outfit runs the Trobriands cruise we took, as well as cruises along the Sepik and to other destinations. The company owns the comfortable Madang Resort Hotel, in the pretty coastal town of Madang, and manages the Malagan Beach Resort in Kavieng, on New Ireland.
Trans Nuigini Tours 850 Colorado Blvd., Los Angeles, Calif.; 800/521-7242 or 323/256-1991, fax 323/256-0647; $1,936 per person for nine-day itinerary; air transfers $500. Trans Nuigini arranges flights and ground transport to its impressive roster of properties: the Karawari Lodge in the Sepik region, the excellent Ambua Lodge in Tari, and, near Madang, the Malolo Plantation Lodge, recommended for diving.