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Dressed to Thrill

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.

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