I look around at the grinning faces before us, the wide-eyed tots parked in the laps of their older siblings, the adolescent girls clinging to each other and giggling. The people of Maikmol are not afraid, but certainly amazed to find us in their village. And I am amazed that this is so. Almost ninety years have passed since Leahy and Dwyer ventured into the region. Surely some Westerners have visited Jiwaka province since. We are not that far from Mt. Hagen, the hub town for Highlands tourism. Mt. Wilhelm, PNG's tallest peak, is in this province. Yet Joe has no idea when the last waitman came to Maikmol.
The villagers may not have encountered the likes of us recently, but things Western are plain to see. The Australians met sun-darkened warriors in the 1930s, naked but for their leaf tunics, feather headdresses, and cowrie-shell necklaces. The tribal regalia of their modern-day counterparts goes on over imitation Adidas T-shirts and baggy basketball shorts from stores in Mt. Hagen, bought with the proceeds from selling coffee, their main cash crop. Many of the adults wear flip-flops and ball caps and several of the kids dash about in green and yellow Brazilian soccer jerseys, turned inside-out.
"Before we wear Chinese clothes, we wear bark from trees and tanket leaves and cap made from vines with colored strings," Paul says. "People only wear this now for singsing to celebrate marriage or when important politician visits. My son has nothing, no traditional wears."
Then there are the names. We do not meet people called Kirupano Eza'e or Onguglo Komugl, but Michael and Rachel, Francis and Mary. Missionaries followed the gold prospectors into the Highlands and built churches, denounced sorcery, discouraged ancestor worship, and baptized the "heathens," giving them Christian names.
"Missionaries coming was a good thing," Joe, a Seventh Day Adventist, believes. "They brought schools, hospitals, government services. Before, when someone get sick, we pray to ancestors. 'Can you come help?' Now, we ask Jesus for help."
"We no longer believe in witchcraft," Paul confirms. "But," he adds, "when someone die without being sick for long time, then it is sorcery."
The village chief comes forward and gives a speech in a local dialect and then Joseph, the town councilor, in English. Wishing to attract tourists, the councilor informs us, the people of Maikmol built a zoo some years back, but none came. Some of the animals escaped, others died, and the cages fell into ruin. Our arrival, he insists, will inspire them to build a new zoo. Today, two tourists have come; tomorrow, more will follow.
Nadya and I wonder about this, given that we have been in the country two months and not met any tourists, but we promise to spread the word when we return to Canada and donate 50 kina (twenty bucks) to the proposed zoo. We say that tourists would probably rather see birds of paradise and tree kangaroos in their natural habitat than in cages. Maybe the villagers could build nature trails and hides rather than a zoo.
In the afternoon, a gang of boys led by a woolly-bearded seventeen-year-old called Simon escorts us to the nearest creek, a forty-five-minute hike down a greasy path that they negotiate daily to fetch water. Ulysses butterflies flit between flowering bushes lining the way, brown and non-descript when at rest with their wings closed, but incandescent blue flashes when airborne. A family passes us with a baby cassowary. We get good views of the valley as we descend, of the matted, seemingly impenetrable jungle we traversed to get here and of cloud-splotched mountains in the distance. I look at the ridge opposite and spy a clearing and a communications tower and remember that some of the men in the village had mobile phones.
"Digicel came here in year 2000," Simon remarks. "Now we can make call to our friends in next village."
"How did you communicate before that?"
"We cut white leaves and put them in line, or we make fire to say to other village, 'you must come.'"
Having bathed and replenished our water bottles, we return to Maikmol. I expect us to be the focus of attention again, but the men are busy helping the pastor build a wooden stage for the upcoming interdenominational meeting, and the youngsters are playing volleyball. Our guides have made a fire and are cooking the kaukau we were given for dinner. We sit beside them. One reason tourists don't come to Papua New Guinea is that it has a reputation for violence: armed raskol gangs in the towns, tribal fighting in the interior. The welcome Nadya and I have received at this village has been disarming and extraordinary. We have discovered a place in the Highlands caught between tradition and modernity. Will other tourists visit Maikmol in the future? "You must come," says the fire.
Guides Paul Liss (pauliss92 [at] yahoo.com) and Joe Golomb (bernardbal [at] gmail.com) can arrange off-the-beaten-track trekking tours of the Highlands. Guide/porter fees are negotiable (around 50-100 kina per day for a guide, 20 kina a day for a porter). Both Paul and Joe speak good English, but visitors should learn basic tok pisin (pidgin English) to communicate with villagers.
Tony Robinson-Smith is the author of Back in 6 Years: A Journey around the Planet without leaving the Surface and The Dragon Run: Two Canadians, Ten Bhutanese, One Stray Dog, which tells of his 578 km run across the Bhutanese Himalaya to raise money to send village kids to school. He and his wife are just back from a five-month journey through the wilds of New Guinea, tracking down Birds of Paradise and paddling dug-out canoes down the Sepik river. Check out his blog for more.
Tanna: The Isle of Curious Cults - Stephen M. Bland
Don't Attempt to Cuddle a Cassowary - Michael Buckley
Friend Requests in the Canadian Outback - Chris Epting
The Shape-shifter and the Architect - Tony Robinson-Smith
See other South Pacific and Oceania travel stories from around the archives.
Books from the Author:
Buy The Dragon Run at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy Back in 6 Years: A Journey Around the World at your local bookstore, or get it online here: