Once our hosts made it completely clear that we were most welcome in their Asaro tourist village, they brought out their mudmen to scare the begeezus out of us.
Of course, having seen the mudmen at Papua New Guinea’s Goroka Show and knowing a bit about their background, we all felt reasonably unthreatened.
Most of the history of mudmen is based on legend. The story goes that Asaro villagers were defeated by an enemy tribe and forced to flee and hide in the Asaro River until nightfall when they could attempt an escape.
By chance, when the villagers rose from the riverbanks in the evening mist, their bodies were so covered in mud that the enemy mistook them for spirits. Most tribes in Papua New Guinea are terrified of spirits, so the enemies ran off, and the Asaro escaped to their own village.
Some of the enemy tribesmen were still lurking in the Asaro village, and when the ‘spirits’ returned ‘home’ the invaders assumed they were being counter-invaded, so fled back to their own village.
Ever since the Asaro have continued to use this dusky illusion to ward off their enemies (or entertain visitors).
The big difference is the addition of masks. Legend says the mud of the Asaro River is poisonous, so instead of covering their faces with the mud, the Asaro make fearsome masks using homemade clay.
So all this background leads us to the mudmen ‘dance’ put on for our group.
Because our mudman performance took place in the middle of the day, our hosts decided to light a fire to create a bit of mystery and artificial mist.
The actual fire-making process was rather embarrassing for our hosts and totally hilarious for us. They tried and tried and tried to get the dry grass going using traditional fire-making techniques, but nothing worked. In the end, everyone was laughing and the fire builders accepted the offer of a cigarette lighter to do the job.
Then enter the mudmen. They weren’t hugely scary, but when they lunge at you with a spear, you do jump a bit. Ask Poor John who was one of their first ‘targets’.
I was lucky enough to see them getting ready down near Poor John’s and my hut, so noticed the good humour and enthusiasm they showed before employing their ‘scare’ tactics.
After the performance the main, and supposedly scariest, mudman removed his mask so we could see his soot-striped face, and feel and hold his homemade mask. Those darn things weigh almost 10 kilos (22 pounds). Can you imagine jumping around in one of those?
Poor John and I have travelled all over the world and weathered all sorts of conditions. Temperatures have ranged from -3° to 53°C (27° to 127°F), and our tents and other accommodation have ranged from the non-existent to the rustic to the exquisite.
Exquisite doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes it comes in unexpected forms.
Papua New Guinea was an amazing destination and certainly delivered on weather. Every day was glorious (or on the hot side) and we didn’t get any rain. And the provided accommodation was an interesting mix of styles.
One amazing stop was in an Asaro village on a hilltop not far from Goroka, in the PNG highlands. I’ve already introduced the highlands, but I haven’t yet shown you where we stayed and what we ate.
Our Asaro hosts—they knocked themselves out to entertain and amuse us over several days—have created a special tourist village with more than 10 reed huts to accommodate visitors. Our group of almost 20 people is the largest crowd they’ve ever had.
The hand-built structures are exquisite in their simplicity, and furnished with basic bedding. The communal toilet and shower are located at opposite ends of the two rows of huts.
Poor John and I bunked down in a round hut. They are a bit smaller than the rectangular ones with a pointy end, but who cares. It’s not like you go to an Asaro village to spend all your time in your hut.
We were too busy enjoying the activities organised for us. We were also really impressed by the quality of the food and the variety of produce that could be grown in the highlands.
In fact, we learned that anyone in-the-know who travels to the PNG highlands will come home with a bag of fruit and veggies. In fact, highland airports offer a wrap-your-bag-of-produce service, so cherished purchases don’t roll around in the hold.
But back to our village.Our hosts have their homes at the base of the hill, but many spent all their time with us. In addition to the huts and amenities, there’s a dining hall, a kitchen, a place to boil water, storage buildings, a generator (for a bit of light at night), a range of agricultural plots and a huge open area for dances, performances and the like.
So I’ll be back soon to show you more about all the things we did.
After a couple of whirlwind days at the colourful and frenetic Goroka Show in Papau New Guinea, we were off to stay a couple days in an Asaro village not far away.
Asaro villages are known for their mudmen. Historically the Asaro tribesmen covered their bodies with the local clay to create the impression that they were spirits to fear. Now they do it to entertain. But before I introduce the mudmen and the magnificent performance they gave us, I want to share the welcome we got from the villagers themselves.
A huge group turned out to greet us. Men, women and children—in various states of cultural dress or undress—rushed forward to make us feel welcome. It was a warm and impressive gesture, matched by an impressive and ice-breaking gesture from Milly, one of our fellow travellers.
Milly had the foresight to bring a nifty quick-developing Polaroid camera that she used to capture candid shots our welcomers. She took plenty of pics that were printed in an instant and shared with our hosts, and it was apparent that many were ‘seeing’ themselves for the first time.
She said the camera was pricey, and so was the film, but believes they are well worth it for the goodwill the pics foster and the smiles and thanks she gets every time she hands over a pic. She wasn’t alone. I think all of us enjoyed seeing the pics being shared around.
After the hellos it was time to climb the hill to the village. We’re talking vertical here, and it took the decrepit among us about 40 minutes to get to the top. Our hosts, who are used to the hike, carried all our suitcases and backpacks. One fellow traveller got very special treatment. Fred is retired and his legs are giving out. We walked together for a while, but he stopped for a long rest about a third of the way up. He shooed me on and said he might wait until we all came down again later in the afternoon to for a side trip.
The villagers coming up behind us weren’t going to have any of that. You can imagine our surprise when Fred arrived at the top about 30 minutes later—covered in smiles. He’d been carried up the worst of it. And he didn’t go down again until the end of our stay.
And what a stay we had. Every minute was busy with a nature walk, mudmen performance, mock wedding, battle dance, cannibal pantomime, agricultural and craft demonstrations, and lots of food including a special feast. I promise to write about all of them.
We visited last year and I posted an item about my favourite exhibit of that year. I liked a lot of this year’s exhibits, but nothing quite measured up to my favourite of last year.
This year’s display ends tomorrow (9 November) and I’m always surprised that Sculpture by the Sea lasts for such a short time.
Hope you like the sunset photos of this year’s event. Poor John especially likes the non-sunset view of the timber whale.
You might remember that the Goroka Show finished with a bang—literally. The cops fired off tear gas canisters to calm down the crowd outside the showground, then a stiff wind carried the gas back across the show-goers.
But burning eyes and news of an unruly crowd weren’t enough to keep us from venturing into town again.
As capital of Papua New Guinea’s eastern highlands, Goroka has about 19,000 residents. Numbers swell dramatically during the show weekend. Unfortunately so do tempers, rambunctiousness, drunkenness and other behaviours that can bring out the worst in people.
The community tries hard to limit problems. All the bottle shops (liquor stores) closed at noon on the day before the main show started. And there was a large police presence around town.
The National Sports Institute, which is where we stayed and which is next to the showground, provides an on-demand van service to take visitors to town for shopping, sightseeing or meals.
While we often took the van, a group of us did walk to the town centre in daylight hours and no one hassled us. Instead there were hellos, smiles and chats with a few locals. It was different at night and we always took the van then.
The focus on security is quite disarming. One night we decided to go to the Mandarin Chinese Restaurant. The van dropped us across the street, at the entrance to the Bird of Paradise Hotel. We started to cross, but the hotel’s security guard insisted on escorting us across the street.
When the van returned to pick us up, the restaurant’s security guard insisted on doing the same in reverse.
Likewise, the guards at the National Sports Institute would escort you to the museum down the road, or flatly refuse to let you (especially women) out the gate.
I read that an Australian news reporter was pick-pocketed, but am not aware of any other offences in Goroka.
The pictures here give you an idea of how the town looks on an event-filled and busy weekend, although some pics are from the Monday.
I’ve already mentioned that more than 130 tribes turned up for the Goroka Show in Papua New Guinea, but that number doesn’t even begin to convey the sheer hugeness of the event.
So let’s have a stab at the maths—actually arithmetic! But keep in mind that some of the numbers are estimates.
I know there were at least 130 tribes there with, say, on average, 20 people in each group. Tribes come from all around and bring family and friends with them. so I reckon there were at least another 20 hangers-on per group. If I’m right, that takes us up to at least 5200 people.
Then there were the VIP guests (about 400 of us who paid extra to get in earlier on both mornings) and then large numbers of visitors from Goroka and surrounds who were admitted after 12 noon both days.
Goroka has almost 20,000 residents and the district has more than 70,000, so there was no shortage of people clamouring to get in.
I’m guessing there were easily 10,000 people in the showgrounds both afternoons (after the entrance was opened to the public). Luckily the showgrounds can hold such a crowd. I reckon the area is larger than five or six football fields. I guess I’ll have to go back next year and pace it out.
I love sharing some crowd shots and should mention a bit about the grand finale. Non-VIP visitors can get in for free after about 4pm on the last/second day of the show. From what we were told, the crowd outside on that last day got a bit too restless a little to early than the time for free entry. They even started charging the gate. Fast forward to when the tear gas was discharged just outside the showgrounds. It settled the crowd right down.
Unfortunately, that was about the same time Poor John and I were heading straight for the entrance/exit gate, and the gas was blowing at us. I never knew how bad tear gas would affect my eyes. Yoew!
Thinking back, I have to say that in spite of having lived through university in the 1960s and been an active protester in my own right, I’d never been tear-gassed until this year’s Goroka Show. We later encountered the Chief of Police, who said he told all his staff not to let off tear gas under any circumstances, but they said the crowd got so unruly, they couldn’t resist.
So now I know about tear gas. Hope I never learn more.
Let’s see—where are we up to on the Goroka Show?
So what’s next?
I think the skirts are worthy of a post.
With the exception of the group doing the snake dance and the fellows wearing penis gourds (yes, I’ll get to them too) everyone—and I mean every performer—wore a skirt of some sort.
Some were quite simple—made of grass and reeds. Others were made of twisted cuscus (PNG possum) fur and still others were made of woven fabric. Of course, most were embellished with shells or dyes or other organic materials.
I was especially intrigued by one group of men that included a very white guy. Chris, our tour leader, figured the guy had paid a princely sum to be included in the group. But he knew all the moves and the words to the songs, so I think he might have been a member of that tribe.
My theory got some support a couple of days later. We stayed for several nights in an Asaro village in the highlands, and one of the babies was completely white, but not albino. Gosh, genetics are interesting.
And don’t think we’re done with the Goroka Show and Papua New Guinea itself. There must be at least 10 or 12 more posts (still deciding on how to share them). Egads, I took 800+ photos in a couple of days and many more beyond. I’m overwhelmed as I look through all the pics, and reckon so many are worth sharing. Please let me know if you’re getting tired of the subject matter.
And speaking of skirts, I am reminded of my search to buy Libby, a daughter, a skirt in Peru. That was a challenge.