A Perfect Week in Berlin

One of the few remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, now repurposed as an outdoor gallery on the banks of the Spree

One of the few remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, now re-purposed as an outdoor gallery on the banks of the Spree

 

Two skyline icons of the new and old Berlin: the rebuilt Neue Synagoge and the Fernsehturm on Alexanderplatz.

Two icons of the new and old Berlin: the Berliner Dom and the Fernsehturm on Alexanderplatz.

It has been a long time since I’ve had a great week, much less a perfect one. Divorce, the death a year ago of someone I’d known and loved for fifty years, and my own black dog of depression have conspired against good days, much less good weeks, these past two years.  But as I arrived home last Sunday from a week in Berlin with my dearest and oldest friend in the world, Nancy Talbot, perfect was the only word to describe it.

The weather was gorgeous, warm but not hot, breezy and so beautiful that we walked for miles every day, wandering in and out of neighborhoods nach Lust und Laune, as the Germans would say, that is with no set itinerary or destination.   The two times that it did rain were brief cloud bursts that cleared the air of dust and pollen and made Berlin sparkle like a platinum-and-emerald crown worthy of a Hohenzollern queen.

The company was wonderful, a combination of family – my mother and oldest brother, Pete, who happened to be in Berlin the same week – and old and new friends – my two pals of 40 years, Nancy and Peter, and my new friend, Barbara, Peter’s wife – and made for lively discussions and intimate, heart-to-heart talks that nourished the soul, as well as the mind.

Dinner with friends at a Turkish restaurant in Koepenick, outside of Berlin in the former East Germany. The town has a lovely castle/museum and sits four hours by boat downstream from Berlin.

Dinner with friends at a Turkish restaurant in Koepenick, outside of Berlin in the former East Germany. The town has a lovely castle/museum and sits  on the Spree River four hours by boat downstream from Berlin.

The museums and monuments, a dazzling melding of the former East and West Berlin collections and institutions, as well as new ones built since reunification, are so numerous and stimulating that you could stay a year in Berlin and not see them all.  Having bought a three-day Museum Pass, we took advantage of it to fit in nearly a dozen exhibitions while we were there, including the wonderful Jugendstil collection housed in the  Broehan Museum.

A stunning Jugendstil desk and chair at the Broehan Museum in Charlottenburg.

A stunning Jugendstil desk and chair at the Broehan Museum in Charlottenburg.

 

On another day, we took on the Deutsches Historisches Museum and its intellectually rigorous timelines and artifacts, while on yet another I sneaked out to revisit some old favorite 19th century German paintings like Casper David Friedrich’s “Moonrise Over the Sea,”  which used to be housed in the Neue Galerie in the old West Berlin, but now hangs among thousands of other 19th century European paintings in the Alte Galerie on the Museuminsel, or Museum Island.  Best of all, staying in Mitte, the hip part of town that used to be a part of East Berlin, we hardly ever needed to use public transportation, opting to walk most places, instead.

Casper David Friedrich's Moonrise Over the Sea, one of my favorite paintings in the world

Casper David Friedrich’s Moonrise Over the Sea, one of my favorite paintings in the world

Our hotel was unbeatable.  I’m not one to usually plug one place over another, especially not a chain hotel, but the Radisson Blu was flawless.  Our immaculate room looked right out at the Spree River and the Berliner Dom, and we had the world’s largest indoor, circular aquarium right in the lobby and so got to watch swimming fish and scuba divers cleaning the tank while we ascended and descended in the hotel’s elevators.  And having booked a Business Class room, free Wifi and the hotel’s truly sumptuous buffet were included in the room price and eliminated the need or desire to eat lunch (although not Kaffee und Kuchen, of which we ingested a lot). Best of all, when we finally retired every night around 1:00 a.m., no one banged on paper-thin walls to tell us to stop laughing so loud, because the thick steel doors and sturdy walls rendered our room the most peaceful and restful haven I’ve ever experienced in the middle of a huge city.  I’d go back to the Radisson Blu in a heartbeat.

A scuba diver at work in the aquarium in the middle of the Radisson Blu lobby in Berlin.

A scuba diver at work in the aquarium in the middle of the Radisson Blu lobby in Berlin.

A tour boat on the Spree, right below our hotel

A tour boat on the Spree, right below our hotel window

And finally for this inveterate birder, and since this blog is really about birding most of the time, there were birds everywhere in Berlin, especially eagles, which have played an important role in German iconography and symbolism for over a thousand years.  Granted, most of them were stone or wood, but I loved the sensation of  being observed by the majestic birds everywhere I went, from Schloss Charlottenburg to inexplicably random street corners and building facades across the city.  My heart soared every time I saw one of them. And even the lowly Hooded Crow, a common scavenger all across Berlin, made me smile at its comic antics.

The black eagle, the longtime symbol of German kings and other rulers, and the official bird of the German Republic, as well

The black eagle, the longtime symbol of German kings and other rulers, and the official bird of the German Republic, as well.

 

Another soaring eagle, this one in the courtyard of the Maerkisches Museum in Berlin

Another soaring eagle, this one in the courtyard of the Maerkisches Museum in Berlin

 

A Hooded Crow, doing what he does best, scavenging

A Hooded Crow, doing what he does best, scavenging

I came back from Berlin a different person than the one that left, a heady mix of ingredients conspiring to finally return the woman I used to be.  I’ve missed her and I’ve missed Berlin.  Being back there was perfect.

Following in David Attenborough’s (And Other Giant) Footsteps in Search of the Birds of Paradise

 

A King Bird of Paradise

A King Bird of Paradise

 

The King of Saxony Bird of Paradise, one of my all time favorites that I saw

The King of Saxony Bird of Paradise, one of my all time favorite BOPs that I saw

Some of you have wondered why, of all places on Earth, I was determined to go to Papua New Guinea.  It’s one of the hardest destinations to reach; it has very little infrastructure once you’re there; it rains ungodly amounts up in the mountains where I spent most of my time; the food is awful; the lodging substandard; and there is always that age-old question about when cannibalism really stopped being fashionable there.  And don’t even get me started about the 27 leeches that I pulled off of myself in less than an hour just a few days ago.

So why did I go? Blame it on David Attenborough, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Tim Laman and Edwin Scholes.

Sir David Attenborough is my hero and has been for many years. He always tops my list of modern-day invitees in that hypothetical game of assembling the perfect roster of dinner guests.  He has taken me (and millions of others) around the world vicariously to see the most fascinating wildlife on this planet, and he does it with the most infectious wonder and enthusiasm imaginable.  The first time I saw Attenborough in Paradise (1996) and The Life of Birds (1998) I was hooked.  One day, I told myself, I’m going to go and see those Birds of Paradise for myself.

Attenborough eventually led me to the writings of Alfred Russel Wallace, a renowned 19th century British scientist, scholar and explorer, a contemporary of Darwin’s and the author of  The Malay Archipelago, a brilliant work in which he describes in great detail, among other things, “…the most extraordinary and the most beautiful of the feathered inhabitants of the earth – the varied species of birds of paradise.”

And then two years ago, my sister and I went to a lecture in Washington that was jointly sponsored by National Geographic and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  The speakers that day were Tim Laman and Edwin Scholes and marked the publication of their book, Birds of Paradise: Revealing the World’s Most Extraordinary Birds (2012), the culmination of their nearly decade-long project of studying and photographing all 39 species of Birds of Paradise.  Their talk and PowerPoint, and the exhibition that National Geographic mounted to coincide with the book’s publication, were riveting.  How much longer do I want to wait, I asked myself that day.  And the answer was, not long.

So it is thanks to all of those men that I have stood on a pass near Mount Hagen on a cold and misty afternoon and seen with my own eyes, perched in the distance on the top of a dead branch, The King of Saxony Bird of Paradise, his yellow breast aglow, and his two head feathers, or “flags” and “head-wires” as they are known, waving in the breeze as he sat there regally for all of us to admire.  And the sublime Ribbon-Tailed Astrapia, his turquoise blue throat aflame as he flew across that same road the next, misty morning, trailing his four-foot long white tails like an ermine cape. And the astonishing Blue Bird of Paradise, preening his dazzling cobalt feathers, turning his black head and body upside down and displaying for the female who watched from above, seeing the virtual apron of feathers that he fluffed out for her benefit. And the more subtle, but still dazzling, Brown Sicklebill female as she came to the feeder at Ambua Lodge, pale eyes glinting, her long, curved beak open wide to receive the fruits that she plucked so daintily.  All of them, plus fifteen other species of these magical animals.

A female Brown Sicklebill Bird of Paradise at Ambua Lodge

A female Brown Sicklebill Bird of Paradise at Ambua Lodge

 

 

I have seen birds so beautiful that they stunned me into silence, so perfect that they moved me to tears, so whimsical that I shrieked with laughter, and so wondrous that I stood there slack-jawed with delight.

All of that and  leeches, too.  Really, what more could a woman want?

 

A Different World

A man in Hula Province, in the Highlands, selling his handmade wooden figures.

A man in Hula Province, in the Highlands, selling his handmade wooden figures.

 

Villagers gather for a compensation hearing in the murder of one man by another in a Highlands village

Villagers gather for a compensation hearing in the murder of one man by another in a Highlands village

 

Sweet potatoes are a common crop in the Highlands, where it seemed people grew more of their own food than in other parts of PNG

Sweet potatoes are a common crop in the Highlands, where it seemed people grew more of their own food than in other parts of PNG

Of all the places I’ve now visited in PNG, the Highlands stay with me most strongly.  Perhaps it is my own Swiss DNA that resonates with cool, damp weather, high peaks and lush green valleys, but it is also that I admire the tenacity and grit of people and animals that live in and adapt to places of considerable, cold elevation.  Theirs is not always an easy life: no fish to pull from the sea for quick protein, no tropical fruit trees that practically plant themselves and groan with heavy fruit; no lightweight clothing or the ability to essentially live outdoors, as many people in hot and humid climates do.

Mountain dwellers work hard to survive in places like PNG, where the limited roads and bridges that do exist still routinely wash out, communities are stranded for days at a time, and even the most basic supplies like cooking fuel can be hard to come by. Hence, the Highlands people are self-reliant in notably different ways than in other parts of PNG.  Men harvest timber to build waterproof housing and dry for cooking fuel.  People raise animals like pigs and goats and chickens, which we didn’t see in other places, and their gardens are extensive and productive, with sweet potatoes mounds covering huge swathes of the region. Young girls stand knee deep in running water to cut big bunches of watercress, and women weave simple bags called bilums that they usually wear with the strap across their foreheads, carrying loads of varying weights.

A woman wearing a woven bilum, the traditional bag that is used for carrying all kinds of things

A woman wearing a woven bilum, the traditional bag that is used for carrying all kinds of things

 

The Highlanders’ isolation has slowed the adoption of the latest technology and the casting off of traditional ways. Communities are still closely knit, and like the old tribal societies that they are, they even have their own legal justice system, as we found out one rainy day while passing through a small village. There, dozens of people were gathering in an open field under a sea of umbrellas.

“This is a village gathering to decide a compensation,” our local guide explained to us. ” A man just killed another man here, and now the elders will decide what restitution must be made to the family that has suffered the loss.”

He went on to explain that both families – the perpetrator’s and the victim’s – would be there, along with most of the village, for whom the gathering took on an air of gossipy excitement familiar to any small town dweller.  The elders appoint someone to negotiate for each family in the matter of compensation, going back and forth until there is a proposal and then an agreement that the elders and both families must agree to.  If a great deal of compensation is owed the victim’s family and the accused cannot make good on that restitution, then his extended family must assume the responsibility for paying the compensation, no matter how heavy a burden it imposes upon them. Honor – and the elders – requires that. The police are not involved and the word of the elders is never challenged, according to our guide.  That is how things have always been done up here, and the system works. Compensation can take the form of animals or cash or land, he explained, and it can also include banishment from the village, if the elders feel it justified. In the end, with all of the affected parties involved, justice seems to be served to most people’s satisfaction.

That same afternoon, we traveled to see a group of traditional men known as Wigmen, a small and dwindling group of elders who dress and live in keeping with ancient traditions and who hope to instill those same values in a new generation of younger men. The Wigmen are so called because of the human hair wigs that they make and wear for important ceremonies.  It takes eighteen months for a man to grow out his hair long enough that it can be harvested for wig making, and as part of their practice, the Wigmen run a school that houses and feeds and educates the men while their hair is growing.  During that period, the men must be celibate, live away from their families, and learn and adhere to the highly ritualized practices that the elders impart to them, including sleeping against a wooden post that is specially constructed to keep their hair from being flattened.  Visiting with the Wigmen, I could not help but feel both admiration and sadness for their valiant efforts.  Without the money of visiting groups like ours, I wonder whether the Wigmen would even still exist today, much less whether they will still be there in ten years’ time, Birds of Paradise feathers and Hornbill beaks lavishly and yet reverently decorating their headwear, just as they have for hundreds of years.

But they are men of the mountains, and no one should underestimate them. Certainly, I do not.

The sleeping post which young Wigmen must rest against so as not to disturb their hair

The sleeping post which young Wigmen must rest against so as not to disturb their hair

Birds of Paradise feathers are among the most prized in the headdresses of the Wigmen

Birds of Paradise feathers are among the most prized in the headdresses of the Wigmen

 

 

The Highlands

 

A Hulu Wigman in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea

A Hulu Wigman in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea

Well, my adventures continue apace, as we travel to some of the most remote and isolated places on Earth.  Truly, there is nothing quite like this country, which extends from the ocean and wet tropics to mountains higher than the Alps, and deep valleys where it is downright cold at night and the suspicion among tribes – even those in the next valley – runs as deep as it has for centuries.

The sign greeting us at the airport in Tari

The sign greeting us at the airport in Tari

When we landed in Tari up in the Highlands of PNG, there were throngs of people at the airport.  When we inquired why, we were told that they were waiting for the delivery of The Post Courier, the daily newspaper which our plane carried and that had news of the continuing corruption scandal with the Prime Minister and some of his cronies.  To see some men with headdresses and skirts made of leaves, sporting bare chests, machetes and partially painted faces waiting for the daily paper was a juxtaposition that captures one of the many mysteries about PNG.  Add to that the fact that even the most desolate stretch of road has little stands to top up your minutes and data plans for your cell phones that even the most traditional people have, and you begin to understand this country that I am traveling in, a place at once a throwback to decades, if not centuries, ago, and yet one where little smart and bright eyed village girls chat you up and share their dreams of becoming lawyers and scientists.

PNG is a richly diverse country culturally, with over 800 spoken languages, many of them used in just one village due to the extreme difficulty of getting anywhere, and especially in the mountains.  The first white men came to The Highlands only in 1930, led by three Australian brothers named Leahy, who came and did what most colonizers do: they looked, they took and they profited handsomely at the expense of the local people, irrevocably altering the course of their lives in the process.  A fascinating 1982 documentary called First Contact details that era in the Highlands, and it interviewed local Highland people who were alive at the time of the Leahys and knew and worked for them, or in the case of the women, were sometimes literally sold to the brothers as common law wives and bore mixed race children with lighter features and hair, some of whom we saw as we passed through villages.  The film also interviewed the two surviving Leahy brothers, and the difference in perspectives is not only fascinating, it is deeply disturbing. A group of us watched it on a rainy afternoon at Ambua Lodge (it rained almost all of the time we were up there- and this is the dry season), and I recommend it highly for anyone who plans to visit this part of PNG.

The men of the Highlands often wear some type of natural hair ornamentation

The men of the Highlands often wear some type of natural head ornamentation. This is Thomas, one of our local guides. 

 

A ribbon tailed Austrapia, one of many Birds of Paradise that we've seen so far

A Ribbon Tailed Astrapia, one of many Birds of Paradise that we’ve seen so far

A man and his head wear, a common sight up in the Highlands

A man and his head wear, a common sight up in the Highlands

A Berry pecker

A crested Berrypecker

We stayed at Ambua Lodge, a series of thatched roof huts in a spectacular setting and, most importantly, with wonderful fruiting trees that drew all manner of gorgeous birds, including several species of Birds of Paradise.  To see these gorgeous birds up close, long tails fluttering behind them like banners on small planes that fly over beach towns, throats that turn iridescent shades of blue and purple when the light hits them, is to feel yourself part of something truly magical and mystical.  I forgot the rain, my worsening sinus and ear infection and the general discomfort of hours spent on buses, and just appreciated a beauty so ancient and sacred and, frankly, so designed to lure and woo (after all, what bird needs a four foot long tail?) that I understood in my bones why every female bird within miles was drawn to the males’ extraordinary displays.  We watched a male Ribbon Tail Astrapia fly across the road one morning and then settle in a nearby tree and preen himself, deftly swishing and tossing his pristine four foot long white tail.  I can only imagine the envy that all of the  men in our group must have felt just then.

 

 

Rubber Plantations and The Coast

A rubber plantation

A rubber plantation

A pied cormorant

A pied cormorant

Spotted whistling ducks in a pond near the coast

Spotted whistling ducks in a pond near the coast

A Bee eater, one of my favorite birds here

A Bee eater, one of my favorite birds here

 

Each day, we head out in a different direction to find new birds. No matter where we go, though, I’m always glad to leave Port Moresby behind.  I want to be charitable towards it, because I am a visitor, but after four days of using this city as a base, I have to call a spade a spade and acknowledge that Port Moresby is without doubt the ugliest, dirtiest and least charming city I’ve ever been in.  Period. Not only that, but the world travelers that make up this group of birders have collectively been just about everywhere, on every continent, and none of them could think of a less appealing capital city than the one in which we currently find ourselves.  All of which makes getting on the bus at 5:15 a.m. every morning considerably more tolerable in my opinion.

Today we headed towards the east coast of Papua New Guinea, about sixty miles from Port Moresby, in the hopes of picking up some shore birds and, along the way, various and sundry others, like the Emperor Fairywren, which made a brief but memorable impression (but which, alas, I could not photograph due to its fleeting appearance in a dark wooded area), and the totally adorable Dusky Lori, which flies in great flocks around cocoanut plantations.

As some of us on the trip find spending hour after hour looking for specific birds tedious, I won’t linger on them much today.  Instead, what I found most compelling – and thought provoking – about was the three hours’ ride through the rural PNG landscape, all of it desperately poor, without basic sanitation services, electricity, decent roads, medical services or even shops, except for roadside stands that seem to sell primarily betel nuts, a mild narcotic that stains the teeth and gums bright red.  Perhaps betel nuts are so popular here because it makes people forget just how abject their poverty is, just how little their government provides them, and just how huge the gap is between rich and poor, the latter seeming to be high government officials who are mired in yet another corruption scandal, while almost everyone else scratches out a living mostly from subsistence agriculture. We pass plot after plot of small gardens, all of them being watered by hand from jugs or buckets that women carry up from streams and rivers. There is not a tractor to be seen, an irrigation system in sight, or even an animal like an ox or horse that could minimize the hard labor involved in trying to grow enough food to just stay alive.

For a long stretch of road, all that I saw was mile upon mile of perfectly planted rubber plantations on both sides of the road. They are the source of all the rubber that makes our tires and the rubber fittings for our expensive binoculars, just to name a few things.  Each tree has a rubber bucket on a peg, which calls to mind the wooden stiles and metal buckets used or the maple sugaring industry throughout New England.  But whereas miles of plastic tubing have replaced the gathering of maple sap in most places, here in Papua New Guinea, the dirty and hard work of collecting rubber sap is done by men, women and children who live in the most rudimentary of shack, basically a raised and, if they are lucky, enclosed platform. Fire, their source of heat and cooking fuel, as well as garbage disposal, is omnipresent here inside the shacks and outside.  As we pass the workers, they wave cheerily at the bus load of white tourists while we cover them in yet another layer of grit and grime that not only coats every tree within 200 yards of the road, but probably the lining of everyone’s lungs, as well. A few miles later, the coconut plantations begin and stretch right to the coast, and I see little boys with small machetes already at work, walking in their fathers’ bare footsteps. They, too, give us a cheerful greeting, a huge smile and a curious glance.

At moments like those, I find it hard to care about birding in exotic places, about whether I have the right binoculars or if I will ever see over 5,000 bird species in my lifetime, as many of the people have who are on this trip. It is a contrast of wealth and poverty so stark, so jarring, and seemingly so unrectifiable to me, that I took no heed and very little pleasure in the birding today.  There but for the happenstance of life, of being born into a privileged family in the developed world, would stand I. Or you.

The ocean and the beach, which was totally deserted for miles

The ocean and the beach, which was totally deserted for miles

 

The Bird in Paradise Sees Her First Bird in Paradise

A male Ragging Bird of Paradise in a lek in Varirata National Park

A male Raggiana Bird of Paradise in a lek in Varirata National Park

The day began at 5:15 a.m., (well, actually I was up at 4)  getting on the bus and heading off in the perpetually smoky and already hot Port Moresby morning, past the piles of plastic trash that plague this city, but which the dark discreetly obscured.  An hour later, up a rutted, steep and winding road we arrived in Varirata National Park, waking up the maintenance men who sleep there in tents during the work week. The park is up around 900 meters, well above the morning mist, and we savored the cool and fresh air that lacked the acrid bite of Port Moresby’s. Twelve of us stood around like a flock of drab house sparrows in our quick dry outfits, eating our boxed breakfasts while we waited for first light and the morning chorus of bird song to begin.

I confess that I’m still ambivalent about being a part of a birding tour, especially one with nine other people and two guides, none of whom I had met until yesterday.  It makes for a lot of people trying to see the same birds at the same time in often cramped spaces, and it means that just because you don’t want to stand in the same spot of forest for an hour waiting for a single bird, doesn’t mean that you don’t have to.  There are real trade offs to this kind of arrangement, but there are also great advantages:  meeting interesting people who share your interest, and having excellent guides who make all the arrangements for you and who know pretty reliably where a certain bird can be found. I signed up for this trip primarily because PNG is not a country that I would feel safe traveling in alone, and the logistics of a trip that includes all that this Rockjumper tour does would be pretty daunting. And besides, Rich and Clayton, our guides, are flat out fantastic at what they do.

So there we were.  The morning went by excruciatingly slowly for my taste.  The birding was slow, which meant lots of standing around or moving ten feet in one direction only to be told to move back ten feet because the bird that we had been hearing for thirty minutes in one spot suddenly was calling from behind us.  By lunch, I was feeling tired and grumpy, even though we had seen some terrific birds, like a pair of Brahminy Kites sitting on a nest, a Pink Spotted Fruit Dove, and a gorgeous Variable (Dwarf) Kingfisher (actually the first of eight species of kingfisher we would see today!). I was thinking it was going to be a long afternoon, and it didn’t help that we kept hearing, but not seeing, male Raggiana Birds of Paradise somewhere close by, the one bird that all of us really wanted to see.

But after lunch, rested, revived and rehydrated, we headed to a part of the park where Rich told us there had traditionally been a lek, or display area, although he warned us that of late the birds had been especially skittish in proximity to humans and not to get our hopes up.  Still, I know my heart wasn’t the only one beating fast as we walked up the hill that overlooked the lei, and not a minute after we arrived, a gorgeous male Raggiana Bird of Paradise flew into full view, calling loudly and settling on a branch about a hundred feet away. Seconds later, another equally vocal and gorgeous male appeared, and over the next ten minutes, they called, they preened, they flew past each other, and they swooped up into the air, only to drop down again just as quickly, like fighter pilots in an air show. I hope their females were watching.

It’s hard to describe the other-worldly beauty of those birds with their blue beaks, yellow heads, black throats and incredible russet and yellow  feathers that hang down in long arcs.  Back lit in the dim forest light, the birds glowed like sunrise and sunset all in one.  It was, and will always be, one of the most wondrous things that I have ever seen. We all stayed for a long while, but after my fellow birders had their fill and left to walk down the hill towards another target bird, I lingered behind to watch  them for another ten minutes, alone in the natural cathedral, filled with gratitude and awe.

 

The Melanesian Festival of Arts and Culture

One of many traditional houses from the Pacific Islands built for the two week festival. Artisans traveled great distances to participate in the festival, which occurs every four years

One of many traditional houses from the Pacific Islands built for the two week festival. Artisans traveled great distances to participate in the festival, which occurs every four years

A hand chiseled totum

A hand chiseled totem

 

 

My expectations for Port Moresby were dismal. Though it is the capital city of Papua New Guinea, I’ve never heard anyone say a good word about it, beginning with expats living in Australia and including the warm and very smart woman who sat next to me on the 75 minute Air Niugini flight over from Cairns. A native of Port Moresby, Angelyn Baker and her husband and four-year old son were returning from holiday, as people in this part of the world say, in Australia, and while it was clear that she loved her country, her feelings about her home town were mixed at best. “Oh no,” she said when I asked her whether I could walk around the city by myself during the day.  “We never walk anywhere here,” she sighed, wistfully recounting how much they loved to stroll in Cairns and other Australian cities.  “It’s just gotten to be too dangerous.”

My seat mate on the flight from Cairns to Port Moresby, Angelyn Baker was the first PNG native that I met and a dynamo

My seat mate on the flight from Cairns to Port Moresby, Angelyn Baker was the first PNG native that I met and a dynamo

By then I had glumly resigned myself to a low-key day here in the Lamana Hotel, since I was arriving a day ahead of my tour group. But when Angelyn mentioned a two-week outdoor cultural festival just ten minutes from the hotel, I knew that I had to go, even if it meant hiring someone to accompany me, which is what the concierge at the front desk insisted upon.  And so I ended up meeting Timothy, a pastor’s son and a delightful young tour guide who once worked at the Lamana Hotel himself. “You’ll be in good hands with Timothy,” the staff told me as we drove off, and indeed I was.  Not only that, but he was terrific company and didn’t even pretend not to be enjoying himself hugely, which was wonderfully refreshing for a twenty-something male. He matched me one for one on taking photos – on his smart phone.

Timothy, my guide and fellow enthusiast at the festival

Timothy, my guide and fellow enthusiast at the festival

A painting of Birds of Paradise

A painting of Birds of Paradise

Lucy, one of many extraordinary artists I met at the Melanesian Cultural Arts Festival

Lucy, one of many extraordinary artists I met at the Melanesian Cultural Arts Festival

The Melanesian Festival of Arts and Culture occurs every four years and brings together artists and craftsmen from all regions of Papua New Guinea, as well as surrounding Pacific Island countries and territories like Fiji, Tonga and the Solomon Islands. This year, the fifth time that the festival has been held, Port Moresby is playing host on a sprawling exhibition ground close to Parliament.

I don’t really know what I was expecting, but I do know that I simply wasn’t prepared for the breadth and caliber of the artists and performances we saw there, nor for the warmth of the Papua New Guineans. In meticulously constructed long houses and other traditional dwellings specially erected for the two-week festival, men and women mostly in their 50s and 60s hand chiseled totems and life-sized sea turtles or ferocious crocodiles, while in smaller huts identifying their province or nation, mostly younger women and girls wove baskets and bags from bark fibers dyed in bold colors, or made handcrafted jewelry from shells and beads.

A young girl, getting ready to dance at the festival

A young girl, getting ready to dance at the festival

A hand made basket.  Most of the crafts were available to buy

A hand made basket. Most of the crafts were available to buy

 

 

 

Wooden bowls carved from a wide variety of exotic hardwoods

Wooden bowls carved from a wide variety of exotic hardwoods

Look in another direction and you might have seen, as Timothy and I did, a group of men working on beautifully detailed sand paintings, utilizing carefully ground sandstone and other colorful local rocks that produced richly pigmented dust. The men – mostly community elders, I found out from talking with one of their wives – sprinkled the dust onto wood glue that had been spread within the borders of carefully executed drawings. Every drawing told a story, and every man there was working hard, not to promote his art individually, but to keep his village alive and preserve a way of life that fewer and fewer of the onlookers had any direct connection to. That particular group came from the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, where they had begun their own community project to teach the next generation of males to eventually take over the responsibility of keeping the sand painting tradition alive, thus also providing a badly needed source of income for the physically remote villages. Crime, which contributes to Port Moresby and PNG’s bad reputation, is, according to many locals, simply a function of their being very few opportunities to make money honestly in a country where education is limited and most well-paying jobs are held by Australians and Asians from Malaysia, China and Indonesia.

One of the sand painting artists. The sand is made by grinding local rocks, including sandstone

One of the sand painting artists. The sand is made by grinding local rocks, including sandstone

A dancer from the Highlands region of Papua New Guinea

A dancer from the Highlands region of Papua New Guinea

 

We spent three hours at the festival, not nearly enough time to have spoken to or even seen all of the craftsmen and women who were there. But what I did see, both in the respectful, yet joyful, demeanor of the crowds that watched the artists work and in the artists and performers themselves, was a fierce pride for this region of the Pacific, a pride forged out of something far more tangible, self-reliant and ancient than what passes for national identity in most countries these days.

Just like at any state fair, this festival had stages set up across the grounds, and at any given moment there were several dance troupes performing in competitions, all of the dancers in costumes that featured some of their region’s most notable and attractive materials, usually flawless shells and impossibly long, glossy feathers that came from Birds of Paradise and other exotic species. Thousands of families roamed the festival, and no one seemed immune to the power of what we saw in the hands and faces and feet of some of the most dignified people I’ve ever seen. Contrary to what I’d expected, I not only felt safe, but welcomed, as one of very few white people there and thus the object of countless smiles and questions. When I told people who asked that I had come from the U.S. many expressed delight that someone from the U.S. would want to visit PNG and their festival, a reaction most Americans traveling abroad these days don’t often experience.

In general, one of the most satisfying parts of the whole experience was to see it as part of a crowd of Papua New Guineans, not tourists on an arranged and usually blatantly touristy stop.  The brilliance of the Melanesian Festival is that it is intended for a local audience and is meant to instill pride in the peoples of PNG and other Pacific Island locales. I felt so fortunate and privileged to be able to experience it, and judging from the comments and reactions of others as we watched the artists at work, it achieved its goal in a brilliant fashion.

A young boy and his father take in a performance at the festival

A young boy and his father take in a performance at the festival

Port Moresby, I think I may owe you an apology.