Mask Tourism

This blog entry about the events of Tuesday, July 16, 2013 was originally posted on July 25, 2013.

PART 9 (DAYS 20-24): “Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to seek out tradition, not traditional tourist traps.” This was a comment that had appeared onto Tina’s Facebook page, when were back in the glory of wifi after not having had it for so long.

“It’s from this guy that used to be a missionary I know,” Tina told me.

“Oh, a missionary? Well, he has a lot of questions to answer too,” Ally retorted.

Regardless of its source, for the travel journalist, such a statement is a little off-putting. We’re out in the world to discover new places off the beaten tourist path — or rather, discover new stories or angles of destinations already written about because, “Every place is ruined,” I told Tina. The former missionary’s disconcerting message had come in as we were having a one-to-one over SP Export beers in the bar of the Kokopo Beach Bungalow Resort in Rabaul, our base of operations for our third and final leg of our press trip in Papua New Guinea.

Rabaul, on the north coast of PNG’s New Britain Island in the province of East New Britain, was the “finale” of the three-part junket. We were to end things with a bang: the annual National Mask Festival — the country’s third largest expo, and the largest gathering of masks — in conjunction with the regional music fest, the Tolai Warwagira.

In its 19th year, the National Mask Festival almost didn’t happen in Rabaul in 2013, due to a miscommunication between the National Culture Commission (NCC) and the festival committee. Some motioned that the festival, which has been in Rabaul for over a decade, was to be moved hours away to Kimbe Bay in the adjacent province of West New Britain. However, not everyone got that memo or could agree to that change, and so in the end, two simultaneous National Mask Festivals were going on — or rather one, spread out over two venues.

“[If you ask me,] it’s best to have it in two places,” was the positive spin on the ordeal by Dr. Jacob Simet, Director of the NCC, during his opening ceremony speech of the festival.

The festival itself was not quite what I’d imagined. I’m not sure what I had expected — perhaps something more like the sing-sings we’d seen in East Sepik in an undeveloped setting — but the National Mask Festival was like a small state fair, with concession stands, a stage, and a small roped off field where cultural and dance groups performed with different masks and costumes. The empty lot-turned-festival grounds were organized with a parking lot and a ticketed entry gate — proof that there could be some sort of method behind the madness of PNG. But with all the logistics seemingly in place for an influx of visitors, did that make it a “tourist trap?”

“[For Americans, it’s] hard work just to get here,” Ally said, generally speaking, in defense of staged culture shows in PNG. “And you’re not at a [hotel] luau. Does a visitor [in the Sepik] once a month define a ‘tourist trap?’ Isn’t it still of value? Isn’t it authentic?”

Tina compared traditional dress-up in PNG to customs in the States. “It’s sort of like prom. You don’t ‘put it on.’ You’re putting on your best,” she said. “But are you being fake? No, you’re being you. It’s just tradition.” She also compared it to a rodeo, another grand spectacle for visitors — to watch cowboys in that case — yet is still genuine at its core.

“It’s sort of like Carnival [in Rio],” I realized. “Sure it’s a big spectacle with corporate sponsors, but everyone knows it’s a truly Brazilian thing.”

Corporate sponsorship at the Rabaul National Mask Festival isn’t exactly profit-driven; it generates money in exchange for advertising and brand awareness to cover the overhead of the operations. Despite the tents with corporate Digicel logos on them, the t-shirt stand (singular) and the booths selling peanuts (they taste like string beans), there was definitely a genuine feel to the Rabaul National Mask Festival, complete with charming disorganization. No way was it as big as Rio’s Carnival; it was run like a dysfunctional talent and culture show or pageant at a small university, hosted by emcee Daniel Biang, who kept the show going as best he could given the tardiness of the groups. He’d make stern comments on the microphone that my colleagues and I found funny. For example, when the Kandrian Culture Group wasn’t ready, he grabbed the mic to break the long, uncomfortable lull in the program: “Come out now! This is your last chance. You’re wasting everybody’s time.”

Eventually the Kandrian Culture Group came out, with their costumes and props to dance to the rhythms of their own musical group. Each group performed in the field, facing the VIP area by the stage, for about 15-20 minutes. There were awkward periods of stage silence between acts, which was fine after you knew that’s what was to be expected. Mostly during that time we ducked in the shade because it was scorching out, and all the sunblock was melting off my face. Also during these periods, we met other foreigners, including Ally’s Australian colleague Stewart, who was leading his own group: travel agents from Australia, on a junket to see what packages they might be able to sell.

Other performing groups that first day of the National Mask Festival were the dark-skinned Korai Ward performing the Puti dance (picture above), the Urumat Cultural Group, and the Bitapaka Theatre Group, which didn’t dance at all. Bitapaka was more like a sketch comedy group, performing in Pidgin, the universal language of PNG. “For the foreigners out there, what they are talking about is black magic,” MC Daniel explained to the small group of us visitors — there were no more than about thirty of us in attendance out of hundreds of people. I didn’t understand the Pidgin dialogue at all, but from the looks of the slapstick antics going on, someone had mistakenly used black magic to accidentally get something stuck up his ass. (That’s hilarious in any language.)

“When are the mud men coming?” Daphne asked MC Daniel on behalf of our group. The mud men are a famous tribal group known for their big peculiar masks made of dried mud.

“Don’t ask me, I’m not with the committee,” MC Daniel answered; we couldn’t tell if he was joking or that was just him being him. “I don’t know. They’re not here yet. Maybe this afternoon, maybe tomorrow…”

Despite the festival schedule happening by the seat of its pants (like a lot of things in PNG), it’s still a draw for tourists to come to Rabaul in mid-July — the tourists who are daring enough to vacation in PNG to begin with anyway. The FeBrina, a live-aboard dive boat that normally doesn’t go to Rabaul, made an exception in this special case, to end at the Mask Festival. Other tourism boats did the same, plus I noticed small groups of Germans, Italians, Australians, and Japanese tourists who’d come by air — not to mention small groups of foreign journalists: German, Japanese, and us Americans.

Earlier that morning, everyone — the foreign tourists, journalists, the Papua New Guineas from other regions, and even the local beach boys — gathered on Kokopo Beach for the “pre-show” of the mask festival: the traditional, local Kinavai ceremony, which was slated to begin at the crack of dawn — but was of course delayed an hour. (“Tardiness, aww.”) In the distance, two groups of boats in the Bismarck Sea at the ends of peripheral vision contained drummers, chanters, and duk-duks — the iconic costume that looks like a bush with a coned smiley face on top — performed a floating sing-sing. The closer the groups of boats came together at a gradual pace, the closer they came to shore, until they were eventually seen by all the spectators at one landing area. When everyone disembarked the boats, there was no fanfare or closure to the ceremony; the group of musicians and duk-duks simply walked down the beach and into a sectioned off staging area.

“So it is exit stage left?” I wondered aloud, confused as everyone else. We weren’t sure if we were supposed to applaud or react in any way publicly to what we’d just seen. It was pretty awesome to see within our inner monologues.

“It’s so awkward,” Emily said. “I don’t know what to do.” Later we learned that duk-duks usually request that no applause be given; everyone is just to disperse and go on with their day.

“And… scene!”

The duk-duks re-emerged later that afternoon on the festival grounds. However, they didn’t do a full dance performance. Instead, they were thanked by the festival committee for their presence at the Kinavai that morning — and in a really seemingly masochist way. As the duk-duks kneeled as if going to be knighted, individual men put shells strung together on their shoulders. (The shells are a form of currency still used today.) But then, they took another string of shells and threw them at each duk-duk with a grunt, as if whipping them offensively. It was the local way of saying “Thank You” — and if that public display of gratitude seemed kinky, it was only outdone the next day when they were actually whipped. How’s that for payment?

“The men [in the NCC and TPA] say I’m Papua New Guinean and try and figure how much I’m worth,” Ally informed us; the shells used as currency to thank the duk-duks are also used to buy brides, even today. “I don’t know how many shells, but they say I’m worth about five pigs,” she said to me, five swines short.

WHEN NIGHT FALLS ON RABAUL DURING THE MASK FESTIVAL, most locals flock to the festival grounds for the musical portion of the event, the Tolai Warwagira, where different bands perform on stage. However, with the thirty odd tourists in town, another traditional ceremony is performed about forty minutes into the jungle from the coast: the fire dance rituals of the Baining tribes. To prevent it from turning into a cheesy fire-show that you may see in a hokey Polynesian resort, the NCC mandated that it not be performed on the beach just for tourists’ convenience; if tourists want to witness this real initiation ceremony, they must go to where it actually takes place, even if it is scheduled nightly specifically in conjunction with the festival.

Each night the group of the Kainagunan ward performed their sacred ceremony, and our American group was fortunate enough to see it on a specially-organized night before the festival, so that a Japanese film crew of three could shoot the ritual without many white-faces in the background.

I piggybacked the Japanese for my own video, starting with a video interview with tribal community leader Isaac Ligur, who answered my questions via a translator, Ally’s PNG colleague Isikiel. Women weren’t allowed to see or hear the interview — fortunately I have a penis — but the girls kept themselves entertained by playing with the local kids in a circle.

“Pig… pig… pig… chicken!” I heard Tina say as they tweaked the game Duck, Duck, Goose with different animals the children would know. At first they tried to contain the children’s excited cheers and laughter so that I could conduct my interview in peace, but after a while the kids were uncontrollable, grabbing my friends in uncomfortable ways.

“It was fun for a while, but then it turned into Lord of the Flies,” Ally discussed with Tina.

“I was turning into Piggy,” Tina replied. “I don’t want to be Piggy!”

One of the feisty village girls was named Mavis — coincidentally the name of a cat Ally once knew. “Mavis. A cat. You know? Meow meow,” she tried to explain. It was unclear if the kids knew what that was, but meowing became an ongoing joke heard throughout the night — and the next couple of days.

“Mavis, meow!”

The sky got darker and darker on the digital screen of my camera during the interview with the elder, and eventually darkness consumed the jungle field we were in. Dozens of villagers came to see the event with us four Americans, three Japanese, and two Papua New Guineans from the TPA. Firewood was placed in the center of the field so that an old woman could ignite it — she was allowed to do such a thing because she was deemed old enough to stop giving birth.

The flames grew bigger and bigger as the woman and several boys, who liked to play with fire, added more branches throughout the night. Soon, a constant drum beat and chant began. “Oh, the band’s starting,” Ally announced.

From the darkness, figures appeared, wearing giant wooden masks representing different birds of the jungle, many looking like they had duck bills similar to that of a Disney character. (My pictures to appear in a future article I have yet to write about this). There were 23 of them, many as birds, but one as a butterfly, one as a bat, and one big one that looked like it was the shape of a big mattress; Daphne said it represented a being that helped in healing. Attached to this creature was a leash held by an escort as they circled the bonfire.

“Did you see the snake?” Daphne asked us.

“What snake?”

She explained that what we had seen was not a leash, but an actual snake, used as a rope (like in that awkward quicksand scene in the fourth Indiana Jones movie). It would be eaten in a feast by the dancers after the ceremony.

Consuming snake and snake blood, along with other mystical factors, contributed to the dancers ability to be essentially fireproof in the ceremony. As the fire grew, the area of embers expanded outwards, which didn’t inhibit the dancing; in fact it encouraged it. Some brave little boys ran across the embers too when out of a dancer’s path, but one man one-upped them all in cleverness by simply walking over to the embers, lighting a cigarette, and taking a drag.

As the sing-sing ritual progressed, each masked dancer circled the bonfire to the rhythm of the band, and spontenously ran into the fire seemingly at random, if the mood struck them. They would kick embers up in the air, like a dust cloud of red — proof of their will and power against the flames. Some dancers kicked it up a notch by actually dancing on branches directly over the source of the fire, never once flinching to the flames around them.

“Imagine this on acid,” Emily commented to me. The evening was surreal that some sort of narcotic could have made it really interesting. However, without it, we just dealt with the heat in our faces, and the meows of the children.

SETTING UP THE BAINING FIRE RITUAL, along with any of the village sing-sings we’d seen, comes at a price — mostly to give back to the community for their time. As I said before, while the dances of the festival and other tribal ceremonies are real and still in practice today, they don’t just happen at the convenience of tourists. Money given compensates the locals for their time and resources to “put on a show” — not that it’s “putting on a show;” it’s more like performing a traditional ritual when it’s untimely. On a rare occasion does a tourist show up in a village where a ceremony is legitimately taking place — rare but not impossible — but if you’re in PNG and want to see something real at your convenience, it’s best to plan and pay ahead.

The masks, dances, and rituals of the National Mask Festival entertained us for most of our stay in Rabaul. However, there were other things to be done in the region when a festival is not going on, which we were soon to discover…

Next entry: Rabaul Adventures

Previous entry: Team Go-Getter

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This blog post is one of fifteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Cowboys, Duk-Duks, and Kiwis," which chronicled a five-week trip through the Canadian Rockies, followed by Calgary's Stampede rodeo festival, an assignment through different regions of Papua New Guinea, and a wintery jaunt to New Zealand's South island.

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Rabaul Adventures

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Team Go-Getter


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