Team Go-Getter

This blog entry about the events of Sunday, July 14, 2013 was originally posted on July 23, 2013.

PART 8 (DAYS 18-20): “We’re literally in the middle of nowhere,” I said when our motorized canoe paused for moment as it entered a small tributary of the Sepik River, in the middle of the jungle of northwestern Papua New Guinea. Nearby, a flying fish jumped out of the water, followed by another. “If my phone rang right now and they asked me where I was, I would say I have no idea.”

“Well, we took a four-hour bus ride, then two hours on a boat, then another hour…” Ally explained. We had “gone deep,” as she put it.

GETTING TO THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE started on the edge of somewhere, that place being the town of Wewak where we’d finally arrived after escaping Port Moresby. Our stay in the art-filled, seaside, plantation-style In Wewak Boutique Hotel was brief; after a late restaurant dinner of crocodile tail in a papaya green curry, a short sleep, and a bowl of breakfast noodles later, we were being briefed by Alois of Sepik Adventure Tours with a big map of the region. He warned us that to see everything we’re meant to — several remote river villages — we’d have a wake-up time of 4:30 a.m.

“It’s okay, we’re go-getters,” Tina proclaimed. “You guys ready to conquer the day?”

“This is already more exciting than Port Moresby,” I said.

“I don’t know,” Emily argued. “We didn’t have a streaky bacon debate.”

“We’ll do what we can,” Ally assured Alois. “This trip really is what you make of it. Some people will just sit on a boat.”

“But we’re Team Go-Getter,” Tina announced. She was on a mission to buy a mask from one of the villages, to add to her collection of tribal art. Once a college student who bought such antiquities at Pier 1 Imports, she decided she wanted to be the person who traveled to acquire them herself.

“The best places are the most difficult to get to,” said Daphne, our local TPA liaison who had traveled with us from Port Moresby. However she, nor Ally, nor Alois himself was taking point of the upcoming jungle tour of the East Sepik province.

“I have my best man for you,” Alois told us. He introduced us to our guide Philip and driver Jeffrey, two names which will ring familiar if you think of the two adult male characters in a certain sitcom starring Will Smith.

“That Fresh Prince of Bel Air reference is the only way I remember,” Ally admitted to me.

Now this is a story all about how… Jeffrey drove us three hours left and right, up and down the roller coaster of roads that took us from coastal Wewak to the rural areas of the Prince Alexander Mountains. We managed to amuse ourselves in the minivan with conversations in between setting up our Instagram queues for whenever we’d get back on-line. We had convinced Emily to join under the name @SegwayEm for random reasons too long to explain here.

“Which hat should I wear?” Tina asked us. Ally had three extras to spare.

“It’s like Harry Potter; the hat chooses you,” I told her.

“Oh yeah, that’s the one,” Ally encouraged as Tina put on a thin, light-colored baseball cap. She put a Patagonia one on herself. “Oh yeah, this is the one. So fly.” She put it on backwards before rapping a verse from 90s boy rap group Kris Kross.

Palms and banana trees whizzed by the windows as we rode passed many little villages, all of which had local people just doing a lot of sitting on the side of the road. Many of them waved at us, especially curious children. We stopped by Kuanimbu Village for a pee break at the village’s shared squat toilet, as well as to pick up some snacks. About an hour and a half later, we stopped for an extended period of time in the village of Apangai to witness a traditional sing-sing, a ceremonial dance that is typically done during weddings, funerals, or for when young boys are initiated into manhood.

Walking through a grass curtain revealed the source of the noise on the other side — although it was a pretty short curtain that you could see through, so we already had a pretty clear idea of what to expect. Men, and a small minority of topless women and girls, were made-up in paint, traditional grass skirts, and headdresses, chanting to the beat of drummers. They paraded in circles as figures representing the gods of the yam harvest danced whimsically. It was unlike anything I’d seen before in all my travels, although it did remind me of ceremonial dances of the Maasai.

This is some National Geographic shit right here, I thought to myself, before realizing a certain reality of my purpose there.

We were led into the spirit house, venue for the 4-8 week-long manhood initiation process, where a statue of the village chief resides. It was inside the structure that the elders of the village welcomed us with more music before we were led into the inner room where the sacred chieftain statue was found. Two silent villagers kept guard of the chiefly figure in a eerie way; they just stood in place with just enough subtle movement to make it seem like they were possessed or something, with the only sounds coming from the windchime-like jingles of metal hanging on their bodies.

“If you want to ask us something, you have to ask it in here,” one of the elders told us, specifically referring to the four women in our traveling group of five. Respecting tradition, the villagers outside of the spirit house could not know that women were asking questions.

“What if we weren’t here,” I asked. “What if outsiders from other villages came in here?”

“Outsiders are not allowed,” the elder replied. “If they came in [the spirit house], when they come out, they have to give pigs.”

“Oh, like an offering.”

“If they don’t give pigs, one of them will be killed.”


The dances continued outside, and I even got to shake hands with the yam god who was totally putting on a show for us. What the man inside was like we didn’t know; all we knew is he definitely had “man-hands” when he shook ours for photo opps.

“Surely it’s not the most authentic sing-sing,” Ally told me; the entire “culture show” was scheduled ahead on our behalf, like they do with a few cruise ships that come in. “I mean, they know you’re foreigners. But it’s still pretty special seeing something so sacred.” She told me that in recent decades, there’s been a movement to revert back to cultural dance and heritage, not only to make up for its loss during the 1950-70s when missionaries came and converted many villagers to Christianity, but to become a tourist draw to generate money to the community.

ABANGAI’S SING-SING WAS JUST ONE OF A TWO that we saw over the next two days. The other was by the Nasa Suka group of Masanumbuk village, which was impressive, despite the fact that “They couldn’t find their masks,” our guide Philip explained to me. No matter, the big draw there for the ladies was the opportunity to buy art. Emily and Ally picked up some paintings by a local artist, but Tina, whose goal it was to acquire a mask, hadn’t been convinced of anything yet.

“It’s like Harry Potter; the art chooses you,” I told her.

We traveled to villages like Masanumbuk via a motorized canoe fitted with lawn chairs for our comfort. Journeys riding up and down the Sepik to the villages of interest were not short; we were in the boat for and 1.5 to 3 hours just to get anywhere, and its constant hum and vibration under the hot tropical sun were nap inducing.

“I like calling it the Sleepik River,” Ally joked. When she wasn’t napping for one leg of the journey, she spun her chair around so that we could do a TV Guide crossword puzzle together. (Ricky Ricardo instrument: CONGA)

During other waking moments, all five of us travelers spent the time sitting and admiring the Sepik’s scenery (if not dozing off). Rain in the distance. Egrets and other birds flying from the reeds on the banks of the river to parts unknown (or just into a tree or something). Clouds in the shape of every imagination. Fishermen paddled wooden canoes and cast their nets. Around one bend we saw a group of men in several canoes on a crocodile hunt, who had just stabbed one with a spear. Our motorized canoe pulled to the bank of reeds to get out of harm’s way.

“Are we safe?” Emily asked.

“Here’s hoping,” answered Daphne. We didn’t realize it at the time, but a croc could have been near the bank where we were.

“I don’t know what to expect,” Emily admitted to me. “I mean here we are on the boat, on this river. I’m trying to think how to describe all this when I write about it.”

Visits to other villages weren’t always so lively. We interviewed local Matthew, who ran the Tukiya Guesthouse in Wagu village, popular with bird-watchers searching for the lesser birds of paradise, the iconic symbol of Papua New Guinea found on the national flag.

At the village of Mino, home of Alois’ sister, we were greeted with blank stares and uncomfortable smiles of the red-stained teeth of the villagers, stained by chewing betel nut, a cultural (but sometimes frowned upon) narcotic like cigarettes that many Papua New Guineas do. Philip explained the paintings, and showed some artwork for sale (still no takers for Tina), and pointed out the jawbones of pigs hanging nearby. But then there was this uncomfortable silence in the air like an awkward first date. There was a long lull in conversation, with the villagers not quite what to make of us, until Philip broke the silence with an unexpected invitation:

“So, uh… do you want to see the crocodile?”


Just up the hill in a paddock were three crocs they had caught, which would eventually be used for meat, leather, and to sell the skulls to collectors to provide a little cash for the village. From then the tension eased up a little bit; Ally had small talk with Alois’ sister, while Emily and I were caught up in watching the natural cock fights going on, only to be broken up by a chicken and a dog. The little dog almost bit Tina, and she feared for rabies.

“Rabies, aww,” Emily joked.

OUR BASE OF OPERATIONS WAS THE AMBUNTI GUESTHOUSE, a humble river lodge in solitude, with several humble rooms equipped with mosquito nets and even A/C powered by a generator (until a certain point in the night). The meals were decent after a long day, especially when you took the pineapple meant for dessert and chop it up over your chicken.

“Okay, give me a highlight, a lowlight, and a hidden gem of today,” Ally casually asked the group. “My lowlight is slicing open my finger and sticking it in poo.” (This happened on a pitstop, in a village outhouse; she was quick to sanitize and band-aid it up.)

“My lowlight was almost getting rabies from a little dog,” Tina told us as she devoured her french fries. “My highlight are these chips.” As point person of her self-proclaimed Team Go-Getter, she was still her intrepid journalist-self, ready for anything.

“What I’m wearing tomorrow, you’re looking at it,” she said.

“I love the standards of this group,” I told her.

Someone’s iPhone Marimba tone woke us up before dawn, and the stars of the southern equatorial sky were still out when we departed the guesthouse to find the birds of paradise. A flashlight beam searched for crocodiles in our way, but they weren’t the imminent threat. The “threat” came from another creature: the jumping fish (which villagers call “one pins”). The day before we thought they were cool, but a whole school of them seemed to have targeted our boat for an ambush under cover of darkness.

“Ahh! It hit me on the leg!” I screamed. “It was a big one.”

“It’s inside!” Tina yelled.

“Where is it?!”

“I see it!”

It was something out of a whimsical animal attack scene in a Spielberg flick. Both of us had our feet up in our chairs away from the “big fish,” but the lights from our iPhones revealed they weren’t bigger than seven inches long. Another fish jumped at Emily and hit her in the arm, and Ally would have been hit in the face if she wasn’t already using a lifevest as a windshield in the front of the boat.

“Pick it up!” Tina demanded of me. She was concerned about the fishes’ survival out of water.

“The last time I picked up a fish like that, the dorsal fin opened and cut me and I was bleeding.”

“This isn’t the part of the world you would want to start bleeding.”

Of course when we docked, our guide Philip thought we were being ridiculous being scared of mere little fish. Eventually I picked one of the flipping fish up and threw it in the water after he had.

“Thanks for setting that up, Ally,” I told her later on in the day. “I know you did that just for us ‘cause you’re amazing.”

“That took harder to set up,” she answered. “I had to call ahead.”

“Those birds were probably hard to set up,” I said, referring to an awesome sight of a flock of hundreds of birds we’d seen that morning in several trees.

“Yeah, they were like, ‘one hundred birds?’ And I said, uh, try five hundred. One hundred maybe for a normal group, but this is the world’s best group.” #worldsbestgroup

THE LAST VILLAGE OF OUR TWO-DAY RIVER ADVENTURE on the Upper Sepik was a 20-minute walk inland from the riverbank: Pailambi, a bigger village of several structures that Emily informally described with the words, “That place was bumpin’.” In the main communal space were remnants of bloodstones, where tribal warriors used to display the heads of their enemies for all to see. I managed to contort my body in a way to show this so Tina could take a picture — without getting stung by any of the wasps in the nest on the side of the stone.

Pailambi had the biggest spirit house we’d seen, elevated on stilts to keep it dry during the season floods from January to May. Inside some drummers welcomed us with synchronized rhythms, while Tina hit the jackpot on authentic masks. Wood carvings, statues, and other items were on display, and for sale. Long story short, she narrowed her choices to one with a carving of a snake on it.

“The mask chose you, like in that Jim Carrey movie, The Mask,” I told her.

“Ahgakgakgakgak…” came from Emily’s lips, which confused me. “Oh my God, that was the worst impression of Jim Carrey ever.”

“Hi five for Team Go-Getter!” Tina was excited about her purchase for only about twenty bucks. “I’m going to hang this on my door and people will think I got it at Pier 1 Imports,” Tina told us. “But I rode on a plane, and then a van, and then a boat, and then walked. And I bought it in a spirit house!”

“Tina, one. Pier zero,” I said.

A MINIVAN WAS WAITING FOR US when we’d finished our long days on the Sepik. The five of us looked back at the river while Team Bel-Air Philip and Jeffrey loaded up the vehicle with our bags.

“You should thank the Sepik for having us,” Daphne told me.

“I guess we should skip a stone or something,” I said.

Tina smirked, remembering what had happened on the Kokoda Trail. “Uh, I’m retired from that.”

I found a decent stone to skip while the others watched as spectators of a ceremony. “Okay, this is for Team Go-Getter,” I announced.

I threw the stone into the mighty Sepik — only for it to just plonk down to the bottom on first impact.

“Well that happened.”

Jeffrey drove us back to Wewak where we had a traditional dinner of mussel coconut stew and sego pancakes, and spent another quick night in the boutique hotel, before being whisked away to the airport early the next morning. Next stop: Rabaul, the third and last leg our our journey, but certainly not the least.


“Don’t grab that branch,” Tina warned us as we hiked through the rainforest, down the hill from where we’d seen the lesser birds of paradise call for mates. She was referring to the branch she had accidentally held onto for balance — one that was full of tiny spikes.

“Do you need a band-aid?” Emily offered.

“I’m not bleeding,” Tina answered. “It’s just tingling.”

“Maybe you’ll become a superhero,” I told her.

“That’s right.”

“You’ll be ‘Paradisa,’” Emily said.

Next entry: Mask Tourism

Previous entry: #AnythingCanHappen

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Comments for “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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