Papua New Guinea – Chapter 6: Ambunti Crocodile Festival Day 2

Wednesday.  August 8, 2012.

In the pre-dawn light we slipped and slid our way down the muddy incline to our canoe.  We motored a mile or two down the shore to a location in the dense rain forest where birds of paradise were known to gather high in the canopy.    Hacking our way along overgrown trails, it felt great to be trekking through the primeval forest instead of just sitting in a dugout canoe and observing it for hours at a stretch from the middle of the river.  We hung onto vines for support as we climbed muddy pitches, and gingerly stepped over millipedes, six inches long and as thick as your index finger, hot footing it along the path.  At the summit, the sounds of a variety of birds filled the air, punctuated by David’s howling hunting dogs that had chased after the canoes, racing along the lakeshore all the way from Wagu in anticipation of going on a hunt.

_MG_4954-41 - CopySpotting the birds of paradise was challenging, but occasionally one or another would show itself in all its finery.  As we headed back down the steep, slippery trail, Pomat and the other guides used their machetes to cut tree limbs so serve as walking sticks for some of the other guests who were in less than tip-top shape.   Back at the guesthouse we ate another hearty breakfast of fruit, eggs, sago pancakes and strong coffee before heading back to Ambunti for the second day of the festival.  The good news was that overnight another boatman had told ours that despite this being the dry season, the narrower more direct channel was still passable, so we were able to return to the river quicker than we came, and arrived in Ambunti in not much more than an hour.

_MG_5112-43 - CopyAt the Festival there was plenty more singing and dancing.  One of the more mysterious performances involved a large “hut” constructed of leaves, which represented a crocodile.  From it, an unearthly, rumbling base tone emanated.  The musicians made the sound by hitting a water-filled bamboo tube to simulate the sound of a crocodile bellowing.

Interestingly, it was not just the foreigners who were recording the performances.  We’d see friends of the performers taking photos of them on their cell phones, and in the middle of one of the dancing circles, a local visitor with a large smile across his face held a cassette recorder high above his head to record his friends’ intricate rhythms and singing.

_MG_5317-56 - CopyA local group from Ambunti gave a unique performance, re-enacting their creation myth in which The Pig brought forth people from the mud.  After coming forth, these first people began to realize that they were different from animals, and thus set about to hack off each other’s tails with an axe.  Covered head to toes in wet reddish mud, the performers looked amazingly prehistoric and as if they had indeed just emerged from the earth.

_MG_5210-70 - CopyHomebrew and local beers were readily available on the outskirts of the fairground.  During the day, some drunken “Raskols” started making trouble.  An intimidating, beret-topped Ambunti security guard brandishing a very serious machine gun came in to find and control them, and then made profuse apologies over a megaphone to the tourists for the incident.  Clearly the organizers were embarrassed and didn’t want the incident to reduce the already meager number of tourists that year or the next.  At the end of the day, an actual brawl started not far away and we were told that someone had been badly hacked with a machete.  We had originally been slated to stay that night with a family in their home in Ambunti, but our guides were concerned that after the festival a lot of drunken men would roam the town looking for trouble and that we might not be safe, so we canoed downstream a mile or so and stayed at a guesthouse on the grounds of a Catholic mission church and school, well away from those miscreants.

_MG_5463-71Unfortunately, because we were staying in a house made of modern materials, with brightly painted walls and glass windows, we were able to see how dirty this accommodation was, with sleeping mats and pillows that looked like they hadn’t been washed in months, or years, of use.  When Nicole lowered her backpack to her sleeping mat on the floor, a 3-inch spider crawled onto her pillow.  Nicole doesn’t like spiders.  So she called Pomat who came in and said, “This is a harmless spider,” and picked it up to show her.  The spider jumped out of his right hand but he caught it in his left before it hit the floor.  I asked whether the spider, even though it wasn’t poisonous, might bite.  He said not to worry and threw it out the louvered window.  I pointed out that although the window was open, it had a window screen.  Pomat simply replied “He’s a good spider.  He’ll stay there and eat mosquitos.  He won’t find his way back.”  But when Nicole went to bed that night, she slept on the narrow cot with Jon, somehow convincing herself that even if the spider crawled back to her room, it wouldn’t climb up the legs of their bed.

_MG_5433-74After dinner, we met Pomat’s 15 year old cousin who was in 7th grade at the mission school and had been one of the actors in the group that had performed the origin myth at the festival.  We also met another of their cousins, a teacher at the mission school, and we gave her a gift of school supplies that we had brought with us from the States.  Steven sampled some betelnuts with Pomat and his cousins, promptly getting a buzz and staining his tongue and teeth a bright vermillion hue.

Later that night, a loud drunk wandered by our cabin.  Pomat and Roy stayed up all night as guards outside.  They were very protective of us.


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