Papua New Guinea - Map with Goroka

I had the privilege of travelling to Goroka, the capital of the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea this weekend.

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Goroka is a small city that had a population of around 20,000 people in the last census, which was way back in 2,000. Presumably it has grown since then.

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Flying through small centres in PNG is always amusing. Here, a staff member creates the passenger manifest by asking each passenger their surname and then writing it against the seat number before boarding.

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When one arrives in Goroka, there is no luggage carousel – this guy just brings the bags out and dumps them on this table and then everyone pulls their bag off the table to create space for the next one.

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A friend had arranged accommodation for us at the National Sports Institute (NSI) – a facility not unlike the Australian Sports Institute, where the nation’s elite athletes are brought to train for the Olympics or Commonwealth Games.

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As such, it’s set up a bit like a camping facility with communal showers and bathrooms. It’s a fairly Spartan existence for athletes at the NSI.

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My room was tiny and fairly basic. I must admit that I didn’t sleep too well on the bed. The pillow felt like it was full of rocks instead of feathers. The mattress was so thin that I just couldn’t get comfortable. I think the bed was donated to the NSI by a prison after they had finished with it. But at 88 kina per night ($35), it was a bargain.

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There is a saying that PNG is the “Land of the Unexpected”, or in the case of this souvenir carving, it’s the “Land of the Un Expacted”. But either way, I was woken multiple times both nights of my stay at the NSI. There were people giggling and carrying on at all hours. At 01:30, I observed someone beating a Kundu drum (quite well I might add). It was by some miracle the paper the next day didn’t read “Canadian Tourist Shoves Kundu Drum up Local Man’s Ass”.

Then at 06:15, the people at the show ground decided to start blasting a nefarious blend of current pop and ’80s classics through enormous speakers right next to the sleeping dorms. I wandered out, bleary-eyed in my boxer shorts and spotted the guys who were responsible for the cacophony. They saw me too and were chuckling at my misfortune. In universal sign language, I raised my palms to ask them “what the hell?” They just laughed at my displeasure. I then signed, “Can you please turn it down?” Again, they laughed and indicated that they wouldn’t. Then I indicated, with my head resting sideways on my hands, “There are people sleeping”. They made it clear that they didn’t care – crossing their arms to indicate “No way José”. The insensitive pricks! All this at 06:15! So then I used a different, less-formal sign for the last communication between us. They just laughed and the music stayed on relentlessly tormenting me at one million decibels. This is typical of the developing world – might is right. If one is rich or powerful enough to do anything, then one can – even if it is not in the community’s best interests or imposes significant costs on others.

Sometimes I wonder if maybe they should rework the slogan to “PNG: Land of the Unexpectedly Inconsiderate Asshole”.

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On the wall of the room, someone had stuck a “Batlow Apple” sticker. I couldn’t help but wonder how it got there. My father used to live quite close to Batlow – a little town in country New South Wales – and he was fond of Batlow apples.

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Goroka is in the Highlands at an elevation of 1,546 metres above sea level (about a mile high, for those readers who still think it’s 1952). So high, that my cereal inflated upon arrival, due to the thinner air at this altitude. The Best Before date also explains why my nutri-grain tasted somewhat stale that morning.

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Obtaining good food in Goroka is even more of a challenge than it is in Port Moresby. I went for a wander through the markets and managed to find a few things to keep death away for a few more hours. I tried a plant called “Sago” – some kind of root vegetable with the consistency of gelatine. I had to spit it out but the ladies who sell it were most gracious about it. I explained that it is just unfamiliar to me and that I am sure with time I would come to like it. I like to think that’s true but that stuff tasted like dog’s balls so it’s possible that I lied to them.

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I did find pineapples for a dollar, which pleased my heart. And this lady was kind enough to cut one up for me ready to eat. I tipped her generously for her trouble.

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The local stalls tend to provide food but not as we know it. Like “Chips and Pork” or “Boil Egg” or “Coconut Stick” or even “Lik Lik Bun”. I have no idea what some of these are.

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The lady in the foreground sold me an oily pancake thing made from tapioca. It was quite nice. The fellow on the right sold me a piece of steak. I asked if it was served in bread and he said, “No, in a plastic bag”. And sure enough, they threw a slice of lettuce in a plastic bag and then the steak came straight off the grill and was placed on top. I pulled it out of the bag (burning my fingers in the process) and ate it like a wild man.

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The award for the most bizarre pizza combination in Goroka goes to the Bird of Paradise Hotel for their “Roast Chicken and Banana” pizza. I am happy to report that, despite my scepticism, it was a delicious combination. Who knew?

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The washrooms at one hotel were written in Pidgin English – Meri for women and Man for, well, man.

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One construction project in town had this information board about the new High School. At the bottom is a community message advising teenagers to abstain from sex. That should do the trick. I wonder if they’ve seen the statistics out of the U.S. correlating teenage pregnancy and the Bible Belt.

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I had to laugh at this security guard all rugged up with a coat and scarf and even a balaclava. It is definitely fresh up there, but I was wearing a t-shirt and jeans and I felt quite comfortable. I guess Papua New Guineans feel the cold more than Canadians.

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Apparently this girl is a boss.

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The reason for my journey to Goroka was to attend the Goroka Show. The show is arguably the biggest cultural festival in the PNG calendar. Around 100 tribes participate, each demonstrating their traditional dress, dancing and cultural practices. However, what’s interesting about it is that while it is an incredible showcase of the diverse cultures of PNG, it was not initiated by Papua New Guineans. The idea came from missionaries and the show was first organised by Australian “Kiaps” (patrol officers). The first show took place in 1957 – 57 years ago. The photos from the first Goroka Show indicate that it was a large-scale and well-organised affair.

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The key to enjoying the Goroka Show is to buy one of these – a VIP pass. They cost 150 kina (about $60) and they allow the bearer complete access to the show ground during the parade. As a result, tourists from all over the world come crowding in trying to snap the perfect picture of each tribe as they parade through. It’s a real international event – I, myself, was elbowed out of the way by Germans, Italians, Americans, French, British and a few Australian tourists. Speaking of assholes… As a rule, the bigger the camera the more obnoxious and pushy they were.

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150 kina is an outrageous amount to pay for most locals. I could have bought 750 bananas for that much money at the local market.

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They open the show ground to the general public from noon. But until then, those who can’t afford the VIP pass have to content themselves to look over the fence.

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…or through it.

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The different tribes arrive at one end of the field and parade across to take up a position at the other end, usually dancing and singing as they go.

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There are so many tribes that it takes about three hours for them all to make it into the grounds.

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By then, the places is swelling with people and the explosion of colour is a feast for the eyes.

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Most people are decorated from top to toe.

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Face paint, feathers, garlands, grass skirts and often weapons adorn the dancers.

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It’s almost overwhelming. It is a barrage to the senses and sometimes there is just too much happening to take it all in.

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I like how this chap is using the traditional tribal smartphone to photograph the action.

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The performers were most accommodating – they happily let people jump in for photos. These chaps were covered in mud.

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So was my shirt after taking the photo.

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These women had their faces painted red and white in a very striking manner. I love the woman’s eyes in this shot. Almost haunting.

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The kids are so cute in their traditional outfits.

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They all seem very comfortable with having their photos taken. Clearly, they have been briefed that this would happen and they don’t seem the least bit shy about it.

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This little guy found all this culture a bit tiring and just needed to sit and chill for a minute.

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Some groups had elaborate constructions attached to their backs as part of their costumes.

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I have never seen so many bare-breasted women in my life.

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And don’t get me wrong – I’m rather a fan of boobies. But seeing so many in such short order in such a small place was overwhelming. It was like eating a giant bowl of ice cream. It’s delicious, but there comes a point where one says, “Enough! I can’t take any more”.

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But it wasn’t just breasts on display of course. These fellows were wearing nothing but penis gourds. In strange and unusual shapes. It was like a car wreck. It was horrible and I didn’t want to look but I couldn’t help taking a peek.

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Speaking of almost naked dudes, this group was lead out by these two guys in g-strings literally rubbing their buttocks against each other. I thought that kind of thing was illegal in this country but apparently not. There was a Papua New Guinean guy next to me watching the buttock frolicking and he was just laughing with all his heart. He turned  to me and said, enthusiastically, “It’s really funny!” I said, “Yeah, it really is”.

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The Butterfly SingSing Group from Roza Village in the Eastern Highlands were one of the most striking groups. They had elastic on the back of their wings and little ropes to pull them so that they went back and forth like butterflies as they danced around.

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Some of the performers had support staff on hand to help with wardrobe malfunctions.

Goroka (35)A few times while I was walking around people stopped and asked if they could have their photos taken with me. At first I thought that maybe they were fans of Shakespeare and that they saw me in “Henry IV”. But apparently not. I think it was just because they don’t get too many chances to see giant white guys.

Goroka (25)The Asaro Mud Men are a favourite of the Goroka Show. They wear these masks made of clay and move around slowly as if they are stalking their prey.

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A German fellow asked me to take a photo for him while he was standing next to a Mud Man. I took a few photos and then handed the camera back to the tourist and said, “I don’t think they’ll be any good – this guy wasn’t smiling”. The German completely missed the joke and said, “Oh well, we can take another photo”. I explained that the photos are fine. He was kind enough to return the favour and take one of me.

Goroka (29)In the market alongside the show ground, they sell little action figure Asaro Mud Men.

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Some of the stuff for sale was just disturbing – like these little puppets made from real bones – including the skull of a flying fox.

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These hats made from human hair and adorned with dead birds were not a big seller. I don’t think the vendors quite understand their target audience’s sensibilities.

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This lady took a break from selling jewellery to have a little lie down.

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 There was a greasy pole contest. The prizes were a cooler and a whole box of Maggi two-minute noodles. I think they were trying to attract university students during exam time. No one was attempting the pole – but it still attracted quite a crowd. I walked around for about ten minutes and saw no attempts to scale the pole. Yet the crowd remained. Just looking at a pole covered in grease.

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The good people at Maggi were there selling cups of noodles for eight cents. Making sure that a new generation of Papua New Guineans gets addicted to Monosodium Glutamate.

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I was pleased to see this solar panel display. In a country with plenty of sunshine and a shitty, unreliable power grid, these make terrific sense.

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There were stalls with various games of skill and chance. In this one, people competed to see who could hang around behind the dart boards for the longest without having an eye put out by a stray dart.

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Yet another innovative use of Marsden Matting in PNG – this time as a hand rail on a tower at the show grounds. It’s also useful for holding up Coca-Cola banners.

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“Twisties” brand crisps were clearly a big seller. Curiously, there were no garbage bins anywhere. People just threw their rubbish on the ground and at night some poor sod had to pick it all up.

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It’s a very strange thing to have this huge cultural event that originated from foreigners wanting to experience the diverse culture of the country and is now perpetuated by foreigners. Worse still, some of the tribes are actually sponsored by corporations. Here we have the little-known “Coca-Cola” tribe of Papua New Guinea. It conjures up images of “The Gods Must Be Crazy”.

But even if the whole event does feel a bit contrived, there is no question that helps to preserve some incredible, diverse and unique culture. The simple fact that foreigners pay to come and see the show means that it is worth people’s time to maintain their traditions. No doubt without that incentive, some of these practices would eventually die out.

It sounds perverse but these cultures thrive in the same way that pigs will never face extinction because our love of bacon means their continuation is assured. The people in traditional dress today will be back being truck drivers and school teachers on  Monday. But their culture lives on, thanks to the Goroka Show and other events like it around the country.

There were so many outstanding groups that it is hard to pick my favourites, but here are the top three.

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My third favourite group was this bunch of snake dancers. They carried this enormous stuffed-toy snake on their heads and danced around with stern faces and deliberate movements – sometimes entangling people like a boa constrictor. It was their sincerity that impressed me. Plus I loved that they were arranged from tallest to shortest so the tail was always held by the wee lad at the back.

Goroka (14)Runner up for me was this group of energetic dancers from Manus (the province made infamous by the Australian detention centre, which I support incidentally). The dancers were all in red and yellow and their dance was so lively. They were so light-footed that it looked like every one of them downed 12 Red Bulls before going out to perform.

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They were helped by some outstanding percussion – from these long wooden drums. There were five drummers, each belting out a unique beat that blended to produce a driving rhythm.

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I loved how this girl didn’t let all this traditional dancing and cultural crap put her off wearing her aviators.

But by far my favourite of the performances was the freaky little Bald kids.

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They are made up to look like old men. They shave their heads as if they are bald and then they stick the hair on their faces to make it look like they have beards. They all have dark, brooding faces – like little bald angry old men. This little dude looks seriously pissed.

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It’s so twisted it’s fantastic. I can’t help but wonder, who thought this shit up, and what were they smoking?

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They do a dance with sticks that they jam into the ground under a log and at the end of it they all fall down dead.

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That’s the thing about the Goroka Show – it’s bursting with culture but very light on interpretation and explanation. There is so much symbolism in this performance, it’s staggering – the juxtaposition of youth and old age. The reminder of our mortality. The journey from child to angry old man. Or maybe it’s just a product of someone smoking too much peace pipe.

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They finish their dance and then suddenly the smiles come out and they aren’t angry old men at all – they’re playful little boys having fun, painted black with shaved heads and freaky little stuck-on beards. As kids do.

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It was only at the end, during the Police Minister’s inspection that one could truly grasp the scale of this event. It was incredible. Such diversity. I couldn’t help but be swept up in it all. I have seen the Kano Durbar in Nigeria and it is similar – maybe even more impressive because the participants are on horseback. But the Goroka Show impressed the hell out of me with its sheer variety. The songs, the dances, the culture and the rainbow of colours. It was one of the most memorable events of a fairly interesting life for me so far.

All good things must end and after a great weekend, it was time to go back to Port Moresby. My group caught the bus to the airport in two shifts. I went in the first shift. We were warned that there had been some trouble outside the compound but we passed through without incident. However, the second group got caught in a riot. The police fired tear gas – 12 canisters of it. Apparently a big crowd was banging on the gate and trying to break it open. Women and children were among the crowd trying to flee the tear gas. Eventually, the bus came back to get them and they drove through a cloud of tear gas and made it to the airport without incident.

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A friend of mine brought this spear back on the plane. I had to laugh when I saw the security sticker on it. It says, “Security Cleared”. So I guess the security staff took a look and said, “Yep, all good. Just a giant spear. Nothing dangerous here.” and then stuck a luggage label on it.

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While waiting at the luggage carousel in Port Moresby, I saw this odd package cruise past on the conveyor belt. Only in PNG.

Until next postcard…

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