In a land before our time Timo Stuttgart, Germany - WirSindDu

Papua New Guinea

a country about which hardly anyone knows anything,

but everyone has already heard some myths: There they still eat people. There you pay with shells instead of money. It is better not to go anywhere without a machete.

This is my experience during a trip to the end of the world.

"When is low tide today?

I ask the fisherman after he states that this is the best time to snorkel with the manta rays. “In the afternoon.” Uh-huh. Quite reasonable. It shifts every day. Can’t really know precisely when it’s going to happen tomorrow. “When do we want to meet then?” “In the morning.” I see. I understand, if you do not want to commit yourself, so completely. And when I ask him what would be the best time to land a good catch as a fisherman, he answers boldly: “Well, when the sun is no longer so high.” 

The more you ask Papuans questions about time, the more you get the impression that they don’t really understand time. Let alone measuring time. The nice lady who picks you up from the airport is an hour late. That doesn’t seem out of the ordinary or worth mentioning. When people make appointments, it is either in the morning, in the afternoon or in the evening. Noon would also be a good time, but it is simply too hot.

Time is a Western concept.

Here in Papua New Guinea, among the thousand small islands in the midst of dense, untouched jungle, it hasn’t quite arrived yet. After seven weeks in the country, I no longer see the destination as just another exotic destination in Southeast Asia, no, it is simply the end of the world.

Yes, I know, many call Ushuaia in Argentina the end of the world, but I believe Papua New Guinea is today’s end of the world for this very reason: time seems to stand still here. No, you can’t even put it that way. The concept of ‘time’ has simply never permeated. It is an invention of the bim bims, the whites, as the newcomers are called in this country. Once it was the colonialists who knew everything better, forbade a lot and put aberrations in people’s minds.

Now it is the few tourists who come by, photograph everything, ask a lot of questions and in the end understand nothing. They all brought their watches, these little machines that come with the constant urge to make everything faster and more effective. In Port Moresby (the capital) they are now building skyscrapers, they want to boost the economy. The workers there have to learn painfully that if they don’t follow the small hands and the numbers, they sometimes have nothing to eat in the evening. But outside the only major city, i.e. in the rest of the third-largest island state in the world, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, to be felt of the supposed progress. Time here is when the sun rises. Time is also when it sets again. Everything in between happens. And everything else is hocus-pocus. If you ask the villagers of Milne Bay, our first stop on the journey, how old they are, you’ll get an answer – they’re happy to give generous estimates – but you quickly realize: Nobody really knows. The concept of age is known, the rest is blurred.

I get to meet Jeffrey.

Where? Well, where people meet, in the province of Milne Bay. On the water. In a canoe. When I arrive, the stranger is happy. He puts on his broadest smile that his mouth full of betel nut-stained teeth can offer.

Jeffrey is a family man, now even a proud grandfather. Together with his family, he lives in a wooden hut that he built himself. On stilts, because the rain makes the ground muddy, soft and cold. Jeffrey comes from Fergusson, another island about four hours by small ferry from Alotau. The land he and his family live on belongs to his wife. That’s the way it is here in Milne Bay Province. The women are the landowners, passing the land on to their daughters. And the men have to move if they want to marry a girl. In the past, the girls would get their faces tattooed. With a color made of coal and plant extract. With a pointed thorn the mixture is pierced under the skin. The whole face gets a pattern. So everyone would know, hands off, this woman is married. Today girls don’t like face tattoos, Jeffrey’s wife and her old friends still wear them with pride.

The warm-hearted old man teaches me longline fishing.

A stone is wrapped in a piece of palm leaf, so he has a weight to which he can knot a loop at the top and attach the fishing line with the hook to it. The hook is made of metal, in the past a pointed piece of bone or a large spike had to suffice. Nowadays he also uses shimmering floats from time to time, if he can grab some in the town, four hours away. But the traditional way is bird feathers. And poof, the stone is already down. Jeffrey lays his head on one side. I hold our two canoes together so we don’t drift away from each other. The line gives a little. “See, now I’m down on the coral.” He starts pulling. Jerky little pulls. “The feather has to dance, like a fish.” Some days he catches something, some days he just doesn’t. Jeffrey smiles. “That’s just the way it is.” There’s not a hint of stubbornness or grumpiness. There’s no push for bigger, higher, better, more. There’s just Jeffrey and his family. There’s the ocean. And the fish. And the ones he doesn’t catch today, well, they’ll still be there tomorrow. No problem, then. “My garden grows everything we need to live. Sweet potatoes, papaya, mango, coconut.” And then he lists a number of local vegetables I’ve never heard of before. “Yeah, life without electricity is hard sometimes.” That’s the first negative thing I hear out of his mouth. But immediately he puts on his irresistible smile again. “But we’re fine and healthy.” Is this for real?

Things did not always go according to the motto peace, joy, pancakes.

Papua New Guinea is a warring nation. If you look at the country with its more than 850 different languages, it becomes clear what plurality prevails here. 850 languages, with a population of just 8 million. It doesn’t get more diversified than that. Each village lives for itself, in its own cosmos. Thus, the others were traditionally not compatriots, but a constant threat. The threat of the enemy, combined with deeply rooted animistic beliefs, has turned into a warlike culture, full of rites and defensive maneuvers. Full of sacred costumes to teach the enemies to fear – the human ones, as well as the hostile spirits that dwell in the forest. For there is a lot of forest and forest spirits, according to the popular beliefs.  Good, as well as evil. Each animal alone represents a different spirit.

We participate in Sing Sings.

At these ritual festivals, the villages present the full strength of their warriors. Wearing masks, they teach everything what is to fear, what might come out of the forest. If it is the enemy, he should believe that the village has fraternized with the forest spirits. If there are the spirits, they should believe that the villagers have even greater powers than themselves. The most impressive costumes are found in the mountains. There are the ‘Skeleton Men’ who use charcoal and coral dust to transform themselves into walking skeletons, or the Mud Men, who wear huge clay masks on their heads, have their bodies completely rubbed in the brown mud, and put long bamboo claws on their fingers. In the island province of East New Britain, in the mountainous region behind the town of Rabaul, we find the fire dancers of the Baining People. The dancers under the masks, who look like a cross between mutant giant duck and the alien E.T., walk over the fire – and they do this for hours. A bonfire is kept burning by the fire stokers for two to three hours while the dancers jump over it, run, and kick the fiery branches and embers with their bare feet as if they were just footballs.

The whole thing is accompanied by rhythmic chanting and the stomping of about four hundred villagers – in complete darkness. Only the light of the fire illuminates the masks. In between, two of the spirits are dancing with a live cobra snake. New mothers from the village bring their newborns to the dancers, letting them twirl them around to make their offspring immune to the evil spirits. Every time one of the ghost dancers daringly kicks or runs over the fire again, a murmur goes through the crowd. You can feel how much importance people attach to the ceremony. This is no tourist rip-off. There is faith behind it. Anyone who has attended such a ceremony realizes that he can never understand everything that happens here. But they don’t have to, in order to absorb the spirituality and let the experience take effect within them. In none of the other numerous ceremonies becomes the clash, between the physical and the spiritual, as clear as in this one. For sure, the thunderstorm also contributes its part. For the scenery, coupled with twitching lightning on the horizon, it is simply breathtaking. This experience makes adrenaline flow through our veins and makes me feel completely alive.

The journey continues to the swamp region of the Sepik and Karawari rivers.

Here you can meet the crocodile men. In the villages along the river, where people live in perfect symbiosis with the great river, feed on it, wash in it, use it as a road to get around, here you will find some particularly peculiar looking inhabitants. A pattern of scars adorns their entire upper bodies. A few selected young people have their skin scratched all over their bodies – an initiation ceremony. The wounds are then rubbed with river mud. When they begin to heal, they are scratched open again and more mud is added. This creates thick permanent scars – in crocodile pattern form. The transformation to crocodile men is almost perfect. After all, the old stories of the ancestors still have to be memorized in order to be passed on, to preserve, the heritage and culture of the tribe. In a culture based purely on oral tradition, meaning that there are no written documents, this is the only way. The boys are now supposed to have special powers with which they can teach the spirits to fear and slay the crocodiles in the swamp. From a Western perspective, it may be hard to comprehend that a person would go through weeks of grueling ceremony full of excruciating pain, take pride in it, and take on the mutilation with attitude.

But for the villagers of East Sepik Province, becoming a crocodile man is a great honor. I wonder if I too would let it wash over me if I were to receive the honor. To take the risk of infected wounds, to be branded for life, in return to be considered a patron, almost a saint of a village. On one occasion, a white man won the trust of village communities. A Canadian, who for years led guests into the jungle as a guide, was close friends with some local families. He was offered admission into the family if he would go through the ceremony. He writes of immense pain. Pain he never wanted to endure again. Of hallucinating fever dreams in which he regretted his decision, but also of a community second to none. I would probably rationally choose not to. Even though it would certainly be flattering and a great honor if a foreign culture showed such trust in you.

We want to talk to a man

who has gone through the ceremony on his own body. Timi, from the nearest village, is willing to do it – but only in exchange for a little pocket money. We learn that he does this often when photographers come to the area. When we meet Timi, he is staring at the ground. His right foot scrapes a little in the sand. All eyes are on him. He knows this and yet it seems a little uncomfortable for him. But with the money he can buy rice and sugar – absolute luxuries in an area like this. Maybe it will also be enough for a pair of pants for his little son. And it seems to make him a little bit proud that these white men come flying over the whole ocean just to see him – you can see that in his looks when it comes to taking pictures. But it is not easy to talk to him. The man with the shy look understands me a little bit, but it is difficult for him to express himself. English is widely spoken in Papua New Guinea, but here in the largely isolated province of East Sepik, there are few who speak the language. Here, one of sixty different languages of the river region is spoken. A few hundred meters up the river, you need another translator, if there is one at all. Our guide helps to translate. What he felt, I want to know. Well, these hellish pains. These unbelievable pains and then there was something else. He had seen the ghosts. They were in front of the hut in which they had to stay. Whether he did it voluntarily or was sent by his parents. No, his parents had not sent him, but they had been very very proud when he came running back home after the four weeks in the Spirit House. There he became an adult and was suddenly appreciated by everyone. Would he do it again, I ask. Timi doesn’t understand. Yes, but that’s not possible. Well, I mean, if he had to decide again. Both translator and crocodile man can’t follow me. Yes, but he is transformed. To be initiated a second time is not possible. I try to explain. Well, if he were to be reborn, so to speak. Aaaaaaah. Now it becomes clear to both of them. Now we understand each other again. Well, to some extent, hopefully. Then he would do everything exactly as he had done it. He would be happy and proud. Of course he would become Crocodile Man again, even if the pain was hard.

Whoever allows this to have an effect on him,

whoever immerses himself in the culture of the people, whoever tries to understand, even if he cannot understand, whoever observes and does not judge, whoever approaches the people with an open smile, who due to their history do not always openly embrace every stranger, can have experiences that change him. To travel to a country like Papua with a Western understanding of time, even with the German virtue of punctuality, can be maddening. Those who insist on their understanding will be annoyed, they will despair, and they will look at the clock over and over again, shake their heads and say, “What is to become of them?”

But if you let go of that,

and that’s what you can only advise every Papuan traveler to do, if you let yourself drift, lose sight of your watch, or even leave it at home, if you let go of running after a schedule and open your eyes wide for everything that sometimes happens here almost in slow motion, you will get to know a nation that doesn’t need watches at all. A nation that lives in harmony with nature and has done so for thousands of years. Completely isolated from the rest of the world’s population. Completely independent of the circus that is going on around them on the planet. The dense forest shields them from it all. Dense, green virgin forests. In many parts of the country still to be explored, never entered by a soul. Here you learn to perceive time differently, to look at the processes of nature from a different angle. And maybe, just maybe, at the end of the day, to question the concept of time. Because what is time anyway? Just a unit, somehow linear, and defined at some point in time. A numerical system that is not so important here in Papua. After all, it has never been needed. So why now?

Timo Dersch is a journalist and (underwater) photographer. His passions are traveling and diving. More about Timo @

A land before our time

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