Fine Young Cannibals (Gap Year, Part I)

Stefan here, I’m one half of Berkeley Square Barbarian, trying to make this page look a bit more like a blog, so thought, might as well start with a post about one of my more exciting trips so far, ten years before I met my wife, who’s now blogging with me.

The year was 1998, and – originally from Germany – I had just taken part in a one year master program in international politics and development at university in Australia, ready to get some work experience under my belt.

papua new guinea island part I

One of my fellow students at uni was the head of the trade union congress of Papua New Guinea, and he got me in touch with one of the development aid NGOs in Port Moresby, an NGO that happened to support his organisation, so I applied and got a one month job as a paid consultant. I had spoken with the local head of the NGO a few times over the phone, but I was still quite nervous when I arrived at Port Moresby, the capital. I had done my research, but there was not much to be found on the internet about Papua New Guinea.


Apparently the population was estimated to be somewhere between 3.5 and 7 million people, no one really knew. Last well-documented occurrences of cannibalism had happened in the 60ies (I hear there were more recent ones a few years ago), the country consists of an archipelago of islands in the South Pacific with hardly any infrastructure back then. For a good part of each year, none of the other mainland provinces could be reached by land from the capital city, because floods made the roads unsafe. For the remainder of the year, the roads were unsafe because of the notorious road blocks, a local speciality and major source of income. You block a road using vehicles or tree trunks and wait until one or several cars get stuck, then you shoot everyone in the cars and take all their valuables, then just leaves the cars on the road and run for the hills.

Oh yeah, the hills, also very impressive, going up to 4,500m above sea level. Nature is rough, beautiful, abundant, and absolutely mind-blowing, well, what would you expect from a country that has a paradise bird in its flag.

It felt thoroughly unreal, when the 40y old propeller-driven airplane succeeded with a very shaky landing after three failed attempts (the locals call it rain, I’d feel tempted to call it a full-blown monsoon). Thomas, the local head, greeted me very friendly and turned out to be an all-round pleasant guy who saved me more than once with his advice.

Port Moresby, the capital city

We went straight to the office and – having been a leisurely student for most of my previous life – I realised quickly that ‘paid job’ means that you’re supposed to deliver some value quickly.

The ride from the airport to the office offered more surprises. The most obvious one, maybe, being the fact that the road was covered by ferocious streams of muddy water and rocks and there were pot holes that could easily have swallowed up a mini-van. Whenever we were approaching a red light or a traffic jam, we slowed down (but never fully) as soon as we saw the obstacle, then either went at slow speed straight ahead until the obstacle was gone or braked hard and went the opposite way to find a detour, you don’t want to ever stop on any of these roads, you always go at least 20 miles an hour.

Soon after we saw the office tower appear on the horizon, Thomas started honking the horn in order to alert the security men. They kept their two heavy mounted machine guns aimed at us while we were driving through the gate, which was closed immediately after we’d entered the compound.

paradise bird I

My colleagues all seemed nice. They were nearly all Melanesian local men. Tribal leaders, so-called ‘Big Men’, and yes, they’re big, not tall by Western standards, but very robust, muscular, sturdy guys, you don’t want to pick a fight with them. I was terribly naïve back then, and it took me a few hours to realise that these Big Men demanded the highest respect. At first I approached them like your usual office buddies, friendly, respectful, but not with the highest level of respect. Society in PNG is made up of tribes, the tribe is the only thing that matters. There are tens of thousands of tribes and about 800 different languages, yes, unique languages that are as different as Dutch is from German or Italian from Spanish, not just dialects, many just spoken by fewer than 1,000 speakers.

paradise bird II

Besides my boss, there was only one other Caucasian colleague. Another Caucasian colleague had just died from some mysterious infection a few days earlier, and her body was still being examined in the local hospital. Everyone was a bit concerned, that she might have infected others before passing away. They weren’t really too traumatised about the death of their well-liked colleague. I realised soon that the approach to life and death is different on these islands. The local people do not share our fear of death, and, maybe as a consequence, do not view life as sacred in a way we do. You might object to this view, as I did when I arrived, but I’m not judging, I think it’s a good thing that we value life as something sacred in Western societies (when we’re not fighting some stupid wars, that is), but in a society where until a few decades ago life was defined by tribal war and cannibalism in a true wilderness that took people’s lives on a daily basis, being too queasy about the value of individual lives might not have been such a great approach.

On my second night in PNG, one of the Big Men, took me out for a fun night, which basically involved us taking a car to one of the slums of the capital city. In a city where you never leave your car outside of safe compounds and never even stop the car, we went to the most dangerous part of town. It turned out to be a brothel. I wasn’t interested in a prostitute, so I waited inside the car in the car park, while the Big Man had a go. A police car stopped and the policemen asked me if I had a strong desire to die tonight, which I politely denied. They waited with me until the Big Man returned and we went for some drinks in another part of the slum. It felt safe there, because you could feel that he had everything under control, everyone looked up to him and no one would have dared to be unfriendly with me, even look at me the wrong way.

mount wilhelm I

Big Men usually had several wives, so I met two of this Big Man’s wives that night in a friendly barbecue atmosphere with lots of other relatives and members of the tribe. The wives seemed to get along with each other just fine. Their husbands build them houses where they live with their children and they only bother them once in a while for a bit of a cuddle, I think this model might work well with some London couples were it not for the housing prices.

A week into my assignment, my boss took me on a business trip to the other three main islands, we flew from Port Moresby to New Britain, New Ireland, and Manus. Besides the incredible beauty of these South Pacific paradise islands, I also was very impressed how friendly everyone was, how easy-going and outgoing and apparently genuinely happy, especially on Manus. For a moment there I could see myself tearing up my return ticket and just staying there on this island forever. Do a bit of fishing, maybe write a book, naw, just focus on fishing and watching the sun set and rise again.

Manus, back then, had a population of roughly 30,000 people, virtually no foreigners, the 10 to 30 violent deaths per year were all due to shark and crocodile attacks, besides of that life was very peaceful there. Because they had at some stage been a German colony, and because German monks had brought them agriculture, education, and religion, a lot of the locals have old Latin-German monk names like Ambrosius, Aloisius, or Franziskus. Manus is one of the areas where the Cargo Cult had survived. During WWII, the Pacific War, to be precise, some of these islands had had food, weapons, and other material dropped on them by Allied Forces with the intention that their troops would find the packages and use them. However, it had an unexpected side effect of creating this Cult. Locals, who had never been in touch with technology, never seen an airplane, took the giant iron birds to be gods and the packages they dropped to be sacred gifts from the gods, so they started to build a cult around them.

My boss and I attended a conference with many Big Men on the island, including the country’s highest-ranking judge and various cabinet members. I saw large wads of greenbacks change hands. They say society is based on a gift-economy there. Not really working in a modern world, but I can see the beauty of a society where big men become big men by giving gifts to their brothers (and by chopping some heads off, of course, but that aside).

tribal warriors II

It is such a shame that Manus has now become a refugee detention camp with horrible conditions being suffered by innocent victims.

When we were back in Moresby, the situation had escalated. There had been rumours about a coup for some time and there was electricity in the air. Everyone was very nervous, including the guys with the guns.

The prison workers went on strike, and (very considerate of them), in order to keep the prisoners from starving to death, they just opened all the cell and prison doors and let them escape.

That night I did not sleep particularly well. I was watching the guards of our compound patrol on top of the 5m high walls that we were surrounded by, and they, too, looked very nervous. The funny thing with guards in this country is that once you have them, you can’t let them go, no matter how useless or – worse – engaged in criminal activity they are. If you sack one of them, they’re going to shoot you, so you’re stuck with whatever bunch of losers are patrolling your walls. All you can do is pray that the prisoners that are trying to get into your compound don’t happen to be fellow tribesmen of your guards.

tribal warriors I

A number of shots were fired that night but the next morning everything had calmed down.

I went to the office and my boss told me that one of the Big Men in our office had to take a few days leave to attend to urgent tribal war matters. When he came back a few days later, he had an axe-gash in his skull of about 15cm length, which he had fixed PNG-style, by putting a medical tape on it that literally just stretched over the gash from one end to the other. In most countries you’d probably have been pronounced dead at the scene with a wound like that, he actually rocked up in the office and got some work done, tip to the hat.

mount wilhelm II

I’ve also had my best snorkelling experience ever in PNG, in a resort about an hour’s drive from Moresby. Not sure how it is now, but back then there was no tourism there, so you were sharing the whole club with a handful of other expats, and everything was dirt cheap. We saw sharks (apparently not the ones that try to have you for dinner, we were told), turtles, giant potato cods, sea stars, the reefs were virtually untouched, it was magnificent.

Nearly twenty years after I’ve been there, I wonder if it’s still the same, I think I’d give it a go.

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