A short pause to rest on my journey up the hillside reveals our sailboat to be a tiny speck in the harbor far down below. With the mid morning sun heating up the Papuan jungle, steam rises from the treetops while the saturated air feels like a wet blanket has been wrapped around me. Beneath my feat the trail is a combination of slippery rocks, thick volcanic mud and exposed tree roots. A glance at my ankles reveals a family of mosquitoes feasting on the blood that I can feel pumping throughout my entire body. The local people from Mapuia make the journey up and down this path several times daily. Some on their way to school, others making their way to their garden and most coming down to catch fish in order to feed their families.
Emerging from the jungle near the top of the hill, we are surrounded by a field of tall dry grass. This is the first thing that returns in the areas that have been burnt by the Papuans in order to chase the bandicoots, pigs and wallabies out of the bush. Here on the main island, we are told that they burn acres and acres of land attempting to drive the animals from their homes and unfortunately they are rarely successful. Smoke rises from fires in the distance and the scars from previous ones cover the tops of the surrounding mountains. Making our way through the grass, it is sad to see the destruction of the landscape in a hunting technique that rarely yields food and only serves to destroy more of the precious forest that covers the island of New Guinea.
“Oro! Oro! Oro!” comes from the distance. Again, “Oro! Oro! Oro!” Our guide tells us that the village is welcoming us. Greeted by all of the children of the village along with the women whose faces are covered in traditional tattoos, beautiful patterns of blue ink crawling from their cheeks to their foreheads and from their lips to their ears, the shouts of “Oro! Oro!” continue until the four of us have completed the climb. After brief introductions with the women, we are informed that this is their welcome house and we are to rest here as the village is not ready for us yet. Telling us they are not ready is a bit confusing. We have visited many villages here in the islands and usually after securing a guide, they walk us through their village, introduce us to the chief and allow us to talk to whoever is in the area. Not sure what to expect, we wait at the guesthouse, taking photographs of everyone around. The children and the women are equally impressed by each photo being shown to them on the back of the digital camera. This is something I have found to be one of the most pleasurable delights of traveling in places where technology like a digital camera is non-existent. Hearing the laughter of all of the children and seeing the smiles on their faces as they struggle to get the best view of the camera after each picture is taken is an experience of it’s own that doesn’t compare with anything else I have found when traveling. The memories of the smiles and laughter of these people will last a lifetime.
John, our guide, informs us that the village is ready for us to enter and leads the way up the remainder of the hill. As we begin our short walk into the village, the air is filled with the sounds of guitars, drums and singing. The bare breasted women are clothed in grass skirts and shell necklaces. The men wear traditional covers around their waste made of mats of woven palm. Upon the elders heads are enormous head dresses covered in the colorful feathers of the bird of paradise. Pig tusks and the teeth of other animals hang from their necks as they sing, dance and beat upon their drums. While two of the young women hold up a gate of grass woven together, four others present us with necklaces of brightly colored, freshly picked flowers. The song concludes with more shouts of “Oro! Oro! Oro!” and a shower of flowers that are every color of the rainbow falls upon our heads. I feel like I am at my own wedding, making my way out of the church as the assembly tosses the flowers upon me. Passing through the gate that has been made for our arrival, the band of musicians, singers and dancers forms two lines and continues to play as we walk between them. Surrounded on all four sides by song and dance, we make our way into the heart of the village and I can’t even describe the feelings and thoughts rushing through my head as I have never been greeted in such a wonderful fashion anywhere in the world.
John directs us two a sitting house where he asks us to sit so that they may present us with refreshments. We climb up on the raised floor of the open air structure. The roof is made of woven pandanas leaves and the floor is covered in clean, brightly colored mats that have been woven in the most amazing and colorful patterns. Upon the mats are laid hundreds upon hundreds of flowers in a pattern surrounding the perimeter of the entire structure. At the edges of the hut hang freshly cut palm leaves providing a transparent curtain all around. Looking through the palm leaves, the singing and dancing continues while we are served a feast of bananas, freshly cooked yams and thirst quenching green coconuts. To be given so much by people who have so little is a humbling experience. In the modern world that we live in, such generosity is almost unheard of.
Our day continues with more of the incredible singing and dancing by all of the people of Mapuia. When the chief arrives, we present him with a gift for the entire village, a brand new soccer ball! The children are ecstatic as they love sports but do not have a ball of any sort in the village. We are told that they used to have volleyball, but there was never a net. Tossing the soccer ball into the sea of children creates an entertaining array of chaos everywhere. As the children frantically run to kick the ball, the smiles from their faces light up the eyes of everyone around. While the children carry on playing, I continue to show all of the others each of their photos that I have taken throughout the day. I think they may have enjoyed the pictures as much as the children enjoyed the new soccer ball!
As the afternoon rolls on we begin our decent of the hillside. Several of the children our leading the way through the grass that comes up to my shoulders. Playing games, they chase each other down the steep path. As I join in the fun and begin running after them, I find myself running blindly around the winding path surrounded by grass the height of my shoulders. Hearing the laughter of the children up ahead, all I can see is a sea of grass and the occasional glimpse of a little boys face as he looks back to see how far behind I am. Ahead of the rest of the group and now in the jungle, the boys stop at a nearby stream to cool off. While I take their photos splashing water on each other in the stream, I decide it is my turn to lead the chase. Off I dash into the jungle, as the boys take off in pursuit! I manage to stay ahead for several minutes before coming to a point on the path that is too steep for me to keep up speed and race down. As I slow down to avoid a painful fall, the four boys bound down the steep path of slippery tree roots as if it were nothing more than a flat and soft surface. As we finally emerge from the trail near the harbor down below, I am not sure who enjoyed the trip more, these four children, or me!
Back on the boat we are all exhausted from a grueling hike and all of the overwhelming emotions that we have felt throughout the journey. It doesn’t take long before a full army of canoes come out of the mangroves paddling out to the boat. After such incredible treatment from the village, Bill breaks out all of the clothes that we have left from our supply of trade goods. Everyone climbs on board and we distribute clothes to every man, woman and child. The children each receive a lolly, a pencil and fresh snacks from our supplies on board. Their time on the boat is as rewarding as ours was in the village. As the sun sets, we say goodbye to the parents and the children, many of whom in tears because they don’t want to leave the “sailing boat.”
While preparing to leave the following morning, many of the people from the village come back down to say goodbye. Each family comes with a gift for everyone on board. We all receive necklaces made of shells and I am provided with a bowl that a woman has made with an intricate pattern surrounding the edges. Bill receives an enormous tapa cloth, a traditional mat that can be used as part of an outfit during traditional dancing or as a carpet or as a decoration upon a wall. Many canoes bring fresh fruits and vegetables from their gardens and we now have more types of banyans on board than I ever knew could exist. I am leaving Mapuia with a different outlook on humanity and all the people in the world. To be surrounded by such giving and welcoming individuals has been an unexpected gift in itself, inspiring me to travel to even more remote places to learn from, share thoughts and interact with the different cultures of the world.