Many months after the iron-rich Papua New Guinea mud has been washed out of my clothes, the photo above lives on, incorruptible. For that, I am grateful. Frozen in the moment is more than half of the 824-person Uskov village, a mosaic of unfamiliar traditions and familiar humanity on the banks of PNG’s largest lake. The entire region officially opened its doors to tourism just weeks before this photo was taken. This is how Uskov introduced itself.
I took a lot of photos during my two weeks adventuring in PNG, one of the world’s most perplexing and least-visited countries (~5,000 Americans visit each year), but none of the rest came as close to capturing the full breadth of feeling the trip coerced out of me. I can honestly say—in a world increasingly prone to hyperbole—that the day I visited Uskov was the best I’ve ever had traveling (see next week’s story). The trip as a whole was to me what many travels aspire to be: illuminating, challenging, unpredictable, and so much fun. PNG was at times disarming and even scary, as there was just no way of knowing how each moment would unfold. In PNG, life refused to conform to the script, and for the right audience, that’s an incredible thing.
As the world races toward homogeny, Papua New Guinea’s still-nascent tourism industry is opening up avenues into its perspective-altering divergence like never before. Lake Murray Lodge, where I slept before and after my Uskov visit, welcomed my group as its—and all of the approximated Lake Murray region’s—second-ever guests. Via cruises like those offered by P&O and Princess, the likes of autumn’s Alotau Canoe Festival open up to visits of just a few hours, which in the Alotau example is enough time to witness a main-stage auction of cow parts overshadow the country’s best canoe craftsmanship. At that very festival, I waited in a confoundingly long line for free rice and a chance to throw a dart for a free hat. Maybe 100 feet from me, beside a red Digicel tent, sat an Australian man in a wheelchair. That felt like a step.
And yet, about 95% of the country’s land remains privately in the hands of the Papuan people, perhaps by concentration the most diverse on Earth. Within PNG’s borders, some 800 different languages are spoken. Witch doctors still command respect and even collaborate with doctors and hospitals. In some parts, brides go for dowries of pigs, and for up to 100 pigs if you are my friend Jenny (she politely declined). It’s no longer David Attenborough’s cannibal encounter, but in 2016, it might be the closest thing to it. At the very least, it’s the furthest I’ve ever been from home.
In Part 2: The best day of my travel life.