Faces of Papua New Guinea


Papua New Guinea

Would a slathering of Dijon tempt the formerly (?) (supposedly) cannibalistic highland villagers? I couldn’t get myself to attempt the experiment. While on a visit to the north of Australia, Bob and I made a quick trip to Papua New Guinea. We were awed by traditional dancers from the highland villages. Only one of the men spoke English; he told me they are Huli “wigmen,” and that it took four years to grow his wig of human hair (presumably made of his own hair).


Though cannibalism and human sacrifice are reportedly no longer practiced here, Papua New Guinea does have a scarily high rate of crime and, just a year ago, Port Moresby was ranked among the top five murder capitals in the world. Hotels and local guidebooks warn of sudden, unpredictable, and violent eruptions of inter-tribal conflict.

“Papua New Guinea has a high crime rate. Numerous U.S. citizen residents and visitors have been victims of violent crime in recent years, and they have sometimes suffered severe injuries. Carjackings, armed robberies, and stoning of vehicles are problems in and around major cities such as Port Moresby, Lae, Mount Hagen, and Goroka, but can happen anywhere. Pickpockets and bag snatchers frequent crowded public areas.…Individuals traveling alone are at greater risk for robbery or gang rape than are those who are part of an organized tour or under escort.”

—U.S. State Department’s Country Specific Information on Papua New Guinea

The U.S. Embassy in Port Moresby “emphasizes that there is no way to guarantee personal safety during a visit to PNG, only to minimize the chances of becoming a victim.”

Bob and I failed to do our homework. Had we read the above before wandering alone all over, we certainly would have changed our behavior appropriately. The fact that we traipsed back roads and the city center unmolested only proves that anecdotal evidence is not the whole story. We might have reported “we were fine!” But that doesn’t mean it’s safe.


As we explored the hilly roads of Port Moresby, Bob commented on the rolls and rolls of razor wire, the hefty security at housing complexes, and the number of security vehicles that followed residents into the complexes. Bob assumed the residents were high-profile mining executives, hence the security. After further study, it seems that these were simply foreigners working in the country, with the usual security detail.


A great number of the people we met, in the city as well, had the red gums and worn-to-stubs blackened teeth of the betel nut-chewer.



Betel nut, a mild stimulant, is sold everywhere in town, literally every few yards on some streets. It’s chewed with a pinch of lime (the mineral—in a jar in the photo below), a pinch of tobacco, and sometimes a favorite spice. Gutters are littered with betel nut shells and practically run red with spit juices.


As a great contrast to the ubiquitous promises of doom and crime to the tourist, Bob and I, in our naive wanderings, quickly considered Port Moresby the most friendly city we’d ever walked. Every single person, without exception, said good morning or good afternoon, and those we stopped to speak with immediately offered their hands, touched our arms, or both.

The Crowne Plaza Hotel in Port Moresby has a stunning collection of masks, some seven feet tall. I’m showing great restraint by posting only one mask photo.


I know what you’re thinking. This photo, below, looks fake, like we’ve stuck our heads through holes in a painted backdrop. Uh-uh. No. And the men’s faces are painted, not masks. Through an unofficial translator, a wigman told that the yellow pigment is dug out from “between the gas and the oil.” We’d asked because it looks so unnatural.


Papua New Guinea; Yellowcake, uranium oxide
Yellowcake, uranium oxide

“What do they use for the yellow?” my mother, a painter, asked on seeing this photo. I explained what the wigman told me. “It doesn’t look natural to me,” my mother said.

“Let me Daddle that,” I said. My sisters and I have always asked our brilliant chemist father whatever curiosity needed an answer. As he was already on the line, my father said it sounds like they use “yellowcake,” a kind of uranium oxide. “Can’t be too good to rub on the skin,” he added.

Must read: Crime in Port Moresby

© Copyright 2008-present Bambi Vincent. All rights reserved.

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  • J.K.:

    Thanks for your comment and compliment. Are there areas in your neighborhood/city/state you’d hesitate to walk in alone? If so, you’re privy to inside information that an outsider probably wouldn’t know. When we travel outside of our known realm, we’re liable to wander into no-go zones, oblivious to the danger. That’s how Bob and I were mugged in Naples long ago.

  • Enjoyed the photos & the comments of your visit.

    I once wandered around in the Phillipines alone and without concern as I was certain that I could charm my way out of any trouble.

    I walked into a bar and it was entirely of the Filipino-American black crowd and my white skin glowed in the black lights. A black fellow I knew positioned himself beside me because he “didn’t want me to get stabbed.”

    On another evening, again alone, I was followed by a group of maybe 8 young men who clearly had a bad idea of what to do with me. I feigned being brave until I reached a corner on that dirt street and then ran from the area.

    On still another day, I was in a JeepNey (motorcycle taxi) and my driver began talking with another driver. The other driver gave MY drive a wad of cash and my driver told me that I should move into the other taxi. Uh, hmmmmm. They’re passing wads of money around and bargaining over me. I got really nervous and insisted that my driver move on.

    Moral of the story? Counting on a friendly crowd while traveling solo in foreign lands is NOT the smartest thing to do.

    Glad you didn’t end up hurt or worse.

  • You tacky commentary shows that beyond owning a snappy camera you understand little about how to approach cultures other than your own. It fits in very well with the long tradition of condescending colonial descriptions of otherness!

  • Wow! Fantastic photos, do you really believe they gave up cannibalism or may they practice in some religious rituals?

  • Glad to hear you’re OK; love the tourist shot with the yellow-faced staff from the local theme park; shame that Moresby’s gone down the tubes.

    Did you give your friends a copy of the photo?

    I had a photographer friend who once lived at ground zero with the natives for half a year. He went over to naïvely try to convince them to give up on cannibalism. They had him for dinner on several occasions.

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