Mt. Hagen is PNG’s third largest city and one of its most dangerous. That said, the city itself is surrounded by beautiful rolling countryside filled with farms and gardens. The Waghi valley is surrounded on all sides by the Kubor Mountain Range providing dramatic vistas from every angle. On each side of Mt. Hagen city lives a different tribe of people speaking a different language.
Jen and I are a bit cultured out at this point and definitely wanted to focus more on the wildlife and hiking. That said, we knew that we did need to spend at least a day exploring the culture in the area. We went up to the top of the mountain to go birding again at 5:30am and had a splendid early morning with Joseph. We spent some time in a hide like the guy on a Planet Earth looking for the Superb Bird of Paradise and saw several birds of paradise throughout our couple of hours at the top. We sprinted down when it was time to go since we didn’t want to leave the top.
We set out on our culture tour on the very bumpy and very long road into town. Our first stop was our guide Michael’s village, Kingalri. Michael is only 25 and due to his public speaking skills, has been chosen chief. Chiefs in the highland areas do not come about their position by inheritance – they must earn it through good public speaking, decision making and mediation skills. Michael was a pretty impressive dude. He walked us around his village where saw all of the beautiful Highland gardens full of every vegetable imaginable. The permanent spring climate and fertile soil makes this place magical for gardeners. He introduced us to his wife and two very new children (5 months) and we walked around the village cemetery where his grandfather (a former chief) was buried. There was no sing-sing demonstration, no dance or traditional clothes, the village was just to show what life was like for a village in the Highlands near the city. It was delightful. Life was pretty simple, and there were plenty of throwback elements to traditional times, but you could see right in front of you how the village was adjusting to the modern era.
We visited two more villages where the people brought back some of the old customs to show us how things used to be. Unlike in Tari with the Hulis and up in the Sepik region, near Mt. Hagen a lot of the really old traditional elements have been lost so this stuff was “put on” for the tourists. That said, the people delight in doing it. One village, the Kuzom village of Paiya, actually set up a tiny village museum on the chief’s land before tourists were ever even coming, just because he was concerned with the potential loss of his tribe’s culture among the youth.
The PNG people take great pride in their culture and they are keen show off to the world the many different peoples and customs that coexist in the country. The Highlanders near Mt. Hagen are no different and their beautiful gardens evidence their passion for their land and the proper appearance of their tribe, culture and history.
On our way back to the lodge, we stopped by Banz Kofi, a local grower, where we picked up a few kilos of beans straight from the roasting machine. They packed the bags in front of us and they were still hot when they handed them over. We went to the Mt. Hagen market, PNG’s biggest, where all of the local fruit and veg were on display. The place was like a farmers market on steroids – no pesticides, all local and all being sold by the person that tilled the soil.
Tomorrow is going to be our last full day in PNG. I am going to be sad to leave. I spent the evening watching the sun set under the Kubor mountains sitting in a garden of brightly colored orchids and wild flowers. The air was clean and fresh and I have a full day of trekking with Joseph to look forward to tomorrow.
Despite all of the beautiful scenery, the fascinating culture and the wonderful art, my favorite thing about PNG remains its people.