You feel slightly overdressed. Though underdone at the same time. The bare-chested man in front of you has layers of chokers and pendants around his neck. His hair—though it must be a wig—is in the shape of a mushroom. Blue, purple, and orange feathers stick out from it. And his face is slathered with bright, yellow clay. Red streaks make it look like he has very long whiskers. He steps toward you. You instinctively step back. He circles you. You stand straight and try not to breathe. Finally back in his original position, he looks you in the eye and breaks into a big grin. Welcome to Tari.
You’re visiting a Huli Wigmen village in central Papua New Guinea. It’s market day, though you don’t see much bartering taking place. A group of men are chanting and dancing. The women, who aren’t quite as flamboyantly dressed, tend to a fire pit. Steam, or maybe pipe smoke, hovers around the crowd. You have never looked—or felt—more out of place.
Papua New Guinea is one of the most unexplored, undeveloped places on earth. It makes up half the island of New Guinea, the second-largest island in the world. The other half belongs to Indonesia. For years, it was ruled by the Aussies. They didn’t venture far beyond Port Moresby, the small capital, or the nearby coast, though. Until recently, wealth was largely measured by land, pigs, and wives. The recent discovery of natural gas and mineral reserves has started to change that.
To reach Tari, you flew over the lowlands. The airplane climbed higher and higher into the lush, green hills. Then you were driven to almost 7,000 feet, to Ambua Lodge, an eco-friendly hotel on Doma Peaks, a volcano. From your round house, you have 180-degree views of the valley below. Or at least part of it, right now. Puffy clouds obstruct your view.
You spend the next few days hiking through the jungle—around beautiful orchids and interlocking trees, over vine bridges and mountain streams, and to secluded waterfalls. You see blue-necked Dwarf Cassowaries, Brahminy Kites overhead, and Pacific Black Ducks by the water. You try to capture colorful birds-of-paradise, like the King of Saxony and the Blue Bird, on your camera. You compare travel stories with other guests by the fireplace in the main lodge. You sleep with an electric blanket—it’s cold this high in the mountains—but feel foolish for doing so when you visit that barely dressed Huli Wigmen tribe. You may not be ready to shed layers, but you wholeheartedly accept a simpler way of life. For a few days, at least.