benito the frenchman
12 December 2010 | sepik river, papua new guinea
With Alex away at the hospital in Wewak and Reed gone croc hunting up river I am left alone with Bubbles in the remote community of Yenchen. It’s time for me to paddle to shore to make some new friends. I have drifted quite a bit with the unaired dinghy before shaking new hands. To avoid the children crowd, the men take me in their spirit house. This one smaller and more simple than before. But no problem, I feel good in here.
Once again. they ask me for stories. As many time before, I tell them about my snowy mountainy small French village and they love it.
Smoking some “brousse” (tobacco rolled in newspaper) and chewing beatle nuts, the older man sit down on his tool in the center of the spirit house and start talking in his mother tongue. “he says we must welcome the foreigners as our brothers, respect their properties and tell them about our customs so they spread them all over the world” resume one of his numerous son. “when an older sit down there, all of us should listen their teaching carefully, ’cause they are wise men”. I agree. For the next couple of hours, he’ll transmit me some of their knowledge, with the help of a translator. Even though I can’t understand the old man, some things don’t need words: his voice, his gesture, his aura etc. are dramatic.
And one by one, the legend of every single thing in the spirit house is told. When at first some carvings and how and where men would sit etc. looked meaningless and random to me, I can now see the history and magic in them: different clans in the house have different protecting spirits, knowledge and duty; one carving receive the offers to the spirits, an other one is the protector of all the skin cut men. On the side I’m sitting, one of the night people’s drum has been given for peace from one clan on the other. And they received a girl for this, and her 30 year old son sitting on the sun banch is here today as a proof. I feel like I have a way better comprehension of the Sepik river culture paddling back to the boat. I feel like a privileged white man. I wish you could have been there cause my words can’t be as right as theirs and a computer can’t be as dramatic as being their on the Sepik river.
The next day, some of the boys have been sent to the boat to take care of me. They won’t earn their $6 a day working to rise up the new cell phone tower. But they are happy to take me on their canoe to the other side of the river to visit the other half of the village. On this side, no spirit house but a school. And 3 distinct groups gambling with each other: men, women and children. As it was on the other side, walking across the village is like going to a market opening just for me. Leaving the village we are now paddling against current with an unbalanced full canoe loaded up with coconuts, papaya, pumpkin, necklaces and carvings. All for Bubbles and all for free of course.
Today I’ve decided it would be my turn to tell good stories in the spirit house. Though the wise man is not here, (he is drumming and singing with the other elders in the next house and finishing the fish ceremony for Christmas celebration.) the boys make a circle around me as I take my artwork out: as detailed as Alex’s blog is my cartoon about my trip. I’ve drawn only the 7 first month so far, but they enjoy the way I’ve represented my village I told them about and above all my trip up the Amazon river. They can appreciate how I represented amazonian’s legends and ask me to send them the cartoon they’ll be in, if I’d draw it….
Back on Bubbles, I decide to prepare the, so popular in Vanuatu and barely known in PNG, old roots of Kava Alex got on the boat left from Fiji. It’s a long and hard job and when I step onshore to share the drink, the whole community sits around the one and only TV with DVD player! Only a few boys are happy to taste and share the drink of peace because most of them are stuck watching this ’70’s Turkish movie, bobby teardrops.
Today Reed should be back. There is one thing I want to learn from the women here: I have collected sea shell to make nice gift when I’ll be biking threw the Himalaya. And here they know netting technic to make nice necklaces without piercing the shells. Because you are in the wild, you first make the rope. Take the skin off of this one spiny tree and leave it in the water for a couple of hours. Now boil it and dry it. Now I have to make a one rope out of these small fibers, rolling them on my knee, adding some for more length. It looked easy as hell when I first saw the girl, now I know they have a lifetime experience behind them.
Now that I’m spending time with the girls, I’m loosing my “Sepik Pikinini” nickname (Sepik’s child) for “Sepik Meri”.(Sepik’s girl). Yeah, they’ve never seen a man doing necklesses, especially a white man. Doesn’t matter, I am surrounded by good looking native girls having fun chewing beatle nuts and smoking brousse while doing a crappy job. And chewing and smoking brousse acting as a local is the key to friendship so everything is alright.
I’m just starting to learn to tricky knitting that exhausted Reed comes back to me. With no croc. “Captain is waiting for us in Angoram tomorrow”, he says. It’s a long way to Angoram, so nice knitting for the Nepalese. But Alex is fixed and ready to go, that’s the most important thing. I thanks everybody a thousand time. We have to take off the weeds and logs stuck once again that has gathered on our anchor chain (that rain that gave Reed a hard time brought me a lot of of logs and debris these days), finally we can pull the anchor up and gone we are!
Last afternoon, we sailed as far down as possible. No adventures, But today is our day. One hour after we took off, we got to Tambanum. The first village we stopped and the way up. Here we got our 2 parrots and some of the best carvings of the river. We still have a bunch of trading stuff, stock must be gone: from tennis ball to very special arrows. We know it’s gonna be crazy. We have a strategy: go on shore and open a stand. No time. Already 10 to 15 canoe are surrounding the boat, trading session is open!
This is chaos!! deals are going fast, many at a time. If we had to negotiate for the first most wanted pieces, things have changed. As our stock is going down, the value of our last pieces increases: “I’ve got ten blue, black and red pen here!” This give me the choice between 5 very nice carvings. Reed made them going crazy when he offered the left over of his suitcase, something like 2 arrows, 1 knife, 5 hooks and bubble gums.
I blow the horn: “trading session is over! Everybody back to the village!” I had to blow the horn again. We receive some last free gift and we are gone. That was so crazy, such a chaos and such an unbelievable trading we are now laughing. And laughing. And laughing! . We have lost 1 bucket and 1 underwear some have stolen in the chaos but we traded over 50 carvings in 1 hour!
Later down river BLAM! lightning strikes, rain is pouring down, wind is blowing hard, wave are rising up. We have never seen such a weather on the Sepik. We are not ready. We fight. It’s gone. Maybe the mighty Sepik river’s spirit was not happy to see so much art coming down at once! But still we are happy. We take all the carving on the deck for some crazy pictures and re over load Bubbles.
Now it’s dark. We are 1 hour away from Bubbles’ captain. Slaloming between logs we can now see Alex’s flash light. The current is strong but we manage to anchor the boat. And to reach the shore with a drop a fuel (Reed traded it all…). Alex’s back on the boat. No time for jokes, Alex is on the wheel trying to get us a better anchorage. this will take a few try. And here we can relax.
We are now altogether in Angoram. Captain is fixed and happy to see Bubbles in one and floating piece. Reed and I made it down the river and lived a bunch of extra adventure. But we feel better not being responsible of Alex’s baby anymore. Everybody is safe. Reed leaves the boat in the middle of the night. Alex and I take off in the early morning and will be back at sea, at home, just before dark. This sound like the end of an adventure. We wished Alex could have experienced it more, sorry. We wish Reed had a big croc, sorry. But we all have, once again, learn a lot from our epic adventure up the sepik river.
Mighty Sepik I love you. Sepik people I love you.
Lookim you again!