THE DARKNESS BEGINS TO dissipate with no sign of the PMV to Ambunti. When the first sunrays appear, we trudge back up to Ralf’s guesthouse. My backpack is already weighing me down. It’s crammed full of my grungy clothes plus enough canned food for five days. We did our shopping yesterday in the crowded markets of Wewak. The air was heavy with tension and Melanesian funk – a smell so dense and palpable that it still clings to our clothes. We moved through the crowd as stealthily as possible. We’d learned in the Highlands that the slightest aberration can trigger a riot. Invisible is our new mantra.  

I take a deep breath and pull myself upright. I have to steel myself for the most challenging part of the trip. But first we need to find another way to that remote village on the Upper Sepik River.

Ralf is already puttering around his property doing chores. He scoops raw hamburger into his dogs’ dishes. They salivate and lick their chops, teeth bared. Nice dogs have no purpose in Papua New Guinea.

“There must have been trouble,” Ralf says when he sees us. He is a gaunt, gristly man with a rictus smile. “I will take you to the airport when I go into town.”

Maya lights a cigarette and walks out into the yard. I tiptoe up the porch. The dogs snarl at me. I cringe and hurry into the house, my heart pounding.    

Maya comes in a few minutes later and sits down next to me with a sigh. One unspoken question that we’re both afraid to voice – What if we came all this way for nothing?

“You will take MAS airlines to Ambunti,” Ralf says when he comes in. His German accent is so strong I expect him to add, and you will like it. “They have the worst safety record since Talair, which we used to call Killair.” He chuckles to himself and spreads a map across the table.    

“You will ask for Joseph Kone,” Ralf says. “He is the best guide on the upper Sepik.” He traces a bony finger along the frayed line on the map. “Do not give too much to the locals. They will become spoiled. And the more they have the more they will want. They are like children.”

Later, we wait at the airport until a plane shows up. That’s how it works here. Ralf talks to the pilot and secures two places for us on the four-passenger plane. The other two passengers are a Catholic priest and nun. Somehow this makes me feel better, even though they don’t acknowledge us. I say a silent prayer as the plane buzzes down the runway and lifts off. Please don’t let me die when I’m so close to my dream.  

I lean my head against the plane window and stare down at the sluggish river. It lies there like a dead, bloated snake. The Upper Sepik still conjures up apprehension. Cannibalism is outlawed in PNG, but there’s no way to enforce it. The geography is as daunting as the people. Impenetrable jungles and towering mountains have contributed to the isolation. In this small Pacific nation seven hundred and forty different languages – one third of the world’s – have been documented. Even today some tribes still live as they have for hundreds of years.

The plane makes a hard left and descends. The airstrip is nothing more than a grassy field. We shudder to a halt just a few feet from the river. A wave of relief moves through me. Maya and I exchange a smile. I’ve dreamed of this since I was a child. I alienated my peers, who were interested only in soap opera realities. While they were planning their marriages and children, I was planning expeditions. I wanted to be like Jim from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. So what if I was a girl.

When the propellers stop turning, a group of children surround the plane. They look at us and giggle with their hands over their mouths.

A man in a clean, pressed yellow button down shirt and khaki shorts walks up to us. He has a dignified air, and the crowd parts instinctively.  

“I’m Joseph Kone,” he says to us in a perfect British accent.

“How did you know we were coming?” Maya asks.  

“Ralf got a message to me on the short-wave radio.”

We walk through the village, a trail of locals in our wake. They stop at the entrance of Joseph’s hut. We sit on immaculate grass mats. Joseph offers us each a betel nut. We mix up the concoction that will turn our mouths red and make our head swoon. Two men walk into the hut and shyly say hello. They keep their eyes lowered.

“Abraham will be your guide,” Joseph says. “Sebby will be your driver.”

Maya grimaces at me, nut bulging in her cheek, blood red stain at the corners of her mouth. She looks like a carnivorous chipmunk.

I maneuver the nut around my mouth as my head begins to spin. I wonder when it’s polite to spit it out. The guidebook to PNG mentioned nothing about betel nut etiquette.  

“You’re the first women who come here,” Abraham says.  

“No,” Joseph says.  “There was a group of three Australian women who came about three years ago.”

My mouth drops open. I knew that this area was one of the least traveled, but it’s shocking that we’re only the second group of solo female travelers to venture here. My ego rears up, and then I force it back down. We’ve already been humbled by some close calls in this country while driving through the Highlands. We won’t be entitled to be braggarts until we make it back home.  

As the canoes are loaded up, the whole village lines up along the riverbank to see us off. They cheer and wave. Children run along the riverbank until our canoe rounds the bend and disappears. Tears of happiness fill my eyes. My childhood loneliness was worth it.

We sit on battered wicker chairs as the dugout canoe glides through a labyrinth of tributaries and swamps. After a few minutes in the full sun, my head begins to pound. Sebby hands me a faded umbrella. Maya lays back and basks. Her skin is much darker than mine. The sun has never made her sick.

The scenery soon becomes monotonous. Tall grass and murky water. Iridescent blue butterflies are the only patches of color. A short time later, plumes of smoke appear over the jungle. Sebby maneuvers the canoe up onto the riverbank.

“Here is nice haus tambaran,” Abraham explains. “A spirit house. You pay one kina to take photo.” His look tells me that we are expected to want a photo.

The village women stand outside and stare in at us. One of the men storms outside and barks at them. They disperse, and then gradually sneak back as close as they can get. They are not allowed in, but we are meri, white women, so we are given a place to sit near the chief, a shriveled old man with a childlike smile. His two remaining teeth are stained brown.

Ornate designs the color of dried blood adorn the posts and beams. Abraham strokes the largest post and says, “The bones of the old chief are in here.”  

I’m silent for a moment and then ask, “Just the bones? How do they get the flesh off of them?” I pinch my skin in case he doesn’t understand the word flesh.

He puts his hand over his mouth and giggles like a child.  

A chill moves through me.

We spend the night at another village. There is sickness here. Deep, phlegmy coughs and distended stomachs. Abraham speaks to the women, who bark at him in return. Our sheepish smiles do nothing to soften their glares.  

Maya and I walk through the village. The village children yell at us in mocking voices. To escape them, we walk up a well beaten path. We linger at the edge of the jungle for a few moments. I catch sight of a tiny thatched outhouse. It’s as good a time as ever to take care of business.     

I step into the darkness and squat over the seat. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, the silhouette of a spider comes into view. Its body alone is as large as my fist. I inhale sharply and look around. They are everywhere. I reach out my hand to steady myself on the doorframe and nearly touch one. I swoon for a second, and then shriek and run out, my pants around my ankles.  

The villagers run up the path. I babble and point to the spiders. A young boy walks up to it and flicks it with his hand. Everyone laughs, including Maya. The ghosts of the past resurface in my mind. I swallow a lump of shame and walk past them to the fire, where Abraham is sitting. He makes room for me on the wooden bench. I’m grateful for his welcoming smile.

Our dinner is cold baked beans right from the can and rock hard crackers.  I wolf it down, surprised at how good such a simple meal can be.

Afterwards Abraham takes us on a short walk along the riverbank.  

“A boy died here yesterday,” he tells us.  “Death adder bite him. The people are sad.”

I’ve read that the fangs on these snakes are so tiny that one often doesn’t realize they’ve been bit until it’s too late.  

Abraham stops in front of a large rock. “A spirit lives here,” he whispers. He places a potato on a pile of other offerings. “For the little boy.”

We’re kept awake by the sound of rats scurrying in the rafters. Maya is terrified of rats. This thought makes me feel better about my earlier embarrassment. She’s not as cool as she thinks she is. I weigh the sides of my mosquito net down with my shoes and lay rigidly in the middle of my floor mat. The spiders can’t get in here, I tell myself, but still sleep does not come.  

Over the next two days we are whisked through a succession of villages. I begin to notice signs of malnutrition and disease. Squalor, destitution, protein deficiency, parasites, domestic abuse, inbreeding. The children’s snot-slick faces and rags for clothes. I smile at them, because they are so curious and sweet, but it’s hard not to cringe when they touch me. In every village the detritus of travelers past appears in the form of dingy, threadbare t-shirts: Iron Maiden, LA Lakers, No Apartheid. I wonder about these travelers. What made them want to come here? Was it as they expected it to be? Am I the only person who has ever romanticized this place?

I awaken from a fitful, claustrophobic sleep. I pull aside the side of the mosquito net and gasp for fresh air. I dreamed of the chapel we visited yesterday; the one we were forbidden to enter, because we weren’t Protestant. In the dream, it was inhabited by a vague malevolence. Love Jesus was painted on the door in blood. Only those who had been pricked by the serpent could enter. The river slithered by, bearing the bones of Jim from Wild Kingdom.

I lean out a window and try to shake the daze. How many days have we been on the river?  

Maya and I don’t speak. It is not anger, but bewilderment, that keeps us silent.

“Today we go to village with big crocodile,” Abraham says as we climb into the canoe. “Two hundred pounds.”

I try to feign enthusiasm. I tuck my hair up under my baseball cap. It is so dirty that it sticks to my head. I can smell my own white girl funk. I think of Ralf’s cold-water, cement-floored shower with nostalgia. I look down at my dirty sweatpants. Because of the missionaries, we have to keep our legs covered. A patch of white skin shows at my ankle. The hair on my legs has never been this long.  Sweat trickles down my butt crack. My stomach is more distended by the hour. No more outhouses for me, thanks.   Stop being a sissy, I scold myself.  

“Happy birthday,” Maya says with a weak smile.  

I shake my head and will my tears away. I worked so hard for this trip. I’m ashamed of my weakness. This is the most memorable birthday I’ll probably ever have.

“I know,” she says, her voice heavy with discouragement. “I know.”

“We asked for it and got it,” I answer, and force myself to smile. My dreams of being a daring anthropologist have disappeared in a few short days. I do not have what it takes.       

We stop at a village called Swagup. A trio of elders greets us at the riverbank. “They all gone,” one of them says to Abraham. “Into jungle.”  

“They move around,” Abraham says, pointing to the canopy.  

Thatched huts are perched high in the trees. This is the infamous insect cult. Abraham points to two holes in one of the men’s nose. “He wears beetle horns here.”

The old man smiles at us. His eyes are both fierce and innocent. Abraham makes small talk with him in Pidgin for a few minutes, and then we set off. “I’m sorry they not here,” he says. “This is the village you wanted to see the most.”

I shrug and look away. Indifference has taken hold of me.

The crocodile cult village is not far. Sebby guides the canoe through an immense swamp, and finally to a village in its center.

We each pay a kina and they show us the famous two hundred pound crocodile skull. We follow along listlessly as they take us on a tour of the village. Small huts house crocodiles of various sizes. A young man wearing a threadbare Chicago Bulls t-shirt shyly approaches us. He’s listening to music on an outdated Walkman.

“What are you listening to?” I ask.

“Warrant,” he says. “I like rock music.” He hands me the earphones. I hold one to my ear. The tape is hopelessly warped.  

His proud smile makes my heart wrench. Tears fill my eyes as I dig through my backpack and pull out an Alice in Chains tape. When I hand it to him, he accepts it with a humble nod.  

Abraham walks over to us with a young girl. “She will take you to wash.”

We hurry to a tiny dugout canoe and squeeze ourselves in. It’s barely wide enough for our butts. It teeters for a moment. We paddle through the swamp, stirring up a cloud of tiny bugs. They fly in our eyes and up our noses.      

“Quick, snap your fingers,” Maya says.

I break into hysterical laughter. Maya joins in and soon tears pour down our faces. The girl looks at us, amused, and steers the canoe up onto a marshy bank.

“Okay, you waswas here,” she says. She pantomimes washing.

We look at the slimy, reeking water in silence. “I’m not going in there.” I start to cry.

Maya puts her head in her hands and takes deep breaths.  After a few moments, I compose myself and climb back into the canoe.




“This is the last village today,” Abraham says. “We sleep here.” After we unload the canoe, he takes us up a small, clear creek. I splash the cool water on my face. No one bathes nude in PNG, thanks to the missionaries, so we jump right in, clothes and all. We splash and giggle with the village girls who have come along. Our long skirts billow around us. We pirouette and dive.  Abraham looks relieved at our change of mood.

He shows us his ritual scars, two identical bull’s-eyes around his nipples. His expression is a mixture of shame and dignity. He’s a Christian now; his scars are reminders of his savage past.  

As we dry off in the sun, the girls approach us. They look at the rose tattoo on Maya’s ankle in admiration. They look over at my hairy, white ankles. One of them says, “I like her better.”

I wince and look away, but not before catching Maya’s smug look. I walk away, refusing to give in to juvenile one-upmanship.   

At night, around the dim light of a kerosene lamp, Abraham tells us about marriage on the river.  “The man give the father a pig, and if the woman cook the pig and give it to the man, then they are married. Then the woman comes to sleep in the man’s house. Under one mosquito net.” He grins.  

We sit in silence. A refreshing breeze blows through the hut. Heat lightning flickers, illuminating the jungle and the night fishermen on the river. Villagers sit in the shadows, their whispers melodic and comforting.    

I crawl under my mosquito net. Tomorrow, we return to Ambunti, then Wewak, and then home. I’m no longer imprisoned by unfulfilled aspirations. I’ve done what I set out to do. If I die now, I will die happy.  

Palm trees rustle in the breeze, lulling me into a peaceful slumber.

J.D. RISO has traveled to forty-nine countries and counting. She’s currently working on a memoir about her dromomania, entitled Wish I Were Here.


return to Issue Thirteen