About twenty five years ago, in search of a break from routine and some adventure, I took myself deep into the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. I had had a longstanding invitation to stay in a village called Hedemari. Back in Australia an airmail letter had arrived, the basic message of which was, “When are you coming, we’ve built you a house?” In anticipation of my visit, the villagers had actually built me a house (but that’s another, much longer story).
Making the trek from Port Moresby, first by commercial flight, then by light aircraft and a dusty 100km drive over dirt roads, in the back of a 4 wheel drive from Tari, I eventually reached the village. The villagers welcomed me and proudly showed me the house they had built. It turned out to be a neat two-room structure, with a thatched roof and its own fireplace set in the base of a sawn-off 40 gallon drum. After a truly adventure-filled week, they told me they had decided to have a sing-sing in my honour; whatsmore they wanted me to actually lead the troupe of Huli warriors that would be dancing. I knew that the dancing of the Huli men mainly consists of jumping up and down in a way similar to the dancing of the Masai of Kenya while drumming out the beat on a long kundu drum. My main problem was whether I would have the stamina to keep up.
My protests (I don’t dance, I’m too old, etc, etc) were brushed aside. It’s very hard to refuse a request to dance from a bunch of people so hospitable they’ve built you a house. I gave in. So after a single rehearsal the night before, I was woken at dawn to get dressed in traditional costume for the performance. Resignedly, compliant, I was dressed, bewigged, painted, plumed with bird-of-paradise feathers and oiled. After that ordeal, I figured the dancing would be a snack. My idea was that half an hour or so of dancing and drumming before twenty or thirty members of the village and my cross-cultural embarrassment would all be over. Go for it.
In two facing lines, with me leading, we danced out through the fortified village gates. There was a roar of excitement. Peering with horror (hopefully hidden by the paint) from under the large head-dress that had been tightly bound to my scalp, I realised that instead of the couple of dozen spectators I had been expecting, there were hundreds. My knees nearly buckled from underneath me. Word had been sent out to every village within a 20 mile radius and villagers had come in from all over the countryside to see me perform. Major stage fright! There was no way out. There was nothing for it but to grit my teeth and dance.
In sweltering heat, smothered in paint and oil, to the delight of the crowd, we danced and danced and danced. Time seemed to crawl. By the time we finished it was all I could do to crawl. We had performed for two hours before I (and my aching leg muscles) felt we could respectably call a halt. The ordeal was not quite over. There was still the far from simple matter of getting all that oil and paint off…with kerosene!
It was an experience, I’ll never forget…but explaining to a doctor in Sydney a week later that the the case of contact dermatitis on upper body came from being coated in motor oil while leading a group of Huli warriors was an unexpected bonus. After all it’s not every day a Sydney GP gets an honorary Huli in their surgery.
Just in case you couldn’t spot me in the throng, here’s a close-up…