I found this by far to be the most fascinating aspect of our trip down the Sepik River: entering the forbidden Spirit House or "Haus Tambaran" as the villagers call it.
Each village has one, and basically it is the focal point of the male tribesmen...it is where they gather every day and where many of them sleep.
It involves an important right of passage for the young male who, when he is ready to enter adulthood, enters the Haus Tambaran and doesn't come out until he's become "a man".
This is the time when the boys' backs and arms are cut up and dirt packed into the skin to raise it during the healing process so that it scars...the marks are carefully carved (by an elder) to resemble the crocodile's leathery back. It is a tradition that celebrates the boy becoming a man.
To symbolize this rebirth process, the boy climbs a staircase leading to an upper level within the Spirit House. At the top looms a huge wooden carving of a woman with her legs spread - so that as the boy reaches the top floor, he passes through the spread legs and thus is "reborn" a man.
Women are not permitted to enter this sacred Spirit House - but they allowed us to take a peek inside and it was completely fascinating.
Similar to the Karawari River area, the Sepik villagers depend on the sago palm as a regular staple in their diets.
A special treat is to dig up fat, juicy grubs and eat them on the spot - or better yet, roll them in the sago pulp and cook them up.
I recall entering one such village where the smell of grubs cooking in a mass of sago palm, had a kind of smell that reminded me of over-ripened camembert or something.
I gave this one a pass, but most of the other people in our small group tried it.
The crocodile is an omnipresent and fiercely symbolic force in the life of a Sepik villager.
I didn't really hear any stories of crocodile aggression, so I'm not surprised if the humans and the animals here struck a kind of detente between themselves.
In any event, I recall one evening's activity just after the sun set and it became dark out - we boarded the river trucks and sliced our way down one of the Sepik tributaries, searching for crocodiles.
Our guide pointed them out by noting how they rest just below the surface of the water so that when you shine a light across, all you see are pairs of red eyes glowing above the surface....really spooky.
~ shiver ~
The primary activity aboard the Sepik Spirit was to visit the villages in this region.
Similar to the Arambak/Karawari excursions, we boarded "River Trucks" (flatbed boats with outboard motor) to get around the river.
The villagers were friendly and most of them went about their daily activities, nonplussed by our visit and not at all embarassed or affected by our presence.
Some were curious and took the lead to show us their crafts or to attempt to engage us in a dialogue - but for the most part, comunication was limited, especially if our guide was busy translating for someone else.
The visits offered a rare glimpse into a rich culture...one that is seldom visited and all the more fascinating because of this.
The children here in the Middle Sepik region (vs. the Karawari area) seemed to be better nourished. I think there was a fair amount of trade going on between the villages and so items could more easily be transported among themselves. Their economy was better, they had better tools, and they probably had more opportunities for hunting (and catching) fish.
The children were friendly and curious and seemed pretty typical....here we see some kids making small clay balls which I later observed them pelting each other with.
There weren't any schools of which to speak, but the children of a given village often gathered in a central area where an elder would impart "knowledge". Some villages even had a VCR....imagine my surprise to hear the movie "La Bamba" playing in one of the huts....we were shocked! I peeked inside and a lot of the kids were gathered around a television set, watching the film.
One can only hope "Rambo" never made its way here....