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 women seemed to compete with the men here, selling their artifacts which consisted primarily of beaded jewelry, headpieces and baubles - much like the Karawari villagers had.
The items would usually be displayed right on the ground, and the women were never pushy about selling...they were almost shy about it. My guess is that tourism was still a relatively new concept so there were no expert vendors here.
It sounds so casual of me to say that these things made great gifts...but they did.
And as I also mentioned in the Karawari section, it was difficult to go through a village and not purchase at least a little something - knowing that this was one of their main sources of money (like it or not, that's what tourism brings in the name of progress).
Each village was proud to display their painted wooden carvings...usually produced by the men passing the time in the Haus Tambaran.
I brought back some very cool masks and have them on display in our home today. I think they are very specific to the region, and don't at all resemble Asian or African masks (at least not in my opinion).
I also brought back a small version of a carved wooden woman with her legs spread, symbolic of the Sepik male's "rebirth" process inside the Haus Tambaran.
What to pay: It's easy to bargain with the villagers who are eager to receive hard currency. As with any culture, respecting the locals and not driving the price into the ground will earn you a unique and meaningful piece of local artisanry...and the memory, priceless.
This is an unusual item to include, but it was fascinating so I have to include it here:
At one of the villages -the same one where we saw the kids making clay pellets - the kids had somehow shot these pellets into some flowerbeds.
The consequences of such a transgression was to be (loosely) tied to a pole with an evil spirit mask looming over them, threateningly....
Some of the kids were crying - frightened by the mask no doubt (and I suppose that was the idea) - but what I found interesting is that some of the other children (who were not being punished) kind of hung around, observing their friends huddled together around this pole.
I'm not sure if the other children were being empathetic or, knowing human behavior, they were probably not unlike people who are horrified to see an accident by the side of the road, yet can't seem to turn away from it.
People are people no matter where they are, I guess.
I wasn't brave enough to actually take a photo of the large, bloodstained stones (very faintly stained) where some of the villagers told us their parents or elders once eddied up their enemies' bodies...
I did take this photo from a distance of one such village where the natives were not at all ashamed (nor should they be, since that was part of their cultural practice) to describe how they viewed cannabilism and why they once practiced this activity...it was fascinating to hear them speak of it, really.
We learned that the villagers didn't engage in random acts of cannabilsm; rather, this was reserved for special occasions, marking the defeat of their enemy which they did by carving their bodies up and eating them - it was thought that they would assume the warrior aspect of their enemy and further subdue the enemy tribe in this way.
Every village seemed to have a stationary, carved out canoe and paddle. To announce warfare, someone would approach the canoe and knock the paddle back and forth against the insides of the canoe which resulted in a loud, echoing noise - kind of like an alarm system if you will. The sound of the canoe being beaten like this was a signal that a fight was about to break out, so get prepared.
It's been at least a generation (maybe two) since these tribes engaged in cannabilism, so we weren't scared nor did we feel threatened in any way.