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Mixing Past And Present In Papua New Guinea

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Few places are more exotic in the imagination than Papua New Guinea. The romantic images it conjures up are the stuff of a National Geographic cover story, complete with deadly animals and, of course, cannibals.

But once I stepped off the plane, I entered a land that was wrestling with its past and its present.

The Sepik River basin, deep in the heart of the country, is a popular tourist destination. It's the perfect place for a jungle river tour, with dense greenery, massive birds and stops at tribal villages.

The village of Imas, along the banks of the Sepik, is actually two villages, explains Ambrose Otto, the village leader.

There's "Imas No. 2," where most people live in the present. There's also "Imas No. 1," also known as the "traditional village."

That traditional village, the one where the tourists go, is like living in the past. The residents perform dances like they did before outsiders came.

I now know where Papua New Guinea is, but I'm not sure when it is.

But while the concept of two villages may seem artificial, re-creating the past for tourists and their quest for the authentic is helping the Imas people preserve both their language, known as Karam, and their culture.

"The young generation coming up loses their dialect now," Otto says. "They only speak pidgin English. It's one of the areas where this village is now failing. So we are trying our best to restart the traditions before the old people pass away."

Luckily, one tradition is not coming back: cannibalism. All for the best, it seems, as I note the plumpness of many of the tourists. Lots of visitors want to hear about cannibals, but the practice stopped in the 1930s.

On the path back to the boat, village women have lined up souvenirs to sell. Even a living museum like the traditional Imas makes you exit through the gift shop.

We travel further upriver to another village, where we're greeted, as at every stop, by excited children. As part of our tour of the Karawari village, an elder demonstrates how to peel bark off a log, a woman cooks over an open fire and a canoe is being chopped into shape.

"The white people came here like first missionaries," explains Paul, a guide with Karawari Lodge, one of the camps where visitors are based. "They came in for first contact and start to tell them, 'Wear these clothes.' "

Today, I see no Western clothes. No T-shirts, no shorts. Just grass skirts, bare breasts, skimpy loincloths and naked children.

"Tourists are taking pictures. They don't want to take pictures of those who are in Western clothes," Paul explains. "People who are in Western clothes are not allowed to get close to people who are dressed up in the local dressings, because they are with the tourists, taking pictures."

It's true. Every tourist has a camera. We "take" images, cannibalizing a moment in light. We often confuse authentic with poverty, and past with present.

So when the white men first came up the river here, they told the native people to put on clothes, stop speaking the local language, abandon their traditional ways — and they handed them Bibles.

Now white people come and say, "Take off your Western clothes, embrace and display your traditional ways — but, keep the Bible."

It may be the 21st century, but visiting a "traditional village" is pulling me forward into the past. I'm visiting a time that the villagers themselves never even experienced.

"This is our own lifestyle, in the past," Paul says.

I ask Paul if the village wants to live in the past.

"No, it's too far now away," he says. "They can't go back to traditional dress now, because they are influenced by Western culture now."

Later, at the Kokopo Lodge, a villager named Jackson explains how his ancestors were cannibals, who hunted "the indigenous group of people to eat."

But tonight, he and his band are performing for the tourists, bringing us closer to the present with a song about my tribe — "Hotel California."

As my quest for the real and authentic continued, I finally arrived in the present, seeking shelter for a rainstorm in a schoolhouse on Duke of York Island.

The children, most in shorts, some in T-shirts, the girls in Western dresses, gathered to sing a song for me, one they all know: the Papua New Guinea national anthem.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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