Wom: Tucked away in the remote reaches of the Sepik River Valley is the village of Wom.  It's a place where all the houses are built on stilts and people are one with water.  It's a place that few people see but one of my favorite places in the country.

Day One:
The Sepik River was wide, muddy, flowing fast and filled with logs heading downstream.  So many logs I can’t figure out where they came from!  The guide was always watching out for them.  Our boat went up the Sepik a while and turned up a tributary.  The further up the valley, the more you saw people paddling and poling canoes, carrying goods and passengers.  We came to the village of Kambaramba and stayed in the hut of a friend of the guide.  My guide was absolutely useless in helping with the village and his friend seemed to completely ignore me except when hitting me up for money.  It’s an uncomfortable situation to be in someone’s house where you distinctly feel unwelcome.  In fact, it was the feeling I got from the entire village.  I basically hid from everyone and waited it out until the morning departure.

Day Two:
I was pleased to be moving on and continued upstream.  The banks were muddy, the water murky, white herons were everywhere.  We passed several villages and the occasional solitary home. The rivers had lots of people paddling their canoes as this really was the only viable mode of transportation considering how wet the area was. 

After several more splits in the river, we passed through the village of Wom.  The village was entirely on three-meter tall stilts and partially flooded.  Kids were swimming in the river and people paddled their boats about.  What was striking is how these people were basically half-fish.  There was something about the village that appealed to me.  I told the guide to turn around as I wanted to stay there; he was reluctant, but I insisted.  We were directed to an empty house but I wasn’t allowed to leave the boat.  The villagers got straight to work and fixed up the ladder to the hut, replaced some logs on the porch, and rebuilt the boardwalk across the water and only then could I get out.  How could one feel more welcome than that?  I didn’t know what would happen here (well, except for my guide being a certified dud) but this was the right place to stay.

Before long, twenty-five people had gathered on the porch wanting to meet me.  There were two people, Joseph and Francis, who spoke English and they would help out immensely.  The people seemed stunned that I was staying there.  A few mentioned that I was the first “whiteman” to stay with them.  It’s not unknown for people to pass through Wom and to even stop and buy a few trinkets, but they mentioned I was the first to spend time there and stay in their huts.  Good heavens, this was like Mengino again.  They were extremely hospitable and were pleased that I was there.  We spent the afternoon chatting and asking questions of each other.  They seemed very interested to hear about my home and to tell me of theirs.

Wom is an unusual place.  It’s built on a vast, flat plain with mountains far off in the distance.  It’s subject to frequent flooding but this doesn’t seem to be a problem as they’ve adapted their lifestyle to accommodate this.  I was told that for about two months a year, they have hard, dry ground, the rest of the year they are either partially or completely flooded, hence the huts on tall stilts.

The houses have walkways built of logs between them to facilitate movement over the muddy ground when the water isn’t too high and when it is too high, a canoe is used or I imagine you can swim to your neighbors.  They gather food from the surrounding valley or catch fish.  It’s an interesting mix of water and land and the people of Wom seem to have figured out a lifestyle that is sustainable long term.  I don’t think of PNG as a paradise but people have been living there for 50,000 years in a manner, that while it has had environmental effects, it is less than the societies of many places.

Day Three
It had rained very heavily during the night and in the morning, the entire village was flooded with not a single bit of dry or even muddy ground visible.  Yesterday, there were some walkways between houses, but today, if you wanted to visit your next door neighbor, it was into a canoe you go.  For them, taking off in a canoe is as natural as walking. 

This morning I watched people preparing sago, a palm-like tree that is a staple of their diet.  They used a funnel-shape setup in which they would pour water through the sago, pound it, pour more water through and repeat.  It was common to hear these sounds echoing through the village.  The end product is a starchy powder which is used in all sorts of foods.  Some things they make are similar to pancakes and others like a pudding.  The importance of sago in their diet cannot be overstated.  The entire floodplain is pretty marshy and not everything can grow there but sago is widespread. 

People wandered over to visit and talk as the morning progressed.  It’s such a pleasure to be around them.  I see them wide-eyed at the stories of my home.  I suspect they look at me the same way when I listen to them.  After a while, Joseph takes me out in a boat. These dugout canoes are quite simply “dug out” from a log.  They often carve an alligator’s head into the front end for protection from the alligator spirits.  They are totally round and for the inexperienced (i.e. me), quite easy to tip over.  That said, as we paddled along, I sat down in the front and Joseph stood, steady as a rock, in the back.  We went around the houses in the village and upstream a ways with a number of other canoes following us around.  Out of one of the houses someone yells, “blah-blah whiteman blah blah” and laughs.  A short time later someone else yells “blah-blah whiteman blah blah” and laughs.  After hearing this a few more times I asked Joseph what they were saying.  He said it was nothing and I replied, “I can only understand one word and that is ‘whiteman’ and that means me.”  After another person said the same thing, “Joseph, you have to tell me.”  He said, “When we paddle, the man stands in the back and the women sits in the front.  So with the way we are in this canoe, they’re yelling ‘The Whiteman paddles like a girl!’” 

Well, ah, well….I guess they’re right and they did seem to enjoy poking fun at me and for good reason.  After recovering from that ego blow, we paddled back to the hut and sat with a group of people, passing the day in conversation.  They told me that the village was severely damaged in a earthquake in 1982 and the government didn’t do a thing to help.  They were absolutely unanimous, without a single exception, in considering the government completely corrupt and completely useless.  They are content to live their lives and the farther the government stays away, the happier they are.  That’s a common sentiment among Papuans, especially in the bush.  They asked me what causes earthquakes.  I gave them a quick lesson in plate tectonics and based upon the follow-up questions, they really did seem to understand it.   They were also able to connect earthquakes to a tsunami that hit the north coast a few years before.  Yep, they were getting it.  We talked about all sort of things.  They were interested when  I told them how we lived on a lake and described the local animals.  I contrasted our lifestyles in that we live next to the water while they live with water and actually, in the water.  It’s a whole different approach to nature.

In the afternoon, the group took off and said they wanted to give me a rest.  When one is in a large group, you can drift in and out as you want, but when you’re the focus of the group, you have to listen to every word, so as much as I enjoy our conversations, it was good to have some down time.  It also allowed me to watch the rhythms of the village.  The thud-thud of someone preparing sago and the kids playing in the water.  At home, if anyone below the age of ten goes near the water, parents flip out.  Here, two year olds are swimming with three year olds.  People paddle to another hut, sit on the porch and  laugh with their neighbors.  A group of people circled up as they walked in the river, each equipped with a woven basket, beat on the water.  They are scaring fish toward the center of the group. When the group gets close enough, the folks will all scoop into the middle and see what's for supper.  This action was accompanied by a swish-swish sound that I would hear all during my stay.  These aren’t life-changing observations but it is the relaxing rhythms of Wom.  An hour or two later, people start drifting back to the porch and we sat and talked again.  The sun was getting lower in the sky, reflecting off the waters and the distant mountains were bathed in the fading light.  About that time, the owner of the house came back to the village.  He greeted me and picked up a few things and went to someone else’s hut.  The fact that there was someone else staying in his home, well, that didn’t seem to phase him one bit.  You know, I like these people a lot. 

Somewhere in the distance, a man was yelling.  I don’t know what about, but no one took much notice of it.  As the darkness approached, the mosquitoes come out and we have to call it a day.  Joseph sat and talked alone with me.  Sometimes you meet someone when traveling and as soon as you meet them, you like them.  It was like that with Joseph.  He’s a gentle soul with a pleasant laugh and our times together were some of my best in PNG.

Malaria is very prevalent in the area and I sleep on the hard floor under a mosquito net.  Underneath is a woven mat on the floor to ensure that the mossies don’t get at me through the cracks in the floor.  I have to say, it’s not the most comfortable sleeping arrangements, but it’s not as bad as how people used to sleep before mosquito nets: under a tightly woven basket, with no air circulation, in the equatorial swamp.  These mosquito nets weren’t so bad after all.  Later on in the night, I woke up and could hear the man still yelling.  I went back to sleep.

Day Four:
Early in the morning, I awoke to the sound of that same guy yelling.  I don’t know if he was squawking all night and actually didn’t want to know.  One factor of village life is how intimate it is.  The houses aren’t particularly close together, but walls are thin and when your neighbor’s baby is crying, you know it.  I have found people in villages, in a number of different countries no less, to be extremely tolerant as far as noise and intrusions that I find difficult to deal with due to my upbringing.  I’m used to very quiet neighborhoods and would never make the amount of noise that is often present in such places but people there don’t seem to fussed by it and sleep right through.  Whether they were nudged by the noise or passage of time, Wom slowly awoke.

People wandered over to the hut and Francis and Joseph were there to translate, as usual. Those guys deserve a medal for being so patient with all of us.  Instead of merely telling them of what lay in the world beyond PNG, we discussed the stars.  I told them of a solar eclipse, of galaxies, and what might lay at the edges of the Universe, but closer at hand, it was interesting to hear them describe their daily lives, which are so different from mine.  One feature of Wom was the richness of the social life.  Everywhere you looked, people were together with their neighbors.  Their attention is focused on each other rather than various electronic devices.  It’s kind of ironic that as this is written, I have music playing and I’m writing on a computer….Note To Self:  Go take a walk outside

We spent the day talking about all sorts of things, paddling the canoe around, taking a welcome break of an hour or two, sitting, watching this part of the world pass by, then we passed the evening until the sunset.

Day Five:
I was awoken by the sound of a woman pounding sago.  Whap-whap-whap.  She went on for a long, long time.  I looked around the village, watching the children swim and the people fishing.  I had a feeling that the whap-whap-whap had been going on a very long time in a broader sense too.  People started to gather on the porch and we spent the morning telling stories and jokes.  As the day went on, we all knew that it was my last day.  I could tell that some were going to miss me and I was going to miss them.  Not being able to change plans is one of the downsides of traveling with a guide and schedule.

 As I was leaving, a good part of the village gathered round in their canoes.  Joseph told me how to say goodbye in their local language:  wafaiolo.  I heard that word many times and said it back to them.  I especially said it to Joseph and asked him to give a “wafaiolo” to Francis also.  Joseph told me how glad he was that I stopped to visit them.  It was an eye-opening experience for all.  Our boat took off and a few canoes followed as far as they could and soon we left Wom behind.

On the first day, Joseph said, “Take our pictures, do whatever you want, and tell our story.”  I told him I would and I have, given that you’re reading this.  I did tell at least a small part of their story.