Friday, August 29, 2003


I watched one hundred tribes gather together to dance beneath the New Guinea sun. A man beside me, in cotton shirt and faded jeans, said it was a well-tested tool against the old ways of war. But the ancient costumes had not changed. Extravagant feathers still exploded in halo shapes around the men's heads. Ears and lips and noses were still pierced with horn and bone and shell. Vermillion, white and hot yellow pigments still caked and cracked on the black skin of their foreheads, mingled with sweat, and fell to rest in nostril creases. In their hands were the old tools: spears, shields, clubs. But there would be no lifeless bodies to dispose of at the end of the day. No trophies. No sweet meat. They danced.

The melanin level of my skin encouraged the sun to suck it dry of moisture. I became a walking red man, intoxicated with the thud of drums and the smells of muddy flesh. I wanted to dance. The crowds grew thick; people breathed each other's breath. Arms, legs, shoulders collided. The action peaked and broke; the warriors raised cans of Coke or weak beer to their exaggerated mouths.

On the sleek, shining bus that carried me back to my hotel, I was surrounded with the solid ghosts of lost civilisations. Headdress feathers worn by the man in front of me struck backwards as the wind from an open window caught them. I shifted in my seat to avoid being pierced. The rancid air was filled with words I could not understand, so I missed the review of the day's events; I missed the jokes. Their bared, laughing teeth looked strong and sound and their eyes were black pinpricks on the surface of blood-shot orbs.

The grounds of my hotel were fenced. Each evening the gates were padlocked shut and I was asked to be content with this protection. I waited for a plane to lift me away.


Preparations took three days. A crane fouled the air with visible plumes of exhaust in order to lift the trappings into place. Then, rain fell suddenly at noon on the opening day. As the sky cleared, the ground steamed. I approached the gate and bought an admission ticket.

Cooking fires, tickled with dripping grease, sent up clouds of smoke. A smell within the smoke reached me: the marinated raw fibres of flesh on bone heating to a different kind of tenderness, an edible kind. Banners bellied like sails in the wind off the lake. Each one named the-host-with-the-best-spareibs-in-town. A band's homage to rock and roll pumped out of black amplifiers the size of refrigerators.

At tables set up in soldierly lines, as in a cafeteria or prison dining room, five hundred people sat. Their fingers and lips dripped with red sauce. They gnawed at sequences of bones and remarked on the tastiness in a language I could understand. The hours went by; three days went by. The action was steadily choreographed. No one danced.

I went back to my unfenced house and waited for a plane to lift me away.

CDYork 2003

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