by Kelley Ferro

Our group exploring the Karawari River

Our group exploring the Karawari River

Things I learned when traveling to Papua New Guinea

  1. Leave your watch at home
  2. Downtime is necessary
  3. People who travel to Papua New Guinea are just plain cool
  4. Laughter is the universal language
  5. Go with an experienced tour operator 

“Wiggle, Wiggle, Wiggle, Wiggle!” shouted Lisa Greene, an attorney from Colorado. In the middle of the Sepik, one of the most remote regions in the already remote Papua New Guinea, Lisa had captivated the attention of 50 squealing children with her “wiggle.” She was dancing like crazy—moving her hips, throwing her hands up and hopping around on one foot, then the other. We had just arrived by riverboat to this small village and we were greeted by slew of curious onlookers, most of which were children. And then Lisa broke out the “wiggle” and the tribe had no idea hit them. Cries of glee filled the palm tree studded village center.

Laughter breaks down barriers. In this moment of pure silliness, we all felt united with the local villagers. I realized, as I giggled along with them, that comedy is the one of those special few common denominators. I also realized that I wouldn’t have experienced this moment if I hadn’t been traveling with this particular group of travelers on our Swain Destinations’ customized itinerary.

We met Lisa and Kathy, two college pals and moms from Boulder on a “girls trip,” a few days earlier at one of the Papua New Guinea lodges. Our tour itineraries overlapped and we were able to share part of this journey with them. Exploring this part of the world,  rarely seen by travelers, made us all become friends fast – we were fellow explorers sharing in this once in a lifetime experience.

Travel to Papua New Guinea requires a few things in all travelers. First of all, you must be eager   to learn and understand the culture of the people that you meet along the way. There’s so much natural beauty in this country but the true treasures of this destination are the people.

You have to be flexible and have a sense of adventure. This is not the strict itinerary, check-off-the-sites type of trip. To understand this country, you must understand that each day is different. It’s not the easiest place to get too and once you arrive, you might not have all the modern comforts of home (though a digital detox is healthy every once in a while!).

No words needed for us to bond over selfies

No words needed for us to bond over selfies

Lastly, I highly suggest traveling with a specialized tour operator, such as Swain Destinations. Papua New Guinea is primarily relationship based and you can’t just walk into a village without having a guide prearrange your visit. Just simply getting to and from lodges and activities requires a bit of effort and on a tour, you don’t need to worry about all those logistics. Swain Destinations in particular specializes in customizing your itinerary as well, so you can focus your time on seeing and doing exactly what you want. For us, it was meeting as many locals and immersing ourselves as much into the Papua New Guinea culture as possible.

Clearly, there’s a kindred spiritedness amongst those who choose this unique destination. That camaraderie is crucial when you want to share the impact of some of these experiences. For instance, I hadn’t expected to bond with a young girl, painted in ceremonial garb as we took selfies with my iPhone or the impact of feeding a confident hornbill, straight out of my hand. It’s those types of moments that are really hard to communicate with friends and family back home. Sometimes you just have to be there. That’s why you can relate with your fellow travelers in a way that can’t be replicated with anyone else.

First family that we met in the Sepik

First family that we met in the Sepik

Traveler bonding is more prevalent in Papua New Guinea compared to other destinations and that has a lot to do with time. And Papua New Guinea definitely runs on its own time. The itinerary is made to be flexible as it is wholly dependent on things out of our control, like the weather. However, this gave us time to really connect. Often, even on our travels, we don’t have time to have uninterrupted conversations. We enjoyed extra coffee waiting for the weather to clear for our flight to the lowlands. We played cards in the main lodge when a surprise tropical thunderstorm hit the Karawari. We spent hours watching river life go by as our boat gently cruised between villages. And these calm moments were equally as important as the action packed ones. I was able to reflect on the Papua New Guinea way of life, talk about what we were seeing with the group and have uninterrupted access to the guides.

I learned just as much from my fellow travelers as I did from the local villagers and guides. We laughed, shared stories from home, exchanged travel tips and played games. We supported, helped and inspired each other.

In each of the three areas that we visited, I found the local PNG people to be so welcoming and excited to have us. Our Swain Destinations tour arranged for local guides to serve as ambassadors, bringing us in the villages, the homes and to the sacred buildings of many local tribes. We danced in Huli Victory Dances, tasted Sago Palm pancakes and listened to the Mud Men storytelling. We toured local markets and watched women fish on the river. We became a part of the daily local life, “wiggle” and all.

Friendly local children

Friendly local children

What makes Papua New Guinea so special, in my opinion is the people you meet. This trip was not only enriched by the local people and local guides, but also the fellow travelers we met along the journey.Papua New Guinea gave me an even deep understanding of what it means to #traveltogether.