A mudman approaches me, his face a fearsome smile with teeth pointing in all directions and his arrow aiming straight for my chest; the feathers from the headdress of a Morobe warrior whip my face as he tumbles by; from the bright, red face of a Chimbu woman I am greeted with a look that could kill, before she dances on with rolling hips. The sound of drums and hundreds of voices fill the air while shells, dusks of grass and bird feathers whirl by in a cascade of colour. I'm at the Morobe Cultural Show in Lae, Papua New Guinea.
The dance groups have arrived from all over the country, and on their way into the arena, the town's major sports ground, they put all the energy they can produce into their performance for the thousands of spectators that are lining their way. One tribe follows right behind the other. A group of girls in yellow grass skirts twist their way by, singing and smiling, accompanied by three or four pan flutes. Right behind them comes a scary looking bunch, with white skeletons painted on their black bodies - they're swaying along while singing and shaking their heads as spirits disturbed by a troublesome wind. Then a group of boys who are chasing an old man, then more swinging skirts, all to the sound of singing, horns and conch shells.
Some of the head dresses are large frames decorated with cockatoo feathers, while others have the long, black tail feathers from the Stephanie bird of Paradise, black cassowary dusks and green, yellow, blue and red feathers from parrots and lorikeets, all in creative combinations. Pig's tusks are hanging around necks and in noses and hornbill's beaks are pointing down the backs of the huli warriors, bouncing up and down with the beat of their bird dance. Men in frightening masks show off their muscles while rows of skirts roll by to the rhythm of the kundu drums. Sound and colours merge - the voices of children, men and women mix with the music, and turning your head is like twisting a kaleidoscope.
In a country where people are struggling hard to improve their standard of living and to modernize, one is impressed by the pride and enthusiasm they show for their local culture and their old traditions.
70-80 years ago many of these people lived in small, almost isolated villages with little knowledge of the world outside. They were gardeners, hunters and gatherers, with their ancestral spirits making sure that everything was done right. Feuds with the neighbours were common and added to the isolation, which resulted in a unique diversity of languages, rites and traditions. Nowhere can one find such a variety of expression in dances, songs and costumes as one can in Papua New Guinea, and now, here at the show, they are competing for the attention of the spectators and of the other participants.
The Morobe Show is both an agricultural fair, a school exhibition, an amusement park and a sing sing. Participants and spectators have come down from the Highlands and some from the islands in the south and east. The women and the girls have put in extra hours on their hairstyles and have put on their nicest skirts and dresses, and the men are dressed in ironed shirts and/or their coolest caps.
The local ex-pats - some white, some Asian - are mostly seated in the stands together with the local elite. Only a few are seen among the exhibits from churches, schools, coffee growers and NGO's. Foreign tourists can be counted on ones fingers, and they become invisible in the crowd of 50-60 000 people.
The eighty dancing groups move on into the big sports field, which is slowly filled by people, colour and sound. They are all singing and dancing, and even if they have been doing so continuously for the last two hours, they all put a little extra into the performance in front of the judge's stand.
The Huli Wig Men are, as always, among the groups that stand out. Their faces bright yellow and red and with a serious, threatening look in their eyes. They stand facing each other in two lines, jumping up and down to the drumbeat. This symbolises the mating dance of the Bird of Paradise, but at the same time there is something wild and masculine about their performance. Their head dresses are a kind of pirate's hats clad in their own hair, artistically and elegantly decorated with feathers in all colours.
The Hulis jump aside and make place for more dances, more funny displays and more intense singing from all parts of the country. Masks portraying evil spirits, crocodiles and cassowaries are seen walking around while the last groups are finishing. The skeleton men are sitting in a circle, shaking their heads and humming wearily. Two young Highland boys in white body paint and grass wreaths around their heads are watching a group of girls from the islands swinging their hips, and a couple of mud men are posing for a Japanese ex-pat with a tele lens.
The winning groups are announced. The competition is important, but most important are the festivities for all the spectators and participants: the festive atmosphere and the pride in showing what your tribe has developed and preserved over the years; to take part, and see all the costumes and acts from a hundred other tribes. It's a sight not to be seen anywhere else in the world.