BY MEG WEAVER *
National Geographic Intelligent Travel
TO A HULI WIGMAN, the streets of Manhattan have got to seem pretty exotic. And vice versa. Even among the blasé denizens of New York, the warriors manage to turn a few heads.
Papua New Guinea is one of the most culturally diverse countries on earth and home to some 800-plus languages.
To the American eye, its peoples’ traditions appear exotic and intriguing, especially those of the Huli Wigmen, warriors who craft elaborate headdresses out of their hair, feathers, and plants, and the Asaro Mudmen who cover themselves in mud and don ghoulish masks to hearken back to a legendary defeated tribe who tried to recover stolen land by wearing such “earthy” disguises.
The Wigmen and Mudmen usually materialise during celebrations and rituals in PNG so it was surprising when they showed up last month in New York City of all places.
We touched base with Ally Stoltz of the PNG Tourism Promotions Authority, who hosted the special visitors, to learn more about them and their NYC sojourn.
Meg Weaver: How long did it take for the Wigman and Mudman to travel from PNG to NYC?
Ally Stoltz: They flew Port Moresby to Auckland to Los Angeles to New York – roughly 40 hours.
MW: Where did they go in Manhattan? What did they see?
AS: The first day we got to New York we went straight to the Flower District to buy plants for their costumes because they packed tons of plants and dirt that was obviously confiscated along their travels! They were like kids in the candy store with all the plants. They bought ones just for their hotel room, not for the costume!
They also had pizza for the first time. They went on the Staten Island Ferry by night so they could see the city from another angle (honestly, they wanted to get away from all the noise) and to see the Statue of Liberty.
MW: What did they think of what they saw/did?
AS: The most interesting part of their trip to U.S. was that they didn’t have much to say at all about it. Journalists and the people at the party kept asking them, “What do you think of NYC?!” and, as PNG is known for its quiet, modest culture (until you make them mad), they just would almost whisper, “Yes, it’s good, or very busy” and that’s about it.
They are really not extroverted people because in village life, extroverts stir up trouble and it’s all about maintaining balance in communities like theirs. And there’s respect issues and the language barrier as well – only the Mudman really spoke conversational English. But back home they speak two to three languages, Tok Pisin and then their town/village languages.
MW: What did New Yorkers have to say about them?
AS: They encountered a wide variety of responses. Some people couldn’t be bothered as they had places to go. An old man in Soho nearly lost his mind, couldn’t say he had seen anything like them ever before.
The Wigman and Mudman definitely turned heads in Times Square. The most common response people had was one of reverence and fascination – their costumes are very intricate and they managed to bring more teeth, bones, feathers, and hair into the country than I ever thought possible.
* Meg Weaver is a senior researcher for National Geographic Traveler