“For a long time I had wanted to take leave of Planet Tourism….” Lawrence Osborne believes that nearly everywhere on earth, tourists experience a sameness that has dulled the edge of adventure. To prove this, he approached one of the last exotic destinations, Papua New Guinea, by way of some of the world’s most tawdry, slick ones, sliding through Asia via Dubai, India, and what he calls the “Hedonopolis” – Bangkok, Thailand. It’s a route known as the “Asian Highway” – in Osborne’s case, he hoped it led to nowhere, to a place beyond the incursion of “the airport mall.”
Most travelers will recognize many of the bends that Osborne experienced in his dive into primitivism. There’s the encounter with the hotel staff on a remote Indian island:
“Ah, towel we are not having sir.”In Bangkok, where satisfying human sexual urges is no more significant than “scratching an itch,” Osborne cruises nightclubs where “the waitresses were dressed as nurses, and the waiters as doctors…clients lay on couches or castored beds while the nurses took orders from lovely European youth of both sexes.” Feeling himself coming unhinged, Osborne uses his time in Bangkok to get new teeth, have some internal cleansing and try to lose weight before descending into the jungles of Papua. Wandering off from his luxury hotel, he is unable to resist street food and gains weight instead, to the indignation of his spa hosts.
“Sheets?” The heads jiggle. “Sheets we are not having sir.”
“Where are the sheets?”
“Sheets locked up in kitchen, sir.”
“Well, unlock the kitchen.”
Heads jiggling. “Not having key, sir.”
“Well get the bloody key, then.”
“Cook is having key, sir.”
“And where is the cook?”
“Cook is in Rangat, sir.”
By the end of his journey through Papua, however, he’d lose twenty pounds.
Papua is perhaps the last uncharted land where humans live, yet it’s paradoxically one that has gotten our attention through television. A few determined travelers have been filmed trying to live a week or so among one of its less xenophobic peoples, the Kombai. Though the Kombai are to some extent inured to visitors by now, there are hundreds of inhabitants in Papua’s jungle darkness who don’t believe that people who are white actually exist. They suspect them of witchcraft just because of their color and their extraneous clothing, and witches can be killed with impunity. The Papuan men threaten, with smiles but without humor, to cut off the heads of anyone who approaches their women. The men wear only a penis sheath, and all carry bows and poison-tipped arrows. Their culture is incomprehensible to the average outsider, and vice versa. They have little interest in why strangers come to see them, and initial approaches are met with extreme trembling and great reluctance to touch, even to gently pass a hand across a hand. The deeper Osborne and his guide and fellow travelers go into The Forest, the less sense anything makes. People scream in rage for pleasure, dislike candlelight, can’t tolerate sugar, and have no qualms about making a bloody meal of a beautiful Bird of Paradise. When Osborne’s group leave a family, no matter how friendly the encounter, there is no sense that they’d be welcome back. Or even remembered.
Osborne punctuates his book with quotes from other travelers who have made similar treks, notably Margaret Mead, the first Western entrant into Papua. Mead was striving to see the world as a community, a notion now accepted as holy writ by most of us but quite radical in its time. And it seems, from Osborne’s descriptions, that it will be quite a long time still before the Papuans embrace that concept.