I wish I had photos of our initial moments with the man I came to know simply as Warrior. He was a Huli wigman who appeared in the middle of the road as we were trying to execute a too-tight turn in our combi-bus. He initially waved and smiled, and beckoned us to drive after him down the road. He was running barefoot down the road in front of us, feathered headdress waving with his movement, a bundle of leaves covering his backside.
As our bus started to follow him, he suddenly whirled, notched and arrow and aimed it at us through the windshield. I must admit that I jumped and dodged behind the seat back in front of me. A palpable surge of momentary fear had gone through our group. And just as quickly, the man smiled and laughed, turning to resume his trot down the road.
Fewer than 100 yards later, a washed out bridge prevented our further progress, so we dismounted and continued on foot. The wigman immediately came up to me to show me his bow and arrows. I was fascinated, and he could tell. Our conversation went like this:
"I sell you all 75 kina!" he said.
"No thanks. Please tell me your name!"
"Is that really your name?"
"Yes, I warrior. What name bilong you?"
"My name is Bill."
"Beel! My fren!"
Warrior tried once or twice more to sell me his arrows, but each time I politely declined and asked him another question. Despite our language difficulty—he did not speak much English and I could only discern certain phrases in Pidgen, the language most common in Papua New Guinea, a mash-up of English, German, and various local tongues—we learned a lot about each other. The land where we were going to find the sooty owl was owned by him and his clan. He did some farming, but mostly hunting and guiding people. I asked him is this was how he dressed every day, and he confirmed it. Looking closely at his headdress, I could see cassowary feathers, two sulphur-crested cockatoo feathers, fresh plant stems and leaves, and a carefully folded and pinned-in-place label from a food product. A long tan reed was centered beneath the tip of his nose, inserted through a hole in his septum. Elaborate patterns were painted on his face in red, yellow, and black.
We'd be instructed to ask for permission to take photographs of the people we would encounter—this is only common courtesy after all. But we'd also been asked/advised not to pay money for this privilege, since PNG is trying to maintain a spirit of friendly hospitality for visiting tourists. The concern being that if every photo-taking tourist is made to pay to take photographs, the local culture and customs could devolve into mercenary commerce, opening the door to more of the problems caused by so-called "rascals" who commit crimes against tourists and travelers.
It can be a rare thing to enjoy an authentic encounter with someone native to a country you are visiting. Sometimes a place and its people are so inured to tourists that they have little interest in answering the same handful of questions from yet another busload of visitors ("Do you really live here? What do you eat? Did you make that yourself?"). Or, and this is becoming much less common in our modern world, you visit a place where few outsiders go and the people are very shy and reticent. Either way, it can be difficult to get an authentic feel for the people and place.
I suspect that Warrior could easily rev-up his guiding "act" for a bunch of oblivious tourists. He shot several bamboo "arrows" for us—at a cloud, at a distant tree. He did not shoot any of the more finely made arrows he held in his hand. As we walked along, talking, he seemed to enjoy getting to know me as much as I did him.
I had been videotaping the tree scratching, but when the owl peeked out I went for my binoculars and completely missed getting any shots or footage.
The farmer, including Warrior, are paid a fee each time a group of bird watchers visits. This is an excellent example of grassroots ecotourism. The local villagers know that by protecting the owl and its roost tree, they can earn money from visiting groups. We discussed ways to show the owl without spooking it from its roost, and the local folks assured us that the owl usually peeks out for a minute or so and then goes back down inside the cavity to sleep.
The arrow's construction was ingenious. It was designed to come apart mid-shaft. And it was beautifully carved and decorated with paint. The balance was perfect and though I will never shoot it from a bow, I am sure it would fly straight and true.
Before we left Warrior and his family I asked if I could take his photograph.
"Yes, Beel, you my friend! Take photo!"
I did and we shook hands and turned to go our separate ways returning to our separate and very different worlds. I'm not sure Warrior will remember me, but each time I look at the red arrow, I surely remember him.