Papua New Guinea: A First-Person Tour

Gone Missing: Vanished in Papua

NAT: After a meeting in the yeu house in Momogu, despite the pouring rain, I was able to get a few frames of a camera-shy Tim in the midst of new friends.

TIM: At this stage in the trip, I still wasn't completely comfortable in front of the camera. The kids around me in the photo had no such reluctance. They were elbowing each other out of the way to get to the front row.    Photo: Nathaniel Havholm and Tim Sohn

Gone Missing: Vanished in Papua

NAT: A view of Agats, population roughly 2,000, the main trading hub of the Asmat region. The village is one of the region's largest and most technically advanced, though it's hard to tell that from the photo.

TIM: Agats became our respite, an oasis where we could sleep on a thin foam mattress rather than a bark floor, and charge our camera batteries during the six hours a day that they had electricity.

Gone Missing: Vanished in Papua

NAT: We walked through Agats to get to the neighboring village of Sjuru, where we interviewed Leo, one of Rockefeller's guides during his time in the Asmat.

TIM: It was incredible to sit on the floor of Leo's hut and listen to him describe the day Rockefeller's boat swamped. We avoided the hour-long walk back to Agats by hopping on our canoe at the end of the plank jetty in Leo's backyard, pictured here.

Gone Missing: Vanished in Papua

NAT: The humidity hovered around 80 percent and mixed with temperatures in the mid-nineties. Such conditions made our cook Roni's ski mask all the more perplexing.

TIM: One of the greatest sights of the trip for me was Ronny riding in the supply canoe as we motored up a river, sitting towards the prow with the ski-mask pulled down over his face, like some sort of deranged gargoyle leading the charge.

Gone Missing: Vanished in Papua

NAT: At Bugani, our first overnight stop, the villagers helped our audio technician, Dean Lee, build a boom pole out of bamboo, later dubbed the "bamboom."

TIM: I remember in Momogu, while Dean held the "bamboom" over a local villager, sweat began dripping off his elbow. The man looked up in shock, noticed Dean, grimaced in disgust, and then shifted a few feet to his left.

Gone Missing: Vanished in Papua

NAT: Handmade canoes floating outside the village of Bugani.

TIM: Villagers use the smaller, more utilitarian canoes in this photo for workaday chores like fishing and transport. Some of the larger canoes feature ornate prow carvings of skulls or animal figures, or-as with a canoe Rockefeller purchased in the village of Per-a couple, mid-coitus.

Gone Missing: Vanished in Papua

NAT: Most of the villagers wore western clothing and the men smoked tobacco out of homemade pipes.

TIM: This photo encapsulates so many of the tensions that characterized this trip: the fascination with and suspicion of the camera, the mix of traditional culture and western clothes, and the feeling of constantly both watching and being watched.

Gone Missing: Vanished in Papua

NAT: The staff of locals who helped us retrace Rockefeller's final two weeks included Pon, our boat driver.

TIM: Pon also served as the expedition's unofficial meteorologist. If we saw thunderheads on the horizon, we'd turn to Pon. A thumbs down meant we were headed into some unpleasant weather, and he'd laugh as we broke out our ponchos and rain gear.

Gone Missing: Vanished in Papua

NAT: I found that for the most part, children would smile when I pointed the camera at them.

TIM: For Asmat men, looking fierce still seemed to be a priority. There is a cultural history there of bragging and chest-puffing-things that used to find an outlet in warfare but no longer do.

Gone Missing: Vanished in Papua

NAT: A cross reaches into the sky above the very first mission built in the Asmat. Rockefeller would come here to rest and recharge between trading runs.

TIM: The Crosier missionaries were among the first outsiders to come to the Asmat and stay, arriving in the early 1950s. Their impact can be seen in the Latin names-Marcellus, Dominicus, Urbanus-of some of the older men, improved education and healthcare, and the curtailing of headhunting and cannibalism.

Gone Missing: Vanished in Papua

NAT: Alex, the "Don of Agats," owned a restaurant, the hotel, dugout canoes, and procured whatever we needed-for the right price.

TIM: The man was an absolute impresario, a classic frontier-town merchant with a finger in every pot and a knack for getting things done and turning a tidy profit. One of the odd things here is that Nat found "Mr. Alex" in a serious mood. He seems to be willfully stifling his everyday Cheshire grin.

Gone Missing: Vanished in Papua

NAT: In spite of the advances brought by electricity and modern boats, traditional practices-like fishing from a dugout canoe at night-still exist.

TIM: I often felt a sense of peace while in the Asmat. During the times I was able to block out the heat and mosquitoes at sunset, and enjoy the culture and traditions of those around me, I realized this place was quite beautiful.

Gone Missing: Vanished in Papua

NAT: The villagers at Momogu raised their paddles each time I readied for a shot.

TIM: We learned so much about Asmat culture during our time there, but I am still baffled by the man in the middle of the left canoe, holding up a small sapling in one hand and some sort of cooking pot in the other.

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