Downriver to Kandangamun
After a few hours, a canoe materialised from the inky blackness that clung to the river. It was a long, rounded dugout, precariously stable, with a tiny outboard engine. People sat in tight single file along the leaky bottom and I squeezed myself in. We motored for hours under perfect stars. I fell in and out of sleep, woken by the penetrating cold of the river and the painful mosquitoes which swarmed each time we stopped at the banks.
In the early morning, we reached Pagwi, and later I joined a local river pilot and his sons to head downriver to Kandangamun. We paddled down a maze of overgrown channels. The day grew late and the eldest son, Seth, nervously invited me to spend the night in their village. Seth took me on a quiet visit to the haus tambaran, the spirit house. A huge cassowary dancing costume hung from the roof. Old men on high benches lined the smoky interior, talking in undertones, and Seth explained how the house was rebuilt after being destroyed by Allied bombing in WWII.
We left the spirit world and, joined by a crowd of village boys, jumped into the muddy river to wash. Local men watched us, laughing, as they beat themselves with bundles of twigs to keep the mosquitoes away. I was no stranger to mosquitoes but here they were remarkable, both by their abundance and the vicious sting of their bite. In the Sepik, mosquitoes dictate everything: washing times, cooking, eating, sleeping. When the rains come, the clouds of mosquitoes swell to such biblical proportions that socialising outside is impossible.
We hurried up a ladder into the haus boi, the men’s hut, high on a wooden platform above the swampy ground. Seth and his brothers lived there, separated from the haus meri by a narrow canal. The air was thick with sweet smoke that curled through the cracks in the floor from fires lit beneath: even in the tropical heat, it’s preferable to live above a fire than to put up with the mosquitoes. We cooked starchy fried sago with coconut cream, fried cumu greens and tinpis, tinned fish. I chatted with the boys while Seth tried to rig a car battery to charge his phone so he could add me on Facebook.