Crocodile Skin: Men in the Blackwater region along the Sepik River are isolated for at least a month in these exquisite yet ominous spirit houses. Succumbing to sleep deprivation, they enter an otherworldly state to receive crocodile tattooing. The deep gashes are made with razor blades in the chests and backs of men. The bleeding symbolizes the draining of their mothers’ blood, making them stronger. The open wounds are then packed in mud and silt and exposed to smoke so they form keloids, the scars giving a raised emulation of a crocodile’s skin.
Right of Passage: Never had I encountered a culture of men so willing to take their shirts off for me, which I admit I found quite pleasant. The scars are badges of honor, proud symbols of one’s transition into manhood. The scars also pay respect to the river, on which their life depends.
Women: It’s different for women. After their first menstruation, girls enter their own scarring ritual, with scars symbolizing the sun and moon on their arms. As the girls are younger than the boys, they sometimes run away. I was told if a girl avoids the ritual, her grandmother is still willing to pass down her secrets of womanhood.
Familiar Sacrifice: I caught glimpses of Calvin Klein underwear bands in place of penis sheaths along the river, but life otherwise remains as it has for generations. From what I saw of masks, face paint, shell adornments and scars, all of it spoke to the obvious: No matter what culture you’re raised in, men and women pay a high price for beauty.