'Vice' correspondent describes clash of cultures in Papua New Guinea

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When the newsmagazine "Vice" made its debut on HBO last year with fast-paced segments on child suicide bombers in Afghanistan and Dennis Rodman in North Korea, some critics cried sensationalism.

But Vikram Gandhi, a correspondent for the series, says the program "pulls back the curtain" on stories that are often ignored by mainstream media.

"We immerse ourselves in a story, experience it through the lives of people on the ground and relate it to a global audience in the most transparent and honest way possible," Mr. Gandhi said. (Recently a "Vice" reporter was released after a three-day kidnapping by separatist rebels in Ukraine who kidnapped him for trying to do just that.)

Mr. Gandhi's latest assignment took him to Papua New Guinea, one of the world's poorest countries, where Exxon Mobil is leading a $19 billion project to extract natural gas for its Asian customers. Some locals, though, wonder whether they will see only upheaval and no benefit.

"The collision between the primitive way of living and modern-day society is traumatic to the people there," Mr. Gandhi said, "and it's confusing." The conflict was captured in an episode that aired recently, but is available OnDemand.

PG graphic: Papua New Guinea
(Click image for larger version)

Mr. Gandhi's reporting for the piece allowed him to visit secluded, lush regions of the country. Following are edited excerpts from a conversation about his time there.

Q. Reporting on Exxon Mobil's extraction of natural gas took you to some pretty remote regions. Tell me about them.

A. The Southern Highlands is one of the last places that Western civilization had discovered, sometime in the 1930s. It's dense jungle as far as the eye can see. On the ground you can drive around the dirt roads leading to Lake Kutubu and see nothing but rare species of birds and the occasional pipeline being built.

The landscape is mostly untouched, and when you find yourself in a town, it's usually a dusty cluster of small buildings and then, almost always, dart boards mounted on tall poles, a local game people play to win Coca-Cola bottles.

Q. You also went to Hela province, a home of the Huli people.

A. It's not as if there are men with spears in their noses just walking anywhere, but there are certain things in Hela province that make it feel like a land lost in time. These men wear ornamental wigs made of human hair, and pig tusks as jewelry. You can still stay in guesthouses in the area, with little more than a well for water, and see a traditional dance. With bright yellow-painted faces, grass skirts and homemade drums, they leap and chant in rotating rows.

Within a few hours of just being in Tari, the province's capital, more than one person had politely handed me a human skull and introduced it as their father.

Q. How did you get around?

A. Papua New Guinea is not a place for a regular tourist. It's limiting because you're talking about jungle roads, and you definitely need a guide. You have to know the right people who can take you into villages and get a car.

Also, the country has a wide variety of cultures and ethnicities and different islands. You'll meet totally different-looking people believing totally different religions. While traveling across the country, it can feel like you are traveling across continents.

People from one area can't always communicate with people living miles away. Sometimes we needed to have a translator for the translator. So if you are going into the kinds of scenarios we got into, to meet local leaders and average villagers, you might have to employ an additional guide when you pass into a new area.

Q. How did you get people to open up to you?

A. If you're an outsider, you may be received as someone from a corporation. There's a leeriness there. But what's exciting about making documentaries is that the camera creates a different set of rules. A video camera opens doors that are normally not opened. Even if you're not a journalist, a camera can give you an excuse to approach people. If you're not sneaky about it, totally open, most people open up to you.



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