This is an unreal tale about an unusual creature in a far-away jungle…
About 25 years ago at my old travel company, a member of the sales department picked up a call from a potential client. The person on the other end of the line (let’s just call her Ms. Miller to protect her privacy) inquired about the availability on our hiking adventure into the highlands of Papua New Guinea in the West Pacific.
In those days, the Mt. Hagen and Goroka highlands hikes were quite fascinating and adventurous endeavors. It involved hard trekking through subtropical, hilly terrain and staying in indigenous villages or camping in the jungle.
The Papua New Guinea highlands are inhabited by indigenous tribes who have lived isolated on the world’s second-largest island for thousands of years . The existence of indigenous people was not known until 1934, when about 50 of them were killed by two European explorers. Today, a few hardy adventurous tourists still venture into this area.
The absolute highlight of a trip to the Papua New Guinea highlands is to attend the annual Goraka sing-sing, a colorful festival where more than 100 groups of Huli tribals sing and dance for several days. Prior to the event, the young men grow their hair long in preparation for creating their wig. These “wig-men” spend hours preparing their costumes and make-up, complete with ceremonial wigs and accessories. Preparation materials include clay and flowers, bird feathers and bones, various plant oils, hand-woven fabrics and threads, precious stones and artifacts from the sea.
Back in the office, our sales staff informed Ms. Miller that there was indeed space on the Papua New Guinea trip, to which she was relieved. However, she demanded to have privacy and a large double tent to herself. That was easily arranged, and when we asked if we could help further with any international flight arrangements, she also insisted on purchasing two first class seats on the long flight from the West Coast of the U.S. to Port Moresby, where the trip started. When we inquired if she was booking for only herself, she confirmed brusquely that both seats should be booked in her passport name. That was quite unusual, since a trans-Pacific first class seat was very expensive. But hey, what the customer wants is what the customer gets!
A few months later, when the group was scheduled to meet up outside customs at the Port Moresby International Airport, I got an emergency call from our guide. “Olaf, we have a BIG problem, literally!” The guide informed me that when Ms. Miller emerged from customs, pushing her trolley with her luggage, she introduced the group to a four-foot-tall stuffed pink bunny sitting on top of her duffel bag. When asked what this was all about, Ms. Miller exclaimed nonchalantly, “Oh—that is Mr. Snuffy, my travel companion for life—we go everywhere together!” The presence of Mr. Snuffy explained the first class, double-seat reservation on long flight.
When our guide asked me what to do, I deadpanned: “Just deal with it and try to make everybody happy.” That was and still is the job of an experienced guide, like the ones employed at Natural Habitat Adventures. I was sure that our guide would cope with the situation to everybody’s satisfaction, including the other clients, our support staff, Ms. Miller and of course, Mr. Snuffy.
It was obvious that the pink rabbit had been around the block with her owner. It was a little ragged around the long white-brimmed ears from many years of worldwide traveling, and one of the white beady glass eyes hung a little askew from an otherwise happy face. Yet all eight black whiskers were still intact. Ms. Miller hugged Mr. Snuffy and ensured our guide that it got a bath every fortnight and was squeaky clean.
Our guide smiled politely throughout the initial encounter, provided the usual impeccable customer service, and subsequently hired another Huli porter to carry Mr. Snuffy along the narrow jungle paths. It became quite a spectacle to watch Mr. Snuffy tied with liana cordage to the back of the loin-clothed and barefooted Huli tribal, the two bouncing happily along.
The whole set-up with this large, stuffed pet, however, started to become more and more awkward throughout the journey. Before evening meals, Ms. Miller and Mr. Snuffy retracted to their double tent and she insisted that Mr. Snuffy also got a plate with some real food brought in, served at the entrance to the tent. From inside, the rest of the group could hear the two conversing throughout the meal (admittedly, the talking was done by Ms. Miller): “Come on, sweet Mr. Snuffy, don’t be picky, eat your yummies, you need to be fresh for tomorrow’s hike,” followed by a cooing lullaby and “A Goodnight Darling” to finish off the long day in the Papuan wilderness.
The clients on the trip thought initially all this to be a funny, yet eccentric spectacle, but somehow the behavior of the bunny and her owner started to affect the energy of the group in an annoying way. After a long, hard day of trudging through the jungle, it felt simply bizarre that the quiet bunny got more attention than the other tired clients and was served food better than the local’s meals. The Huli wig-men support staff was equally astonished. As one of them explained, they were used to jungle rabbits being a rare treat (roasted on a spit and served on a banana leaf around the campfire) and not something that should be “fed” at nighttime with a spoon. Particularly when it was not alive.
The group arrived safely to the highland shows and had an overall fantastic time. But afterwards, some clients complained a little in the post-trip evaluations about the experience with the eccentric pet lover in the wilderness. So we learned a lesson: to screen our clients better and not allow these kinds of stuffed travel companions to affect our clients and staff on future adventures.
Afterwards, we did some further research on the subject of travelers bringing stuffed pets along on their trips just to better understand this incident. We were astonished. There is actually a Japanese travel agent that offers assistance to clients wanting to bring their stuffed loved ones along. For years, the company has organized trips for more than 100 stuffed animals, many of which have become repeat customers. A similar French company has dozens of guests on FIT pet companion tours around France. In addition to these agencies, there are now several websites that connect traveling toys with hosts. Omanimali, a toy-passport-issuing organization based in Germany, is busy as well.
I guess this is all in the spirit ofemotional connections and finding a different way to look at the world. As one of these travel agents explained: “It’s about finding that, when people see the world through the eyes of their toys, it can seem fresh, new, exciting and most of all, unique. After all, isn’t that what we often seek and crave when we set out to travel?”
Well, my response to that is that at Natural Habitat Adventures, we prefer to show our clients the real thing—from the cute pandas in China to the emotional experience of looking into the big eyes of a mountain gorilla in the Rwandan jungle. And if you want to bring along your own Mr. Snuffy for some nighttime cuddling without disturbing other guests or the amazing nature experiences, go for it!