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Tea Leaves

Papua New Guinea's 'bilums' weave together function, fashion

Traditional string bags find buyers in Sydney and New York

Left: Bilums from the author's collection made of traditional bark and sisal fibers, with the odd daub or strip of modern color in two cases. Right: A bilum trader at Port Moresby's Four Mile handicraft market makes a bilum out of modern materials while waiting for customers. (All photos by Hamish McDonald)

MOUNT HAGEN, Papua New Guinea -- This is a tough town, its streets full of bearded men from the Papua New Guinea highlands chewing and spitting betel nut, overlaid with the noise and fumes of revving minibuses, trucks and four-wheel drives.

But the covered market across the highway from the shops and offices is a world of calm. This is the realm of women, sitting behind counters laden with green vegetables, bright fruit, piles of sweet potatoes and live chickens. In a far corner are the products of women's skilled hands, a corner where I always browse and often buy on my periodic visits: the bilum section.

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