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Papua New Guinea: It gets under your skin!

PALMS warned us: The host nation can become very embedded into one’s psyche without realising it. It’s possible not to see the problems and faults because parts of your person are being fed that haven’t been fed adequately in your home country. When I wrote A Safe Country? it really started the ball rolling in my head, once I started thinking about the dangers, the parts of the culture that are in fact ridiculous, the greed and the hypocrisy, it was easy to keep thinking of those sorts of stories. It was hard to stop. I’d noticed it with Sandi, and at social gatherings amongst other expatriats, the talk often drifted on to these sad and depressing subjects, which are also exciting in a macabre sort of way. Was it because more robberies were occurring, more white missionaries being held up, more killings? I don’t think statistics are kept here, but I don’t think so. But regardless of the dangers, something of PNG infects you, where love has been given and received, something of PNG gets under your skin and changes you – some would say like a virus. Hopefully the reverse is true too: a strange symbiosis, cultural entropy, but spiritual growth, because in Jesus we are all one.

Morning at Mount Hagen Market

Mt. Hagen market is reputed to be the best in Papua New Guinea. It certainly is one of the biggest. The College has run short of kaukau, and John and I have been making biweekly trips to town to purchase our kaukau needs at the market. John has to be back by 10:30AM, so it's an early start for the two of us…

Click to go to the maps pageAs we drive along in the College ute, the road slowly materialises before us through the lifting mist, which beads momentarily before streaking off the windshield. The tops of the mountains bordering each side of the valley majestically thrust upward above the cloud rising from the river, and look, for all the world, to be hovering above our terrestrial world. It's still early, the colours of the landscape are still revealing their hues: a myriad of greens are differentiating from the grey-green foliage bordering the road; the double run of razor wire around Kudjip tea looks like a thousand-million tiny stars spiralling down the side of the road; the pale blue of the sky is becoming distinguishable from the white overcast; the bright duco of the cars intensify with the Doppler Effect as they tear through the low cloud toward us and then diminish again in the rear-view mirror. John and I prattle on in Pidgin about business matters as we drive to town, almost oblivious to the beauty we are driving through.

The market is at the beginning of the town, on the left at the first major road junction. It is surrounded by a cyclone fence with three strands of barbed wire at the top, and is raised about 400mm from the surrounding ground on a little retaining wall made of river stones and concrete. The fence and wall are themselves surrounded by the car park: a large unpaved area for PMVs to set down and pick up their passengers. It is a very busy area at this time in the day with cars and trucks constantly coming and going.

I spy a space next to a PMV, and pull to a stop beside the truck, which is still unloading its passengers and cargo. The air is full of the sounds and smells of the market – and Hagen town – coming to life. People, work mates, competing sellers, greeting one another, sharing pleasantries: the happy chatting on the hopes for the day. Most people are going into the market carrying bags full of their goods, some are just standing in groups and talking. Women carry bilims full of kaukau, which must weigh about 30kg, on their heads. The strap over the forehead and the bilim down the back, hanging just below the shoulder blades. Their body leaning forward, necks tense, concentrating to keep their balance. The ground is wet and slippery from the previous night's rain and the mud stinks; and the rubbish pile is right beside my window.

John and Anna head into the market and I mind Arnold and Bernadette in the car. They disappear quickly into the crowd, and it is a long time before they return. I attempt conversation with little 4 year old Bernadette, but her staccato Pidgin is more than a match for me and I can only catch about 50% of what she says. John’s unsmiling face, distinct against all the dark curly hair of the heads that are disappearing through the market’s main gate, is working hard against the rush of people – a half full bag on his shoulders. It is not turning out to be a good day for kaukau: the overnight rain has persisted into the morning and the sellers are late. That means it is a sellers market, and prices are up a little to K15 a bag (the students use 2 bags per meal). Last Thursday John was more happy – plenty of kaukau – only K10 a bag – John's face is one big smile when he is happy. Today he is serious. He disappears again into the traffic, this time going with the flow.

A large bilim passes my window, a net bag from the Sepik full of green pumpkin tops – the green leaves and tendrils poking through the holes are almost iridescent against the brown of the bag in the early light. It is amazing where you can find beauty, what can jump out of the ordinary and amaze you. Some of the bilims have the most striking colour combinations and patterns. Some of the clothes (the cast offs from Australia) are eye catching because they are so bizarre, rather than beautiful. But they would all make nice photographs if we only had a good camera with us all the time (hindsight can be a heartless judge sometimes).

One teenage girl, obviously wearing a fairly new pair of shoes with her smart skirt and blouse, is tiptoeing her way through the mud around the rubbish pile. She looks up and smiles embarrassed at her barefoot friend waiting for her at the gate. The smile is big and broad, with her still young white teeth glowing against her rich brown skin. It is easier for the locals not to wear shoes. Once they buy shoes they have to care for them, they have to pick their way through the mud and rubbish – stepping on stones or leaves to keep their shoes afloat. Most people go barefoot: slipa (PNG)/thongs (Australia)/jandals (NZ)/flip-flops (England) are cheap but create a real mess in the wet. Flicking mud up your legs, right up to your bottom; and no one likes that, not even PNGers!.

One fellow is rinsing his feet in one of the many muddy puddles, he wears a dirty blue parka over his badly soiled and torn T-shirt and trousers that are now a tan colour, but once would have been white. Once the build up of mud on the feet becomes uncomfortable, they simply wash it off in a puddle. The feet are not any cleaner, just feeling better. Thankfully, the presence of mud means that there will also be puddles for rinsing.

The PMVs swim around the parking area like a school of predatory fish, each competing for the available quarry leaving the market. The area is completely disorganised, each individual PMV fighting for a prominent position, the boskrew trying to out-shout, out-manoeuvre, out-gesticulate the others. The drivers act almost independently of the boskrew, whose main task at this stage is to coerce, entice or sometimes bodily force passengers into the bus. It is not dissimilar to the confusion on the water before the starting pistol of a big yacht race. The shouting, the hooting and tooting has an excitement all of its own.

PMV's boskrews call their destinations in an incomprehensible jumble of words, " Buaimakitbuaimakitbuaimakit!" is common early in the day. "Bariksbariksbariks" is the Police Barracks down the road from the Buai Market. They stand leaning out of the sliding door of the vans, or from the back of the trucks as they jockey for position. The PMV buses are not in good condition. All have scratches and dents, broken lights and missing panels. The sliding doors are commonly not attached to its hinges and can fall off into your hands when you open it. The seats are sometimes covered in cotton cloth, but mostly the cracked vinyl is left uncovered, and the padding is left to hang out and soak up all kinds of unmentionables.

" Tu sort, tu sort!" The bus next to me only has one passenger sitting on its decaying seats, it is a recent arrival. The possible passengers wander, almost nonchalantly, teasingly, "eat me if you can", amongst the PMVs. The boskrews gesture as if it’s a forgone fact that they are riding with them. A mother and daughter climb aboard without looking at the boskrew, the constant prattle doesn't change; he still needs two more passengers. "Buaimakitbuaimakittusorttusort!" The buses prowl, pretends to go – trying to flush some more passengers out – even these patient Papua New Guineans don't like sitting in an empty bus. All the time the bus is slowly filling by ones and twos. One passing fellow is grabbed and physically manhandled into the bus by the boskrew. He doesn't seem to mind; it's probably only made his mind up for him, so he sits submissively and waits. Their ability to change people’s minds (and have their own minds changed), through force or persuasion, is astonishing; and in the end, like everything else in Papua New Guinea, taking a bus ride becomes a social event and not a means to get to your destination.

John’s head bobs again in my direction. He unloads another bag into the back. For some reason he has worn white trousers, they now have a growing patch of brown that is slowly working its way up his legs. He laughs, but Anna is not so amused. After a little discussion he agrees that we should fill our order with tapioca, as the kaukau is so expensive today. John jumps into the fray again and disappears. I am amazed at how much of a homogenous mass these people become: individuals are not discernible in a crowd.

Children waiting in the PMV practice their calling, of running a whole sentence together as one word. It is not as easy as it sounds, and the young fellow in the PMV that has just edged to within a few inches of my passenger door is having his problems. The PMV is a Toyota Hiace and is literally held together with electrical tape and wire. Every panel is rattling and shaking to a different rhythm.

The market in the morning is a huge take away breakfast bar, everyone is putting something in their mouth. Some buy 3 or 4 bananas, some lengths of sugar cane, others add a guava or some asbin, a handful of carrots, or a bunch of peanuts and maybe some raw ginger root. When they come out of the market, they stand at the rubbish pile on the ground just beyond the main gate, peeling and eating their breakfast, adding their rubbish to the heap [see How to Eat Sugar Cane]. We are parked next to the rubbish heap. It smells terrible: new peelings, half rotted vegetable matter from previous days, mud, tin cans and plastic all mixed up together. One girl stands at the rubbish pile peeling a banana. She pushes one end into her mouth, her eyes concentrating on the action on the streets. She bites and pushes a bit more in. Bites again and pushes the remaining bit of the banana into her mouth. I'm not sure where it has all disappeared to, but she hasn't swallowed any. The skin is thrown onto the pile and she wanders away, a whole banana secreted inside her mouth.

The PMV trying to take a shortcut through my cabin has decided he’d better reverse out, but at least 3 other PMVs have parked him in, in their desire to get as close to the gate as possible. The PMVs toot when this insistent and impatient driver tries to reverse out. He finally gives up and starts shouting his destination out again, "buaimaketbuaimaketbarikstusorttusort!" making the most of a bad situation. Another bus drives right into the rubbish pile on the other side of the car, forcing prospective passengers to walk through the rotting refuse. Not the most sensible sales technique, but people still climb aboard.

A big PMV truck arrives and disgorges its cargo: mostly women and bags of kaukau or cabbage. Most women will bring one bilim and one old feed bag: which must be about their carrying capacity. They climb down from the truck and hoist their bilim onto their backs, with the strap across their forehead, and wait for the boskrew to balance the feed bag on top of the bilim on their backs. It probably all totals about 70-90kg. They would have carried it to the road from their gardens, quite probably up steep hills. They seem unperturbed by the weight they carry, or the light rain falling, or the mud at their feet; I guess it is all part of their life, something they know and are comfortable with.

Coke vendors have set themselves up on the low wall that surrounds the market. I think they use a little esky-wagon-type-thing they pick up from the Coca-Cola depot down the road. Red and white with two bicycle wheels and an umbrella tied to the side. This morning they are sheltering from the drizzle under the umbrella. The bright Coca-Cola signs on the front declare "Coke Ples!" A basket on top holds scones bought from one of the local bakeries. One coke seller is eating her own breakfast – a scone, which she turns bright pink by dribbling some melted ice-block on before each mouthful.

Another PMV pulls to a stop in the just vacated space beside me, in a squelch of splashing mud, and one old lady – must be almost 40 years old – jumps down out of a van. She collects her string bag full of cucumbers, and her feet are pushed a little further down into the ground of the car park. Grey-brown mud oozes up through her toes. She carries the bag over to the rubbish pile and leaves it there under the watchful eye of a daughter. She collects three more feed bags full, and puts them with her net bag. On the way into the market she has to pay 30t per bag as a fee for her space in the market. She may stay a half day, then catch a PMV home again. If she has 50 cucumbers in each bag, and she sells them all, she will make about K40 and her daughters have received the ongoing free education on how to be a Maket Meri.

The market is set out orderly amongst shade trees, which include eucalypts and araucarias. A wonderful thatched, sinuous shelter winds its way in rings through the market. Permanent timber display tables and a concrete floor means comfortable shopping. In other areas the sellers set up their wares on bags on the ground, the paths are simply the muddy voids between their improvised tables. They periodically drip water on their produce, which increases the mud and puddles on the path.

I see John pushing his way against the tide of sellers entering the market with the last bag on his shoulder. We agree that it would be better to come back another day, when it is drier and the prices are cheaper. He up-ends the bag into the tray, Anna climbs aboard, and we head off home again.

Sports Injuries revisited
In a previous letter I described some of the sports riots at Banz. These incidents are all too common, I’m not sure if it is close proximity between Banz & Mt. Hagen, but they are constantly causing problems.

Mt. Hagen was playing Banz at the rugby ground at Minj. I wondered if the organisers chose Minj as a neutral ground?

It apparently was a hard game, Mt. Hagen edging out Banz in the end. But as is often the case, the final whistle does not signal the end of the program, just the end of the rugby game. Hagen may have won the football game, but they lost the post-match brawl.

Stories tend to grow like everything else in Papua New Guinea, it must be something to do with the climate, so we are not sure what really happened. Whether people actually lost their lives or not (as was reported), but a girl who was there said people—women—were raped. The other fact that was particularly cloudy was why the people at Minj would get so heated over Mt. Hagen winning. To the point of raping Hagen women.

The threats of payback were as fierce as they were quick. Mt. Hagen was very quickly put on the off-limits list. John and I were going into town to buy kaukau the Tuesday following the game/riot/pack rape and I suggested he do some preliminary investigation of the seriousness and reality of the threat (he hadn't heard what was going on). We stopped at Banz on the way in so John could talk to a few people; the main problem seemed to be with people from Minj. John said it didn’t really matter, because if we were stopped he’d just talk to them in the Hagen tokples and say he was from Hagen.

Andrew Mangi, the Fatima Secondary School principal, has been confined to Fatima for some weeks now because his asples is Minj. This fact has actually made Sandi happy, because it has slowed his spending down considerably. Must be the silver lining?

Missionaries on Hot Bricks
October – November is a special time of year in 3rd World Countries. It’s the time when missionaries from all the various agencies start thinking about going home. Bags are packed, crates are built and sent, drums filled and sealed. Tickets are bought. Goodbyes need to be said and received. Our own discomfort (sometimes pain), is reflected in the lives of a major portion of the white skins here.

Andy ( GDS) is frantically climbing every mountain and trekking out from every village ( Iris having already gone back home). Norbert (LDS) has become an insatiable afternoon tea giver (which is particularly impressive because Elke has gone home to Germany too). Peggy & Karl ( GDS) who are not leaving, but are feeling left behind, are visiting and giving dinners. David and Sylvia (from Kudjip), also not leaving but not looking forward to the exodus, keep saying we must do such-and-such before we go. And in our own family, the talk of what we are looking forward to, what will be the first thing we’ll do, will it be a cheeseburger or a thick shake that we’ll buy first, is the talk at the dinner table.

It’s the time to think of the future, of what will happen after you jump the chasm back to your homeland. It’s a little like the long jumper running down the track towards the bed of sand. Eyes fixed on the furthest point (plus a bit), the track is just the foregoing, the lead up, the jump line marks where the business begins. As any trainer will tell you, the run up is essential, but for the runner the reality is in the sand. You can’t concentrate on the track, or the grass, or the crowd; you have to concentrate on the sand, but more particularly, that spot in the sand where you are going to end up sitting on your backside (hopefully not prophetic!).

The reality for the returning missionary changes to his home country long before he leaves. Which helps explain why Papua New Guinea is transformed into a hive of busy bees preparing for take off around this time. Last minute cultural purchases, photo opportunities and experiences take precedence over normal living. I’m sure the basket sellers outside Best Buy must notice a surge in sales; in fact we have been getting basket sellers coming door-to-door the last couple of weeks, probably for this very reason: the panicked missionary must make that purchase now, delay will mean a lost opportunity forever.

I know we are desperately trying to slot certain outings into the schedule that remains to us. Inviting guests for dinner that we have been meaning to for two years. Visiting the out-station churches again, as a farewell, and to refill our memories again.

It is an unenviable situation. For a long jumper it lasts only seconds. For the returning missionary it can last months. The present evaporates and you are left with a wildly mutating future that metamorphoses with each new twist in your hopes, dreams or fears. You are left to act as ringmaster between the good & happy memories from home and all the bad experiences from your time away, trying to keep them separated, because if they did fight, the happy memories would win outright! Knockout in the first round. So the day to day tasks become more unreal, or at least just a fleeting reality that has lost its importance. You know this is not right, it’s not the reason you came in the first place. So, you concentrate on pounding your feet down, on making every step a winner – but the reality is always there: as soon as you reach that fast – all too fast – approaching jump line, the current reality will be relegated to the unchangeable past. It’s the catch 22 of modern missionary life.

See Elke's Farewell; Iris' Farewell

The End of the Academic Year
The exams are huge. Every two years an exam is held for the sole purpose of culling out students from the educational system. Nathanael had his last year (year 6), and Keren and Jesse have theirs this year (years 10 & 12).

Trial exams are held continuously for the last month or so, right up to the night before the exam when one more trial is held: just to get everybody in the mood again.

Class parties are also sometimes held. Jesse had one, though Keren did not. Jesse made biscuits – though due to the American influence, he is calling them cookies – which disappeared in handfuls, five at a time.

The School end of year picnic was held the weekend before the year 10 exams. This year the picnics were not held in class groups, but groups formed by the students themselves. Keren and Jesse were invited to a few different ones, but ended up going to a group who called themselves "The Pentecostal Group". The groups each have a mumu, some groups this year also acquired, along with the pig, kaukau and greens that were provided, some illegal JJ that wasn’t provided. Some got quite drunk, teachers included.

The Mass for the start of the exams, or the end of school (I’m not sure which), was quite tense this year. It followed the school’s picnic day. Fr. Peter stood up at the beginning and said, "I don’t know why I am here. I don’t know what you are expecting!" I was quite shocked at how sad and old he looked. The reason was that the Sunday after the picnics, the church was empty, and the night of the exam mass the church was full of pious school children (now sober). I think it shocked him terribly.

Before the exams are held, the year 10s and 12s have their respective formal dinners – formal meaning something similar to what it would in Australia. The kids dress up and have a sit down meal. Most of the girls’ frocks come from Wagi Klos, who source second hand clothes from Australia. Speeches are made, and students are allowed to add theirs. After sitting through 130 repetitions of essentially the same speech, Jesse said he was just about asleep on his chair. Crying is the other major attraction. Everyone – boys and girls – weep uncontrollably at the thought of the farewells. Keren particularly said it was very difficult trying to farewell someone who was weeping uncontrollably. Keren & Jesse didn’t cry, but that sort of emotion is very infectious.

Interesting T-Shirts I have seen
Because just about the whole population of Papua New Guinea is wearing 2nd hand clothes from Australia, walking around the streets and reading peoples’ T-shirts is more or less like doing the same thing in Australia. I should have kept a record, but these are a few that I was surprised to see:

"Edwards Electrical Services" I had to have a close look to make sure it wasn’t a Brother-in-Law's business from Palmerston North, NZ!

"Children’s Hospital Camperdown" Where Keren has spent some time.

"Thornleigh Indoor Sports" Just up the road from our old home.