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Papua New Guinea: A Safe Country?

Papua New Guinea was listed by one insurance company as the third worst country in the world for safety. The Lonely Planet guide says one must be careful, but as long as you obey the local rules… We were thoughtfully warned by PALMS (our missionary organisation): there had been problems with PALMS volunteers before. But the reality is always something different to what you imagine or what you can prepare yourself for. Personal safety moves through the flux of changing local attitudes and frustrations. Safety can come down to being in the right place at the wrong time, sometimes a matter of seconds either way can mean the difference between life changing tragedy and an inspirational journey. It is important that such minute timing be handed over to Jesus, who oversees such things with love and tenderness; who sees exactly what is going on, not only on roads and in markets, but also in the hearts of men and the dark unseen realms of spirits.

Lae and Return in Four Days

The rumours started slowly. Like a dripping in a levee bank; but it wasn't long before the dam broke and we felt like we were battling a tidal wave of opinion and fear. The road to Lae has always had its problems. Br. Maurice tells of a big rascal a few years back in Chimbu who used to stop lone cars, and take everything: stripping cars to bare metal and people to bare skin looking for hidden valuables. But he was shot many years ago in a hillside ambush, then every house remotely suspected of sheltering him was burnt to the ground.

Fr Peter Dikos
More recently, Fr. Peter Dikos was returning from Goroka with a Holy Spirit nun when they were stopped near Chuave (between Goroka and Kundiawa). Peter is a priest from Slovakia. He said the scariest thing was that the rascals showed no leniency, even though he had a nun in the car, even though he was white, even though he was a priest, they attacked mercilessly.

They stood in a line blocking the road. When he came to a stop, they pushed forward thumping the car with their bush knives, telling them to get out of the car. When they saw his reluctance they slashed him across his shoulder a couple of times with a bush knife and started dragging him from the car. As they did this, his foot came off the brake and the car started rolling backwards, not quite up hill, but certainly not down a steep incline! The rascals got quite a fright and scattered. This gave Peter the opportunity to make his escape. He laughed about it later, said he was glad he had a story to tell the people back home; but very relieved that Jesus was in control.

Martin from Banz #1
Banz #1 is a Lutheran set up, Martin is the circuit evangelist. When Martin and his wife Gabriella [see Elke's Farewell ]were coming back from Goroka, they too had problems around Chuave (a traditionally Lutheran area). Their car was stopped and Gabriella was physically dragged from it. The only thing that saved them was the approach of another car. When Norbert was telling us this story, he said the church was most upset and embarrassed: the Lutheran Bishop comes from this area! He wasn't sure what the church could do, but some strong talks from the pulpit were called for. Imagine attacking a Lutheran missionary's car in a Lutheran area!

Various Peace Corps Adventures
Bill and Chris our Peace Corps friends from Fatima – said that some of their compatriots had been stopped in Chimbu Province and robbed. The rascals not only took all their money, all the possessions they were carrying, but also their car and the clothes on their backs!

What Gerard saw
Gerard (VSO) on his way back from Goroka saw an unfortunate container truck, its back door open, a fellow standing in the back handing out cases of SP (the local brew). The group of people crowding around the truck were getting more riotous the more drunk they became.

The Mowbray trip
Click to go to the maps page We were greatly disturbed by all the unrest reported on the road to Lae. So we started praying a week before we left. Prayed against the rascals – or more specifically the dark powers that drive them. We prayed for the road (the Scriptures that talk about low places being lifted up, and every unclean thing being kept off the highway took on new meanings). We prayed and we prayed, sometimes thought about calling the trip off, but in the end, decided to throw our faith into Jesus' lap (hoping it was faith and not just foolishness!).

We planned to set off in convoy with Jeremy on Thursday at 8 AM, but an hour at the local tyre repair patching the spare tyre's tube delayed our final departure. Chimbu has some terrible sections of road; the worst sections were just the same as we remembered them (our bones had a more physical memory of the jarring trip [see: The Chimbu Trip cartoon ]), but many of the others were comparatively well repaired: not sealed, but well filled up and packed down. Not like Chimbu at all! We made it through to Goroka in good time passing all the recent trouble spots without incident. We saw the spot where the beer was being handed out. It couldn't be anything else: masses of broken brown glass lying all over the road!

I must admit I was feeling quite tense, and I arrived tired from having to be so alert for the driving; over coffee at the Bird of Paradise ( Goroka Coffee : it keeps you up longer ), Sandi said she felt the same sort of thing. Norbert and Gerard came into The Bird while we were there, on route to Madang. The Bird of Paradise really is the expatriate travellers' respite.

After Goroka (which is in the Eastern Highlands Province), the road really deteriorated; much the same as what Chimbu used to be like. The road between Goroka and Kainantu was the traditional area for rascals in times gone past, but EHP has had an active Police Commissioner for quite a while. His reign has included much proactive rascal killing, village burning and jailing of suspects (Police methods are sometimes not much better than those employed by the people they are trying to catch. Recently we heard of Hagen police bludgeoning a rascal they had just apprehended, dumping him across the road and driving over the top of him several times in their Land Cruiser before taking him back to the station!). These roads are very much quieter than what they used to be, although we don't agree with the police tactics, we certainly do benefit from them.

We stopped for a bite to eat at Kainantu at the EHP Cultural Centre they have flushing toilets there! We ate lunch on the grass in the shade of a tree and realised we could have been anywhere: Green grass, shade, peace and quiet, picnic food… Unfortunately, the toilets were not working (which brought us back to PNG reality), so we had to cross our legs (something you learn to do in PNG).

After Kainantu, it's on down past the hydro scheme at Yonki, over the Kasim Pass (which when you broach the lip, makes you feel like you are actually flying! A 1,000m drop out of the air to the valley below), then on through the Markham Valley to Lae. The Markham consists of about 2 hours on very straight roads that can lull the most attentive driver to sleep. Thankfully I'm not very attentive, so I'm usually OK! The road was marvellous. The last time we travelled it, the driving consisted of dodging potholes at high speed; often the potholes hiding in shadows of trees, at the end of bridges or under the heat mirages and jumping out at us at the last minute. This time, there was not a pothole to be seen!

We stayed at Jeremy's little flat, which is always a little cramped with all of us there – but Jeremy is such a good sport. Friday was spent shopping for the College. I had to pick up some office furniture at Bowmans: desks and cabinets. I was really pleased, because not only did they give us a good price, they also gave us a discount for paying in cash (by cheque): a 20kg bag of rice and two pairs of sunglasses (where else but in Papua New Guinea?).

Saturday was designated a day to relax. We visited the Rainforest Habitat, an area at Lae Unitech. The only time I've seen birds of paradise flying around in the wild (except this was in a huge aviary)! We went for a swim, and a very expensive milkshake and five straws, at the Lae International. Very plush. We tried to look at the MV Dulos, which was in port, but the line to board was so long that we would have been waiting half a day! So, we gave it a miss.

Click to enlarge We left on our return on Sunday at 7 AM. We packed the car the night before, which ended up a little cramped for the boys in the back with all our cargo. We stopped at 40 Mile Market and bought some kulau and drai, and some betel nut for the Dings who were looking after KP and our kakaruk [see our chooks ]. The rest of the drive back was uneventful (Praise God!), the toilets at Kainantu were still not working (This is not unheard of in PNG: the toilets at Mt. Hagen International Airport have not worked in 4 years). We only had one tyre problem the whole trip: when we were nearly home, just coming down the hill to the bridge at Kudjip, we had to change a quickly deflating tyre. Lots of people come to look, some wanting to help, but I like to make sure that the wheel nuts are on tight enough, without being too tight ( Fr. Kees had a wheel changed for him once, which later overtook him on the road!).

And eventually… Ah, Home! A very affectionate cat; 3 chickens, 1 rooster and two chicks that probably didn't notice we'd been away; and a very welcome cup of Bunimwo tea in a comfy chair.

Mipela i wakabaut pinis long warakalup bilong Anna Ding

We'd always wanted to see this waterfall. Anna said, " i winim olgeta arapela warakalup! " Probably just local competitiveness, but a walk in the bush with the Dings would definitely be nice. So with our fast approaching departure, we hastily organised the walk&
[The Pidgin title means: "We walked to Anna's Waterfall"]

John (our Dean of Students and Anna's husband) was coming, then he wasn't, and finally he was. John, Anna and their children: Joanna, Bernadette and Arnold with a cousin (I think) piled into the College bus with the 5 of us and headed off to Anna's village. Down the dirt road (which is in average condition at the moment) to Kimil, then turn insait, through the coffee toward the village.

It's a short 20-minute drive on coffee access roads to Anna's village. The road is built up higher than the surrounding plantation through years of filling the potholes with river stones, which has also created a bone jarring road surface. These roads always remind me of the proverbial tracks with the sheer drops on either side that you get in fairy tales; the Wahgi Swamp was renamed the Wahgi Valley after the extensive drainage works that made the valley floor habitable. Roads especially, can have trenches over a metre deep on either side to help the drainage and minimise the compaction on the road.

The bus is greeted with loud whoops and cries by young and old alike when we approach the village. By the time we were inside the village and looking for a parking spot, we had a host of children and lapun running beside the vehicle. Everyone smiling their red stained partially toothless grins, much " Monin " and hand shaking. John is laughing, full of joy to be back and very animated, jumping up and down and rubbing his hands. Our plans and destination are conveyed in the village tok ples and then we set off, about 15 little children running along with us. Joanna says that we should not leave anything in the bus, so we carry everything with us (except the spare tyre). Nationals tend to get very confused when white people leave things, they think that they are not wanted any more, and they can think of a hundred good uses for most things.

The path takes us out past the coffee (everyone can grow coffee in the highlands. You only need a little land and can sell the cherries to local sellers who drive around in utes.) The path turns up a sharply inclined spur: the clay soil here forms hard aggregates the size of small gravel (~3mm) which makes the path very slippery for all except the sure footed locals; who all are bare footed, except for one older boy home on holidays from Fatima Secondary School. When we reach the top of the ridge Joanna points out her mother's asples, where she was born and lived until bought by her husband-to-be: a ridge, slightly higher, with about half a dozen haus kunai and clumps of bamboo and gardens. The locals send messages from one area to another – often over very long distances by yodelling the toksave from one ridge to another until it reaches the destination. This ridge isn't a long distance: but too far for a white man's shout!

We pass through little clumps of houses, villagettes, the family units that compose the wider clan. Houses made with bush materials: kunai thatch and pitpit woven into large flat sheets they call blinds, as walls over undressed bush timber. The houses have decorative flowerbeds around them, filled with blooming impatiens, zinnia and other species with coloured leaves; their vegetable beds not too far away. The day's washing, which was done in the nearby creek, hung to dry over bushes or lain on the grass, or sometimes (rarely) on a wire between two trees. It's all so similar to suburbia in Australia.

We have to climb over three banis, fences made with branches stacked horizontally and woven between posts set into the ground. No sties as the horizontal members are easy to climb. The fences are to contain pigs and keep them out of neighbour's gardens. Once when some of John's piglets dug up our back lawn, he said that traditionally, if your pigs bugaupim gaden bilong ol narapela man you must rise early, before the sun and your neighbour gets up, and fix the mess up! He gave that job to Joanna.

When we pass the last house (this one by itself), climb over the fence, we descend to the river (just a small creek really). Arnold, the older boy, about the age of Joanna, points out a large landslide, " Graun i bruk !" He said it dammed the creek until a new channel formed. Landslips are very common in PNG. Every hill has brown scars that can easily be seen against the green of the canopy from a long distance away.

We follow the creek, or as Anna says, " Yumi bai bihainim wara long warakalup." So we walk up the middle of the creek, picking our way across the slippery basalt rocks, sometimes along the bank. Some of those with shoes take them off; it could be anywhere (Sandi and I wonder if it is Southern Hemisphere in particular, because it is very similar to Australia [East Coast] and New Zealand), it is very beautiful. Large trees bend over the creek (which is only about 10m wide with a water depth of 300mm average. The water bubbles and gurgles its way around the many rocks and boulders strewn along its bed. New Guinea non-hybrid impatiens grow in profusion along the banks, along with the various types of fern. The creek must not always be this tame, at some points we have to climb over, and duck under, large trees trunks that have been washed down and become lodged.

Click to enlarge About an hour's walk and Anna points out the waterfall, " Wara kalup istap". Not huge, but it comes down in two drops with a pool about 10m from the bottom. The kids are already frolicking when the old fogies get there (us). They are like kids anywhere: perpetually playing. They damn the outlet from the pool, stopping the second waterfall. They play Pooh Sticks with pipia. They run up and down the climb up to the pool that Sandi and I have to carefully pick our way up. We sit around the pool, our feet dangling into the water – it is numbingly cold. Nathanael is the first in – it takes his breath away, which makes all the little brown faces laugh – but during the day most of the local kids are in, some have brought soap and wash themselves too (lathering themselves until they are completely white). They say that when the creek is really flowing strong – during the rainy season – the water completely misses the first plunge pool, descending to the creek bed in one drop! It made me think of the warnings my mother gave me about flash floods in Sydney, and how it was not a good idea to walk in the underground stormwater drains. I wonder if it may be a good time to return back to the creek bank?

One of the older ladies has been fishing on the walk up, and produces a long string of little 100mm long fishes, impaled and squirming on a stick. They remind me of spitfires on a bottlebrush: a community acting like a single organism. A little fire is built; Anna starts to gut the fish by squeezing their intestines out their rectum (most of the fish are still alive at this point which really put Keren off somewhat), then rinsing them in the creek. Anna then put them back on a stick for roasting over the fire. Pikaninis are dispatched into the surrounding bush (which happened to be old garden) to find some kaukau. The re-skewered fish (most igat laip yet ) are then roasted, and when they stop wriggling, are eaten off the skewer. Some pick the small bones out, some don't eat the skin, everyone throws the heads to the dogs. The fish turn out to have sweet, mild flavoured flesh. We have to threaten Keren with violence to induce him to eat some, he finally relents, admitting that they would have died anyway if put back into the creek after all their mutilations.

All the pikaninis are fishing now, their hunger for fish not satisfied with the small offering. They gently search under rocks with their fingers. Slowly a rock is lifted; the muddy bottom is investigated, disturbed and disgorges its brown discolouration into the creek's flow. Fingers probe the muddy bed under the rock, looking for some wriggling movement. Handfuls of the creek bottom are then lifted and sifted, oozing through the fingers, back into the water and disappearing off to the valley below.

A very relaxed scene: John Ding (who had a busy night sorting out a land dispute in his village) is asleep on the grass (actually low growing forbs). We pass around the salad buns we had brought in our packs. Some of the local kids are fishing, others are playing in the top pool. I'm wishing we brought some tea. Little Arnold, having dispensed with all his clothes, is playing in the creek.

Too relaxed for Jesse and Keren (who have had their own late night at Kudjip watching a spiritually instructive Jim Cary movie), they get bored easily, their itchy feet dragging them back to the car. They decide it's time to leave and do so; Anna, seeing them disappear back down the creek, decides we all should follow (Ah, a cup of tea! I can almost smell the inviting fragrance of Bunimwo now.) The walk back is fairly uneventful, except Nathanael at one stage slips jumping from one rock to another and ends up spreadeagled over one slippery rock. The local kids are first worried about parts better left unmentioned, then dissolve into laughter at the look on Nathanael's face: no serious damage, just injured pride.

Vitas' Story

We have two student cooks here at the College. Both from Chimbu Province. Both with very different natures. Jack the older fellow is a very likeable raskol and quite trustworthy. Vitas is younger and a little more shiftier. Both are lovable in their own individual way.

Vitas, our 2 nd Student Cook, came to me one morning, saying that he had to take the morning off to go see a brother who was killed on the weekend and was lying in the morgue in at Mt. Hagen. I later asked John Ding what the story was, and this is what he said:

The brother who was killed was not Vitas' bother tru tru, that is to say, the son of his father. It was a fellow who was part of his wider clan (N th removed cousin). The deceased came from Chimbu, where he lived with a brother and his elderly parents, all his other siblings having left home, except this one younger brother.

The two brothers always got on very well, except when the elder brother had been drinking. When he came home after a drinking bout, he would invariably get into an argument with his younger brother, which would often turn violent. One night, the elder brother came home drunk and before long a huge argument erupted between himself and his brother. The younger brother was so scared of his brother's violence that he went and hid in a neighbouring house, which was owned by an elderly couple.

The older brother became enraged that his younger brother had given him the slip, so after he found him, he set fire to the house he was hiding in. The brother managed to escape the inferno but the elderly couple perished in the blaze.

The younger brother eventually married and moved away from the area and settled in Banz. The other night, the older brother (who must have been staying with him) got drunk at the Kunai Hotel (the local watering hole) and his old violence surfaced again. He walked home to his brother's house shouting obscenities all the way. The younger brother heard his brother walking up the hill, or rather, heard his threats as he walked up the hill. He was shouting that he was going to kuk his brother's house, just like he kuk'd the two old people's house before.

The younger brother knew what his brother was capable of, and he feared for his young family. He only had a few minutes before his older brother arrived, so he grabbed his little tommyhawk axe and snuck outside into the shadows to see what his brother would do. The night was dark, and the older brother too drunk, so he didn't see or hear him sneak up behind him. When the older brother approached the front door, the younger brother jumped out behind him and brought the axe down on his neck. He chopped two more times and the older brother fell to the ground and bled to death at his younger brother's front door.

The younger brother is now in prison, the older is in the morgue waiting for Vitas to come and visit him. Such is family life in PNG!

The Bread Truck

There are two bakeries that deliver bread out our way. We've tried both, this year it's Mount Hagen Bakery that has the contract. They are a little more expensive, but the quality is a little better. We were getting their bread a couple of years ago, but a big robbery on one of the trucks dissolved their resolve to venture out into the wild lands. A few weeks ago, I thought the same thing was about to happen&

Br Maurice was the first to alert us to the excitement. He said that a band of raskols had been hiding in John Ding 's Haus Kuk, and when the bread truck drove up, jumped out, threw a log across the road and robbed it. Sandi and I couldn't understand the lemming-like fatalism of PNGers to being robbed, so I asked the driver a couple of days later what happened.

The driver smiled sheepishly at me, " Emi samting nating !" Five men, sort of wearing masks, put a log on the road and tried to stop me. One had a homemade gun, one a bush knife, one a tommyhawk and one a pointed stick. I asked, "Did they get much money?" He looked shocked at my innocence, and said that he put it in reverse and drove back to Fatima (turning around in our driveway).

He said the whole thing was fairly amateurish. When he was in Popondetta the raskols were much more professional and to be feared. He said, " Mi kilim dai tupela raskol i laik pasim mi !" This may be why he is now driving up in Hagen. He didn't seem too perturbed by it, and the log was left lying beside the road (hopefully not for later use)!

The Banz Club Robbed Again

The Banz Club is a relic from colonial times, classic really, though now anyone can be a member – brown, yellow or white.

The Club has been robbed several times while we've been here. The other weekend a band of raskols broke in just after closing. They took all the money, lots of booze and cigarettes, and then to top it off, they took the barmaid too! This was really worrying; when we heard it we were very concerned and were driven to prayer (as most people up here were).

The barmaid was subsequently released unharmed, they were holding her in Kudjip Tea somewhere (the formal hedges of the plantation are just like a maze [see A Village from the air ). She said that one of them just finally said, "We've got what we want," ie money, booze and smokes, "so why don't we let her go?" So they did. And we were very much relieved, but not as much as the barmaid was, I imagine!