Friday, October 22, 2010

“Everything’s Up To Date In Papau New Guinea”

By Anne Sullivan

Mountain Mail contributor Anne Sullivan made a once in a lifetime decision to vacation to New Guinea.  This week, we are thrilled to bring you the first part of her exciting adventures overseas.  

Other than the two Flight Attendants, I was the only female on the plane from Cairns in Queensland, Australia to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. I had a window seat and something even more important: leg room. I felt it was a good sign.
An hour and a half later,  we landed at the International Terminal at Port Moresby’s airport.  I found a man and a woman holding up signs with my name. They were Steven and Jennifer, guides from the Trans Nui Guinea Tour I had booked.
They agreed to my request to drive me to a drugstore to replace my toothpaste, deodorant, nail scissors and shampoo that had been taken away by Security personnel in Cairns who were unsympathetic to my pleas for mercy. It was all my fault. At 4 a,m., sleepy and hurrying to catch my bus to the airport, I had stuffed most of my cosmetics into my red carry-on bag and forgotten about it.
We stopped at a building resembling a warehouse, a corner of which housed a pharmacy with an excellent selection of everything I needed. Steven and Jennifer  deposited me at the Airways Hotel, Port Moresby’s newest high-rise five star hotel. At that time I inquired if there were other people on the tour. “Oh, yes about 35,” was the answer.
A huge hotel, it was decorated with dignity and possessed expensive shops selling native carvings and a beautiful open air swimming pool on the 7th floor. No one was swimming. Many well-dressed people of various hues and nationalities were eating in the dining room and the Deli, also on the 7th floor. From my seat outside the Deli I kept an eye out for someone who might be on my tour.
Although the staff were very polite and attentive and my room was not only ready at 9 a.m., it had everything one could possibly want in it, this was exactly the sort of hotel I hated. So big that I kept getting lost. Like all the good hotels in PNG’s large cities, the entry to the hotel was barred by enormous gates guarded by armed security. Not a good sign.
Since I had been warned not to go out of the hotel grounds, I spent most of the day catching up on the sleep that had been lost in the journey from Datil to Socorro to Albuquerque to Los Angeles to Sydney to Cairns that I had endured a few days previously.
Steven and Jennifer picked me up bright and early the next morning and I was grateful they stayed with me for the check-in process as the Domestic Terminal was an absolute madhouse with tons of people burdened with goods and chattels of every sort. There are few roads in PNG and even fewer good roads so the only way to travel from anyplace to anywhere is by air.
My seatmate on the two-hour flight to Tari was a charming young Englishman who worked in logistics and procurement for Doctors Without Borders at their hospital in Tari. That’s one of my top favorite charities and he told me it was true that they spent every cent donated on hospitals and equipment and that I should tell everyone that. So now I have.
No card with my name on it when we landed at the field in Tari. And I do mean field. No building at all, just loads of people who came to watch the plane land. One man detached himself from the mob, approached me and mumbled something. Aha, my guide from the Amboa Lodge, also named Steven. He inquired about a mysterious lady who was supposed to be on the flight and on the tour who obviously hadn’t materialized. We drove through an outdoor market and by dwellings with fancy mausoleums for the departed family members. Twenty minutes later I saw what appeared to be a village of neat thatched huts on a hillside. It was the Amboa Lodge and one of the thatched huts was mine. Complete with a modern bathroom, my hut was homey and comfortable with windows all around and a double bed, desk, small table and two chairs. The bed had an electric blanket since at 7000 feet the nights were deliciously cool. Said electric blanket had a mind of its own and refused to turn itself down to any reading below roasting. Waking that night in a pool of sweat, I yanked the plug out of the outlet. No TV which was fine by me.
After a lunch of fantastic unfamiliar fruit and good soup, I needed exercise. David, who worked in the kitchen, accompanied me on a walk through the rainforest to a small waterfall. Since I admired the flowers he drove me to the thriving orchid garden he’d started only a year and a half ago outside his home. David lived in a Man House, a house shared by several men and boys. No women were allowed to enter. I learned that women also lived separately. How do they propagate the species? In the bush, I was later told by Steven.
Here I must insert a few dry facts: Papua New Guinea is the eastern part of an enormous island that lies directly north of Queensland, Australia and has been an independent country since 1975 when it separated from Australia. The other half of the island, Western New Guinea, belongs to Indonesia. PNG, as it is known, was German, then British and in 1920 was given to Australia to govern. Those of us of a certain age will remember that Japan invaded in 1942 and New Guinea was the scene of much World War II action.
Most of the people are Melanesian and there are many tribes or clans and there has been, even recently, a great deal of tribal warfare. All is peaceful now except for the occasional clan fight. There are 820 languages in PNG alone. In order to communicate with each other most natives speak English and Pigin (Example: Mi liakim sampela halp translates to I need help) as well as their tribal dialect.
Most natives are small farmers growing sweet potatoes and coffee in the highlands. Other staples are chicken, pork and rice. Pigs are valuable as a sign of wealth and are treated like members of the family. Lately there has been much happening in mining and oil industries and now natural gas, all controlled by foreigners. Since the 1980s the New Guineans have been doing very well in the tourist industry. My tour with its guides and lodges was entirely managed and run by native New Guineans and they didn’t miss a beat.
Carving is the main art form: drums shaped like canoes, statues of humans and gods, shields, and masks. The natives also weave mats and baskets and make jewelry.
The missionaries did their work well as most of the people are Christians, with 28% Catholic and 23% Anglican Lutheran.
The Tari Valley, where the Amboa Lodge is located, is populated by the Huli who live, much as their ancestors lived, in small thatched-roof villages. Except when dressing up for tourist visitations, the men wear Western clothes, many bought second or third hand at local outdoor markets. The women wear beautiful colorful loose blouses over long skirts.
Although the lodge dining room at dinner was filled with westerners: a tour group from the U.S. as well as many Americans, Brits and Australians working at a nearby natural gas project, it was now apparent that I was the only person on this tour. This turned out to be an advantage as I got to know more about the guides and the people in general. The next morning I set off with my own guide, Steven, my own driver, Roy, and my own man to carry the lunch, to see the Huli men paint their faces and grow their wigs and see how the women mourn their husbands. We also climbed up a steep hill to visit one of the villages.
Slightly demoralized and weakened the following day by an attack of diarrhea (probably caused by all the glorious fruit), I was driven to see Spirit dancers, a Spirit doctor and medicine man. At every stop I would have to explain what I did, how old I was and why I wasn’t married. All agreed I was very old. As Steven put it, “Here people your age are usually already dead.

Pictures: (top) The New Guinea International Airport terminal. (bottom) Dancers of the Sing-sing outside of Mt. Hagen. Photos by Anne Sullivan

Anne Sullivan’s story about her once in a lifetime jorney continues next week in the Mountain Mail.

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