Arrival in Paradise
was the only passenger on a small plane soaring over a shallow turquoise sea. Numerous coral islands were scattered about, like flotsam from a shipwreck. Some were large and flat and blanketed in luxuriant woodlands, like green pancakes on an aquamarine plate, and others were mere mounds of limestone, whose coral flanks supported a smattering of coconut palms—rest stops for weary wayfarers. It was as if God was a gardener and had created this oceanic landscape on a playful whim, reaching into a pouch of limestone and broadcasting it about, a little one here, maybe a couple over there, a big one here….
“This is it,” shouted the pilot over the whine of the engines as we began our descent over a largish, level island shaped like some grotesque cartoon character with a gigantic head supported by a skinny, undersized body. I had read that Kiriwina Island was densely populated and this was evident as we flew over scores of small clearings standing out from the surrounding tropical jungle. Plumes of dust followed the wheels spinning over the parched earth landing strip.
I shouldered my backpack and walked to the only sign of man, a one roomed square wooden shelter covered in corrugated iron. It was shuttered and locked up. Just when I was beginning to wonder what I had gotten into, a jeep rolled up, trailing clouds of dust. Heat bent the air. It was hot and still, the sultry fire of the tropics. I was glad I had chosen to wear my massaging sandals, purchased during my first stay in Sydney the previous year. Some of the plastic bumps had broken off, and the soles were held on with dental floss and a song, but they represented a podiatric memory of my trip through Oceania. They had become very comfortable, and, more importantly, they were cool. The locals here traveled barefoot but I was content to carry a layer, however thin and worn, between my feet and the tropical boring creatures just waiting to tunnel into my tender foreign tootsies.
“G’day mate,” called the driver of the jeep in a friendly Aussie greeting. “Where ya headed?”
“I’m not sure,” I replied, wiping dust-stained sweat from my brow. “A village perhaps.” A university friend in Port Moresby had suggested that visitors could board in any of the settlements dotting the island.
“I’m from the only guest house on Kiriwina. Hop in. I’ll take you there.”
One guest house. This was obviously not like Indonesia with its well developed backpacking network. I was joined by two young men who had been waiting by the shed. Twenty minutes over rough, unsealed road brought us to the guest house, unimaginatively called the Kiriwina Guest House. It was comfortable, if not opulent. It was dead quiet as well. This was obviously not a ‘hot’ destination for travelers, temperature not withstanding. One look at the price list convinced me that village accommodation would be the way to go.
“We passed a big spreading tree at the T intersection across from the wharf. Wait there and you can get a ride north to where most of the villages are,” said my expatriate benefactor. “Good luck, mate. Feel free to come by if you need any help.”
It was only a five minute walk to the landmark tree, where I joined a small band of locals resting in the shade against the ample trunk. I took off my pack.
I immediately noticed the striking appearance of these islanders. They had tight dark curls, like the Papuans, but their skin was lighter and their features finer. It was as if they represented an ethnological place midway between the Melanesians of the mainland and their Polynesian neighbours of the broader Pacific. They were small of stature and fine boned and muscled. I was like a giant among them. One young man in his late twenties turned to me.
“Where are you from?” he asked in precise accented English. A four- or five-year-old boy was seated shyly by his side, examining me with big brown eyes of innocence.
“I’m from Canada,” I replied. “Where did you learn to speak English so well?”
“I went to high school here, and I lived in Port Moresby until recently. My son was born there. I worked in a bank. We live in a village to the north-east of here now. Would you like to stay with us?”
It was the best and only offer I had received thus far. I could hardly say no. My new friend, Mark, supplemented my meager knowledge of the islands as we waited for our transport. There was obviously no hurry here. Life and people moved at a Pacific pace.
The Trobriand Island group, of which Kiriwina is the largest, takes its name from Denis de Trobriand, an officer on the expedition of a Frenchman named D’Entrecasteaux, whose name graces the mountainous archipelago we had flown over earlier in the day. The Trobriands were made famous after the Great War by the work of Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. At the start of the war he was offered internment in Australia or banishment to the remote Trobriands. He sensibly chose the latter. His studies revolutionised the methods of anthropology, and his in depth analysis of these islands resulted in his classic series of books including Argonauts of the Western Pacific and Coral Gardens and their Magic.
When Malinowski began his career anthropologists rarely went into the field or even saw the people they were studying. Instead, most often they relied on surveys and reports generated from missionaries, colonial officials, and travelers. The few anthropologists who went into the field stayed at colonial outposts and had natives brought to them for interviews via an interpreter.
Malinowski recognized the obvious flaws in this approach. He felt that it was not only necessary to learn the native language, but also to live with the subject population in order to develop a scientific understanding of the population. This revolutionary approach eventually became known as ‘participant observation’, whereby anthropologists live and work with their informants. It was during his expeditions to the Trobriand Islands in 1915 – 16 and again from 1917 – 18 when he created this new approach for ethnographic fieldwork that remains the standard for research today.
Eventually, a dust-covered open-backed pickup truck arrived and we all scrambled in. We initially retraced our route from the airstrip and then headed further north-east passing one village after another. Each had in its center a ring of raised slotted yam houses, airy storage for a staple crop. Next came one or two circles of sleeping huts surrounded by the ubiquitous coconut palms, banana palms and other vegetation.
Mark’s village seemed little different from the others we had seen. There were approximately fifty inhabitants of all ages. Most came over to inspect me when I arrived. Mark offered his house as accommodation. It wasn’t very big. Each hut seemed to be crafted to provide just enough space for these little people to lie lengthwise. But for the next few weeks it was my home. I couldn’t sleep stretched out fully, so I adopted a semi-fetal position when sleeping. Illuvagai, Mark’s lovely, shy wife, moved in with her mother after my first night. There simply wasn’t much room for us all.
It took time to adjust to village life. These people dressed in the most basic of worn-out clothing. But they were meticulously clean. They bathed daily at a simple well in the village center. I felt more than a little self conscious bathing in full view of the villagers. Mark saw my discomfort and approached me saying, “The people say you must wash. There is a nearby cave where you can do this as well.” He instructed some of the children to take me there.
On this, the eastern side of the island, the land raised up a little as we approached the sea. The cave (and I was told there were others) could be found in that raised area. Inside was a pool large enough to fully submerse and it was lit by a natural opening above. The water was deliciously cool and refreshing. The children stood as sentinels by the entrance and they called out to me when people arrived from another village.
There were usually two meals a day. I could have anything I wanted to eat as long as it consisted of bland, boiled tapioca, yams and taro. The day I arrived Mark cut a huge cluster of bananas. These ripened sequentially so that I was able to enjoy at least one every day. People offered me paw paws from time to time. These are, to my taste, a real treat. At my request our meals were sometimes supplemented with some delicious dark green leafy vegetables, cooked of course. Occasionally the three daily starches were sweetened with the milk of coconuts or spiced with salt from the sea.
I observed the considerable boat-building skills of the men. They attached outriggers to handsome, hollowed out canoes. Intricate carvings identified each prow. Simple sails were attached. The men fished frequently, supplementing the bland fare of the surrounding gardens.
These same men sat for hours patiently carving tiny ‘toy’ canoes that looked remarkably like the real thing. Their sons assisted as appropriately scaled down outriggers and sails were attached. These boats weren’t just toys. This exercise served as a creative bonding activity that spanned generations and gave the boys miniature versions of real boats with which to be initiated into the intricacies of wind and sail. I sat often with Daniel, Mark’s father, as he assisted Mark’s younger brother to craft a boat.
“What are they up to?” I asked Mark one day when he came over to inspect Daniel’s creation.
“They are getting ready for a race.”
The big day arrived and all the boys carefully carried their boats down to a beach protected by a reef partially exposed by the low tide. The boys steered their craft using long sticks to make adjustments to the fickle winds, as fathers and siblings cheered them on. They were playfully learning the rudiments of sailing skills within the safety of the reef.
Young boys spent hours throwing small sharpened sticks at any available moving object; usually a leaf, and occasionally a coconut propelled along the ground by a friend. They were honing their spear fishing skills with purposeful play.
I walked miles most days. On one occasion I visited a crude collection of some of the island’s vast array of butterflies. All colors in the visible spectrum were represented but it was the blues, as big as Giant Swallowtails, that attracted most of my attention.
Another time I walked for hours to reach a village famed for its wood carving. Here I observed a highly skilled artisan inlay bits of shell into a walking stick of polished wood as dark as ebony; it may even have been ebony.
Tropical nights came with an impatient haste that belied the lassitude of the steamy days preceding them. Eyes needed to adjust quickly to nights without electrical lighting. Most evenings teenagers gathered around a fire away from the village. They used a guitar to accompany their unique and gentle Pacific melodies. The fact that the guitar was missing a string didn’t deter them in the least. I didn’t understand the words but the lyrics seemed simple enough. The guitar was shared, and over the course of the evening all of the children played at least once. Some played with more skill than others but all were given a chance. Adults also played guitar and sang back in the village. One couple played cards every night by the soft glow of a treasured kerosene lamp. Occasionally the women danced in a rhythmic, merry way.
Walking between and through neighboring villages I sometimes encountered young people who pointed at me and called me dim dim, their term for foreigner. It was challenging to repeatedly receive this treatment. I suppose the words seemed appropriate for pale outsiders who didn’t even know their customs or language.
Each morning I would open my eyes to find several villagers standing outside and staring at me. I felt like I was the main exhibit in the Dim Dim Zoo. I have sympathized with the lack of privacy of zoo animals ever since. It seemed to be less than coincidental that I was reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five at the time. In the book, Billy Pilgrim, the story’s main character, is kidnapped by two-foot-high aliens, taken to their planet and brought to live under a transparent geodesic dome in a zoo.
I felt for Billy and his lack of privacy as he was observed through his transparent enclosure going about his daily activities. At least I was able to have an early morning toilet stop in the privacy of the jungle surrounding the village away from the scrutiny of curious eyes, unlike Billy who had nowhere to hide.
The Sexual Life of Savages
Malinowski’s investigations into the sexual customs of the Trobriand Islanders led to another weighty tome with the unfortunate title The Sexual Life of Savages. At puberty males leave the home of their parents and move into the village bukumatula or bachelor house. Teenagers are encouraged to have as many sexual partners as they wish, without guilt.
My observation was that young people were just as shy as in other cultures and there were no obvious free spirited sexual liaisons. Mark told me that people chose their life partners based on mutual compatibility and married in their early to mid twenties. He also said that very few children are born out of wedlock and that there had never been any homosexuality or prostitution in the Trobriands.
During my stay one young couple announced they were getting married by beginning the construction of a new house in a gap in the outer ring of the village next to his parents’ home. The father of the groom immediately came to their assistance; and, in no time, the rest of us were busy with thatch for the roof or plaiting of palm fronds for the wall panels. The structure was complete within two days and the nuptial couple moved into a home literally touched and built by all of their family and neighbors, including one tall blonde dim dim. Their marriage grew quite naturally out of a lifelong friendship and compatibility in a guilt-free culture that encouraged freedom of choice.
The Kula Ring
The system known as the ‘Kula Ring’ involves annual inter-island visits between trading partners who exchange highly valued shell ornaments. The goods used in Kula exchanges consist of two types: necklaces (soulava), which circle the ring in a clockwise direction and armbands (mwali), circling anti-clockwise. Neither trade item is particularly well made or crafted of rare materials. Malinowski inferred that the principal motivation for the enormous expenditure of time and effort involved in Kula expeditions was non-utilitarian.
In the Kula system, each participant is linked to two partners. One partner trades a necklace in return for an armband of equivalent value. The other makes a reverse exchange of an armband for a necklace. While each Kula partner is tied to only two other partners, each contact has an additional connection on either end of the distribution chain.
This eventually forms the Kula Ring, which links more than eighteen islands and thousands of individuals over hundreds of miles of ocean. Malinowski argued that the Kula Ring serves three functions in Trobriand society. First, it serves to establish friendly relations among the inhabitants of different islands and maintain a pattern of peaceful contact and communication over great distances with trading partners who may or may not speak the same language.
It provides the occasion for the inter-island exchange of utilitarian items. These utilitarian items are shipped back and forth in the course of Kula expeditions. Finally, status is reinforced, since the hereditary chiefs own the most important shell valuables and it is their responsibility for directing ocean voyages.
My observation was that it also provided a means of cementing bonds between cultures and strengthening the gene pool by creating inter-island marriages. There were two young people staying in Mark’s village who were not Trobriand Islanders. They had arrived as part of the Kula exchange and were due to stay for at least a year. There was a good chance they would find mates from the village before they returned to their home islands.
To Give or Not to Give
“Where is everybody going, Mark?” I was determined not to miss anything and when so many of the villagers were heading up the road to the north, I hastened to follow.
“We’re going to the church,” replied Mark. “Do you want to come?”
After my one and only encounter with two friendly enough but lost looking Western missionaries I could hardly disguise my reluctance.
“Come along John. You will find this interesting,” Mark continued. I was forever grateful for Mark’s excellent English. He was one of only three in the village whom I could properly converse with. A twenty minute walk brought us to the church, a tin roof supported by poles, but no walls. I hoped the structure was symbolic of the openness of these innocent islanders. A man was standing on a raised platform. Mark and I joined the several hundred people seated on the ground. I recognized a few faces and estimated there were representatives from about five nearby villages. The speaker addressed the crowd in the local Kiriwina dialect, although he didn’t look like a local. His speech became ever more animated and loud, quite a contrast to the soft spoken approach of the Trobriand Islanders. He reminded me a little of the bible-thumping evangelists you would see on television back home.
“What is he saying, Mark?” I whispered.
“He’s telling us how much money the villagers closer to Losuia gave when he collected from them earlier today. He’s trying to shame us into giving more.”
I was shocked. There is almost no economic activity on Kiriwina Island. These people live in a virtually cashless society. A couple of men in Mark’s village produced beautiful carvings that would eventually be sold in Port Moresby. Otherwise the adults tended their gardens, their children and did a little fishing. None of those activities generated an income.
I also wondered where this donated money would go. I recalled sitting in church as a boy when the collection was taken up. We were told that the money was to aid needy people in developing countries. PNG was a developing country and the Trobriand Islanders were in serious need of improved education and health assistance. Only a few of the children attended high school. Three of the fifty village inhabitants had died of malaria in the last year. Just the other day Mark’s father, Daniel, a gentle friendly soul, was hit by malarial sweats. As unskilled and undersupplied as I was, I attended to Daniel as best I could, sharing my malaria tablets and sponging his brow. I apportioned more pills when a youngster came down with the dreaded disease. The local health clinic had closed a few years earlier, when external funding was withdrawn.
What right did this minister, as a representative of the church, have to suck every last kina from these people and to use guilt to do it?
“What do you think of this, Mark?” I asked.
“This is not good. Why rob the poor to feed the rich? This is why we all have two names. For the missionaries I use my Christian name, Mark. The rest of the time my name is Sabwani.” I made a mental note to call him Sabwani from then on.
We returned to the village. The women began preparing the evening meal. As always, someone looked after Daniel, whose wife had died recently. I wasn’t able to discern any system to determine who would cook for him, but someone always did. There was no old age home or social security. There was an innate system of sharing in place.
It seemed to me these people lived closer to the biblical teachings than any other group of people I had ever encountered. And they did this in spite of a church that seemed more intent on robbing them than helping them.
Over the centuries, isolated from the rest of the world, these simple islanders have developed a peaceful and fair mode of existence. I dare say that we privileged people of the West have more to learn from them than they do from us. Sabwani had returned home with his family from Port Moresby for his mother’s funeral and decided to stay. Once back in the village he realized he would rather give up his lucrative banking job and raise his son in traditional society. How many people would do that?
Rejecting the West
abwani and I walked past the nearby village of Omarakana, home of the paramount chief of all Trobriand Islanders. “Why does the chief have so many wives?” I asked Sabwani.
“That is one of our ways of bonding people together,” explained Sabwani. “Each wife comes from a different village. Would you like to meet the paramount chief?”
We entered Omarakana. The chief’s house was slightly higher and more intricately carved than an average village hut. Since the chief was from the Tabalu sub-clan, which is the highest ranking on the islands, his house had to be the highest. Otherwise it looked the same as any other, raised a meter from the ground and covered with thatch. There were a few ornaments and each was a sign of rank. There were fish-birds on the gable boards, representing a combination of porpoises and kingfishers: the first was a purveyor of magical power, the second was a bringer of fertility.
The chief greeted me with a typical warm Trobriand smile. If Sabwani hadn’t told me he was the chief I wouldn’t have known. He looked like any other middle aged islander. An assistant arrived with a green coconut. He skillfully slashed it open with his machete and I feasted on its sweet nectar and jelly-like meat. Sabwani acted as translator. “What is he saying?” I asked.
“He’s talking about his recent trip to Japan.”
I asked him what he thought of Japan.
“Friendly people. Everyone in a hurry.”
I couldn’t help but think that the world’s political leaders should visit this man and these people. Why was the rest of the world rushing around, accumulating possessions? These people owned little, wanted less, and had more time for sharing with each other than we sophisticated Western consumers.
We carried on. Sabwani stopped to show me a huge stone relic just off the road. “What is the story of this, Sabwani?”
“Nobody really knows. But it must be very old.” One could only guess. But I wondered if these huge dressed rocks belonged to an earlier civilization I’d read of called Lemuria that spanned much of the Pacific region.
It was a long walk. Periodically Sabwani would shimmy adroitly up a tree and knock down a green coconut. This kept us going. What a perfect fruit for dealing with the heat of the tropics. A few coconuts later we arrived at Kaibola with its picturesque curved beach. We enjoyed a lazy swim.
“This is where a luxury hotel once was, John,” said Sabwani with a mischievous look.
“What do you mean once was?”
“My people burned it down a few years ago. We didn’t like the way it was changing our culture.”
As we walked back to village in the relative cool of twilight I reflected on the nature of these Trobriand Islanders. They valued their traditional culture to such an extent that they were prepared to physically reject the allure of Western civilization. I admired them and I wondered how long they could hold out. They just might pull it off. They were geographically isolated from the First World countries. Being coral islands, the Trobriands lacked the mineral and timber riches that tended to attract the wealthy countries. The islands didn’t strike me as a particularly strategic location for nations with military ambitions. I had seen the crumbling remains of a WWII asphalt airstrip in the center of Kiriwina Island. Insistent tropical plant life had forced its way up through the tar. In a little over forty years nature had obliterated almost all evidence of its existence. I could only hope that this forgotten oasis would remain forgotten. Future generations, their souls nearly lost to technology, would be able to visit this living museum of these simple, peace-loving islanders.
But the path of ‘progress’ crept inexorably closer. It would take all the resolve of people like Sabwani to keep their idyllic culture alive. I was about to observe another assault on their sacred way of life.
Papua New Guinea was granted independence in 1975 and the country had a complex and lively democratic system with almost as many parties as elected representatives. A few days earlier we had been visited by a charming woman from Woodlark Island who was hoping to represent Milne Bay Province in the current elections.
We had just finished another meal of boiled taro, yams and tapioca. I still found this starchy fare bland and tedious. My views were not shared by my hosts. They seemed totally content to eat the same thing meal after meal, day after day. They lived in quiet contentment and sought little excitement to brighten up their lives.
“Where are we going Sabwani?” I asked, sitting next to him on the veranda of his house.
“You know that man in the big house who is running for election?”
I certainly did. His was the only large house on the island. He lived in a raised three bedroom bungalow in a small clearing on the way to the airport, away from any village.
“He’s offering to show movies.”
I accompanied Illuvagai, Sabwani and Rose, Sabwani’s twelve‑year‑old sister, along the main road. There was no moon and I found it challenging to see. I followed closely in my friends’ footsteps to avoid wandering off the track. Eventually the steady thrum of a diesel generator and the soft glow of outdoor incandescent lighting indicated we were approaching our destination.
We sat on the ground with other expectant watchers. We didn’t have long to wait. The first film was a pleasant black and white MGM musical, which unfolded in predictable Hollywood fashion. Most of the viewers wouldn’t have understood the dialogue but all appeared to enjoy the music and dance. I have a soft spot for musicals so it was a hit with me. We got up to stretch during a short break as another video was inserted in the player. I wondered what would come next. Again, we didn’t have to wait long. The second selection was one of the Rambo adventure films, movies I had deliberately avoided until then. I endured, rather than enjoyed, the pumped up violence of Sylvester Stallone. How out of place and intrusive this film appeared. Thank goodness some of the younger children were already sleeping, nestled comfortably in the laps of their parents.
At the end, some of the usually gentle boys got up and began applying kicks and karate chops to their friends. I prayed that Sabwani and other enlightened leaders of these people would have the strength and will to continue to resist the onslaught of the worst of our foreign way of life.
A Nearby Funeral
Drums pounded in the distance. I was excited to see my friends getting into their traditional clothing. The women donned colorful grass skirts and the men simple bark loin coverings. Most women wore red head bands with white feathers. The females put a lot of time into painting elaborate designs in black and white on each others’ beautiful faces. Many of the men had tight black bands around their upper arms. Hibiscus, gardenias, and frangipani added further color and fragrance to the ensembles.
Sabwani explained, “There is a funeral in a neighboring village.” I must say that it seemed more of a celebration than a funeral.
We joined a huge crowd at the village of the woman, who had been a respected elder. The Trobriands have a matrilineal society in which inheritances are passed through the female side of the family. Elderly women and men receive respect from succeeding generations. All of the women of the village had shaved their heads and applied wood ash to every inch of their nearly naked bodies. They joined in what seemed to be songs and dances of grief. A man signaled the beginning of official proceedings by blowing in a large and beautiful conch shell. The conch is used throughout the Pacific and Asia as a ceremonious means of calling people together.
I was offered a thick stick about the length of my hand. It looked like solid bamboo. Sabwani skillfully peeled it with his machete.
“It is sugar cane,” he said. “Very sweet.” I chewed the offering, taking my cue from nearby children. It was juicy and sweet.
Food, carried in strong, woven containers, was offered by all the visiting villagers. The close friends and relatives looked and acted somber as they danced around a large open fire. Everyone else seemed to celebrate with a feast and lively chatter. It was a funeral unlike any I had previously attended.
Coffee at Eight
After weeks of being fully immersed in a culture and language dramatically different from my own, I jumped at the offer of the British VSO (Victorian Service Overseas) teachers in Losuia to join them for a meal. They both worked at the island’s only high school, which Mark’s sister, Rose, attended. I was anxious to bounce some of my experiences off them and to hear of their lives as volunteers in a third world country.
We enjoyed an invigorating conversation over a delicious and diverse repast that extended into the evening hours under the soft glow of a gas lamp. I hoped my sensitive stomach would handle the change from the plain boiled yams, taro and tapioca that had entered it twice daily during my stay in the Trobriands.
My senses certainly savored the delicately spiced and baked flavors of none other than yams, taro and tapioca with the addition of a bowl of rice and steamed greens. I was so grateful for this culinary feast and for the friendly company of these two young Westerners that I said ‘yes’ when offered a cup of coffee as a celebratory cap to the evening.
Until this time I had only tasted one cup of coffee in my life. At the age of sixteen I worked part time as a gas boy at our local airport in Oshawa. One sub-freezing winter evening my friend Tom and I took a break from fuelling and taxiing Cessnas. My hands felt like blocks of ice and Tom suggested we have a warm drink to help defrost our frozen appendages. Tom, a year my senior, was already an experienced coffee drinker. I, on the other hand, was a connoisseur of hot chocolate. There was no hot chocolate in the automatic dispenser that night, so I gave in to my friend’s suggestions and attempted to drink a cup of the steamy caffeine for the first time. I was not impressed and vowed then and there to forgo coffee for the rest of my life.
At university, during my first two years of living on campus, I was known to stay up all night cramming for a morning midterm or final exam. These all night vigils were fuelled by drinking cup after cup of tea. This was a normal practice for those of us who had not been organized or motivated enough to spread our studying out over the semester. Some of my cohorts even resorted to popping pure caffeine pills, not unlike the pick-me-up still offered to soldiers in periods of stress. When it came time to sit an exam at nine in the morning I would be literally shaking from drinking tea and studying all night. I found that it was absolutely critical that I empty my bladder just prior to entering the exam for the three consecutive hours of sitting. It was then that I realized that caffeine was a drug and a diuretic.
By the time I began working full time in an office at the age of twenty two, I was a regular drinker of herbal tea—peppermint, rosehip, or chamomile, the three sorts then available in the supermarket. My father was certain I would begin drinking coffee, since an overwhelming percentage of my co-workers imbibed the brew regularly. This drinking pattern must have been going on for a long time because our mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks had been aptly called ‘coffee breaks’ by some pundit in the dimly remembered past. I was equally certain that I would not begin to drink coffee; so my father and I entered into a gentleman’s bet. He would win honor if I began drinking coffee by the time I turned twenty five and I would be honored if I didn’t begin drinking the infamous brew by my twenty fifth birthday. I won the bet easily and continued to turn to herbal teas when in want of a warm drink.
So here I sat at the age of twenty nine, having a cup of coffee in the company of these two hospitable Brits. Aside from the occasional bar of chocolate I had been caffeine-free for years. After brushing my teeth at another wonder, a sink with running water, I retired to the spare room of their palm thatched home. I lay awake for hours. I reclined on still another wonder, a padded mattress. I was buzzing and alert. I knew that my body was tired and more than ready for sleep. Why then could I not fall asleep? It didn’t take me long to figure out that I was under the influence of a very powerful drug called caffeine. Eventually I did fall asleep, presumably when the effect of the drug wore off. I stayed in bed longer than usual in the morning. But I still felt groggy and hung over when I woke up. I have never had another cup of coffee since that fateful night.
I knew that coffee plantations existed in the highlands of mainland Papua New Guinea and on Bougainville and some of the other islands. I’d heard stories from other travelers of the sad state of food production in these places where the indigenous people had given up their ancestral lands to the colonial powers. The newcomers converted the most fertile areas into plantations of coffee, sugar cane and bananas. Unlike the independent and self sufficient Trobriand Islanders these people, in many cases, no longer grew their own food. Living in a land of plenty, they were starving on diets of mineral deficient bulk imported food.
A Tearful Goodbye
As my stay on Kiriwina wound to a close I sought concrete ways of expressing my gratitude to Sabwani and his family and to the other villagers who had so willingly and graciously accepted me into their circle. I was informed by my VSO friends that the high school was having a fund-raising fair. Would I like to visit?
Here I purchased a live chicken (after watching others having their necks quite unceremoniously broken). It was an adventure carrying this startled creature on the pickup truck back to the village. Sabwani and Illuvagai were thrilled. There were very few chickens in the village so they decided to keep this new arrival alive and encourage her to lay eggs for them.
On another occasion I bought a complete set of strings for the collective guitar of the village teenagers. I looked forward to hearing their sweet voices accompanied by an instrument that had all of its strings. The two shops in Losuia were surprisingly under-stocked, but I managed to purchase rice from them to supplement the usual three starches of the villagers. I congratulated Illuvagai on her coconut flavored rice.
On the night before my departure the whole village gathered in front of the hut as I sat with my adopted family. They sang song after song and the women performed a number of dances. There was good-hearted laughter when some of the older women kicked up their heels. I sang my short repertoire of Harry Bellefonte songs like Matilda. The young children engaged me in call and response and loved the songs. I realized once again how close I had grown to these simple living islanders.
I was escorted on foot to the airport early in the morning by Sabwani, Illuvagai, Rose and a handful of other villagers. Even Daniel, temporarily recovered from malaria, joined us for the hour long walk on narrow tracks running through gardens, bush and villages stirring with morning activity. One of the young men insisted on carrying my backpack. On an island devoid of electrical power, with only a few motorized vehicles and with village life untainted by telephone, television, radio or newspapers, where people walked and worked using their God-given appendages and sang, danced and played to the Pacific rhythm of ‘no time’, a slow walk to the airstrip seemed just right.
Packed away in my bags were the necklaces I had purchased for my sisters and a colorful grass skirt I couldn’t resist—trinkets to kindle memories. I was laden with gifts of fruit and even some of the cold cooked taro I had come to appreciate, if not love. More important, these radiant beings, these brothers and sisters from the Trobriand Islands, had bestowed on me another priceless gift. They had taught me that life could be simple and that by simply living in harmony with nature and with each other, we humans could be happy. I had been blessed with a glimpse of life before the fall from paradise, before our ancestors tasted the forbidden fruit. I had been given a retreat, however fleeting, from the often senseless complexity of modern life. To want so little and to give so much. For me, this is the legacy of the Trobriand Islanders.
There were tears in my eyes as I waved from the plane. My newfound friends and family waved back. Would I ever see them again? That question remains unanswered. I only knew that I was not the same man I had been when I arrived from the sky to this isolated island just a few eventful weeks before.
Radio host, inspirational speaker and health educator John Haines is the author of In Search of Simplicity: A True Story that Changes Lives and the recently released Beyond the Search, books to lift the spirit and touch the heart. See http://www.JohnHainesBooks.com
“In Search of Simplicity is a unique and awe-inspiring way to re-visit and even answer some of the gnawing questions we all intrinsically have about the meaning of life and our true, individual purpose on the planet. I love this book.”
Barbara Cronin, Circles of Light. For the complete review visit: http://www.circlesoflight.com/blog/in-search-of-simplicity/
“In Search of Simplicity is one of those rare literary jewels with the ability to completely and simultaneously ingratiate itself into the mind, heart and soul of the reader.”
Heather Slocumb, Apex Reviews
A River Journey
he mighty Star Mountains, near the Irian Jaya border, give rise to two major rivers, the Sepik and the Fly. The closest settlement on the map to the source of these rivers was called Telefomin. This was where I was headed.
From their humble highland beginnings these mighty waterways depart in opposite directions from the watershed. The Sepik tumbles sharply north down the mountain slopes onto a vast floodplain, eventually turning east and emptying into the Bismarck Sea. The Sepik is a culturally and ethnically diverse region. I met one student at the university in Port Moresby who came from a tiny village on the Sepik and who spoke twelve languages. He needed to in order to converse with his neighbors in only twenty villages. I know of no other place on earth with such linguistic diversity.
The Fly River, named after a British warship, the HMS Fly, which navigated the waterway in 1845, plunges south towards the Gulf of Papua for 1,200 kilometers, making it the longest river on this, after Greenland, the world’s second largest island. In terms of the volume of water it discharges, the Fly is one of the most powerful rivers in the world.
I booked passage in Port Moresby on a Burns Philp barge that was due to cross the Gulf of Papua and then navigate through the multitude of islands spanning the 80 kilometer wide delta of the Fly River. The sun was setting in the harbor of Moresby as I boarded ship. With the ensuing darkness, the shipboard lights were met with others on shore, transforming the tumbledown port of day into an enchanting south sea haven, an appropriate point of departure for an area populated with the last Stone Age people in the world. We sailed through the night in a mild tropical storm. I slept well, lulled by the rhythmic thrumming of the rain on my cabin roof. By the time I joined some of the friendly Papuan crew for breakfast the next morning we were already beginning the long and winding journey up the river itself.
It was a journey that took three full days and nights. The weather was friendly, the rain having stopped before first light. Primordial jungle of tree and vine came right to the shore of the iodine-hued river. Crocodiles were said to lurk in the shallows but I saw none. There was little sign of habitation, with most villages set well off the riverbanks due to the threat of flooding. As it is, the changing route of the river means people must move their villages from time to time. Activity was minimal save for gorgeous white-headed eagles soaring overhead and the appearance one dawn of three dugout canoes navigated by tribesmen standing confidently upright, man and canoe gliding at the beginning of time. I supposed the scene was little changed from when Italian naturalist Luigi Maria D’Albertis steamed 800 miles up the Fly River in 1876. En route, he fired rockets at any village he encountered. When the terrified villagers ran off into the jungle, D’Albertis and his men stole any artifacts that interested them. Come to think of it, maybe that was why so few villages could be seen now. Imagine what a memory that experience left these simple villagers of their first encounter with Europeans.
On the second day the ancient forests gave way to a sort of swampy grassland, home to hordes of mosquitoes. The crew, including the captain, consisted entirely of native Papuans. The captain kept mostly to the middle of the river, presumably to avoid the mosquitoes. I was thankful for that. With a drop of only 20 meters in almost 800 kilometers, the river meandered lazily in a snakelike pattern. We passed a refugee camp, filled with displaced people fleeing the systematic genocide taking place on the Indonesian side of the island in what is called Irian Jaya.
After we passed the confluence of the Strickland River, which is nearly as massive as the Fly, we motored along in almost constant threat of grounding. This was the end of the dry season. The captain navigated by chart to avoid the numerous dead ends where the river had previously run. He entertained me with stories of previous trips. One time several of the crew jumped ship when they saw an alluring betel nut palm on shore. By the time they returned to the ship it was grounded and they had to wait several days for the next passing barge to carry them out. “At least they enjoyed their betel nuts,” quipped the captain. That was just a brief misadventure compared with the crew on a barge that took a wrong turn and ran out of river in the dry season. By the time they were picked up two months later they had established a fine vegetable garden on shore!
This nautical journey was different in two significant ways from the freighter trips I undertook between Auckland and Sydney, and between Townsville and Port Moresby. This time I felt not even the hint of sea sickness, and this time I was a paying passenger with a wealth of opportunity for observation of my surroundings and for reading from the stash of books borrowed from the extensive library at the University of PNG in Port Moresby. I had several novels by Herman Hesse including Steppenwolf and Siddhartha and a graphic and unsettling account of the decades long struggle of the OPM (Organisisi Papua Merdeka) against the brutal encroachment of the Indonesian military in neighboring Irian Jaya. I was absolutely appalled by what I read.
The United States, filled with Cold War paranoia, sanctioned the Indonesian takeover of Irian Jaya when the Dutch left in 1963. America hoped that the Indonesians would, in return, not flirt with the Soviet Union and communism. And so, West Papua, as it was known, filled with hundreds of indigenous Melanesian tribes with absolutely no ethnic relation to the Indonesians, was quickly subjugated by one of the largest militaries in the world.
The OPM, or Free Papua Movement, began as a ragtag group who took on the Indonesian soldiers with bows and arrows, fighting against unimaginable odds, and obtaining guns from the men they managed to kill. They struck quickly, often at night, and faded into the landscape they knew so well. They were elusive and brave, but with hardly a chance. It was estimated that 100,000 Papuans, or 10 per cent of the local population, had been killed by Indonesian troops since Jakarta gained control of the territory in the early 1960s. Activists and refugees claimed the figure was much, much higher. It was a silent war that garnered little mainstream media attention, even though the Indonesians had carried out widespread genocide and deforestation. I wondered again about the media and what is chosen for print. How often did readers really get the truth?
Amazingly, I had even found a title suggested by Captain Jack one night on the bridge when I was less under the weather than usual. The book, authored by Elisabeth Haich, was called Initiation, and was an autobiographical account of a woman living in the twentieth century in Switzerland who experienced vivid and detailed visions of another life as a temple initiate in ancient Egypt. It amazed me that a ship captain would suggest such metaphysical literature. Maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising. A life at sea is far removed from the distractions of city and culture. A ship was quite literally immersed in nature, where primordial whisperings can sometimes be heard loud and clear. One moonless night cruising noiselessly up the river, I sat alone on deck and personally experienced this visceral reality that is ordinarily hidden from our perception. Staring at the infinity of the heavenly firmament, the whisperings of my subconscious became audible. In the loving embrace of the sparkling night sky the great original questions knocked insistently on the walls of my conditioned mind, as they have since time immemorial with every human being who has been prepared to listen:
Who am I?
Where do I come from?
Why am I here?
And the answers I had heard nightly over many of my early months in Saudi Arabia discreetly drifted into my consciousness:
I am immortal.
I’m going to heal the world.
I can fly (I can live my dreams).
How many mornings had I awoken during my time in Saudi Arabia with the realization that I had been flying (quite literally by the seat of my pants, at that) and exploring during the night? I would lie in that half wakeful state and hear the words affirmed over and over, “I am immortal. I’m going to heal the world.” These should have been unsettling notions, but they never felt like that. There was always a calm confidence that accompanied them. Part of this present journey felt like a fulfillment of these nocturnal ruminations. So it was apropos to read these words in Initiation, words spoken by a temple priest to a neophyte in ancient Egypt:
But every person who awakens and sees the goal of life goes through the growing pains of wanting to save humanity instead of first saving himself!
Elisabeth Haich 1897 – 1994¹
1. Haich, Elisabeth 2000, Initiation, Aurora Press, Santa Fe, NM.
I felt the need to examine the motives that impelled me to explore this place, one of the Earth’s last pioneer lands. There was a deep urge to understand who I was. Although I was not a trained anthropologist, I was exploring with the romantic notion that in observing these disparate peoples and cultures I could glean a sharper understanding of myself and the capitalistic consumer culture that, like it or not, was my own. I was beginning to see that there were many other ways to live than what I had been conditioned to believe. These other ways had value and if I could observe and experience them with an open mind I could learn from them.
Kiunga is a town of corrugated-iron-roofed buildings on the Fly River. It existed solely because of Ok Tedi, the huge copper and gold mine, 100 kilometers further up in the mountains. Kiunga was our destination and we had reached it in spite of grounding briefly the previous afternoon. Our cargo had been a hoard of gigantic tires destined for use at the mine.
At the wharf were several other barges including one with a Norwegian crew. Shipping is truly an international enterprise. The rough looking town had a couple of banks and small shops. I quickly found out that I would need to get up to Tabubil in order to commandeer a flight into Telefomin. Tabubil is the purpose-built town servicing Ok Tedi.
I decided to hitch and was soon sitting comfortably in the cab of a truck owned by the mining company. The driver was a chatty Australian administrator for BHP (Broken Hill Properties, the Australian Mining Company with about a fifty percent stake in the mine). He confidently steered along our route, cut recently through virgin forest, ascending the steep mountains. Eventually we reached a crest and then dropped down into the sprawling town of Tabubil. It was overcast, gray and drizzling. The native inhabitants had a slightly dazed and morose look about them. I wondered if this was due to the presence of the mine or to the fact that this was one of the wettest places on Earth with more than ten meters of precipitation annually. That would be enough to dampen most spirits.
My driver, Mac, had taken a liking to me during our trip. He had been amazed that I was visiting the area out of curiosity rather than for commercial reasons like the other Westerners associated with the mine and himself. Mac succeeded in finding me a bunk in the dormitory for temporary mining staff who were only around for short contracts from a week to several months. I was grateful. I had been told back in Kiunga that accommodation in Tabubil was outrageously expensive, at least by backpacking standards. Mac took me to dinner in the company cafeteria in an expansive new and air conditioned structure, where we sat with hundreds of employees, mostly from either Australia or PNG. My questions about the mine were met with open and honest responses from Mac.
At the time Ok Tedi was the largest gold mine in the world outside South Africa. But it was more than a gold mine. It was built on one of the largest deposits of copper anywhere, copper capped with gold. It had been developed in extremely rugged country and challenging circumstances. The first government patrol had entered the region in only 1963. The few people that lived among these precipitous slopes knew virtually nothing of the outside world. Not only was it a remote region, it suffered from earthquakes and landslips and that phenomenal rainfall of more than 10 meters a year. It wasn’t easy or cheap to extract the riches from these Star Mountains but from the beginning it was decided that the enormous costs were worth it. It took over one-and-a-half billion US dollars to get the project up and running. Operations were meant to get underway in 1984 but a tailings dam, designed to trap waste by-products, collapsed that year, flooding the Fly River with hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic tailings. Ok Tedi, on the verge of getting sued by an Australian law firm acting on behalf of the local tribes, agreed to an out-of-court settlement providing for the local people in financial and developmental ways. The PNG government and the company eventually reached a compromise solution, balancing pollution and mine productivity and profitability. Wastes from the mine were allowed into the river system but at certain predetermined levels which were not to be breached. The environmental damage was weighed against the economic benefits that the mine brought. These were considerable. At the time of my visit over 40 per cent of Papua New Guinea’s total export earnings came from this single mine.
After the delicious meal we walked out into the muggy night, passing a group on the way in. I held the door for them and one said, “Thanks, John.”
I was looking into the smiling face of Colin, the kayaker who had arranged my passage from Townsville to Port Moresby more than a month earlier. I could hardly believe my eyes.
“Wow. Hi Colin. We’re going to have to stop meeting this way. Are you working here?”
“Yep. I arrived a couple of weeks ago. There’s plenty of engineering work for me here.” He winked at Mac. It suddenly dawned on me why Colin was able to secure passage for me earlier. Captain Jack’s ship had been laden with massive coils of cable for Ok Tedi. I hadn’t put it all together until now.
“Where are you staying, John?” asked Colin.
“He’s bunking in the dorm,” replied Mac.
“I’ll come over and see you first thing in the morning,” said Colin. “How about a little tour of the mine?”
I couldn’t argue with that.
The deafening blast of a siren shattered the mountain air. A massive machine, the size of an apartment block, creaked forward on caterpillar tracks through the deep mud. It repositioned itself against a wall of rock and extended an arm. A giant shovel at the end of the arm clawed at the rock face, scooping up 30 tons in a single sweep and dumping it in a waiting truck. The truck itself was enormous, with tires taller than a man, and capable of carrying over 175 tons of rock and earth at a time. I could see why we had brought so many giant tires up the Fly. A row of these vehicles queued up at the shovel. Every two minutes or so 175 tons of mountainside was carted away.
From a safe distance and protected by hard hats, Colin and I watched in awe at the magnitude of the Ok Tedi project. This was not the ‘spend your day in a dark hole’ mining that my grandfather loved and that I had witnessed in Kalgoorlie in West Australia; the kind of mining that gave my grandfather, and countless other miners like him, silicosis (a fancy word meaning ‘dust in the lungs’). No, this was the ‘knock the top off a mountain’ kind of mining that incapacitates fewer miners but destroys more rivers and ecosystems.
What an ecosystem this was. Colin led me onto a rough track through the surrounding rainforest. The din of the machinery grew muffled and then disappeared. Sometimes you don’t realize how noisy something is until you are removed from the source of the noise. We were walking through a primordial rainforest with bare ghost-like trunks reaching up to a dense canopy high above. Now the only sound was the dripping of rain percolating through the foliage. This place with its 10 meters of annual rainfall was truly a rainforest.
There was remarkably little undergrowth. I supposed the dense shade and nearly perpetual cloud cover precluded it. What plants there were on the forest floor were spectacular. Clusters of impatiens, the popular garden plant, grew in perfect health in ideal conditions in their natural endemic setting. Gorgeous patches of red, orange and pink festooned the dark ground, heavily mulched with leaf litter.
This had truly been a morning of contrasts—the near deafening din of man’s modern manufactured monstrosities juxtaposed with the still, subtle paintings of the adjacent antediluvian jungle.
Back to the Stone Age
flew out of Tabubil in the smallest of planes. It didn’t seem much bigger than the four seater Cessna 172s I used to fuel and taxi as a teenager. The pilot poked the nose up through the low hanging gloom and we were immediately floating in a pristine powder blue world over fluffy white candy floss clouds. It was enough to put a smile on your face.
Telefomin was a short hop over the spine of mountains that bisected the island from west to east. The mission station was only opened in 1948 and was still one of the most isolated places in the country. But it lay in the rain shadow of the mountains and was bathed in the relatively cool mountain sun. Fundamentalist missionaries had hit the area’s culture hard and the mission had a church, museum, a coffee shop run by Peace Corps volunteers, and a sprawling cluster of government buildings housing rangers from Australia and other parts of PNG.
The Peace Corps couple invited me for a meal and put me up for the night. The rangers I spoke with about getting into some more remote spot near the Irian Jaya border were helpful but a little dubious of my plans. They explained that this was rough country and a young German man had gone missing recently while walking between two remote villages.
I met a local boy in his mid teens who suggested I accompany him and his mates to their home village, a day’s walk to the east. I accepted. It would give me a taste of what tramping was like in these rugged, bush clad mountains.
We had a great day together, making our way with the speed of the young along a track that I would never have been able to follow without their help. We stopped for a dip in a surprisingly cold mountain stream. Were these the headwaters of the legendary Sepik River? A couple of the older boys carried bows and arrows. They explained to me why there were four distinct styles of arrowheads, made of what looked like bamboo. Some were for birds, some were for small animals, some were for pigs, and some were for humans. I realized that I was hiking with people who had been headhunters until very recent times. It was interesting that I never heard a raised voice or witnessed an act of violence in any form while in PNG. Port Moresby had a reputation for crime. It was virtually the only city in the country and so drew people from all over hoping to find jobs. When the anticipated work didn’t eventuate, these immigrants realized they didn’t have the security of their home villages to fall back on. Some of the young men would form gangs. They were called rascals and they would sometimes wreck havoc on other residents and visitors. I saw none of this. I met only friendly people everywhere; perhaps the friendliest I’d met anywhere in my travels through more than sixty countries. I felt totally safe with these people and was convinced they would do me no harm.
Late in the afternoon we encountered adults working their gardens of kau-kau (sweet potatoes), peanuts and bananas in small, steep clearings in the forest. Their ancestors may have been the first farmers on Earth. These Stone Age farmers with pointed sticks could raise more sweet potatoes per acre than the white man could with all his fertilizer and machinery. I was welcomed into the village with the same graciousness and hospitality that I encountered everywhere in this frontier land. I slept on a raised platform beside the fire. The nights were cold in the mountains. In the morning I helped roast freshly grubbed peanuts in the glowing embers. They were delicious.
The airstrip for the village was a long, sloped grassy clearing. Horizontal landing strips were obviously hard to come by in this folded, rolling landscape. The clearing served as a soccer pitch for a motley crew of barefoot children. I say barefoot. There was one running shoe, which in the course of the game moved from player to player, much as the guitar had been handed from teenager to teenager in the Trobriands.
I stayed two nights in that village and was unable to verbally communicate with any of the adults, except for the universal symbol of friendship, the smile. Here, I noted, the smiles were even bigger and more innocent and genuine than they had been back in Telofomin with its shop, school and mission. Could it be that man’s natural state, unfettered by the trappings of the modern world, was unbounded friendliness, compassion and generosity?
When I returned to Telefomin after another long walk through orchid-laden foliage I was determined to complete my original quest. The lure of the unknown had drawn me thus far. I purchased a plane ticket to an airstrip that had been cleared only two years before. I acquired topographical maps and laid out a rough route from that landing strip to a village high in the mountains on the Irian Jaya border. I was going to return to the primitive roots of man.
I stocked up on rations that would also serve as practical gifts for locals that I stayed with along the way. I didn’t want to be another European trading beads with the natives.
Our small plane approached an impossibly steep strip of emerald grass cut into the endless swath of forest. I took my cue from the pilot and remained calm. Our touchdown was rough but uneventful; just a typical landing for the airmen of New Guinea. In such perilously rugged terrain the airplane remains the main link between isolated villages.
I was met by Ruben, a teacher from the Sepik River system. He spoke excellent English. I quickly found out that this was not a village. Ruben explained that the site was chosen because it was the best place around for an airstrip. I’d hate to see the worst. There would be no soccer played on this pitch; the downhill side would be too disadvantaged. Ruben proudly showed me his traditionally constructed house and the one-room school where he was beginning to teach the local children.
“Our shop is closed today, but would you like to see it?” he asked.
I nodded numbly. It seemed incongruous that such a place, where surely the people earned no income, would have a shop. Ruben unlocked the door of the tiny structure which was no bigger than your average bathroom. He showed me the small collection of notebooks, pads of paper, pens and pencils.
“How do people here buy these things?” I asked.
“I give them to the children in school,” replied Ruben.
In a short sweep my eyes took in the remaining items in the store, which included stuffed animals displayed on the walls and boxes of disposable diapers. I glanced at the cluster of children following Ruben and me. They were naked. They spent their lives outdoors. What possible place did disposable diapers have for these people? And stuffed animals for children whose ancestors had for millennia made do with the products of the local environment? These same people had been practicing their simple, sustainable form of agriculture for countless thousands of years while the rest of the world’s inhabitants, including my ancestors, were systematically wiping out animals for food. The surrounding rain forests were intact and teeming with animal and birdlife, a testament to the balanced approach these ‘primitive’ people had with nature.
I set out the next morning with my two barefoot guides, child-sized men who barely came up to my shoulders, clad in loin cloths and each carrying the ubiquitous woven sacks holding cold, cooked kau-kau. I felt more than a little over-provisioned in hiking boots and socks, shorts, T shirt, and a backpack filled with food, sleeping bag, spare clothing, notebook and pen. As it was, I had left books and other items safely behind in Telefomin.
These men only spoke the local tongue. I had to trust that they would escort me to the Irian Jaya border. Ruben had translated my request to them and had sorted out how much they were to be paid. Within half an hour a precipitous descent brought us to a bridge (if that term can legitimately describe one vine that you walk on and two that you hold) suspended high over a river violently crashing across massive boulders in the chasm below. The bridge (again I use the term tentatively) didn’t look new and I momentarily wondered if the warnings I had received from the patrol officers back in Telefomin had been prophetic. My tiny companions scampered across this oversized spider web, one at a time, and then looked back at me. Did I detect the hint of sly grins? I gave my silent thanks for the good life I had received, and took my first tentative steps. The ‘bridge’ held!
I spent most of the next three days doing my best to keep up with my lithe and extraordinarily fit guides. I didn’t seem to be able to portray to them with sign language that it was acceptable to take a break from time to time. We didn’t stop at all that first day and our pace was swift and unwavering. I even found a way to flick leeches off my skin while still moving. I couldn’t afford to lose my guides.
Just before dark, we arrived (my guides fresh as daisies while I was on the threshold of apoplexy) at a tiny settlement of six huts and a spirit house, all raised a meter off the ground. We were given pride of place in the longish spirit house, and were joined by the men and boys of the village. I never saw the women. I wondered if this was just an extended family rather than a village. This was the first sign of habitation all day. Now I understood why we had been traveling at a semi-jog. Where would we sleep otherwise? I prepared rice which was shared by all. The villagers’ contribution was kau-kau. At least it was warm. One of the men brought in a pink hairless creature no bigger than my hand that everyone seemed to be very proud of. Was it a lizard? It finally dawned on me that this was a baby cassowary. I felt like Wallace or Darwin as I realized how closely this pre-fledged ‘birdling’ resembled a reptile.
The next day my guides were as unrelenting as before. The one opportunity to stop came when I discovered wild raspberries on the path side near the top of a particularly steep ascent. I flopped down, exhausted, and, with hand motions and facial expressions, convinced my companions to stop and eat some of the absolutely delicious berries. Otherwise, my friends ate only cold cooked kau-kau. I grew to abhor this shriveled and often charred excuse for food.
Our second night we slept in a round thatched-roof hut on a hilltop. The structure rested directly on the ground. Again it was the only sign of habitation we had encountered all day. Its owners were a young couple. He was clad (a generous term) in a penis gourd and she in a grass skirt. By the startled looks on their faces, they had not seen a white man before. As astonished as my hosts were by me, I found it amazing that in the age of the computer pockets like this existed where the stone axe still flashed.
My companions must have explained that I was harmless and unfit, barely able to keep up with them. Once again I prepared rice, and kau-kau was contributed by our hosts. It was genuinely cold on the hilltop so we slept on the ground around a central fire that was kept burning through the night. There was no overhead ventilation and the entrance was covered with a thatch flap. Needless to say, the internal air quality left much to be desired.
I must say that I was relieved when we reached our destination the following afternoon and I could actually converse with the PNG man from Lae, who was in charge of what turned out to be a refugee camp. When he heard of the route of my walk he told me that only one white man, a European anthropologist, had ever entered those forests before. Frankly there hadn’t been much to see, apart from the occasional burst of color as a bird of paradise flew through the foliage high overhead. I had discovered, however, why the initial task of an anthropologist is to master the native language. Mute companions make monotonous company.
The settlement straddled the invisible boundary between two countries. There were no customs or immigration officials. You could eat in Indonesia and sleep in PNG. Of course, when Europeans arbitrarily established the location of the border no consideration was made for the fact that some tribes lived on both sides of the frontier. The refugees in this encampment were escapees from unspeakable atrocities happening with shocking frequency in nearby villages in Irian Jaya.
Most were only too happy to pose for photos in their traditional outfits; the women clad only in grass skirts and the men sporting penis gourds. A few of the women wore brassieres, which made for an interesting fashion statement. I wondered how long these people would be allowed to live as they always had. Then I realized that these were refugees who had been forced to leave the only valleys and forests they had ever known.
Somewhat cynically I contemplated the progression they could look forward to at the hands of the white man. First, the missionaries would get hold of them, with all the best intentions, I might add. To a man who has lived in a Stone Age environment his entire life, the sight of an airplane would seem miraculous, surely not fashioned by the hands of man. When that same native learns about heaven and white man’s God, he often puts two and two together. That’s where the gadgets, the airplanes, and the flashlights come from.
Then along comes the youthful aid worker, volunteering in altruistic sincerity to assist these primitive peoples to gingerly enter our world. Thus he or she introduces the shop and the concept of trade and consumption. Movies and television (both available in Port Moresby) complete the process. Who wouldn’t want to experiment with living like the wealthy Americans portrayed in films and television series? Rare are the individuals such as Sabwani in the Trobriand Islands who quickly see through the veneer of materialism and work steadfastly to retain the important elements of cultures that developed over eons, independent from ours.
Two hair-raising flights (I still had hair to raise then) returned me to Telefomin. I shared the last aerial leg with a woman with a broken arm. The rest of her family accompanied her, holding live pigs, presumably brought along to pay for the flight and the doctor.
Sitting on the porch of the café in the comfortable afternoon sun I conversed with a middle aged local man who spoke excellent English.
“I don’t understand why the white man teaches us about their prophet, Jesus. He didn’t come here. For generations we have been told of a prophet who came to our ancestors in the distant past. He taught us of agriculture—how to cultivate kau-kau and other vegetables and fruits. He taught of the many plants growing in the jungle that we can use if we are sick. And he brought with him nine rules for living, which are identical to the Ten Commandments the missionaries teach us.
“He also said that one day people with white skin will come and they will knock the top off a mountain and that would cause great difficulties for the people.”
He was obviously referring to Ok Tedi. I had just completed reading Initiation and include here the following words from that book which were uttered by the Temple High Priest in ancient Egypt:
All the Sons of God have always brought and always will bring the same truth into different parts of the earth, but people will interpret it differently depending on the characteristics of their race and their degree of development. These different interpretations, as they get passed on to later generations, will give rise to different religions all springing from the same truths. One and the same Son of God will reincarnate himself at different times to humanity. And from the same truth proclaimed by the same spirit, people in different parts of the earth will develop different religions. Because of such differences arising merely from human ignorance, people will make war upon each other, trying to send one another to hell ‘in the name of God’.
Elisabeth Haich 1897 – 1994¹
1. Haich, Elisabeth 2000, Initiation, Aurora Press, Santa Fe, NM.
Copyright English language edition 2000. With permission of
Aurora Press. http://www.aurorapress.com
ISBN: 0-94335850-7 13 ISBN: 97809433585