the coast – papua new guinea

“It is better to travel well than to arrive.” -Buddha

We arrived at the coast and headed for Krangkit island. We awarded our room as the worst ever. It looked as if it might fall down and I’m pretty sure it had never been cleaned. Cigarette burned sheets and red spit from betel nuts were the decoration. After spending all day on a jarring ride (complete with a flat tire), we were tired, it was getting dark, and so we stayed. At dawn we high-tailed it out of there and found a cute little place to spend the next few nights relaxing and cooking good meals.

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Back on the road heading north to a town called Bogia. It took two hours to fill our PMV, another hour to fill it with building supplies, gasoline and boxes of food, then twenty-five of us crammed in back and hit the road. We made frinds with a sweet woman and her, well, pretty inebriated nephew. He proudly repeated that his village had the largest masked dance festival in all of PNG. He also informed us his name was Beno, for benevolent, an equal number of times. His aunt told us about much of the feuding that happens in the area and how her house was burnt down as a result of one. It’s crazy to hear these stories and realize how charmed my life is.

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This trip could’ve taken three hours but we drove into a two foot deep hole, got a flat and a large rock lodged between two tires, so…we stopped a lot. This was on top of breaking every 15 minutes for buia (betel nut), beer and biscuits. In total this trip took 8-9 hours. We were dropped off at our hotel and given the warmest send off. A couple of the guys wanted us to have their picture so we’d always remember our trip together. How could we forget?

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We took this tortuous trip to catch a Betel nut boat to ultimately get to the Sepik river. However, because there was feuding, the boats weren’t leaving. Damnit. So we were stuck for two days waiting for a ride. After many sweaty hours on the side of the road a truck of guys from Mt. Hagan (I seriously love highlanders!) gave us a lift. They helped us get a boat, which I’ll spare you the details of that debacle. Instead of heading to the Sepik we were going to Wewak on the north coast. This was at least better than going back to Bogia, so we took it.

So off we go in a little boat filled with too many people on the open water. The weather was calm enough so we were feeling fine. But the waves got bigger, the sun set and there was a storm approaching. But that’s not the best part, we ran out of gas. The driver was deaf and kept yelling things which only added to the excitement of the situation. So a guy named Jerry jumped in the water and swam to shore, while we all sat in the pouring rain, in the dark, in big swells trying not to hit rocks. I was trying not to panic, this was dangerous, and of course there were no life jackets. Jerry’s sister Amelia kept calling for him as we waited. I was worried about all the jellyfish. Amelia was worried because of the sharks. Jerry swam back after what felt like hours and off we went again. I was relieved when we got ashore, only to realize, we weren’t by a town. Where were we?

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We were by Amelia’s village and still a ways to town. Her family took us in and let us sleep in a room on the beach. Now this sounds romantic and it was incredibly kind, and I am grateful for a roof over my head, but there were rats. We had a restless night and in the morning were told there were no PMVs (because it was Sunday) of course. Amelia’s sister-in-law Hilda insisted we stay with her. So off we went to Kandai village. We washed ourselves and clothes in the river and they climbed palms to get us fresh coconuts. They showed us how to spin their staple food Sago. They said if we finished the whole plate they’d clap for us, so we felt a bit of pressure to finish it. Painful by painful bite, down the hatch it went.  I’m not a picky eater but I had to try with all my might not to gag. It’s like eating golfballs made of a slightly sour/fermented rubber cement. They ladled on a coconut fish broth (that fish had been sitting out for hours) so imagine how that mix tastes… especially for vegetarians. They were so happy and proud I couldn’t help but feel happy too. That night everyone gathered around outside and told stories. I mentioned I was interested in traditional healing and herbs and so people started bringing out their plants. One guy kept running off in the forest and breathlessly bringing back treasures. They got their grass skirt and feathers and made some poor girl dress up and dance while her dad played the drum. Dance monkey dance! They we so proud to have us in their village and said no one had ever stayed before. However one man said “Yeah, we get tourists here. In 2004 there was an Italian.” So I guess we weren’t the first! They were happy to have us, and as worn out as we were, we were proud to be there too. Then it was time for bed and waiting for the rats to come. We tied up our food to discourage them and shone a light whenever we heard a rustle. They usually scurried away except once, when instead, it fell on Ezra! I found this pretty funny.

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Next day a reply from the Indonesia embassy said we needed a week to get a visa. Feeling frantic we decided we had to scrap our plans for the Sepik and get to the border instead. Four hours later and still no PMV we checked into a hotel and said goodbye to our friends, thanking them profusely for taking such good care of us. The following day we got halfway to the border and stayed the night – no rats, so we were happy. Then we caught a boat and the motor only broke twice, and it was daylight, so another success.

We dropped off our bags in our single room (sometimes you just have to cram two grown adults into a twin bed to save some money. We felt spoiled with electricity, a fan and a bathroom!) and ran to the embassy. It seemed we’d get our visas the following day afterall. So when we arrived back we were a bit frustrated that instead we’d have individual interviews. I think all of our questions ticked off one of the officials. They’re protective of Papua and may not grant you a visa if you’re going to the Baliem Valley. So of course we didn’t mention this. The interview was comical. Ezra was in the the interrogation room for quite some time while I waited nervously outside. My turn came and so did the onslaught of questions. Why was I going to Indonesia and how did I hear about it? (Are you serious? One of my best friends lived here, there’s this thing called a guidebook and hello, “Eat Pray Love.”) Why didn’t I get a visa at home (I just told you I left home eight months ago), who was on this sailboat, did I pay to be on it, where did I go, what was the last country in Central America I’d been to? Why don’t I have any kids, did I plan it that way? (Um, that’s a bit personal.) Where are we staying, how much did it cost, do we get meals, is there air conditioning? I kept a smile on my face and answered politely as their questions became more nosy. When we left he handed me a water and said we could pick up our visa on the 16th. That was a week away and the day of our flight to the Baliem valley. The guy was being a shit. To relieve our frustration we asked each other stupid questions the rest of the day. Example: How did you hear about this thing having kids? How do you do it? Who told you about it? A little paranoid Ezra told me to throw away the water in case it was bugged. It seemed a ridiculous notion, but then again we’ve never been sequestered for visas before either. We think they were bored at their remote frontier post and so off they went in the trash.

We emailed the “good cop” thanking him for his help and killing him with kindness. The next morning we got a reply to pick them up within the hour. Groggy from sleep we threw on some clothes and caught a ride to town. We grabbed our passports (visas included) and ran away before they could take them back.

We were a little sad as we headed for the border. A wise woman (my grandma) once said someone she loved “left a beauty mark on her soul.” Those words run through my head as I think of Papua New Guinea, because it left a mark on me. I’m not trying to be boastful when I say this, but this is the fifty-second country I’ve been too (yes, I just counted) and I’ve never been anywhere like it. The people were kind and gentle and looked out for us every step of the way. The traditional life and interactions were authentic and I left feeling that I’d been changed by the visit and the people. I know this may sound sentimental but it’s true. It was necessary to accept help and rely on strangers and to trust people. We were invited for dinners and to stay in their homes. People who had nothing gave us gifts and hugs and long handshakes and stared in our eyes – sometimes for an uncomfortable length of time! They asked us to tell our friends about Papua New Guinea and to visit them. To tell people what it’s really like. Papua New Guinea was hard travel and taking a tour or sitting on a pretty beach would have been easier, but we would have missed everything. We wanted to see the Sepik, but as we told Hilda, we weren’t sorry to miss it -because we met her and her family. This was a place where it was the journey not the destination that mattered. My best memories are riding in the back of PMVs, being stranded in boats and being surprised every step of the way by the generosity and kindness of the people we met along the way.


the highlands – papua new guinea

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all people cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”  -Maya Angelou

A sixteenth century Portuguese explorer named the island Ilhas dos Papua or Island of the Fuzzy-Hairs. Later a Spanish navigator thought it looked liked Guinea, hence New Guinea. At independence in 1975 they were combined and Papua New Guinea was born.

We started our trip in the Highlands. No one was thought to live in this remote area until the 1930s when some guys “discovered” millions of people while looking for gold (typical). Whenever we mentioned we were going to PNG we were met with some trepidation. Afterall, this was the land of cannibalism and tribal warfare. Our guidebook said not to listen to the stories or you’d never go. The expat community seemed especially ready to scare, which we quickly found out. In the Brisbane airport a rotund American knew a guy who knew a guy who was shot in the head – in the head! Our bags were too big for hiking (apparently he had done a lot of hiking – I seriously doubt it) and he implied Ezra would probably get capped and I worse. Well, we already had a few nerves and this didn’t help. We decided he was a jerk and to forget him. After talking with another well meaning expat (I told him straight off we didn’t want more stories) we discovered all these guys stay on their company’s premises and never even venture into town let alone around the country. No wonder their tales never matched up with our experience.

We flew into Mt. Hagan which admittedly was a little dodgy. The Lutheran guesthouse we stayed in smelled of mold and was infested with cockroaches. Behind all the posters of Mary and Jesus we discovered little nests of my greatest nemesis. This was a budget option but at $80 a night (PNG is crazy expensive) we were hoping for a little more. We wrapped our mosquito net around us and waited for sleep.

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Next morning the adventure begins. We needed a public motor vehicle or PMV to Goroka. In PNG there are no taxis, no buses and very few cars. If you want to go anywhere you’re at the mercy of these PMVs and can wait hours (or days), as we often did, for one to arrive or to fill up. While waiting a nice man jumped in to chat. We shared stories and he taught us some Tok Pisin, or pigeon. With 800 different mother tongues (16% of the world’s languages are spoken in PNG) they needed a common language. Anytime we traveled on PMV, which was often, we were always adopted and looked after and fussed over. People would offer us candies, stare (a few even tripped and ran into things they were looking so intensely) and occasionally snapped pictures of us. They were happy we traveled the way they did.

The drive through the mountains was majestic, as my mom would say. The land is incredibly fertile and so they sell their vegetables to the coast and in turn  buy coconuts and more importantly buia, or betel nut. Now I’m not one to judge, and I just tried it in Fiji, but this habit seems a bit out of control. Everyone, and I mean everyone, chews betel nut – and lots of it.  The government is making the lime illegal as this gives it the bright red color that stains almost every inch of the streets – and I’m sure is not so great for teeth .

We saw hundreds of people with their faces covered in mud and carrying signs demanding an investigation. We later learned the mud is a sign of mourning as the former governor had been killed. (Supposedly the the current governor had arranged the assassination.) Whenever I was alone women would approached me to make sure I was okay, offer to help or take me on a nature walk (aka: go for a piss).  When Ezra came back from his walk in the bush we met Benjamin. Some helpful guys wrangled him up on the side of the road to be our guide. We exchanged numbers with him but couldn’t get a straight answer for cost. We let our would-be-guide from the side of the road down easily, but he kept calling back obviously disappointed. When he finally stopped calling, his friend started. He wasn’t trying to peddle tours he just wanted to be Ezra’s bro.

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Instead we went to the village of local guide Johnny who arranged for us to see the Mudmen and Korokuwo Men. When signing his guestbook we saw his last visitor had been a year ago. This explained our warm welcome. They showed us their gardens, homes and made necklaces for us out of flowers. The masked men were entertaining and a little surreal. Everyone in the village seemed to enjoy it just as much as we did. We watched them start a fire with just a stick and some leaves and they taught us to shoot a bow and arrow. Needless to say I’m not a good shot. We gave the kids balloons and discovered their magic. We were the pied piper as the kids trailed behind us giggling and shouting. All except for one who cried anytime I got close. He wanted a balloon desperately but my white skin is just so scary! As we were leaving a man ran after us, hands shaking, and wanted us to have one of his sculptures. He was so nervous and sincere we couldn’t help but cave from our no buying souvenirs rule. Buying his statue meant much more to him than the $5 did to us so we got one. Which unfortunately broke in our bag within the week.

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Before leaving the highlands we wanted to take a “walk in the bush” and see birds of paradise, but because of serious land ownership issues you can’t just head off on your own. So in steps Samuel who took us around for a few days. We saw some of the infamous birds, hiked and his village did a singsing for us (traditional song and dance) which I was encouraged to participate in. There’s only so many times you can say “I’ll just watch” before you’re rude so I joined in. His family was very sweet and after making the mistake of saying sweet potato was a favorite of mine (it’s their staple food and they’re proud of it) we ate a whole lot of what they call cao cao. Unfortunately, Ezra doesn’t care for it. I suppose it was preferable to the day Samuel forgot to feed us altogether. He wasn’t overly concerned about us and one morning we played with a little boy Ismael for hours and wondered when he was going to wake up from his nap. Ha ha. We village hopped over to his brother’s hut where eleven or so of us, including a baby, crashed for the night. We were full up on the beauty of the highlands, the kindness of people and truth be told a little worn out. Ready to get back to town we waited three hours for a PMV, which felt a bit like torture.

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With only 100,000 visitors a year we went days on end without seeing another tourist, let alone another whitey. While I’m sure the danger in PNG is real and present we rarely felt any of the tension. Instead people shook our hands, asked us why we came and almost burst with pride when we said how much we loved the highlands. It was necessary to trust and take the help from complete strangers, which can be hard to do when you travel.  But we were showered with nothing but kindness and respect and gentle generosity. We were grateful to have a couple more weeks in this beautiful country as we made our way to the coast.

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“Reminds me of my safari in Africa. Somebody forgot the corkscrew and for several days we had to live on nothing but food and water.” -W.C. Fields

A decade ago Australia was the site of our first trip together. With Ezra living in Japan and I in Hawaii we had only a few dates under our belt. Besides visiting each other in our respective locales we had really spent very little time together. What better way to get to know someone than meeting up in the land down under for a cross country road trip. You learn a lot about a person when you travel…and spend hours together in a car. That was a great trip and originally when planning this one we thought we’d spend time biking here or maybe in New Zealand. In the end we decided that would be for another time. So here we are on a short layover before Papua New Guinea.

What to do when you only have 36 hours in a country? Head to Chinatown of course. After the kava debacle in Fiji I was out of my Chinese herbs for heat in the intestines (read between the lines) and thought I should replenish before going to PNG. Along with bookstores, farmers markets and garden centers, Chinatowns are my happy place. I had a green tea, picked up some ginseng and toasted seaweed and called it a successful day.

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With only a few hours left we headed to the South Bank along the river and watched a trippy light show that was part of an ongoing art festival. There were food trucks with vegan sausage and we treated ourselves to a couple IPAs. I had been feeling a little overstimulated being back in a big city. Why is everyone stressed out and walking so fast? After five months in the Pacific I guess I was on island time. However, I think I could adjust back with a good beer and faux meat products.

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One more night in our crap hostel then up at dawn for the airport. We arrived at the train station and saw we only had one minute to spare. Ez threw money at the guy and took off running down the stairs. I was sure I’d break my ankle as I limped after him yelling “wait, I don’t think I can make it” with my backpack swinging wildly. Somehow I slid through the doors at the last second and we collapsed into seats. We looked at each other and started laughing hysterically, probably in part due to lack of sleep. I think next time we may need to plan better. Like actually looking at a train schedule.