“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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.