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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