Before I get into the details of my trip, I want to explain the reasons why my brother and I took nearly a month to fly about halfway around the world and tour around a country most people have never heard of. We probably would never have heard of Papua New Guinea ourselves had it not been for Neil and Kathy Vanaria, our aunt and uncle. They first came to the country in 1988 to engage in Christian missionary work and have worked on linguistics and bible translation for the Mesem people of Morobe Province for the bulk of that time.
Before we traveled to PNG, I admit I had an inaccurate view of their work, conjuring up the absurd image of my intelligent, good-humored aunt and uncle hustling people into church where they would thump their bibles and preach with religious fervor glinting in their eyes. That’s a big exaggeration, but I did always assume that their role involved actively leading a church. In fact, the missionaries who built churches and preached to the Mesem people came and went years ago. Today, church services are conducted by Mesem people and although Neil and Kathy are both ministers, they only speak in church if they are asked to.
What they have been doing all this time is the daunting job of translating the New Testament into the Mesem language. This may not sound like over twenty year’s worth of work, but their job does not mean plugging the text into Babelfish and sending the results to the printer. Instead, they had to learn the language, create a written language since the Mesem had none, teach people to read it, employ Mesem people to help with translation, THEN go about the task of translating the text. Not to mention all the while they’re dispensing basic medical care, enduring a variety of injuries and tropical illnesses, and raising their son Tony, now 16. Oh yeah, they’re also the world’s only non-native Mesem speakers.
Aside from their knowledge of the Mesem, they’ve lived and traveled to several parts of the country and are very familiar with the logistics of getting around and sightseeing in PNG. Needless to say, they were the perfect guides for us to experience what PNG is really like.
Before I talk about where we went, here’s a map of the country with some markers on the places we visited:
We started our travel in PNG by flying from Port Moresby, the capital, to Goroka, where our aunt and uncle had just moved a week earlier after a two-year sabbatical in the US. Kathy and Neil live a few miles outside of town in what is basically a fenced and guarded housing development. They aren’t wealthy by American standards and they don’t seek to alienate the locals, but fences and guards are simply a fact of in a place where white people are all assumed to be wealthy. In a way this is correct since around 90% of the people in PNG are subsistence farmers with virtually no income at all. Simply having a truck, refridgerator, and some changes of clothes is enough to count as wealthy.
We spent most of our first week running errands and touring around Goroka. One of the first things to strike me about the place was the huge number of people walking the road and congregating in the markets and public spaces everywhere in town. Since there’s so little work available, everyone with some food or other goods to spare will load it into a woven string bag called a bilum and head into town, hoping to sell whatever they can.
This results in the markets being packed with people all selling the same few goods: Taro (flavorless potato-like root), sweet potato, various leafy greens, carrots, homegrown tobacco, and betel nut.
The remains of a betel nut chewing session: betel nut husks and a baggie of lime powder
Chewing betel nut, or buai, is a national obsession and is as prevalent as coffee or alcohol is in American culture. PNG’s style of buai chewing also includes a plant called daka and caustic lime powder made from ground seashells. The ritual of buai starts by biting open the fibrous husk of the betel nut, exposing the soft round inner nut. The nut is then chewed up, which yields a bitter, astringent taste that is really unpleasent. The next step involves taking the daka, a plant growth that looks something like a long green baby corncob, wetting it in the mouth and dipping it into a small jar or plastic bag of lime powder. Then the daka that is covered with lime is bitten off and chewed with the betel nut. The addition of the daka adds a spicy taste and diminishes the bitterness of the betel nut, while the lime powder creates a chemical reaction which stains the mouth bright red. Then all that’s left to do is chew, enjoy the flavor and the slight stimulant rush, and practice your aim at spitting copious streams of bright red spit at anything that catches your eye. Buai spitting is so popular in PNG that the streets are littered with splatters of spit the approximate color and consistency of sriracha chili sauce. It may not sound appealing, but buai is so popular that when there was a betel nut blight, medicine and other essential goods were not getting distributed because the cargo trucks had no financial incentive to run since buai was their most lucrative cargo by far.
As soon as we entered the market, our presence caused a ripple effect among everyone we passed. People laughed, whispered with friends, pointed at us, or rushed up to shake our hands and ask that I take a picture of them. Most whites in PNG avoid mingling with the natives in public spaces, so the spectacle of two young white guys in the market caused a big commotion. When we got to the bruce (tobacco) section of the market, a couple dozen people gathered around as if expecting a show. When a vendor handed me a newspaper-rolled bruce, the Goofy White Guy Show was on! I lit the bruce, inhaled too deeply, and coughed a huge cloud of smoke. Instantly the crowd around us erupted in a roar of laughter. I smiled and waved, looking around through copiously watering eyes. Then a young guy hustled me over to the old vendor who gave me the bruce and asked for a picture.
After I took it, I showed them the picture on my digital camera’s screen, which triggered the Universal PNG Photo Reaction- people would crowd around, stare at the image, cry out in delight, call over other people to see, and shake my hand with a big smile on their faces. Then other people would want to see their picture, and I would be obliged to take their picture. It was rare to leave any photo opportunity without repeating this process several times and now I have dozens of pictures of people crowded around, mugging for the camera and giving the thumbs-up.
Our “White Guy Celebrity Status” continued when we went to Goroka’s buai market.
Buai is hugely popular in PNG, and it is also shunned by nearly all white people in the country. Because of this, when people in the market saw us with the telltale red-stained teeth that come with buai-chewing, they would literally gape with disbelief, then exclaim things like “Yu kai kai buai? Rait man!” (You chew betel nut? Good man!) and shake our hands. Vendors would thrust samples of their product in our hands, just for the pleasure of having their picture taken and to watch the spectacle of white people chewing buai. When my uncle said that chewing buai was the best way to make friends in PNG, he wasn’t kidding.
Buai vendor showing off the trademark red-stained mouth