After spending a week in Goroka, Dan, uncle Neil and I got ready to travel to the village of Samanzing, where he and my aunt Kathy do their translation work. We would take a PMV (public motor vehicle) on the five-hour trip from Goroka down to Lae on the coast, where we would spend a night and catch another PMV up to the end of the closest road to village, then hike eight hours to reach their village.
In Papua New Guinea, the public transportation is not run by the state; instead, the government grants permits for private vehicles to charge fares carrying passengers and cargo on a specified route. There are three main types of PMV: minivans allowed to carry 15, small buses that carry 25, and flatbed trucks which generally appeared to carry as many as possible. The crew on a typical PMV consists of a driver and one or two others, who hustle passengers and their cargo on and off the vehicle. When they are in a market, one will hang his head out the window and call out the destination over and over as fast as possible. When we got to the Goroka market, we searched the nearly identical toyota vans until we heard the call Lae-Lae-Lae-Lae-Lae! The PMV crew urgently gestured us over to the van, where we saw that there was only one seat left. By this time the crew was already attempting to jam our bags anywhere they could in the jam-packed cabin. I started to protest, to say that all three of us couldn’t fit, when the ‘baggage handlers’ gestured to two of the passengers, who immediately got out of the van. Then they gestured to the newly vacated seats, and we squeezed aboard. I really felt bad about the guys who got kicked off, and how we got their seats because of our white skin, but later my uncle explained the real situation. PMVs will usually only depart once they’ve filled every possible seat, so the driver will get some of his buddies to fill most of the remaining seats on a half-full van. Potential passengers will be much more likely to get on a PMV that’s about to depart, so they’ll take the last open seat. One of the driver’s buddies will get out, and the process is repeated until the van is full of real passengers.
Once we were packed into the van, our fare of 20 Kina (about eight dollars) was collected and we were underway. We headed east on the Highlands Highway, a narrow two-lane road that connects the Eastern Higlands with the coastal industrial city of Lae. The highway weaves through the highlands with lots of blind corners and many pedestrians and animals walking along the roadsides. This doesn’t stop the PMV drivers from attacking the road at the fastest speed possible, passing other vehicles in the tightest of spots, and using the opposite lane to negotiate tricky corners while the tires squeal and the diesel engine strains. Our driver preferred to straddle the centerline of the road and would often mess around with oncoming PMVs by taking the opposite lane and waiting until head-on collision was uncomfortably close before moving out of the way. Periodically the road would be severely washed out and the driver had to come to a quick stop, then slowly roll over massive potholes. Slow traffic around the washouts also made a good opportunity for the driver to pass whatever other vehicles he could.
After our white-knuckle ride to Lae and a night in a hotel, we grabbed a PMV ride to Hobu, where the nearest road to the village ended. We started out on the trail, hiking in the intense tropical sun for a couple of hours before reaching the top of a ridge where we could see toward Lae and the ocean. On the other side were nothing but ridge tops poking out of clouds that clung thickly to the hillsides. Somewhere down in the clouds was Bilima, the village we would stay for the night before moving on to Samanzing.
The view toward Bilima
When we went over the first ridge, the weather and the forest seemed to change instantaneously. Thick clouds moved around us, sometimes dropping scattered rain on us. The vegetation was thick, so green, and nearly every tree and plant seemed to have another plant growing on it. We continued to hike the steep trail as it wound its way up and over ridges, across a river gorge, and over huge slopes scraped bare by landslides.
PNG hiking style: bare feet, machete in hand, and a heavy load.
After a few more hours, we arrived at the home of Yanga, a close friend of uncle Neil’s who put us up in his family’s traditional wood and bamboo house. The Mesem people construct their houses on stilts, using thin logs for the framework, hand-hewn boards for siding, flattened woven bamboo flooring, and a special type of dried leaves brought from the coast for roofing.
All of the cooking is done in the house, over the open hearth. The Mesem don’t use chimneys, so the smoke just seeps through the roof. Despite making the house really smokey, the woodsmoke actually helps preserve the leaves used for the roof by coating them with soot, which prevents plants from growing and weakening the roof. You can tell which houses are in need of a new roof by the number of plants sprouting out of them.
Yanga’s wife at the hearth
Village house in need of a new roof (new roofing is stacked under house at bottom left)
The next day, after a long church service led by Yanga in the Mesem language (which Dan and I did not understand at all,) some of the kids in the village became the tour guides of the day, taking us to a beautiful forty-foot waterfall, then getting us into a big, village-wide volleyball match that included everyone from middle-aged men to young children. The game was a great way to relate to the village people since we didn’t have to know the language to join in on the fun. We played for hours, just knocking the ball around without keeping score.
While we were in Bilima, we also met a tame cockatoo named Cookie. He was adopted when some village guys cut down a tree and the young Cookie was found still in a nest. Since then he’s been hand fed, and visits different houses in the village to beg for food by calling Cookie kai kai!, meaning ‘Cookie eat!’ or ‘Cookie food!’ The people oblige by feeding him some taro root or whatever they can spare. The guys who look after him also colored him with some blue ink so no one would try to hunt their pet bird. Cookie is so tame that he endures a ridiculous amount of prodding and harassment at the hands of the village kids, who gleefully provoke the bird without any regard for its big sharp beak. Fortunately Cookie never sought his revenge and took the abuse in stride.
Yanga’s son treating Cookie a little nicer
After two nights in Bilima, we hiked out to Samanzing along with another gang of kids and teenagers, who insisted on carrying our bags. I protested, trying to tell them that I could carry my own bag, but my uncle ensured me that they were being hospitable and I should accept. As it happened, a teenage girl ended up carrying my bag by putting the waist strap on her forehead and letting the bag hang upside down on her back. As we headed on down the trail, I felt every bit like some jackass explorer, haplessly wandering through the jungle with my army of porters.
When we got to Kathy and Neil’s house in Samanzing, Dan and I were pretty surprised by how modern the place was, considering it’s location. They had a gas stove, solar-powered hot and cold running water, and electricity from a small generator. Unfortunately, the scene in Samanzing was much more subdued than in Bilima, largely because one of the village men is mentally ill, and Neil’s arrival invariably causes his condition to get worse. People were afraid that he might cause trouble, so Neil’s friends would instead come to the house, where we would hang out.
One of the young guys in the village did take us out to see his garden above the village and brought us on a tour around the area. Masta was around 18 and is an entrepreneur, raising chickens and selling them in the village for a few kina. He also grows yams, taro, bananas, and sugarcane.
Masta with his new Alta shirt
Masta showed us his garden and set about getting a chicken for our dinner. He called over his chickens with a clucking call, then Masta’s little brothers selected a chicken and commenced pelting it with their slingshots until it was stunned. Then one of them picked it up by the feet and bashed it against a stump a few times, making sure it was good and dead. After some of the guys removed the feathers and innards, it was clear this was no factory farm bird. it was no more than a couple pounds, and once we roasted it, it was pretty tough. But it was meat, something that we hadn’t had much of since we headed to the bush. Aside from the chicken dinner, we had been eating what the villagers eat, which involved lots and lots of boiled taro and greens. Ever since we arrived in the village, Neil’s friends would bring a pot of food over and it would invariably be boiled or roasted taro. They simply don’t have the resources to eat enough protein, and subsist mainly on a diet of vegetables supplemented occasionally by the meat of a slaughtered chicken or pig. Eating what they eat for a week made it abundantly clear what a luxury a varied and nutritionally balanced diet is.
Breakfast (and lunch and dinner) time!
After four nights in Samanzing, we got back on the trail out of the bush, stopping in Bilima to stay another night with Yanga and his family. After a big meal of rice, canned mackeral, and sweet potato, Dan gave Yanga some shirts, a hat, and a flashlight in thanks for his family’s hospitality. Yanga was thrilled and grateful, and over very sweet after-dinner tea, Yanga and his son taught us some simple magic tricks with matchsticks. Despite the huge gulf between our languages and cultures, we had a great time trying to figure out their tricks. It was one of the high points of the trip. Their hospitality and generosity were humbling.
Yanga and his youngest daughter
Yanga’s wife and her daughters
Yanga’s son Neil with giant ‘bush turkey’ eggs
After the obligatory photo shoot, we hit the trail toward the road and caught a PMV to Lae.
Within hours we were stuffing ourselves at Golden Rooster, the PNG equivalent of KFC. Fortunately there was no taro on the menu.