Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Home Called Manari

It’s the people who have the least to give that offer the most.

My slingshot crafted from and old football
The cool waters contrast to the hot humid air soothes my sunburnt freckled skin. The round soggy stones beneath my feet bring relief to the week old blisters and daily new cuts and scrapes from running around bare foot. The gritty sand works well when rubbed on the shoulders and legs to clean off the daily grime and dead skin; a result of countless hours running through the thick mountain sides yielding slingshots, bow & arrows and, hand crafted spears. I lay back and let the waterfall’s force pour down on my scalp, parting my hair in every direction. The tangle of braids which where a gift from younger single village women rip free in the natural shower that pours from rocks above. I think of the countless hot shampoo and soap showers I’ve taken in my life but somehow this pool and waterfall I visit numerous times a day to bathe doesn’t compare, this is my paradise. The memory linking smell to soap evades me, I’ve so freely forgotten. I remember reading an article in the newspaper months ago, which at that point felt like years, a separate life of someone else. The article was focused on concerns that cell phones occupied all the time not assigned to work, conversations, and activities. Smart phones were replacing time meant for self-reflection. A funny thought to have under that peaceful translucent wall of water now that my days are filled only with self-reflection of the man I’ve become and a comparison of a life I used to live. Self-reflection reminds me of a time nearly three weeks ago where I sat starving and exhausted on the steps to a shelter when a man and his radiating smile walked out from in the rain and changed everything.
I bought this casuary to eat for my family.
                My soul was shattered, the weight of failure hung around my neck like a rusty iron chain. I was turning back on a trail that I’ve failed to conquer. Defeated by the dark valleys and steep peaks my mind was decided that Papua New Guinea sucked and I would never come back here again. That was of course only until fate had kinder plans for me and a man that went by the name of Wopa crossed  my path. I summoned him in from out of the pouring rain to sit next to me and I was presented a bag of chips from his backpack 1/8th the size of my own. It was the best Christmas gift I have ever received but it wasn’t the chips that convinced me of his kindness. It was the radiating smile that was portrayed despite the fact he was soaking wet and had undoubtedly been trekking the same mountains since the wee hours of morning. I had known him only a few minutes and he offered me a place to stay and live in his village for the following weeks to come. An outrageous offer considering our strangeness to each other and my eagerness to get to Manila and feel sorry for myself. However that smile held so much innocence and kindness that my heart felt warm and for the first time in weeks, comfort replaced anxiety.  Ten minutes after meeting him for the first time, I was trudging back up the same mountains recently descended. Clothed in wet hiking gear, boots laced, and pack laden. Here we go again.

The oldest man in the village
                It was an incredible feeling being part of their tribal migration. We were a group of two dozen people, mostly women and children. Infants were laced onto the backs and chests of the women along with a heavy burden of food and supplies. The men hardly carried a thing and demanded the women up and down steep slopes to deliver them food and water. I was climbing the same mountains I had just spent the past ten hours recovering distance on however an energy existed inside of me that filled my limbs with extraordinary power and confidence. A curious younger boy kept speeding past me on the hills just to turn around when he got above to bare the cheeky smile so familiar to my own at his age. I admired his braveness towards the white man considering the others would group together, give me a stare and mumble words between them that always erupted into giggles. It was a curious few hours that first night as we all walked into the increasing darkness of dusk while no one quite knew what to make of a white man travelling with them to their village deep in jungle. Admittedly even I was a bit nervous. We didn’t understand each others language and had no exposure to the others culture or customs. One thing I’ve learned though in all the years of meeting and living with strange people is that our beliefs and practices might be different but at the end of the day we are still human, the only common denominator we can always rely on. We came across a river and the boys my age motioned through sign language to wash and swim in the river.  The brave younger boy came close and stood on a rock near me bragging with his body language of how good his balance was. A torrential monsoon rain erupted from the sky and I had enough of the awkward silence and discomforts we held against each other. I lunged out snatching the small boy from his cheeky stance and tossed him playfully into the deep river. He surfaced wide eyed and completely shocked; the others shared the same frozen shock until I beat my fist against my chest letting out my best Tarzan chant. We are all humans and they understood the denominator. Bellowing chants echoed my own with their unique identity as we tackled each other into the water playing like boys play into the darkness of night. 
Little Joe dressed and waiting for church
                 I’m a village man now, I eat, drink, and sleep like the brothers and sisters around me. “one talk” meaning “all the same” in my new Papuan language. The moment we entered the village my new father Wopa explained to his village friends and family that he found me along the way and I was now his fourth son. Everything given to him would be extended to me and I would be treated as a family member. Originally I thought it was figuratively spoken so people knew where I would be sleeping and getting my food from but I came to learn that when the Papuan people say you’re family they really mean it. The old women came running shaking hands with us in greeting while the occasional one wrapped their arms around me and planted a big wet kiss on my cheek like my own grandmother had once done. Once they heard I was family the only thing the color of my skin meant was that I looked dirtier when playing in the mud with the children. The acceptance to a stranger was incredible. These people had hardly seen a white person in a magazine in their lives yet they accepted one with open arms into their homes without hesitation. I was at home. 
Robin on my shoulders. My cheeky little brother.
                The people of Papua New Guinea have never been conquered. The Europeans came in the late 1800’s / early 1900’s colonizing the major towns and creating plantations but the land belonged to the people and still does to this day leaving the government with only 10% of the country. When the people asked the Europeans to leave their land, they did so with no war or protest. When the Japanese invaded during WW2 they were cruel to the people. The Americans and Australians helped defeat the Japs and drove them from the country in which the Papuan people are ever so grateful for. So regardless of me being family and a pier to everyone else, the kind gestures and gifts never stopped flowing. There were instances where I sat on the soccer field with 200 other people and someone would always find a chair and drag it over for me. I felt bad refusing the offer every time because it meant they would have to drag it back to where they found it but I refused to accept any extra attention because I was white. My food came every night with a fork and spoon but I discarded them each time eating with my fingers until one day the utensils stopped showing up.
I loved getting my hair braided by the women
As I strolled around the village inspecting the buildings for things to fix, random arms would extend from darkened windows bearing full cut pineapple in which I never refused.  In fact, on average I ate two full pineapples and eight ripe sugar bananas a day. Sugar, flower, and milk might have been in short supply but food certainly was not. I went from starving and dehydrated one day to bloated and incapacitated the next. My body didn’t know what the hell to do. I went from using the bathroom once every four days to four times each day. The bathroom of course was a tiny structure boasting a hole in the floor. The benefit of this was my quads were getting a killer workout and I’ve perfected the art of wiping my bum with leaves. The fuzzy surface actually offers a pleasant sensation, flip it over for a coarser clean…don't forget to check for earwigs first. Sneaking off to have a discrete relief was also impossible. I was still the most interesting thing they have ever seen and eyes would watch me during all minutes of the day. I made the mistake of telling my father Wopa about the consistent defecation so he took the liberty of telling everyone in the village about my irregular metabolism. It resulted in all the young pretty girls to gather together and giggle every time I made my way to the stinky hut. Performance anxiety is bad enough on a porcelain throne but physically strenuous squats above a hole in the ground while cute girls are having a peak through the bamboo slats is even worse.
Patching up the locals
The village has a very modern up to date health clinic with a fully trained doctor on staff however the people wanted me to treat their wounds. It all started when I noticed a bad sore spreading across a little girl’s back. I applied some anti-fungal cream that I always carry in my first aid kit and after a few days of treatment it receded. Rumor got out that I was a doctor so people would visit my hut daily with cuts and bruises for me to bandage. I don’t even know basic First Aid, all I had was alcohol swabs and band aids. I’ll admit to being a bit of a poser but it was a nice feeling to help people and fix their minor wounds. The kids came to see me with picked off scabs or self-inflicted burns and it wasn’t because for attention because no one else was around when they came to me. I later figured out it was because I was giving them a blob of toothpaste on their finger to brush their teeth after each visit. Clever kids. The bad patients like my father Wopa would come to see me with a swollen ankle and ask for medication to fix it. I told him the best thing to do is soak it in the cold river water and sleep with it elevated, clearly not satisfied with my lack of strawberry tasting anti-inflammatory’s, he went to see the real doctor where he came back looking like a mummy with wraps and compression bandages covering almost every joint in his body. My grandmother used a cane that never touched the ground, I know when a hypochondriac walks my way.
Struggling down the mountain with the billong
The village people come from a patrimonial society (contrary to the matrimonial society) the men live the easy life lazing around during the day while the women do all the chores from cutting the grass with machetes, cutting wood, washing dishes and clothes, to climbing the mountains and carrying a ludicrous amount of food back to the village. At first I was insulted to see how lazy the men are and how hard to women have it but the longer I lived with them the more I saw how much the women pride themselves on the responsibilities they have. In this culture the women are the work horses and strong they are. My guilt became too much to handle one morning so I decided I would help mama bring the pineapple, sweet potato. and corn back to the village. What a mistake that was. I met mama near the top of the mountain as she popped over the ridge and came racing towards me. I insisted that I would carry the billong full of food down the mountain so she could rest. She effortlessly pulled the straps off her forehead and handed me the bag. The unexpected weight literally crippled me to the forest floor; my mama was so strong she made the billong look like a bag of feathers. She kept trying to take it back but I was determined to carry it. The billong had to be at least 50kg full of pineapple, watermelon and potatoes heavier than rock. I tried carrying it on my head in the traditional way but I physically couldn’t support the weight and my neck nearly snapped. I had to sling it over my shoulder and cradle the bottom of the bag in my arms. A task hard enough done on flat ground unfortunately though we live in the mountains. I fell and slid the majority of my way down, cramming dirt and rocks up my shorts and underwear. Word had gotten out that I was coming down the mountain with the billong and to my surprise when I emerged out of the thicket and into the village, a soccer tournament had been paused and nearly 300 people cheered and applauded as I walked the final 50 meters to my hut. I decided then that it was less humiliating eating the food than it was carrying it down mountains.
Mama and me returning from the gardens
New Year’s came up as a surprise. Time in the village was about as important as Justin Beiber's new girlfriend. There were no Facebook notifications or selection of parties and bars to attend. I usually make it a goal to kiss a girl on New Year’s eve as an excuse to a lousy superstition foreshadowing a successful year to come with the ladies. Of course I had my eye on a beautiful village girl since the day I arrived but asking for a kiss was my culture not theirs. It was a time to learn, not corrupt. Instead I gathered with my little gang of kids and teenagers to burn steel wool. We held our bunches of steel wool under the lighter and who’s ever went off first would spin around and jumped furiously in the air while screaming like it was them that was on fire. The dance created a spectacle of sparks and lights that zigzagged and swirled through the darkness. Amazing, I didn’t even know steel wool burnt as it turned out to be more entertaining than any firework display I have ever watched. For the last night of an incredible year, I spent it burning kitchen appliances. So for the first New Years in seven years I was in bed by 8pm, sober, still single, and happy. Maybe kissing a girl on new year’s was a curse as my history has been nothing to brag about. Maybe my luck was about to change….
Just a daily portion of greens.
For those who don’t know, I’m a hopeless romantic. While travelling people fall so far out of their comfort zones that everything and everyone becomes an exotic. I’ve met and have been one of those hostel grievers holding back tears for that girl we met only once but this girl was different. Her name was Matilda. The girl I fell for the moment I set eyes on her. She had perfect creamy black skin. Her cheek bones resided high holding the smile she bore so well high on its throne. Fantasies of kissing her luscious big lips filled my mind every time we stole shy looks at each other. I watched her hips move freely from side to side as she walked along barefoot. I would marvel at her strength every return trip from the garden laden with a heavy load. I was shocked at the effect she had on me, seeing her strength carrying the heavy billongs was incredibly attractive. The thought of being with a woman who could protect herself and didn’t need constant maintenance was a comforting one. The village men half joked about destroying my passport and hiding me in the village where I would get married and stay. At one point I was offered a piece of land and the offer to stay the rest of my life in the village. Believe me the thought crossed my mind many times to marry Matilda, build a big house out of bamboo, and become a true village man. Matilda eventually asked me to marry her. A hard request to turn down even after only knowing her for two weeks and never physically touching her but unfortunately I’m still searching for something I might never find. Sometimes we’re looking for things that are right before us but unable to see. Sometimes we don’t know what’s passing us by until it’s already gone. The hardest part about a decision isn’t the choice made but the consequences that follow; hope is the only comfort present in deciding whether you made the right one. I hope I have.
A bit out of my area of expertise but I did fix it eventually.
So life went on in my community. I made daily trips to visit friends and fix whatever they had that was broken. Sewing machines, solar panels, water filters, and rotten steps. They presented it and I fixed it (or tried to). I spent a full day fixing and giving a maintenance to the chainsaw that was being used to build a church and school. Milling had stopped once it broke so I was extra pleased when I fixed it up and showed the men different, safer ways to use the saw. I found a teenager building a bench one afternoon so I chose him to accompany me as my apprentice whenever I fixed or built anything. I wanted my skills to last long after I left the village. I think the greatest accomplishment was showing my apprentice how to carve a baseball bat out of wood which I then taught the kids in the village how to play baseball with it. I spent many hours strolling around with the pastor of the church. I told him all about Canada and the religion I grew up with. He showed me the dire state of the church and its need for maintenance. I promised him that I would write some letters and send them to some people who I thought might be able to fund some improvements. I also saw the school teacher and talked about ways to fund toothbrushes for the children considering their enthusiasm for toothpaste. These people were giving me an experience so unique to anything else I have ever had in my life. Writing a few emails seemed hardly enough to repay the debt. However the community also benefited from my presence. I made history in those three weeks as the first white man to have spent anymore than a couple of days in the village. They considered it good luck to have Christmas and New Year’s with a white man. I really blended well, learning the language, and contributing to the community so it was no surprise when there were a few hard swallows and teary eyes when it came time to start the journey back into Port Moresby.
Return journey halted by flash flooding.
I’ve been to some pretty exotic places, seen some pretty awesome things, and done some pretty crazy shit but my three weeks in Manari Village will be an experience I will hold close to my heart and reflect on for the rest of my life. I was shown light in my darkest hours, I was offered warmth on the frosty mountains, I was shown the road when I found myself lost. I now have a family on the other side of the world that will always greet me with open arms and embrace me with warm smiles. I’ve discovered that it’s the people who have the least to give that offer the most. I found the truth of PNG and that truth lies in the hearts of the Manari people living deep within the jungle. It could kill you trying to find that truth like it almost did to me but it will certainly save your life once you do find it. 
A final farewell

Farewell Papua New Guinea, 

Naroma, Badiagua, Goodbye.

Trying to be a village woman.
Cute but caged
Joanna my first medial patient

Eating some delicious sugar cane.

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