Mengino:Far away from any road, deep in the highlands, lies the village of Mengino.  It's a place where I was the first tourist to visit.  It's not a place one can easily forget.

I headed off to the Goroka airport to meet the bush pilot, Robert.  When asked if we were going to fly the twin engine plane on the tarmac, he replied, “That?  We’re landing on the steepest runway in New Guinea, a 15% grade.  We could land in that but never take off.  We’re taking that (single-engine) plane over there.”  The flight was beautiful with endless sharp ridges covered in green and periodically, a hut would appear in the middle of nowhere but then it was back to continuous forest.  Robert pointed to a tiny gash in the jungle cover under the tall walls of an amphitheater of rock.  It was hard to believe that was a landing strip, but it was and he did an excellent job of bringing us gently down.

We had landed in Maimafu, one of the villages on the trek around Crater Mountain.  There was a French group making a film about tree kangaroos.  They were nice folks and being French, naturally had good food with them and freely shared it.  When told that I often ate dried spaghetti on the trails, they were amazed. Well, actually the word “shocked” might be a better description.  They were trying to get out into the bush to film but were having last minute problems with the village chief trying to wrangle extra money out of the deal. 

The next morning I woke up to the sun just coming over the mountain. The air was perfectly still with mist rising off the trees and grasses. What a perfect start to a day.  I talked to a guide about going around the mountain and he brings me to see the chief.  He immediately starts throwing around large numbers and a single fee becomes two and three fees.  A 14 Kina activity (1 Kina = .4 US$) becomes 70 Kina and it just kept going on and on.  The idea of Crater Mountain was that everything is a fixed price so you don’t have these hassles.  He offered me some food, but declined not knowing if any strings were attached.  It went on like this the next day and a half.  When I took a walk to a waterfall, the people were great but as soon as the chief got involved, it became very unpleasant.  I couldn’t walk around the mountain and had to stay put seeing that:

1) The next village will beat up the Maimafu guides as they don’t get along
2)It’s Sabbath day
3)Their feet hurt (one look at their feet of iron and you’ll know this is bull)

I finally convinced them to bring me to Mengino, the closest village five hours away but the chief will only “allow” me to go there for one day.  I’m extremely uncomfortable being stuck somewhere without having the power to do anything about it.  I tell the chief, “I’m going to Mengino tomorrow and returning when I feel like it.  You can make guiding fees or I will say in a local’s hut until the plane returns and you will make nothing.  It’s up to you.”

The next day a guide brought me to Mengino, a village of 100-150 people.  We walked about five hours through the jungle along a track worn smooth by age old footsteps.  I arrived in the village and some kids flocked towards me and others ran away. This white man was immediately the center of attention of the entire village.  I went for water and a dozen kids watched in rapt attention, completely dedicated to watching the task.  Returning to my hut to lie down, there were people watching me through the doorway and kids peering at me from cracks between the boards.   The hut was a traditional building made from all bush materials using a machete, tied together with vines, topped off by a thatched roof.  I lay down in the smoky hut and looked around and thought, “Good heavens, this is a long way from home.”

Nimson, the chief, stopped by.  He said, “You’re the first tourist to ever visit our village.  Did you notice that some of the kids ran away from you?  That’s because they’ve never seen a white person before.”  I replied, “At home the kids also run away from me, but that’s because their mothers warn them about me.”  He laughed and when asked if I really was the first one, he said I was.  He brought me to the center of the village and everyone gathered around.

They would ask me questions like, “tell us about New York,” or “What is Australia like?”  They would listen to my every word, every eye focused on me.  Only a few could speak English but there was one guy who reacted to everything I said.  Every funny word or gesture made him laugh and he was wide-eyed at every story.   But for the most part, Nimson was translating.  A skyscraper was initially described as, “The cities have buildings made of stone and steel that are 400 meters tall.”  When Nimson translated, he went on and on and pointed to the mountains nearby.  Then I realized that for someone who lived in houses made entirely from bush materials, he had to put it in terms they could understand.  How do you explain a subway to someone who has never seen a train?  Yet based on their reactions, somehow Nimson managed to get it across to them.  The nearest road to Mengino is 90 difficult km. away and I was told that for people deep in the bush, they’ve seen more airplanes than cars.

They would ask me about my family, whether I had a garden (something every single one of them had), if I was married, and about religious beliefs (now this is a tricky question you want to be careful about).  One asked, “We heard gossip that man came from monkeys, is this true?”  That’s another tricky one. Others heard that we were very rich in the U.S., which I didn’t deny but when I told them a month’s apartment rent in a mid-sized city is about two-years of their income, they gasped.  Another popular question was about the animals.  They really like the description of moose and skunks.  They would also tell me of their lives and how far they travel to the nearby villages and their farms.  When I told them of  frozen lakes, winter snows, and that in the fall our trees turn pink, orange, yellow, and red, they stared in disbelief.

After a few hours, Nimson brought me to a hut and we sat around the fire and talked. He has been all around PNG as a health worker and was a lot more knowledgeable of the outside world than most people in the area but he said, “I knew that I had to come back to Mengino.  I’m a person from the bush and this is my home.”  We stayed up late talking around the fire.  One group sat in the corner playing cards and the rest of the guys were along the walls sleeping, piled all over each other like a stack of firewood, but Nimson and I both got places next to the fire and had a lot of room to spare, yep, it’s good to be the chief.  It turns out the guys were all sleeping in the hut as it was the men’s hut.  They had a rugby game coming up with a neighboring village and they couldn’t be near women before the big game.  I was awakened in the middle of the night by something rubbing against me.  I had no idea what it was, but didn’t like the way it felt.  It felt like it was part of a rhinoceros but then I realized it was a guy’s foot as he was turning over in his sleep.  These folks have never worn shoes and the only way to describe their feet is like a rhino’s (not that I’ve ever felt a rhino foot).  Over in the corner there was still a group playing cards in the middle of the night.  Early in the morning, someone got up to stoke the fire and threw some taro (similar to a potato) into the hot ashes.  Breakfast would be ready in a few hours.

Once again in the morning, I found myself surrounded by thirty whispering people.  They followed me around the village, but it’s ok, I didn’t mind.  They followed me to the bathroom, though at this time they were waved them off.  Tolerance ends at the outhouse.  I had another question and answer session and was asked about the frequent earthquakes they felt and inquired more about my family.  They told me about bride price.  This is a tradition where a man gives gifts and money to the bride’s family.  Typically it consists of 2000-3000 kina, farm tools, traditional gifts of bows and arrows, birds of paradise feathers, billums (woven bag for carrying goods), and stone axes.  But it also includes pigs, a minimum of five and sometimes more.  You have to provide the pigs lest you insult the other family.  Pigs are status symbols and one needs to be liberal with the cloven-hoofed goods.  I told them in the U.S., people usually exchange rings.  They seemed to think pigs were a much better idea (and tastier).

The men sang a courtship song for me (err…I hope that they were giving me a cultural demonstration and not actually courting me if you know what I mean) and they told me about their dating rituals.  You ask a girl’s father if you can date her.  If so, you will date for a month or so and then determine if you want to marry.  If you do, then you raise bride price, usually with family members helping out and you get married.  It’s all pretty cut and dried.  I described dating in the U.S. and how my sister was seeing a guy for years.  First it was on and then off, then they needed time apart and then they were inseparable, and then they were…four years later it was finally and firmly determined that…no wait..she wasn’t so sure anymore.  One of the villagers commented, “She sounds indecisive.”  “Bingo!  You’ve got it!” I replied.  They all agreed that they prefer their system of dating.  One guy asked if he could marry my sister.  I told him I’d get back to him on that.

The basis of Mengino and in fact the entire backcountry of the region is agriculture, most of which is subsistence based.  Every single family has land with a farm and pretty much every day they dedicate part of it to taking care of their crops.  There is some trade in crops with the “outside” world.  While this is limited, it is their primary source of cash income.  For example, Robert spends a lot of time ferrying coffee from the highlands interior to the coffee exchange in Goroka.  There is a system set up to keep track of how much they sell and how they get paid.  When a person needs to buy a shovel for their garden, it’s paid for primarily by this trade.  There were some efforts to move the villages into raising vanilla when I was there.  Coffee is a fairly bulky crop, while vanilla is one that is significantly smaller and less money would be spent on transporting it but at that time coffee was king (and queen).

They brought me into the gardens to show me how they raised their food. Several people had tarps in the center of the village covered in coffee beans drying in the sun.  Other crops that are very common are taro and kaukau (sweet potato).  Both of these are very common in the highlands diet and spend anytime there and you’ll be sure to have plenty.

Nimson and I talked a lot about village life and his role in it.  There had never been a government official in Mengino and if one came, he would tell them to go away and leave them alone.  They are absolutely, completely indifferent to what happens in the capital, Port Moresby.  The only interaction they have with the government is they pay some tax on the coffee they sell.  He mentioned that he maintained the village “court system.”   If there was a fight in the village, Nimson would talk to the people involved and make a decision as to how to deal with it and it would all be taken care of quite quickly.  There was one fight when I was there that everyone went running to see, but I felt it best to hold back and keep a distance.  I explained our judicial system of the preliminary hearings, the pleading of innocence or guilt, the jury trial, the lawyers, the months of time and expense, the appeals court and the like.  The people shook their heads.  Like dating, they preferred their system of justice. 

Nimson and I spent a long time talking in the afternoon.  I told him of the guy who so enjoyed our conversations and how he laughed so much.  An hour later, the Laughing Man sat down outside the hut.  I said, “That’s the one who laughed so hard.”  He responded, “Him?  That’s my brother, he’s deaf and dumb!”  I can be pretty animated when talking so he must have been responding to my gestures but either way, it appears that we both got a lot out of our encounters and that’s good.  Maybe there is some sort of universal language.  Nimson discussed some of the needs of the village, specifically medical needs.  He has medical training and can utilize whatever supplies I could help them with.  He did write down some things he could use and I agreed to help them.  I’m all for trying to help the village as long as it’s not supplying “gifts” which would only be used by a single person.  During our talks, for some reason I mentioned McDonalds.  Not one single person had any idea what that was.  You know, I’m really liking these people.

Later we went out to watch the “mob”, as Nimson called them, play rugby.  They played on hard ground, which made thudding noises as bodies hit the earth.  They would get up and keep running.  These guys were tough and there is no way you could have gotten me out there to play as the phrase “scraped off the ground” would have been appropriate.  I look around at the people from home and see them winded after a flight of stairs whereas these people are out every day working hard.  An eight hour walk to the next village?  No problem, even the older people will do it all the time.  Nimson wandered off and an older woman approached me and started speaking the local language.  She pulled up her shirt and grabbed her breasts and started pointing them around at the people gathered round.  It was a decidedly uncomfortable situation.  I had no idea what she was saying or how to react.  Do you ignore her or do you respect the elders, although my urge was to run away screaming.  Nobody seemed alarmed at what was happening, except for me of course, although some were giggling at my apparent discomfort.  She kept going on and pointing her breasts around, “Help…help” I murmured but the English speakers were nowhere to be seen. Finally someone came by when he noticed my discomfort.  He said, “She was asking how you could be away from your family for so long.  She was pointing to her children and saying that she breastfed them all and has never been more than a day’s walk away from them.”  She was pointing her breasts at her grown children?! We need to accept that others have different ways, but Mom, if you’re reading this…never do that…ever.

At night, we gathered around the hut fire, talked into the late hours and had a dinner of taro.  One of the older men told me what it was like when they first saw white people.  You know, that’s the sort of thing you read about but here it was, front and center.  We talked about a wide variety of subjects and I even gave a brief description of the internet.  They are quite curious about things that are far beyond their horizons but have limited ability to learn of those things due to their remoteness.  Nimson sees very little change for Mengino in the years ahead.  It’s too isolated and poor.  They’re working on getting people to read, not program computers.  Earlier that day I saw an adult learning to read from a children’s book, one of the very few books I saw.  Nimson said, “We have people who can teach reading, what we lack is books.”

There really are very few options for them there and I fear that over time, the isolated villages might start to depopulate as they have in so many places around the world.  There is a certain timelessness to them but they have to make their own choices and it’s not up to me what they choose.  Nimson did ask about satellite TV and what it would cost.  I went through the expenses of a dish, monthly subscription, generator and fuel, which is out of their reach right now.  In the corner, people were still playing cards.  One replied, “They can go on for days.”

In the morning, I thought about the TV discussion with Nimson last night.  It’s not up to me to decide what they are going to do but I thought it best to balance the information they received.  I said, “If you get TV, you need to consider how it will change your village.  Yes, it can bring great information, but it would mostly be garbage.  You have a very rich social life here with people gathering around the fire and talking to each other while looking at each other.  If you get a TV, the attention will all be focused on the TV and not each other.  It will affect things socially.”  I emphasized how I wasn’t telling him what to do, but there are changes that would happen.  Nimson said, “I’ll have to think about it.  I never considered these things.” 

In the afternoon the mob decided to bring me into the bush.  They said, “We’ll get our bows and arrows.”  I was really surprised, yep, they got them.  I’m a pretty strong hiker but compared to these guys, I’m a sissy…a big sissy.  Earlier I told them how men didn’t hold hands in our culture and if a man held my hand, I would be uncomfortable. We were climbing a hill and I was slipping on the logs.  The mob, in their bare feet, were racing up.  Someone said, “Grab his hand and help him up.”  Nimson said, “NO!  It’s against his culture.”  That made me laugh, “Nimson, you can grab my hand to help me up as long as you let go at the top.”  My friend liked that.  The mob’s machetes were flying as they cleared a path in the fast growing jungle.  I have to say, these guy were strong and could keep doing this all day long.

 They brought me to their birthing cave.  When a woman is about to give birth, she comes here with a mid-wife. Everyone in the mob had been born there.  In the cave, they showed me how they made fire with a stick and bark.  They split a stick about the thickness of a finger and put a smaller stick in the split to hold it open.  They cut off a thin piece of bark and quickly rubbed it back and forth across the split, holding it above dried leaves.  In fifteen seconds, they were blowing on the smoldering leaves.  I was impressed at how quickly they could do it.  I told them how I could make fire with flint and steel but it wasn’t completely from bush materials.  On the walk home, the mob spotted something to hunt in the distance.  They took chase and zoom!  They were gone.  Good heavens are they fast.

That evening we, once again, as is usual in the village, sat around the fire and talked.  Many people were interested in my thoughts about the end of time, among other subjects.  This is a keen interest of theirs and they tried to relate some of what I told them was going on in the rest of the world with their beliefs in this subject.  However we were distracted from such deeper subjects with the arrival of dinner, which consisted of taro (naturally) and a special treat of corn on the cob.  You have to like that.  Nimson asked if he would be able to write me while I was traveling.  I told him that he could send a letter to my mom, who would take a picture of it and then he interjected, “She’ll send it to you on the internet?”  I think he was starting to understand.

On my last day, we went to the base of a cliff above Mengino, at the top of which was cave with bats inside.  On the way there, they found a big, grasshopper-like bug and showed it to me.  They didn’t catch it for showing off, but for food.  Nimson said that he didn’t want to return without bringing something for his daughter.  He killed it and wrapped it in a leaf to bring home.  I have to say, I’m certainly glad they didn’t give it to me as I don’t think I would have been able to eat it.  Chocolate covered ants, maybe.  Big, juicy, crunchy bugs…I don’t think so.  They continued to pick up various bits of bush food here and there.  They do know the land well, that’s for sure.

 Once we reached the cliff, they built a ladder twelve meters tall out of trees and vines, building it right there on the spot using their machetes.  Some of the mob climbed up with their bows and went into the cave.  Nimson said that he wasn’t going to go up there because he’s the chief and doesn’t have to and he said I couldn’t either as I’m the guest (and I suspect he was too worried about me getting hurt).  It’s hard to see as the cave is very dark, but they managed to get a flying fox, one of the biggest bats in the world.  Nimson told me a traditional tale of bats and I related our stories of vampires.  When told of how bats echolocate (see in the dark with sound), they were impressed.
Upon our return one of the elders dressed up in traditional dress for me and the children played flutes; yep, they had to show off a little bit for me, which was nice.  Unfortunately this was the last day in Mengino.  The plane was coming tomorrow and I prepared to leave.  I really wished I had allotted more days in the area.  I said goodbye to all and especially to Nimson.  I hoped that one day we would be able to meet again.  Two of Nimson's sons guided me back to Maimafu.  It started to rain and I put on my expensive synthetic rain jacket.  Nimsom’s sons hacked off two-meter long banana leaves and used them like umbrellas.  They sure did work, were much cheaper, and renewable.  Two worlds…two approaches.

My night in Maimafu was unremarkable and the next day Robert came to pick me up and made another perfect landing.  He said to me, “We can fly back to Goroka right now or we can fly around for the afternoon.”  “Let’s fly!” I said.  So Robert brought me around to several very isolated villages, dropping goods off and picking up coffee and other things.  One popular item that I saw on all flights and everywhere in PNG was chicken-flavored Maggi two-minute noodles.  Sad, but true.  I tell you, he brought me places that I never, in a thousand years, thought I would be able to see.

Upon return to Goroka, I stayed at a guesthouse and met Burkhardt from Germany.  He liked the sound of Mengino and he ended up going.  Mengino never had an outsider and then they have two of them.  When Burkhardt returned he raved about Mengino and thanked me for telling him about it.  He said, “Everywhere in Mengino, I could hear people talking in their language, but I would frequently hear your name among the words.  You’re impact is strongly felt and they won’t forget you.”  I replied, “I won’t forget them either.”

In Goroka, I tried to buy medical supplies for the village that Robert said he would deliver for me, but the banks were closed for several days.  I was able to buy a rugby ball for them. 

A few years later, I made a donation through the Research and Conservation Foundation which helps villages in the area.  Everyone I talked to agreed they were very good to deal with.  I donated around $300 for medical supplies and coordinated it with the RCF.  We were both very clear about what the donation would be used for and they would ensure compliance.  They wouldn’t give the money to Mengino; rather they would ask what sort of supplies they need and would buy them for the people to avoid corruption issues.  A year later, I wanted to make another donation and the RCF asked me what sort of arrangement I made with Nimson as somehow Nimson had somehow converted my donations to personal use.  Nimson told the RCF that it was repayment for taking care of me in Mengino.

I really want to help the people of Mengino but if Nimson is going to misuse the money, what can I do?  It saddens me, but my will to help seems to have grown distant.