Sanduan:In the far western reaches of PNG lies the remote province of Sanduan.  Endless jungle and friendly people define the area.  Sounds like a good combination to me.

Robert rolled in around 6:00 a.m. and we drove to the airport.  Walking right in, there appeared to be less security at a location which gets international flights than a takeaway shop.  We took off and soon left behind any signs of civilization.  We flew over endless, sharp ridges covered in jungle with little sign of any human presence.  Occasionally we would see a solitary hut but that would be about it.  Once I spotted a criss-crossed stack of logs without sign of anything else nearby. Robert said that that was a helicopter landing pad, too isolated to put in an airstrip.  He mentioned that some of the backcountry airstrips were nothing but ridges with the tops knocked off.  They would bring in a small bulldozer by helicopter, cut down the trees, flatten the ridge top and voila, an airstrip, albeit one only suitable for very small planes…sort of like the one we were in.

Clouds gathered and soon only mountain tops were visible, looking like lonely islands in the mist.  Robert started to circle and when he finally spotted a hole in the clouds, landed at Lake Kopiago.  Looking for that hole in the clouds sure isn’t the procedure with most flights I’ve taken but as long as they catch sight of the ground, they’ll land.  The entire village came out when we landed, kids staring at me as though I was an ape in the zoo.  They weren’t quite sure what to make of me.  It’s pretty obvious they don’t get many visitors but eventually they wanted to play.  When we took off, Robert circled in the valley to gain altitude as the nearby mountains were obscured by clouds.  Hitting a mountain could ruin your whole day.  Between Lake Kopiago and Telefomin, we didn’t see a single shred of evidence of any humans….kind of nice, right?  We flew between ridgelines above the clouds and I have to say, no previous flight ever came close to this one.  He even let me fly the plane a bit.

We landed in Telefomin, a place he described as “out there.”  Sanduan (or Sundown) province, is the westernmost province in PNG and certainly among the most remote areas in the country.  I said goodbye to him and he flew back with a passenger to Mt. Hagen.  He’s a great guy and a typical Ozzie for sure (that’s not a bad thing either).  I met a district administrator who was thrilled to see me.  He really wanted to start promoting tourism and the last tourist in the area was over a year previous.  He set me up with a guide, Bruce, who would lead me to Oksapmin.

I talked to the MAF (Missionary Aviation Fellowship) manager and he invited me to lunch with his wife.  We talked of many things but when I mentioned “the gas” (a natural gas seep which can be lit on fire) and the caves, they were impressed by my knowledge.  The two guys I met in Lae taught me well.  I mentioned to them that in the U.S. you can’t discriminate by religion for a job, but they didn’t seem to understand why.  Different places, different ways for sure.  I told them that they should change their name to “Missionary Air Force” and have a motto:  Our God can bomb your God into oblivion.  They told me they would think about it.

Later I went to a nearby village, Koremin, to see the Sepik River and the whole village came out to meet me.  Nice folks for sure.  It must be odd to have so little contact with the rest of the world, so having an outsider just walk into your village must be a treat.  I know it was a treat for me.  But in some ways, it isn’t that different than at home.  How often do you meet someone from a far away land in your average white-bread small town in the U.S.?

Bruce said that he would be there at 6 a.m., needless to say, that didn’t happen.  It’s an isolated part of PNG, but still PNG and things usually don’t happen “on schedule.”  Eventually we started walking and everyone asked where we were going.  There are few tourists in Telefomin and fewer yet, go deep into the bush.  The track quickly turned very messy. We had a steep muddy descent to a river, crossed it, followed by an even steeper, muddy ascent.  Then the trail turned even muddier and very slippery.  It was hard to keep up with Bruce; first off, he was extremely fit and strong but also he was tramping in bare feet and in these conditions, that’s an advantage.  Actually, Bruce was as strong as anyone I’ve ever met in my life, good heavens, he could just keep going and going.  It was a difficult hike for me as I wasn’t feeling at the top of my game.  The jungle was lush and wet, and green absolutely everywhere.

We continued up and down ridges, some of which were sixty degree slopes, slippery with mud, but that didn’t seem to slow Bruce down one bit.  Now lest you think he is a super tough guy in all ways, we did see a poisonous snake.  It was about three meters away and it didn’t overly concern me, being a safe distance away.  However, when Bruce saw that snake he ran past me, almost knocking me over, such was his haste.  I understand that Papuans are generally terrified of snakes and he certainly was.  I’m cautious about them, having been in Australia, but the mere sight of one doesn’t worry me.

We climbed a ridge and looked down on a village on the Sepik River. Being exhausted, I was kind of relieved that the day was over.  I met some of Bruce’s wontoks (one-talk = friends) and they were surprised to see me.  I was invited into their homes, which were unlike most of the houses I had seen.  These were made up of small tree trunks, five cm. in diameter, driven into the ground.  The interior bamboo walls were rather nice looking.   The first house I was in actually had two separate bedrooms and some small luxuries.  Most of the houses were a single room where the entire family would live.  The owner of the house worked at the Ok Tedi mine and could afford a few things his neighbors could not.  They asked me many questions, served me taro (naturally), and said that they were honored that I was “the first whiteman in their house.”  I told them the honor was mine.   Whenever I was in such settings, I would hear people conversing in their local language and hear the word “whiteman” in their conversations. 

Well, the good times wouldn’t last as Bruce decided we should make it to another village, Framin, that day.   I was still struggling on the trail and not feeling 100%.   It was humbling to see a woman carrying an immense load of firewood down the slippery trail as if it were a walk in the park.  These people:  Made Of Iron.  We passed through a few more small villages and one could again hear “whiteman” being bandied about.  It wasn’t a bad thing; I was a rarity for sure.

We arrived in Framin and soon had a dinner of….you guessed it:  Taro!  People were asking me if I was an anthropologist as they are the only ones who get there.  One of the people I met was Enson Derap, the teacher at the local school.  Framin was privileged to have him there.  Some villages have schools but don’t have teachers to staff them.  You have to remember how truly isolated Framin is.  I talked extensively with Enson and he was keen to learn all he could (and vice-versa).

He mentioned an anthropologist who had been there ten years earlier. He said he would write, but never did.  I explained to him how in the west, friendships are often very situational and frequently disposable.   I explained some of the differences in our societies and approaches.  He was used to sitting around a fire every day with his friends, spending hours talking and socializing.  In the western societies, people would say, “I don’t have time for that.”

He asked how the west got so rich and I explained the industrial revolution, large scale production and the adherence to schedules which that entails.  He said, “I can’t see the production of automobiles in a rural, village based society where people come and go as they please.  Besides, our country is only twenty five years old.”  One thing that is striking about such places is their relationship with time.  People don’t say, “I’ll see you at 7:30.”  Rather they seem to speak of seeing someone in the evening and whenever they show up they show up even if you wanted them to show up at 7:30, they don’t have watches, so it wouldn’t matter.  Their relation with time is very fluid and one could never say they are slaves to time or schedule.  It’s kind of relaxing to see how things work out as they do.

Enson showed me the foundations of a government built suspension bridge which had washed away in a flood.  The government never fixed the bridge, so the village got together to build a suspension bridge of bush materials that worked just fine.  It made me realize that once, we all lived like this in small groups without the specialization present in industrialized societies. 

It hadn’t been a great day for me as I wasn’t feeling that good but my stay in Framin made it a good day.  Enson said that I was different from the few other visitors they’ve had.  He said I was much more open and nicer than the rest.  Now that made my day.

Bruce and I set out early in the morning.  We started climbing steeply through the hills covered in gardens.  It was quite difficult and slippery.  I still wasn’t feeling that good and the track was difficult.  One person told of landslides ahead and said he could guide us for 200 kina, sigh….I know these people think we are rich, but I wasn’t going to pay him 3-4 months income for a few hours of guiding.  I know that I have an astounding amount of money compared to them, but my wealth and tolerance have limits.  We continued to walk along the overgrown track.  Bruce was flying up the hills and I was struggling.   Sometimes it was through the mud, other times along slippery logs with a 1.5 meter drop on either side.  Bruce noticed I was struggling and said, “I don’t know if you’re enjoying the trail and you don’t seem to be feeling well.  We have another 80-90 km. of track like this and from this point on, there is absolutely nothing out there until we reach Oksapmin.  Do you think we should turn back?”  The thought had occurred to me but I don’t like the idea of turning back on a track, it’s just not something I do, but I told him I would think about it.

We walked a little further and I talked to Bruce more about what we were doing.  I was leaning towards quitting but asked for five minutes to think about it.  I finally made the decision that it would be best not to continue.  I just wasn’t feeling that great and as such, wasn’t enjoying the track that much.  I felt like a complete and absolute failure.

Bruce led us back on a different route, one that followed the river more and was slightly easier.  He stopped and introduced me to his friends.  We talked along the river and they gave me sugar cane.  You strip off the outer layer and eat the sweet middle.  I started chewing…and chewing…and chewing.  The middle is still pretty woody and there was no way I was going to swallow the cane but spitting it out wasn’t an option either as it would appear that I was ungrateful to his friends.  So the chewing kept going on…and on…and on, finally his friends noticed my discomfort and said, “Spit it out!”  Whew, finally!  When I told them what I was doing, they got a big laugh out of it.

Bruce and I continued on to Framin and I started to feel more comfortable with my decision.  When we arrived there, we sat around the fire, as usual, and talked.  Enson later arrived and told me that while it was unfortunate that I wasn’t feeling well, he was pleased to see me.  We sat late into the night talking around the fire.  One person said to  me, “I want what you have, how can we achieve it.”  I told them of how western societies had become rich through the industrial revolution and how it required people to follow the clock, among other things.  I told him that PNG would have a very hard time of doing this due to its isolation and poverty and it would take several generations of hard work.  I said, “And one thing you can’t do is sit around the fire for half the day socializing.”  He nodded his head at the comment about the fire and said, “I like sitting around the fire.  It’s not worth it, I don’t want it.”  While he was not an educated man, he was an intelligent one.

Framin is a typical village in the highlands.  Everyone tends a garden for their food and their contact with the outside world is limited.  As such, people make their own fun and socializing is a major activity.  As for the kids, ever present and making themselves known in the villages, they are rather creative and generally play with what toys can be made locally.  I don’t think I saw single kid in the highlands with a plastic toy.

The next morning Bruce and I said goodbye to Enson and the crowd and continued our way back to Telefomin.  We took a different way back and I was feeling better than the previous day, but not well enough to turn back.  It still bothered me to quit.  We arrived in Telefomin and I had a few days to kill until a plane arrived.

Telefomin isn’t a big place, maybe 1500 people, but in this part of PNG, that’s a metropolis.  There isn’t much there in term of stores or activities.  There is a small food canteen but the shelves were almost empty, except for Maggi chicken-flavored two minute noodles of course; those things are everywhere.  The food store had a sign that was unreadable until you were a few feet away from it but that really doesn’t matter.  Everyone knows where everything is and marketing budgets aren’t, and don’t need to be, a high priority.  If there is anything new in town, you’ll know it soon enough.  My first night back, I felt like being alone and spent it reading.  In my room, there was a mouse, several giant cockroaches and a ton of ants, so actually I wasn’t totally alone.

Over the next days, Bruce and I spent time together.  We spent the time talking and walking in the nearby hills.  He told me he was going to miss me and over the last few days, I really enjoyed his company.   We’d walk for a while, then find a spot to sit and talk.  He told me about when he visits his girlfriend.  It’s several days of walking at a ferocious pace to the Sepik River, then he buys a canoe and paddles downstream.  He spends time with her, paddles up stream, sells the canoe, and returns after several more days of walking.  The first plane in Telefomin was going to Tabubil.  How I would get out of Tabubil was yet to be determined but I took the plane anyway.  Bruce saw me off and I still think fondly of our time together.

I spent a frustrating day in Tabubil trying to arrange a flight to Wewak, from where I would go on a boat trip up the Sepik River.  Tabubil is a mining town near the Ok Tedi mine,  PNG’s largest source of foreign income.  It’s also where Bruce works part time.  It’s not a pretty town in the slightest.  This day PNG at its most frustrating without a doubt and it was a hassle trying to make arrangements.  However, a cargo plane that was delivering vegetables to the mine had just come into town and was flying back to Wewak.  If I was willing to fly in a cargo plane without proper seats, than to Wewak we would go.  Not a problem at all.

My time in the highlands would, for the most part, be coming to an end.  It was a wild time, experiencing things I never imagined.  The only downside was not completing the hike a few days ago, but that is the way things go sometimes.  One of the best times happened on the last day in Telefomin.  Bruce and I walked into the hills and looked down on the valley.  He motioned to it and told me that this land was his home, not Telefomin, but the land itself.  At that moment, I sensed in him, an unmistakable pride.