Saturday, March 1, 2014

Culture Hike

Recently I joined my friends Max and Benjamin from Immi village for a weekend hike out into the bush. I wanted to get a glimpse of life in Enga a bit off of the beaten path of the Highlands Highway. As I thought back on my trip, I was amazed at all of the little bits of Enga culture I encountered that seem so natural to me now, but which might be quite interesting for you, our partners back home to read about. So please take a moment and soak in Enga culture through the eyes of a weekend traveler into the bush.

I woke up at 6 in the morning and made my way to the bus stop in Wabag town to get on a PMV (public motor vehicle) to Immi village. My friends Max and Benjamin met me in Immi and we walked along the Highlands Highway toward the village of Birip. Benjamin refused to let me carry anything, which is typical of the type of special treatment our family is often shown. As we walked along, I greeted some friendly faces, which I remembered from our five-week stay in Immi last year. One lady, whose face I didn't recognize, was Maria, but she recognized me. Benjamin told her I had come, and she came from her garden trembling and weeping. She clung tightly to me in the way I would imagine a mother hugging a son she hadn't seen in years and thought she might never see again. It was humbling that just living with people in their village for five weeks could have such a powerful effect upon them.

When we arrived in Birip, we left the Highlands Highway and walked south along a bush road toward a mountain range. Before long, we had to cross a river by means of a large log that was about 18 inches in diameter, 20 feet long, and ten feet above the water. There were no handrails, so Max held my right hand in front of me and Benjamin held my left hand behind me as we went across. According to Enga ways of thinking, if I got hurt, it would be their fault and they would have to compensate me and my family for any injuries I sustained.

We then continued our hike, greeting the local people as we went. Benjamin said that they would be telling stories to their friends and family members for weeks to come about the 'white man' who passed through their village. Three and a half hours later, and 2,200 feet higher, we reached the summit of Sambe mountain. My right knee had started to hurt, and so I was very thankful that we would now be going downhill. For the next hour we walked through the part of the mountains where nobody lives...the true bush. As we crossed over the mountain range, we began to enter the Saka Valley, one of the most beautiful valleys I have ever seen. It was full of beautiful rivers, thatched roof homes, gardens, trees, mountains...even the road was beautiful (a rarity in Enga province).

It was raining during the last hour and a half of our hike, and my knee was hurting more and more with every step. As we approached our destination we met up with James, Benjamin's relative, who led us into the village of Yokosa (which was on the other side of a slippery bridge that, although wide, was deteriorating and currently situated at a 30 degree angle toward the river). As we entered Yokosa, we passed through the market area, where many wanted to shake my hand (a custom much more important for Papua New Guineans than it is for Americans). But because of the rain we didn't stay in the market very long and couldn't greet everyone who wanted to greet us.

We went on a little bit farther until we arrived at James' brother's house, where we would be staying. It was one of the nicest bush houses I have ever seen: well-built, clean, and spacious, with lots of light pouring in from the windows. There was exactly one chair, which had obviously been placed right next to the fire for me. (Papua New Guineans generally don't use chairs but they know 'white men' prefer them.) I've learned to get over the embarrassment of situations like this and just kindly accept the special provisions that are sometimes made for me. So I sat down on the chair while everyone else sat on the floor.

It rained for the rest of the day, so we spent the afternoon and evening sitting around the fire talking (or 'storying' as they say in Papua New Guinea), and eating four different foods which were served in succession. First we had sugar cane, which is a customary way to welcome visitors in Enga. Engans just use their teeth to rip off the skin, bite off a chunk, chew it up, suck the juice out, and spit out the remainder. (Technically speaking, you 'drink' sugar cane rather than 'eating' it.) Benjamin knew I would have trouble removing the skin with my teeth and was kind enough to cut the skin off my sugar cane with his bush knife (machete). Even so, I made a mess of the sugar cane trying to bite off the chunks and sugar water dripped all over the floor. Next we had sweet potatoes (the staple food of the Papua New Guinea Highlands), which were cooked in the ashes of the fire and eaten with no condiments, plates, or silverware. Then we had corn, which was cooked in its husks on the lid of the top portion of a 55 gallon drum placed over the fire. (This is by far the most common type of cooking set up I have seen in Enga.) The corn was also eaten with no condiments, plates, or silverware. Finally, we had pumpkin greens, which were boiled in oil and water in a large wash basin set on top of the drum lid. Even after the water had been boiling and the greens had been cooking for a long time, James' wife Jenny picked up the lid and the basin with no hot pads. (Engans seem to develop a tolerance to heat in their hands, and even put them in the flames of the fire for seconds at a time without feeling any pain).

Knowing that I would be fed and given a place to sleep, I had brought a small bag of basic supplies, including salt, sugar, cooking oil, soap, matches, and crackers (as well as some lollipops) to give to James and his family. While Papua New Guineans usually have more than enough to eat from their gardens, basic packaged supplies like the ones I brought are a bit of a luxury. The mother of the family detailed to various people throughout the night the list of items I had brought for them because she was so excited to receive them. Even though I had bought the crackers in Wabag town, the family had never seen them before and were quite excited to eat that particular 'white man' food. The family had four children, and the first born was an eight year old boy. I asked his parents if he had ever seen a 'white man' before, and they said no. Their youngest daughter, who was about two years old, was scared of me at first, but I assured her in Enga, “Don't worry...I don't eat children.” That seemed to be good enough for her, and the next morning she even let me hold her.

About 7:30 p.m., the questions of 'Do you want to go to sleep?' started coming. I shouldn't have been surprised by this. We had learned during our training in Madang that when we stayed the night with Papua New Guineans, we would be encouraged to go to bed early so that they could then talk freely about us and all the things we do that seem so strange to them. (It doesn't seem to bother them or occur to them that we can hear what they are saying through the thin bamboo walls!) I resisted for an hour until about 8:30 p.m. when the repeated question of 'Do you want to go to sleep?' became so persistent that I started laughing out loud. So I finally agreed, even though I wasn't tired, because I knew they wanted to talk without me there. James' brother even came to make sure that I closed the door to my room! Sure enough, as soon as the door was closed, the room erupted with conversation! While I didn't understand everything they were saying, I understood enough to know that my training in Madang was correct! I picked up phrases like 'he even carried his own water'. (Engans don't seem to believe me that even though the water from the stream is clear to the eye that it can still be impure and cause me to become sick. It is very odd that I would carry heavy bottles of water when I could just drink from small streams along the way.) Well I just decided to let them have their fun talking about all the strange things I do without taking offense. (I have certainly had some laughs of my own about the things they do!)

When I woke up the next morning, I immediately emptied a one-serving-size packet of instant coffee into a plastic water bottle and drank it cold. (Papua New Guineans don't generally drink coffee in the morning and usually don't offer anything to drink other than the sugar water you get when you 'drink' sugar cane.) I won't get into the details of bathroom procedures in the village other than to say there was nothing there other than a nice deep hole and a four-foot high wall on three sides.

As everyone gathered together, we had more sugar cane and sweet potatoes for breakfast. Since I had to be back in town that night, we started making our way back at about 10 o'clock. We decided to go a different route that wouldn't require hiking back over the mountains. My knee was still hurting from the prior day's hike, and so I was really hoping we might find a PMV to take us most of the way. I had seen only one vehicle the day before on the remote road we had walked along and that was an ambulance (which in Papua New Guinea is usually a Toyota Land Cruiser), so I didn't have high hopes for finding a PMV. We walked through the valley, greeting people, and shaking hands along the way.

My knee kept hurting more and more as we went. I knew it would be a six hour hike or so if we couldn't find a PMV, so I was doing my best to just ignore the pain and tough it out. Benjamin's legs were also hurting (carrying my heavy bag didn't help him), and so I was praying that God would make a way for us to get back home without having to walk for six hours. After hiking for two and a half hours, my knee was in such pain that I told everyone that we had to rest for a while. As soon as we sat down on the side of the road, a blue Land Cruiser came by. It was a private vehicle, not a PMV, but at that point I didn't care. I waved down the driver to stop, knowing full well that the curiosity and hospitality typical of the Engan people would make any driver very likely to stop and help a foreigner who needed a ride. Much to my relief, he pulled the car over, rolled down the window, and said, “Do you know who I am?” I recognized his face immediately but struggled to match it with a name. Then it hit me, “You are Ezekiel,” I said. “Ezekiel Peter, the General Secretary of the Gutnius Lutheran Church." I had met Ezekiel on my very first trip to Enga, and he is a good friend of our lead translator, Maniosa Yakasa. Ezekiel told us to hop into the car, and he drove us the rest of the way home. God heard my prayer and took care of our need.

As we passed through Birip (where we had started our hike), I saw the vehicle of a new missionary family in Enga. So we stopped (in the middle of the highway mind you) and had a conversation. They asked me to join them in town for lunch, which I happily accepted. After a good lunch catching up with good friends, I went home, limped up to the house covered with mud, went into the bathroom to take a shower, turned on the water, and nothing happened. The water was out...typical of a weekend in Wabag.