I was inspired to write this following a recent (trying and frustrating) experience trying to order and receive a package for a birthday.  Sometimes, no matter how much you plan and how carefully you try to make sure that things will go well when sending things through the mail or other delivery service, things just don’t work out the way that you would like.

This was especially true in PNG.  Part of the reason that I was there (other than the obvious, which was to experience something genuinely new and amazing that other people would never get a chance to experience in quite the same way again) with Glenn, my colleague and potential PhD supervisor, was to determine if there was enough human skeletal material in the area to base my PhD thesis on.  In order to do this, and to do the other archaeological work that Glenn was trying to work on, we needed out equipment.  Now, obviously, with the amount of equipment that were going to need (including buckets, shovels, gloves, levels, et cetera) we weren’t going to feasibly be able to just other another seat on the plane on which to plonk those pieces of equipment on for the flight from Australia.  So instead, Glenn very wisely (or optimistically, as I like to now refer to it), decided to send all of it ahead of us via the shipping giant, DHL.

Now, under normal circumstances, this would be a perfectly good idea.  Indeed, DHL ships millions of pounds of everything from skiis to foodstuffs all over the world, every day of the year and rival FedEx and other major companies in their ability to get things to their destined locations on time, and in good condition.

Except for when they try to get anything to Papua New Guinea.

Why, you ask?  What could possibly be the issue there?  Well, on top of the fact that you have to assume, when sending anything to PNG, that someone, somewhere along the line might assume that it’s “cargo” and therefore pinch it entirely, there is the ever-present issue of weight.  As in, how much weight can be placed on their teeny, tiny, itty, bitty little planelets that they use to ship things around the main island, as well as a few of the larger outer islands that make up the country.  This is even more important during the time of the year that they harvest all of the vanilla pods, which quickly go rotten in the heat and humidity once they are harvested and need to be transported very soon after they are harvested.   Guess what time of year Glenn and I were in PNG?  Go on, guess.  If you said, “vanilla bean harvesting time,” you are right!  We happened to be there right at the height of the season, which meant that, one of the tasks that we got to do on a daily basis, and which actually provided at least a little bit of a break into an otherwise long and boring from the rest of the day on the mainland, stuck in a small hotel (more on that in another post, I am sure), was to travel to the small, inadequate airport, on the off-chance that the gear that we needed had made it onto the plane.

Most of the time, the people packing the plane would likely have taken one glance at our gear, another at the vanilla pods, densely packed into their crate, weight how much value each one had (vanilla being one of the main exports and sources of money for many people there) and not even given our equipment a second thought.  Onto the plane the vanilla crates would go, and for days on end, Glenn and I would wait hours to in the heat, the humidity and the crunch of unwashed, barefoot, eager people, only to be disappointed to see that, after all of that, our gear was somewhere still in limbo.  Where?  Honestly, I think that it’s best not to dwell on that.  For all that I know, it could have been sent to Siberia.  And it didn’t really matter.  All that mattered was that, having to wait for that equipment meant that it delayed and further delayed our trip from the mainland (Wewak) to Koil, the small island on which we would be doing most of our work.  It took almost a full week to finally get all of our gear.  By now, we were losing serious time and Glenn’s attitude was getting more grumpy by the day.  Couple that with the horrid, stifling humidity and the lack of anything decent to eat at the hotel after a few days; having depleted their stock of soda, pineapple, bananas and other tasty foods, and long having been left with almost exclusively papaya (and if you know me, you know that that is one of the few things that I cannot bear to even think of eating, so much do I dislike it), and the mood among our small group was not a good one.

So, it was with no cheer that we realized that, after all of that effort and waiting and hope, we (and by we, I mean Glenn) had remembered to pack the cigarettes (for himself and for bribes, I didn’t smoke), some rice (a real treat on the outer islands, where it wasn’t grown), and indeed, even the kerosene lamps…but no kerosene.  None.  Not even one container.

It’s amazing what you miss when it’s not there; buckets for sand and dirt for when you are digging; decent food at a remote hotel in the middle of the South Pacific; and light.  Any light.  Did you know that in the South Pacific, on outer islands, where the inhabitants have never even heard of electricity, when the sun goes down, it means that everyone and everything is immediately and completely thrown into total blackness?

What’s the lesson learned?  If you need anything in PNG during the vanilla harvest, it’s probably worth it to shell out for an extra ticket on the fight from Australia, rather than rely on DHL being able to stop the local PNG airline baggage handlers from prioritizing their vanilla over your theodolite.  Also, if you pack the kerosene lamps, just make sure that you *also* pack the actual kerosene.  Otherwise, they just make for very interesting “gifts” to give to the local kids on those outer islands, since they don’t really have any other uses.  At least, none that I ever figured out.