I Blame Victoria’s Secret for This…

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I don’t really know how I started thinking about this experience, but it was definitely one of the more unusual (not to say that any of my experiences in Papua New Guinea were anything like usual) experiences that I had while I was in PNG.  Now, I think that I have mentioned before that I did not fit into the culture there, not just for the fact that I didn’t speak more than a handful of words of their working language (Pidgin), nor the fact that I was at least a head taller than everyone, but more for the fact that I was stark white and covered head to toe in clothes to try to keep the lobster burns away (yeah, I basically go from white to lobster in a matter of minutes, and then back to white again, without any hope of a tan of any kind).  I smelled, to, have I mentioned that?  Smell badly?  Well, I suppose that depends on what you call “bad.”  You see, I was already taking anti-malarial medication, but the mosquitoes were just relentless there in the humidity and all of the standing water everywhere.  So, in order to take extra precautions, I basically bathed in repellent.  And I don’t mean the lovely, new coconut or lime-scented versions of repellent that exist today.  No, I mean, DDT.  That’s right.  The really stinky, smelly repellent that only those in desperate need of a way to get rid of mosquitoes resorts to.  Thanks, Dad. So, I smelled.  But, I will say this:  I never got more than a handful of bites the entire time that I was there.  So I really do thank you, Dad.  That was perhaps the most helpful piece of advice (“Bring DDT!”) that gave me before I left.  Well, that and remembering to also bring along cortizone for those few bites that I did get.

Anyway, on to the rest of the story (what you thought that was it?). . . So, i stood out, is what I am trying to say.  And that goes for pretty much everything about me.  Right down to my knickers (that’s underwear to those of you not of the UK persuasion).  Thanks to a long-standing and profound addiction to Victoria’s Secret for bras and knickers, I was the proud owner of over thirty pairs of *extremely* floraly, frilly, colorful knickers – that’s right, everything from neon pink to green lace coupled with bright blue flowers.  Now, why does that matter, you ask?  Don’t you normally wear clothes over you knickers?  Why yes, yes you do.  However, everyone, no matter how many pairs they own or bother to bring on an extended visit to a remote area in the middle of the South Pacific, will eventually need to wash them.

But, I wouldn’t be the one washing them.  No.  You see, I was (at the time of this event) staying at a hotel on Wewak on our way to the small island on which we would be living for a few weeks.  The rains and the delay in the delivery of our equipment (see: prior stories involving the vanilla trade in PNG) caused a further delay in journey to Koil and in the meantime, I had run out of clean knickers. I asked Glenn where I could take them to wash (I was presuming that Wewak had a laundromat -silly me), and he just told me to leave them for the hotel staff to clean.  I couldn’t quite explain to this fifty-plus year-old man how leaving my underthings in the hands of unknown staffers worried me, given my previous experiences with the local people thinking that I was already quite far removed from their reality, if not Reality in general.  Instead, I asked him if it might not be possible, then, to take Herman (one of the PNG people that helped us on our trip and regularly worked as a translator / facilitator for Glenn on his trips here) and go to the “supermarket” (or at least, what they had to serve as one) and purchase some clothing soap that I had seen on their local TV shows and then wash my clothes in the hotel’s bathroom.  No.  He would have none of it.  That would be taken very badly and would essentially, apparently, signal to the staff and thus all of the local people of Wewak, that we thought that they were inept and incapable of even the most basic of tasks:  washing clothes.

So, defeated, I left my clothes in their hands.  Now, I should mention at this point that at the time, I was still under the somewhat naive presumption that Wewak, and PNG in general, possessed things that I took for granted, like can openers, electricity and, of course, washing machines.  I assumed that the staff would simply take my clothes, bring them to a washing machine, wash them, put them in a dryer and then bring them back to me.  I had known that such a procedure happened every day in hotels around the world, from Norway to Mexico.  Apparently, that’s not what happens in PNG.  And I found out the hard way; or rather, the loud way.

The next day, while trying to pass the time by talking to Glenn about his experiences in the South Pacific over the years (remember, no electricity most of them time, only one TV channel in a language you don’t understand and nothing else to do means that there is a *lot* of time to pass every day), I suddenly heard some kids in the distance giggling.  At first, I thought that it was coming from the road across from the hotel that led down to a beach.  I had heard kids there before, but this time, the laughing and giggling was louder and it was punctuated by adults giggling and talking loudly.  Again, I couldn’t understand much, but it sounded like they were having a grand old time somewhere.  Well, given that there wasn’t much else going on, Glenn and I decided to see what was going on that was clearly so funny.

What was it?  Well, let’s just say that Victoria has one less secret now.  You see, hanging from a wire across two tree stumps and waving in the slight breeze, with the sunlight shining off of them and highlighting their beautiful colorful decorations, were my knickers and bras, slowly drying.  Yup.  About ten of them, if my memory serves.  And around them were no fewer than five young children, a couple of teens and the entire hotel staff laughing and pointing at them.  And it wasn’t as if I could pretend that anyone else had left those to be washed.  Nope.  Those knickers clearly belonged to the strange, smelly, White Woman.

Now, I suppose that, on the plus side, at least it was just Glenn and I that witnessed that mortifying site and have escaped the island to remember and pass along the story.  But frankly, I blush even just thinking about it, and dread that one day, randomly (as things like this often occur) I will encounter one of those kids, now grown, that was laughing so merrily at my expense, and remember me and start laughing all over again.

Lesson learned:  Next time, listen to my mother and shop at Macy’s, where the prices are low and the knickers are all plain.


The Guessing Game in Papua New Guinea

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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.

The Milky Way

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Have you ever seen the stars?  I mean really seen them.  The way that our ancestors did before electricity, satellites, and fireworks clouded up the night to the point where you are lucky to pick out Ursa Major.  I have.  I always took for granted the fact that, on the farm with my grandparents when I was younger, I could see a clear night sky and the world of stars above me.  I even saw the amazing, ethereal Northern Lights a few times, although I haven’t seen those in decades, sadly.

Little did I know that those stars, the ones that I thought were so beautiful, were just the tip of the iceberg.  There’s a whole other world out there of stars and planets that you don’t even know exists until you get out there.  Really out there.  I mean so far out there that for hundreds of miles in any direction, there are no artificial lights.  In a place that shuts down at sunset (conveniently occurring at roughly 6pm every single night of the year, thanks to being only a couple of degrees from the Equator), because there are no lights and therefore nothing to keep you up, if the rain prevents you from lighting a fire to sit around.

I admit that the time that I spend in PNG was rough.  A lot of it was really difficult to deal with, probably because I came with too many expectations and the belief that being Western was enough to get me by in a place where four-year-olds wield machetes more deftly than I can use a steak knife on a tough piece of chicken.  There were a lot of moments when I just wanted to speak English.  With someone.  Anyone.  And not have a gaggle of small children follow me everywhere, just to see if the white women ate, drank or bathed (or other things).

But then, at night, when everyone would go to bed (after I convinced the mother of “house” to keep the door unlocked at night, despite the danger of that with me there – mostly because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to go to the bathroom, which is another story for another time), I would sneak outside and look at the stars in the sky.

I don’t think that there is another place on the entire planet that is so far from modernity that the Milk Way displays itself so clearly, in all of its glory.  The sky itself is black.  Pitch black.  Tar black.  And if you look closely, you can even see the occasional blinking of satellites as they float by across the night.  But the real show is the Milky Way.  It’s like a painter, working is sparkles on a huge brush painted a single, thick, stroke of glitter across the night.  If you have ever seen the film “Contact” you have something near the idea of what it feels like to be surrounded, or at least feel that way, by glitter so otherworldly that you just want to reach out and touch it, just to see if you can move them with your fingers.  You feel that close.  Everything else fades away, just like it does in the movies, where the background, in this case the lapping water on the beach and the cicadas that normally serve as a monotonous, headache-inducing thrum, just disappears and you feel all alone in the world, in the best way possible.  Like you could just reach out, grab a star and fly away.

That feeling of being completely by myself, for the small amount of time that I wasn’t surrounded; quiet, alone, and watching this stunning show.  There are only a handful of other times in my life that I have genuinely felt that calm, peaceful and at one with the universe.

There are a lot of things that I didn’t want or need to experience while in PNG and on that island.  But that show every night, that experience – I would willingly go through the entire experience over and over again to see that and to feel that connected, and awed by what nature created.