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 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.