Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Week 1.5

I'm sitting here typing this post with eyes as red as strawberries from the foam party I went to last night. Moans of agony can be heard from nearly everyone in the hostel, and eye drops are in short supply and high demand. It was a great time, a whirlwind of music and bubbles. You basically go like this: stand in the middle of the dance floor and dance your ass off while mounds of foam get doused on you from the canon above, then wander off the dance floor half blind as the foam starts seeping into your eyes. The turned into my favorite part of the night. As I reached the bar area, looking like the abominable soapman, I would try my best to rub against all the uptight losers who were trying to stay out of the a foam party.

After hearing this I'm sure you're thinking I'm not doing a very good job of staying out of the party scene. And you would be half right. It is difficult when you don't have a job and everyone is going out every night. I've booked a room in the hostel until next Thursday, and after that it's go time. If I don't have a job by then, it will be time to make a move to another place or accommodation. Yesterday things started to come together: I got my White Card and my Tax File Number, and had a job interview. It turned out to be for a labour agency instead of a real job, but I guess it's something. We'll see if it bears any fruit.

I've been wrestling with wear to head next, and the two choices are Newcastle or Melbourne. Newcastle is a smaller city on the edge of a mining region (which could mean lots of work), but everyone says go to Melbourne. Apparently it's been voted one of the most liveable cities in the world. I'll figure it out next week.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Great Experiment: Kyle In the West

It has officially begun. The experiment of Kyle's return to Western society. So far, meh. I've found myself checked into a hostel in the backpackers area of Sydney, immersed again in the "backpacking" scene full of travelers who are here chasing a party, thinking this is traveling. I've been doing my damnedest to keep myself out of this scene. I went out two nights when I first arrived, simply to blow of some steam. The first night turned out to be pretty lame, except for placing third in a pool competition. The second night was a little cooler. I went to a silent disco, which is basically a club where there's no music played except through the headphones every person is given. Two DJ's play on separate channels, so you could end up dancing with a bunch of people, grooving to a wicked track, and discover the confusion that arises when they start singing a totally different one.

Anyways, my desire to be in a night club ends there. The past couple nights I've abstained from going out with the usual crowd, only to here phrases like "you're not coming out?" or "don't you like girls?". Hearing the latter makes it hard for me to not say things like "I'm better than you". I don't think it's possible to tell people here that that's not what I came to Australia for, I did the party thing for four months straight in SE Asia, and now the objective is to work, make money and get the fuck out of the West again.

Being back in the city again is different. In some ways it's good, but in others it's bad. It's nice to have the amenities, but being back in the plastic society (especially because I'm downtown) makes me want to leave. Basically the past five days have been spent situating myself for Australia, getting my OH&S White Card, opening a bank account, getting a tax file number, etc. When I receive these things I'm thinking I'll bail out of Sydney (or opt for a non-backpacker suburb if I get a job here) in favor of a smaller setting.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Touchdown Sydney

Where have I landed? Aspects of this place seem hazy but have a glimmer of memory to me. Where is this place where cars stop to let me cross the road? The buildings look modern here. Taxi’s use meters? Pizza is actually served by an Italian guy! Hot water comes out of the tap so quickly here. I wasn’t expecting it, I almost scalded myself. Rules of the road? There are rules? Seatbelts? They don’t make you safe, they just make it hard to bail out of the car. People don’t pronounce L’s as R’s, weird. Jeans are supposed to cost $20, not $200! I think somebody put the decimal point in the wrong place on the beer flyers. Why is it so cold here? I can’t wear flip flops without looking like an asshole? Where am I? What is this place? WHERE THE FUCK IS KYLE!!???

End of the First Leg

It’s been nearly one year since I left home. What a year it has been. I hope these words come to me easily, there’s so much to write on here. It seems overwhelming to think about how long I’ve been gone for and how much territory I’ve covered. I’ve seen so many amazing things and met so many amazing people. I’ve hiked the highest mountains in the world, roamed a desert on a camel and scuba dived amazing reefs.

What should I say here? Have traveling changed me? You bet it has. I can definitely say I have a new way of thinking and looking at the world. I’ve really come to see how trivial and superficial life can be in the West. Get a good career, buy a house and fill it full of Ikea, Martha Stewart and Japanese electronics. Become a slave. I’ve come to realize how much more enriching it is to experience life through yourself instead of through a television. Seeing a nice beach or mountain scene on the TV can look amazing, but you can never soak it in like you can while standing in that same spot. Breath in the air, take that moment of tranquility and it will be the best thing you’ve ever done. Quit that job or take a leave of absence and travel, it will be the most rewarding experience you’ve ever had.

They say traveling broadens the mind, and I agree, it does. Being completely willing to break out of the comfort zone, drop the guard and open the mind brings in a tsunami of experiences that will enrich life. Don’t be afraid of the bad experiences, they make for some of the best stories. Being pick pocketed by Cambodian hookers made for one of the funniest stories of my trip. Nobody will care when you describe how amazing the room in your resort was or how many pina coladas you drank, but they’ll listen when you say how a Rajasthani sand dune blew in through the window of your train compartment or how you had to flush cockroaches down the shower drain of your shitty guest house. I did that numerous times.

Now that this leg of my trip is over, I can take my experiences back to the West and hopefully cast my worldly mind on it, maybe even make a difference. I’m going to make a valiant attempt at not getting sucked back into the monotonous life I was leading back home. Now begins the great experiment: Kyle’s return to the Western Society.

Combination Wrap-Up

Combination. That’s the word of the day today. My bus to the airport stopped for half an hour to await a connection with another bus, making me nervously close to the check in cutoff time for my flight. Only when I arrived there did I find out they pushed the flight back from 7:30am to 10:30am. The reason was they had combined two flights that day into one. It turned out to be not such a bad thing, however, I had free wifi to keep me busy for the three hours, then also the forth when the flight was delayed. Again I was nervous, this time about my 2:30pm connection out of Port Moresby. The plane was delayed no further and I was able to board. Thankfully I wasn’t last in line. An unlucky couple that were last in line were turned away from the plane on the tarmac when the plane turned out to be overbooked. I’ve heard of hotels being overbooked, but a plane? Anyways, I arrived in Port Moresby at 1pm and queued into the check in line, about a mile long due to another combination of two Air Niugini flights. I finished checking in ten minutes before the boarding time and finished my customs process and security check, arriving at the gate with barely enough time for a quick pre-flight piss.

So here’s the Papua New Guinea wrap up. During the whole ten months of traveling I had been looking forward to traveling this country, thinking of it as my pinnacle destination. It sure lived up to it. Although it’s still hard to pick a favourite out of Nepal, the Philippines and PNG, I can definitely say I had the richest experiences of my trip here. Never before have I felt so welcomed to a country by the locals, who seemed only too eager to show us their culture and customs. I’ve seen some incredible displays of culture and scenery, ranging from a jungle engulfed river to a breathtaking coastline to a high altitude mountain peak. I’ve checked a couple life goals off my list by seeing the Baining Fire Dance and climbing an active volcano. PNG truly is the land of the unexpected, a true treasure chest of adventure for those willing to open it for themselves. The whole time building up to this country all I heard was negative things about it: it’s unsafe, you’ll get eaten by cannibals, you’ll get killed by a tribe, bla bla bla. The lesson learned from traveling here: when you hear anything from an Australian about PNG, don’t fucking listen to them. If you have no business interests or aren’t a member of a clan, you’ll be fine. Don’t flash money and don’t wander around at night. You wouldn’t have any reason to do the latter in this country anyways, there’s simply nothing to do at night.

The good: The people. You’ll never find so many friendly people in the West as I’ve met in PNG. I can guarantee that, stamped, signed and sealed. Every stroll around town we were greeted with smiles and handshakes. Numerous people invited us to stay with them, and the ones that we did stay with completely surrendered themselves to giving us the most enjoyable experience we could possibly have. Notably among these are Augustine from New Ireland, Jonathan and his family from Bangus, and Cliff from the village outside of Mt. Hagen who’s name escapes me. The wilderness. It’s hard to find truly untouched wilderness like you can find in Papua New Guinea. Being in the jungle there makes it easy to believe that they are constantly discovering new species every year, as does it when you’re diving the pristine reefs of New Ireland. The culture. Some of the strongest I’ve seen in my travels. It was incredible to see people still living as they have done for the past hundreds of years, possibly thousands. I must also include the food here too. Not so much the meals themselves, but the fresh vegetables and fruit. The biggest and tastiest bananas, amazing sweet potatoes, fresh coconuts, exotic tropical fruit, and the freshest and tastiest vegetables I’ve ever had were some of things I got to enjoy.

The bad. The costs. I spent easily twice what I have in every other month of my travels. Thankfully traveling with Matt and being hosted in villages managed to cut the costs down substantially, as well as our breaks we caught with the Tourism PNG people in the Sepik. Flights were what killed us. They cost more per kilometre than they do in Canada, and often you have no choice but to take them due to the lack of road infrastructure in PNG. There’s hardly any tourism infrastructure in place for backpackers, the majority of it being geared towards corporate tourism, which is another reason hotels can charge the outrageous amounts they do. One thing I hate seeing is the way people are treated here. Abandoned is a good word. Abandoned by a government who’s officials are only concerned with lining their own pockets, stealing money from the future generations who have no choice but to tolerate the deteriorating education, health care and infrastructure systems. The violence here is also a major eyesore. It was hard to comprehend and accept how the local clans can war with each other over such petty things. The amount of alcohol abuse here is disturbing as well. Like I’ve said before, it’s common to see many young men pissed drunk in the morning or early afternoon, and it’s a given that they’ll be all over the streets at night (the chief reason you don’t wander around at night). Amazing as the culture is here, it’s dying quickly. It was sad to see that the young generation has no desire to continue the traditions of their fathers and grandfathers, instead opting to move towards the modern world which is leaving theirs behind quickly. Many times we were told there’s a story to this or that, only to inquire and be told they can’t tell us the story because it would take a whole day to explain. An obvious excuse for not being privy to the story.

The costs: PNG is EXPENSIVE. I spent more than double than what I would have in any other Asian country, and we did it very cheaply in comparison to most tourists here. I won’t break it up completely this time, but I spent a total of roughly $3900, onward flight included.

All in all I’m so glad I was able to visit this country and see the wonders it contains. Because of the culture death that is taking place, I feel very lucky to have had the means to come see these things before all that remains of them is pages in a history book. Apo sin! (middle Sepik greeting/farewell)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Lifting Me Highlands and Higher

The jolt of the airplane hitting the runway announced our arrival into the highlands, one of the most unpredictable places in Papua New Guinea. We collected our luggage and jumped into a PMV with some other tourists, among them a Romanian named Horia, who we had met in the Sepik, and his friend Cliff, a local who was hosting Horia through Couch Surfing. We had managed to secure a reservation at the Goldline Lodge by calling from the Sepik a week prior, a necessity during the time of the Mt. Hagen Cultural Show, one of the two most important Highland festivals. Unfortunately for us, we arrived at the hotel to find out the owner had died two days earlier and the hotel was being occupied by family who were in town for the funeral the following day. The manager was kind enough to offer us a room, but we took his insistence about being disturbed by wailing family members as a subtle hint that we should look elsewhere for accommodation. He and some of the staff were even more kind enough to drive us around to look for another place to stay. After looking at a hotel where a stay there would guarantee us annoyance by drunks, we called Horia to ask Cliff for advice.

After talking to Cliff we met up with them at his office and were invited to stay with them at Cliff’s traditional village just outside of Mt. Hagen. Despite being a little weathered from the Sepik, we took the invitation. While wandering around the market looking for food that evening we discovered that staying at the Goldline would have been a mistake. Across the street a funeral was in procession. By comparison, Westerners mourn quietly at funerals. Here the wails could be easily heard down the block. It’s easily discerned that people here feel loss very deeply and emotionally. The funerals can carry on for a few days, until all of the family has arrived from various parts of the country and has had their chance to mourn the deceased.

The night at Cliff’s village was spent in the cooking hut around the fire, baking potatoes and watching Horia prepare a large pot of delicious vegetable soup. It was a great forum, where we traded stories and facts about each other’s cultures and expanded our worldly minds. The only unwanted guest was the smoke from the fire, which due to lack of a chimney, sits at head level in the hut, making your eyes burn and water. Contrary my great engineering ability, Cliff wouldn’t let me smash a hole in the ceiling. Although the smoke was annoying, the heat of the fire made up for it by leaps and bounds. The cool air of the highlands was a shock to our systems, which had become used to the warm and humid oceanic and jungle weather we had been immersed in the past few weeks.

The next day we woke early and headed down to a large waterfall for a wash. It being a cold morning and I choosing to be a pussy, I declined to jump in and not subject myself to wet underwear for the rest of the day. After a quick stop and breakfast and Cliff’s office we jumped in with his staff and headed for the Cultural Show Grounds. Cliff is the director for the Mt. Hagen NGO for AIDS awareness and prevention which has a number of offices throughout PNG. The festival had two options for patrons: pay four Kina and sit in the outer ring to watch the show, or pay three hundred Kina and be front and center for the show, then have the ability to mingle with the cultural groups. After doing the latter at the Crocodile Festival in Ambunti, and due to the cost, we decided to pay the four Kina and stick with the NGO staff. One dick head security staff had another idea. He claimed to be on the organizing committee. I think he was lying and was just some random goof. His opinion was that because we were white, we had to pay the three hundred Kina to enter. “You can’t see our culture for free, you have to pay to see it. And if you can’t afford it, you leave here and go home” was his line, an ignorant attitude for an ignorant person expecting us to cave and pay him a bribe.

Fuck that, we weren’t going to satisfy him with a cent of our money. Instead we decided we’d had enough of fighting for the right to be in a festival that wasn’t a huge loss to miss, and walked off, intending to head back to Hagen and grab our belongings to start an early journey to Mt. Wilhelm. After waiting for half an hour, some security guards escorted us into the festival free of charge, obviously embarrassed and ashamed about the jackass misrepresenting them and the festival. We headed inside and took a position on the outer hill surrounding the rugby field where the sing sing groups were performing. The long distance views were unimpressive, so we made our way over to the gate where the sing sing groups were entering the field. There turned to be the absolute prime spot, where I was able to get a ton of close up snapshots of the performers as they danced into the grounds. The last group marched through the gate, the security staff scrambling to get it closed in time to stop the mad rush that attempted to break through. We were right there with the rush. It closed in the nick of time, shouts being exchanged from both sides of the fence. Spotting the two white heads in the crowd, a couple security guards called us over, inviting us to pay a “late fee” of twenty Kina to enter. Obviously a bribe, we decided these guys were much more deserving of it, and we paid. We were unleashed into the grounds, running around in front of all the tourists who had paid three hundred to get in. HA HA HA. It’s time like these I relish being an opportunistic backpacker in a country that only hosts luxury tourists that arrive on expensive pre paid tours and hide away in their hotels. Again, we mingled with the cultural groups, exchanging laughs and handshakes and taking a bunch of goofy photos.

The next day we departed Mt. Hagen on a PMV bound for Kundiawa, where we would catch another ride up the mountain to Kegesuglo, the base for the trek up the highest mountain in PNG, Mt. Wilhelm. We arrived there and found out catching a ride up the mountain was not going to be as easy as we had originally thought. The road up the mountain is notoriously rough, so only 4x4 vehicles are suitable, and with a bi-election going on, many of the trucks were being used for campaigning. As the day wore on, the son of a family that ran a guest house in Kegesuglo insisted that we be off the streets by 3pm, the time that election violence is likely to start. Elections in PNG are serious business, and people will resort to violence to support their political candidate. Not something you want to be caught in the middle of. As luck would have it, a pickup truck loaded with cargo arrived offering a ride up the mountain. It turned out to be not such good luck.

Riding around in the back of pickup trucks has become commonplace in my year of traveling, and that day it became apparent that I had been complacent towards the dangers that exist with this type of travel, dangers that have caused this activity to become outlawed back home. Wedged in the back of the truck between a load of tied down cargo and a tire sat upright against the tail gate, this day became the first time I’ve literally feared for my life. The truck bounced and bucked around on the road, hitting ruts half a foot deep, lifting us out of our seats. With my feet wedged between the tire and the cargo, I had no chance of bailing if things turned ugly. Hanging on for dear life, all I could do was look over the side of the box at the canyon inches away from our tire, a canyon that would surely spell my death if I was launched out of the box or if the truck rolled. The driver kept the gas pinned to keep the momentum through the muddy patches, sending the truck fishtailing dangerously towards deep ruts and giving his passengers a ride similar to a trampoline.
Eventually the truck was stopped by wet rocks that wouldn’t give the tires hope of a grip on their slippery surfaces. Deciding this was a good time to engage the four wheel drive (why the fuck he hadn’t done that at the start, I don’t know), we took a break to put on our rain jackets. This was the point where we discovered the driver was pissed drunk, staggering around and slurring his words. It was also at this point where it happened to be past the point of no return. We were committed. Our lives were in the hands of this drunk. Helplessness is not an enjoyable feeling.

The ride continued on as usual, being slammed around in the back of the truck on a road perched precariously high above a canyon. After a while it wasn’t that I felt safer and more comfortable, I just became used to being scared. All I could do was shake my head as one, two, and three SP beer bottles were discarded from the driver’s window. All this time the locals in the back with us, not sitting with us but hanging on to the sides of the cargo pile above the box line, had not a worry in the world. This was simply a way of life for them, the apparent risk to their lives unacknowledged.

Obviously because I’m writing this means I lived through this escapade. I can look back on this as a learning experience. Not all experiences of living like the locals are positive, it’s inevitable that you’ll end up immersed in the negative aspects at some point, and all you can do is hope that you come out of it unscathed. Sorry family, I know you’re probably shaking your heads at this post, but trust me when I say I’ll never be put in this situation again as long as I have something to say about it.

On the positive note, the mountain scenery of PNG is nothing short of beautiful. The lush valleys and mountains surround the classic, humble villages. The guest house we checked into was set among a beautiful, well manicured yard complete with flowers and stone walkways. Run by a lovely couple, we were treated and fed well. One of the biggest highlights of the region is the fresh vegetables that have one of the most suitable climates on Earth to grow in. They are the pure definition of organic, not a drop of chemical every touches them. And they are the best tasting veggies I’ve ever had in my life.

The soreness in our muscles convinced us to take a rest day in Kegesuglo and prepare for the trek up Mt. Wilhelm the following day. We wandered about the village, guided by a young boy who toured us through the gardens and showed us the various vegetables and fruits that they grow and forage from the wild. We attempted to acclimatize ourselves to the noticeably colder weather, which lowered into the single digits at night. It was this day that we received a text and subsequently called Horia, who had some crazy news to share. Apparently we had left Mt. Hagen in the nick of time. The evening after we left Horia had been waiting for Cliff at his office. Cliff entered around 6pm wearing war paint on his face. Tribal warfare had ignited with his enemy tribe, supposedly over the beating and mutilation of a woman (I’m not sure on which side), and now revenge was being called for. Cliff and Horia spent the whole night running around Mt. Hagen, hiding and attempting to find his family who was also in hiding. The entire village was on red alert, men patrolling the roads and trails armed with machetes and who knows what else. Horia eventually ended up making it to a guest house and to safety, but to this day we don’t know what came of Cliff, I can just hope he and his family are ok. It was unsettling to think that some of the friendly people that we had exchanged laughs and handshakes with could be dead right now. It goes to show that nobody in this country is untouchable from tribal warfare, even a person running an NGO for AIDS awareness. That being said, being educated paints a target as your back, as the enemy will see that person as valuable to the opposing clan, somebody that can bring in money. This is life in the Highlands. Tribal warfare is brutal and common, and can sometimes be fought over something as simple as a tiny strip of land to grow coffee beans.

After our rest day we started our trek up towards Mt. Wilhelm. We set out in the morning for the guest house, located at an alpine lake at the foot of the rocky mountain range. It was necessary to stay the night there acclimatize to the high altitude and because the trek up the mountain must be started at 2am to reach the summit by daybreak, after which the clouds will roll in and make the views totally obscured. The trek to the guest house was uneventful, a quick two hour hike through a moss covered forest. We arrived at the guest house to a cold wind and rain, dropping our bags and quickly lighting a fire in the small shelter. Our guide, Johnny ran out to the bus with his sling shot and quickly came back with a small bird he had killed, a green snow parrot. The man is a crack shot with his sling shot, nailing this one square in its thumb sized head. I can’t say it tasted great, more or less like overcooked chicken. That night we cooked a quick meal and hit the fart sack by 6pm to get all the rest we could for the very, very early hike the next day.

Enter 2am. We wake up to shivering cold and darkness. Working up the motivation we climb out of our sleeping bags and don our meagre layers that afford us a small amount of protection from the cold that I’ve become unaccustomed to the past year. That’s the thing about traveling light, being prepared for cold climates doesn’t go hand in hand with that doctrine. With flashlights in hand (Matt’s being a single LED on his cell phone) we started the slog up the mountain. Immediately stepping down the trail from the guest house, I don’t see and dunk my foot right into a mud hole. Now my right foot is soaked. The rest of the trail isn’t much better, the rain the previous evening has created runoff that is making its way down the mountain, lubricating the clay based mud on the slopes, making footing difficult.

By 5:30 am we were just below the col that signalled the approach to the summit. The first light of the day was just starting to show itself on the horizon, telling us we were a little being schedule for the sunrise. This was fine with me, the wind was cold and was also not something I wanted to be sitting in on top of the summit. Climbing further up the mountain marked the first time in a year and a half that I’ve slipped on ice. Matt and I left Johnny at the foot of the summit and scrambled up the rock chute, the last obstacle facing us. We reached the top, sitting on the rocks in the howling wind, quickly soaking up the amazing views and pain from our freezing hands. Should have kept those gloves from China. The sun was blazing on the horizon, illuminating this amazing shapes of the clouds that were creeping up from the valley below. Even though freezing cold, it was incredible to stand at the top of PNG and view the incredible landscape, on terrain I would have never imagined this country contained.

We made the long descent all the way back to Kegesuglo, where we arrived exhausted and sore. We also arrived to news that the guest house owners were gone due to their mother’s death and the funeral that was happening a few villages down, but we were still able to have a good meal and a good night’s sleep. At this point death was starting to become too commonplace around us and it was time to get out of the highlands. The next day we caught a ride in a truck back down the mountain. This time the driver was very sober and we rode in the front. This still did not stop us from getting stuck in the mud. It took us and the seven other locals to push it up the muddy slope. This marks the last adventure in PNG. Afterwards it was a simple PMV ride to Madang where we chilled out and did much of nothing for a couple days, and another PMV ride to Lae, where I sit in the airport at the moment typing the last of this post, waiting for my flight to Port Moresby that has been pushed back three hours. After all this time in PNG, I just realized all I had to do to get free wifi was come to the Lae airport!

The Sepik

The first stage of the Sepik adventure was a gruelling forty eight hours of hard traveling. My birthday was spent on a boat from Madang to Wewak, crammed on the deck with a hundred other Papuan’s, armed with a case of SP beer. As night time fell the conditions slowly became more and more cramped as people settled into their sleeping positions, occupying every inch of deck space. Sleeping with some persons feet or ass in your face became something you were forced to endure. Taking the inevitable piss after a number of beers became an ever harder affair. An obstacle course of bodies had to be negotiated, climbing over chairs and railings while trying to maintain a delicate balance amidst the rocking of the ship, all in the name of finding a clear path to the toilet on the deck below.

We arrived in Wewak around eight in the morning, tired from the fitful sleep on the boat. We caught a PMV to the market and connected on another one into the hills and towards Ralf Stuttgen’s house. A crusty old German expat, we read in the guidebook he had rooms he hosted travelers in, but on arrival we were shown an old, dirty room in a cobweb and spider infested home that hadn’t hosted a traveler in years. There in his toilet I saw the biggest spider I’ve seen on this trip so far, a creepy ground crawling monster the size of my hand. After seeing the conditions, the spider, and Ralf’s reluctance to host, we decided to find accommodation in Wewak town. Ralf was kind enough to offer us a ride and a lot of useful information about our upcoming Sepik River tour.

Ralf dropped us at an old, run down guest house run by an old Yugoslavian lady. Upon finding out we were backpackers, she lowered the rate of the room from one hundred Kina to a budget happy thirty five Kina, the first discount I’ve ever received for simply being a backpacker. There we met a guy, Roy, who was from the Middle Sepik and the son and brother of professional guides. We discovered our original plan of taking a PMV to Pagwi (the jump off point for the river) on Friday was flawed, as public river boats do not operate Friday through Saturday, and we would have been stuck in Pagwi, which is known for its roughness and not a place to hang around in. Now, after hardly any sleep or a decent meal, we were going to have to spend the whole night in a truck and then more subsequent hours in a canoe up the Sepik river. This triggered my grouch button with force.

Simply jumping into two weeks in a very remote area of Papua New Guinea with a guide we hardly knew and no food for the trip (it was too late by then to buy some) gave me a bad feeling, as if we were heading into hardship. With no other options present, we jumped on the PMV. The driver was kind enough to spare us from another cramped night in the back of an open air truck jammed full of cargo for the river villages, instead putting us up front with him. His name was Richard, an expert on negotiating a highway that looked like it had been bombed by fighter jets, and at avoiding dogs humping in the middle of the road. The system they have figured out is to leave at night and time the ride so they arrive at the river at the crack of dawn, just as the river canoes arrive from various points on the river. This makes for a lot of stops in the middle of the night, where to try to find a comfortable position to grab an hour of sleep, including laying on the highway.

We arrived in Pagwi just as the first light of the day made its appearance. Roy immediately found us a public canoe heading the Ambunti, our destination where we would base ourselves for the next two weeks and home to the Crocodile Festival that was scheduled for the 9th and 10th. We jumped in the dugout canoe, a long, black fifty foot spear shaped vessel carved out of an Erema tree and powered by a forty five horse outboard motor. Loaded chalk full of people and cargo and experiencing problems with water in the fuel pump, the trip up the river that was supposed to take two hours doubled into four. The sun shone down on us and the birds flew overhead, giving a visually pleasing ride. It felt like a scene from Apocalypse Now, cruising up a muddy river that snaked through the jungle with no idea what laid in wait for us upstream.

After arriving in Ambunti we checked into a lodge there and started to devise a plan for our near future. Another bout of bad news was what came. It would be difficult to catch both days at the Crocodile Festival and make it back to Wewak in time for out flight to Mt. Hagen on the 11th. It was obvious we would have to fly out, the two options being either fly out mid day on the 10th and missing some of the most important day of the festival, or fly out on the morning of the 11th and risk a very tight schedule to make our flight at 12:40 to Mt. Hagen the same day. We left our money with the flight operator with a promise of finding out within a few days our flight date, which in reality we would not find out until two days before the actual flight.

That day Roy met an old man, Jonathan, a clan chief in the neighbouring village of Bangus, just across the mountain from Ambunti. With an invitation to stay at his home, we departed Ambunti the next day to trek to the village. It became a steep mountain climb in oppressive jungle temperatures, making my body temperature climb to near heat exhaustion levels, triggering my body to sweat buckets, sweat like I’ve never sweat before. After descending from the peak we then had to negotiate the muddy and water logged trails of the jungle swamps. A walk that normally takes two hours took us four and a half. We arrived in the village with warm welcomes and a refreshing coconut, fell from the tree right before our eyes. We spent the rest of the day meeting the many members of Jonathan’s family and sharing stories.

The next few days were spent being toured around the village, meeting and talking with other residents. We were well treated to hearty meals of yams, sweet potatoes, jungle greens, fish, and infamous sago. Sago is the staple diet of the Sepik River Region. The process of harvesting sago starts with cutting down the tree and stripping off the bark and the vicious thorns that defend its resourceful insides. With the bark removed, the pulp is shaved off with the precise swings of an inverted club-like tool made specifically for the task. The finely mashed pulp is then put into an angled chute made out of a hollowed palm trunk, where it is soaked with water and squeezed through a screen that strains the flour into a another horizontally placed trunk, where the flour settles to the bottom and the water drains. The refuse is then thrown into a pile where sago mushrooms will grow to become the tastiest mushrooms I’ve ever eaten. Even the grubs that eat the sago trees are harvested and eaten for protein. They tasted much like sago but the texture is undesirable.

Much of the ten days also included walks around the jungle, all done barefoot in the spirit of living like a local. The trails there are some of the worst I’ve ever hiked. The dense, clay based mud creates slippery conditions comparable to ice, and lubricates the feet even after you’ve passed through. Some sections are completely underwater, making foot placement a precarious affair. Sago thorns present another hazard, waiting in the mud to bury itself in the foot of a poor sap who happens to step in that area. They are a bitch to dig out of your foot, too, and often result in an infection. Luckily I never had one that made it to that stage, unlike Matt who had a couple infections in his foot that plagued him even after we left the area.

After a few days in village we were starting to be treated more like family than guests. We worked with the boys, hauling logs out of the jungle to be used for building a house for Rex, one of the young sons of Jonathan. Every day we bathed and washed our clothes in the cool, fresh jungle river just down the hill from the village. Three times a day we ate what the locals ate: sweet potato, sago, bananas, and some form of protein, usually fish. One day we were served bandicoot, which one of the ladies killed in the garden that morning. I have to say it was pretty tasty. I’ve also eaten more bananas in those ten days than I have my entire life. On the Sunday we joined teams and played soccer with the locals, doing the same thing the following Sunday, that time slightly intoxicated from the home jungle brew we drank that afternoon. I’ll address that in the next paragraph.

One aspect of life in Papua New Guinea is home brew. Many people brew it and everyone drinks it as a very cheap alternative to beer. It’s usually brewed out of coconut, banana, sugar cane, papaya, sugar, and yeast. Even though it’s a jail sentence if you’re caught brewing, most people have the equipment and know how to brew their own. Rex and Simion, the two young men we spent the most time with, had a “kit” which includes a two gallon gas tank, a hose, the brew mix, and several empty Coca-Cola bottles. They set up in a homemade fortress in the swamp, a hideaway protected by a grove of thorny sago trees. While brewing it’s necessary to hide, not from the police, but from the rest of the village members, who if are made aware of steam, will show up in large numbers to drink it. This is an apparent problem in PNG, much like the problem that was introduced to Native Americans hundreds of years ago. Until white men showed up, nobody in PNG had ever tasted alcohol, and now it’s an epidemic. It’s common to see many drunks on the street during the day, and a lot at night (one of the reasons not to go out at night in this country). And when people here drink, they drink hard. A bottle of steam is not sipped causally. Instead it is passed around in shots and doesn’t stop until the supply is exhausted, usually ending up in everyone getting really, really drunk. Due to everyone wanting alcohol so badly, there are many fights over it, a lot of them very, very violent. So after brewing steam that morning, by 2pm we were pissed and entered in a soccer game, this time playing for the local Bangus teams. Matt became the first white man to score a goal in Bangus.

After the ten days were up we departed the village, headed for Ambunti and the Crocodile Festival that was taking place the next day. Our walk out of the village was through a mud hole of a swamp with many members of the family. And that’s not an understatement either, I sank past my knee a few times. Thankfully the village women carried our backpacks for us. I felt like a pussy compared to these village women, but after seeing that, I’ve concluded they’re stronger than most Western men. After negotiating that hell hole we arrived at the lake to catch a motorised canoe. We cruised the lake under sunny skies, soaking up the rays and taking in the beautiful scenery around us. After a quick stop off in Maruwai, a lakeside village, we arrived in Ambunti where we stayed with at a house owned by Paco, who’s wife is from Bangus.

The next day we sorted out our flight and waited for the festival to start. And waited. And waited. Another classic example of things running on PNG time. Purely by dumb luck we happened to meet some people from the PNG Tourism Agency while looking for a phone book in the Ambunti Lodge, and were invited to come along on a canoe trip to see some other villages along the river. It was another sunny day on the canoe, enjoying yet more amazing river and lake scenery. One highlight was taking a river shortcut through a narrow, jungle lined canal, chasing Heron’s out of their resting places and marvelling at the canoe handling skills of the guide.

If a free canoe trip wasn’t enough, the PNG Tourism people invited us to hitch a ride with them back to Wewak after the festival the next day, which allowed us to cancel our flight and ended up saving us over a hundred dollars. The first day of the festival not much went on, and by the morning of the next day the rain was pouring and the hopes were looking grim. However, by 11am the rain stopped and things started rolling. We were front and center by the time the sing sing groups started marching in, me snapping away with my camera as always. The groups consisted of people from many villages from all over the Sepik, all decorated and coloured in different designs. After the main march we wandered around the grounds, viewing the still performing groups. Instead of just walking around like every other tourist, we did as we always do and jumped right in to interact with the groups, Matt kicking it off by jumping into a sing sing group and becoming furnished with a palm frond and a live baby crocodile slung over his chest. We took many more pictures of us goofing off with the groups, making a rainy day into a great experience. We departed Ambunti after a sad and happy goodbye with the family, all of us feeling rewarded by our time together.

The journey back to Wewak really isn’t worth talking about in detail. An ok boat ride, followed by a turbulent and stomach wrenching drive back to Wewak. The steak dinner (another gift from the PNG Tourism people) was definitely a nice bonus. All in all, my experience in the Sepik was nothing short of amazing. We were taken in by a family of village people and treated like one of their own. I have never in my life seen hospitality like we were treated to in those ten days, and I shall never forget it or them.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Still Alive

I'm sure you all worry for my safety and wonder why I haven't posted
in over two weeks, so here's why: I just spent two kick ass weeks in
the jungle in the Sepik River region! Nine days until Australia, where
internet is cheap and regular and I'll be able to write up some
awesome posts, so stay tuned!