Last weekend, Sunday to be exact, day of rest, I came back from Hagen on a PMV to Madang. There is no longer a direct flight between the towns, so, short of paying enrmous amounts to fly home, I found a PMV. It came recommended by someone working at the Highlander Hoel, and arrived here to pick me up at 7.30 AM, a very good sign. Friendly driver and offsider wantoks greeted me and explained they were off to Madang on a betelnut run. We trolled the town for passengers, but spent most of the next hour or so at the main bus stop outside the market where every kind of charmless cinderblock ugliness passes for development.
Kids are actually homeless now in Hagen, and alot of then hang out at the bus stop, hustling for toea, or for nothing. They cling to uncles and brothers who sell stolen biros and single smokes and stolen rucksacks as they walk through the deisel fumes between buses. vendors selling buai and smokes from broken ironing boards, men who gulp all the smoke before inhaling. Hands in pockets, hats resting on he top of the head. Bowl cuts, shaved heads, cornrolls, dreads, spit and market trash and buai everywhere. Big football sized bare feet maneuvering emounds of cucumber and pawpaw rinds and wopa bisket wrappers.
I remember a morning in the New Delhi bus station over twenty years ago that exuded deep human despair to me then, and this is only marginally more cheerful on a Sunday morning, especially as I considered the ten to twelve hours ahead of me. Hideous colours for laplaps here, I have no idea why; vomit and army green and mauve with touches of orange. Ochre and umber and black and greeny yellow. Colours not to be worn on a full stomach, paired with acrylic jumpers in overripe blues and reds, for women in cornrolls, with fendi bags and transgender allure, brows tweezed to a rapidograph line, spitting orange streams from great muzzles of buai. Bob Marley and Tupak still the Krishna and Shiva of PNG t shirt culture. Jackets hanging by their hoods, thermal vests, babies in bilums and draped with clean new light blue blankets. Barets and ropes of leathery folds on the men's faces, neckless bears of mean with broken sneakers, 6 pocket shorts, rugby shirts, baseball caps and hooded anoraks. Kids with skeletal baseball caps and no shoes. Dirty trousers under Sunday meri blouses, with cardigans and long woolen kilts. I also remember crying once, as a preteen, when my mother refused to buy me a similarly hideous terrycloth pantsuit with yellow horizontal stripes (she was a wise woman, or a kind one, or just appropriately ashamed), and now I know where that outfit found its destiny, if only in spirit. Here and there a breathakingly beautiful young woman with a baby, or a boyfriend, like flame of the forest in the midst of deep greens. All the overhead powerlines hanging running shoes like temple offerings, to the god we always, for some reason, assume to be atheletic.
Two hours later, after the usual waltz from bus sop to bus stop calling out GorokaKundiawaRamuMadangRamuWararaisMagangMadangMadang! for takers, jockeying with other better looking vehicles (many of whom did have a rear window and not a panel of duct tape), we pulled out of town. Considering the speed with which we took off, and the way my stomach lurched wih the tippy wheel base, I felt sure Id be home by dusk, in time for dinner with the kids. Of course I had determined not to eat or drink myself, as a female pee is very near impossible on most of these trips, but I did have a few oranges and bananas from the highlander breakfast buffet table, plus a few Hubba Bubba to fight the fur balls in my mouth. Very soon, though, I learned that this was to be a very long excursion, a holiday vyage for our Hagen passengers, all of whom but one (the bus owner's Dad) were under 35 and ready to party. Fortunately for them this can now be easily accommodated all across the highlands highway in clustering bus stops and way stations that have become semi-permanent settlements and beer halls with billaird tables, darts for SP games, kai bars and markets, even discos, every few miles between Hagen and the Ramu Valley.
Round about 10 Am the driver stopped off to top up fuel and have his first (?) SP behind the roadside stall, while everyone else stumbled out for a piss and a smoke and a 'paintim maus' with buai.. As the only woman, I crossed my legs and waited to set off again. As the morning grew older, the passengers grew friendlier and were accommodating enough to stop for me when I said I wanted tomatoes, then later when they knew I could find a good bush to piss. It was a pleasant enough tavern on wheels, as eventually everyone (all 14 of them) had six packs at their feet from winning darts, and were tempering their spak with sausage rolls and fried bananas along route.
This also made for alot of interruptions, as one by one, in no particular order, they would order the bus to halt for a pee. Everyone piles out for a smoke, a game of darts again, maybe a go at the billard table where two seven or eight year old kids are skillfully handling enormous pool cues. There are plenty of women around at these stops, and at Sisi Creek (Young Creek) in Morobe, just before the mountains flatten out to the Markham plains, the daytime atmosphere is almost healthy, with market stalls and good cheer, but I know from experience the night gets rough, with a disco and girls dancing aimlessly under one flouro bulb outside a main shack, SPs in hand, waiting for men to pull them into the urine-drenched grass behind. But this is the big pow wow of pit stops because all vehicles coming and ging from the highlands are compelled to stop at the once lovely elbow in the road, where a creek runs below the highway, to form convoys for the route west, or break tension from speeding through the Kompri Valley and miraculously not being held up this time, or fleeced by the police who have forgotten to prevent hold ups. This was where, after all my fellow passangers got over the fact that 'mi ambuge blong bifo yet' I pulled out my cd player and put on the Best of Bowie (for some reason) to pretend to be alseep.
Three PM passed, then 4 PM, then five oclock and the skies grew tinged with grey. A short rainfall, and then a downpour as we travelled through Markham like a bullet through dense fabric. The pouding noise on the bus and the cumulative effect of SP made everyone groggy and sedated, ad eventually the entire cab were singing in harmony--singing long dolorous Hagen songs in Melpa, then funny pop songs in Pidgin, then chant-like songs in rounds, which individuals added onto by inventing the next verse. I took off my earphone and slumped to the glass on the right side of the bus, just behind the driver, and truly relaxed. It was like a concert, or like being in the midst of a great compensation payment without threat from the enemy: just rythmic full-throated song, with the occasional semi-spak explanation to the Missus that this is how we pass the time and keep the driver from falling asleep. Despite all the smoke haze and the burp-farting jokiness, I loved this collegiality, and began to remember what Hagen used to be like for me in the good times.
Eventually the song would die down, someone would tell another stupid joke, they would fall into the mechanical humm of rain and engine and a big darkness outside, and then someone would start the song again, with a new verse. It was now the last leg and we were through the Gogol and on to Madang town. I was happy and sleepy and anxious to get home to my own toilet after 12 hours of lumpy seats.
It must have been Amele, just passed Umuin, when the rock came.
It was dark and all I felt was shattering pellots of window glass all over my face and front, as my fellow passengers barked. It took a few second but I realised this explosion had been a rock and it barely missed my nose in a trajectory right across the sea and out through the opposite window. Such propulsion, it was impressive, and then very scary a I realised I was not hurt, had no blook anywhere, but had almost, by a hair's breath, been beammed, maybe killed. The bus drove on a bit before stopping and everyone realized the windows were shattered, the owner's father crying already about how this was a brand new bus (!), why did they do this, and people scrambling out, stompung the dark road, as we rawled ahead to where another PMV had stopped after passing us.
It looks bad, and my drunken co-riders are shouting, searching the seats for their bushknives and the roadside for heavy stones. I get out shaking my head and clothes, pleading for us to go on please and not to start a fight, to go to the police and send them back and all that. But no one listens. The engine is cut and all the riders are cross the culvert to the trees and behind, where I can hear screams rom the village, people yelping and barking and obviously arming themselves for a good fight. Please let's go! I say to one man on the road with me, and he says very commandingly that nothing will happen, I will not be hurt, they will just have a talk. Righto. A Talk.
Suddenly everyone's running back to the bus as more stones are thrown and several men are lumbering under the burden of one man who is hurt. I duck down as if to disappear in my seat and then the door slides shut and we're off under the bellows and cries of the men. One of them is lying on the floor covered in blood and I realise he's had a big canned spam size chunk of his upper arm taken off and blood spilling from a cut on his head. The bus is speeding now across Gum Bridge and everyone's arguing about whether to go to the police or the emergency ward first, and we drive into the emergency ward within minutes, where I stumble out with everyone, shaken, as they lift the bloodied man onto a stretcher and into the ward. Hageners are crying, nurses are crowding around, and I find my mobile hone to call Jacob for a pick up, realizing only just now how lucky I am to be here, to be home, to be sober and not from Hagen.