Part 2 of 3
Awim has become the Penale frontier town. From the verandah of our house I feel a bit like brothel owner in Deadwood, pacing the limbum palm and scrutinizing the neighbourhood. Where’s the mute? Is that Richard now eight years old?
As befits a frontier, people are always going to and from the bush, stopping of at garden and hunting camps along the Karawari and up by their caves. I remember a vision of a woman her small son and daughter and their tethered pig, stumbling down through the river from the mountains, carrying loads of wood and garden food on their backs, some twenty years ago when I first visited Awim. It was barely a village at that time, and the houses were so flimsy someone actually apologized to me, embarrassed, saying: We’re just learning to make houses you see. Now I look over the bamboo railing at the swept dirt below and think of the floor of the Chicago garage after the St Valentine’s Day Massacre because covered in big deep red splatterings of red---but not blood, it’s betelnut juice.
Cedric is Sebi’s second-last child, 6 now, always naked and motherless for a year now. He’s goofy, with a furrowed brow, toggling a lazy lower lip, male pattern baldness, and the boxy physique of a middle aged man. His older brother Silas, when I ask him what he’d like to do after school (he’s in 9th grade now, home for the holidays) ---would he like to be a teacher maybe? (We need one in Awim). No, he shakes his head and says, I want to be a plumber.
Has he ever seen a flush toilet? Then I remember that Sebi returned from our glamorous trip to the World Conservation Congress in Jeju with printed pictures of the hotel's vibrating, heated, musical toilet: captired as lovingly as a pilgrim's shrine.
Obo the baby muruk is gone now. She grew to a cantankerous teenage cassowary who stole sago from everyone and fought with the dogs, so they chased her into the bush where she was caught by Imboin villagers and killed. Eaten.
Ive brought two of my five grandchildren with me this round, and the rest are just downriver at Yimas. They come in turns to us in Awim just because they’re so disruptive---and hungry. Every time I turn around someone’s asking ‘Bubu can I have a noodles?’ But Nancy Jr needs a break from carrying the baby Wilma and JJ, well JJ is that perfect age. He’s six, like Cedric, and just as goofy, pulling faces, crossing his eyes, drinking in the attention he gets now that he’s away from the pack. Ive never felt him so all over me as on this trip, and I wonder if he’s thought about this himself and wished he were an only child. So far his big accomplishment has been learning to swim and almost getting the handle of flips from the river rocks with his big bossy sister.
All the small talk produced in the course of a day here, hanging around and chewing buai, baking bread in the drum oven, speculating about unimportant things. Saying them over and over again. Tomi explained yesterday about how Penale language often uses syllogisms of a sort, so that someone will want to covey that he or she is going to the bush and will say it three times, like: I’m thinking of going to the bush, the bush is where I want to go, so I will be going to the bush. And so forth. Most of my Pidgin conversations cover the same ground. Someone says ‘I wonder when the team will come back.’ Someone else says,’ They will come.’ Another says ‘Vincent will tell us when he hears if they’re coming.’ ‘They will come,’ someone else says. ‘We’ll hear from Vincent and he will tell us.’ Someone says again: ‘ They will come.’ And so it goes.
Put two people on a palm bench in warm weather anywhere in the world and they’ll come around to this very same repartee eventually. The actually performance of consensus-making prevents everyone else from making inventive or suppositional comments, because agreement is the best form of self-censorship. It is mind numbing. I once sat in the Divine Word University staff room during a break and heard twelve people repeat platitudes to each other in the most remarkable way. In English. The sort of things your grandmother used to blather on about. Today is the first day of the rest of your life, You never really know what you have until its gone, What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, This too shall pass, and Life doesn’t give you things you can’t handle... as if they were passing around bursnished wall plaques...Again and again like choral canons, preserving the customary pause between comments that prevents awkward overlaps. Everyone wound down and as they left the room and added the all-important, Have a Blessed Day.
I love that Tok Pisin accommodates this kind of gibberish production just like English, but I’d never considered local language as having the same repetitions, but Tomi’s observations make me wonder now. I tend to think people are conveying important information in vernaculars all around me, when indeed they may be saying little more than They will come. Or, Every cloud has a silver lining.
On the water
Our big canoe and 40 hp motor is the like a rock star’s motor home zooming through the Arafundi and Karawari. Everyone knows it by sound if not by sight. I like to hunker down and conform to the soft corners inside, but when we draw upriver to some of the more remote villages I sit tall and wave at everyone, pleasantly surprised when they know me enough to sing out my name or yelp for Lapun Meri! (Old lady: the great backhanded compliment of PNG).
But nothing beats zipping through these waterways, between the towering facades of forest on both sides. The big trees have creepers hanging down from them like sheets thrown over the furniture in a stately home. We’re the realtors coming to check the property while the are at the shore.
Birds cross overhead constantly, from canopy to canopy---it might be a game for them, flitting like trapeze artists across the abyss, who knows? And we bounce along the big muddy boulevard behind
cormorants who race along the surface just ahead of us. Everything is about levels here, layers of
horizontal planes and the rising and falling of water that reveals something new every day. Hydrodynamic revelations, shifting sediment at the crook at every river bend. Here a garden hut is half submerged, there a sandbank irises from a dry spell. Bamboo rafts might be family
homes under water. A bonsai in midstream is really the top of a great casuarina tree. As the water rises, that gap between the foliage overhang and the water surface shrinks to a tongue a groove snugness. And when the water is very high the edge of the canopy gets dragged down underwater like a bath mat slipping into the tub.
And when you look right into the rainforest on each side, it’s all a mess, just a big mess of uncombed hair after a shower, covered in creepers and lianas and teased up by sago and pandanus undergrowth. A beehive after a long night of dancing. But riding up the river is also like a Disney
studio tour through the back lots where all the scenery is stacked up against big blank walls. Big looming Dr Suessian characters loom behind. And here the silhouette of Yoda, and there a laughing duck. These palisades of vegetation are dense and accordion-like in one spot and then opened with a horizontal rain tree or a stand of pitpit grass in another, and here and there someone has abandoned the sago processing apparatus and moved on, leaving evidence of some strange cultural production like the racks and pulleys of an abandoned Pilates studio.
When you hunker down in the canoe you almost feel like a luge racing downhill, through the forest like bullet. But for most people who paddle along slowly without motor assist the experience is
more like walking through a long trellised arbour or driving slowly along a quiet rural roadway. In a slow motor canoe its like trolling through the suburbs really, passing so many barricaded lawns and big homes hiding pretty backyard gardens. There are nature strips and alleys and play houses and sheds on both sides, in the form of sago tree plots and small openings in the canopy that reveal a yam garden or a tight baret with a waiting canoe. Every place another story, every frontage of rainforest really series of habitations with stories and memories and laws of tenure and usufruct.
Along a stretch of sandbank between Yimas 2 and Yimas 1, on the western side, someone has stuck a traditional yipwon carving in the mud which for some reason our driver Albert refers to as Mr
Kongop. In the sunshine I can spy beautiful blond hairs running down Pauly and Nancy’s deep brown backs. Pauly is telling me stories about Walter the Farting Dog and the Mankey Monster or
Wonkey Donkey, one or the other. No surprise they’re gross but funny.
Cicadas purr and clatter as the afternoon passes in Awim Village. A toddler is dragging a mouse by its tail, and it looks like it’s still alive because when an adult, one of his uncles, takes it and pretends to flick it away, the child yelps in great pain and its given back to him, still writhing away in an attempt to escape.
Nancy Jr gave Sandra, Sebi’s daughter, a blow up beach ball which was promptly expropriated by her older brother, but she never even whimpered as it left her hands, as if this were just the right of older brothers everywhere. In this as in so many other ways, my kids bear the marks of a slightly different upbringing, and I know with certainty that Nancy would pummel her younger brothers to a pulp were they to dare pull a beach ball from her hands.
It’s a nuance made clearer to me by a book I’m reading of Lawrence Osborne’s called The Forgiven. We’re thrown into a weekend house party with British expats in Morocco who enjoy such a well-lubricated protective membrane around themselves, their pleasures and priorities, their carnality, that it takes a tragic car accident to pierce the membrane and see the Moroccans all around them. And when they do, the most smug and xenophobic (albeit pleasant) of them gets a rough lesson in family, tradition and largesse.
All of that is by way of saying my kids a slightly more possessive than their peers in Awim, although primarily between themselves. Food and objects pass effortlessly between them and the Awim kids, but if I dare apportion more biscuits to Pauly than Floydy, I will never live it down. And when I teach nancy how to do my mother’s the fancy croupier car shuffle, while we play Go Fish, the exact same amount of time must be spent instructing JJ too.
Nancy reports that her brother can now swim in Yimas because his cousin chewed mushrooms and spat this on his knees and elbows, which did the trick apparently. Yes, I remember the days when mushrooms did similar tricks for me. Another cousin, she tells me, went to heaven. ‘Heaven?’ I ask, as we shuffle some more. ‘She fainted in church,’ Nancy tells me, and I’m trying to visualize this because the Yimas villagers have a new evangelical thing going these days with a lot of hell and brimstone and hands on healing. Are they snake handling? I wonder. Nancy tells me the cousin fainted in church and went to heaven and got a present up there and came back, but she cannot talk about the present for a long time or she will die. ‘I see,’ I lie. Story or not story?
You have to ask these questions with Nancy sometimes; she’s a vivid fantasist in her spare time. (Turns out this IS a story and her father tells me no such thing ever happened). But now she says, “They took a scorpion from mummy’s back and a piece of bark from my stomach, during a healing.” OK, now this is weird. This is where the cultish aspects of Christianity articulate too well with traditional medicine and healing ceremonies and it’s hard to read whether this is some ordinary useful purge (although it would take a lot more than a scorpion to completely rid Nancy’s mother of what ails her) or some funky new belief system that involves antediluvian First Testament literalisms about arks and death to homosexuals and Papists, or what.
And while Im still mulling this over, she blithely transitions into a dream about building a very cool tree house in the Sullivan family house on Lake Champlain, which represents a kind of Tarabithia of Euro-Disney paradise to her because instead of real rainforest, malaria and spear fishing for dinner, there are hotdogs, ear buds, a tree house and not one, but five bicycles for as many sizes of kids in the garage.
This year Nancy Jr has become a Know It All. Or a Wanna Know It All, to be exact. And it isn’t curiosity that drives her, its power. In quintessentially Sepik fashion, she strives to
cultivate a knowledgeable mystique. Open source and transparency mean nothing here, where even preteens try to glean specialized information from the technical to the ethnographic to the overly personal to gain advantages in the constant warfare of family and community. She likes to correct my Pidgin, and when her cousin waves at me from the riverside and I call out her name, she
says “How do you know Claudia?” and I have to tell her (with smug pleasure) that I’m her grandmother too. She tells me about the way her Yimas aunties make palm prints with clay on their bodies when they dress for a singing, and how they make squiggles on their palms to give the print a twist, and how one of them even draws a face on her hand that’s supposed to be a crocodile...and I am always eternally impressed, even as I wonder when it will occur to her that I have lived here longer than she’s been alive. She needn’t explain PNG to me because Im white.
Then she moves on to some outrageous story about her cousin dying in church, or pulling scorpions from her mother’s back, and the line is crossed: I realize she is ticking off every kind of social and mechanical esoterica as a means of one-upmanship. That’s when I realize: she is so ME. The lines are blurred now between her being marginally crazy like her mother or just familiarly narcissistic like her grandmother. Is it my influence after all---or am I deluded to see myself in her protean Caitlan Moran flat-footedness feminism and self confidence? All I know is that mothers who are periodically despised by their pre-adolescent daughters endure a special kind of loneliness. I’ve definitely been Nancy Jr in my past.
We bring our household customs to Awim with us, and make popcorn and play cards while the Awim kids study our peculiar habits and customs. They are the Moroccans at the gate and even as everyone calls me Mum or Grandma (Bubu), they also treat me gently, like a slightly overripe fruit. I take comfort that I have my own band of slightly overripe fruits around me like an old mah jong club in a San Francisco park. Only we’re a mah-jong club with Floydy, age 3, whose gravelly voice and lozenge like feet make him a human Hannah Barbera cartoon. And on cue, Yorba from beneath is mosquito net, where he’s resting, clicks on his mobile phone radio as it plays a tinny Indonesian song that he seems to know the words to. Then Siggy bounces across the limbum palm floor (because limbum is like living on a trampoline) saying Ah yes, this is the song about a broken heart and a soldier isn’t it? (They’ve all spillover from West Papua). It sort of makes me yearn for a
I dream of writing a column now for the newspaper, or maybe new PNG women’s magazine called Stella, which offers ethnographically informed insights to readers, cloaked in bromides and sometimes in-jokes. One like Margaret Mead used to write for Redbook years ago. Lapun Meri’s Wisdom, that sort of thing. But filled withdescriptions of the things that confound me, too, for example, the small kid in Yimas we passed today who wore a sheet of sago bark palang as a balaklava, with a perfect oval cut out for his face. What’s that about? Childhood? Exhibitionism? Terrorism perhaps.
We stopped to restock our peanut butter at Pion’s trade store, and Ambrose the recently re-elected Yimas Councillor tells me about the ongoing Sanguma fears haning over Yimas and Awim and Imboin. Apparently this is the sorcerer who took Lukas’ brother’s life last month, and Sebi’s wife Anna before that. He or she strikes in threes, they say, so everyone’s in high alert. Bonny tells a story about hanging two pieces of dried fish in a small pandanaus basket over the smoke fire overnight and finding only one, swear to god, in the morning. He figures the Sanguma comes round sniffing for food, betelnut and smokes just to scare us.
Then there’s the story from Imanmeri. This happened last week when someone came home from the gardens to find his house burnt to the ground. He went on a rampage and not only killed the chief suspect but chopped this poor man up by bushknife into six pieces: head, arms, legs and
torse, before the entire village. Imanmeri is just that far into the swamp, the story is just harrowing enough, to sound like Arafundi urban legend, but in fact the police were here a few days ago, picked him u for the cells in Angoram and now they’re rumoured to be coming back. To shoot him! Everyone says, as if they’re standing in the OK Corral. Bonny says he was a homebrew-drinking pot-smoking ‘drug bodi’ who deserves to die. But is he that Sanguma? I ask. No no no, Bonny says. Just a drug bodi. Last week a young woman from Wombrumas drowned while she was fishing, and an Amonggabi boy went swimming at Munduku, just after we landed last week, and his body floated up downriver hours later. Never underestimate the current.
Kentish, our chief Forester, is a Gorokan with full beard, bald head, blackened betelnut teeth, and a little soul spot on his forehead where a child might have fringe. He’s scarier than a Netflix series about serial murderers, and yet my kids are more frightened of frozen wood nymphs in Narnia than they are of this buai-chewing, chain smoking, red-wig sporting highlander whose speech is almost indecipherably garbled. I swear he’s explained things over and over to me so many times I’ve given up and said, ‘Em nau, mi save” just to close down the topic. He’s telling a funny story now, though, and I can glean this much: he and a team have been stranded in the bush after a project for Chevron somewhere, with no food left but one jar of peanut butter. They’re waiting for a chopper to come fetch them and taking slow fingerfuls from the jar for hours, to stave off hunger. Finally the
big guy with the fattest finger gets shouted down by the rest for hogging portions.
The Meakambut come in by drips and drabs, to sit around and eat sago and rubbermouth fish cooked in coconut thanks to Marta’s deft hand. They’ve spent the day in training with Kentish, Lindsay, Jacinta and the rest, so they feel very smug and educated now, scientists in their own right. Indeed they are, because these are the precious informers who know more about any single plant in their bush than most other Papua New Guineans. Our precious Meakambut were barely making first contact, so to speak, five or six years ago, and now they’re here trying tinned fish and telling dirty jokes with some of our scruffiest lot, like Albert.
Later in the week, when the scientists go work with them in their bush, at the Kandamkunda camp, the ‘pastor’ Jack (and i give him inverted commas not so much because I doubt his credentials but because Im not even sure he’s self-professed as such) asks Yorba and Jacinta for help finding him a gold buyer from overseas. They’ve all been panning gold in their rivers, and searching for the best deals offered by local buyers around the Sepik. Gold is K70-75/gram when bought by the people downriver in Yimas, K60 in Ewa territory, K90 in the provincial capital of Wewak, K95 in the town of Maprik, K120 on the city of Lea, and K200-300 in Port Moresby.
Jack tells Jacinta confidentially (Jacinta, who happens to be a beautiful young environmental scientist from Popendetta), that when he has enough cash from his gold he will buy himself an educated wife (wink wink?) so she can handle the business for him. In any event, he says, if
she finds a good buyer for him he promises to buy her a laptop computer.
“A laptop computer? Did he say that?”
“That’s what he said. A laptop computer.”
I find a bag of children’s clothes some friends in Australia have donated, and they get passed around to the Meakambut for their kids high atop Mt MacGregor. The Meakambut are so small that someone’s wife is going to wind up wearing those children’s clothes.
It may seem that Im oblivious to the dents and bends of my own impress on the Penale people. All the kids are wearing Marta’s dresses, for example, and they have schoolbooks because of us, and have gotten used to this old white missus bathing in their river. But its hard to clock my more significant effects on the village, not to mention the idiosyncratic influences. We brought Sebi to Korea, after all, and that blew his mind. We’ve shown cds to the village about Ok Tedi and other parables of environmental disaster, and these have –we know—blown their minds, so to speak.
But hearing that Jack, who had never seen a white missus or had anything more sophisticated than a Pidgin Bible before 2007, is now talking laptop computers—that blows MY mind. Its like he’s planning to sign up with Richard Branson for the next flight to Mars.
One of Nancy’s stories involves a trip to her grandfather in the Rai Coast who performs more heroic deeds than any of his other relatives would recognize, and rats who come into their house there to nibble the kids’ toes during the night. Tas is a recurrent theme her in our Awim house, whose high vaulted ceilings hold a hive of big rats in their sago thatch. Now and again one falls down to the floor at night and can be heard scooting along the bamboo walls. Coiled rats drop like bombs on my tent at night, which is pupped below the central beam. So Nancy tells us they are gymnastic rats performing special Olympic feats in the dark, and when they fall they aim for the trampoline effect on our tents. Bucktoothed vermin mutter for a minute before reporting their “8.5” and “10” from the judge’s box.
I’m reminded of Anna Walker who visited with her travel show from the UK back in 1993, when I was temp manager of the Karawari Lodge. Dry, game and preternaturally good-looking, she and her poncy crew were terrific fun for a few days, telling stories of their royal set and Dicky Attenborough and the bizarre narcolepsy that strikes Anna whenever she’s behind heavy machinery---like her first solo as a single engine pilot. We’re drinking alot of wine and sitting in the cosy chairs late one night, me beside Anna as she leans forward in a story, when a brick-sized bundle falls to our feet and then, without skipping a beat, scurries away as we watch. Anna turns back to me, still leaning, and asks, “What was that?” and we both think it’s a drunken hallucination.
But really no more a delusion than the rats who used to haunt my East 2nd St apartment years ago, terrorizing my puppy while I was away at work (hiding his toys, stealing soap, that sort of thing). I’ve come to think of them, over the years, as my mammalian totem.
Then, one night, a rat comes into my tent and I freak out. It’s late and pitch dark, so I scramble into the kids’ tent next door and hug my knees for a while before Nancy asks me what’s wrong. She
takes a headlamp and scouts for the culprit, but he hasn’t left the tent and fall asleep in a fetal position between Pauly and JJ.
Before leaving for Moinene, on the Karawari, we had heard three different stories about Mika and his failed run for Ward Councillor. How he lost and in retribution burnt houses down in Moinene; how he’d burnt our house down; how he’d moved out house from the perch with a glorious view because it was too close to the new EBC church for us smokers and buai chewers. The last one
was true. He had taken our house down and plank by plank reconstructed it in a clearing on the other side of the village. Now it is a charming long rectangle with Ewa paintings on the outside walls (Pauly finds a coconut shell with still-wet red paint so we wonder whether the paintings are only recently and what bush telegraph told Mika we were coming this week?)
While the village is very quiet, and almost deserted (but for Philip who is sleeping, and wakes to tell me on his rickety verandah that his wife has gone to Kotkot to sort out a brideprice: their
daughter was kidnapped by her Kotkot boyfriend and now they demand compensation), there is a visiting troupe of Pagwi salesmen here with all kinds of merchandise. Actually its one very entrepreneurial and friendly middle aged woman and five of her tall handsome relatives (such is the difference between main Sepik people and these mountain folk) lounging in Mika’s house beside a small bulk store of goodies—lollipops in jars, secondhand clothes on hangrrs,
sugar, salt, noddles and the all important bales of rice. They accept gold nuggets as payment (now it really does feel like Deadwood), which they sell at a profit in Wewak. But their prices are nothing to sniff at: K8 in cash or gold for a mere 500g of sugar, a 1 kilo bag of which would seel for the same price at Poin’s trade store downriver in Yimas. Everyone is in the thrall of InterOil and firmly anchored to place eating sago and marmoset because the price of fuel is so impossible. Owning a motor canoe is like having a fleet of medallion cabs in New York City: both the lucrative and wildly expensive.
Jacinta is a sweetheart and pops up to cook whatever she fancies for us. The kids are begging her for popcorn so they can play more Go Fish and Double Solitaire. I caught them raiding Philip's big
fecund laulau tree for its crisp clean fruit (piled into pockets and bags and t shirts like Fagen’s pickpockets), and they’ve wagered them ate cards and eaten them all away by now.
Mike tells us stories about our cave team leader, Livai, when he slept here a few months ago. Apparently he was so petrified of sorcery that Albert and Mika whispered something over his tent one night (“Diiiix--on’’ they whispered for some reason) and poor Livai bolted up in a flash, dragging the tent. Then there are more Ballcutter or paku fish stories, about how all the lovely lily pads are eaten and gone from Yimas Lakes, leaving every fish, turtle and crocodile exposed to their nets and spears for the time being.
But Albert insists they’re not fishing more, they’re just catching more---like a massive old croc that ran 56” inches around its chest (and thus too big to kill legally). It’s the current Rachel Carson disaster here, after decades of dealing with the salvinia molesta long ago dropped in to the Sepik from a missionary’s aquarium: multiplying twice its size in 11 days, the weed rapidly carpeted all the lakes and colonised all the floating debris and left villagers everywhere, especially in the Chambri Lakes, weed-locked and hungry.
So the Department of Primary Industries brought in an Amazonian weevil to eat it away, but then when they introduced this Ballcutter, yet another invasive specie, the fish promptly swallowed all the weevils and the toxic salvinia molestia came back again, in full force. At least this ecological disaster provokes good stories about kids having their testicles chomped away somewhere else along the Sepik River. There’s always a silver lining I said, pulling a platitude from my hat. It may be a boon for birth control.
The next morning Cecilia, the grandmother, comes to story with me. She takes me and the kids up to the EBC Pastor’s house (he is coming from Chimbut) which is being build where our old house stood---this time with a proper verandah looking out over the river junction, the caves, waterfalls and mountains beyond. More desirable, more impressive than any holiday home view in a
Sotheby’s Property catalogue.
Cecilia tells me how the presence of gold in their rivers has changes the dynamic between these communities. Their rival Chimbut (for whom, incredibly, they will
build such a glorious church residence) is now ‘throwing’ out stories about their traditional ownership of the big Susu Mountain before us and its little brother mountain to the east. But these are Cecilia’s mountains, they’re Ewa tribe land, and she knows all the stories associated with them because they involve her own father. Pointing to the top of little brother mountain she says That’s
where my father planted sago---Can you see it? (Barely). He shot a cassowary in the bush between the two mountains and when he reached the top of Susu Mountain it fell from his grasp, down across the big limestone escarpment and into a small lake at the foot of the mountain. The cassowary struggled free but left the spar in the middle of the lake, she explains, and rain causes the
water to rise and fall, the spear heaves with it, emerging from the middle of the lake to scare women who come looking for fish. And when the spear rises up, Cecilia says, its like a tsunami warning to these women because it will suck them down into the lake again when the waters fall.
I ask her about some of those caves again, and whether anyone has been back to them recently. Apparently not. The last time was after the carvings scandal in the nineties. That’s when Donald and Philip took the last of the old mortuary carvings from their caves and sold them like a string of beads for Manhattan to an Australian buyer in Wewak. This man turned a handsome profit selling them down south to Oceanic art collectors in Australia (illegally, by the way). Thus once again the Ewa rip themselves off.
It started just prior to Independence in the seventies when collectors actually asked for these old totemic carvings, which they purchased for some miserable price at the time. As a colony, it was still legal to pillage the ancient patrimony of PNG at the time, and so no laws were broken when those carvings found their way to multimillion dollar Oceanic art collections and museum installations at the Metropolitan, the Museum De Kulturen in Basil, and most famously the Jolika collection wing of San Francisco’s de Young Museum. Back in 2007 we brought photocopied plates from those exhibitions back to Moinene where all the adult men stood around in tanget grass and ratty shorts pointing at the once carved by their father, their uncle, or that man from Kotkot who married Donald’s auntie.
Ironically, as I sit typing this in my home in Madang, my phone lights up with a call from ‘Philip from Moinene.’ He wants to be sure the medical patrol will make it to Moinene in a couple of weeks
after all. To reach me, he has climbed hours to the top of a ridgetop beneath Susu Mountain. Where he can find a network. Yes, I tell him. It’ll be there.
But the punchline is this: Cecilia tells me for the first time, as we sat on the pastor’s verandah, that after the last time their carvings were taken from the caves to be sold to a dealer, Philip himself went back, re-carved them, and put the new ones in the caves just in case another collector came calling. “Tru ya?” Absolutely true, she assures me.
As we walk back to our new house I spy a ten year old girl, she’s got grille on her arms and shoulders. But she’s just purchased a secondhand dress from the Pagwi peddlars, and now she stands like a vision from the late nineties in New York, when disco formal was a bubble
dress. Here she is, as if transported from Studio in that gold lame and white polyester bubble dress that may have been worn by Drew Barrymore a a sofa snorting coke with Mariel Hemingway.
A young boy from one of the bush camps across the river is here selling betelnut to our crew. Someone hands him a K10 mistakenly believing he can change the bill and come back. By late afternoon he hasn’t returned, and we’re off to Latoma now. So we zoom by his garden camp
across the river where a bewildered old man says the kid has gone bush, gone to a garden camp deep in the jungle. Oh well. Such is the novelty of money here we have to presume he didn’t know about owing us K6 for betelnut. The old man leads us upriver a few paces where Edward and Jeffrey climb the kid’s own betelnut trees and pick K6 worth of buai in compensation.