Tuesday. August 14, 2012.
We were scheduled to drive east from Mount Hagen to Garoka on the Highlands “Highway,” which at its best is a two lane road that twists and turns, rises and drops, the length and breadth of the highlands, climbing from the coast and challenging the inhospitable mountain territory of the Eastern, Southern and Western Highlands. Wikipedia understates the Highway’s primary attributes in saying that:
“For most of its length the Highlands Highway is no more than a single carriageway two-lane road which is often hindered by potholes and land slips. It is also notorious, particularly in the Highlands region, for being the place of numerous armed hold-ups and robberies committed by local bandits called rascals (Tok Pisin: raskol).”
In truth, the stretch of the highway beyond Garoka, winding down to the coast, was repaved a few years ago, which has resulted in its becoming exceptionally dangerous, with frequent fatal accidents caused by a lethal combination of vehicles driven at high speed, alcohol, and no compunction against passing at particularly dangerous places. “Can’t see a truck around this blind curve? It must not be there. Let’s get past this guy!”
Likewise, the road leading west from Mt. Hagen to Tari, home of the Huli Wigmen, is also dangerous, but for two very different reasons. First, tribal warfare is frequent in that area. In fact, tribal warfare has been a way of life in PNG from time immemorial. The theft of a pig, a road accident, a “stolen” woman (often a girl who chooses a man from an enemy tribe), an unexplained death in a village, an incursion onto someone’s land (all land in PNG is owned by someone, even if it’s over-run with virgin jungle and has never been used for anything), even a wrong look at the wrong time ─ all can trigger a war. Until twenty years ago, wars were fought on dedicated battlefields between adjacent villages using bows and arrows, spears and machetes. Spectators often sat on adjacent hillsides to watch the battle. Of course, warriors were killed and dragged back to the victor’s village to have their skulls preserved, and to have their bodies eaten. But now firearms, including automatic weapons, have been introduced and the warfare has gotten far more dangerous, and spectating, or even driving through an area of active warfare, would be insanity. Second, the road is made dangerous by the presence of Raskol gangs who set up blockades in order to hijack or rob vehicles caught in their roadblocks, sometimes mugging, raping or even killing the occupants.
So to the west of Mount Hagen and to the east of Garoka the Highway is pretty scary, but the hundred mile stretch of the Highway between the two cities is usually safe: (a) it’s badly maintained so traffic moves slowly, reducing road accidents, and (b) it’s generally free of war and Raskols. That said, the guidebook advises travelers to check with locals about current conditions before travelling even this stretch of the Highway…
Unfortunately, the day before we were scheduled to drive from Hagen to Garoka, while we had been visiting the Wagu Valley and Kumul Lodge, the national police had closed the stretch of the Highway between those cities because of tribal warfare that had erupted in a village along the road, and also because of a thousand-person riot in Kundiawa, the provincial capital of Chimbu, both of which were described as post-election violence. Pym explained that candidates pay voters to vote for them. Why spend the money indirectly through advertising trying to sway voters when you can spend less just to buy their votes? Would it work in the US? Let’s see, which would I prefer ─ having Mitt Romney and Barak Obama each buy me dinner, or suffering through all those annoying attack ads and robocalls? In PNG, candidates who lose an election often get worked up when they find out that villages they had paid handsomely hadn’t voted for them. Of course, every candidate knows that voters typically take money from both candidates, and then vote the way they intended to in the first place (just as we all ignore those robocalls), but that didn’t stop losing candidates from feeling resentful… and acting on it. For example, according to a news report in Chimbu two weeks earlier, “Outgoing MP Guma Wau’s Dagle tribe declared war against their neighboring Kamaneku tribe in Kerowagi after blaming them for not supporting Wau. Wau’s faction attacked clan groups whom they believed had not voted for him by torching their homes…”
But by the end of that day, things had quieted down on the Western Highlands/Chimbu border, the police re-opened the Highway, and we left the next morning as scheduled. No worries. Except that when we climbed into our van, (a) the driver was someone different from our usual driver, Pastor Sagen, upon whom we’d come to rely even more than on our guide Luke, (b) there was a “driver’s assistant” with an unspecified job description, and (c) Luke announced “If we encounter a roadblock, lock the door, keep the windows closed, stay in the car, do not talk, let me do the talking.” We were unable to determine whether Pastor Sagen’s absence was really because, as Luke told us, “His license expired and he didn’t want to drive that far without a valid license,” or because Pastor Sagen considered the trip too dangerous. Not the most encouraging news to start our journey.
Steven noticed that the van smelled like a pet shop, which we eventually traced to the carcasses of two whole birds hanging from the rearview mirror. Hey, we’re in PNG.
The distance from Mt. Hagen to Goroka is about 100 miles, which would take the better part of six hours to traverse. We maneuvered past thousands and thousands of pot holes a foot or so deep. Many times, our driver and his two colleagues had to stop to plan a path between the holes as if they were threading a minefield. We bottomed out so hard one time that our driver stopped to check that his oil pan was intact. Our luck held and we traveled on. We narrowly avoided a five-foot deep sink hole. When it was first built, the Highlands Highway was well paved and connected innumerable, previously-isolated valleys with a rapid thoroughfare. Now it had become less a highway than a track that alternated between short bursts of reasonable pavement, miles-long stretches of potholed pavement, sections with potholes so bad that the potholed shoulder was far better than the road itself, and wash boarded dirt or gravel sections with no pavement at all.
This singularly important national artery had literally been driven into this dreadful condition by the heavy trucks that ply the route from the east coast ports to the mines in the distant west. Carrying impossibly heavy supplies and equipment, these trucks simply crush the road, which wasn’t designed to carry such loads, and probably wasn’t even built to normal engineering standards. Speeding the decay are meters and meters of rain that fall on the road each year as it winds through the mountainous rain forest. Despite billions of dollars flowing to the PNG government each year from the mining concessions, virtually none of that money is finding its way to the Highlands for maintaining the very roads that support this industry. For that matter, the money doesn’t seem to be finding its way into schools, medical facilities or any other infrastructure we could see in either the Sepik or Highlands. Gee, where could all that money be going? Could that have anything to do with the ferocity with which PNG national elections are fought? The multinational mining companies that have purchased their franchises one way or the other hail from, and operate on, almost every continent. They have given up on waiting for road repair, and have almost completed the construction of a new airport in the remote highland jungles, reportedly with the largest runways in the world, in order to accommodate huge Russian-built cargo planes to bring in their equipment and supplies. According to a recent on-line report:
“Surrounded by jungle and located in one of the least accessible highland regions in the world, a new airport is being built that will be able to handle aircraft up to and including Antonov 124 freighters. Its construction is a testament to the huge global surge in demand for energy.
The new airport is located in Komo in the Highlands. A joint venture between McConnell Dowell and Consolidated Contractors is building the air facilities, linked bridges and rail track, scheduled for completion next year. The key reason for its construction is the $19 billion Exxon Mobil-led PNG LNG project. The integrated development includes gas production, liquefaction, processing and storage facilities in the Southern Highlands and Western Provinces.
Production is due to commence in 2014 and, even in its first year of output when it will not be at full capacity, the project is expected to account for 30% of total PNG exports. Its construction requires the delivery of huge volumes of heavy plant equipment unsuitable for PNG’s dilapidated roads. So the developers decided an airport for some of the largest airplanes in the world was a ‘must have.’”
A couple of hours from Mount Hagen, we crossed from Western Highlands province into Chimbu province and immediately drove into the remains of the very village that had been the site of the prior day’s fighting. As with most highlands homes, the huts in this village had been built from wooden posts, woven bamboo walls, and palm thatch roofs, so when they burned, they burned completely. Except for two still-flaming walls of the final die-hard hut, nothing remained of the other huts but neat rectangular piles of still-smoldering coals and grey ash.
That evening we read in the newspaper an article that described the fighting. An old man had been mortally wounded but had managed to reach his home-made shotgun and kill his killer before dying. A small, disabled girl sitting in front of her burning hut had been thrown into the conflagration by the attackers. All-in-all, this gruesome scene provided a very tangible demonstration of how over the last sixty years, a paper-thin veneer of civilization has merely been glued atop a deep and ancient culture of distrust and brutality. Until the Papuans are able to overcome these deep-seated cultural patterns, economic progress or progress on any other front will be difficult if not impossible to achieve.
Just after passing the village of ash, we were stopped by a police roadblock. An officer approached and wanted Luke to open the sliding door to where we were sitting. Luke resisted, and a long discussion ensued in Tok Pisin during which we repeatedly recognized the magic word “Tourists.” The policeman had an old woman with him, possibly his mother, and wanted us to give her a ride to the next village, and may have wanted more. It was unclear exactly what was going on. The scene got more and more agitated, and we got more and more nervous, but Luke kept up his protest and after a few minutes we were allowed to continue. We never really got a straight explanation of the confrontation. Hey, it’s PNG.
We’d not gone too many miles further when we were stopped again, this time by a gang of roadworkers – young men in their teens and early twenties digging up dirt and rocks from the ditches along the side of the road and using them to fill potholes in the road. The workers were armed with picks, shovels, axes and bush knives, but others merely scraped up dirt in cut-off gas cans. It wasn’t clear whether they were really filling potholes, or if this was just a thinly-disguised roadblock they’d erected to stop vehicles and rob the passengers within. Nervous time again. Luke again checked that our door was locked, rolled down his window and after much negotiation in Tok Pisin ─ thankfully in a calmer tone this time than with the policeman ─ he paid them the equivalent of five dollars, and the gang of workers moved to the side and let us drive on. A minor shakedown, but no real damage. Shortly afterward, we passed a road grader driving away from the repair site, and Luke told us that the road crew had threatened the driver and forced him to leave so they could fix the road by hand and demand money of passersby as recompense for their work. But a few minutes later we encountered an actual road construction site with other construction equipment, and the grader may merely have been travelling to that site. Who knows? It’s PNG.
Continuing on our journey, we passed churches of many denominations – Catholic, Baptist, Mormon, Evangelical, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses – the list went on and on. More veneer of western civilization. We never traveled far without passing people walking along the road. The countryside is densely populated, especially close to the highway. Roadside stands sold anything and everything, from fruit and vegetables to woven bamboo walls rolled like carpets. At some stands, four people sat, keeping one another company and hoping some passing driver would purchase some of their strikingly small inventory of oranges, yams, taro or betel nuts. So many people sit around idle in Papua New Guinea.
Looking into the houses we passed, like elsewhere in PNG, cooking fires burned in clay vessels which contained the flames and supported clay cooking bowls. PNG homes have no smoke holes. Smoke curls upward and escapes as best it can through the roof thatching. It must get awfully smoky inside these highland homes on particularly chilly days.
The forests we drove through were cleared here and there in what seemed like a random patchwork of small vegetable gardens and orchards. Hillsides plots were so steep that we wondered how people climbed them, much less cleared them for planting. They must erode quickly. The farmers, even on those steep slopes, were predominantly women. We saw them stooped over using wooden tools to tend their crops. Bilum bags filled with kids and crops extended from their backs and sides like extra appendages.
By midafternoon, we reached the highest pass of the journey and stopped beside the road to eat thin spam sandwiches while sitting on a broken retaining wall. Clouds and fog obscured the road ahead and the long-anticipated view of the valley far below. Nearby, roadside vendors sat on tarps in the steady mist, some with umbrellas, to sell snacks, betel nuts, fruits and vegetables. We began our descent toward our next stop, Asaro Village in Eastern Highlands Province, along our route to Goroka.
Actually there are several villages at Asaro, which is more of a region than a village. At the Mt. Hagen show we had gotten to know Andrew, a bright and industrious 16 year old student who had come to the Sing-Sing as a mud man from one of these villages. His English was excellent, and he was clearly a future leader. Unfortunately, we had thought it was his village that we’d be visiting, and mistakenly told him we would come there the following Tuesday. Here it was Tuesday and we learned that Pym had a relationship with a different village, so we had to call Andrew and explain that our plans had changed. We felt bad, because we’d promised him we’d come, which undoubtedly meant revenue for the village, and we felt bad for disappointing him and his clan. But surely they must have understood. After all it’s PNG.
At the Mud Men village that Pym had contacted, the entire population awaited our arrival on a central lawn. Women, men and children sat beside plastic tarps on which they offered for sale small mud men effigies, made from mud of course, along with bilum bags, bows and arrows, spears and a variety of other items. Soon three mud men came out of the forest, walking toward us in a threatening posture with bows drawn and aimed in our direction. Their bodies were covered in white mud and their heads had been replaced with fishbowl sized masks fashioned from the same mud. After several minutes of posturing, and posing for photos, they took off their masks, which turned out to be incredibly heavy, perhaps 20 pounds.
The village elder explained that this village was the original mud man village, and that the others nearby had adopted the practice for commercial purposes. Back in ancestor times, this village was in a different location on the edge of a swamp. Attacked by one of the fiercer neighboring tribes, they retreated deep into the swamp. One of their clan got separated. Covered in dried mud and moss, he emerged from the swamp looking for the rest of the clan but instead ran into the enemy, who, upon seeing this spector-like being emerging from the fog, believed a ghost had come to devour them. They fled in panic. The lost warrior continued searching and eventually found the rest of the tribe, and explained what had happened. The next night, all the warriors covered themselves head to toe in mud and covered their heads with moss and bark masks. They then attacked their attackers, driving them out of the area forever. And so the mud men tradition was born. Only recently have the bark masks been replaced with the heavy clay heads they now make and wear.
Our mud men hosts were anxious to show us how quickly they could light a fire using traditional techniques. They had already gathered dry “palm hair”, and placed this tinder between a split piece of wood. One of the men then rapidly pulled a long strip of thin bamboo back and forth through the split to ignite the palm-hair tinder. This spark was fed small dry twigs and quickly grew into a real fire. The entire process took no more than 30 seconds, and they proudly proclaimed it to be far faster than the American Indian technique of using a bow drill for the purpose.
The mud men’s long bows were made of black palm, an extremely hard wood that, we discovered by trying, required incredible effort to draw back fully. The bow “string” was actually a centimeter wide, millimeter thick ribbon of the same black palm. The arrows had no feathers, no arrowhead and no nock. They were simply sharpened sticks that rested upon the flat surface of the bow “string.” It sure seemed like it would be almost impossible to control their flight, but a demonstration was arranged and every arrow either hit or narrowly missed a small target about 25 yards away.
After saying goodbye, we piled back into the van and started down the road, but hadn’t gotten out of the village when Nancy mentioned that she wished she had bought a particular bilum she’d seen. We stopped the van and asked, but by that time the items had been packed away. We described what she wanted, and the village surged around the van, holding up any bilum that even vaguely matched the description of the one she wanted. Eventually the exact bag she wanted was proffered and purchased – which only further incited the crowd to offer anything and everything for sale. One smiling man shouted to Jon, who was wearing an Aussie hat, “Hey cowboy, this is for sale” and offered him a baby.
Back on the road to Goroka, we ran into a traffic jam. People were running ahead carrying bottles, buckets and every other conceivable vessel. Others were returning, lugging obviously filled containers. Our van crept forward and eventually passed an overturned gasoline tanker truck. Spilled gasoline was everywhere. People had clambered aboard the truck, and were lowering whatever container they had through the tanker’s hatches to fill with free petrol. A Breugel scene if there ever was one! One spark and we all would have instantly been incinerated in a fireball from hell.
We reached Goroka with an hour to go before the J.K. McCarthy Museum closed. The museum housed artifacts collected from the time the first white men came to the highlands in the 1930s to prospect for minerals. We found ourselves among pottery, weapons, clothes, musical instruments, and even some grisly jewellery ─ Anga mourning necklaces of human fingers ─ which are the result of funerary rites from the not so distant past. Whenever a family member died, a joint of a female relative was cut off with a stone axe, to be added to an ancestor necklace. We had seen photos of women missing most of the joints of most of their fingers. A young man guided us through the museum. It turned out he had painted much of the museum, including the WWII P-39 Aircobra mounted on a pedestal outside. He really took a liking to the artists in our group, and let us wander through a gallery that had been closed for renovation so we could see their collection of old photos and peer through the mists of time. Many of the photos had been taken by Mick Leahy, the Aussie prospector, on the exploration of this area in 1933. Our guide went out of his way to explain things, climbing into the exhibits and giving us artifacts to hold and look at, including demonstrating a complex wooden apparatus used in the highlands for extracting salt from coconut husks. He even picked some of the coconut salt out of the mechanism so we could taste it.
After checking into the Bird of Paradise Hotel, we took a brief walk around town before the shops closed – we’d been told that unlike Port Moresby, Wewak or Mount Hagen, Goroka would be safe to walk in ─ during the day. We explored a “Mini-Walmart-like store owned by the Chinese. $6 for eggs, flour at $.75/lb., rice at $.50/lb., coffee at $12/lb, On our way back, we passed several fast food “Koi bars.” At the hotel, we enjoyed our final dinner and night in Papua New Guinea before our journey home.