Monday. August 13, 2012.
The next morning, I asked our driver to stop at the “mud-market” that we had passed each of the previous three days so I could take some photos. The marketplace was a smelly, constantly muddy field alongside the road on the outskirts of town. For three days, we had seen the same people, sitting on plastic tarps in the mud, selling betel nuts and cigarettes. Other men operated a “gaming” area where men gambled at dart games for cigarettes. (Oh, did I mention the Papuan prowess at darts? When we left the Sepik river a few days earlier, before driving back to Wewak, we stopped at yet another of Pomat’s cousins to use her toilet. The house was, like all the houses near the Sepik, built on stilts. Since this was the dry season, the house itself provided a lovely shade area for lounging, and Pomat and his helper got into game of darts. The helper hit two double twenties and narrowly missed a triple 20. Pomat hit the bullseye, and narrowly missed two triple 20’s. No wonder they’d hit the baby crocs with their spears!)
I got out to take some photos in the market and surrendered to the black muck that immediately covered my sandal-clad feet. The muck was mostly mud, but was clearly also mixed with other organic matter that was, shall we say, less than perfumed. The people in the market were genuinely happy to be photographed, especially when I showed them their digital image on the camera’s LCD. In return, they offered me free samples of their betel nuts, lime and mustard. No thanks! But maybe I should have gotten some for Luke and his pals who seemed to chew this stimulating mixture pretty much night and day. Fly Me to the Moon could be the PNG national anthem. It sure was the national pastime.
We continued to the central market in Mt. Hagen which, while just a few miles past the mud market, was a far cry from its muck and grime. The central market turned out to be one of the largest, best organized, cleanest markets we’d visited anywhere in the developing world. Arranged in a city-block sized octagon, with high tin roofs covering most sections, the market provided vendors with concrete benches and tables for their wares. The vendors paid a fee per bag of goods they brought to sell. The market was organized by the products being sold – essentially an open air WalMart, with competing vendors selling each item in a “department.” We passed vendors selling live chickens with especially large feet (and which were remarkably content to simply stand in place on the tables, blissfully unaware of their fate that final day). We walked through other departments, with tobacco, vegetables, fruit, plastics, bilums, beads, fabric and finished clothing. Unlike other countries, the vendors had no scales to weigh their sales. Instead, they arranged their produce in piles of nearly uniform size and sold them for a fixed price ─ countless mounds of sweet potato, cabbage, bananas, yams, taro, peanuts, onion, broccoli, carrots, sugar, garlic, ginger, cassava, tobacco, leafy greens, and corn. Fruit and vegetable stacking was the vendors’ art form. They would arrange a triangle of three potatoes or tomatoes, place a fourth on top to form a pyramid, and then delicately balance a fifth directly on top of the pyramid. Pyramids of Potatoes. It would have made the ancient Egyptians proud!
We then drove leisurely down the long Wagu Valley to the east of Mount Hagen, past coffee and tea plantations, stopping at a private botanic garden. The best part of the garden visit was a giant hornbill which threatened to steal the Cheetos-like snack that four small kids were sharing. They scattered quickly as the bird approached. Clearly this wasn’t the first encounter twixt bird and kids!
We had invited the Canadian couple from Magic Mountain Nature Lodge to join us that day. They were going to be leave on an afternoon flight and would have had nothing to do but sit around the lodge in the morning. The plan was for them to come with us to the market and the Wagu Valley, and then for us to drop them at one of the high-end, high-security hotels in town, where Pym would meet them with their luggage and take them to the airport while we continued to a bird-watching site. They came along with us, but the lady was terrified at the thought of being left alone in town… even at the fortified hotel where they were to wait for Pym. Seeing her desperate fear, I suggest that we stay with them for lunch at the hotel. It turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable respite for us, a great meal, and a huge relief for her. When Pym showed up on time, she made straight for the car. I do believe she was anxious to leave PNG, and seeing her discomfort it was hard to fathom how she got talked into coming here in the first place.
That afternoon, we drove back past Magic Mountain Lodge and twenty miles or so up the road to the Kumul Lodge, which was still higher in the mountains and just across the border in Enga Province.
Three days before, Pym hadn’t wanted us to go up this road into Enga because he feared there could be violent retribution for a road incident that had occurred… right in view of some other arriving guests of the lodge. The van carrying the other guests was driving out of Mt. Hagen when a small girl darted into the road just after they passed. A truck speeding the other way, driven by a driver who was drinking at the time, ran her down. The guests stopped, and one of them wanted to give the girl CPR, but their guide stopped her, explaining that if the girl died she could be blamed for the death, and might be killed herself in retribution. It wasn’t clear what the connection was to the Enga Province, but it must have been that either the girl’s family or the truck driver had come from there, so Pym hadn’t wanted us to go because of his concern about revenge attacks. Justice is swift and personal in the Highlands. Here it was just three days later and he was now ok with our going into Enga to visit Kumul Lodge. Had revenge already been taken? Was the time for revenge past? We never found out.
Kumul Lodge is known for bird watching. The hotel has a veranda that overlooks a raised platform on which they spread fruit to attract the birds. It worked! We saw a dozen or so different species, including several different birds of paradise, that all accepted their invitation and dropped in for the feast. We had passed through rain on the way up, and low clouds swirled just above our heads, but occasionally the sun showed, at least weakly, and the rain seemed to skirt the lodge.