Invisible

Goroka, Papua New Guinea – September 1995

The morning brings a new confidence. Memories of yesterday’s unruly mobs, riots, and tear gas dissipate with the rising sun. Maya and I spent much of last night whispering to each other through the paper thin walls of our tiny rooms at the Sports Institute. Could we lives with ourselves if we were beaten or gang raped? A question that we never expected that we would have to seriously ask ourselves. Yesterday, we saw that the risk is real. This place is no joke.

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“Want to leave early and drive halfway to Madang?” I ask Maya as she comes out of her room. “That way we’ll get a head start on the raskolls.”

“Okay,” she says. She smiles weakly and lights a cigarette. “It would be a real shame to drop the car off and fly back. I’m willing to take the risk.”

I flip through my dog-eared guidebook to Papua New Guinea. The pages are stained orange from when my can of soda tipped over on it. I use the phone in the office to call the SIL missionary guesthouse in Ukarumpa. Of course they have a vacancy. No travelers pass by that way anymore.

“You don’t want to be driving after dark honey,” the shrill, wavering voice says.

“Oh, we know that, thank you,” I reply.

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We spend the morning watching the Goroka sing-sing, a yearly festival where many tribes in PNG adorn themselves with feathers from rare birds, red ocher, sea shells, and enormous penis gourds. They parade in front of the president and perform ceremonial dances. Maya and I sit on the ground, away from the handful of other tourists – mostly rich retirees – who are sitting in the bleachers. Armed guards patrol the perimeter.

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I look down at my watch. “It’s one. We should go.”

We hurry back to our rooms, grab our backpacks, and head to the car, a 4WD Land Rover. We pull out of the security gates surrounding the Sports Institute. The armed guard lifts his chin at us in farewell. The streets are filled with the flotsam of last night’s riots. Only a few stragglers shuffle along here and there. Not long after leaving Goroka, we come upon a truck overloaded with men. I tense up.

Please don’t see us. Please don’t see us.

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But they do see us. I smile a bit hysterically and wave, and then I take a photo of them, hoping to break some of the tension. The look in their eyes is a mixture of amusement and menace. I force myself to meet their gaze. Calmly, without defiance. I don’t challenge them, but I don’t let them know that I’m scared.

“Invisible. Invisible. Invisible. Invisible,” Maya and I chant over and over. An attempt to lull ourselves out of the panic. I formulate a plan of escape. What will I do if they decide to attack? I’ll have no choice but to plow through them with the Land Rover. The police have been very protective of us so far, so they would probably take our side.

After a few moments, the men turn away. The panic evaporates, leaving an odd thrill in its wake. How close can I get to danger and come out unscathed? In the midst of terror my head is surprisingly clear, my mood light. This fear is familiar, almost comfortable.

“We’re not cool, though,” I remind Maya. We can gloat when we make it out of this mess.

“No, we’re just normal girls,” she says with a firm nod.

I navigate the pothole-scarred road. We pass by a few solitary women. They shuffle along, permanently stooped over from the weight of their billums.

After several hours, each bump in the road becomes a lit match to my already frayed nerves. I almost wish for another crisis to snap my head back into the clear. Dusk descends. I clench my teeth. Pain shoots through my temples. My stomach knots up tighter.

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Finally, a battered sign announces Kainantu. I strain to find the turnoff to Ukarumpa. I don’t want to ask anybody. One must never appear vulnerable. There are no streetlights. Crowds of people file through the streets. They blend into the darkness. The only thing visible is their brightly colored clothing.

Maya lets out an annoyed sigh. I want to throttle her. Bitch. She should be helping me navigate. She hasn’t once offered to drive. That thick red line on the map turned out to be seven hours of two-track road through the jungle and mountains up to Goroka on the left side of the road. Plus I’ve never driven a four-wheel drive. I should have known that she’d be like this when she invited herself along, and then let me do all of the planning.

I stop beside a couple of middle-aged men who are dressed in clean clothes. “Can you tell me where the mission house is?”

Their eyes light up as they peer into the truck. I grip the steering wheel and ready my foot on the gas. Finding only two grimy backpacks, they point to the entrance.

I pull up to a formidable gate and honk. Two middle-aged white men pull it open. We pass through the gates into a surreal replica of 1950’s suburbia. Impeccably manicured yards and street names like Buttercup Lane and Church Street.

The two men walk ahead of our car, backs ramrod straight and chins elevated. We may be safe from harm, for now, but we’ve got a different kind of challenge ahead.

I glance in the rearview mirror to see the gates swing shut behind us.

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**This is an excerpt from my memoir, Wish I Were Here. It has been modified in order to make it standalone.**

26 thoughts on “Invisible

  1. Pingback: Invisible | Home Far Away From Home

  2. Ha! at last you arrived at the mission… I am soooo waiting for the next scene on this. 😀

    btw, I remember my brother-in-law who is a luxury ship crew, and he’s been telling us this place isn’t safe and another place called Papeete somewhere in Tahiti I guess. They don’t go off-board the ship when docked on these places.

    • I can totally understand not going off-board in PNG without armed security, but Papeete??? I was there for a long layover once, and I also know many people who have gone there. It’s also French like New Caledonia.Papeete is the capitol of French Polynesia. No one has ever said that its unsafe. Unfriendly, maybe, but not dangerous. I walked around the city with no problem.

    • Thanks, Steph. But, oh my poor photos. They are in such bad condition from being in a plastic-sleeved photo album while I was living in the tropics. The humidity got inside the plastic and permanently fogged my photos. Thanks to the magic of digital photo editing I could at least make them interesting. –Julie

  3. The aging of your photos doesn’t have that cheap instagram flavour – it lends authenticity to their story. And your words, what artfully captivating prose! You’re crazy, and I hope you receive that as the compliment it’s intended as.

  4. Beautifully written. I fully understand your experience in PNG and im sorry you felt scared and uncomfortable. The highlands region especially is unstable and dangerous territory for new comers and visitors of all races even Papua New Guineans, it would have been even more back then in 1995. I hope your experience doesnt stand in your way of visiting the other provinces especially the Islands region, New Britain, New Ireland to name a few. I really enjoyed your post and would love to read the rest of it 🙂

    • Hi there! It’s totally okay (now) that I was scared. It was part of the experience and taught me a lot. I’d surely go back and visit if I ever had the possibility. I’m happy to hear that things have calmed down since 1995. We also went to the Sepik area and were fine…except for the spiders!! PNG is an amazing, magical country. 🙂 Thanks so much for stopping by!

  5. Mountain roads… Most people are good in this world, it’s just the unknown and stereotypes that cloud our thoughts and fears on both sides, so hard to know when it is one or the other between intentions. So good to see it did not stop you from being open.

    • That’s something that I really struggle with – realizing that most people are good. When I was young, I used to think that, but then I trusted so many of the wrong people and bad things happened.

      • Our experiences do shape us and it get difficult to decipher the motives of others. Hope you’re around good people now, Julie and that bad things happen on much fewer occasions.

    • Hi there and thanks for reading! Yes, there are a lot more words about this extraordinary voyage under the Papua New Guinea category, and still more appear in my memoir. Cheers!

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