Dig a Hole

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Wewak, Papua New Guinea – September 1995

We trudge up the long dirt driveway at Ralf’s Place in Wewak. All I can think of is washing the travel scum off my body. We’ve made it through four days on Papua New Guinea’s Upper Sepik. The guides told us that we were only the second group of solo female travelers to even visit there. Somewhere under my fatigue and disgust is pride.

“I bet we reek,” I say to Maya.

“I hope there aren’t any other travelers here,” she answers. “And I don’t care what Ralf says, I’m wearing shorts around his guesthouse. I’m sick of wearing jeans in this heat.”

We round the last bend. Ralf, a gaunt, gristly whipcord of a man, waves listlessly as we walk up to the weather-beaten house.

“So I see you have made it,” he says in his heavy German accent. “There are others here now. You will take the room on the right this time.” He turns and walks over to the shed without another glance at us.

Under my breath I say in a mock German accent, “And you will like it.”

We giggle. Pain shoots through my gut – a toxic gas filled balloon. I wince.

“Still no luck, eh?” Maya asks, a sympathetic look on her face.

I shake my head as we walk into the house. A young couple is seated at the table, sorting through their documents. We introduce ourselves. They are British expats who are traveling through PNG before returning home. He is pasty-skinned and reticent. Her lilac perfume hangs in the dense, humid air. I stand for a moment and let it envelop me.

Maya and I walk into our room. We put our backpacks on the free beds.

“You go first,” Maya says. “You look like you’re about to keel over.”

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The cement-floored, cold water shower makes me tear up with joy. Cobwebs adorn the ceiling corners, but the spiders are only as big as my thumb. I soap up and rinse off, running a hand over my swollen stomach. I look like I’m six months pregnant. There’s no way I can put those jeans back on.

Something shifts in my abdomen, my intestines twist and knot like some vindictive fetus. I knead and prod, gritting my teeth against the pain, hoping to relieve some of the pressure. I squat and spread my legs like a sumo wrestler and bear down. After a few moments I give up. It’s about as futile as trying to extract an air bubble from a block of ice without smashing it to bits. My bowels have turned to cement.

I slip into a sleeveless knee-length sundress, another no-no, according to Ralf. Showing shoulders or thighs is a legitimate excuse for rape in PNG. Looks like I’ll be hanging around his place until we head for the airport tomorrow night.

A group of three Australian men have joined the British couple. Maya gets up from the table and heads for the shower. A tall, beefy blonde is in the middle of telling a story, “So, John decides he has to piss while we’re wandering around the market. He walked around the side of a shed. Suddenly, some guy runs behind him with a machete. We panicked, but it turns out the guy was running after someone else.”

I laugh with everyone, though I gasp with pain. The British woman looks at me for a long moment. The others don’t seem to notice.

“So how was it out there,” the blonde guy asks me.

“Hot, smelly, miserable,” I say, and laugh in spite of the discomfort. Already it’s a funny memory. Such is the power of soap and clean clothes. “Big, hairy spiders everywhere. Rats screeching and running over our mosquito nets at night. The guide cooked us rotten fish one night for dinner.”

The guys shoot me condescending looks that say, sissy girl.

I shrug. Let them find out for themselves. There’s a reason why hardly any women – or foreigners – have been to the Upper Sepik. I bet they will be reduced to tears in less than five days.

The pain in my gut intensifies. I have a hard time catching my breath. I get up and walk outside to the outhouse. The stench makes me swoon. I can hear maggots feasting on the filth at the bottom of the hole. It’s a wet, meaty sound, like oozing mud. I put my face in my hands and try not to cry.

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The British woman approaches me. “How many days has it been?”

“Over a week, since before we went up the river. I thought it would be better out there, but the outhouses were infested with huge spiders.”

I start to shake at the memory of squatting over a hole in the dark hut. The spiders – all of them as big as baseball mitts – became visible as my eyes adjusted to the dark. Everywhere I looked – on the wall mere inches in front of my face, hanging from the ceiling, on the seat itself (thank you, Mom, for teaching me to never sit on public toilets), and on the door frame, where I was about to put my hand. It was like something out of a 1970’s “B” horror film – Just when you thought it was safe to take a dump! It’s the Outhouse from Hell!

I ran out with my pants around my ankles, screaming and slapping my hair and clothes. The villagers laughed at me. They eat the damn things when they can’t find anything else.

“And there’s no way I’m going in there.” I point to the outhouse.

She puts her hand on my shoulder and nods her head, “No one can relax in such filthy circumstances. I learned while traveling through India that it’s just better to dig a hole.”

I grimace.

The woman says, “Dear, this is no time to be a prude. Look where you are. This place is a dump. Ralf is too damn cheap to buy lime for his outhouse. He can get away with it because he has the only guesthouse in Wewak. Just go out back to the jungle and dig yourself a hole.”

I look towards the narrow trail leading through the dense growth. She gives me a gentle push and walks back into the house.

I waddle up the trail until I find a small clear area. I brush the fallen foliage away with my foot, and then hike my dress up and squat. From this position I see a plump green snake that slithers off languidly into the deep brush. With a heavy sigh, I stand up, arrange my clothes, and waddle back down to the guesthouse. We’ll be in Sydney in two days. Relief will have to wait until then.

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*The photos are from the Goroka Show, which I attended a few days before this story took place. I don’t have photos of the events in this story, for obvious reasons.

46 thoughts on “Dig a Hole

  1. Everyone likes adventures, as long as they can bring the comforts of home with them. You experienced the “real” stuff. I can hardly wait for your book!! You always make my day eventful. I feel I am tagging along…

    “If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine; it is lethal.”
    ― Paulo Coelho

    • It was the real thing all right. Before this trip, I had a romantic idea of being a jungle-exploring adventurer. I realized that I’m not cut out for it. I might be a sissy, but I don’t like to be dirty and around enormous spiders!

      • I’m with you! People forget how dangerous the jungles are and overestimate their ability to deal with the forces of nature. 🙂 I vote for being a sissy…

  2. Brave! I would die if I was in those “conditions” but at the same time, an adventure can’t always be all sugar coated fun.

    • That’s exactly why I wrote about this particular incident, even though it’s embarrassing. Traveling in the remote jungle is NOT glamorous. At all. But I’m really happy that I did it once.

    • It’s totally a lost world. It’s mind-blowing. Like going back in time. The Goroka Show is actually up in the Highlands, which we traveled through just before going to the Upper Sepik. PNG is probably safer and more developed than when we went there, though I’ve read that the Upper Sepik is still very isolated.

  3. The spiders “were only” as big as your thumb. You have a wonderful grasp of your readers’ sensibilities. I also want to compliment me on your clever mix of pictures and prose. On a day like today, when I don’t have the luxury of sitting down at the computer and letting the words flow over me, I can take it a piece at a time and luxuriate in the imagery. I might buy your novel, too.

    • Thanks, Chuck! After the fright of those gigantic spiders, “little” spiders (smaller than a golf ball) don’t scare me. As long as they aren’t crawling on me. That’s a good thing that came out of that trauma.

  4. What an adventure. I was momentarily transported back in time to my somewhat unconventional, adventurous childhood which involved regular camping trips in the desert (there was much hole digging involved and scorpions!) but that was then and this is now and I’m not sure I’d cope nearly as well! I’ll settle for the memories. Thank you for sharing yours x

  5. You are the best blogger out there. Simply fantastic stuff! I’ve always wanted to partake in that primitive bungee jump ‘manhood initiation’ ceremony in PNG.

    • Thank you so much. :)) I think the bungee jumping is actually in Vanuatu, a country that’s close to PNG. One of my friends went to that, but she didn’t participate.

  6. I don’t think I can do this, you are so brave, what an adventure, like always this is really good I can feel your pain and what you see, I am there, and those photos my god they are amazing. On the first one, the man looks like he is smoking, is he?

    • Thank you, Doris. Yes, he’s smoking. We gave them some cigarettes. My PNG photos are some of my most valuable possessions, even though they’re not in the best condition.

  7. Your stories are so amazing, and honestly so terrifying at times! I can not believe those spiders in the outhouse… I will never complain about the spiders around my place ever again after reading that. I am glad you made it out of there 🙂

    • Thank you! I still freak out when I think about those spiders. You can’t imagine until you’ve seen them. They’re more like rodents than bugs when they’re that size. They aren’t poisonous, but still. A scientist we met told us that there are trapdoor spiders that live on the river bank. Their fangs are so long and sharp that they pierce through your hiking boots! People die from heart attacks from the pain, not the venom!

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  9. Ah the less glamourous parts of traveling. Whenever I travel and meet up with other travelers, in no time at all I find that we’re once again talking about poop. It’s a hot topic and I think it always will be.

  10. I’ve always wanted to go to Papua New Guinea. But I love how you chose to share one of the more difficult parts of your trip. This is part of traveling too isn’t it? 🙂 🙂

    • It was a difficult trip in many ways, but very rewarding. I purposely wrote about this embarrassing part, because the reality of traveling in the jungle is not at all what I’d expected. It’s not easy!

      • Yeah, I bet!!!! And that’s great because people should not go expecting the brochure trip lol. I grew up on another continent, so I know tourists can sometimes have veeery different expectations. 🙂 But you did it, an experience you’ll always know now… 🙂

  11. I was thinking I left a comment on this post already but as I read I see a different story… Oh, J the funny experiences you have as you travel.

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  13. Spiders, snakes and crocs; sounds like a day at work here in the bush. No, yeah, moving through jungles and certain types of forests can be slow going, and mountainous terrain makes it even more fun. In running survey lines here in places, one might cover three to five kilometres in a day, which is a bit more work than just walking or passing through such natural wild places. Yes, digging a hole is a whole lot easier out in the bush. In the 70s at home here, that was the way, an outhouse up the backyard with the spiders and snakes, though in the 80s it converted to a garden tool shed, but it also had a long history of becoming pockmarked by cricket balls. Off now to enjoy some damper, dates, figs, strawberries and pineapple for lunch, have a happy weekend, Julie…

    • Sounds like you had quite the interesting childhood and, maybe as a result, have a job that most of us couldn’t handle. Fantastic weekend to you, too, Sean.

      • The job’s quietened down a lot these days, not so much bush work, but enough. Julie, apparently back when I was 2/3, got caught playing with a trapdoor spider, but elder brother was there for the rescue, so neither the spider nor I was harmed. Here’s to a good week too.

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