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.”
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.
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.”
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.
*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.