Wewak, Papua New Guinea – September 1995
The darkness begins to dissipate with no sign of the PMV to Ambunti. When the first sun rays appear, we trudge back up to Ralf’s guesthouse. My backpack is already weighing me down. It’s crammed full of my grungy clothes plus enough canned food for five days.
We did our shopping yesterday in the crowded markets of Wewak. The air was heavy with tension and Melanesian funk – a smell so dense and palpable that it still clings to our clothes. We moved through the crowd as stealthily as possible. We’d learned in the Highlands that the slightest abberation could trigger a riot. Invisible is our new mantra.
I take a deep breath and pull myself upright. I have to steel myself for the most challenging part of the trip. We need to find another way to Ambunti, a remote village on the Upper Sepik River.
Ralf is puttering around his property doing chores. He scoops raw hamburger into his dogs’ dishes. They salivate and lick their chops, teeth bared.
“There must have been trouble,” Ralf says when he sees us. He is a gaunt, gristly man with a rictus smile. “I will take you to the airport when I go into town.”
Maya lights a cigarette and walks into the yard. I tiptoe up the porch. The dogs snarl. I cringe and hurry into the house, my heart pounding. Maya comes in a few minutes later and sits down next to me with a sigh. One unspoken question that we’re both afraid to voice – what if we came all this way for nothing?
“You will take MAS airlines to Ambunti,” Ralf says when he comes in. His German accent is so strong that I expect him to add, and you will like it. “They have the worst safety record since Talair, which we used to call Killair.” He chuckles to himself and spreads a map across the table.
“You will ask for Joseph Kone,” Ralf says. “He is the best guide on the upper Sepik.” He traces a bony finger along the frayed line on the map. “Do not give too much to the locals. They will become spoiled. The more they have the more they will want. They are like children.”
Later, we wait at the airport until a plane shows up. Ralf talks to the pilot and secures two places for us on the four-passenger plane. The other two passengers are a Catholic priest and nun. Somehow this makes me feel better, even though they don’t acknowledge us.
I say a silent prayer as the plane buzzes down the runway and lifts off. I lean my head against the plane window and stare down at the sluggish river. It lies there like a dead, bloated snake. Stone Age tribes still populate this jungle. Some say that cannibalism is still practiced, even though it’s officially illegal. There’s no way to enforce it. The jungle is too impenetrable. The mountains too towering.
The plane makes a hard left and descends. The airstrip is nothing more than a grassy field. We shudder to a halt a few feet from the river. I exhale. Maya and I exchange jubilant smiles. I think back to my childhood peers in Auburn. They watched soap operas. I watched Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. They planned their marriages, while I planned expeditions. What would they say if they could see me now? Something scornful, certainly. I wanted so much to be like them. Thank God I’m not.
When the propellers stop turning, a group of children surround the plane. They look at us and giggle with their hands over their mouths. A man in a clean, pressed yellow button down shirt and khaki shorts walks up to us. He has a dignified air. The crowd parts instinctively.
“I’m Joseph Kone,” he says in a perfect British accent. “Ralf sent a message to me on the short-wave radio. He told me you were coming.”
We walk through the village, a trail of locals in our wake. They stop at the entrance of Joseph’s hut. We sit on immaculate grass mats. Joseph offers us each a betel nut. We mix up the concoction that will turn our mouths red and make our head swoon. Two men walk into the hut and shyly say hello. They keep their eyes lowered.
“Abraham will be your guide,” Joseph says. “Sebby will be your driver.”
Maya grimaces at me, nut bulging in her cheek, blood red stain at the corners of her mouth. She looks like a carnivorous chipmunk.
I move the nut around my mouth as my head begins to spin.
“You’re the first women who come here,” Abraham says.
“No,” Joseph corrects him. “There was a group of three Australian women who came about three years ago.”
Abraham falls silent and looks down at the ground.
My mouth drops open. I knew that this area was one of the least traveled, but it’s shocking that we’re only the second group of solo female travelers to venture here. My ego rears up again. I force it right back down.
As the canoes are loaded up, the whole village lines up along the riverbank to see us off. They cheer and wave. Children run along the riverbank until our canoe rounds the bend and disappears. Tears of happiness fill my eyes. My childhood loneliness, every second of it, was worth it.
We sit on battered wicker chairs as the dugout canoe glides through a labyrinth of tributaries and swamps. Sebby hands us each a faded umbrella to protect us from the sun. The scenery soon becomes monotonous. Tall grass and murky water. Iridescent blue butterflies are the only patches of color. A short time later, plumes of smoke appear over the jungle. Sebby maneuvers the canoe onto the riverbank.
“Here is nice haus tambaran,” Abraham explains. “A spirit house. You pay one kina to take photo.” His look tells me that we are expected to want a photo.
The village women stand at the entrance and peer in at us. One of the men storms outside and barks at them. They disperse, and then gradually sneak back as close as they can get. They are not allowed in, but we are white women, so we are given a place to sit near the chief, a shriveled old man with a childlike smile. His two remaining teeth are stained brown. Ornate designs the color of dried blood adorn the posts and beams.
Abraham strokes the largest post and says, “The bones of the old chief are in here.”
I’m silent for a moment and then ask, “Just the bones? How do they get the flesh off of them?” I pinch my skin in case he doesn’t understand the word flesh.
He puts his hand over his mouth and giggles like a child.
We spend the night at another village. There is sickness here. Deep, phlegmy coughs and distended stomachs. Abraham speaks to the women. They bark at him in return. Our sheepish smiles do nothing to soften their glares. Maya and I walk through the village. The village children yell at us in mocking voices. To escape them, we walk up a well-beaten path. A tiny thatched outhouse sits on the edge of the jungle.
“I’ll be right back,” I tell Maya.
I step into the darkness and squat over the seat. As my eyes become adjusted to the darkness, the silhouette of a spider comes into view. Its body alone is as large as my fist. I inhale sharply and look around. They are everywhere – on the walls, hanging from the ceiling, on the toilet seat. I reach out my hand to steady myself on the door frame and nearly touch one. My head spins. I shriek and run out, my pants around my ankles. The villagers run up the path. I babble and point to the spiders. A young boy walks up to one and flicks it with his hand. Everyone laughs, including Maya. The ghosts of the past resurface in my mind.
I swallow a lump of shame and walk past them to the fire, where Abraham is sitting. He makes room for me on the wooden bench. I’m grateful for his welcoming smile. Our dinner is cold baked beans right from the can and rock hard crackers. I wolf it down, surprised at how good such a simple meal can be.
We’re kept awake by the sound of rats scurrying and screeching in the rafters. Soft whimpers come from Maya’s sleeping bag. She’s terrified of rats. I smile. She’s not as cool as she thinks she is. I weigh the sides of my mosquito net down with my shoes and lie rigidly in the middle of my floor mat. The spiders can’t get in here, I tell myself, but still sleep does not come.
Over the next two days we are whisked through a succession of villages. I begin to notice signs of malnutrition and disease. Squalor, destitution, protein deficiency, parasites, domestic abuse, inbreeding. The children’s snot-slick faces and rags for clothes. In every village the detritus of travelers past appears in the form of dingy, threadbare t-shirts: Iron Maiden, LA Lakers, No Apartheid. Who were these other travelers? What compels people like us to wander to obscure, distant lands? Every one of us is liberated and ensnared at the same time by this obsession.
I awaken from a fitful, claustrophobic sleep. I crawl out of the mosquito net and gasp for fresh air. I dreamed of the chapel we visited yesterday. The one we were forbidden to enter, because we weren’t Protestant. In the dream, the chapel was inhabited by a vague malevolence. Love Jesus was painted on the door in blood. Only those who had been pricked by the serpent could enter. The river slithered by, bearing the bones of Jim from Wild Kingdom.
I lean out a window and try to shake the daze. How many days have we been on the river?
Maya and I don’t speak. It is not anger, but bewilderment, that keeps us silent.
“Today we go to village with big crocodile,” Abraham says as we climb into the canoe. “Two hundred pounds.”
I try to feign enthusiasm. I tuck my hair under my baseball cap. It’s so dirty that it sticks to my head. I can smell my own white girl funk. I think of Ralf’s cold-water, cement-floored shower with nostalgia. I look down at my dirty sweatpants. Because of the missionaries, we have to keep our legs covered. A patch of white skin shows at my ankle. The hair on my legs has never been this long. Sweat trickles down my butt crack. My stomach is more distended and painful by the hour. No more outhouses for me, thanks. Stop being a sissy, I scold myself.
“Happy birthday,” Maya says with a weak smile.
I shake my head and will my tears away. I worked so hard for this trip. I’m ashamed of my weakness.
“I know,” she says, her voice heavy with discouragement. “I know.”
“We asked for it and got it.” I force myself to smile. My dreams of being a daring anthropologist have disappeared in a few short days. I do not have what it takes.
We climb once again into the canoe and set off down the river and into an immense swamp. Sebby guides the canoe to a village in its center.
We each pay one kina, and they show us the famous two hundred pound crocodile skull. We follow along listlessly as they take us on a tour of the village. Small huts house crocodiles of various sizes.
We eat lunch, and then Abraham points to a young girl. “She will take you to wash.”
The girl leads us to a tiny dugout canoe. It’s barely wide enough for our butts. We squeeze ourselves in. When the canoe stops teetering, we begin to paddle. After a couple of minutes we enter an area of tall reeds, stirring up a thick cloud of tiny bugs. They fly in our eyes and mouths and up our noses.
Maya gasps, “Quick! Snap your fingers!”
We snap our fingers, but it does little good. The bugs crawl into my clothes and stick to my sweaty body. I break into hysterical laughter. Maya joins in, and soon tears are pouring down our faces. The girl steers the canoe onto a marshy bank. She smiles at us, completely unperturbed by the bugs.
“Okay, you waswas here.” She pantomimes washing.
We stare in silence at the green, reeking slime floating on the water.
I fight back tears. “I’m not going in there.”
Maya puts her face in her hands and takes deep breaths. After a few moments, we compose ourselves and climb back into the canoe.
“We sleep here today,” Abraham says. After we unload the canoe, Maya and I change into long skirts. Abraham takes us to a small, clear creek. I splash the cool water on my face. No one bathes nude in PNG, thanks to the missionaries, so we jump right in, clothes and all. We splash and giggle with the village girls who have come along. Our long skirts billow around us. We pirouette and dive. Abraham looks relieved at our change of mood. He shows us his ritual scars – two identical bull’s-eyes around his nipples. Adolescent boys on the Sepik go through a ritual where they are cut with bamboo slivers. Those who don’t have scars are not considered men. Abraham’s expression is a mixture of shame and dignity. He’s a Christian now. His scars are reminders of a savage past.
We stretch out on the grassy bank next to the creek and sun ourselves. The girls look at the rose tattoo on Maya’s ankle in admiration. They look over at my hairy, white ankles. One of them says, “I like her better.”
I wince and look away, but not before catching Maya’s smug look.
At night, around the dim light of a kerosene lamp, Abraham tells us about marriage on the river. “The man give the father a pig, and if the woman cook the pig and give it to the man, then they are married. Then the woman comes to sleep in the man’s house. Under one mosquito net.” He grins.
He extinguishes the lantern and we sit in silence. A refreshing breeze blows through the hut. Heat lightning flickers, illuminating the jungle and the night fishermen on the river. Villagers sit in the shadows, their whispers melodic and comforting.
I lie under my mosquito net and stare into the darkness. Maybe I never wanted to be an anthropologist. Maybe I am running away, like people have said. I have scars, too. Deep, ugly scars. I was banished from my own tribe, and I’ve been searching for another to accept me. At least, for the first time in my life, I’m proud of myself. If I die now, I will die happy.
Palm trees rustle in the breeze, lulling me into a peaceful slumber.
This is an excerpt from my memoir, Wish I Were Here.