It wasn't until we landed on the airstrip at Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, and stepped out into the humid heat, that I first asked myself, "What on earth have we done?" It had taken me and my family 26 hours to fly from Vancouver, Canada, north towards the top of the globe, down the coast of Russia, China and Japan to this South Pacific island just north of Australia. We had driven through a blizzard to reach Vancouver, and knew the shock of arriving in the tropics would be great. It began to dawn as we stood under slow-moving fans in the long line at the customs counter, aware that we were the only "whiteskins" with perspiration dripping off our noses! Our passports and visas checked, we made our way to the waiting area, tried to find a seat directly under a fan and bemoaned the fact that we hadn't yet changed our Canadian “loonies” into PNG Kina, making the CokeT machine inaccessible!
People-watching helped pass the time. Women stood and squatted in the lines, many in national dress, the bright "meriblaus," a full top extending almost to the knees and "lap-lap," an ankle-length piece of cloth wrapped around twice and tied at the waist. Some bore facial tattoos, blue lines and dots on their foreheads and cheeks. Almost all of them had children on their laps and at their knees. The men were small-built, all wearing shorts and T-shirts, some bearded and a couple with matted hair braided and tied at the back of the neck. Almost no-one wore shoes.
The noise in the room was considerable. If my ear had been able to distinguish at the time, I would have picked out several languages, (there are 869, at last count, in a country roughly the size of Alberta). I was having trouble just trying to understand the common trade language, Melanesian Pidgin, which blared over a loudspeaker whenever a flight was ready to board. The national folk didn’t seem to have the same problem as they surged toward the exit at each announcement, leaving emptied seats snatched up by those sitting and squatting on the floor.
Two long hours later we boarded our Air Niugini flight to the other side of the island where we would go to "jungle camp," the orientation spot for short term workers in the country. The shock of arrival continued when we flew over the lush landscape, but it slowly gave way to wonder at the beauty of P.N.G. The coast-line quickly gives way to jungle and Sago swamps (Sago palms provide the staple food, even though they have 6 inch thorns surrounding their trunks). The swamps in turn give way to a ridge of mountains running like a spine down the full length of the island.
Our small plane bounced as we neared the high ridges but we ignored the instability and peered down at clusters of village huts and gardens cut into steep slopes. The land descended quickly as we approached the city of Madang, clinging to the edge of coral reefs in the clear waters of the Bismark Sea. The airport in Madang is a smaller version of Port Moresby, minus the fans. It was at this point we realized that, although we were visitors in this country, we would not be tourists. We had come to work at a centre called the Summer Institute of Linguistics, (S.I.L.) and we would soon learn that we had our work cut out for us.
To be continued …
Marcia now writes from central Alberta Canada. See her website - www.vinemarc.com