Discovering Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea Highlands

Just in case we hadn’t had enough of Africa, Chris and I decided to go to Papua New Guinea. Why not?

Papua New Guinea is the size of California; its the second biggest island in the world. They declared their independence from Australia in 1975. It’s the most missionized country in the world. Right now the country is in the throes of liquid natural gas exploration (exploitation?). Which is interesting, for a country that fifty years ago was still cannibals running around in grass skirts and noses pierced with bones. Yes, literally. There are still old people in PNG that can remember, in their youth, eating human flesh. Now, pigs are really important here. You can beat your wife, but not your pig. If your car careens out of control, and you can steer towards either a man or a pig, you better aim for the man.

Coca Cola coke can Papua New Guinea
PNG Coke

We spent the first three days in the sweltering capital, Port Moresby. Ah, the sights and smells of a third world- oops, make that, a developing nation. It’s a difficult place to get around in, not very safe. We took a public bus to go downtown and visit the Embassy, to get a safety briefing and see if they had any advice on where to visit while we were in country. They advised us not to take taxis or public buses. Or rent a car. Which doesn’t leave a whole lot of options, so we kept taking public buses. Very cheap, just 50 tui, which is half a kina. About 2.5 kina makes a US dollar.

Port Moresby from above Papua New Guinea
Port Moresby from above
Papua New Guinea canoe in front of national museum
New Guinea canoe

Anyway, while visiting the Embassy we gave our names at the security desk, and while talking to one of the personnel it turned out we had a mutual friend, Micah, a Marine we knew from Haiti. So that was cool. Our names got passed up to the ambassador and his secretary, and they googled me, and they found my blog. I’m famous! So we were invited to join them for Thanksgiving dinner. Which was really nice.

We also got some travel advice, so after another day in the city visiting the national museum and seeing the parliament building and the national library, we hopped on a flight to go see the highlands. Mainly because it would be cooler than the islands, our only other option.

Papua New Guinea Highlands
Papua New Guinea

We wound up in Goroka, about 5,000 feet above sea level, home to a very interesting cultural show, a university, and lots of coffee farms. Outside of town is a missionary compound, and they had a guesthouse, so we stayed there. The missionaries turned out to be pretty interesting to talk to. They go through a lot of training before going out and doing their stuff. Two years of Bible college in the States, then almost two years on the compound here, doing things like medical training, language training in Pidgin, hostage training, culture acquisition, basic aviation, orienteering and surveying, and bush training. Then they’re ready to go out to some village far far away from the cities, meet the locals, build their own house, and start learning the local language (PNG has over 800 languages- the vast majority with no written alphabet). They learn, they start teaching basic literacy, they start teaching the Bible, and they start working on a translation of the Bible. They get resupplied every 3-6 months and can take a furlough every four or five years. Eventually they “plant” a church that will survive there even after the missionaries leave. The whole process takes 15-20 years. That’s quite a commitment!

Deah at Lapilo Guest House Goroka Highlands Papua New Guinea
At the Guesthouse

For the ones not out in the bush, there’s a whole network of people supporting them back here in Goroka and back in their home country. The compound has a school, both primary and secondary. A fleet of small planes and helicopters and a hangar, supplies storehouse, administration, IT, even a beauty salon. About 60 families live on the compound altogether, either in training or in support. We toured the school, went to church, and were invited for dinner by members of the community. It was kind of like being in the compound from Nelson DeMille’s book, The Charm School (one of my favorites). They were all really nice, even to heathens like Chris and myself.

A couple of the guys took us to a nearby village where we were able to chat with some native ladies and take pictures with the kids. I loved the home made toys the children had- little cars made out of betel nuts and held together with sharpened sticks. Bush kids are so inventive! They loved seeng themselves in the LCD screen of the camera. It was interesting meeting the villagers- everything here is based on the “won Tok” system (“one talk” or one language; clan/ family/tribe). Because the languages aren’t written down, if a village splits in two for some reason (commonly a feud or natural disaster), sixty years later if those tribes met up again, they wouldn’t be able to understand each other’s language. That’s what happens when you only have an oral tradition. It changes so fast!

Chris on rope bridge over river in Papua New Guinea
Chris on the bridge to the village
Papua New Guinea highlands village kids with homemade toy cars
Highlands kids with toy cars
Tok Pisin pidgin talk Papua New Guinea Sign
Tok Pisin (“Pidgin Talk”)

When we tried to leave Goroka, it turned out our flight back to Port Moresby was canceled. Uh oh! Luckily, they were able to shuffle us to a flight going to Lae (incidentally, the last airfield Amelia Earhart flew out of!) and then a connection to Moresby. PNG is so crazy and so mountainous, there aren’t any roads that connect the capital with any other city, so you have to fly everywhere. Lae and PM are the only cities that get supply ships, so everything is crazy expensive in this place. Although we heard nothing but horror stories of robbery, murder, rape and arson from every white person we met, every native we encountered was nothing but friendly and curious about us. All in all, it was a nice visit.

Mud Men Papua New Guinea
Mud Men

Questions about Papua New Guinea? Leave them in the comments section below and I’ll try to answer them.

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