By Christine Ferris
Most people I know in the village have no idea that I once lived in a tropical paradise on the far side of the world – three years in Papua New Guinea.
The circumstances that led to my journey there were convoluted. By My Australian born husband Dennis and I had been living in the Ottawa suburb of Orleans with our two small boys. It was not the most exciting of lives, so one day I just said to Dennis, ‘Let’s move to Australia.’ He was chuffed, as he liked to say, and we did!
When people ask Dennis about his accent, they usually say that Australia is a place they would love to visit. I had already visited his family in Brisbane, so I was excited to move to the warm climate among the exotic plants and colourful (and noisy) birds. But after the initial settling in, I didn’t love it there. I felt like a stranger in a strange land, and I knew I would never fit in. It was too hot, too conservative, too far behind the strides we had made in Canada in terms of women’s rights (men barbecuing with beer in hand, women in the kitchen). It felt like a place to go for a holiday, not a place to settle in. I wanted to come home. Dennis agreed, but he suggested an adventure on the way. So, after two years in Oz, we set out for Papua New Guinea.
Most people only have a vague idea where PNG is. North of Australia’s eastern tip and at the far east of the Indonesian archipelago, New Guinea is a mountainous island that has been divided into two sections. Indonesia claimed the western half, Irian Jaya; Papua New Guinea is the eastern half, once a protectorate of Australia, now an independent member of the Commonwealth. It is four degrees from the equator.
That four degrees is significant. PNG is hot! The seasons are only two: hot and dry or hot and wet. I do not love the heat, and on hot Wakefield days as I sit under a ceiling fan in a damp t shirt, I wonder how I managed. In fact, when we left PNG on New Years Eve three years later, I did not have warm clothes for the children – by then a daughter had been added to the mix – and because of plane delays we ended up having to walk across the tarmac in subfreezing temperatures in summer clothes.
I loved Papua New Guinea, perhaps because life there was so different than life in a first world country, so interesting, so varied. Even the people themselves, the Nationals (as they were called), were from many different tribes. When we were there, we heard that there were over 700 different languages spoken in that small country. I just looked it up, and the latest figure is about 850. Each language was complete in itself, not a dialect, so a common pidgin is spoken in urban centres – tok pisin. We learned to communicate using tok pisin in a basic way. Each of those languages is spoken by one tribe, and each tribe in the past – and probably even now – was enemies with surrounding tribes. As well as its own language, each tribe had its own culture, costume, dance and territory.
We lived in Port Moresby, the capital. Lest the word ‘capital’ evoke pictures of a city, I must report that Moresby had a downtown area of one block and boasted one traffic light. When we arrived, we were taken through the traffic light, up a hill called Tuaguba Hill, to a compound of houses. We paused at a locked gate where our driver used a remote control to open the gate. “That’s to make sure no rascals attack you,” he said. Rascals! He explained that rascal was the pidgin word for criminals. That was our first indication that all may not be quite as paradisiac as I had imagined. But I loved the country and the people, so I am not going to dwell on the dark side of paradise.
However, the town was definitely divided into the expats and the Nationals. And the expat way of looking at things was so alien to the Nationals that they often did what they were asked to do very literally, probably regaling their family members around the fire that evening with stories of the ridiculous instructions. I know of one man who was asked by his employer to clean the refrigerator inside and out, so he did. He must have thought it very strange to be asked to haul the fridge outside and then clean it a second time.
It was important to the local economy that we expats hire local people, so I did have a “meri”, which is pidgin for woman, to work in the house (a luxury I still miss). Rhoda came every day but, as she did not speak English, sometimes my requests lacked precision. One time when I asked her to clean the fridge, I went through each of the steps for her – but I neglected to mention what I thought was obvious, to return the food to the fridge. So she didn’t! On another occasion she vacuumed the whole house without turning the vacuum cleaner on. It must just have seemed like white people magic.
It was not acceptable for National house workers to stay with employers, but one day we broke the rule. During a terrible storm we asked Rhoda to stay. She was thrilled and highly embarrassed at the same time. That evening we watched a movie on TV, during which there was a murder. Poor Rhoda leapt to her feet in horror, hands to mouth, eyes huge, almost screaming, “Oh no! Oh no!” It took us a while to communicate that it was “No tru, no tru.”
One of my favourite memories is the time we went to the annual singsing, the PNG version of a fair or exhibition. When we got there, people from all over the country were in their tribal costumes, ready to compete in the main event, a dance competition; a description of this cannot do it justice. My children were fascinated by the colourful headdresses, many that included plumes of birds of paradise, or even the actual birds themselves, as the main decoration. The dancers painted their deep brown skin many different colours and wore grass skirts and seashell ornaments. As we approached the fence surrounding the dance area, we realized that there were no other white people there. The people were proud that we had cared to come; they made way for us and pushed us to the front. I was appalled that more expats had not chosen to witness this amazing event.
The dancing groups were absolutely unforgettable. Each tribe’s dance was quite different from the others. The one I remember best was by the huli wigmen. This group had headdresses made from their own hair, which their mothers had collected from their births until they were old enough to create a boat shaped wig with the bird of paradise tail feathers swaying in the air. But their way of dancing involved a line of men dipping and rising in unison to the beat of a kundu drum. One poor fellow couldn’t get the beat right, and he bobbed when the others dipped and dipped when the others bobbed. PNG people are very innocent in many ways, and the crowd howled with laughter. Eventually the two men on either side of the off kilter dancer linked arms with him and got him back on beat.
Some vendors from Australia had brought their wares to the fair – a pony ride, for example. We watched as the short-legged ponies slogged round and round with their riders astride – big men whose feet almost touched the ground. Outside the ring, the riders’ children watched, wishing they could have a ride. Further along, someone was selling flimsy yellow and pink broad brimmed straw hats. As we drove home, we passed many men walking along the road, proudly wearing their new hats. Their wives trudged behind them, carrying bundles on their heads or on their backs.
But one moment stands out for me above all others. I needed to use the washroom. The facility was a concrete square with three cubicles. Each cubicle had cement walls, no door, and a hole in the floor. Yikes! But I had to go. Luckily I was wearing a loose skirt, so I squatted as decorously as I could. And then a National woman came into the facility . She started to walk past my cubicle, glanced in, then did a double take. She backed up and stared at me, grinning widely and nodding in approval. I nodded back, feeling we had shared a moment.
After my first year in PNG I was fortunate to be able to teach seventh grade in one of the expat schools in Port Moresby. The class was a mix of National children and expats from the UK, Australia, India, the US and Japan. There I learned as much as the students did, especially about cultural differences. I’ll bet no teacher reading this can say that a student’s excuse for not doing homework was that there was a riot near their house. Or that they had no paper at home. During the rainy season we had silent reading about two in the afternoon – or whenever the rain started – because the drumming of a downpour on the corrugated roof made conversation impossible.
The teachers were from all over as well. My son one day proudly told us that he had learned how to spell ‘Luke’. I was wondering how they came to mention Luke Skywalker in a grade two class, until my son spelled out “L-O-O-K”. It took us a minute to figure it out – his teacher was from Scotland.
Rhoda lost her living quarters at some point, and she returned to her village. We were lucky enough to find a wonderful second meri called Gwen, who was educated and spoke English well. She almost became part of the family, although we like to tease our now-adult children about how she spoiled them. Apparently –though we never witnessed this—one of them used to lie on the floor after school with a foot in the air for her to take his shoes off. Gwen looked after our daughter during the day and they became very close. She didn’t know her birth date, so we gave her our daughter’s. We remained in touch with Gwen for many years after we left, but her husband died so she returned to her village. We have not heard from her since.
By the time our contract was up I was ready to leave PNG. I loved the beauty of the mountains, the scent of the bougainvillea cascading down the fence behind our house, the papaya and mango trees in our yard (although we had to be quick or we would see small brown faces in the mango tree, taking them while they were still green), the gentleness of the local people we got to know, the trip we took to the top of the Kokoda Trail – where we had the thrill of seeing a bird of paradise in the wild. But we had faced challenges too, so I was ready for a cooler climate and a reliable medical system.
That experience in Papua New Guinea was a pivotal one in my family’s life. Dennis and I hope to visit again one day, when we are once again able to fly to Australia. A return to paradise.