Sunday, January 30, 2011

PNG - My Life in a Tropical Paradox

I was recently at a party with friends when someone asked some questions about my experience growing up in Papua New Guinea. I had not talked about it in a long time and while talking I realized how much I had missed sharing this experience with people who were interested.
If you did not know this already, I was born in a remote village in the jungles of the Enga province of Papua New Guinea. Enga meris (women from Enga) are known for being quite fearsome. I like to think I can be fearsome. I was delivered by a New Guinean midwife since the Scottish doctor who delivered my older sister was on furlough. Perhaps this is the beginnings of my fascination with the miracle of birth (and an insane admiration of my Mama).
I spent the first few years of my life playing with leaves and sticks and dirt, wearing a grass skirt, being carried over vine bridges on the shoulders of New Guinean men (I don’t think they trusted my parents and their slippery white-folk hair that was no good for a kid to hold on to), and riding in helicopters to go grocery shopping. I honestly do not recall a thing about those early years beyond what I have seen in pictures and been told in stories.
Apparently I could speak three languages by the time I was three. English, Melanesian Pidgin and Duna, the local language (there are over 800 languages in PNG). And I could tell who spoke which language. I am impressed with me. If only I could remember one of those languages well now! I learned recently about myself that my early exposure to many languages while making it easier for me to learn other languages as I grew up, also made me incapable of communicating fully to the extent of my intellectual desire - I reduce everything to the simplest of terms. Perhaps I am always preparing to have to change something into another language. I’ll claim that as my excuse. Please tell my professors!
There were some funny stories surrounding our return to the US when I was three. Like me and my sister diving for cover under the car in the grocery store parking lot when we heard a helicopter - in PNG it would have been a police helicopter coming to break up a tribal war with tear gas. Or my Mom trying to tell us that snow was soft stuff and us jumping off the steps onto our faces in three inches of it.
There was the confusion for me of living in a really white town for a few years and then moving to Hyde Park in chicago and having African American kids - who looked like my first friends - being angry towards me. It took years for me to understand that.
We returned to PNG when I was ten and quickly learned that the paradise we had left behind seven years before was now a pretty scary place to be. Violence, especially against expats and women was rampant. Our home had bars on the windows and alarm switches in every room that could send the Seminary students running to our rescue should we need them. We could not go out at night. The few times we tried to ended badly. Once my Dad picked a few of us up from a school dance and our car was attacked as we neared the one-lane bridge that led to home. He desperately tried to turn the car around but the engine died as the men beat on the windows of the van and my friends and I sat paralyzed in fear. We eventually got turned around and back to the police station where we waited for hours for an escort home. There were even times in broad daylight that were quite terrifying. My younger sister and I were in a friends’ car on the way to their house when a man jumped out and threw a rock into the windshield of the car, leaving us covered in glass and blood. Thankfully my friend’s Mom had the presence of mind to keep driving us to safety. It was impossible to deny the fear that we all lived with.

Yet at the same time there were beautiful moments - we would drive down close to the coast and smell the salty air, or I would climb the tree in our back yard and watch as the sun began to set and the palm trees swayed lightly in the breeze. Between the two different houses we lived in over those eight years, we had pineapples, guavas, lemons, star fruit, papaya, bananas, passion fruit and mangoes growing either in our yard or across the street. I used to make a game of eating lemons and daring other kids to do it too. (One poor girl threw up from it.) And we had a pool. A round, corrugated tin pool that we could make an awesome wave in by pushing down repeatedly on a large inner tube until the wave would crash over our heads and sometimes over the sides of the pool. I remember trips into town when we would get to pick out a treat at the grocery store, maybe some gum or a dove bar. There was a smell about the city. A combination of sweat and buai (it is chewed and spit out like tobacco) and rain. Thinking about that smell makes me happy. I remember trips into town to go to the international hotel and swim in the big pool and eat fries and drink a lemon lime bitter. Once the toucan that resided there caught a ball that was being thrown around in the pool. School was usually fun too, especially when we had to run from building to building through the rain. We would arrive at the next class refreshed and exhilarated! The sound of the rain at night, beating down on the tin roof, was so peaceful. I miss that. So while there was a very real risk and danger involved every day, there was always beauty and fun to balance it out. And that it what life is - balance.

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