Sunday, January 20, 2013
I hope it’s not true what they say about first impressions.
It was a glorious day in the town of Port Moresby. My good friend Sam who I met so many weeks ago on my flight into the country sat next to me in the driver’s seat. We were on our way to the airport for my departure to a new country, a new adventure. The streets were quiet and peaceful as a gentle breeze blew in through my window and out through his. I couldn’t believe the difference I felt between the same drive we did five weeks prior. It felt like a Sunday drive back from my summer home in Canada. I admired the dirty beaten streets and felt a streak of sadness to know I would probably never see these streets again, at least of course, that’s what I thought.
Security was laid back, they had a fun time examining my flint and Bear Grylls knife while patting me on the back and smiling when I showed them how it worked. The check in line was short and waiting with my massive bag on my back and wasn’t going to be strenuous two hour shuffle in the wrong airline kiosk like I once experienced in Singapore. I dropped my bags on the scale and no problems with the weight. I showed my ticket and passport and everything seemed in check until the attendant asked to see my outbound ticket from Philippians. Ah but I knew this trick. The airline in Australia made me purchase an outrageously expensive last minute flight out of Papua New Guinea with the threat of not being able to enter the country without one. Unsurprisingly an outbound flight from PNG wasn’t required and I passed through customs without the slightest inquiry. I told her I was heading to Vietnam from the Philippians. She asked to view my (travel plan) which in my selective hearing meant rough itinerary and not outbound ticket. I told her I had one but it wasn’t with me. Rule #1 in airports, never lie about anything. My boarding pass and passport were handed back to me and greeted a safe flight. I pre filled my departure card in the lounge and slid through customs with wide smiles and head nods. Something wasn’t right; in fact everything was too right. I’ve never been this incident free in an airport in my life. Maybe the airport curse had lifted and my bad dues had been paid. Was this really the new beginning to smooth sailing?
My flight was great and so was the service. I sat in the far back right in front of the stewardess kitchen. After spending so much time in the housing settlement designed specifically for the Air Niugini staff in Morseby I felt like part of the staff myself. I sparked up a conversation with a flight attendant who happened to be Sam’s wife’s cousin. She knew and worked with Sam often so she made sure to take extra care to me as my beer or coke never touch bottom before a new one replaced it. I explained my haphazard travel style of no plans and no set destination; I also expressed a small note of concern for not having an outbound ticket from Philippians. She assured me that Phillipeans was even more laid back than PNG and mimicked the same response Sam had told me “You’re a Canadian, Canadian passports are gold” I gave her a big hug and thanked her, she responded with letting me know the hotel they would be staying at and I promised to stop by for a drink. Ah yes, I haven’t lost my charm, smooth sailing was the only thing on my mind.
I walked through the arrival halls like I had been there a hundred times boasting the confidence of an experienced traveler. I walked past a group of backpackers my own age frantically filling out customs cards. Pfft armatures, everyone knows to have a black tipped pen with your carry to fill out the inbound passenger declaration card on the plane. I sidestepped past them cutting the line and finding myself at the front of the customs cue. I’m getting good at this. The officer took all my paper work, cards, and passport and seemed pretty satisfied until the dreaded question came along. “Sir can I see your return ticket to Port Moresby” The knot started to tie in my stomach but it wasn’t an impossible question, I still had some moves “No, I’m heading to Vietnam from here, I’m not returning to PNG” Not convinced she asked “Okay, can you show me your departure ticket to Vietnam” the noose was tightening “Yes, I mean no I don’t have it with me” “But you do have one?” here it comes.. “No not yet but il get one as soon as I know how long my visa allows me to stay” “Sir please follow me” I mind as well have just taken the suicide pill right then and there.
The interrogation room was allot more comfy looking than what the movies portray. The padded benches lined the circumference and a glass wall faced all the other passengers struggling through the diplomacy papers outside. But it doesn’t matter how comfortable something looks when you’ve just been detained in an Asian country, shit was going down and I was the cause of it. I stopped short of the door to let a Russian couple who were on their way out pass. Both were teary eyed and being escorted in the opposite direction of freedom. Shit. I always imagine myself as the clever witty criminal that would die before cracking under torture but I’ve said it before, I would be the worst serial killer in the world. I was a nervous wreck. Instantly the stress liquefied my insides and I was begging for a bathroom. I slid my hands inside my pockets to hide the shakes. It wasn’t that bad, I would just explain to them honestly what my plan was and if they needed to see a ticket I would pull my laptop out right there on the spot to purchase one. Sounds logical right? Unfortunately the handbook to boarder protection and customs is a compilation of illogical solutions to easy problems. Different people kept coming in and asking for my passport and boarding passes while walking off and returning moments later with the sense that they had forgotten the purpose of needing the information in the first place. Nearly forty five minutes of this confusion went on until I saw my large backpack being rolled up next to the glass wall on a trolley. Things were getting worse by the minute and still not a single person had even explained to me why I was being detained.
Finally all the random people appeared at once and informed me to hurry because my flight was departing. Fed up with being held in silence with an improper explanation of what the hell was going on I spoke up and enquired to the Customs supervisor about my situation. I was informed that as of 2013 all passengers entering the Philippians require an exit ticket in order to be granted access to the country. In fact it was now international regulation that an exit ticked must be provided for entry for every country. No problem I’ll just buy one now. “No sir, we have changed the rules so that tickets must be purchased before entering the country and we will not allow tickets to be purchased after arrival”. I’m pretty sure that rule was written in bold on the first page of the book to illogical solutions. The five airline representatives waiting for me and listening to the conversation were growing increasingly impatient for me to leave. I was getting pissed off though from these stupid unrealistic rules and demanded to speak with the Canadian consulate, who at that point was the only person with the authority to allow me access. They refused my request urging me to get on the plane. I knew that stepping foot on that plane would cost me nearly $1000 in new visa’s, transportation, and tickets out of PNG again along with sacrificing valuable days of travel to political rubbish. The Custom’s officer informed that they had just rejected two Russians and had already fined my airline fifty thousand pesos for allowing me on the plane without an exit ticket. Unsympathetic to the strangers and multi-billion dollar airline, I didn’t see what that had to do with me. The noose was tight around my neck and the stool had just been kicked from my feet. In my last desperate attempt to wiggle myself out of the rope and salvage the situation I told them I was leaving on a cruise ship to Japan. They wanted to see my ticket. I told them the cruise ship was actually a small sailing boat my friend owns, they weren’t buying it. I decided I was done for and seized the protest to allow fate to take hold.
The airline representatives were frantically running and racing us towards the gate while clearing a path for me to run. But I walked like the defiant little bastard that I am. Very few people other than my immediate family have seen me really angry. Last night I showed and told every creature within earshot how I felt. I walked towards my gate letting out the loudest f word my lungs could muster. The airline reps took it as a sign to stop pestering me to run. Fists clenched, I walked past the last temporary barricade kicking it to the ground as my final farewell. I imagined smashing the large glass window to the terminal hall and escaping into the night like they do in the movies. I later had a laughing fit on the plane thinking about how stupid I must have looked and how lucky I was not to get arrested. Ridiculous behavior really however an angry man is not a rational man. Little did I know that a 180 seat plane full of passengers was waiting for me to board. So two hours after the initial flight was supposed to depart, I found myself rolling down the tarmac on my way back to Papua New Guinea after being deported for the first time ever. So much for smooth sailing.
Lesson not really learned, here I am back in the country I didn’t expect to see so soon. Adventure has just been spaded from the world of travel. If all countries are going to follow the Philippians example on one way ticket holders then my travel style has just suffered a crippling blow. Spontaneous last minute decisions are the birth to unique unplanned experiences. Removing the flexibility to change plans and go with the flow creates a boring restricted itinerary.
It’s time for plan B
Saturday, January 19, 2013
It’s the people who have the least to give that offer the most.
|My slingshot crafted from and old football|
The cool waters contrast to the hot humid air soothes my sunburnt freckled skin. The round soggy stones beneath my feet bring relief to the week old blisters and daily new cuts and scrapes from running around bare foot. The gritty sand works well when rubbed on the shoulders and legs to clean off the daily grime and dead skin; a result of countless hours running through the thick mountain sides yielding slingshots, bow & arrows and, hand crafted spears. I lay back and let the waterfall’s force pour down on my scalp, parting my hair in every direction. The tangle of braids which where a gift from younger single village women rip free in the natural shower that pours from rocks above. I think of the countless hot shampoo and soap showers I’ve taken in my life but somehow this pool and waterfall I visit numerous times a day to bathe doesn’t compare, this is my paradise. The memory linking smell to soap evades me, I’ve so freely forgotten. I remember reading an article in the newspaper months ago, which at that point felt like years, a separate life of someone else. The article was focused on concerns that cell phones occupied all the time not assigned to work, conversations, and activities. Smart phones were replacing time meant for self-reflection. A funny thought to have under that peaceful translucent wall of water now that my days are filled only with self-reflection of the man I’ve become and a comparison of a life I used to live. Self-reflection reminds me of a time nearly three weeks ago where I sat starving and exhausted on the steps to a shelter when a man and his radiating smile walked out from in the rain and changed everything.
|I bought this casuary to eat for my family.|
My soul was shattered, the weight of failure hung around my neck like a rusty iron chain. I was turning back on a trail that I’ve failed to conquer. Defeated by the dark valleys and steep peaks my mind was decided that Papua New Guinea sucked and I would never come back here again. That was of course only until fate had kinder plans for me and a man that went by the name of Wopa crossed my path. I summoned him in from out of the pouring rain to sit next to me and I was presented a bag of chips from his backpack 1/8th the size of my own. It was the best Christmas gift I have ever received but it wasn’t the chips that convinced me of his kindness. It was the radiating smile that was portrayed despite the fact he was soaking wet and had undoubtedly been trekking the same mountains since the wee hours of morning. I had known him only a few minutes and he offered me a place to stay and live in his village for the following weeks to come. An outrageous offer considering our strangeness to each other and my eagerness to get to Manila and feel sorry for myself. However that smile held so much innocence and kindness that my heart felt warm and for the first time in weeks, comfort replaced anxiety. Ten minutes after meeting him for the first time, I was trudging back up the same mountains recently descended. Clothed in wet hiking gear, boots laced, and pack laden. Here we go again.
|The oldest man in the village|
It was an incredible feeling being part of their tribal migration. We were a group of two dozen people, mostly women and children. Infants were laced onto the backs and chests of the women along with a heavy burden of food and supplies. The men hardly carried a thing and demanded the women up and down steep slopes to deliver them food and water. I was climbing the same mountains I had just spent the past ten hours recovering distance on however an energy existed inside of me that filled my limbs with extraordinary power and confidence. A curious younger boy kept speeding past me on the hills just to turn around when he got above to bare the cheeky smile so familiar to my own at his age. I admired his braveness towards the white man considering the others would group together, give me a stare and mumble words between them that always erupted into giggles. It was a curious few hours that first night as we all walked into the increasing darkness of dusk while no one quite knew what to make of a white man travelling with them to their village deep in jungle. Admittedly even I was a bit nervous. We didn’t understand each others language and had no exposure to the others culture or customs. One thing I’ve learned though in all the years of meeting and living with strange people is that our beliefs and practices might be different but at the end of the day we are still human, the only common denominator we can always rely on. We came across a river and the boys my age motioned through sign language to wash and swim in the river. The brave younger boy came close and stood on a rock near me bragging with his body language of how good his balance was. A torrential monsoon rain erupted from the sky and I had enough of the awkward silence and discomforts we held against each other. I lunged out snatching the small boy from his cheeky stance and tossed him playfully into the deep river. He surfaced wide eyed and completely shocked; the others shared the same frozen shock until I beat my fist against my chest letting out my best Tarzan chant. We are all humans and they understood the denominator. Bellowing chants echoed my own with their unique identity as we tackled each other into the water playing like boys play into the darkness of night.
|Little Joe dressed and waiting for church|
I’m a village man now, I eat, drink, and sleep like the brothers and sisters around me. “one talk” meaning “all the same” in my new Papuan language. The moment we entered the village my new father Wopa explained to his village friends and family that he found me along the way and I was now his fourth son. Everything given to him would be extended to me and I would be treated as a family member. Originally I thought it was figuratively spoken so people knew where I would be sleeping and getting my food from but I came to learn that when the Papuan people say you’re family they really mean it. The old women came running shaking hands with us in greeting while the occasional one wrapped their arms around me and planted a big wet kiss on my cheek like my own grandmother had once done. Once they heard I was family the only thing the color of my skin meant was that I looked dirtier when playing in the mud with the children. The acceptance to a stranger was incredible. These people had hardly seen a white person in a magazine in their lives yet they accepted one with open arms into their homes without hesitation. I was at home.
|Robin on my shoulders. My cheeky little brother.|
The people of Papua New Guinea have never been conquered. The Europeans came in the late 1800’s / early 1900’s colonizing the major towns and creating plantations but the land belonged to the people and still does to this day leaving the government with only 10% of the country. When the people asked the Europeans to leave their land, they did so with no war or protest. When the Japanese invaded during WW2 they were cruel to the people. The Americans and Australians helped defeat the Japs and drove them from the country in which the Papuan people are ever so grateful for. So regardless of me being family and a pier to everyone else, the kind gestures and gifts never stopped flowing. There were instances where I sat on the soccer field with 200 other people and someone would always find a chair and drag it over for me. I felt bad refusing the offer every time because it meant they would have to drag it back to where they found it but I refused to accept any extra attention because I was white. My food came every night with a fork and spoon but I discarded them each time eating with my fingers until one day the utensils stopped showing up.
|I loved getting my hair braided by the women|
As I strolled around the village inspecting the buildings for things to fix, random arms would extend from darkened windows bearing full cut pineapple in which I never refused. In fact, on average I ate two full pineapples and eight ripe sugar bananas a day. Sugar, flower, and milk might have been in short supply but food certainly was not. I went from starving and dehydrated one day to bloated and incapacitated the next. My body didn’t know what the hell to do. I went from using the bathroom once every four days to four times each day. The bathroom of course was a tiny structure boasting a hole in the floor. The benefit of this was my quads were getting a killer workout and I’ve perfected the art of wiping my bum with leaves. The fuzzy surface actually offers a pleasant sensation, flip it over for a coarser clean…don't forget to check for earwigs first. Sneaking off to have a discrete relief was also impossible. I was still the most interesting thing they have ever seen and eyes would watch me during all minutes of the day. I made the mistake of telling my father Wopa about the consistent defecation so he took the liberty of telling everyone in the village about my irregular metabolism. It resulted in all the young pretty girls to gather together and giggle every time I made my way to the stinky hut. Performance anxiety is bad enough on a porcelain throne but physically strenuous squats above a hole in the ground while cute girls are having a peak through the bamboo slats is even worse.
|Patching up the locals|
The village has a very modern up to date health clinic with a fully trained doctor on staff however the people wanted me to treat their wounds. It all started when I noticed a bad sore spreading across a little girl’s back. I applied some anti-fungal cream that I always carry in my first aid kit and after a few days of treatment it receded. Rumor got out that I was a doctor so people would visit my hut daily with cuts and bruises for me to bandage. I don’t even know basic First Aid, all I had was alcohol swabs and band aids. I’ll admit to being a bit of a poser but it was a nice feeling to help people and fix their minor wounds. The kids came to see me with picked off scabs or self-inflicted burns and it wasn’t because for attention because no one else was around when they came to me. I later figured out it was because I was giving them a blob of toothpaste on their finger to brush their teeth after each visit. Clever kids. The bad patients like my father Wopa would come to see me with a swollen ankle and ask for medication to fix it. I told him the best thing to do is soak it in the cold river water and sleep with it elevated, clearly not satisfied with my lack of strawberry tasting anti-inflammatory’s, he went to see the real doctor where he came back looking like a mummy with wraps and compression bandages covering almost every joint in his body. My grandmother used a cane that never touched the ground, I know when a hypochondriac walks my way.
|Struggling down the mountain with the billong|
The village people come from a patrimonial society (contrary to the matrimonial society) the men live the easy life lazing around during the day while the women do all the chores from cutting the grass with machetes, cutting wood, washing dishes and clothes, to climbing the mountains and carrying a ludicrous amount of food back to the village. At first I was insulted to see how lazy the men are and how hard to women have it but the longer I lived with them the more I saw how much the women pride themselves on the responsibilities they have. In this culture the women are the work horses and strong they are. My guilt became too much to handle one morning so I decided I would help mama bring the pineapple, sweet potato. and corn back to the village. What a mistake that was. I met mama near the top of the mountain as she popped over the ridge and came racing towards me. I insisted that I would carry the billong full of food down the mountain so she could rest. She effortlessly pulled the straps off her forehead and handed me the bag. The unexpected weight literally crippled me to the forest floor; my mama was so strong she made the billong look like a bag of feathers. She kept trying to take it back but I was determined to carry it. The billong had to be at least 50kg full of pineapple, watermelon and potatoes heavier than rock. I tried carrying it on my head in the traditional way but I physically couldn’t support the weight and my neck nearly snapped. I had to sling it over my shoulder and cradle the bottom of the bag in my arms. A task hard enough done on flat ground unfortunately though we live in the mountains. I fell and slid the majority of my way down, cramming dirt and rocks up my shorts and underwear. Word had gotten out that I was coming down the mountain with the billong and to my surprise when I emerged out of the thicket and into the village, a soccer tournament had been paused and nearly 300 people cheered and applauded as I walked the final 50 meters to my hut. I decided then that it was less humiliating eating the food than it was carrying it down mountains.
|Mama and me returning from the gardens|
New Year’s came up as a surprise. Time in the village was about as important as Justin Beiber's new girlfriend. There were no Facebook notifications or selection of parties and bars to attend. I usually make it a goal to kiss a girl on New Year’s eve as an excuse to a lousy superstition foreshadowing a successful year to come with the ladies. Of course I had my eye on a beautiful village girl since the day I arrived but asking for a kiss was my culture not theirs. It was a time to learn, not corrupt. Instead I gathered with my little gang of kids and teenagers to burn steel wool. We held our bunches of steel wool under the lighter and who’s ever went off first would spin around and jumped furiously in the air while screaming like it was them that was on fire. The dance created a spectacle of sparks and lights that zigzagged and swirled through the darkness. Amazing, I didn’t even know steel wool burnt as it turned out to be more entertaining than any firework display I have ever watched. For the last night of an incredible year, I spent it burning kitchen appliances. So for the first New Years in seven years I was in bed by 8pm, sober, still single, and happy. Maybe kissing a girl on new year’s was a curse as my history has been nothing to brag about. Maybe my luck was about to change….
|Just a daily portion of greens.|
For those who don’t know, I’m a hopeless romantic. While travelling people fall so far out of their comfort zones that everything and everyone becomes an exotic. I’ve met and have been one of those hostel grievers holding back tears for that girl we met only once but this girl was different. Her name was Matilda. The girl I fell for the moment I set eyes on her. She had perfect creamy black skin. Her cheek bones resided high holding the smile she bore so well high on its throne. Fantasies of kissing her luscious big lips filled my mind every time we stole shy looks at each other. I watched her hips move freely from side to side as she walked along barefoot. I would marvel at her strength every return trip from the garden laden with a heavy load. I was shocked at the effect she had on me, seeing her strength carrying the heavy billongs was incredibly attractive. The thought of being with a woman who could protect herself and didn’t need constant maintenance was a comforting one. The village men half joked about destroying my passport and hiding me in the village where I would get married and stay. At one point I was offered a piece of land and the offer to stay the rest of my life in the village. Believe me the thought crossed my mind many times to marry Matilda, build a big house out of bamboo, and become a true village man. Matilda eventually asked me to marry her. A hard request to turn down even after only knowing her for two weeks and never physically touching her but unfortunately I’m still searching for something I might never find. Sometimes we’re looking for things that are right before us but unable to see. Sometimes we don’t know what’s passing us by until it’s already gone. The hardest part about a decision isn’t the choice made but the consequences that follow; hope is the only comfort present in deciding whether you made the right one. I hope I have.
|A bit out of my area of expertise but I did fix it eventually.|
So life went on in my community. I made daily trips to visit friends and fix whatever they had that was broken. Sewing machines, solar panels, water filters, and rotten steps. They presented it and I fixed it (or tried to). I spent a full day fixing and giving a maintenance to the chainsaw that was being used to build a church and school. Milling had stopped once it broke so I was extra pleased when I fixed it up and showed the men different, safer ways to use the saw. I found a teenager building a bench one afternoon so I chose him to accompany me as my apprentice whenever I fixed or built anything. I wanted my skills to last long after I left the village. I think the greatest accomplishment was showing my apprentice how to carve a baseball bat out of wood which I then taught the kids in the village how to play baseball with it. I spent many hours strolling around with the pastor of the church. I told him all about Canada and the religion I grew up with. He showed me the dire state of the church and its need for maintenance. I promised him that I would write some letters and send them to some people who I thought might be able to fund some improvements. I also saw the school teacher and talked about ways to fund toothbrushes for the children considering their enthusiasm for toothpaste. These people were giving me an experience so unique to anything else I have ever had in my life. Writing a few emails seemed hardly enough to repay the debt. However the community also benefited from my presence. I made history in those three weeks as the first white man to have spent anymore than a couple of days in the village. They considered it good luck to have Christmas and New Year’s with a white man. I really blended well, learning the language, and contributing to the community so it was no surprise when there were a few hard swallows and teary eyes when it came time to start the journey back into Port Moresby.
|Return journey halted by flash flooding.|
I’ve been to some pretty exotic places, seen some pretty awesome things, and done some pretty crazy shit but my three weeks in Manari Village will be an experience I will hold close to my heart and reflect on for the rest of my life. I was shown light in my darkest hours, I was offered warmth on the frosty mountains, I was shown the road when I found myself lost. I now have a family on the other side of the world that will always greet me with open arms and embrace me with warm smiles. I’ve discovered that it’s the people who have the least to give that offer the most. I found the truth of PNG and that truth lies in the hearts of the Manari people living deep within the jungle. It could kill you trying to find that truth like it almost did to me but it will certainly save your life once you do find it.
|A final farewell|
Farewell Papua New Guinea,
Naroma, Badiagua, Goodbye.
|Trying to be a village woman.|
|Cute but caged|
|Joanna my first medial patient|
|Eating some delicious sugar cane.|
Thursday, January 17, 2013
Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.
Intermittent screams carried in the wind during the dark nights, startling pops of fire crackers illuminated the rubble and concrete roads, men and teenagers alike staggered hopelessly towards any creature within an arms striking distance, the dull slowing hum of fans and cooling street lamps during daily power grid black outs. It’s important to see the dark side of the tourist pamphlet but I wanted the truth to this country and that truth is only to be found far from roads, alcohol, drugs, and the white man’s invention of money. I spent a full week in the capital city of Port Moresby venturing little and I was sick of it. I didn’t know what I was looking for but I knew it wouldn’t be found in the city. A rushed shopping trip stocked me up with a tarp, extra malaria medication, and an assortment of dehydrated foods. I laced my boots to the very top ringlet and knotted them tight, take a step into the unknown, it was time to hit the jungle.
The Kokoda track is a 96km footpath leading across the Owen Stanley Range in the central province of PNG. The trail gets its world class reputation partly for the Iconic roll the Australian army played in WW2 defeating the Japanese advance on the gateway to the South Pacific and partly for its stunning scenery and extremely difficult terrain that summons the most experienced, intrepid trekkers from across the globe. The terrain is so aggressive in fact that still to this day there are no roads connecting PNG’s southern provinces to its northern neighbors on the opposite side of the mountain range. The only option is by expensive domestic flights or gather what you can and attempt the grueling 7 to 10 day journey by foot to the other side. Inexperienced with mountain terrain and horribly unfit it seemed like the perfect adventure for me. I’m often wrong.
My journey began like most other endeavors I take on… hung-over. With three hours sleep I woke to my host Sam summoning me to get my bags to the front door, my ride was on the way. Too sick to eat or drink anything, we drove the hour long trip to Ower’s corner early in the morning on Sunday the 23rd of December. The original plan was to arrive early so I could get a good full day’s hike in. That plan was sabotaged by the cans of beer consumed the night before. Instead I spent the entire day lying on a picnic bench sleeping and trying to find the courage to start my journey. Occasionally Australian tourists viewing the monument would come give me a shake and ask if I was alright, even the locals were a bit freaked out that I was alone and comfortably sleeping away. It wasn’t until five in the afternoon that I had my first drink of water and set off for the 1km distance from the start of the track to a shelter at the Goldie River crossing at the bottom of the hill. The first steps through the gateway onto the track were the foreshadowing to the following three weeks, flat ground became a dream such as an oasis in the desert. The ground gave way to the curvature of the slope; small steps were laboriously etched into the tough red soil as the gradient continued to fall into the valley below. I grabbed onto tuffs of grass, branches, and anything justified a suitable anchor incase my feet fell out beneath my heavy pack. I’ve fallen snowboarding down a double black diamond before and didn’t stop until I hit the bottom; my fear was that this hill would have the same effect.
Forty five minutes later I reached the river and my first night’s camp. My legs were quivering like match sticks supporting a grand piano. It took me three quarters of an hour to walk 1km downhill… shit, I realized how debilitating my 70 days in a kayak had been to my legs. Convinced it was the hangover and lack of food that day, I still couldn’t get my mind off the fact that ahead of me was another 10 days, 95 km, and the elevation equivalent of climbing Everest twice. I had six packs of noodles, 750grams of oats, 750 grams of rice, five cubes of chicken stock, eight packs of salted peanuts at 40 grams a piece, and two pints of rum. I cooked up a pack of noodles leaving me five packs and the worry of running out of food had already begun. It was clear that a starvation diet would be necessary for rations to last the journey but I had no idea how bad things where actually about to get.
Day two started out with promising sunshine glimmering through the trees mixed among the morning mist. A nice swim in the crystal clear water revived my spirits and I forgot about the worries that haunted my dreams the night before. A warm pot of oats for breakfast filled my stomach but did nothing for energy levels; I had no sugar so I would have to go without until I found some sugar cane. The first couple hours went pretty smooth with rivers flowing low enough to cross without removing my boots and terrain hospitable enough to scamper across while making good time on kilometers. Unfortunately though this trail gets its reputation for its unforgiving slopes, not the Snow White woodland and friendly talking animals I was envisioning. So the climbing began. The hill grew and it grew quickly. I started out by keeping my head down and not looking to see how far I needed to go but scampered up the steepest sections quickly, letting my heart rate soar in a strategy to get the ascents over quickly and rest on the less gradient sections. What I didn’t realize was that there weren’t any flat spots or ridges until the very peak.
The climbing went on. I changed strategy to picking spots above that looked flat and would work towards it motivating myself to make it just to that spot and once reached I would find a new goal and work towards the latter. The worst part about this method was that upon reaching each point it revealed not a flat spot but a twist in the path and the climb would continue. At my rate each peak took me three to four hours to summit. A steady drip of sweat fell from my nose and finger tips. I couldn’t seem to drink enough water to replace what I was losing. At the streams and creeks I would drink until I felt nauseous and then drink some more.
My morning oats energy didn’t last long and I was rationed to one 40 gram pack of salted peanuts for lunch each day. I hit the metaphorical “wall” at 10 am each day. Hitting the wall is a term used by marathon runners and extreme athletes that describes the body’s reaction to running out of usable calories and short term energy storage. The sensation is as if running into an invisible wall that only the body feels. The trick is to keep resupplying energy stores before the tank hits bottom because once it does you’re screwed.
The day went on progressively worse. I needed to take breaks walking down mountains and my heart rate was slow to recover. I found myself losing consciousness when I stopped to rest and waking up an unknown amount of minutes later wondering how long I had been out. Luckily the giant carnivorous bush flies would dig their jaws into my flesh waking me from my coma before the daylight hours could escape for too long. I spent a good few hours criss crossing a river system and navigating steep banks and slippery rocks. At one point the trail followed a creek away from the river that I missed and spent an hour backtracking up the river to find my fault. Immediate regret of not hiring a guide filled me and I thought about how much that wasted hour was worth to me, how much was I willing to pay not to suffer any more than what I had to. Although it wouldn’t be much of an adventure if everything went to plan right?
That second day finished at 3:00pm for me. I was 1.8 km from the village and dry shelter where I had planned on sleeping but my map told me that in 1.8km I would climb nearly 400 vertical meters. I contemplating pushing for a few extra hours but I’m glad I didn’t because I would have never made it. It took me the next three hours to set up a two person dome tent as I kept losing consciousness when taking small breaks. I’ve read stories of similar situations for climbers summiting Everest. I vaguely remember being thirsty and making three separate attempts to crawl the two meters to my bag for my water bottle. The daily monsoon rain woke me up on my last attempt and I knew things would get worse before they got better if I continued at that rate. The last of my energy went to dragging my things into the tent and securing the tarp to keep the rain out. I slept two hours before regaining enough strength to boil a pot of water for my dinner. Worried and alone this adventure was quickly crossing the line between excitement and dread. The closer I got to my destination, the further I got from my back up plan. I felt myself losing control; the percentages between success and failure were exchange figures by the minute. Sleep on it and it will get better. I hope.
Day three started out similar to its prior. Refreshed, revived, restored, I felt healthy and hopeful. However hope alone cannot propel a body up and down mountains. 10 am came quickly and the wall was a lot more solid this time. The hours pushed on and progress was arduously slow. I rationed my peanuts yet again, eating 20 grams at 10:00 am and the other 20 grams at 1:00 pm. I would carefully cut the package open and lick the salt from the inside of the wrapper. I was losing too much body salts in my sweat and I had no way of replenishing them with only the peanuts and noodles. I calculated I was burning about 6000 calories a day and consuming only 700.
My back was weak as well since it had been a full year since my last real hike with substantial weight. I started with 22kg including food, water, and stove fuel, the same weight the Australian soldiers had to carry across these same mountains in WW2. Something had to give, I knew I couldn’t go on like this and the sacrifices began. The first things to go were the two bottles of rum and rain jacket. There was no remorse in seeing the alcohol go, I hadn’t forgotten how awful the previous Sunday had been. I left it on the track with a note and I’m sure whoever found it had a good Christmas. It was an eerie sensation passing memorials on the mountain marking the locations where young adults like myself had come to conquer the terrain and met tragic ends. I was pushing myself harder than I ever have; my body was grinding well past its physical limit. I’ve run marathons without training but this was like running a marathon every day for 12 hours a day. My heart was struggling to keep up and I knew it. I would wake up in the night and it would still be beating fast and hard inside my chest. I understand how these people got their names planted in the soil here, I could feel my own wasn’t far away.
That afternoon I stopped to rest on the crest of small hill, during so I took another squeeze at a pimple on my right knee that had started in Australia and been there nearly a month. Exhaustion and adrenaline numbed any pain so I squeezed extra hard pushing my thumb nails deep until they broke the skin. I watched the yellow puss ooze followed by the clear plasma turning to blood. I kept squeezing well beyond what was needed for a pimple or splinter and I don’t know why, maybe I liked the sight of blood or the pain in my knee momentarily diverted the attention from the full body ache. To my surprise a small white wiggling worm began to emerge from the wound. I managed to pull a good 2 cm out before it severed between my nails and disappeared back into my body. I looked down and saw clots of blood hanging from the tong of my boots and pulled my socks back to reveal a number of leaches feasting on my ankles. Some fat and swollen, some already exploded in a bloody muck. Bush flies circled and bit me below the shoulder blades through my under armor shirt. Mosquitoes feasted on the back side of my knees. The jungle was kicking my ass. I didn’t have enough energy as it was and these little bastards were having a feast on the fresh white meat.
I came across a banana tree near an old ammunition dump and the Rambo inside of me came out to play. I had bragged to friends and family that I was heading into the jungle with no food and would survive off the land and this was the first and only sighting of wild fruit in three days. I hadn’t the energy to climb the tree so I fashioned a bamboo spear and tethered my Bear Grylls knife to its end. It took allot of time and energy hacking away at the banana pod but I just thought about all the energy I would get out of the delicious banana’s. I could smell something gross and later I realized I was standing in human feces but the thought of fresh bananas foraged by my own resourcefulness trumped the unlucky footwork so I continued cutting regardless. After some time the pod of bananas fell free and I celebrated by pounding my chest like an ape. I cut a banana open and took a big bite of the internals. The delicious sugary texture never came; the inside of my mouth was coated with a dry sour sticky substance similar to eating an orange peel. Silly white man, I’ll later learn that most bush bananas need to be cooked for a long time over the fire. The only thing I got out of that banana tree was a boot that smelled like shit and a mouth that tasted like it.
I had run out of water hours ago and the sky was darkening. A premature camp wasn’t possible; I was out of water and on the top of a mountain where rivers don’t tend to flow. I had to push on and make it to the village where I would find water and shelter. Luckily the last two km into camp were downhill and the rain had held off for most of the afternoon. Dusk was rolling in quickly; I staggered into the village and got directions to the shelters by a woman washing some dishes. I filled my water bottle and emptied it down my throat before I even reached the shelter. I was delusional and off balance using things around me to keep me on my feet. I dropped my bag on the bamboo floor and scattered the internals out over the floor. I decided to rest my back for a moment and lied down. The next memory I have is waking up in the pitch black of night still in a daze and shivering. Clumsily searching around for my sleeping bag, I kicked off my boots and crawled inside fully clothed in wet hiking gear. Traditionally in my life Christmas eve was spent anxiously waiting for morning to receive gifts, food, and hugs. As I lay there shivering in my sleeping bag, the only thing I wanted in the morning was to wake up.
I woke up late the next morning still exhausted but warm and in good health. I hadn’t eaten anything since the 20 grams of peanuts the day before and I was hungry to say the least. I decided I would treat myself to a double serving of rice since I missed dinner the night before. I looked around the floor for my food bag and it wasn’t there, I checked through my bag twice and still couldn’t find it until a shimmer of yellow plastic caught my eye in the opposite corner of the shelter. No way. I found my food, well at least what was left of it. All my noodles and chicken stock were gone. The oats were untouched and two zip lock bags of rice where torn open but still relatively full. I still had my six packs of peanuts in a separate compartment of my bag but my heart sank none the less. Merry Christmas. The wild dogs had ransacked my food supplies during the night and I was too tired to notice. I was out of luck. I knew for sure then that I could never make it another eight days on the little food I had left. I was devastated, my trip was over and I would never make it to Kokoda on my own. I wasn’t going anywhere that day until I made a new plan so I changed into dry clothes, hid what remained of my food and fell back to sleep.
I limped up to the village later that day with a pocket full of money and tried to buy some food. A younger man came out and refused any money and told me there was none. I walked down to another smaller hut and told the men that one of their dogs had eaten all my food. Their response was “you should hide your food at night” while they cooked up a wild pig that had been recently slaughtered. The conversation was over and I wasn’t going to leave that hut until they forced me to. Just the smell of the pig boiling in the pot allowed me to pretend I was eating it. I looked around and saw five dogs all anxiously watching the pot of steamy deliciousness. I stared at the dog closest me and he growled, I wanted to growl back and challenge him to a fight. There we were sitting together, human and dog, five of them one of me, but all six of us were tired starving animals waiting to be the first to get a scrap that falls from the pot. The young man who had told me there was no food earlier presented two banana’s similar to the ones I had cut down and fried them up for me. He said he felt sorry for me and would give me the banana free of charge. I felt like telling him to cook me enough food to replace what his dog stole or I’d take his dog and eat and it. I didn’t of course and I even felt bad for the dogs, they were all scraggly and starving with their skin tightly wrapped around their rib cages. I would have stolen the food too If I where them.
I asked if I could hire one of them to guide me to Kokoda and help me buy food in the villages along the way. They had lengthy discussions about it and after some time agreed to accompany me with two men for 60 kina ($30) /day. All was good, a revised plan much more reliable than my original however my gut feeling was warning me. I woke up three times that night with a bad feeling about continuing on so I wasn’t disappointed when the village elder came to visit me early in the morning to tell me he had changed his mind and would send me back the way I came. He explained Christmas and New Year’s is a dangerous time on the other side of these mountains where kidnappings and murders on the trail are common. I knew he wasn’t trying to fool me because they would have made eight times the amount of money to take me to Kokoda but the safety of his men and my own were his concern.
The journey back was a demoralizing one, tracing the path of my hard earned ground step by step, kilometer by kilometer. My guides offered to carry my bag but I refused. I got myself into this jungle and I’m going to get myself out under my own two feet. One of them disappeared into the jungle for some time and reappeared a half hour later ahead of us with three fully grown ripe pineapples. If only it was that easy. I realize though that these jungles are as familiar to them as the streets are to me in my own city.
We stopped for the night in a mountaintop village before the afternoon rain fell. I sat alone on the steps to my shelter reviewing my experience in PNG as pretty bad one. I was already planning to rebook my ticket to the next available flight to the Philippians where I would spend New Year’s like every other year since I was sixteen. Drunk, stupid, and sucking the face off a stranger. Worst of all I was dreading the depressing sob story of a blog I would write like so many others where I’ve been hard done by nature. But I’m an optimist and everything happens for a reason. There was something bad waiting for me at Kokoda and if I hadn’t turned back I wouldn’t have been sitting on those steps alone while the man who later came to be my father walked in from out of the rain with that broad white tooth smile I grew to love.
Sometimes my friends ask me how I’ve managed to travel the world and live the unique experiences I’ve lived. Others ask me how I always land on my feet when a fall is immanent. My response is always simple and always the same. I’m no different than anyone else in the world. We are all presented with opportunities, decisions, and choices. The only difference is the way we answer those questions. When that smiling man’s destiny crossed paths with my own I presented him with opportunity and he presented me with a choice. So for the second time in 12 hours my fate changed and I made a choice that changed not only my life but the lives of hundreds of other’s in a place I would have never expected. Opportunity exists all around us, we just need to know when to stop holding our breath and breathe it in.