Sunday, October 28, 2007

Papua New Guinea: It's All Part of the Show in Lae

My arrival to Papua New Guinea in mid-September put me at a distinct disadvantage for catching a cultural show, the majority of which occur between July and September. There were a few stragglers, however, and so the last weekend in October, I headed north to Lae to catch the last big show of the year – the Morobe Show of Morobe Province.

On this trip to Lae I was only going to see the show, so I booked an early flight on Saturday morning and a return on Sunday afternoon.

The night before my trip turned out to be a late one at the Gold Club, and when I got home, I just didn't feel like packing. I decided to put it off. So, my flight was scheduled for 6:00 AM; I had booked a car and driver for 4:30; and the alarm was set for 3:30. This early wake-up should have given me plenty of time to pack, and there was sufficient cushion for me to hit the snooze several times if needed.

I am positive that I would have woken up if the alarm had gone off, but, alas, it did not. The alarm I was using was the one in my cell phone, and I normally had it set to ring Monday through Friday. I failed to inform it that I needed the alarm to sound on a Saturday, and so it didn't.

In any case, I woke up at 4:30 when the driver called me. He correctly guessed that I was still asleep because he couldn't see any lights on in my house.

Since I was only going to be spending one night in Lae, I didn't need to do a whole lot of packing. I got dressed, packed some things, and was out the door in 10 minutes.

One of the last things I normally do before I take a trip is to jettison everything that I won't need and that I don't want to get stolen. For example, instead of taking my whole key ring, I will remove only the house key and hide it in a pocket. I also go through my wallet and remove everything except for a small bit of cash. Then I stash the rest of the cash that I plan to carry in other pockets. I also generally bring an ID and sometimes a credit card, and these things also go in separate pockets. I normally wear cargo pants with a lot of pockets, with something different in each pocket, so that a thief isn't likely to get everything should I happen to get robbed.

In my haste, however, I did not go through my usual routine. I wasn't even wearing the correct pants. Doh!

Of course with all of this build-up, I'm sure you can see where this is going. Try to act surprised when it happens, though.

Anyhow, the airport is only 15 minutes from my house, so I reached it in plenty of time, even with oversleeping.

The flight was on time, and by 7:00 we landed at the Lae airport which was an hour by bus from the city.

I rode on the standard airport bus, but there was also a fortified option run by Guard Dog Security. The Guard Dog bus had grills over all the windows and several well-armed guards. Its seats were also twice the price of the standard bus. As far as crime goes, most people consider it a toss-up between Port Moresby and Lae for the distinction of being the worst of the worst in PNG. Because of this, Guard Dog didn't seem to be having any problem filling its seats.

Both bus lines offered door-to-door service, and after dropping off several other people, my bus kicked me out at my hotel.

It was only 8:30 when I tried to check-in, so it was no shock that my room was not yet ready.
While housekeeping finished up, I had a leisurely breakfast at the hotel's small restaurant.

Mostly because the service was so slow, I didn't leave the cafe until 10:15. While I was sitting around drinking tea and waiting for my food, a movie called Kung Fu Hustle came on. It was quite entertaining, and once I finished eating I almost stayed to see the ending. I didn't, though. I hadn't gone to Lae to watch TV.

After breakfast, my room was ready. I put my things inside and slathered up with sunscreen. Then the manager of the hotel, a man named Newman, gave me a lift in his van down to the show grounds.

Newman gave me his business card and told me to call him when I was ready to return to the hotel. Then he pointed me toward the entrance to the fairgrounds, which was down a road that was closed to traffic, and left me to my own devices.

As I walked down the street toward the ticket booth, it was clear that I wasn't in Madang anymore (or Kansas either). I started greeting everyone that I passed on the street as had been the practice in Madang, and in response, I received a lot of thousand-yard stares. Tough crowd...

Soon enough, though, I came to the ticket building. There were two or three sales windows and a huge disorderly mob out front. The chaos of the scene reminded me of buying my first train ticket in India.

I entered the fray and tried to work my way up to the front of the jumble of bodies. I didn't accomplish this without a measure of trouble, though, for as soon as I entered the mosh pit, every rascal in the vicinity was on me like whipped cream on a sundae.

I was a piece of bread that was thrown into a fish pond, and these jackass rascals were the fish who were nibbling on me from every direction.

I was pinned tightly in the crowd so that there were bodies against mine on all sides. Everyone was purposely pushing and shoving to add to the distraction, and there was literally a hand in every one of my pockets. At the hotel, I had redistributed my valuables so as not to have all my eggs in one basket, but I still had a lot of things on me that I wished I had left home. I had considered leaving these things at the hotel, but it didn't seem all that secure to me either.

The mob of rascals was initially manageable. Without making a big deal about it, I removed the hands from my pockets as I discovered them. I paid extra attention to the two front pockets that held my money.

When I was one person back from the ticket window, a man made a move for my wallet. I had been constantly touching my wallet pocket to make sure the wallet was still there, and just as the rascal reached down, so did I. Both of our hands locked on the wallet at the same time, and the rascal tried to wrench it from me. I held fast. Then I looked at him and told him, “Get your f**king hand off my wallet.” (I do apologize for my language, but this was one of those rare occasions where, in my estimation, the gravity of the f-word was necessary.)

Both of our hands were still in my pocket when the rascal aborted his grab, so in order to disengage from the pocket, he started flailing around something fierce. It was like I was holding a snake by the head. Then he broke free and ran off through the crowd.

While I had been fooling around with him, the other jackals had taken the opportunity to rummage around for themselves. I wheeled around, and the men behind me were all holding things from my pockets. One was pondering my boarding pass; another was reading Newman's business card; another was inspecting my receipt from breakfast; and yet another had my ink pen. It was ridiculous. This was no Indian train station, for damn sure.

I was like, “give me that...give me that...give me that” as I went from man to man grabbing my pocket litter back.

Then I shoved up to the front and bought my ticket – my five-kina ticket. Yes, all this hassle was for a ticket that cost less than two dollars.

With my ticket in hand, I bulldozed my way out of the crowd of hooligans.

When I was safely out, several people ran up to warn me that the ticket line wasn't safe for me. You think?

I was feeling pretty good about things at this point, though, because I thought that I had successfully thwarted all of the rascals. I thanked the helpful people who were a day late and a dollar short with their advice.

Then I entered the fair.

Once I was inside, I had time to take a more thorough inventory.

The rascals, as it turned out, had not gone away empty-handed. I was missing my cell phone and my tourist passport.

At this point, many people feel inclined to ask, “Why did you have your passport?”

Well, while a passport isn't generally required for domestic travel, it is a travel document nonetheless. And I was traveling. Obviously, though, carrying my passport wasn't a good move in hind sight.

Throughout the whole ticket fiasco, I had been wearing a backpack with my camera in it. The rascals had opened the small pocket on the front of the backpack. It held my guidebook, which had apparently been deemed not worth stealing. Luckily, the zipper pulls for the main compartment were broken, so no one was able to easily open it, and my camera was safe and sound.

Knowing that I would need a police report in order to apply for a new passport (along with 100 smackaroos) I sought out the long arm of the law. With the help of a few officers who were patrolling the grounds, I found the police command building at the fair and filed my case. When I told them my story, the police were all very sympathetic, and they lamented the sad state of affairs in their scofflaw city. Some of them seemed to be taking the whole thing much harder than I was.

Since they were operating out of a temporary command post, I was told that the report would be issued the following week once they returned to their offices. They assured me that they would fax me a copy as soon as the report was ready. In the end, though, it took them nearly two weeks to send me anything, and that was with me calling them almost daily.

So there you have it – two trips in PNG and two police reports. What a sorry record!

Anyhow, when I finished with the police, I went out to see the goings-on at the fair.

The two-day Morobe Show is primarily an agricultural show, so the first day and a half are dedicated to agricultural things – cowboy races, fruit and vegetable judging, livestock competitions, and so forth. The main attraction, however, is on the afternoon of the second day. This is when the sing-sing takes place. At a sing-sing, representatives from different tribes dress in their traditional costumes and perform their traditional songs and dances.

As I poked around that first morning, cowboy races were taking place in the center ring. In one race, competitors on horseback had to use long sticks to collect rings from the tops of barrels. In another race, teams of riders had to go through a silly obstacle course. The obstacles included one where a rider would have to dismount and walk a balance beam and one where a rider would have to pin a t-shirt onto a clothes line and one where a rider would have to scoop a bucket of water out of a barrel and transport it down the course.

Another one of the obstacles on the course was a log that the horsemen had to jump over. This one caused a lot of problems for a lot of riders. Many of the horses refused to jump over. The riders would get a running start, and at the last minute, the horses would either stop or divert. The crowd loved it, but some of the riders were really getting hot under the collar at their not-so-trusty steeds. I don't know anything about horses, but I wondered why so many people seemed to not know the abilities of their animals.

All the while, the organizers of the fair were busy in the announcer's tower and scurrying around the center ring. They all seemed to be Aussies and Kiwis.

Besides the activities in the center ring, there was a variety of other attractions. There were many corporate booths selling promotional items like t-shirts and hats as well as useful merchandise like soup mix. There were agricultural pavilions where the produce judging was going on. There were numerous booths showcasing agricultural processes, like rice milling and pig farming. There was a test garden. There was a Ferris wheel and some kiddie rides. There were a few stages with different local bands performing. There was an area set up by the main sponsor, Trukai Rice, that featured a men's body-building exposition. There were corrals and pins with horses, cows, goats, pigs, chickens, and sheep. There was an arts and crafts pavilion. There were pavilions showcasing schools and other organizations. There were numerous food and drink vendors. There were medical and police buildings. There was a crocodile tank with nothing very exciting inside.

In short, they had all the typical stuff you would expect to see at a county fair in the States, minus the corn dogs and funnel cakes.

That morning, I watched some of the cowboy races and then left to look at the stalls. At the produce pavilion, I started chatting with Maria, one of the competitors. She showed me her melons and whatnot, and I told her that she was a shoe-in for first place. Then we talked about other things.

I relayed the story of my trouble at the ticket “queue” and then Maria posed a very good question.

“Did you buy two tickets?” she asked, because in order to enter the fair on both Saturday and Sunday, I would need two tickets.

Foolishly, I had not bought two tickets. I told her that I would give someone else my money and ask them to get me another ticket because I had no intention of ever getting back in a mob like the one at the ticket booth.

Maria had an even better idea, though. She pulled out a big string of tickets from her bag and ripped one off for me. I offered to pay for it knowing that she wouldn't accept my money, and she didn't.

And with Maria's small gesture, balance was restored in my universe. The morning's fiasco at the ticket booth had been neutralized.

When I left Maria, I puttered around some more. As I walked along, people periodically came up to warn me about my backpack. Wearing it on my back was too risky, they told me. I should instead wear it on my chest, as many of them were doing.

The advice was nice, but it fell on deaf ears, I'm afraid.

Wear my backpack on the front? Yeah, right. I just don't roll like that. Frankly, I would rather take my chances with it on my back. Next they will be suggesting that I wear a fanny pack.

As I walked along, I noticed a girl wearing an Opryland t-shirt. Opryland was an amusement park, an hour from my hometown, that was affiliated with the famous Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. Opryland went belly-up years ago and was turned into an outlet mall called Opry Mills. Before it closed, though, I went to Opryland many times with my family.

Anyhow, I couldn't pass up the chance to talk to the girl wearing the Opryland t-shirt. I approached her and explained that she was wearing a t-shirt from a place from my childhood. Putting it in her terms, I told her that the shirt was from my home province.

Well, not only did she not share my enthusiasm at this discovery, she seemed to not even understand English. All she did was glare at me, so I moved on.

There were bleachers all around the center ring, but the nicest were the grandstands under the announcer's booth. It cost extra money to use these, which meant that most people wouldn't use them. This meant that, in addition to providing better views, they were less crowded and less dangerous.

The tickets weren't overly expensive, so I upgraded myself to the grandstands.

As I took my seat, a session of cowboy races was ending.

Next up was an escape artist from a circus in Australia. For his act, he escaped from a straight-jacket while hanging upside-down from a crane 20 feet in the air. The “rope” that supported him was also on fire for the stunt. I say “rope” because it was clearly a cable covered in some sort of oil which was set on fire.

I was sitting near some boys who were hoping that the stunt would go terribly wrong. It didn't.

I acknowledge that the escape artist had some talent, but personally, I found the whole stunt to be quite boring. Most of the time in his act was devoted to pumping up the crowd (which seemed indifferent to the whole thing), and the actual trick was over in one minute. Plus it didn't seem that dangerous to me. They should have spiced it up by slipping a few kina in his straight-jacket and suspending him over the mob of rascals at the ticket office.

After the dare devil, it was time to select the show queen and her court. A few dozen young ladies in traditional regalia marched onto the field, and a queen and a first and second runner-up were crowned. One young lady was also chosen to receive the “encouragement award” whatever that is.

The ladies of the royal court were nice enough, but the young lady that I was pulling for didn't place. My pick looked like she had an attitude problem, and I can respect that. Her costume was also pretty slick.

The queens took a spin around the ring and waved to their legions of fans. Then it was time for more cowboy fun. This time, a calf was released onto the field and a horseman had to corner it as quickly as possible.

This event was so exciting that I fell asleep half an hour after it started. Actually my exhaustion was mostly a combination of not getting any sleep the night before, waking up early, and sitting in the warm sun. The event was also a bit boring, though.

When I fell asleep, I was holding my camera in my hands. Later, after I had woken up, a British guy told me that he and his friends had been taking bets as to whether or not I would drop it. Of course I didn't.

More amazing than me not dropping the camera was the fact that no one decided to steal it when my guard was down. Behold the power of the grandstands.

I hadn't been so surprised about not being robbed since the time I fell asleep on the subway in New York City, at night, a bit drunk, with my wallet on my lap.

Anyhow, I decided to head back to the hotel around 4:30. There were still several events scheduled for that evening, culminating with fireworks at 8 or so, but I wanted to make sure that I was home well before it got dark – when the really bad dudes came out to play. Werewolves and vampires, I mean.

Since I no longer had a phone with which to call Newman for a ride, I decided that I would just walk back to the hotel. It was only a few kilometers away, and I was pretty sure that I remembered the route.

When I reached the gate, I noticed a policeman scuffling with some boys. I could also hear a bunch of shouting coming from behind a corrugated metal wall. There was a problem brewing, and just as I arrived, things boiled over.

All of the sudden, a barrage of glass bottles, coconuts, and rocks came flying over the wall.

“Run for cover!” someone shouted, and we all covered our heads and ran for safety.

“A riot... isn't this dandy?” I thought to myself.

Still interested in leaving the fair, I walked over to the other exit gate. Before I reached it, though, a policeman informed me that it was also closed due to rioting. With no other exits, I had no choice but to wait until the police got the problem under control.

Not wanting to go far to wait, I moseyed over to a booth that was near the exit. The booth belonged to a forestry technology school, and there were several students on hand who were more than happy to explain the process to me of turning a tree into, say, a patio table. They had a lot of diagrams and charts as well as several pieces of finished furniture on display.

Most of the students were talking on their mobile phones at one point or another, so I asked them if I could use one to call Newman. What with the civil unrest outside the gate, I started thinking that maybe walking home wasn't the best plan.

I first tried calling Newman on his cell phone, and he didn't answer. Then I tried the landline listed on his card, which connected me to the hotel receptionist. She informed me that Newman had already gone home for the day and that if he wasn't answering his mobile, then he was unreachable.

At that moment, I felt like saying “Newman!” with a sneer, like Jerry Seinfeld does on his show. There wouldn't have been any point in it, though, since none of my companions would have picked up on the reference.

I was back to plan B – walking.

As it turned out, though, my friends from forestry school were ready to go home before I was, and the best part was that they had wheels. This was important because there was no angry mob at the exit to the carpark, which meant that we could leave without any hassle.

They offered me a lift, and I naturally accepted. We all loaded up in the back of the truck, and ten minutes later, I was back at the hotel.

When I arrived back at the hotel, it was a bit too early for dinner so I went to my room and watched some TV. Yes, my room had a TV in it. It also had A/C. It wasn't as basic as I would have liked, but I couldn't find anything cheaper because the Morobe Show had driven up the occupancy rates all over town.

Anyhow, I started watching a bad 80s movie about a woman who picks up a hitch-hiker in the desert and has a fling. There's a twist, though: the mysterious stranger from the side of the road turns out to be psycho. (You didn't see that one coming, did you?) The hitch-hiker goes on to cause all sorts of problems for his new friend, and her life is ruined.

Unlike Kung Fu Hustle, though, I had no qualms about walking away from this cinematic masterpiece. I went to dinner halfway through.

I was the first customer of the night, but the chicken curry that I ordered still took about six months to come out of the kitchen.

When I was nearly done eating, a Papua New Guinean guy entered the restaurant. I recognized him as one of the people who had been in the restaurant having breakfast that morning.

He asked if he could join me, and I didn't mind.

When he sat down, the first thing that he asked me was, “You're alone, aren't you?”

I admitted to the fact, and the guy immediately started apologizing. At breakfast, he had been sitting with two other guys. They had apparently been having a debate about whether I was alone or not and whether they should talk to me. I would have thought that it was pretty obvious that I was alone, seeing as how I had in fact been sitting by myself when they saw me, but who knows...

In any case, when he confirmed that I was traveling alone, he became very remorseful that he hadn't taken the opportunity in the morning to welcome me into his group. To ease his conscience, I immediately told him how I had been robbed only minutes after he had chosen not to talk to me.

He was understandably concerned about the robbery, but living in PNG, he had been there, done that.

He told me the tale of the last time his cell phone had been pinched. He called the phone, and the thief answered. He told the thief that he needed the phone back because it had important numbers programmed into it. The thief was not without compassion, and it was decided that they would meet and my new friend would pay a ransom for the phone's return. When they met, he took the phone from the thief and instead of paying him, backhanded him across the face and said something smart like, “Didn't your mother teach you any manners?”

And he wasn't knifed or shot or anything.

He thought this technique might work with my rascal, so we called my phone. Unfortunately, no one answered.

This guy's name was Taylor, and he worked for InterOil, the main petroleum company in PNG. He was at the Morobe Show to work in the InterOil booth.

He ordered fried chicken for dinner and we had several hours of conversation while we waited for it to arrive. In the meantime, he treated me to some banana fritters and ice cream.

Before we left the café that night, Taylor told me that he could give me a ride to the fair in the morning and suggested that we meet for breakfast. We agreed on a time, and then we went our separate ways.

Still tired, I started getting ready for bed. I had a shower, and as I was brushing my teeth in the shared bathroom, a short, dark-skinned man started shaving his head smooth with a razor at the sink next to the one I was using.

He wasted no time in introducing himself. His name was Cornelius, and I couldn't believe the coincidence. I had just finished talking to Taylor, and now I was talking with Cornelius. Planet of the Apes, baby! I half-expected Dr. Zaius to flush the toilet and come out of a stall.

As Cornelius shaved his head, he asked me what my plans were for the night. When I told him that I didn't have any plans, he asked if I would like some. He was a businessman who frequently passed through Lae, and he knew all the best places to go.

I told him that I was game for going out, but that I didn't have any clothes nicer than the shorts, sandals, and t-shirt I was wearing.

He looked at my clothes and kind of nodded in agreement that they were no good.

I assumed that the matter was dead at that point, but it wasn't long before Cornelius looked over at me and tried again.

“Are you sure you don't want to come? It's gonna be fun.”

And so I reminded him about my clothes again. And again he agreed that they weren't acceptable.

Things got quiet again, and then he brought it up again.

We went through this cycle like four times in two minutes. Cornelius was starting to get on my nerves.

I don't know if he thought that I was trying to make excuses or what, but I wasn't. If the nightclub would let me in as I was dressed, then I would go along. Otherwise, there was no point in me going. It wasn't a question of how much fun it would be. I didn't need to be convinced.

I suppose that if I hadn't finished brushing my teeth and left the bathroom, Cornelius would still be trying to coax me out to a club.

A few days before I had left for Lae, our security officer at the embassy had given me a little security briefing about Lae, complete with some unsavory worst-case scenarios. One thing he mentioned was the possibility of rascals kicking in the door of my hotel room in the middle of the night. As I switched out the light, this thought briefly danced through my mind before I went to sleep.

That night, rascals kicked in my door. Just kidding. I slept like a log and woke up completely refreshed.

Then, right on schedule, Taylor and I met for breakfast.

Once we finished eating, we went to the office so that I could check out and so that I could book a ride to the airport for later in the afternoon.

Newman was behind the desk, and Taylor mentioned my robbery from the day before.

Newman was like, “I was afraid something like that would happen.”

My flight that afternoon was at 4:45, so Newman booked me on the airport bus with a 2:00 pick-up from the hotel. This was too early, but the bus offered no flexibility. Two o'clock would have to do.

Once everything was squared away, Taylor and I went outside to wait for a ride. One of his InterOil colleagues had taken their truck to get gas. We waited for at least an hour for his colleague to return. He must have been getting the gas from the next town over or something.

When Taylor's colleague did return, we drove the few minutes down to the show grounds. Taylor had to take the truck and attend to other business, but he hooked me up with some of his other colleagues before he left. I guess he felt that I needed supervision.

Taylor was going to take me back to the hotel at 1:45 so that I could make my 2:00 bus pick-up, so rather than have his colleague escort me around, I told him that I would just meet him back at the InterOil booth when it was time for me to go.

Then I set out on my own.

The atmosphere at the fair was a bit different than the day before. There seemed to be a lot more people milling around. There were also small troupes of drummers scattered around laying down some beats.

About an hour after I arrived, something caught my eye in a crowd of people. A young PNGean lady had an Israeli flag painted on her cheek.

Keen on hearing the story behind this, I caught up to her. Then I noticed that she was also wearing an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) t-shirt.

“I see you are very supportive of Israel” I remarked.

And she replied, “It's my adopted country. I'm Jewish.”

In order to give myself some quick credibility, I told her that I had just moved from Israel, and I filled her head with amazing tales of Jerusalem and Haifa and Tzfat.

Her name was Naomi; this was the name she took when she converted.

Naomi introduced me to her family members who were with her. Besides Naomi, there were three ladies, a man, and two children. The guy was named Sam and two of the ladies were named Gila and Petra. The rest I forget.

By their own estimation, they comprised pretty much the entire Jewish community in PNG.

They were representin', though. In this group of seven people, there were eight Israeli cheek paintings, three Jerusalem t-shirts, two IDF t-shirts, one somebody-in-Israel-loves-me t-shirt, and two Jerusalem bags.

I asked them why they had decided to become Jews, and they said that Judaism just spoke to them.

They told me that the Jewish community in Papua New Guinea was too small to support a synagogue, and I can believe it. The Muslims are a little better off, with one mosque serving the whole country.

For Naomi and her crew, however, not having a synagogue is not a problem. They study their texts; they keep the Jewish holidays; they observe Shabbat; and they keep kosher. Israeli backpackers occasionally visit PNG, and Naomi's family hosts many of them. These backpackers are the family's main source for Israeli souvenirs.

We chatted for a while, and before I left them, Naomi and I exchanged contact information.

Then I made my way to the grandstands and found a seat in time for the main events.

Things kicked off with a marching contest that pitted several schools and other organizations against each other. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts participated. In the end, I think the kids from the Salvation Army School took the trophy.

After the kids, a unit of PNG soldiers marched out to the sounds of a drum and bagpipe band.

Then the Minister of Agriculture gave some long-winded remarks, and it was finally time for the sing-sing.

In the grandstands, I had been talking with a photographer from Wyoming. She had purchased the rights to go out on the field, though, so she took off when the dancing started.

The sing-sing began with the presentation of the show queens. Then the dance troupes filed by one-by-one. There were more than 50 groups in the show this year, which was a huge turn-out.

The sing-sing was totally cool. The costumes, the drumming, the singing, the dancing, the energy. It was all spectacular.

I really liked the photos that I took at the sing-sing and not because of any great camerawork on my part. Confronted with so much pageantry, it's hard not to get good pictures.

As I watched the show, I lost track of the time. It was already after 2:00 by the time Taylor found me and rushed me back to his truck. By the time he retrieved me, though, the show had finished. I had gotten to see everything, and if it meant that I was going to miss the bus, it would have been worth it. I figured that I could get to the airport by some other means if necessary.

When we got back to the hotel, Newman was also concerned that I was behind schedule.

It didn't really matter, though, because the bus was also late. It arrived about five minutes after I did.

With my time in Lae drawing to a close, Taylor and I exchanged contact information. Then I rode off into the sunset.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Papua New Guinea: The Barber Shop

A few weeks into my stay in Papua New Guinea, the time for my monthly haircut rolled around. Against the advice of my colleagues who recommended the barber shop at the Ela Beach Hotel, I decided to try Brad's barber shop which was around the block from the Embassy.

It was drizzling when I made the walk over, but there were still several men, all locals, who were getting haircuts or waiting for a turn.

There were four or five barber chairs, but one was out of commission because of a water leak directly overhead. There were more barbers than chairs, so when a barber would finish with his client, they would both vacate the chair, and the next barber would take over with a new client. Then the just-relieved barber would wait in the barber queue for the next open chair.

When my turn came, the barber that I drew was a skinny guy with a mustache. He asked me what I wanted, and I told him that I wanted everything shortened and that the top should be short enough to spike. He supposedly understood, and we were off.

He started in the usual way, by using clippers to trim the back and sides of my head. Then he came in with the straight razor and straightened the sideburns and the back.

Once he finished the clipper and razor work, he pulled out the scissors to tackle the top.

He started cutting with a pair of thinning scissors. In case you don't know what I'm talking about, thinning scissors are scissors that are usually made of one normal blade and one blade that has slits cut at regular intervals along its length. When you cut hair with thinning scissors, half of the hair that is captured in each scissor stroke goes into the slits in the blade and doesn't get cut. This has the effect of thinning the hair while not necessarily affecting the styling, hence the name.

So, my barber started cutting my hair with the thinning scissors. I didn't think my hair needed thinning, but I didn't really care.

Then he kept going and going with the thinning scissors.

When he had exceeded by far all normal parameters for thinning hair, I asked him, “Do you not have regular scissors?”

“Oh, yes, I do!” he told me, as he proudly pulled out a pair.

“Good,” I responded, “Are you going to use them?”

“No, sir. These [the thinning scissors] are better because if I make a mistake, they only take away a little bit of hair. These [the regular scissors] will take away all the hair if I make a mistake.”

The logic was sound, I suppose, but I wasn't sure that such caution was warranted.

“You can just use the regular scissors,” I told him. “I trust you.”

“Don't worry!” he responded. “This will only take a minute.”

Then he continued on with the thinning scissors.

I decided to stop interrupting, and I let him do his thing.

He was going at it like Edward Scissorhands, and my hair was coming off millimeter by millimeter. It was such a waste of time.

Besides the inefficiency of it all, his decision to only use thinning scissors was a painful one for me. Thinning scissors have a tendency to pull hair, especially when the barber is working quickly, so each cut was accompanied by a sharp pain.

In about 40 minutes, my barber reached what he felt was the conclusion of the haircut, and he held up the mirror for me to have a look.

It was still too long, but I had exceeded my lunch break as it was and I couldn't wait around for him to gradually whittle the rest away. It looked OK, though, and it seemed like it would last me the usual month. And at 20 kina (~$7.30) it was half the price of the last bad haircut that I had gotten in Tennessee.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Papua New Guinea: Ma-daang!

Three weeks into my stay in Papua New Guinea, the Columbus Day holiday presented me with my first good opportunity to leave Port Moresby.

I decided to start with Madang on the northern coast of New Guinea island. Madang is the most touristy city in all of PNG, so there were several advantages to my choice. There are several flights a day from Port Moresby, many of them direct, and they are relatively cheap. My roundtrip ticket for the flight that took about an hour each way was around $155. Besides the flight, Madang also has an OK selection of lodging options, at least by PNG standards.

Anyhow, my flight was scheduled to leave Moresby on Friday at noon, and one of the Embassy drivers dropped me off at around 11:00 to check in.

At the entrance to the check-in area, there was a big machine that was meant to scan the luggage. It, however, was broken. In place of the machine, there were three security officers at a table doing hand-searches of luggage. When it was my turn for the search, I put my bags on the table. The security lady asked me which bag I was checking-in, and, when I pointed it out, she slapped a neon orange sticker on it that showed it had been inspected. She hadn't even unzipped it.

This was not a case of me expediting myself with a wave of my diplomatic passport because I didn't even have it with me. I was glossed over solely because I was white. None of the Papua New Guineans in line with me got a free pass, although I must say that the searches they did undergo were half-assed. It's a good thing that bombing planes isn't a popular pastime here.

After I checked-in and received my boarding pass, I proceeded to the gate. At this point, my carry-on bag was scanned by a functioning x-ray machine and I passed through a functioning metal detector. Fancy! Then I waited for my flight in a waiting room that had definitely seen better days. There wasn't a single seat cushion in that room without at least a dozen stains on it. They did the job, though.

Before long, we loaded up onto our Fokker 100 which held about a hundred people. There were a lot of empty seats, so I moved over from my aisle seat and took an empty window seat. When the flight attendants gave the pre-flight spiel, there were a few local touches that I found amusing. For example, instead of just a prohibition on smoking, they announced, “Smoking or chewing of betel nut on this aircraft is a violation of federal law.” If you didn't already realize, I am amused very easily.

Anyway, the rest of the safety briefing was pretty routine, and then we took off. As we climbed, my food tray spilled open. I secured it, and it unlatched itself several more times during the flight.

The flight was fine, except for the annoyance of a toddler who screamed for the entire time.

The flight as advertised was a direct one, although in reality, we stopped midway in Lae and picked up additional passengers and cargo.

When all of the Lae passengers loaded onto the plane, I moved back to my assigned seat on the aisle. The window seat, it turned out, was assigned to a local woman who was carrying a tiny baby.

This woman had apparently had never flown before. I reached this conclusion after her attempts at buckling her seatbelt proved to be unsuccessful (and not due to the fact that she was short-handed from holding a baby). I ended up buckling her in myself.

The woman alternated in holding her baby on her lap and in holding it at her breast. Recalling the faulty food tray, I explained the danger to the woman. Unfortunately, she did not speak English, and I could tell that she did not understand what I was trying to explain. She nodded as if to say, “Yes, yes, I know to keep the tray up for take-off.” She thought that I was patronizing her, but that wasn't it at all. I was picturing the tiny baby getting smashed in the head, and I wanted to prevent it. I tried to explain again in simpler terms how I had been sitting in her seat earlier and how the tray needed to be watched closely. In response, she gave me a look that told me loud and clear that she was starting to get perturbed with me. How soon she forgot that it was me who buckled her freakin' seatbelt and quite possibly saved her life.

Anyhow, not wanting to escalate the situation, I let the matter drop and watched the tray like a hawk.

As we shot upwards, the tray slipped out of position little by little. Then, just as it popped free, I stuck my hand out and caught it. I think that the woman thought I was grabbing at her exposed breast, however, because I got an even nastier look than the time before.

Enough is enough, I told myself. I called a flight attendant over and asked her to explain about the tray in Pidgin. She did this, and then I washed my hands of the whole thing.

My aisle seat, meanwhile, had its own issue. It refused to stay in the upright position.

As we cruised along, we hit turbulence for a good deal of the flight. The flight attendants made several announcements about it in both English and Pidgin, and as best as I could tell the Pidgin equivalent for turbulence is “air-eem no good”.

And through it all, the little boy across the aisle continued to work himself into a frenzy. He reached the level of crying and screaming where he sounded very much like a goat. It was both amusing and annoying at the same time.

Just before we reached Madang, the pilot made an announcement. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are making our final approach to the airport. Due to the length of the runway, we will be using moderate, make that heavy, braking. Please brace yourselves.”

And true to his word, the captain slammed on the brakes. The plane lurched; the overhead luggage shifted; and my neighbor's tray plopped right on her baby's head. Doh!

Startled into instant hysteria, the baby moved straight to the goat-crying phase, although at a much higher and more pitiful tone than the little boy, who was also still wailing.

Once we taxied up to the terminal and they opened the door, that plane cleared out faster than any I have ever seen.

I was staying at a place called the Madang Lodge, and a complimentary airport transfer was included with the room. The Lodge driver was standing by with a van, so after I retrieved my luggage, I loaded up along with a thirty-something Korean couple.

The driver asked us if anyone else on the flight was going to the lodge. The Korean guy told him that we were it, and we took off. I thought it was stupid that the driver asked us the question in the first place. How would we know if anyone else on the plane was staying at the lodge? I also thought it was funny that the Korean guy told the driver that there was no one else. There probably were others.

I pointed this out to the Koreans as we zipped through town, and we all had a good laugh about it.

As we drove along, the man pointed out to his lady friend what he said were birds. The woman was unimpressed. “Big deal,” she said, “I've seen birds before.”

Only these weren't birds.

I told them both to take a closer look. The sky was full of massive bats, and there was nary a bird in sight. The driver overheard our exchange and piped in, “In all of Papua New Guinea, only in Madang will you see the flying foxes in the daytime like this.”

It was an amazing sight.

Before long, we reached the hotel.

I had booked a budget room. It had a shared bathroom (30 rooms using 4 toilets, 4 sinks, and 4 showers), no A/C (fan only), and a flimsy 1-inch thick foam mattress, and it set me back 100 kina (about $35) a night. Many things in PNG are more expensive than in other places because most of its cities are not connected by roads and goods must be transported by plane or ship. So while my room at the Lodge was perfectly fine, it would have cost me ten bucks a night, tops, in a place like Egypt or India.

The Lodge itself was pretty nice, though. In addition to the budget section, they had better rooms and suites as well as some apartment units. The complex also included a pool, a bar and restaurant, a café, and a carver's workshop. The grounds were landscaped with palm trees, tropical fruit trees, and orchids, and they ended at a seawall on the Bismarck.

I took a few minutes to check everything out, and then I ventured outside the Lodge's gates. The Lodge was on the fringes of town, so I started walking toward town. I stuck out like a sore thumb, and every Papua New Guinean within range seemed compelled to stare at me. The fact that I was openly carrying a large camera didn't help to lower my profile any.

Very quickly several truths about Papua New Guineans became evident. First, they are a very friendly people. I was getting an “apinoon” from every person I passed. I would respond likewise, of course.

The second thing that I suspected, and was able to verify, is that Papua New Guineans in general are hams. I had my camera out in the open, as I mentioned, and people were dying to be photographed. People indicated this in a variety of ways. Some people would just ask me to take their pictures. Others would shout “one snap” or “one click”. Others would make photographing gestures. Others would just strike poses and wait. These were the funniest ones. For example, there might be three or four young men standing frozen by the road in a thumbs-up pose.

In order to keep things from getting too far out of hand, I would purposely bypass most of the people who were wanting to be photographed. This cheesed off a lot of them.

The best were the people who pretended to not want to be photographed, but who really did want it.

Rather than ask for me to take their picture, people in this category would say something like, “I suppose you want to take my picture.”

Then when I would tell them, “not actually,” they would be taken aback.

The third truth that was revealed to me on my first walk through Madang is that, similar to my experience in Ethiopia, nearly every decent Papua New Guinean seems to think that he is the last honest one left.

I was constantly shadowed by people who insisted on escorting me to keep me safe from rascals (the understated Pidgin word for criminals). For all I know, some of my guardians were rascals themselves.

Along the main road, there were several large trees where the flying foxes would congregate. These trees were completely saturated, and the bats produced a fair bit of noise with all of their squeaking. I had to stop for a good long look at each of these trees.

As I walked down through town, I passed by Sir Donald Cleland Park, which was basically a large pond with lily pads in it. It was nice enough, but in the sticky heat, some of its charm was lost on me.

From the park, I made my way back to the sea to have a look at the Coastwatchers' Memorial Lighthouse. This memorial honors the Australians and Papua New Guineas who hid in the jungles behind Japanese lines in WWII and radioed information to Allied forces on the movements of the Japanese. The lighthouse itself looked striking against the pure blue sky.

I poked around the lighthouse for a few minutes, and then I walked along the coast back toward town.

I passed a rusted-over WWII Japanese artillery piece and hordes of Papua New Guineans swimming or hanging out on the grass.

I also came upon a handy billboard that the British American Tobacco Company had posted. It listed nine simple rules for keeping Madang beautiful. Namely:

1. Do not litter.
2. Do not throw rubbish while in a moving vehicle.
3. Do not abandon rubbish in a public place.
4. Do not spit betel nut spittle in a public place.
5. Do not break bottles in a public place.
6. Do not destroy or burn trees or plants within the town boundary.
7. Do not defecate or urinate in a public place.
8. Do not sell any food or consumable items in a public place.
9. Please pick up your refuse / rejected articles.

Maybe I'm oversimplifying, but it seems to me that rules (2), (3), (5), and (9) are covered by rule (1). The rest seem to be pertinent and prudent, particularly number 7.

In any case, these types of city beautification billboards are all the rage now days, and all the classiest cities have them. I think I saw something similar in Paris last time I visited.

During the course of my stroll, I encountered many more take-my-picture people.

One young couple, Patrick and Martha, asked for a photo and I obliged. They had seen me on my walk to the Coastwatchers' Memorial, and now on my return. As Patrick described it, they were spending their day telling stories by the sea. Martha, who was playing with a good-sized knife, didn't have much to say.

After I took their picture, things got quiet and awkward, so I asked them if they were going to continue telling stories. Patrick informed me that they had actually just finished telling stories, and that they wanted to walk back toward town with me.

I had no problem with this, so we walked off down the road. More people came up for photos, but I dispatched most of them.

Then we came upon a white van that was stuffed to the gills with bags of betel nuts. There were some guys a bit further down the way that I could tell belonged with the van. I approached them, and inquired about their haul.

They were more than happy to give me the scoop. They were from the Islands (meaning any of the smaller islands surrounding the main island, New Guinea), and they had come to Madang to make some quick cash. To do this, they had purchased 55 bags of betel nuts at cheap wholesale coastal prices. Each bag weighed 50 kilos, so the total load was 2750 kilos, or about 3 tons. They would be driving the shipment up to the Highlands, where betel nut did not grow, and they would sell it for a tidy profit.

I often have trouble distinguishing between 'highlands' and 'islands' when Papua New Guineas speak, so I had a few moments of slight confusion during our discussion.

Anyhow, driving such a load of betel nut for 10 or 12 hours through Papua New Guinea would draw rascals from miles around, and the betel nutters knew this. They proudly showed me their homemade rifles that would hopefully ruin anyone's day who tried to separate them from their booty.

Shortly after I started talking with the betel nut guys, Patrick and Martha moved on. After maybe 10 minutes, I also decided to move on. I thanked the guys for explaining their business and bid them apinoon.

Then the boss of the operation grabbed my wrist and exclaimed, “No apinoon. You aren't going yet.”

Since he was asking so nicely, I stuck around to hear him out. As it turned out, he felt that we hadn't yet had enough conversation.

Not a problem. I can yak on cue.

I gave them five or ten more minutes of my time and made sure to throw in a lot of jokes. Then I excused myself on a high note, and they were plenty satisfied. I actually closed my set with these jokers with the story of my unsuccessful attempt at chewing betel nut. It was definitely relevant, and they appreciated it. They gave me a few betel nuts on the house, which I saved for later (and ended up giving away).

A ways down the beach, Patrick and Martha were sprawled out on the grass again, and they rejoined me when I reached them.

As we walked along, there were a number of people selling betel nuts as well as cigarettes and some other odds and ends. One of my brothers collects foreign packs of cigarettes, so I asked Patrick if Papua New Guinea made any cigarettes with Pidgin or other local languages on them.

I already knew that they produced cigarettes with English labels (such as the British American Tobacco Company), but these wouldn't look all that exotic in a collection.

Patrick told me that there were indeed local cigarettes without English writing, and he went and bought one.

Known as a bruce, it was a cigarette that was 8 or 10 inches long, made by rolling newspaper around some tobacco leaves – well, either tobacco or marijuana. Marijuana, by the way, is illegal in Papua New Guinea, but enforcement is non-existent and pot gardens are cultivated openly.

Patrick bought a tobacco bruce, and he offered me a try, which I accepted. I told him that it didn't seem to pack the same punch as a regular cigarette, which he acknowledged. The bruce did have an advantage, however. It burned very poorly, and would frequently have to be relit. This was handy because once he had smoked enough, the bruce user would simply allow it to extinguish itself, and then stick the remainder behind his ear for later. A few bruces could last a whole day, while it would take many more of the faster-burning manufactured cigarettes.

At this point, I had been tromping around in the hot sun for the entire day with nothing to eat and hardly anything to drink. I was ready to remedy this, so I asked Patrick and Martha if they knew of a restaurant or a shop nearby.

They took a minute to think and then told me that they knew of a place.

They knew which hotel I was staying in, and the place they took me to actually led me past it. We walked for an hour at least on the way to this store. All the while, I was wondering if they were leading me somewhere isolated so that they could jump me. Martha had been brandishing a knife earlier…

Beyond this, my thoughts went in this direction because I knew where several grocery stores were that were much closer. I didn't understand why they had bypassed these.

Still, I followed along.

And finally we walked through a field and came out at a scrubby little open market. There were ladies selling all the usual suspects like mangos, yams, and bok choy as well as a few who were selling prepared foods. From one of these ladies, I bought a bundle of course greens that were soaking in a gritty coconut milk mixture. The whole mess was wrapped in a leaf, and it was difficult to walk and eat it. I managed though.

Next to the open market, there was a little shop. The three of us went inside and I treated Patrick and Martha to a coke. They were pleased.

Something else that I learned over the course of that first day is that Papua New Guineans are generally not after tips. People were leading me all sorts of places, and no one seemed to be expecting any sort of payment. This was a breath of fresh air compared to places like Morocco and Egypt, where people ask for compensation for providing the smallest bit of assistance.

With our cokes in hand, the three of us walked back through the field toward the main road.
As I mentioned before, we had hiked quite a ways to get to the market. Patrick and Martha suggested that I return to my hotel by mini-bus, rather than by foot, and I thought this was a grand idea. The buses in Papua New Guinea are called PMVs (public motor vehicles), and my companions waited with me until one arrived.

As I loaded up, Patrick told me that he and Martha would come and get me on the following day and that we could hang out again. I agreed to the plan, knowing that it wouldn't really work out. In my travels, people always say things like this to me, but no one ever makes specific plans. The way I saw it, if Patrick and Martha happened to be outside the hotel gates when I left in the morning, I would have no problem hanging out with them. If they weren't there, however, I had no intention of waiting around to see if they might show up.

The PMV cost only 50 toea (there are 100 toea in one kina) for any single-leg journey within the city, so the fare was about 18 cents per ride.

My hotel was on the main road, and the PMV dropped me near the entrance.

Still starving, I chucked my things in my room and headed straight for the restaurant. It was still a bit early for dinner, so I had the place to myself.

I took a table on the outside patio overlooking the sea and ordered a pizza and a beer.

When my meal appeared, I unceremoniously scarfed it down. And in my dehydrated, famished state, this was not a good idea. My stomach immediately started to revolt, and I had to focus on not throwing up for several minutes.

The discomfort faded with time, though, and the pizza rebellion was crushed. I had several more beers as the sun set on the sea.

Then around 7:00, a magical thing happened. A few flying foxes flew right past the restaurant and continued down the coast. These were followed by more, and soon the trickle of bats became a stream. These guys were behaving just like sea gulls. They would flap around for a bit and then glide on the sea breezes. I enjoyed watching the bat ballet so much that I stayed until it got too dark to see.

In the sleepy town of Madang, I had nothing else to be doing anyway.

After dinner, I took a shower and went to bed at around 8:30. I had this vision of sleeping for some ridiculous amount of time, like 12 or 15 hours, but this turned out to be a pipe dream.

Instead, I woke up at 4:00 AM and had a hell of a time getting back to sleep.

A few hours later, the restaurant opened for breakfast service, so I quit pretending to sleep and went for some grub. According to Lonely Planet, the Madang Lodge has the only French chef in all of Papua New Guinea. Imagine my surprise, then, when I received my omelet and found that it was burned literally to the point of charring. This French chef must have cut class at Le Cordon Bleu a time or two.

While I enjoyed my charcoaled egg, I saw for the first time a Swiss entourage that was also staying at the lodge. This group consisted of four families. In total, there were eight adults and twelve young children. The restaurant had pushed five tables together to accommodate them.

For drinks, the menu only offered soft drinks, water, orange juice, coffee, and tea.

The Swiss, however, wanted milk. The man in the group who was dealing with the waiter was determined.

“Do you have milk for the children?”


“Well, do you have Milo?”


“OK, how about hot chocolate?”


“What about just some plain milk?”


The food ordering as you can probably guess was even more of an ordeal.

In subsequent days, I noticed the Swiss people having their cereal and milk on the steps outside their rooms.

When I left the hotel that morning, I looked around for Patrick and Martha, but as I suspected, they were nowhere to be seen.

I walked down toward the main market with the intention of catching a PMV to one of the villages outside of Madang. Specifically, I wanted to see Bilbil, which was famous for its pottery.

As I was walking, I passed by some people sitting under a tree by a sports field. They asked me where I was going, and when I told them, they ended up getting into an argument over which PMVs would and wouldn't get me to Bilbil. I thanked them for their help (which wasn't really helpful) and continued on my way.

Five or ten minutes down the road, I heard a young lady behind me making a hissing noise. PNGeans do this hissing thing to get someone's attention, but I didn't realize that this woman was doing it to me. When the hissing failed, she gave up and jogged up to me.

Her father, a lawyer who had been part of the sports field discussion, was concerned for my safety and had dispatched her to guide me to the PMV stop. As we walked along, she told me how Madang was crawling with rascals.

All weekend, I would hear how Madang was either the safest city in PNG or how it was going to hell in a hand basket. This girl, Anna, and her father were obviously in the latter camp.

We walked for maybe half an hour, during which I told Anna several times that I would be fine to go the rest of the way on my own. She wouldn't hear of it, though, and she didn't leave me until I was seated on a PMV bound for Bilbil.

In addition to the driver, PMVs usually have a man or a boy who opens and closes the van door and collects money from passengers.

When I got on the bus, I told the assistant that I wanted to go to Bilbil. He supposedly understood, but when we were barely out of town, he called for the driver to stop so I could get off. I had assumed that we would need to go a bit further, so I asked again if this was the place to get off for Bilbil.

The assistant stuck to his story, but when the other passengers overheard my question, they set him straight. A man on the PMV was also getting off at the Bilbil junction, so he told me to stick with him.

We drove by a few more markets, and then we reached my stop.

The other guy and I got off the bus and started walking down a gravel road toward Bilbil. This guy could only speak Pidgin, so we ended up not talking much. Pidgin is not the hardest language in the word by any stretch, but it does have a unique vocabulary. If you don't know it, forget about trying to fake it.

Eventually, he turned off down a jungle trail to his village, and I continued walking on the gravel road.

Before long, I came to a small community of houses situated on both sides of the road. The welcome I received was reminiscent of Dorothy's entrance into Oz when she initially doesn't see the Munchkins, but can hear them laughing.

I could hear little kids yelling about a white man and giggling, but they were all hiding.

Then they came out for a closer look. The commotion of the kids tipped off the adults, and house after house, men and women would call me over.

Most of these people only wanted to greet me, so we would exchange a few pleasantries and I would move on.

A few minutes after I left the first village, I came to a larger one called Bohar. It had a school.

On the edge of Bohar, four guys were digging in a field. One of these guys was wearing a big, white, plastic crucifix.

Like everyone else in the country, they were busy planting yams. In 10 months, they would harvest them.

We talked yams for a few minutes, and then I let them get back to work.

In five more minutes, I was in Bilbil.

As I mentioned earlier, Bilbil is supposed to produce some nice pottery. I inquired about it as soon as I entered the village, and I was immediately taken to the pottery house. The pottery house consisted of a palm-thatched roof supported by a few poles. There were maybe 20 pieces of pottery lined up on the dirt. The owner of the pottery house, an old man with white hair, was sitting on a bucket keeping watch over the merchandise.

The pottery was pretty basic – simple jars and bowls with some detail work scratched on – and I was trying hard to find something interesting.

Many of the pieces had the names of their creators scratched on them, and one that I picked up was inscribed with “Owen”.

I looked at the old man and asked him, “Are you Owen?”

This was the wrong question to ask, and I got a salty answer in reply.

“No, I'm not Owen! Men don't make pots; that's women's work.”

“Well, excuuuuse me!” I thought to myself. I had never heard of a woman named Owen before.

Having pissed-off the old man, I decided to buy the smallest pot on display, to show at least a small bit of support for the Bilbil potters.

Then I asked the old man if I could have a look around the village. He had no objection, so I set out.

I walked straight to the beach on the edge of the village, where I was greeted by a swarm of naked little brown kids who were jumping up and down shouting, “White Man! White Man!”

When I opted not to photograph them, most of the kids quickly returned to the sea to resume their swimming and horseplay.

Among the kids, there were also two adult men, who were not naked. When they saw me, they came up to the beach to talk. One of the men was the pastor of Bilbil's church, and the other was the province's last governor.

We talked for ten or fifteen minutes, and at one point, the former-governor mentioned that a lot of tourists who came to the village also went to Bilbil Island, which was sitting out in the water in front of us. While he was on the subject of islands, he told me that there used to be a second island to the left of Bilbil Island, and that the village of Bilbil used to be located on this second island. Then, during a terrible storm a few decades ago, the entire island sank into the sea and the villagers rebuilt Bilbil at its current location.

Anyhow, I decided that I would like to visit Bilbil Island, and to do so, I needed to hire a boat. There were several boys paddling around in small canoes and on unsubstantial rafts, but none of these were suitable to carry me. Most of them would not have even supported me, and the ones that would have supported me would have left me soaked. Since I was wearing street clothes, I didn't like this option.

Then the governor and the pastor informed me that there was one large canoe in the village that could take me for 15 kina (about $5.40), round-trip. The price was fine, but, having nothing smaller than a 50-kina bill, I needed change. This wasn't a problem. The governor called a little boy over and had him take me to the village store.

I decided to have a beverage, and the store which had been without power for the entire morning, could offer me hot coke, hot beer, and hot water. I chose the latter.

Then my young escort led me back to the beach.

Along the way, several villagers greeted me from their huts. One very old and very wrinkled couple called me over to their porch for a chat. These guys were old-school, and the wife was wearing nothing but an apron. Her breasts were very leathery and deflated, and they hung low like two balloons with some sand inside. The husband had cloudy-looking eyes, and I suspect he had serious cataracts or something. They were very friendly, though, and they plucked betel nuts off a branch as we talked.

Back at the beach, things didn't pan out. As it turned out, there was indeed one large canoe in the village. Unfortunately, there was no one around who could operate it.

I decided to push on, and as I was heading out of Bilbil, I passed the pottery house once more.

The old man owner asked me where I was going. (I forget his name, so I will call him Ernst.)
When I told Ernst that I was ready to leave, he told me that a PMV came into the village and that I could wait at the pottery house until it came. I was wanting to walk back to town, though, so I asked him how far it was. When he told me that it was 9 kilometers, I decided to go for it.

Ernst thought that this was an unusual course of action and insisted that I at least stay awhile and gather my strength for the journey if I was set on walking. I was in no rush, so I took a seat on the stool that he had called for one of his grandsons to fetch.

Besides Ernst, there were two ladies sitting at the pottery house. They were quite articulate, and we had a nice chat.

Ernst told me that he had a daughter my age, but unfortunately for me, she had married last year. He also had a son who had a few kids of his own. One of these, a little boy named Brian, was throwing a tantrum in a hut just behind us.

After maybe 20 minutes of crying and screaming, Brian's older brother gave him a banana, which calmed him down. Then he came out of the hut, and when he saw me, he got a big sheepish smile. It was funny because he really looked like he was embarrassed at having thrown a fit while a visitor was outside. This seemed out of character for a 3 or 4 year old, so I think that smile was probably more about shyness than embarrassment.

Brian was a cute kid with brown skin and light blond, almost white, hair. I made a comment about his light hair, and Ernst said that Brian's father had been the same way, with “ginger hair”. I had always heard the term “ginger hair” used to describe red hair, but Brian's didn't look to have any red in it. I was unsure if his grandfather was using the phrase in the traditional way or if he was just comparing it to cream-colored ginger root.

The pottery house sat under a big mango tree, and the fruit would occasionally fall on the thatched roof. It had to be removed before it rotted, and the two boys really enjoyed poking holes in the thatch so that the mangoes would fall through.

Ernst apologized for not having any food ready to offer me. He told me that if I had called ahead, they could have organized lunch for me, or for a hundred dollars, they could have organized a sing-sing (a traditional, costumed singing and dancing show). I would have maybe arranged a meal, but the $100 show was a bit pricey. Sing-sings were normally done for bus tours, which made them considerably cheaper per person.

Ernst had served in the PNG Navy in his younger days, and he proudly showed me the numerous tattoos he had acquired in various Australian ports.

At one point, Ernst started talking about the fascinating people of America. “You have the white men, the black men, the red Indians, the yellow Chinamen, and those really different people by that big river.”

Unsure of what “really different people” we had by a big river, I asked him if he meant the Mississippi River. Maybe he was talking about bayou people.

That wasn't it.

If he wasn't talking about the Mississippi, I was a bit confused as to which river he was referring to. Surely he knew nothing of the Missouri, the Colorado, the St. Lawrence, or any of our other big rivers.

I made the assumption that we might be dealing with a geography problem, so I tossed out another suggestion: “You mean the Amazon?”

Bingo! This was the mystery big river with the different people.

I explained to Ernst that I was from the United States and that the Amazon was in South America.

It wasn't the first geographical confusion I had encountered during my trip. After telling a woman the day before that I was from America, her follow-on question was, “Oh, which state - Canada or Mexico?”

I have had the debate with several of my friends about the confusion that may or may not be caused by introducing oneself as being from America. In these discussions, my friends claim that it is confusing because America is also the name of our continent, and as such Americans should always say that they are from the United States.

I think this is bunk because no one ever introduces himself by his continent, except perhaps an Australian, so it should always be assumed that a person who says he is from America is from the U.S. A Cambodian will introduce himself as being from Cambodia, not Asia. An Italian will say she is from Italy, not Europe. And a Papua New Guinean will say that he is from Papua New Guinea, not from Oceana or the Pacific Islands. Likewise, while he is an American continent-wise, I would wager that the average Mexican citizen would introduce himself as being from Mexico, not America.

In any case, the aforementioned argument doesn't really apply in Papua New Guinea. The U.S. is such a fuzzy concept for many people here because it is so far away and because there is very limited US/PNG interaction of any sort. Many PNGeans I meet automatically assume that I am Australian. The small percentage of people who realize that my accent isn't Australian usually guess that I am British. No one ever guesses I'm American, although they are delighted when they find out that I am. While they know very little about America, they love it just the same.

One man who was lamenting the corruption of the PNG government told me that as he saw it, the only way for Papua New Guinea to be successful was for the U.S. to annex it. I told him that colonization wasn't so popular these days, and that his idea probably wouldn't work. Funny how after 32 years of independence from Australia, this man is shopping around for a new colonial power!

Getting back to the story, though, Ernst and I talked for a little longer, and then I started walking toward town. On his recommendation, I took a different route that was supposed to be shorter than the one on which I had come.

As I walked along, I encountered many people. They all stopped dead in their tracks to watch me. As I greeted them, though, they responded and loosened up.

After I had been walking for about 30 minutes, a pick-up truck came up behind me. The driver asked if I was heading to town and offered me a ride.

I got in the back with his son, and in about 15 minutes, I was back at my hotel.

It was still early afternoon when they dropped me off, so I headed back toward the center of town to see what there was to see.

I started by checking out the central market. It was mostly a produce market, but there were some craftsmen there as well. I saw a few interesting things, my favorite being a knife carved out of a cassowary bone, but I didn't buy anything.

After the market, I walked across the street to some shops. I looked in a small department store and then went next door to a convenience store where I bought a Coke and some fried fish for lunch.

Having never eaten fish and chips with bones in it, I assumed that it would be boneless. It didn't take me long to realize my mistake.

As I stood outside the store picking bones out of my mouth, a few guys stopped for a chat. Then more stopped by, until there were probably 20 people gathered around.

Several tried to sell me pot, and when I declined, they were a bit apologetic for thinking that I would want it.

One of the guys who was chatting with me was named Nick. He was from the Mt. Wilhelm area. Mt. Wilhelm is the highest point in Papua New Guinea, and Nick told me that he would hike it with me if I wanted. I would like to hike it at some point, so I filed his offer in the back of my mind for later.

While we were on the subject of Mt. Wilhelm, I mentioned that it had a special significance to a friend of mine back in Israel because a relative of hers had died trying to climb it.

Nick said that he didn't know anything about this. Then, not five minutes later, he mentioned “a very famous case where the son of the governor of Israel died on Mt. Wilhelm.”

I was like, “I think that might be the same incident I was just asking you about.”

According to Nick, the Israeli went for his hike with a friend but no guide, and he probably fell off a cliff. His friend survived.

Nick was actually part of the search and recovery team, and he found the missing hiker's watch; the body was never recovered.

As we were all talking, people within the group would periodically take it upon themselves to chase the others away.

The usual line was, “You boys get out of here! We are telling stories here.”

Then the late-comers would request a photo and disperse.

When I finished eating my fish, Nick asked for my address. My local address is a post office box, so there was no harm in it.

I gave him the address, and a few weeks later, I did in fact receive a letter from him.

It started with this line, “I thought that you are a tourist, but then I knew that you are somebody.” Funny guy...

Anyhow, after I finished “telling stories” outside the market, I decided to head back towards Bilbil to visit some of the other villages in the vicinity.

The main PMV stop was near the market, so I was close. A few of my new friends helped me find one that was going the right direction.

Before the PMV arrived, I stood on the sidewalk with the other people who were also waiting. Then the PMV arrived.

As we queued up to board, I saw my first rascal in action. Two people ahead of me in the line, there was a short PNGean man with baggy clothes on. Right behind him, and directly in front of me, was the rascal. This guy had his hand on the wallet in the first man's back pocket. He was waiting for him to take the step up to the bus. Then when he shifted his weight, he would relieve him of his money, hopefully undetected.

Since I was so close, I tapped the first guy on the shoulder and told him to watch his wallet. He wheeled around, and the rascal bolted. The first guy ranted for a moment about the deterioration of Madang, and then we rolled down the road.

I got off the PMV at the 4-Mile Market. I looked around briefly and ran into a young man named Joe whom I had met an hour earlier at the central market. His mother had a stall at 4-Mile, so I threw a little business her way and bought one of her donuts. It was awful. A donut in shape only, it was chewy, greasy, dense, and seemingly sugar-free. I was just thankful that I had only purchased one.

While I was eating, I started walking south.

I didn't get far before a man from the market rushed out to warn me of the dangers of the open road. He asked me to wait for a moment which I did, and he got me a spot in the back of a truck that was heading the same way. I had wanted to walk, but I took the ride anyway.

There were six other people in the truck, and only one, the old man sitting next to me, seemed to speak much English.

We talked about all the usual things. Then he asked me, “Is the war still going on with Iraq and Israel?”

I told him that he was confusing two different things - that there was a war in Iraq and that there was conflict in Israel, but that they had nothing to do with each other.

As we were talking, he would translate what was said from English to Pidgin for the benefit of the others.

When he translated the bit about the war, I could understand enough to realize that he was telling them his incorrect version of things.

Now there are at least six people in Papua New Guinea who think that Israel is fighting a war in Iraq.

From there, the conversation turned toward tourism again. The man told me that whenever I had time, he would take me into the mountains to find birds of paradise.

Before long, we reached Bilbil – the end of the line. I walked out by way of Bohar on the same road that I had taken in the morning.

Everyone greeted me, and I chatted with several people.

One guy who called out to me had a case of SP Beer in his truck. He asked if I would take one, and I gladly obliged. It was nice and cold, with little beads of condensation running down the sides. It was beautiful, like in a commercial.

As I sipped my brew, other members of the guy's family came out to join in the fun. One of them was named Christopher.

The guy with the white crucifix who had been planting yams in the morning was also there. This guy had a few screws loose, I think. Either that, or he was high.

We had met only six or seven hours earlier, and I remembered him perfectly well. He, however, could not remember me and seemed to be generally spaced out.

After I finished my beer, they offered me a second, but I didn't take it. I told them that I should be moving on before it got dark.

The guy with the truck offered to give me a lift back to town, but I told him that I preferred to walk.

“I'll drive very slowly so that you can take pictures out the window,” he countered.

As I told him, though, he wouldn't be driving slowly enough for me to talk with people.

He told me that he would be going to town later, and that he would check on me when he did.

I bid everyone farewell and walked down the road. I met a few more people, but none of them talked for long.

After a bit, I came to a place where the road forked. I had not yet been down the smaller of the two roads, so I went for a look.

After walking for maybe five minutes through the jungle, I came to a house on the edge of a small village, which was called Ino or something like that. I was immediately spotted, and five adults, several dogs, and like a dozen kids came running over.

Based on the age of her children, who seemed to be in their twenties, the matriarch of the family was probably in her 50s. She looked much older, though.

She led the welcome wagon and gave me a big hug and a kiss. Her adult daughter, Mary, was next. She gave me a hug and told me, “Me like-im you.”

It was a friendly lot to be sure.

Besides these two, the group consisted of the old lady's adult son, some other woman and her adult daughter, and the pack of children who belonged to those present and to others who were elsewhere.

Mary was a big betel nut user and her mouth was bright orange. When I asked her about her taste for betel nut, she sheepishly joked, “We call it PNG lipstick”.

She told me that she couldn't remember a time when she hadn't been chewing betel nut, although she didn't start in earnest until she went to school at age five.

She was a sweet lady and told me that the next time I came to visit she would collect some mangoes, pineapples, coconuts, papayas, and bananas for me since we didn't have tropical fruits like these in America.

As we chatted about various things, my hosts offered me a coconut to drink. I was game, so they plucked one from a big stack and cut a hole in it for me.

I drank from the coconut and then put it down. Then I took another drink.

After a minute or two of this, the matriarch looked at me and said, “The rest of us would like to drink as well.”


I felt stupid, but how was I supposed to know that we were all going to share the coconut, especially when there was a whole forest full of them.

I passed my coconut around, though, and things were good again.

The neighbor lady was the cook of the group, and she was working on boiling a chicken for dinner. She asked me if I was hungry, and I told her that I wasn't.

She insisted that I eat some yams, though.

She took a couple and threw them directly into the fire.

After about ten minutes, they were ready. She pulled them out of the fire with a stick and then scraped off the burnt skin with a knife.

Then she gave them to me, and, knowing that these were my first yams, everyone stopped to watch me eat them.

I was a bit worried actually. In the U.S. some people call sweet potatoes yams, and I was under the impression that sweet potatoes and yams were the same thing or at least very similar. As some of you know, sweet potatoes are one of a handful of foods that I don't like, and I was dreading having to eat two of them in front of these people.

When I took my first bite, I was greatly relieved. These yams tasted almost exactly like regular potatoes, which I dig. They were a bit more fibrous, but still quite tasty.

Recalling my coconut milk faux pas, I repeatedly tried to share my yams. There were no takers. They had just finished the yam course of their dinner before I arrived.

By the time I finished both yams, I was stuffed.

We talked a bit longer and had a lot of good laughs. The family excitedly told me about how they had gotten to see the US Navy ship, USS Peleliu, when it had stopped in Madang some months before. I actually heard about this from several other people as well. Everyone was waiting for its return next year.

On the door of the house, there was an English alphabet poster. When I pointed it out, the grandmother told me that Byram was home schooling the kids.

Then she told me that she would recite the Pidgin alphabet for me.

She started, “A, B,” and then where C would normally go, she just opened her mouth and didn't make any sound. She was trying to show that Pidgin didn't have the letter C. This was quite comical because in addition to opening her mouth and not making any sound, she would also poke her head forward like a turtle for emphasis. We all had a good laugh as she kept trying to get through the whole Pidgin alphabet with all its missing letters, with a straight face.

During our chat, Byram complained a bit about his job. He worked for a Thai logging company, and according to him only one Thai man in the whole company could speak either English or Pidgin. This made it very difficult to get things done.

My time with the village people came to a close when dusk started to settle on the jungle. Before I left, they told me to visit them next time I was in town, and Byram told me his name again, I guess so I wouldn't forget it. This time he told me his last name as well, which was Lebit. I thought he was saying rabbit, which they all of course thought was hilarious.

They offered to escort me to the highway, but I told them that I would be fine.

We said our good-byes, and I made my way back to the dirt road that led to the highway.

On the dirt road, I ran into a man and two ladies who were coming the opposite direction. The man told the women to go on without him, and then he walked with me back to the highway.
He wouldn't leave me until I was safely on a PMV, so we stood on the roadside waiting for one.

Before one arrived, though, some guys in a truck pulled up and gave me a lift.

Back at the hotel, there was a note slipped under my door.

The night before, I had booked a beginner's scuba class with the dive instructor who was affiliated with the hotel. The note under my door was to inform me that the beginner's class had been cancelled because there was a shortage of instructors at the dive resort. The resort was actually about 30 minutes outside the city, and the note went on to say that I was still welcome to snorkel there if I could get my own transportation to the site.

This was all a bit annoying, but I didn't dwell on it. It was time was my nightly ritual of pizza, beer, and flying foxes.

The next day, I woke up early again and had breakfast. This time, I ordered corned beef and toast, and while better than the omelet, it wasn't something that I was going to order a second time.

Then I headed downtown to poke around.

Near the hotel, there was a school having an art show. I stopped for a look, and the art was mostly what I expected from high schoolers – nice ideas, but nothing I would want to hang in my house. (Many of the pieces were for sale, by the way.)

Two of the pieces struck me as a bit scandalous for their “adult themes”. One was a painting of a man and a woman having sex. The man was naked, but the woman was wearing a mini-skirt that conveniently covered both of them. As mature as the theme was, however, the execution was a bit lacking. The woman's face in particular was unintentionally grotesque. The second scandalous work was of a couple having oral sex. This one was an ink drawing, and artistically, it was much better than the first one. Both the man and the woman were drawn in tribal motifs.

I left the art show empty handed and caught a PMV to the main PMV station. When the PMV picked me up, it was nearly full, so I was told to sit in the front seat with the driver and 2 other men.

The man next to me told me in a hushed tone that this PMV cost 1 kina, which was double the normal 50 toea fare. Unsure if I had gotten on some special bus, I paid it.

Then I put my wallet back in my front pocket.

As we drove along, I noticed that the slime ball sitting next to me had his hand right on my wallet. It was the same old trick of waiting for me to shift my weight and then making a move. I kept a close eye on things.

As soon as we got to the end of the line, I jumped out of the van with my wallet still in my possession. Most of the other passengers had opted to pay on departure, and I noticed that they were all paying the standard 50 toea for the ride. That's why the guy had told me that the fare was 1 kina in such a quiet voice. Had the others overheard, they would have given him hell for trying to cheat me.

It was all good, though. The driver kept all his money on the dashboard of the van, so I just reached in and took the change I was due.

No one said a word.

I goofed off at the market for a little while and then caught a PMV toward the Jais Aben Resort, the place where I could snorkel. Some of the PMVs went all the way to the resort, but the one I got on only stopped at the highway junction a mile or two away.

As I walked along, various people walked with me for stretches at a time. For a while, I walked with two young women, one of whom was striking. She had on a green dress, and on top of her fluffy hair she was carrying a bunch of green bananas. She looked like a model wearing a crown.

At the resort, it was about 11:00 when I rented a snorkel and fins. The lady told me that I could keep them until closing at 5:00. She also offered to give me a ride back to town, if I stayed until the end of the day.

I had never snorkeled before, but it wasn't very hard to figure out. I swam out and had a look at the reef, and it was amazing. There were nice corals and a lot of different types of fish.

I spent about an hour taking it all in, and then I turned my gear in at the shop. The lady was shocked.

As nice as it was, though, it was like watched a TV with only one channel, and an hour was plenty enough time for me. I couldn't imagine snorkeling around there for another five hours, and the lure of a ride back to town was basically a non-incentive for sticking around as well.

As I was coming out of the dive shop, I ran into a colleague who was spending the weekend at Jais Aben and had just finished a dive.

We had lunch at the beachside restaurant, and then he went back to his room to prep for his afternoon dive.

I started walking the few miles back to the highway, and when I was about a quarter of the way, a van stopped. An older Australian man and his wife were inside. “Can you use any help at all?” the man asked me.

I told them that I was walking by choice, and they continued on.

A few other cars stopped to offer rides, but I didn't accept one until I reached the highway. Sometimes, you just feel like having a walk.

When I got back to town, I met some more take-my-picture people as well as some who wanted to tell stories. After three days, there were quite a few people who knew me by name, so I was being beckoned to all around town. Unfortunately, I had forgotten many of these peoples' names and many of their faces as well. It was easy enough to fake it though.

That night, I dined with the bats again.

Having gone to bed and woken up early every day so far for no real reason, I decided to do it on purpose for my last day with the goal of catching the sunrise.

I went to sleep by 9:00 and was up and at 'em by 5:00 AM. There wasn't much to see until 5:30, though.

Even then, it was a dull and cloudy morning. It had, in fact, rained every night of my stay, and the rains were accompanied by thunder and lightning. In my budget room, I got to experience the classic rain on a tin roof. It was a nice.

I took some photos of the dawn from the hotel, and then I ventured outside the gates for some other shots.

This was not the smartest decision.

In a place like Papua New Guinea where there are numerous petty criminals and a fair bit of violent ones as well, to be alone is to be vulnerable.

As I was walking the coast, I met several people who were no threat. Some were old people; some were bathing; some were watching children. I passed by one young man, though, who was just loitering around. When he saw me, he asked if I needed him to take me anywhere. I told him no and continued walking.

I kept one eye on this shady character, and, sure enough, he started tailing me at a distance of maybe twenty feet.

This wasn't ideal, but things were still OK.

Then, all of the sudden, my stalker whistled up the road to someone I couldn't see.

Me against two hoods would be bad, and me against a gang would be even worse. It was time to get out of there.

I made a big loop away from the shore, through a field, and back to the road. The guy continued in his pursuit, but when I reached the road, there were enough other people around to give him second thoughts on whatever he might have been planning. He turned away and I never saw him again.

It was then that I noticed a nice rainbow coming out of the clouds.

For my last day in Madang, I had decided to visit the Balek Wildlife Sanctuary, which sounded pretty cool in the Lonely Planet book.

I caught a PMV down to the central station and set about finding the correct bus. This was no easy task because no one had ever heard of Balek before. Finally, a bus driver bound for Lae told me that he would pass by Balek and that he could give me a ride. I took a seat.

Some PMVs, such as this one, didn't leave the station until they had a full load of people, so we drove around the parking lot several times in an attempt to fill all of the seats. After half an hour, we were finally loaded and ready to go.

I was sitting at a window seat, and the stupid bus driver came over and asked me where I was going again. We had been over my destination several times, and he had told me each time that it wasn't a problem. Then as he stood outside my window, he asked me, “Are you going to Lae because I don't make any other stops?”

Not once had I told him that I wanted to go to Lae. I guess I should be thankful that he sought final clarification before we departed, though.

The bus was completely full at this point, so rather than displace everyone so that I could get off, I jumped out of the window.

Then by some miracle, I found someone who knew how to get to Balek, and he showed me the correct PMV to take. He was also going that way.

This bus terminated at Mambu Market which was about half an hour's walk from Balek. The guy who had been helping me lived right at the market, and he told me that he would take me the rest of the way to the wildlife sanctuary.

We started walking and in a few minutes we caught sight of two guys up ahead of us on the road. My guide called out to them.

“These two boys are sleeping with me,” he told me, “so they can take you the rest of the way.”

Of course, what he meant was that the boys were staying at his house.

When we caught up to the boys, he told them that I was heading to Balek. They were heading there as well to wash their clothes in the creek, so they were more than happy to lead me.
The more sociable one was named Duncan. He and I talked while his friend, Batrice, walked ahead, blasting reggae music from a small boom box.

The road where we were walking was in pretty good condition, and cars were flying by.

When we reached Balek, my escorts went off to do their wash, and a young woman from the local community took me on a tour of the very small park. The Balek Wildlife Sanctuary was a filming location for Robinson Crusoe starring Pierce Brosnan in 1997, so the first thing that she showed me on the tour was a pile of rocks that served as Friday's grave in the movie.

She told me how crazy things had been when the production crew had come to town. I asked her if she had ever seen the finished movie, and she hadn't. The studio had promised to send them some complimentary copies, but these never did turn up.

The main attraction at Balek, however, was not the grave of Friday. It was a small sulfur creek that supported a community of eels and turtles. The locals here fed the turtles bananas and the eels fish, and they were thoroughly conditioned to be around humans. On my tour, there was no feeding, but the turtles and eels still swam out in hopes of a handout.

After I looked at the animals for a few minutes, the tour was over. It had cost 5 kina (about $1.80), but since I only had six kina handy, my guide gave me change in the form of bananas.

With the tour finished, my guide suggested that I wait by the side of the road for a PMV to pass by. After a long wait, however, I decided to just walk back to Mambu Market.

I wasn't sure what happened to Duncan and Batrice, but not long after I started walking, they came running after me. Then we walked back together.

When we reached the market, they went home, and I decided to continue walking down the highway.

It was a hot sweaty walk, but after an hour or so, I reached 4-Mile again.

Along the way, I met several new characters. At one point, a little boy who was waiting for a PMV saw me coming and announced to his family members who were sitting in the shade, “White man walking!” It reminded me of “Dead Man Walking”.

By the time I reached 4-Mile I was thirsty, so I went inside the market and bought a coke. I was also hungry, so I bought a few things to try. I got a yam with mustard sauce and what was either a giant Brussels sprout or a small cabbage.

I sat down to eat, and I made a huge mistake that was quickly exploited.

For 4 days, I had carried my camera openly. I had had a death grip on it, and no one had made any move to take it.

Then for the first time, I let my guard down. I put my camera on the ground next to me and ate my food, which was quite tasty.

As I was eating, a local man walked over and picked up the camera. As he was already holding it, he said to me, “Wow! Can I see this?”

Still not catching on, I was like, “Hold on a second,” with no real sense of urgency. I didn't realize that he was robbing me.

He started backing away and said something like, “I just want to show my family. I'll be right back.”

Everyone in the market had been watching me since I had entered, so there was a huge audience to this whole episode.

The man continued to back away, and then, all of the sudden, a din arose from the crowd that was very eerie to me. I don't know if they were saying any actual words or not, but a mass of women's voices blended into a roar. I wondered what all the commotion was about.

It was me and my damn camera.

As soon as they started yelling, the theft realized that the gig was up, and he bolted. In a split second, 10 or 15 men from the market sprinted past me in pursuit. I was still standing around in a stupor when one young man ran up to me. “Hurry!” he said.

And so I also joined the chase.

After running for a short while, we came to a small farm with a man, a woman, and a child. The little girl pointed, and the chase continued.

We ran through fields of ten-foot tall grasses and cane. Then we entered the jungle and kept running. The path split several times, and eventually, our hunting party (an appalling term, but that is what we were) was quite spread out.

The few guys who were with me called off the search, and we all back-tracked out of the jungle. At the edge of the cane field, our whole group was reunited.

The men told me to go back and file a police report, while they “took care of things”. Everything had happened so quickly at first that I didn't really have time to think about anything. At this point, though, I had a pretty good idea what was going to happen. I had heard about mob justice before, and I knew that there wasn't going to be a happy ending for the rascal. I was really hoping that he would escape.

I told the guys that they should just call off the search. I told them that it was my fault, that I had been careless, that I could buy a new camera, that it wasn't worth anyone getting hurt over.

This all fell on deaf ears, though.

“Everything will be OK. Just go make a report with the police,” they repeated.

One of the men volunteered to take me to the police station, so I left with him.

When we reentered the market, all of the people were waiting for me. They were all hopping mad, so I tried to settle things. Like the hunters, though, they were not to be pacified. A chain of events was unfolding that I had no control over.

My escort who was going to take me to the police station was named Frank. He kind of grabbed me and pulled me through the crowd like a lawyer shielding his client from reporters.

The highway was just outside the market, and Frank waved down a PMV. He explained the situation, and for this “emergency” the driver and all the other passengers happily did a u-turn and hauled us to the police station.

At the police station, an officer heard the details of my case and took down my information.

Then he told me, “We would love to take up your case, but unfortunately we can't afford petrol for our vehicle.”

“How much does the petrol cost?” I asked.

“I think probably 20 kina.”

Paying 20 kina to possibly recover a camera worth 4,000 kina was a no-brainer.

“Can I pay for the fuel myself?” I asked.

“We can't ask you to do that. If, however, you would like to make a donation on your own initiative, that would be acceptable.”

This all sounded like a bunch of double-talk, but I told him, “OK. I wish to make a donation.”

“OK,” he said, “but I must first get approval from the chief.”

The chief approved, and two constables were noticeably excited to actually be working a case.

We loaded into the ancient paddy wagon. The two constables sat in front, and Frank and I sat in the back.

After a quick stop at the gas station, we drove toward 4-Mile. Before we reached it, the police started setting a perimeter. They did this by telling everyone that they saw about the rascal at large. They were basically just fanning the vigilanteism.

When we had initially involved the police, I thought that they would bring more of a law and order mentality to things. This wasn’t the case.

By the time we actually reached the market, there was big news. The rascal had been caught.

We parked and one of the constables asked me for some reward money. I asked him how much was appropriate, and he suggested a mere 10 kina ($3.60). He went out to talk to the people and in a minute they came over to the truck and a man presented me with my camera. Since I was in the cage in the back, he passed it through a hole that was cut in the divider between the back and front compartments of the truck.

“I'm very sorry,” he told me, “but the lens cap was lost in the chase.”

The lens cap had not been on the camera in the first place, but even if it had been, its loss would have been of no consequence.

I thanked the man.

Everyone wanted to shake hands, but since I was in the cage, the best people could do was to stick their fingers through the small holes.

Once we left, I asked the cops what had happened to the rascal.

“They fixed him good,” one chuckled. “They chopped him in the neck and in the anus with a bush knife. He's in critical condition now!”

Not even understanding what he meant by chopping him “in the anus” the whole thing was disgusting.

I told the policeman that there was no reason for someone to get macheteed in the neck over a piece of plastic and metal.

Sensing the rebuke, he told me not to worry about it. He said that he was sure that the rascal would survive, and that if he didn't, his death was nothing to mourn.

Five minutes later, we passed another police car, and it was time for more pats on the back when my constables shared the story of their fastest case closure ever.

They dropped me off at my hotel, and before we parted ways, they asked if I could photograph them with my newly recovered camera and send them copies. I did it, and then they drove away.

I had two hours remaining before my scheduled ride to the airport; I didn't feel like going out again; I had already checked-out of my room; and the restaurant was closed. So I sat by the sea and waited.

Within ten minutes, Arrex, the guard from the gate came out to get me.

“Sir,” he said, “there's a man named Frank here to see you. I wouldn't let him inside, but he is waiting for you at the gate.”

When I went out to see Frank, he told me that his brother was trying to kill him now because he took the side of a foreigner over his neighbor. He told me that he needed 100 kina (about $36) so that he could get out of town on the next bus to Lae. I gave him the cash I had remaining, which came to 65 kina ($23), and didn't ask any questions.

Before he left, Frank asked for my cell phone number “in case he needed to reach me for anything”. There was no phone call starting with, “Remember me? I helped you recover your camera,” that I could foresee wanting to be part of. I gave him a fake number, and he left.

As I headed back out to the sea, Arrex told me that he had also written down my number and that if I had any more visitors he would call me on my cell. When I told him not to bother because he had copied down a fake number, he was happy because he didn't trust Frank.

As I sat by the sea, there were no more interruptions, and I had time to reflect on everything.

It was depressing.

That evening as I flew back to Port Moresby, the sky had an unnatural purple cast that seemed appropriate in some way.

I don't know when I will return to Madang, but it won't be soon. There are probably 150 or 200 people there who want to give me a high-five for my victory over the rascal, but I still don't feel much like celebrating.