12 Highlander

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

- Henry David Thoreau

Across Islands

Once onboard the steamer, I was thankful to hold an “above deck” ticket, despite the extra cost. I'd looked below deck and saw standing room only. The heat from the engines was stifling below and its explosive pounding shook my bones as I climbed the stairway to the top deck.

I threw my pack onto the top of one of the empty double bunks covered by a tin roof. Up here we had room to move and fresh air to breath. Most of my fellow topside passengers were members of the Popondetta cricket team on their way to a test match in the town of Lae. They celebrated with cases of Hong Kong beer till late that night, as if they had already won the match instead of preparing for it. As I moved about the boat, I noticed I was the sole white person aboard, captain and crew included. I was always treated courteously, even if countless staring eyes followed my every move. For sixteen hours we steamed through a perfectly calm sea. Our frothy wake lay undisturbed by waves as it stretched for miles astern.

We docked in Lae under the hot afternoon sun. Sweat streamed down my face in the calm, heavy air as I fell in with the press of people ready to disembark. I wondered how the passengers below decks survived all night and day crammed next to that hot pounding engine on a ride through hell. Even before the ship was secured and the gangway attached, many people had already flung themselves over the rail and several feet down to the pier.

Lae is Papua New Guinea's second largest city in population, and its main industrial center. As I walked through the sprawling town on Sunday afternoon, I found it nearly deserted until I reached the residential section on the city's edge. The address Paharija had given me led to a small brick home where I introduced myself to her cousin Timothy and his family. Trying not to impose on strangers, I stopped only to ask where I could find information on the buses that travel to the Highlands. After a shower and dinner, Timothy and his wife insisted I stay over night, telling me we would find a bus in the morning. To my embarrassment, they also insisted I sleep on their bed under the mozzie net while they slept on the floor of the front room.

At sunrise we walked to the bus station where Timothy made sure I got on the right bus bound for leg one of the journey to the Highlands. The night before, Timothy had worried about my traveling alone through country he considered rife with dangers from outlaws, rascal gangs and tribal conflict. “Be very careful,” Timothy had warned, “they're not civilized up there yet.” As the bus pulled away, they looked as though they were sending their only son off to war. These were good people, typical of all those who had helped me thus far.

Our bus, in the form of a stretched van, had a capacity of about twenty people. It was half full when I boarded it at 7 AM. By the time we made a fuel stop and visited a few roadside markets we were full and the driver felt ready to get underway. Women with tattoo-covered faces sat with runny-nosed children on their laps. Bags of betel nut lay piled high in the aisle. Men worked at separating the green nuts from their unwieldy branches and flung the unwanted brush out the windows. The Highlanders are as addicted to betel nut as the lowlanders. Since the nut only grows in coastal zones, everyone traveling today brought as many bags of it as they could carry, either for personal use or to sell at a profit in the Highland markets.

We motored across the wide grasslands of Markham Valley, notable as the only significant area of flat land I ever saw on this convoluted island. A few solitary trees stood scattered around the grassy plain, each tree guarded by a single cow claiming its patch of shade in an otherwise shadeless valley. The country ahead looked more like Colorado than New Guinea; mountain ranges loomed in the distance on either side of the level savannah with a strip of blacktop running straight ahead to the horizon. What would have been out-of-place in Colorado was our vehicle, racing across the valley, with branches flying out the windows, our bearded driver lustily chanting out Highland songs to the accompaniment of our dark-skinned and colorfully dressed group of passengers.

Our long, straight road finally turned as it crossed a bridge over the Leonora River. Little water moved there now, but deep gulleys and erosion scars attested to its fury in the rainy season. At a tiny village that emerged suddenly from the steaming plains like a mirage, we found room for another passenger and his bags of betel nut. At this point, the driver asked me to move up to the front seat next to him. Often drivers offered this seat as a courtesy to foreign visitors who were not used to the competition for space in the rear, where your neighbor's luggage is under your feet and their children are crawling on top of you. All the drivers loved to “tok stori” and our driver provided a running commentary in colorful Pidgin phrases on everything from his family and village to the Apollo moon landing sixteen years earlier: still the favorite topic of discussion whenever they meet an American.

The road divided at the village of Waterais – one going north to the coastal area of Madang Province, and our road piercing the western interior. Our driver never failed to stop for a betel nut vendor and somehow room was found for a few more betel sacks and some local peanuts. Straining in low gear, we moved up the valley toward Markham Pass. We resembled a working plantation on wheels with people busily husking coconuts and pulling betel nuts from their vines, all the debris landing on the road behind us. From the cool heights of the pass we entered the Eastern Highlands Province, where neat villages of low round huts drifted past our windows.

Gold-seeking Westerners in the 1930s resulted in the first outside contact with over one million previously unknown inhabitants of these highland valleys. Before then, the interior of the island was thought to be an impenetrable tangle of uninhabited peaks. The Leahy brothers from Australia discovered the heavily populated, and well cultivated, highland valleys in 1930. When the natives first saw these strange white men they went crazy. Often the white explorers had to travel within a movable rope fence to keep the sometimes friendly, and sometimes angry, natives from carrying away their every possession. When the first small airplane landed here, natives brought baskets of food to the great metal bird and then crawled underneath to try to discover its sex. The white man was as strange to these isolated people as if he had just landed from Mars.

New Guinea – and particularly this part of the island – contains the densest array of tribal cultures in the world. Until these highlanders were discovered, anthropologists spoke of Homo Sapiens without fully knowing their subject. Though the white man's lust for gold opened the highlands, they were little explored until the 1950s. Even when I was there, some valleys in the far west were unknown to outsiders.

On the heels of the gold hunters and anthropologists, the missionaries quickly followed. When several managed to get themselves killed by the natives, the Australian government restricted the territory, not letting outsiders in without good reason. The Western Highlands, where my friend Kerowa lived, were not unrestricted until the early 1970s. In 1975, under pressure from the United Nations' fixation on eradicating colonialism at any cost, Australia granted full independence to their half of the Island. It was an unprecedented rapid transition from stone-age to democratic self-rule. Not surprisingly, the various tribes remain separated by clan quarrels, diverse languages and the geographic barriers of mountains.

We passed through Goroka, one of the main commercial centers of the highlands. The town lay clustered around the airstrip and surrounded by miles and miles of coffee plantations. Australians brought coffee trees to the highlands thirty years before and now most of the plantings have been returned to the natives. One cause of tribal conflicts has been the land shortage brought about by an increasing population where much of the fertile land is growing the cash crop of coffee instead of food.

Again, our road to the west took us creeping slowly up the next mountain range. As the straining engine pulled us up through Asoro Village, children ran alongside the slow-moving bus selling wreaths of flowers.

This road we all enjoyed the use of was a hard-won and heroic effort. Tribal wars and rivers rushing down the mountains that could take out a newly built bridge in a single day of floods, required a joint effort by the colonizers and the colonized. Each district's Australian Patrol Officer, called the Kiap, organized each village to build the road up to a certain point. The next village picked it up from there, and so on, until it reached hundreds of miles inland from the coast. Each man was ordered to work one day a week on the roads. Although some didn't like the compulsory work, the roads got built. Since independence, people are not forced to work, so not a single new road has been built.

Our road peaked out around 8,000 feet altitude at Daulo Pass. Ahead lay the deep valleys of Chimbu Province, bordered by ever-higher mountains on all sides. There is perhaps no more corrugated land on earth than this. Its ridges and plunging valleys run parallel, north to south, as though God's own giant plow had furrowed the land.

In a chilling late afternoon rain, I left the bus at Kundiawa, a town of a few thousand people. From here I planned to detour south to Gumine Village, where a letter of introduction to the family of Newli, a school friend of Paharija, assured me of a welcome. It was too late to get another bus so I walked around town looking for a cheap guest house to spend the night. The girls working at the general store informed me the only place in town was the overpriced tourist hotel that I couldn't afford. While the girls debated whether they could sneak me in with them at the “haus bilong yunpela meri tasol” (house for single girls only), a man who worked at the local bank came in and offered to put me up in his apartment next door. We retreated from the store while the girls carried on a heated discussion about whether they could have taken me home or not.

Early next morning, my host Peter, directed me to a corner at the edge of town where I waited for a truck heading south. Eventually, a small pickup truck arrived and I found a place in the back perched high on a pile of rough-cut wood alongside four other passengers.

We rattled on down an incredibly narrow ledge of dirt clinging to cliffs above the turbulent Wahgi River. It was hard to believe a road could exist on these precipitous cliffs, especially a road as poor as this one. The driver later confirmed my fears by telling me that sections of the road frequently disappeared due to landslides. Most of the road was single lane, requiring passing traffic to back up and park at some small indent against the cliffs. Our driver held firm to the accelerator, rounding the blind corners with horn blaring. A passenger pointed to the twisted wreck of a truck at the bottom of the gorge. I held on tightly to the shifting pile of wood as we bounced and slid along. Twice we stopped to shovel our way through fresh landslides partially blocking the road.

We ate dust for three hours until the truck coughed over the last rise, then stopped, for lack of fuel we guessed, next to the village of Dirima. A couple hundred people gathered around us near a white-painted church, looking straight out of a New England postcard, complete with tall pointed steeple and brass bell. It was Palm Sunday and people streamed out of the church after services ended, many of them wearing traditional dress. A teen-aged girl was escorted proudly through the group by her parents who asked me to take her photo. As a skirt she wore a short, coarse woven cloth hung in front from a bark belt. Her backside was covered only by a few beaded strings hanging from the belt. Radiant bird of paradise plumes fanned out from her headdress and armbands. Across her naked breasts hung necklaces of pig's tooth and seashells. Her body shined from a coating of pig's grease that enhanced her appeal in the eyes of the men in her tribe. What was most remarkable to me was to see her dressed this way as she stepped out of a Christian church.

Here I was met by the village headman who, when I questioned him, told me that the village I sought was only a couple miles down the road and that he would lead me there later. He sent a messenger boy running ahead to tell them I was coming. Before I could go, he insisted I meet everyone in this village. The headman introduced me with elaborate gestures and led me down long lines where I quickly shook everyone's hand. It was tedious and embarrassing to be treated as someone of such importance. Aside from the missionary, I was the only white man in the valley, which they considered special enough.

After meeting everybody, from the missionary himself to the littlest pikinini (child), the headman and I walked down the road towards Gumine. The chief was eager for me to stay in Dirima for a few days but I thought it wiser to first get to Gumine. It seemed there was some rivalry between the two villages that I did not want to get involved in. The headman insisted on carrying my heavy pack for me until handing it off to Kumulgo Sipa, the father of my friend Newli from Port Moresby, who had rushed up the road in his pickup truck to meet me. Newli, I learned, had sent a letter telling him I would visit so he was expecting me. From the way I was treated, like a prospective son-in-law, I later wondered if her letter had somewhat exaggerated our brief friendship.

We entered the small village of Gumine, literally at the end of the road, and Kumulgo beamed like a proud father as he introduced me to the gathering crowd. I stood as an old man, thin as a rake and nearly naked, fell to his knees and put his arms around my legs. For a moment I was stupefied until Kumulgo pulled me away and led me to one of the huts.

Inside the dark room sat three of his wives who began wailing and crying as soon as I stepped in. They continued their sobbing several minutes as the men sat in silence. Was I such an instant disappointment? Had someone died? I was confused and felt I should leave. Finally, Kumulgo waved them out of the hut and explained they were welcoming me according to their custom. This sorrow is how they show sympathy for a relative who has traveled a long and dangerous journey to visit them.

This man Kumulgo, I found out, was one of the village elders. Being a large landowner and of some wealth and importance, he had collected five wives who had produced fourteen children so far. Because of the expense of the bride price, an average man here has only one or perhaps two wives. Each wife purchased must also be furnished with her own home. The husband typically stays in his hut alone and visits his wives on a rotation basis.

Kumulgo's fourth wife was now visiting relatives in Mt. Hagen in the Western Highlands Province. His third wife, Newli's mother, was in Port Moresby visiting her daughter. As the story of the complicated family ties was explained to me, it seemed not all that unfamiliar. His first wife was nearly his own age of about fifty and each of his subsequent wives was progressively younger, the latest wife being about eighteen. In that way, while his wives aged, he retained the pleasures and strong back of a young wife. Meanwhile, the older wives worked in his gardens and tended the pigs to prove their continuing usefulness.

Then it hit me – this was like a version of the California lifestyle. The main difference being that our modern Western man pays his first wives to disappear. In this case, our noble savage indeed does have a higher morality. I now understood what Herman Melville meant when he wrote that rather than send more missionaries to the South Seas, we might be better served by having some native islanders come to bring us a more civilizing influence.

I was grateful there were only three wives present, because each one wanted to care for us at the same time, causing some confusion for me at mealtimes. Wife number five brought us dinner. Before we finished, wives number two and one each brought us another dinner. During my few days here, I ate from the pot of each wife in order not to offend, while wishing they had worked out a rotational cooking schedule as they did for Kumulgo's sleeping arrangement.

The ground level huts were spacious inside, there being not a single piece of furniture or decoration to clutter the soft floors of woven mats. I sat there all evening visiting with the male clan members. Women apparently were allowed inside only to bring food or tobacco and betel nut supplies. Here again, I learned that the Highlanders love their story-telling. They wanted to hear about my clansmen back home, and my journey here, but they really perked up when someone asked how the Americans got to the moon. If you want to captivate the Highlander, don't bore him with facts about the Cold War, Vietnam, fast cars, or good wine. Tell him how we put a man on the moon – that's how big his dreams are!

The Kumulgo clan expressed great relief I did not stay with those “bad people of Dirima Village” whom they had warred against just two years earlier. They had already forgotten how it started as being unimportant. Kumulgo thought someone had stolen a pig. A friend of his suggested a woman was taken from the village without paying enough bride price to her family. Off-and-on for six months, several hundred warriors from each village had fought, mostly with traditional weapons of spears, bows and arrows, and hatchets. Houses were burnt down and gardens destroyed, causing what they call “taim bilong hungry” (hungry times).

Tribal fights of today are supposed to be stylized wars, more like a sporting event. Loud taunting and name-calling start the games off. Then, from a safe distance, the spears and arrows fly, only to be swatted down or blocked by shields. When one side advances, the other dutifully retreats. With a thousand warriors clashing in this way, it results in only a handful of injuries. But the latest Kumulgo/Dirima fight had turned ugly and over thirty people were killed. The sacred rules for their fights, written and enforced in past years by their Australian colonial masters, such as not using guns or harming women and children, were forgotten. When Dirima captured an enemy, they dismembered him with hatchets, putting parts of the victim's body on the ends of arrows and spears and flinging them back to the Gumine side. Suitably enraged, the Gumine people engaged in similar outrages. When someone was killed, the family was not permitted to cry for him for fear it would bring bad luck and cause others to die. Instead, the family would provide a mumu (feast) for the village to entice them into a payback raid.

Eventually, the government did get involved. Police dressed in riot gear patrolled the roads causing the warriors to flee to the ridges. From there, helicopters chased them back down to the waiting police who arrested many. They were finally encouraged to settle their dispute with exchanges of pigs, beer and money that went to compensate the families of the victims.

Early one morning, I went with two of Kumulgo's sons to visit the next valley where an American missionary was working in an isolated outpost several hours walk from the nearest road. As we made our way up the high slopes, we greeted people at work in their gardens tending corn, cabbages and sweet potatoes. I was beginning to think of this valley as mostly two-dimensional – up and down. There was not a level patch of ground of any size, anywhere. Gardens were planted on forty-five degree slopes and anywhere the tilled earth could be coaxed into staying in place, it was cultivated. Some of the fields were so steep I could barely move without laying flat on the ground and pulling my way up by the bases of corn stalks.

One group of men and women slashed the brush with machetes to clear new fields. After the chopped vegetation dried, it was set afire. Then some of the ashes were removed and planting begun. Lacking fertilizer, every second year they had to abandon the tired plot of soil and start again somewhere else. After several years of letting the bush take over, they cleared it again in a timeless cycle. Across the hills I could see fields in every stage – faraway smoke rose from burning fields, while closer, women carried baskets of ash from yesterday's fire. Others were planting or mending wooden stake fences that keep foraging pigs out of their gardens.

From the highest ridge above Gumine, on this unusually clear day, we could see far down the Wahgi Valley past Kundiawa and forty miles beyond to the 14,800-foot peak of Papua New Guinea's highest mountain, Mt. Wilhelm. The mountain dominated all the surrounding peaks and as I looked at it, I knew I would climb it before I left the island.

We followed the trail down the next valley until we met a group of men halfway through their two-day trek to town. One of the men bent low under the heavy load of a manual coffee-grinding machine he was taking to town for repair.

We finally emerged from the wet bush into a clearing on a hill called Dimikul. From here, we saw the full extent of a new valley as large as the one we had left – a pristine valley, untouched by man's machines. We spiraled down the trail until a passerby told us the mission station ahead had been abandoned. After several years of lonely work, the priest had “gone finis” back home to America. He had left a couple months earlier and they did not know if he would return. We turned back, all of us eager to get home before dark, where we greedily tucked into another baked vegetable feast put on by the wives of Kumulgo.

At night in the village, the chilly mountain air was thankfully free of insects. We watched the stars shine bright above our dark valley. I explained to Kumulgo's children how the ancients had looked up to the skies and, trying to make sense of the chaos, had cataloged the constellations. My friends here saw other patterns and the folks in the next valley saw still others in the same sky – a reminder that there are few, if any, universal truths.

The next day, Kumulgo and I took two of his horses on a bareback riding tour of his property in the valley. We raced up and down the hills with me trying to steer my horse clear of the gardens. My headstrong horse often leapt off the trail, crashing into the thickest bush in an attempt to dislodge me. I had been taught to ride horses on my grandparent's farm in Minnesota so I knew his tricks and laid down flat, with my arms circling his neck, until he regained the trail. His next trick was to bump strongly into the sides of the huts we passed where he would scratch his hide against the rough woven walls and crush my leg in between. This sent the occupants tumbling out of their huts. Imagine their surprise seeing a crazed white man on horseback, apparently trying to knock down their home with his horse.

In the afternoons, we all took our bath by going for a swim in the icy waters of the Wahgi River. Boys gathered at one place and the girls discreetly stayed around the next bend in the river, their playful laughter barely audible above the rush of water against stones. In this spot, the river's color was green and ran deep and full. Further downhill the waters shoaled until they tumbled and leapt in a white foam.

From the moment I arrived, Kumulgo worried that a gang from Dirima might come at night on a raid to capture me, and so spark a new conflict. What they wanted me for, or what they might do with me, I couldn't imagine, and told him so. Nevertheless, Kumulgo insisted I sleep in his hut while he guarded the door. I awoke several times during the night to see him propped up on one elbow, staring at me through the light of a dim kerosene lantern. The next night I convinced him I would be alright and sent him off to visit one of his wives. Once he had gone, I noticed he had locked me in from the outside as he might an unruly child.

These people of the highlands have distrusted their neighbors for so long that people from two villages, only a few miles apart, speak totally different languages. Now that's one hell of a long feud! Often I was warned not to go to the next village because they were “robbers and killers.” If I did go to that place of evil reputation, I'd invariably find the people there as kind as those I'd left. And this new village would be amazed that I survived a trip through the previous village. On some scale, these are the common fears all of us have towards neighbors seldom visited and breed such enmities as to prevent peace among nations.

Because Kerowa awaited me in Pungumu, and I knew he would be worrying about my delay, I left here after only three days. I exchanged some gifts with the family and a truck was arranged that would take me back to Kundiawa. As I left, Kumulgo's wives stood at the roadside and again shed tears for my journey. I was touched deeply and knew there was so much more to these people than their violent reputation.

As we rode back towards the highway, I recalled my first night in Gumine. It was Palm Sunday and each man, woman and child from villages on both sides of the valley climbed to the highest ridges and spread out along them in single file. Like an Olympic flame, each person held up a torch of long stalks of flaming dried pitpit, passing flame from one to another until the entire valley streamed with red streaks, as if hot lava were flowing from the mountaintops. With flares burning, the highlanders were heard miles across the valley singing out to their neighbors. After the last tribal fight, the priest had organized this event for each Palm Sunday as a showing of goodwill. I held my torch high and watched wordlessly until the last flame was extinguished.