Sunday, March 11, 2012

Wantoks




Papua New Guinea is a country with 800 indigenous languages. Languages that developed independently of each other in the inaccessible valleys of this mountainous island and were spoken only by individual tribes and clans. The 'official' language of PNG, the language used in government and commerce, is english but the lingua franca is Tok Pisin which is an amalgamation of every other language spoken here including english. It can be translated as Talk Pidgin and we'd call it pidgin english.

Wantoks are the people who speak as you do. They're your family, your clan, your friends, they're the people with whom you share 'one talk'. In short, they're the folks who understand you. We all have wantoks, some of just have fewer than others. PNG is a great place for developing new wantoks but it's a rough place to stay connected to your old wantoks. It's absurdly expensive to get here unless you fly for free. It's also a thirty hour journey from the U.S. no matter how you route yourself. My wantoks could come over to Rome for a long weekend but need at least ten to fifteen days to buzz down here.

I moved from the hotel into my apartment on February 3rd and welcomed my first visitor the following day. It's taken the rest of the month to get my residential internet hooked up but I'm finally settled in with all my boxes unpacked, my pictures hung and my computer back online. My balcony overlooks the Royal Papua Yacht Club and I have amazing views of the sunsets over the Coral Sea. I think I might just stay a while!

 These two beauties are guarding my balcony doors. They are both female figures (that's a skirt!) and I call them Betty and Veronica.

These are penis gourds and I got them in three different sizes because...well, just because!

The job at the embassy is really challenging but I'm enjoying it. As the Management Officer, I am responsible for all the support services and systems in the embassy and I report to the DCM. We are currently situated in the old Bank of Papua New Guinea building and our warehouse is the bank vault. Embassy furniture has never been safer! However, the building is in serious need of repair and identifying the things that don't need fixing is easier than listing those that do. The Management section is by and large considered to be incompetent and inept but I personally don't think we reach those lofty standards yet. The dyke here has more than ten holes and I've run out of fingers. Thank god for penis gourds!

It'll all get better and the entire section is working hard to improve. Inept and incompetent are fully within reach! We're working diligently to bring all our local supervisors' skills up first and then we'll begin helping the staff to understand the service standards we want them to provide. Every single day brings on a new and totally unanticipated challenge. For example, the Monday morning I arrived to find everyone standing on the sidewalk outside the front door because the generators had run out of fuel over the weekend and none of the magnetic locks could be activated to let us into the dark and powerless building. You haven't lived until you've experienced an ambassador who can't get into his embassy because your section forgot to check the fuel levels! On the positive side, the local staff are all extremely pleasant and I enjoy working with them. 

PNG is still very much a tribal society and people pay their bride price and their 'compensation' in pigs and kina. Kina is the local currency but pigs are preferred. Bride price is just what it appears to be, the price the groom's family pays the bride's for her hand. Compensation is the price paid, when someone is injured, killed, robbed or wronged, to avoid open bloodshed and/or tribal war. My facilities supervisor suggested sending three pigs to Ambassador Taylor's residence as compensation for the fuel tanks running dry but I convinced him that the ambassador would much prefer a good cigar and a glass of single malt whiskey and I'd see to it that they were presented. The compensation was offered and accepted and while the sun set over the Coral Sea I was forgiven and, thus, am still the Management Officer. There might be something to this compensation concept after all.

Embassy Port Moresby is a 'lock and leave' post. We open up around 07:00 each weekday and close up shop at 4:30 in the afternoon. All local staff must exit the building at 4:30 and the last cleared American officer still working is charged with turning out the lights and locking up. American officers have access to the building 24/7 and can come and go as they please. One officer went into the embassy on a Saturday to use his computer to check his email. He didn't realize that the internal locks on most of the doors, which normally work by swiping your id card, are de-activated during off hours. This officer decided to take a shortcut through the consular section which had locks on all the exit doors and found himself locked into the consular waiting room with no way to escape. None of the doors, including the one he'd used to come into the waiting room, could be opened from the inside. Fortunately, one of our local guard force saw me waving frantically and called the RSO to come down and let me out! Lesson learned. RSO compensation was the standard good cigar and single malt.

I've had an opportunity to do some traveling around the country. My first trip outside of Port Moresby was up to the highland town of Bulolo. I flew up on a Monday and arrived at the Pine Lodge in the afternoon. The lodge arranged for a group of local policemen to escort me out into the mountains the following day to see the mummies. The Agapena Tribe used to mummify their illustrious dead by smoking them and then they placed them on a wooden rack high on a cliff overlooking their village. Christian missionaries put an end to the practice almost fifty years ago but the few remaining mummies have been left on duty on the cliff. 

Phillip drove the vehicle and provided on-site security. 

The police came to the lodge at 04:30 in the dark and I climbed into the back of their open Toyota truck to take the six or seven hour ride along a dirt track into the mountains. The ride can be generously described as kidney shattering! We reached what seemed to me to be a random point on the track and stopped. A few minutes later a group of men materialized from the surrounding brush and we began a short negotiation over the compensation required to have them lead me up to the mummies. Once a mutually acceptable price was reached, we began to climb through the thick jungle growth on a mud-slick path behind two men hacking a trail with their machetes.

The trail went straight up and I spent much of my climb on my hands and knees. About 45 minutes into the climb I was ready to throw in the towel (I would have actually paid several pigs at that point for a wet towel) but I was urged to crawl up around one more bend and looked up to see that I was face to partial face with the mummies. They seemed to be looking at me with some disdain! I doubt that they had ever seen a muddier, sweatier, gasping and panting white guy in their lives. I was sorely tempted to just climb onto the bench and stay with them rather than slide back down the mountain.

There seemed to be room for me on the left end of the bench but I was discouraged from taking a seat by two guys with machetes.


But slide back down the mountain I did and then endured the six or seven hour journey back to Pine Lodge. I flew back to Port Moresby the next day and immediately caught a flight up to Tari.

Tari is the homeland of the Huli Wigmen. These are the iconic tribesmen who wear elaborate wigs and paint their faces in vivid yellows, reds and blacks. They are a fairly fierce and warlike people who are constantly fighting amongst themselves, clan versus clan. Compensation is a very serious business among the Huli. The lodge I was staying in arranged for me to visit an outlying village to see a sing-sing or dance in costume. The men performed a victory dance which consisted of hopping up and down while beating on kundu drums and chanting war-like phrases in Huli.

 Each man wears a hornbill beak on his back because otherwise, as one of them explained to me, "our backs would be naked!"

The man on the left is wearing his 'everyday' wig while the man on the right has on his 'ceremonial' black wig.



The guy in the center had to borrow a wig, but was inducted into the clan nonetheless!

Funny enough, the yellow paint washes right off. The red actually takes a day or two so I wore it proudly during my visit to two other clans. The first stop after the war-dance village was to see a Spirit Dance performed by a group about ten miles away.


This is a clan elder in his hut. No woman is ever allowed to enter his hut...and damn few would ever consider doing so. The black stuff coating the walls and ceiling is pig grease from his fires, collected over the years and never cleaned. Filthy doesn't begin to describe the interior.


These guys performed a Spirit Dance which is a solemn somber call for blessings from their ancestors. Afterwards, of course, they were just two guys who liked a good joke and an American with red paint on his face!

Finally, I was taken to a 'wig school' to see how the men grow out their wigs. Beginning in their late teens and early twenties, the men go into a remote location for about eighteen months to grow their hair out. They do this at least twice to make their everyday and ceremonially wigs. During this time, if a woman touches their hair, they have to cut it all off and begin again. Therefore, they live like monks and no women are allowed anywhere near them.

The second and third guys from the right are growing out their wigs. The man on the far left is the shaman who blesses their hair and sprays it with holy water every day to keep it healthy.

There are many many more places here that I want to see. I've been doing a lot of scuba diving and there are lots of islands in this part of the Pacific that I need to visit. There are quite a few historic sites from World War II and shipwrecks galore to explore. I think I'll probably stay busy for the next three years.

I'd like to eventually hike the Kokoda Track but that is a grueling nine day hike across the Owen Stanley Range that runs down the center of the country so I won't be doing it this weekend. All in good time. For now, my wantoks, I'm reaching for the stars at work and aspiring to achieve inept and incompetent!!

4 comments:

Donna said...

I am so glad you're finally back and blogging. You have one of the best FS blogs out there, and this post is one example of why. Loved it!

Chris said...

Looks like you are off to a great start! It's funny - back-to-back, you went on one of my favorite trips (Angepena) and one of my least favorite trips (Tari) of PNG!

hpwelch74 said...

Your blog is fantastic! Meg Pheltz Livergood sent me this and I couldn't stop reading. I'm anxiously awaiting my PNQ results and hope that I can become an FSO in the near future. Can't wait for the next post!

Allie Raether said...

I found your blog this morning, and have spent most of my day reading. You're a wonderful writer, and, as an aspiring FSO, I couldn't have asked for better material.