Back from the Jungle

I’ve been back from Papua New Guinea for about 10 days. I took some time to let the experience decompress before recounting it.

It was a great experience. Every one of our group came back touched by something different. For myself, I was fascinated by the language; its isolation and lack of documentation sparked my linguistic nerdiness, and I spent a lot of time trying to understand what I could. However, I found myself more curious about the geography. The valley, the coast, the mountains, the river, the flood plain, the rainforest. And how the people live with it. Emphasis on with. Developed countries have eliminated nature from everyday life; the people in the Waria Valley are a part of it. I am lucky to know nature more than the average city dweller, but the subarctic Alaskan wilderness corresponds not to the tropical Papuan jungle. Learning how local people make use of the land and the things that live and grow on it was an adventure and fascinated me far more than their language. The experience has me seriously reconsidering my interests. Even while studying linguistics at UAF, I realized that I sometimes harbor a weary complacence with people that hardly befits human research. Even linguistics itself, while immensely important, fills somewhat of a niche role in the big picture of human problems. While I am fascinated with Zia tribe and their language, how the lexicon reflects their connection to the environment, in my mind those aspects are ancillary to the broader issues of deforestation, sustainability and responsible development.

A language dying is tragic. A forest dying is tragic. Is one more tragic than the other? I don’t know. But one is more preventable, and only one is truly threatening to our species. I hesitate to make this statement, partly because it’s against the vogue, and partly because it’s not particularly sensitive, but language death is a process that, natural or forced, is a human affair. In terms of finality, in terms of consequences, humans can afford to lose languages. We cannot afford to lose our planet.

Of course, this entire comparison is hypersimplified and ridiculous. Solipsistic, self-indulging, it is really only an internal dialogue making value judgements of my own personal interests.

I figure now I’ll launch into a long account of the trip.

We built a school, taught classes, rafted and swam and frolicked in the river and the ocean, ate lots of rice and potatoes and fruit, took our malaria medications, learned Zia, learned about the area and the forest, and listened to Fiona.

The Waria Valley is remarkably remote. Papua New Guinea itself, for a country of 6 million people, is naturally fractured by geography and lacks population centers. Port Moresby, the capital, is not connected to any other major cities via road. But this doesn’t mean much when you learn that the second largest city, Lae, has only 120,000 people. From Lae, it’s a five hour ride in a 75hp outboard to reach the Waria River, home of the Zia (gee-uh)tribe, which number about 6,000. The Zia language is remarkably strong. One of our guides, also named Zia, expressed worry at the language becoming lost and changing, which is a concern, but seemed far from an urgent one, when you compare it to the state of indigenous languages elsewhere. Basically, industrial, modern civilization hasn’t crept into the life of the people in the Waria Valley yet. There are no phone connections, no roads, electricity of any kind. Radio, motorboats, a post office a day’s walk north, and one airstrip up the valley are what connect them to the outside world. Village Development Trust, the NGO that we worked through to build the elementary school, does a lot to augment this. I have addresses of several people that I plan on sending notes and photographs; they are all care of Zia in Lae City.

We arrived in Saigara village on Monday evening, greeted as we came up the river by children on banana boats splashing water at us and waving as we passed. As we hopped off the boat, a figure appeared from the brush and summoned a whole phalanx of warriors who, after faking us out with spears to the face, led us into the village. Men and women of the group went their separate ways, to the men’s house and the women’s house. I chewed a betel nut. Then we walked up to the Unu Resource Center, a guesthouse built by VDT through donated international funds, where we stayed for the next six nights.

Unu is the name of a mountain that Saigara village sits at the base of. I would say it’s slightly larger than the Butte, maybe 1000 feet. In the 1700’s and 1800’s, the Zia and other tribes of the area were killing each other in a series of territorial wars. The possession of Unu allowed the Zia to not only kill invading enemies by launching rocks down at them from the mountain, but to see them coming in canoes well in advance from the ocean or up the river. The mountain is a large reason why the Zia tribe is relatively large in area and population. I was lucky enough to climb it with Zia one morning. As I stood on the top, sweating several gallons of fluid per minute, he told me that I was the first member of the charity groups over the last eight years to climb the mountain. Pretty lucky. The view at the top was blocked by trees, but I could see the ledges where sentries slept and where killin’-rocks were stored, and Zia pointed out all sorts of flora: vanilla, orchids, weird bananas. There was no trail up or down, and on the down trip, I became Tarzan for a minute, slipping off a eight or nine foot ledge while holding a vine for safety. Fun in immediate hindsight.

We got to see how the mill operates. Several years ago, a portable mill was donated. They now use it for construction materials in the village. The small elementary school that we financed was built using one very large tree. All of the finished boards were carried arduously by hand a mile or two across the river and to the site. In the afternoons and evenings, there was a steady stream of kids with boards on their heads, plodding happily through the village.

We learned how they make bilums, the traditional grass-fiber loop woven bags that they carry any personal items in. We learned how to get the milk out of a coconut, although I never got down to the four swift machete chops that the men in the village could do to open them. I learned a lot about the names of plants and seasons, past storms, floods, stories. The Waria river changes color depending on where the rain falls further up in the valley. The two seasons are named after plants that grow during those seasons. The Zia words for morning and tomorrow, as well as part of the future tense, are the same. They count on a base-5 system, a “digital manual hominid system” as I like to call it, everything being based on human appendages, and when one exceeds 20, the number of humans. 40 in Zia, emo eto, literally means “two men.” Of course, without need for a market economy or mathematics, there really never was a need for a more specific numerical system. What does it matter if there are 24 or 27 coconuts? Are they enough? Can they fit in my bilum? In my canoe? The language really is based on practical concerns of their environment, in this case to such a salient extent that I suspect that what may appear to be a relationship of language and culture is often largely a manifestation of two similar relationships, between the physical environment and the language and the physical environment and the culture.

In any case, the environment that has influenced the people who live there is beautiful. The lush, dense forest. The looming, breathing mountains. The fertile alluvial soil and the turbid river that brings it. The bathwater-warm ocean, heated by the scorching sun. The surrounding abundance of sustaining life. It makes the place seem inherently welcoming to humans.

Until you consider malaria. Everyone there has it. People live with it. People die early from it. Certain populations in the world, in sub-saharan Africa and PNG have a percentage of people who are genetically immune to the parasite, due to misshapen red blood cells. It’s easy to view the land as a paradise, where food is abundant and the weather livable. But malaria kind of spoils that. It’s rather hard to imagine. While I don’t have data on life expectancy in the Waria Valley, Papua New Guinea as a whole is 66 years, while the US is 78. Their lifestyle is so active, and their diet so healthy, I believe if they had access to adequate medical care and consistent malaria treatment, their life expectancy would be somewhere close to Japan’s, where people routinely live to be 145.

The diet there was surprisingly easy on my stomach. One hears about “Montezuma’s revenge” plaguing stomachs unused to tropical bacterias, but I think I was more happily regular during the two weeks in PNG than I have been in the last eight months in Japan. In fact, only once I got back to the city, started eating crap like cheeseburgers, pizza, and beer, did I find my stomach seriously throwing a shit fit.

We left Saigara after a week, and made the short trip to Bau, on the coast. Right on the coast. Beautiful gray sand beach with beautiful islands offshore with their own white sand and reefs. We took a day and snorkeled, which was the only time I received any sunburn. We walked to Auno Primary School, where we presented gifts of school supplies and played ultimate frisbee with about 70 kids in what seemed like 100 degree heat. We rode in a 80-person canoe carved from a single tree, and ourselves planted trees in an area of reclaimed swampland. Some of us got eaten by sandflies and mosquitoes and stung by jellyfish. I was lucky. We had a dance to a stringband in the humid night air, dancing with locals and amusing the young kids with a retarded-man’s conga line. We kept busy tossing naked toddlers over our heads into the waves, and figuring out what party tricks we knew to overcome momentary pauses in communication.

The people of the Waria Valley are great communicators. Probably everyone in PNG is. The children learn their native language from birth, then Tok Pisin in elementary school, and English in primary school. While many adults seem to have only a hodgepodge acquisition of English, their cleverness in use and communication is impressive. I think part of it is a lack of shyness and a lack of pressure. Teaching Japanese children, I see a difference occur once they enter middle school, begin wearing uniforms, and begin learning English through the caveman method. But even before that, as crazy little kids, there is an unwillingness to take risks in communication. Chalk it up to cultural differences, and leave it at that, I say. Coming to PNG after eight months in Japan was rather astonishing. Here, where classroom materials – dictionaries, notebooks, pencils – are rare, the students seem to have a greater ease with English (Tok Pisin is no doubt responsible for a lot of this, but even with very young kids who did not speak the pidgin, this seemed so). Anyway, without making detrimental comparisons, they are amazing communicators. With 820 native languages in a single state, they have to. We could see the effectiveness of Tok Pisin as a lingua franca in communication between our guides from VDT. Sido, Zia, Sam and Maine all spoke Zia natively, but Bing and Reety were from tribes elsewhere, and spoke other native languages. So, English or pidgin were the languages they worked in.

Talking with these guides was one of the real pleasures of the trip. We met lots of the local people in Saigara and Bau, but being busy all day with many different people, it was hard to develop individual rapport with more than a few people. So, talking to those guides, who slept and ate with us, but still knew more about the area than anyone, was a pleasure. Before I came, Troy, an original PNG veteran who had been eight years in a row before this year, told me to ask lots of questions, even stupid ones. That really made the difference in my level of involvement. Of course, it wasn’t always necessary to ask to get an earful. Sam was a magnificent storyteller, full of tales that were probably about 80% true. When we were swimming in the river, he mentioned that as an adolescent, he and friends would float down the river to another village to fool around with girls, and then run back through the woods home before sunup. Bing had a quiet demeanor but was full of information. He was able to tell me the name of the bioluminescent algae I saw flashing in the breaking waves, and how one can navigate into the mouths of rivers at night simply by putting your hand in the water to feel the temperature. As Fiona said, “It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that Bing.” Sido was a funny, goofy guy who I really enjoyed being around. He reminded me of Monte, and was incredibly helpful. He took pictures with my camera while I was teaching at Zare Ainse school, and from the dinghy while I was floating on a banana tree raft down the Waria. He also coached me on betel nut chewing and answered lots of my questions concerning Zia verb paradigms. Reety was a firecracker of a woman. I wasn’t around her much, but I think I heard her say “The PNG Government is really a disgrace. I’m going to become a politician.” about three or four separate times. Or “You see a PNG woman walking down the road, a baby on her back, a bilum over her head, fruit on her shoulders, you’d think it was a mule, not a woman.” I liked Reety. Zia and Maine are the leaders of at least this arm of VDT – I am not familiar with the structure of the organization, although Zia apparently headed it some years ago. I didn’t get to know Maine too well, although he and I had a fascinating conversation about creating forest value through selling carbon offsets on a carbon exchange, and I left him a New Yorker article that dealt with the issue. Zia I spent a lot of time with. He I haven’t really figured out. Fun, motivated, easy-going, knowledgeable. A great guy doing great work.

The Zia tribe is what anthropologists consider a matrifocality. There are four clans within the tribe. One must not marry within their own clan. Children take on the clan affiliation of their mother; the male relatives that they are guided by are their mother’s. It is considered a matrifocality and not a matriarchy because while social structure is derived from the status of the female, the decision making power lies with the men.

On one of our last nights in Saigara, the newcomers in our group were adopted into clans. There are four clans, Bego, Wapo, Yewa and Sakiya. I became Bego. When we got to Bau, however, there was a problem. Saigara doesn’t have or has very few members of the Wapo clan, so none of us had become Wapo. During our presentation of donations to the Bau community, a small boy named Bozai (I think) wanted to give me a gift, but he couldn’t because he was Wapo and I Bego. Tradition holds that to express ones anger at an injustice or at something which one cannot change, you must break open a water vessel, made from a kind of large tree nut. This symbolizes your anger, and allows you to make a change from that point, not alter anything which currently is. So, this small boy spiked this water holder on the ground in front of me, and gave me a necklace. I don’t completely understand it, but I believe that in the future, my children will be Wapo and not Bego. I am not sure if that would hold, say, if I were to marry a Zia woman already affiliated to a tribe. They might feel confident that I’ll marry a non-Zia who has no prior clan affiliation. The process was an honor, and I felt really special to be chosen by that boy.

I was very lucky to get to know some of the locals. Herry was a young guy from Saigara, who was 16, but was almost my height, muscular, and very mature. He taught me a gospel song on the guitar in Tok Pisin, I showed him how to shuffle a deck of cards. He was just a cool guy, happy with his life. In Bau, I met a teacher namea Paliau staying at the guesthouse, who was actually from northern PNG, the island of Manus, but a funny fellow about my own age. There were also an assortment of little spaz boys running around who got to know my name. It was not just a friendly place, but a place where you felt like you couldn’t do anything wrong. Of course, you couldn’t lounge around naked, and there wasn’t a great deal of privacy, but you didn’t feel like you were an outsider, or that you didn’t know what was going on half the time – two feelings that foreigners in Japan are familiar with. It was just a very accepting place.

As the area develops, the questions of local economy, crops, land use, deforestation, and resource management are huge. How those resources can benefit and improve the quality of life for the people there is at once a huge challenge and a huge opportunity. Village Development Trust is really well-equipped to enable that to happen. There simply needs to be more support from the government, from outside NGOs, and a continued success in protecting the sovereignty of the tribal land. The possibilities for tourism really piqued my interest. I can think of few better places for serious, authentic adventure travel. Once you get out of the cities, and keep taking your malaria medication, Papua New Guinea is a fabulous place to be. I want to go back not only to the Waria Valley, but the highlands areas, including the Kokoda Track, used by the Japanese during the war, and the islands in the Solomon Sea. Maybe I’ll hop on some Australian sailboat and float through the Trobriands, Bougainville, and on to New Caledonia. I think it’s going to be hard to keep me from going back.

Pictures shortly. On Facebook now if you are savvy.

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