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Papua New Guinea

A country with no cities, Papua New Guinea (or PNG as the locals call it) is the most rural place I've ever been. Even the capital, Port Moresby, has just a quarter million people and instead of the standard chokingly-filthy concrete wasteland that most third-world capitals are, it's lush jungle suburbs all the way. (Though high-enough crime that you don't go out at night.) PNG'ers are too serious about gardening to go urban; the other towns I've been to so far (Goroka and Madang) are just a few blocks wide, and then houses gradually turn to grass huts in the bush. The vast majority of the country feeds themselves from their gardens rather than having a job and buying food. In Madang, a local told me the unemployment rate is 98%, at which point it becomes kind of meaningless and you should measure something else. Oddly, this level of poverty makes it very expensive to visit here, because the only people here that do are white missionaries, anthropologists, and oil & gas workers; for us, everything needs to be shipped in. So I'm paying San Francisco prices for Honduras quality.

Fun facts, for context: PNG is the size of California, with fewer people than the bay area, fewer miles of roads than half the bay area, and fewer miles of paved roads than half of San Francisco. Yet despite this, it has the most languages of any country on Earth (10-12% of all the languages in the world), and some of the most biodiversity of anyplace on Earth (for instance, over 1000 species of orchid, kangaroos that climb trees, and nearly all the Birds of Paradise). The country is younger than I am, and many tribes had first contact with Europeans in the 1930's (one place 1988, apparently). Land of cargo cults, phallocrypts, and former cannibals, where people are still killed for practicing sorcery. This is what people mean when they say the ends of the Earth. And yet, most of the time it feels like the rest of the world--people drive cars and walk around in t-shirts and there are billboards of Jesus (most everyone here is Christian). As progress marches on worldwide, you have to look closer and closer, or go to further and further ends of the Earth, to find people's uniqueness. In another generation, the only way you'll be able to tell one culture from another is during holidays and festivals, when people dig past the ever-deepening layers of blue jeans and iPhones into what they really define themselves with.

I first decided to come here because I fell in love with the art at Stanford's PNG sculpture garden. Then, reading up on it, came across the tidbits above, and more. By sheer luck, I found out a week before leaving that a friend from back at Reed (who I hadn't been in touch with since graduating 14 years ago) has been doing anthropology field work here for over a decade. Even more luckily, he's in the country now, and met me at the Port Moresby airport to show me around the whole first day! We drove up to Varirata National Park on the jungle-covered cliffs outside town, its hillsides mumped with dark volcanic aggregate here and there among the grasses and trees. There we saw the Best Treehouse Ever. A reproduction of traditional ones, it was an eight-by-ten-foot hut of thatch and woven leaves, with door and window and pitched roof just like an American schoolkid would draw to mean "home", but FORTY FEET IN THE AIR in the crook of a tree.

You might think that a place so undeveloped, so recently hit by the juggernaut of modernity, would be a living time-capsule. But you'd be wrong. According to Alex, the culture here--the languages, the arts, the dances, the body-paint, etc.--is a constant improvisation. The original remix culture, in fact possibly one of the first places in the world to have the concept of intellectual property. Tribes here will buy and sell a language, a tradition, whatever. And they'll take bits from here and there and make something new out of it. Hence the 700 languages and as many styles of tattoos, face-paint, wigs, piercings, scarification, carving, painting, etc.; they like to mix it up, and take new things as they roll. (And yet, they don't have a sense of authorship, every idea comes from somewhere else--dreams, ancestors, etc.; their IP fees are just a distributor's markup.) They also don't define themselves by roles much, like many modern cultures (both East and West), they define themselves by their kin and connections. And they're very sweet and generous, going out of their way to help someone who they feel sorry for. Not a nation of hucksters or beggars, they do stuff just to be nice. The lady running one guest house told me a story of "raskols" (thieves) holding up a bus full of tourists, taking all their money and bags and cameras and stuff, even took their shoes. But then the bus driver said hey, you can have my money, but can you give back my driver's license? I'll get fined for not having it. So they said sure, and gave him back his wallet and credit cards too. Then one of the white tourists made friends by saying hey, can you give back my camera? I'll take your picture if you all line up and pose. So they did! He got a picture of them all smiling, brandishing their guns with pride; everyone had a laugh and he got to keep his camera. There aren't much in the way of police here--it's like the Wild West, where your best defense is good manners and good relationships.

An example of the remix is the Asaro "Mud Men". The small highlands village of Asaro, outside Goroka, is famous for the tribal show they put on. Men cover themselves in white mud and wear clay masks to commemorate an event lost in the mists of time, where they were pursued in retreat by a warring tribe, and hid in the muddy banks of a river; when they got up covered in mud, the other tribe freaked out, thinking they were spirits, and fled, so the Asaro won their village back. But according to Alex, it was all made up for a Cultural Show in the 60's; it was such a hit that they've been doing it ever since. I actually went to the village and saw them perform it; they cut very striking figures, black skin transformed by the pale grey mud, their heavy clay masks caricaturing boars and other faces, carrying bows and arrows, clubs, or flicking leaves. They moved in a sinister slow-motion that holds your eye in anticipation, feeling that at any moment they could spring into attack. The process of having the show performed was amazingly socially awkward--five minutes of show was preceded by over an hour of waiting around the village in faltering silence (my pidgin is fine for getting around, but useless for conversation), being stared at by everyone because as the only white person they'd seen in weeks if not months, I was the show. And the race relations kept smacking me in the face; at moments I felt like a colonial massa saying "dance, monkey, dance!" except then I thought about it from their point of view, and I'd much rather make money by doing occasional theater than by gardening or working in lumber, oil, or mining. (Of the locals I've talked to who aren't in tourism, that's what they do.) Also, it'd be the best thing for this country's ecosystem if those industries could be replaced by something less despoiling like tourism.) Seeing the Mud Men's show wasn't seeing the "real" life of an untouched premodern village; the real village experience was the socially awkward standing around with a handful of barefoot or naked kids playing with knives in the garbage-strewn dirt. But the show was a piece of theater that transformed a banal afternoon into art for all of us. Lots of other people from the village turned out to watch it, too.

A stupidly high percentage of my time has been spent in transit, to see so much, but the transit itself has been relaxing. Sure, fourteen hours in an economy airline seat is a lesson in limb-origami, and it's downright luxurious compared to chicken-bus chiropracty, but however uncomfortable and tedious, these are hours where I have no demands, where it's impossible to get work done, so I could relax. My normal life these days requires constant pushing, so even pleasures can become burdens. Every minute of every day I'm aware of all the other things I'm not doing because of what I am doing: opportunity-cost oppression. I've been mostly single for most of the last six years because going out with one person means I'm not going out with countless other people who might be a better match if I could only find them. Ironically, there comes a point where commitment frees you--frees you from wasting time weighing tradeoffs so you actually get stuff done; frees you from worry and doubt as well. It's easy enough to overcome it for a vacation (both temporary and unimportant); how to overcome it in real life? …Anyway, this time spent in transit has been entertaining, too. One chicken bus I was on had an actual chicken on board, and in the darkness high over the Pacific I had the most vivid lucid dream I've ever had.

So, what's PNG like? Breathtakingly lush, of course. Highland forest has wild poinsettias, bougainvilleas, eucalyptus, angels trumpet, and bamboo tufts thick as redwood trunks; there are sweeping golden grasslands and rain trees; some lowland trees are whole ecosystems unto themselves, growing mosses, grasses, orchids, and staghorn ferns five feet wide. And everywhere there are bananas, coconuts, and tongue-lolling hibiscus. In Madang, hundreds of bats up to a meter in wingspan own both the night and the day. The food here ranges from boring to unpalatable. Religion is everywhere--the race between the missionaries and anthropologists was won by a long shot. But context is everything, and here in PNG, even fundamentalist Christianity means feminism and education (in the villages, women are still often traded as goods and most people can't read), and there're plenty of non-fundamentalist missionaries, too.

Many of the tribal languages are dying out. A friend of mine (you know who you are) once asked "How many languages does the world need?" How many poems does the world need? How many paintings? But languages are more than that--each one is an ontology of human knowledge. As linguists point out, each language is also a classification of flora and fauna, containing their niches in the ecosystem, medicinal or technical uses, and other things modern science would love to know. Languages are actually going extinct at an even faster rate than plants and animals are, and both their poetry and science is dying with them.

But some new languages are being created. Despite the original colonists being German, the main language is a pidgin English, Tok Pisin. Pidgin is a funny phenomenon--it's when you want to speak the colonizer's language well enough to do business with them, but poorly enough that no one will mistake you for friends. Reading it, it seems like English through a fun-house mirror: "hamas krismas bilong yu?" means "how old are you?" But it really is a different language--80% of the conversations I overhear are unintelligible to me. There are words from German ("raus!"), Portuguese ("save"), and a few local languages; some of it came from missionaries ("woman" is "meri"), some of it came from sailors ("bagarap" is a verb). Its limited vocabulary makes you do grammatical backflips sometimes ("my beard" is "gras bilong fes bilong mi"), and other times you just have to describe things because there is no word (like for "allergy"); the trickiest parts are thing that still sounds like English words but whose meaning has shifted ("long" is every preposition except ownership: above, below, near, far, at, towards, etc.) My favorite snippet from the phrasebook: "bisnis i op" = "the cargo cult activity can proceed". Really?


July 2009

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