When I woke up today, I figured that I would get a few things done, unpack, move some furniture around, and relax. Things didn’t go as planned. Life in Papua New Guinea doesn’t revolve around plans and dates. They revolve around happenings.
Nancy showed up today as she generally does and started sweeping the floor. I gave her the things I picked up for her while we were gone – sandals that she had asked for but that didn’t fit (because neither of us know her size) so they were going to her daughter, Katherine, a couple of scarves for her and Katherine as an extra thank you for watching the house while we were gone, and a wok. I’d promised her the wok that had broken down in the lower house, and I would replace it since I technically broke it – even though really it was the dragon stove that engulfs pots in fire – melted the handle clean off. But Roy got to it before me and repaired it, then when I was leaving, I told Jeff to buy her one, but he forgot. These things tend to be more important in the course of a relationship than one can imagine.
At about noon, Nancy’s phone rang, and when she got off the phone, she told me that Alice, who gave me a pig –her father died last week. They’d had the krai and the funeral and he’d been planted in the ground (That’s the phrase – em i bin planim). But the hauskrai was still going on and she was wondering if I would go for just a little while. Even without the pig, of course, I’d go.
Alice is awesome. She is one of the only people that I remember from the first visit we had here. I remembered Alice and Nancy. Alice, because she was friendly, Nancy because she was sharp. Alice also is the style maven – she is a teacher at the local school and she dresses nicely, sometimes with hair extensions or a wig with highlights (I think she made the trend toward those here), and she was the first woman I saw here wearing shorts, above the knee. And she made them look classy. Alice is always asking questions about America – like “Is it true that if your daughter moves back in with you, you make them pay rent?” or “Is it true you lock your old people up in buildings?”
The only other hauskrai that I had experienced, and that was more by word of mouth, was one at Mambis when we arrived. We didn’t go, but Julie and Donna did. They had to go buy a chicken (I can’t remember if they cooked it or not). The hauskrai is a period of mourning after a person dies. The family, mostly the women, sit in the house, and other women come and sit with them, usually bringing things they will need during that time – instant coffee, sugar, kaukau (sweet potatoes), other vegetables, and other foods. In any situation, the more standing you have in a community, the more that you are expected to provide. Julie would not be able to get away with bringing vegetables or coffee, because she had an income, and she was Mama Julie (she didn’t say that, but she is, indeed Mama Julie). Nancy suggested I bring coffee, sugar, and cream (All instant. This country grows amazing coffee, and everyone drinks instant). I will have to talk with Nancy about this later, but I follow her lead. I also bring a scarf I bought for Alice. Once we bought these things at the seminary store, we go out the gate, down the road, and up the hill that goes into the northern part of Mambis. We’ve already walked quite a ways to find the trail that goes not ten feet from my bedroom window. Fences can be a blessing, but they can be a pain. I am praying that I don’t slip. Not only is it embarrassing but my ankle is not healed and I really don’t want to mangle it further. But PNG equals mud. There is no escaping it, and it is quite slippery to my Western feet.
A woman followed behind us. She asked Nancy where we were going. Nancy told her that we were going to Alice’s as the woman shook my hand. “We walk together then.” The woman said, and then went on mumbling. Nancy clearly didn’t like her. It’s always clear when Nancy doesn’t like someone. She tenses up like a cat. “Long long” she whispered to me. Crazy. Then she whispered that the woman’s house was just up ahead. Sure enough, the woman turned aside at her house.
We turned the other direction and followed the trails through the sweet potato gardens. Nancy pointed out that the green leaves were white kaukau, and the red leaves would be red kaukau. In my mind, I envisioned the white fleshed sweet potato most liked in PNG and the orange fleshed sweet potato of Thanksgiving fame. But she could’ve been talking about white skinned and red skinned – both white inside. I will have to ask.
We made it to Alice’s without slipping around much, but this was uphill. It’s downhill that I’m really afraid of. Apparently all the walking in Brisbane has helped because I wasn’t even short of breath, despite being now being at over 6000 feet. I could still feel it, but I wasn’t panting or yawning.
Alice greeted us and invited us into her house. Papua New Guineans don’t like it when we say “hut,” but hut is the word that you would understand. The walls are made of grass woven into a beautiful pattern, the roof is piles of kunai grass. Some houses are round. This one is square. Inside, it was warm, really warm. There is a square fire pit right in the center. It provides heat and a place to cook. The smoke rises through the roof and dries the grass so that it lasts against the rain for about a year. It probably deters the mosquitoes from coming in as well, but not the flies or the fleas, which are a part of PNG life. Today, there was no fire, but smoldering coals, and a long, narrow board that Alice used to poke the coals with the entire time we were there.
The only light was what was coming through the door. Other than that, it was dark. Alice invited me to sit next to her, on a slightly raised platform where there was bedding. Families would sleep there. The house was so warm, I could’ve fallen asleep. The professors at the seminary live are given Western houses, but several have built hauskuks (cooking houses like this) alongside. Western houses are cold. Each bit of modernization brings its own challenges. Floors and rooms mean larger spaces and no place to put fires. Roofs mean no fire in the house without a stove and stovepipe. There is not really a point to fireplaces or cookstoves until insulation is added, because the heat just goes right out the roof.
Alice’s mom, sister, and a toddler came in too, and we talked for a while. Alice told me that hauskrais often go on for a month. She would only be participating for a week. She would need to go to Moresby. Nancy had told me before that the hauskrai would only be a week. It was almost done.
We talked for a while, a lot of it was in Enga, which I don’t understand, but Enga is a living, changing language, and since the conversation was about siblings and jobs, there were plenty of words like “promotion,” “pay,” and “registration” that I did understand. It is taking words from English to explain situations that they didn’t need to explain before the modern world intruded. Nancy or Alice would often translate into Tok Pisin for me.
Nancy decided that it was time to leave, and for the third time, Alice’s mother thanked me for coming. It is mindboggling to me how I feel like I am bumbling through everything, yet to them, my mere presence is an incredible honor. As we left, we saw a little grave just outside of the house next door. “Did you remember Joyce?” Nancy asks, as if I’d been gone for years, not just two months. “The young woman,” she added. My heart broke. Joyce? She was so full of life. So friendly. She had the most earnest, contagious smile, and the most gracious eyes. I really liked Joyce. Alice said “shot win na coff.” Short wind and cough. Pneumonia. Possibly TB. I hope not TB. Nancy said she wasn’t the only one in the house who had died from it recently. Whatever took Joyce is probably what took Alice’s father.
Getting back home was definitely more slippery on muddy trails and makeshift stairs carved out of the dirt, but there were fence posts so I was able to avoid slipping or twisting my ankle. The last hill is the biggest deal. It descends to the highway, is the most packed down, and people are just hanging out alongside the road to witness my lack of coordination. I could land on my butt, or I could fall off the side and break every bone in my body. Luckily, neither happened.
Just before we went down the hill, Nancy had stopped at the gathering place for buai (betelnut), and Alice showed me where her father was buried, right there next to where the community holds court. Right now, it was surrounded by six foot poles wrapped in tarp, to keep the area dry until the cement could be laid. He must have been a big man to not be simply buried outside his house. The governor was going to pay for the cement, and I am sure it would be vibrantly painted. Knowing Alice, I am sure her father was a good man, but what a contrast to the grave of young, sweet Joyce. I’m going to miss her.
Once we were down the hill and walking back to the seminary gate, we saw Samuel, who gave us our first tour of Birip and always gives us lemons. He was limping badly. He’d hurt his foot. I couldn’t see whether it was a sprain, a cut, or a burn, but he’d been to the hospital at Wabag to get something for the pain and swelling, and they were out — of aspirin. “Mi gat aspirin long haus bilong me,” I offered, and we arranged for a boy to bring it to him. I sent a day’s worth. Beyond that, I will send more, but want to look at the foot to see if I can help in my bumbling way. There is no point in giving him pain meds, even aspirin, without doing something about the cause of the pain.
Three hours had turned my day in a completely different direction. I am thankful. Even when grief is the motivator, I love days like these that take me out from behind the fences and into people’s lives.