I remember my first family trip to Hawaii. On the airplane, my mom asked me to draw a picture of what I thought it would look like. I think that I drew some palm trees, a few grass huts, some coconuts and a hula girl. Considering how much I watched Magnum PI at that age, it's rather embarrassing that I got it so wrong. Though it was thousands of miles away, I remember feeling like it didn't really feel that far from home.
Since then, I've seen a few more parts of the world and learned that what sets different places apart from each other tends to be subtle differences in every day things - whether it be architecture, food, music, language, fashon, skin colour. Here, in Papua New Guinea, it's all of the above (well, except for maybe music, I heard some Bon Jovi playing on the street today). This is, by far, the farthest I have ever felt from home.
I arrived yesterday and am currently in Mount Hagen. It's the country's third largest city, but as we were flying in, I could see that people around the city actually live in grass huts. For real. Non-industrial agriculture is visibly the primary means of subsistence out here. I'm staying at a guesthouse run by a nice evangelical lutheran family. The religious orientation is reinforced in every corner of the establishment - from the art work to the prohibition on alcohol on site. In the lobby, there a large bouquet of gigantic exotic flowers. It's the kind of arrangement that you might expect to see at the Waldorf Astoria, but these were casually gathered from the garden this morning. I am being given the red carpet treatment. Literally. There is a red welcome mat in front of my door, while the other rooms have no mat. It is a nice gesture, though I am not looking for ways to be more conspicuous. My bone structure, skin colour, straight hair and western clothing are doing a fine job of accomplishing that already.
On the street, there are groups of people just hanging out and chewing something called betelnut. It turns their saliva and teeth a rich colour of red, giving the appearance that their mouths are bleeding. And, since the chewing is accompanied by spitting, the street looks as though it is spattered in blood.
Across the street is a convenience store that sells 'livestock supplies, industrial chemicals, coffee, snacks, film, day old chickens and wire supplies'.
At dinner last night, I ate with one of the guesthouse family members. He politely attempted to eat his chicken with a knife and fork (as I was doing), until he finally gave up and used his hands. It is apparently not common to use utensils here. In the case of the chicken dinner, I'd say that his ultimate method was much fore effective than mine.
Today I went with the owner of the gueshouse to his village, Paiya. It's about 45 minutes from here if you take a dilapitated Toyota truck, which we did. Most of the vehicles here wouldn't pass a road worthiness inspection in the developed world. I have yet to see a windshield that is not impaired by a colossal web shaped crack - but these vehicles seem to work just fine for what's needed around here.
Paiya was lovely. I didn't think that there were actually places on earth like this anymore. It was like a diarama at a natural history museum, except that the pigs made noise and I was allowed to walk through the village!
The huts were not arranged together, rather on each respective plot of land. There is a common area for certain families. Today, there were people gathered there to prepare for a bride price ceremony that will take place tomorrow. I also saw a skull hut, which is basically a memorial for loved ones that have died. As its name suggests, it displays their skulls. It actually was quite a bit lovelier than a graveyard, in my opinion.
This is a country that has an estimated 800 distinct languages. The few cities that exist are small and the vast majority of people live in small villages. If there were an opposite to Canada, I think this would be it. This is going to be an interesting week.