I went to Papua New Guinea and all I got was schooled.
When my friend asked me to be her bridesmaid, I said yes. In my near thirty years of life, nobody had asked me to be in her wedding, and I was dying for an opportunity to prove to my family I had a friend.
Then she told me her wedding was in Australia. Oh. In order to be in someone’s inner circle, I had to take an expensive trip. If I was going to spend a thousand dollars on airfare, I figured, I would have to see all of Australia. And if I was flying all the way there, I would have to see Papua New Guinea too. It was right next door.
I also decided that I couldn’t go all the way to Papua New Guinea without seeing Japan, and I couldn’t go all the way to Japan without seeing Vietnam. So, I quit my job, cleaned out my savings account, and decided to travel around the world for a year. Sometimes you have to go to some great lengths to be a good friend.
Since I was so busy putting things in storage before my trip, I had no time to research anything. I knew nothing about Papua New Guinea except that it was next to Australia. I saw there was a cheap flight to the mountain town of Tari so I booked one. And I read one blog that said I had to write a letter (with a pen and paper) to the one hotel owner in Tari, as they had no phone or internet. No phone or internet? How did they live? I sent off the letter, excited to see what type of world could exist without texting or tweets about Obama’s birth certificate (this was right after his first election).
While in Australia, I popped in a bookshop to ask for a travel guide for Papua New Guinea.
“Why would you ever go there?” the shop owner asked. “I guarantee you’ll be raped.”
Wait, what? Who would say that? I can imagine someone warning that I would be robbed or murdered even. But why raped? And he GUARANTEED it?
Where was I going?
I did a quick internet search and found a news story about the popularity of cannibalism in Papua New Guinea. And another about women sacrificing male babies as a way to stop tribal wars. I’m not a male baby. I don’t have too much meat on my bones. And, anyway, I don’t believe the news. I’m from Chicago, and if everyone went with what they heard about violence there, they’d never see some of the city’s coolest stuff (the Polish Museum of America, duh). I wasn’t going to change my whole route because one bookshop owner wasn’t as adventurous as I.
I packed up everything I owned in my backpack — minus the Papua New Guinea guide the bookstore owner refused to carry — and went on my way.
I stepped into the Port Moresby airport with a German man.
“You’re here alone?” he asked. “You better watch out. You’re going to get raped.”
I started to wonder if raping was just some sort of New Guinean custom.
But this time I felt a tinge of anxiety. Why would these fear mongerers go immediately to rape? I think I would feel better if they had just suggested murder. Rape was so specific. And now two men had said it.
I had to spend one night in the capital city before I headed out to Tari the next day. Port Moresby was listed as one of the top five dangerous cities in the world in 2004, but it had stopped reporting its murder rates, so I took that as a great sign until I found a helpful welcome packet in my hotel room. Atop a bright picture of the sun, it read:
“Welcome to Port Moresby! Please do not go outside. AT ALL. Even in the daylight. It’s not safe for tourists. AT ALL EVER.”
At this point I began to worry a lot. I still didn’t reconsider my trip, but I changed my plans slightly. Instead of strolling around the town, I forked over the $25/hr internet fee in order to send goodbye notes to my friends. And I wrote my will. My mom got everything in storage, which was a Papazan chair and a magic bullet blender.
The next morning, when I hopped in my airport shuttle, I asked the driver what was the deal with the danger and the raping. He said, “Don’t worry about it. Most people who go to Tari come back.”
“Most people?” I asked him. But by then the shuttle was being hijacked, so he didn’t have time to explain.
I entered the airport, which according to the shuttle driver is robbed at gunpoint every other day due to its two fully stocked ATM machines, and saw this sign:
I haven’t committed to really anything in my life, but for some reason I stuck to this Papua plan. I had bought a ticket to the mountains of Tari, so to Tari I had to go.
From the plane, the country looked so beautiful that I didn’t think it was real. It boasted a series of rivers criss-crossing perfectly like freeways. The amount of untouched green was shocking. A country can sure be beautiful when Westerners don’t barge in, claim the land for development, and kill off the natives. The passenger next to me was not wearing shoes and had two teeth, which I found comforting because I could probably take him if what those men had said were true. I didn’t realize that he and all the other passengers had stored their 3-foot long machetes under their seats. As we landed, they all grabbed them, and the sound of the metal clanging on the plane walls left me with a click in my throat.
The airport in Tari was a fence. When I got off the plane, thousands of villagers were waiting to see who was rich enough to ride a plane. That’s what you do when you don’t have phones or email. You gather to watch planes land with a childlike curiosity. The other passengers waved at their waiting friends and family, but all I could do was stare back at the hundreds of black faces staring at me through the fence. I was the one white lady as far as the eye could see, even a really good eye with 20/20 vision. I understood what it must have been like for the one black kid in my high school who everyone just expected to play basketball. These villagers just expected I buy stuff from them.
First I had to find my guy, the one who surely had received my letter and was waiting for me to arrive. He wasn’t there.
“Oh, that guy,” someone said. “He had to take some pigs up the hill for his dowry.”
Oh. Ok. Of course, sure.
Patrick, the self-appointed mayor of the mountain and one of a few who’d grown up speaking English due to a rare moment of Australian missionaries in the 70s, took me under his wing and brought me back to his village to stay with his sister, Janet. It was there I immersed myself in true Papua New Guinean culture.
I was one of the few white people to grace the town in recent history. The first one arrived in 1932 wearing pants and looking for gold. The villagers had never seen pants before, so they assumed he was a god and that he must have been wearing them to cover a penis that reached down to his ankle. They didn’t realize the white man was a human being until they spied on him and saw that he also squatted in the bushes to excrete brown snakes. Swear. (This is all in a documentary you can watch here. It’s going to make you pretty mad at white people.)
White people to these villagers are gross. A baby saw me and burst into tears. Cosmo does not have a Tarian issue, but if they did, the models in it would be considered plus-size by US standards. They’d have round hips that could carry large loads of wood or animals from the market. Instead of pages touting manicured hands, the Tarian Cosmo would show off beat up hands, hands that show a woman’s work ethic. Hardworking hands prove a woman is an asset to the family.
To Tarian folks, my pale skin and plain hands are embarrassing and totally repulsive. I told the villagers that two men had warned me I’d be raped, and they laughed and laughed.
“Who would want to rape YOU?” They cackled, making faces as if they’d just smelled week-old vomit. “You are not fat enough.”
I had never thought of myself as pretty. I grew up during the Full House era, and most people compared me to Kimmy Gibler. Still, in my twenties, I’d found some people to have sex with me. These villagers looked at me with such pity. If I moved to Tari, it seemed, not a man would even want to sit next to me on a bus (if they had buses).
I have to admit I felt a bit hurt for not being rape-able in Tari. My instinct was to get defensive, show them an American magazine and say “Hey look! This is the ideal you should be reaching for.”
But then I heard myself telling them about our beauty ideals.
Well, I said to shocked faces, we pay a lot of money to have a doctor break our noses and then shave the bones down and then put it all back together.
Then they told me about marriages. Women are bought with 30–60 pigs and if a man is rich, he can buy as many brides as he wants. People hardly ever marry for love and couples never sleep in the same bed.
I thought that was tragic and wanted to teach them about Romeo and Juliet or another classic love story like When Harry Met Sally. But then I heard myself telling them about American marriages.
Well, I said to more shocked faces, we marry just one person. But most of us decide we don’t like them after a few years. And many women shove silicone bags under their nipples and wear short dresses in bars so they can find a second or third husband.
Then they told me about the lady friend. If a woman is menstruating, she is not allowed out of the special hut and she can’t talk to men. I wanted to call Gloria Steinem and get her there to fix these misogynists!
But then I heard myself telling them about our uterine practices.
Well, I said to more and more shocked faces, some women pay a doctor to use a machine to kill the baby while it’s inside of them and then suck it out through a large straw.
They had never heard of straws. Or Michael Jackson, electricity, sunscreen, wifi, soy lattes or even cheese. For a second, I felt the urge to run home, grab some electricity, a pizza, and a laptop to catch them up on everything.
Then Janet let me pick out dinner from her huge pesticide-free garden. She sat with the village women around a fire to peel the potatoes and gossip. She never rushed.
She was proud of the toilet she constructed because, while it was a simple hole dug in soft mud, it was at least 20 feet from her house and that was a huge deal. The men were just as proud of their hunted birds, showcasing their bright feathers on ceremonial headdresses.
As I spent my week in Tari, I began to realize how great Papua New Guineans have it. Not once did they get stuck down an internet wormhole. And they’re not jaded enough to have grown tired of plane landings. They get to hide and surround themselves with women when they have their periods. They never have to fly around the world to be a bridesmaid, and they don’t know the pain of looking at beauty magazines. They’re all bursting with childish wonder, stopping to look at me and ask questions without embarrassment. Sure, they have tribal wars and have to carry around machetes as long as their legs, but they’ve never had to sit through a commercial. They’ve never felt shame about their bodies. They’ve never been stuck in traffic or stuck in a cubicle or stuck in line waiting to see Santa. They don’t even have to wear pants!
I was able to shower away my self-righteousness in the village’s cool natural stream after snacking on some sweet tree tomatoes unlike any I’d ever seen. Though the villagers did convince me to give them all my cash before I left, I wasted no money at all. What I bought was perspective. It’s what I needed so I could truly appreciate all the other cultures I encountered during that whole year of traveling.
Come to find out, I am repulsive in several other countries.