Saturday, December 31, 2011

Hello--from the future!

I like taking advantage of the International Date Line when I can—like now, for instance, when I’m in 2012, and many of you are still sitting in the past…. Good ole 2011. Don’t worry. You’ll catch up sometime. From what I can tell, January 1, 2012 promises to be a good laundry day. Now, that’s an auspicious start to a new year, if there was one!

Ukarumpa scenery outside my window :)
A year ago, I don’t think I anticipated shouting in the new year wearing flipflops under the shadow of banana leaves and illuminated by a splendid array of sparklers, floating fire lanterns, and quite a remarkable show of spinning, spitting, flaming steel wool on coat hangers—the Ukarumpa version of fireworks :)

Nope, that wasn’t quite what I had pictured. This was certainly better :)

A year ago, I was still working as a receptionist at the counseling clinic, putting hundreds of miles on my car as I traveled around blizzarding Minnesota to speak to churches and groups(whose bright idea was it to do find partners during a season when your eyelashes freeze solid?), and was attempting to guess at packing for PNG while I prepared for summer linguistics school.

Now, I’m living in Ukarumpa, Eastern Highlands, Papua New Guinea with several other marvelous ladies, and chat in Tok Pisin as I search for the week’s vegetables at our local market, shoulders slightly peeling from a bit too much tropical sun!

One thing hasn’t changed…I’m still packing, but now it’s for the next part of my assignment: on January 14, I will travel back down to Madang to serve on staff for the January POC course!
Back to Madang--and sunsets like this!

You weren’t expecting that, were you?

So, six months after I entered the country, I will be stepping from student to staff and teaching Tok Pisin and the various academic portions to a whole new set of incoming personnel! It wasn’t what I expected or planned, but severe staffing needs and my flexibility as a new person without a long-term assignment allowed me able to step in and help out for the next couple of months. In addition, I’ll be able to conduct a revision of portions of the course in order to make sure it continues to meet the current needs of orientation for work in the South Pacific. Who would have thought it? I certainly didn’t—but here I am, and the Lord continues to do amazing and marvelous things!

Can you imagine what will happen next year?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Tale of Two Hymns

I first fell in love with the hymn Be Still My Soul when I attended at my first summer of intense linguistics school at SIL-UND (thanks to one of the hymn sings, which I’ve blogged about here). Little did I know at that time that the Lord would use that haunting melody and those Truth-filled words to comfort and encourage me countless times over the trials and rocky points of the next several years.

Those five weeks of living with a Papua New Guinean family were an amazing experience and one that I will treasure deeply—it makes me look forward with joy to spending more time with Papua New Guineans in their villages and homes. It also rates near the top of my list of one of the most difficult, stressful, and emotionally draining times in my life. During that period, I was reading through a devotional made up of notes, thoughts, verses, and prayers gathered by my friends and family and given to me just before I left the States—it has since become one of my most treasured possessions. Lo and behold, on a particularly difficult day, I turned the page… and found this hymn.

Later, the Lord reminded me that there are another set of lyrics to this same tune of Finlandia by Jean Sibelius—We Rest on Thee, a joyous, triumphant song that is also known as the hymn sung by Jim Elliot and his friends before they walked into the Ecuadorian jungle and were killed.

I find the two sets of lyrics juxtaposed together to be rather fitting, reflecting more fully a Truth found in both the shadows and the sunshine.

Be Still My Soul
Words by Katharina A. von Schlegel, 1752;
Translated from German by Jane L. Borthwick.

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below.

Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
And all is darkened in the vale of tears,
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.
Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay
From His own fullness all He takes away.

Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past
All safe and bless├Ęd we shall meet at last.

Be still, my soul: begin the song of praise
On earth, believing, to Thy Lord on high;
Acknowledge Him in all thy words and ways,
So shall He view thee with a well pleased eye.
Be still, my soul: the Sun of life divine
Through passing clouds shall but more brightly shine.
We Rest on Thee
Words: Edith G. Cherry, circa 1895.

We rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender!
We go not forth alone against the foe;
Strong in Thy strength, safe in Thy keeping tender,
We rest on Thee, and in Thy Name we go.
Strong in Thy strength, safe in Thy keeping tender,
We rest on Thee, and in Thy Name we go.

Yes, in Thy Name, O Captain of salvation!
In Thy dear Name, all other names above;
Jesus our Righteousness, our sure Foundation,
Our Prince of glory and our King of love.
Jesus our Righteousness, our sure Foundation,
Our Prince of glory and our King of love.

We go in faith, our own great weakness feeling,
And needing more each day Thy grace to know:
Yet from our hearts a song of triumph pealing,
“We rest on Thee, and in Thy Name we go.”
Yet from our hearts a song of triumph pealing,
“We rest on Thee, and in Thy Name we go.”

We rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender!
Thine is the battle, Thine shall be the praise;
When passing through the gates of pearly splendor,
Victors, we rest with Thee, through endless days.
When passing through the gates of pearly splendor,
Victors, we rest with Thee, through endless days.

Monday, December 26, 2011

A Day in the Life...

Sure...they look cute and cuddly NOW when ASLEEP!

My eyes fly open at the screeching, ear-splitting squeals of the feeding, fighting piglets beneath my house, and my sleep-fogged brain struggles to remember where I am. A rooster leaps onto the veranda only a few feet from my head (never mind the bamboo-slatted wall) to shout a welcome to the sun, and geckos start croaking in disgust. I press my watch’s light—it’s 5 am and I wonder blearily where my earplugs are. I can hear my host family stirring and starting the breakfast fire, shouting at the kids to get up and get ready for school. Instead, I turn over on my air mattress, attempting to squeeze my eyes shut until at least 6 am, when I deem myself ready to sit up in my mosquito net and have my devotions.

It’s morning in Silum, Papua New Guinea.
My house!
 For the POC village stays, a staff member scouts out locations and meets with a wide variety of families to ensure the best fit. In this case, our five teams were all placed within the same language group of Bargam (in fact, most of us were within an hour’s walk from each other), which had recently received a translated New Testament. Our particular wasfemili (host family) had hosted expatriates in the past and was absolutely thrilled to have two “white daughters” join them at the last minute (our original village location had some complications). As a result of this quick change, our waspapa (host father) was still feverishly building the veranda when we arrived!

My waspapa was a talented carpenter and loved to invent!

Good morning—breakfast is ready! Sometimes my teammate and I make food, but more often than not, I am handed at least two full plates of food by our wasmama (host mother) and was-susa (host sister). Our practice of a hot drink in the morning is now a family favorite—especially now that they have been introduced to milo!  After breakfast, I curl up in one of my waspapa’s chairs and journal about the previous day, write a letter, or perhaps jot some notes for my assignments. 

In addition to learning Tok Pisin, we had multiple assignments to complete in the village, including cultural observations, learning skills, survey reports, and preliminary linguistic analysis and transcription.

My wasmama and her namesake granddaughter
Before the sun comes up and the “heat cooks you,” it’s time to do something! I might go to the garden, wash laundry, walk up (or down) the mountain, visit neighbors, work a bilum (string bag)… you name it!

For many people, POC’s village living can be a very quiet, slow, relaxing time that allows for reading lots of books. Not so with ours. Our family, with the zeal of tour guides, whisked us up and down the mountain, packing as much culture as they could into our very short visit! As a result, our days were extremely unpredictable and could vary at a moment’s notice—and we rarely had days where we just stayed at the house!

Time for lunch! One of the women will have prepared more gigantic, heaping plates of garden produce (for all meals it is typically a combination of taro, cooking bananas, and greens) for us. Eat up!

Also unexpectedly, my teammate and I ended up living in the same house with our family (although we had two rooms of our own); this continual immersion in village life was excellent for our Tok Pisin (and they did their best to help us learn Bargam as well), but it also had its own stresses as we were utterly absorbed into the family structure as daughters, sisters, aunts, and cousins, within the clan relationships. One way they showed this was by feeding us every meal—sometimes six times a day!

They even added a tarp-wall for privacy!

After lunch, the sun is brutal, and thus it’s time to nap, shower, and generally move slowly in the shade. Now is a good time to work a few more rounds on that bilum of yours.

Our waspapa was extremely inventive and constructed a shower for us out of an old hose, a coke bottle with holes punched in the end, and some twine! In fact, we actually had a tap near our house which served as the main water source for the whole village. We felt like we were in the lap of luxury!

Fresh bread rolls...yum!

The afternoon is full of possibilities and I’m never sure what will happen—if I’m at the house, perhaps I will hold a bread-baking lesson or play games with the children or draw their portraits or work on my bilum or try to make progress on my assignments. Often, we will have visitors stop by and want to “story.” However, plenty of times during my stay, I will still be off somewhere, continuing whatever activity I began in the morning. 

In PNG culture, isolation is not valued situation (especially for women), so everything that we did was accompanied by at least several children, if not a large crowd of adults as well. This was for our own safety (they took their jobs as hosts very seriously and wanted to make sure we were completely taken care of at all times) as well as so we wouldn’t be lonely.

Dark falls quickly in the tropics, but the evening meal will already have been started cooking over the fire. My waspapa lights a coleman lantern and soon our veranda will be full of relatives, ready to converse and story until the wee hours of the morning. Perhaps tonight is a fellowship meeting for the local church or my was-susas will want to sing hymns for hours (accompanied by a guitar or my penny whistles). Once my wasbrata (host brother) and friends discovered Uno, intense tournaments draw a crowd. Don’t forget the even later meal, brought by my “second” mama, just in case we were still hungry!
I know you are curious. Here it is...and we even had a seat!

Bedtime for us varied between 9 and 11 at night, though we were often falling asleep much earlier than that! Because of living in such continuous close proximity with our family (who were comparatively well-educated and thus knew a fair amount of English), Jessica and I had very limited occasions to debrief with each other. We soon found the best place to hold a frank conversation in English was our nightly trek up the slippery hill to the liklik haus (outhouse)!

We were serious all the time. Seriously.

When we left the village, there were many tears, speeches, and even hugs (physical contact was not common in our village). Even after five weeks, relationships went deep and strong--after all, potholder puppets (left photo) do make significant impressions! Eventually, if resources allow it, I would be glad to go and visit my family again, but for now, we keep in touch through letters and cell phones.

 It’s amazing how after a long day, a air mattress and mosquito net can turn into a luxurious four-poster feather bed with an artistically draped gauzy canopy. Sweet dreams!

Good night! (You can see just see the second net with the flower material)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Lefse in the South Pacific

It was, perhaps, 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and I could feel my shoulders prickle and glow in the first stages of sunburn. My housemate adjusted her sunglasses as we peered at the tree in our backyard. “So, we just hack at it?”

“I guess so.” Landscape design wasn’t my forte. “I think the bush knife would be easiest.”

“Probably.” She swung it experimentally and then bent over. “Here we go!”

And so, with a great many hackings and chippings and whackings, we managed to cut down the bushy, shapeless spruce that was to be our Christmas tree. Actually, we were quite pleased with ourselves—not only did we release a fruit tree from the spruce’s choking grasp, but it would serve our holiday purposes far better than our other option of the spindly avocado tree which the dogs had nearly destroyed.

The Tree (complete with racing LED lights!)
Before long, our two other housemates joined us, and together, we managed to wrestle it across the yard, up the steps, onto the porch, in through the double doors and finally into our living room. What a great tree! We congratulated ourselves, grinning with the effort. As we began hauling it upright, our smiles became a bit more round in surprise: Trees that look short outside evidently morph into gargantuan mountains of greenery once brought into a house.

Nevertheless, we valiantly pulled out our Christmas tree stand (an unwanted White Elephant gift left from an earlier party), which, upon seeing the magnitude of the tree’s girth, promptly fell apart and required some ingenuous convincing by wire and a leatherman. But before long, the tree was standing (safely fishing-lined to the wall and ceiling to prevent unwanted crashing from earthquakes like the 7.3 one just experienced), we were sorting out Christmas lights by power voltage, and the dozen spiders who once called the  tree home were now dueling over new territory on the ceiling.

Oh well. At least the geckos will have a Christmas feast.

Christmas in Ukarumpa, I am learning, has the intimacy of a college campus (where else does the entire population turn out for the high school Christmas concert or the weekend coffee house or the store’s version of “Black Friday” when shipments come in with much-awaited rarities?), the bustle of a small town (especially as we scurry to take care of business before departments close for the holiday break) and the global feel of the United Nations (20+ nationalities each adding their own flavor—literally—to the mix).

Gingerbread + humidity = high level of homeowner's tolerance!
There are evenings of cookie decorating and classic Christmas movie nights, white elephant parties and Christmas choir practices, a holiday orchestra and Sunday School children’s parties.—I even went caroling (replete with umbrella, mud boots, and headlamp since it was pouring rain)! Yesterday, ten pairs of hands gathered around our kitchen table and were soon covered in frosting and candy cane pieces in gingerbread house decorating (one house aptly included a swimming pool and coconut trees).

Indeed, this past month has been a delightful mix of new and old traditions as families bring bits of their home country to the tropics of PNG—I, for one, decided the South Pacific needed an introduction to my family’s lefse (sort of a potato tortilla hailing from Norway).

But more than that, it has been a huge blessing to celebrate our Savior's birth within a community that exists solely because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He left His home to enter into our culture and share a life-changing message in a way that allowed us to finally understand in our hearts—translation by incarnation. Alleluia!

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Office Space

It was empty, just like the others.

I, along with the other new arrivals to Ukarumpa, were following our friendly tour guide up and down the hills of the center, learning important tidbits on how to survive on center—such as how to know if you got a package and what hours the store’s kai bar was open and serving fresh, hot chips (that’s French fries for the US people). And now, we were finishing our orientation by walking the halls of LCORE—the language resource building—and I was once again standing before a deserted office.

When I first arrived, I was rather overwhelmed by the enthusiastic welcome of my Ukarumpa co-workers. Oh, thank you! We’re so glad you’re here! I shook hands until the individuals mashed into a smiling, blurry crowd, and I vaguely remembered someone called John. I could hear them murmuring together, shaking their heads in amazement: Three new translators! So many! How wonderful!

So many? I was disoriented. When did three become a multitude? Did not three hundred languages still wait?

But now, as I stood before yet another office, the nameplate blank and computer dark, I began to understand that excitement. And it wasn’t just the language department—construction, finance, education, music, the clinic, media, graphic arts, the store, Bible courses—every single department was what the average US company would consider grossly understaffed.

Nearly every person I meet here seems to wear three or four hats, each job worthy of a fulltime commitment (which is significant, seeing as basic living itself, from cooking to laundry to house maintenance, takes far more time than it would in the States). One important job is put on hold to fill a need in another—translations still in progress wait on a shelf while those workers fill desperate needs elsewhere.

300 languages left to be started—with this kind of resources, how would this even be possible? Looking at the numbers, counting the vacancies, hearing the calls for yet more help in the valley children’s VBS program, even as the Lord blesses our leadership with new strategies and partnerships, it could be very discouraging, if not deemed impossible.

And yet, here I stand. And here you are, reading, supporting, sending, going. And praying.

Every Sunday, faces appear in the morning service’s powerpoint slides of people who are “in the pipeline,” on their way to join us here in PNG. We see their faces, read their needs, and then, we corporately pray for each individual by name. Every first Thursday of the month is the Morning of Prayer where we gather to worship, praise, the Lord, and pray as He brings His plan to completion among the people of Papua New Guinea. It is no secret that this task is far bigger than what we can handle, but such knowledge, rather than becoming debilitating, reminds us not only of why we are here, but who called us.

A year ago, when I was merely one of those faces on that powerpoint, I started this blog to chronicle a journey that I knew would travel far beyond my own imagination as the Lord works out His grace and glory in my life. It certainly hasn’t been disappointing, and I’m excited to see how He continues to unfold His plan as I take my own place among my colleagues—my brothers and sisters—here in Papua New Guinea.

And, I’m so delighted you’ve joined me—please feel free to sit down! Perhaps this empty chair next to me is for you :-)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Ocean Crossing

Karkar in the background--a still-active volcanic island :)
Fish, I decided, is meant to be eaten by the ocean. Especially if it is wrapped in a banana leaf and combined with fire-roasted cooking bananas.

My wasfemili (host family) and I had walked the two and a half hours down to the Pacific Ocean where I encountered one of those places that I thought only exist in postcards. Waves crashed up against the point, rippling off the volcanic islands on the horizon. Under the shadow of a cloud-crusted Karkar, I could see flashes sparkling and twisting above the waves like fireflies—tuna and yellow-fin were leaping before the boats of fishermen. The sun-warmed breeze, flavored with salt and tropical flowers, filtered through the palm trees and lush vegetation. My host brothers clambered over the black coral rocks, using their knives to pry off mussels, crabs (yes, the kuka appeared again), shrimp, and crawfish and fry them in the fire.

I am indeed attempting to canoe in the background
At one point, one of my nephews or uncles (keeping all the relations straight is always a puzzle) invited me to embark on a traditional outrigger canoe, where I soon discovered that my Minnesota paddling skills do not translate easily to a watercraft with a saman and ocean waves. So, I practiced going in circles… and marveled at the scenery of this place I’m learning to call home on the Pacific Rim.

It was a tropical paradise.

As I sat, listening to the waves break over the reef and the chatter of my wasfemili in the languages of Tok Pisin and Bargam, I realized that crossing from one culture into another is like stepping from dry land onto a ship… and living there.

People still eat and drink and laugh, but onboard the plates must be secured to the table and your bed is simply a hammock. The floor rocks under your feet unexpectedly, storms seem to blow up without reason, and the bird calls seem to scrape against your ears. Your stomach roils at the slightest provocation, the speech barked out by the sailors is a jumble of nonsense, and you stumble and fall like a small child just learning to walk.

Why did I leave? You wonder, hands outstretched to the wooden sides, clinging for stability. You wonder, until you gain your sea legs, learn to read the sky, and fall in love with the ocean depths.

And then you realize that once your voyage is at an end, you must once again cross over—this time from the deck to dry land.

And so, you start again.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tag--You're It! and Other Universals

It’s always amazing what we take for granted as “stable” and “unchanging”—until circumstances alter, and we find ourselves slightly off-kilter. It didn’t really matter that I had studied astronomy, made charts, and read all the right books…it wasn’t until I craned my neck back, searching frantically for familiar constellations, that it finally dawned on me that even the sky here is different. Different grass, different bird calls, different side of the sink that controls the hot water. Plenty of differences abound as you cross the ocean.

Except for one.

Children, in my opinion, seem to be remarkably similar whether they grow up in the inner city of Minneapolis, carry their championship cornstalk to the Sibley County Fair, or live in a bamboo house in Silum, Papua New Guinea.

Perhaps one of the highlights of living five weeks with my wasfemili (host family) was having over thirty younger brothers and sisters (and nieces and nephews and cousins and great-cousins and neighbors and every other relation you can imagine) interact with us on almost a daily basis. Not only did they haul our water and wash our dishes and guide us through the bush and bring us every kind of delicious fruit you can imagine, but they also were thoroughly entertaining :)

You know that Oboshinatintatin-whatchamacallit clapping game that preteen girls in the US will play for hours? Well, PNG kids have variations on that too. In fact, as Jessica and I were immersed in the world of PNG Childhood Games, we found that many of the games we taught them had their own South Pacific counterparts—nonsense songs, chasing games (tag is definitely universal), games with rocks, games with bugs, games with sticks, games with water… It’s all here, and it’s all worthy of pulling up a chair to watch!

Little boys and bugs. Universal
Rocks. Perhaps the most versatile toy ever.

The Memory tournaments, for example, were so competitive that you could have been watching the final elimination for the Superbowl. And their stamina at playing Uno (or Last Card) will easily put you to shame.

Preparing for Round 172 of Memory!

Among the older youth, these traits were exemplified in the hard-hitting, high-flying volleyball tournaments, where teams from all over the valley met to play. (When the country’s lifestyle develops nearly every youth into the fitness of an Olympic athlete, the games can be rather intense.) Of course, it was the first volleyball tournament I attended where the concessions were muli (citrus fruit), various nuts, and coffee candies, and the referee wore a bilum (string bag) on his head. Soccer, rugby, and basketball are also favorite sports and have their own seasons and tournaments.

Several of the girls loved to sing, whether in English, Tok Pisin, or Bargam, and often begged us to teach them songs from the US. As a result, Jessica and I sang every Sunday School and VBS song we could possibly remember, scraping back to those years in AWANA or children’s choir. If the song had actions, it was an even bigger hit. And so, when Father Abraham entered the queue, I found myself hopping around (Right leg! Left leg!), dodging chickens and puppies (Right arm! Left arm!), hoping I wasn’t too close to the fire and large pot of boiling rice (Nod your head! Turn around!), to everyone’s great amusement (Sit down!).

Yes, the children provided us with hours of entertainment.

And, so, in turn, did we.

I’m glad some things don’t change. :)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Toksave Tasol (Just a Few Announcements)

It’s always good to pull back and look at the big picture. If you don’t, you might find that despite following the recipe, the amount of pepper called for will turn your chicken and dumpling soup into Chicken-and-Dumplings-of-Fire. Or, even though you think you might know the circuitous roads of Ukarumpa, you neglect to remember they actually follow no particular reason and you probably should check the map if you want to arrive on time.

While I’m sure these things would never happen to me ;) I figure blogs might be the same way.

So, a few announcements:
  • December newsletter: I am now trying to post my most recent newsletter on the My Story page. You can also download it here. If you would like to receive it by email, please send me your address.
  • Wycliffe USA blog: Speaking of that newsletter, the main story was recently published on the Wycliffe USA blog here. If you are interested in more stories about Wycliffe from around the world, I highly recommend you check their blog out.
  • More blogs! Blogs are fun ways to get to know people and experience life in far corners of the world, and there are a lot of amazing fellow bloggers living in PNG. I’m creating an easy-to-access list posted on Learn More! where you can learn more about Bible translation in PNG.
  • Pages: You’ve probably noticed that some of my permanent pages were a bit out of date now that I’m living in PNG. That has now been remedied! Have fun exploring.
  • Email updates: For my new readers, I’d like to mention that if you would like to have my blog posts sent to your email, you can sign up by putting your address in the box on the left-hand side of the page.
  • Broken links? Broken blog? As more and more of you join my adventures, so do the various browsers and formats used to view this blog. If you find things aren’t working, let me know so I can work out the bugs.
  • Questions?  What would you like to hear about from life in PNG? Anything make you curious? Your questions can be as random or as lengthy as you would like. Let me know—shoot me an email, or post your questions in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer. Who knows—if you thought of it, you’re probably not the only one!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What’s in Your Bilum?

 If Papua New Guinea (PNG) is the Land of the Unexpected, then your first lesson should be How to Pack a Bilum. A bilum, as a quick review, is the handy-dandy all-purpose string bag of Papua New Guinea. Both men and women carry them, and they can be made out of plastic, wool, or traditionally, bush materials.

Pretty much, as soon as you step out of your house, a bilum is automatically part of your wardrobe.

Here are a few things you will find in mine
However, whether it is well-packed or not is another question. I soon found out that a poorly-stocked bilum can result in some slight discomfort when I take that 6-hour detour to visit the mother’s sister’s cousin’s baby boy in the next mountain range or decide that fishing in the ocean might actually be a good idea since the market was rather boring. While each circumstance (and part of the country) will have its own priorities, here’s what my bilum looked like as I lived in Silum.
  • Spoon in plastic—Hospitality, often shown by massive plates of food, is a key part of PNG culture. However, washing all utensils in hot soapy water isn’t so universal. Having a clean spoon with you (in plastic, so you can take it back), is not only more sanitary, but it also relieves a burden on their limited resources.
  • Hand sanitizer—Dirt and plenty of other microscopic wiggly things that I don’t need to mention are everywhere. Soap is not.
  • Ibprofen, bandaids, toilet paper—Light, compact, and oh-so-helpful when you need them…
  • Tiny sunscreen/bug repellant—Tropical sun is killer, especially to people like me whose ancestors hark back to Good Mother Europe. Mosquitoes are killer too. Repeat after me: re-apply. Re-apply…
  • Photo book—As the newcomer, you are the local entertainment. Thus, having some photos to illustrate your stories (especially about the Great and Terrible Land of Ice) is extremely helpful.
  • Water—Lots of sun = lots of sweat = lots of water you must drink
  • Pen and tiny notepad—I’m a linguist :) so as I hear new words and idioms, I write them down. Go figure.
  • Hat—Remember that sun? It’s still there. Wear the hat.
  • Mobile—(It’s a cell phone, for you US people). Service is spreading rapidly around PNG. Of course, you might need to stand on one particular hill under one particular coconut tree facing one particular mountain range…
  • Camera—If I didn’t take it with me, you wouldn’t have interesting photos. So be glad I did.
  • Flashlight—Dark falls quickly in the tropics...and even more quickly when you are scrambling at high speed through the rainforest. Don't leave without a flashlight.
  • Umbrella—I have the cutest little umbrella that just tucks into my bilum, and it has saved me more than once!
  • Crackers—Someday I have to write a blog post on the beauties of PNG crackers. Suffice it to say for now that you really have no idea when your next meal is, so having food along will keep everyone happy.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Washing Saksak

There are some foods that require such an elaborate process to make them edible that you wonder how in the world we discovered the process. Coffee, for one (really….let’s pick some beans, roast them, grind them up, and eat the dirty water that filters through them?). Mushrooms are another (who first got to figure out which are poisonous? Hmm?). In Papua New Guinea (PNG), my great question mark centers on sago (or saksak  in the Tok Pisin language).

Saksak is a staple food for many parts of PNG, including my village. Thus, my wasfemili (host family) was eager to let Jessica and I experience the many steps of harvesting, cooking, and eating saksak according to the customs of Aronis (a part of PNG's north coast).

Saksak comes from a certain palm tree, which can be planted or found growing wild. Once the tree has reached maturity, it is chopped down, and the great palm leaves are cleared away for morota (the traditional roof), the saksak grubs are removed (to be eaten later), and the gaimer is picked (a leafy vegetable used in cooking).

Then the men hack away the bark with their tomahawks and bush knives until the pale, smooth core is revealed.

After some good-natured ribbing and jostling, they sit down with metal-tipped adzes and pound. Above the head—down! Smash the wood pulp to bits! Again and again and again until they shine with sweat and heaps of sawdust spill over their legs, piling on the limbum mats.

Now the women and children arrive, scooping the sawdust into bags and bilums (string bags), carrying it on their heads to a nearby water source, where my wasmama (host mother) had gone ahead to set up the troughs for washing.

Half a dozen massive pots circled the troughs waiting to be filled with water and saksak pulp.

I plunge my hands into the sludge and begin to repeatedly squeeze the saturated dust. Washing saksak. The resulting water is a murky rust—the color I always imagined the Red Sea when I was young, and it stains your hands and clothes (especially our white skin!). We all bend together, washing saksak in a rhythm until I no longer notice my aching back or tired hands. Squeeze, shake, toss. Repeat through four pots until the water runs clear and no more food streams from the wood.

Then the water is pressed through the troughs, letting the liquid drip into the bag where it will settle, forming a thick, pasty sediment of starch, like fine sand. This is saksak.

The sun is starting to go down and we scoop the food into pots, dividing it among all the family present, which we carry on our heads back to the house. It’s a great delicacy, they tell us. You must taste it!

Delicacies, however, are culturally determined. And despite my own involvement in its preparation, when I was first handed a bowl of saksak soup, I began questioning the energy invested to acquire this food. (Since most of you probably haven’t tasted it and I neglected to get a photo, you can imagine a semi-solid gelatinous mass, looking like Jell-O that hasn’t set, and tasting similar, though without the sugar or the cherry flavor.) In spite of this rather unfavorable beginning, I found that the innumerable ways of cooking saksak—wrapped in leaves, combined with meat, fried over a fire, and more—did broaden my perspective on the value of the food.

However, I still wonder who first thought of eating the sediment that settles when you strain water through sawdust.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Catherine Vs. Rambo-Kuka

They weren’t dead.

I stared at the bowl in my hand, where a dozen or more crabs suddenly convulsed and snapped in a wriggling pile of legs and pincers.

“You have to hold them right here,” my was-susa (host sister) pinched a crab (or kuka) by the legs and was poised over the frying pan, “otherwise they will bite you.” With a quick flick, she tossed him into the middle of the hot oil in the frying pan, where he wiggled, sizzled, then grew still.

“Okay.” I nodded, trying to look confident.

“But, make sure he lands on his back! Otherwise he will climb out.”

Right. I was still holding the bowl, conscious of eight pairs of eyes of my wasfemili (host family’s) younger children all curious as to how this white meri would cook. Live crabs. Not quite what I was expecting when my was-susa said I could help with dinner, but, hey—I wanted to learn the culture, right?

I aimed for a small one. Perhaps I could keep my fingers as long as possible. Grab, twist, flick. The oil caught one after another, and soon their shells turned bright red, ready to eat (which you do, shell, legs and all…they are quite tasty). I can do this, I thought to myself, only a few more left!

Except, I hadn’t counted on Monster Kuka.

And this one was traipela. Huge. His body was the size of my palm and his front pincers longer than my littlest finger. Just like the others, I reasoned, reaching for the prehistoric creature. Be quick. 

This is not The Kuka, but it's close to it!
I wasn’t the only one who was strategizing. As I attempted the flick into the frying pan, he turned into the Kuka version of Rambo sans machine gun. I swear there was a soundtrack! With a mighty twist, he flung himself out of the oil around and attacked my tongs, using them as a springboard to jump, pincers outstretched, for the side of the frying pan, and straight toward my leg. “Aiyahh!” I cried, “No! No! You must die!” I snatched at him with my tongs, flinging him back into the pan. He attacked them again, scrabbling over the top. “Die, Kuka die! Die!” I whaled on him blindly, smashing him into the bubbling oil. “Die! Die!!” Finally, the oil cracked through his shell and Rambo-Kuka's struggles ceased. I looked up, brushing hair from my eyes to see astonished faces around the fire. Then a slight chuckle set off an eruption of laughter as tears streamed from their faces.

Lots of kukas! Kukas everywhere!
Die! Die! The story rippled through the community, complete with actions and sound effects. And that, my friends, was how I earned the name Kuka Susa and embarked upon the Great Kuka War.

I don’t’ remember how it started. Perhaps it was when my 16-year-old wasbrata (host brother), Raphael, threatened to send kukas after me when I did the laundry, or perhaps it was when I dropped a large bug on his shoulder shrieking “Kuka! Look out!” and he jumped like a rabbit :-) Or maybe it was when we warned about the potential of finding hidden kukas in the other’s pillow or bilum.  Regardless, the rest of the five weeks were spend in continuous banter as we made kuka shadow puppets, tickled each other’s legs with a broom (running away before retaliation, of course), tied a rock to a string (so it could be dropped on an unsuspecting shoulder from above), and even discussed making orange-colored bilums (the color of a kuka, after all).

“Kuka, kuka, kuka! It will bite you!” my brother would sing out.

“Don’t worry!” I would shout back. “I’ve got my tongs!”

The Kuka Siblings. Beware!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Survivor: POC edition ;)

After a seven-hour ride in the back of the Hino, I’m now in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, settling in what feels like absolutely luxurious accommodations at Ukarumpa (I’m renting a house along with several other girls, so I actually have a kitchen!). It’s time for another orientation as I learn to live where it is cold (yes, I have thoroughly acclimatized to the tropics, and thus, the chilly mornings are worthy of sweatshirts and pants under the skirt).

Actually, we sat on mattresses, making this perhaps the most comfortable vehicle ride yet.
Despite the large load of luggage swaying in the back, we all promptly fell asleep.

Welcome to Ukarumpa! I shake hands with one and all as my new coworkers greet me with delight. We’re glad you survived POC!

POC is one of those experiences where the stories are best told in whispers by firelight, as you hear creepy birds sing out from the forests and bats dart overhead. There are the rumors of the sharks in the bay, the grubs on your lunch plate, and the mosquitoes that could carry off a young child. While I won’t confirm or deny any of these previous stories…. I will give you ten of my own tips for surviving POC. :-)

  1. Never sit under a coconut tree, unless you feel like reenacting a Pacific version of Newton as gravity once again consistently works its magic on something rather larger than an apple…
  2. Klostu. (Pronounced: CLOSE-TOO. Used in the response of a Papua New Guinean when you want to know how much further you must hike.) You don’t know what it means. Ever. The sooner you accept it, the sooner you will be happy.
  3. Not all flipflops/thongs are made equal. Know where yours stand on the Ease of Destruction scale.
  4. When cooking over a fire, smearing the outside of your pots with dishwashing soap before use will make clean-up a cinch. On the other hand, if you accidently use kerosene, you might be scrubbing with steel wool for quite a long time… (Thank you to a fellow POCer for personally testing this theory!)
  5. All cooking ingredients are optional. Really.
  6. I always used to wonder why hundreds of frogs would be a plague in Egypt. Now I know: after the rain, beware the stupidity of frogs who jump into walls, legs, posts, doors, and who knows what else…
  7. Unless you were a champion at I Spy books, I suggest having a wide variety of photos in your album, as coming up with new conversation topics can be challenging when you flip through it for the 7,265th time.
  8. Your umbrella is your friend, and you would do well to give it a name, considering the amount of time you will spend together. Otherwise, you will stand there…watching…waiting…waiting… knowing that your dorm room is only 30 meters away, but you can’t see it for the blinding sheets of rain that must be leftover from Noah’s Flood.
  9. Hot showers are only available at the hottest part of the day.
  10. Forget the hiking boots. When you attempt to scale PNG mountain paths in the rainy season, I recommend ice crampons.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Stories, stories, stories!

In Tok Pisin (the trade language of Papua New Guinea),the word story is a verb.

Jess and I with our host parents, Andrew and Margaret
To story is more than simply talking. It’s to sit down with someone, to engage in his or her life, and share experiences, from the minor jaunt to the creek for washing clothes to the high excitement of seeing the Prime Minister to comparing countries (in everything from methods of growing corn to whether America had monkeys to differences in politics and voting). Every day throughout my five weeks of living in Silum, I was shaded by a guava tree or was invited onto a veranda or stretched out on a banana leaf or balanced on a log and storied with the Papua New Guineans of Aronis. Oh, yes, please come! Sit down! They shake my hand enthusiastically and motion to their neighbors. Come over! Let’s story!

For all the POC participants, the last five weeks have been filled with enough stories to put the Grimm brothers to shame. There were crises and climaxes, challenges and blessings, joys and pains. We faced dragons and fairy godmothers and saw God do amazing things when we could do nothing. We climbed mountains and laughed over our mistakes and cried and prayed.

What was it like? I know you’ve had to imagine a lot, and now I’m excited for the opportunity to take you beyond that and share with you some of the photos and some of the stories.

Right now, however, I am in the midst of packing (yes, again!), debriefing, last assignments, and preparing for yet another transition as I move on Tuesday to Ukarumpa. Ukarumpa (NOT Oompa-Loompa…those are the orange-skinned creatures from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) is the main linguistic center where I will be living for the next couple of months (nothing is ever certain, of course…). It’s relatively close to Goroka or Kainantu when you look on a map. If you are curious to learn more about Ukarumpa, I suggest you check out my friend Wendy Johnson’s blog HERE, where she gives a great tour of the area.

Thank you all for your prayers, your notes, and your love (and thanks, Hannah, for your awesome posts—I hope you all enjoyed them as much as I have reading them now!). God has been working in your lives these past weeks too, and I want to hear about it!

So, let’s story. :)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Are you the artist?

By The Missionary Sister

Someday, someone is going to ask me what it was like growing up with a child prodigy. Actually, I bet it’s like James and Jesus. Did you ever think about that? Poor James. Jesus was able to do all this awesome carpentry and make all these cool things, and James, well, he was probably sent to go buy the nails.

In fact, I know just how the conversation went, because I've had it many times myself:

Enter James.
James meets Person.
James tries to be friendly
James: "Hi, my name is James."
Person [blank look]:  "James...? James who?"
James [sighing]: "Oh... You know. James. The brother of Jesus."
Person [grins]: "Of course. Right. James. I know you. You buy the nails. Hey, wow, you know, Jesus' carpentry is just amazing, isn't it?! You're so lucky to have him for a brother!"

Poor James. Poor me.

Don’t worry, I don’t think I’m irreparably scarred. But Catherine’s artistic skill was truly unbelievable, making her the most famous artist in Minnesota 4-H. And me? Well, I got to be the foot model. That was fun.

Until my feet got cold.

But that cold was nothing compared to when I would help Catherine take pictures of her art in the middle of the wind-whipped snow Armageddon tundra on our farm in Minnesota ten minutes from the Arctic circle. She would drag me out there to hold her paintings while she photographed them, and I would be shaking with cold while trying to hold the painting at the exact right angle and the exact right height while tortured by the horrible fear that an earthquake would hit or a tornado would strike and I would drop her painting in the snow and ruin it forever and absolutely destroy everything.

I was a sensitive child.

The worst of it, though, was the fact that, somehow, I looked like the artist. We could never figure it out—maybe it was my curly hair. But I was asked—always, constantly, all-the-time asked—“Are you the artist?”

And (while keeling over inside) I would smile very sweetly, and shake my head, and for the 10,000th time, say, “Oh, no, I'm sorry, actually, that’s my sister.” Everyone asked it. At church and at 4-H and on the street and in the library and at the county fair. (I even got asked it lying in the chair at the dentist’s office by the hygienist! How did the hygienist know!?)

Actually, I was this close to getting a shirt that said simply, “NO. I AM NOT THE ARTIST.”

“Hey, James, are you the carpenter?”

Despite not being the artist (the most art I ever attempted was a long-term comic strip running along the top of my math notebook consisting of a sarcastic stick-and-circle cartoon figure named Charlie Contrast), I am one of Catherine’s biggest fans. I’m proud to show off some of her art here. You can see more at her art website (, but I thought I’d share a few of my favorite pieces here—plus some background information you may otherwise not have been privileged to see.

That is, if you didn’t know The Missionary Sister.

Before we get to the paintings, you need to understand Catherine's humble beginnings: namely, the basement white board. This drawing was all Catherine'sI'm not sure why I'm in the picture. Make the unskilled labor feel better, I guess. She was very protective of her paintings. I think maybe I was allowed to draw the snow in that picture on the left. Yeah, go buy the nails, James.

Here is Catherine posing with the famous artist Wyland because she won his coloring contest at the Minnesota Zoo, the very first art contest she ever won. I entered the contest, too. I didn't win. Figures.

Here we are in Tennessee, celebrating one of Catherine's first (of many) national wins with her art. I entered with my photography. Photography that Catherine later used for her art.

Catherine had ample opportunity to study from life. She also always felt loved, at least by The Cat, anyway. Where am I in this picture? I don't know. Probably getting her pencils.

Catherine actually never liked painting with a brush, but she still did a good job of it anyway, obviously. Here, our two art styles got as close as they ever would when she painted big cartoon characters for our church Vacation Bible School. Although my cartoons were never photo-realistic. They weren't even in color.

It was always fascinating watching Catherine paint. Did you know she usually left the eyes until last? Most people think that's cool. They don't realize that that meant her paintings were seriously creepy until they were almost done.
This was one of my favorite paintings she ever did. Want to know a secret, though? I may not be the artist, but I am the photographer. I have taken so many of the photos Catherine has used in her artwork, well, I'm practically half The Artist.
What people don't know about this one is the background changed like 25 times. It used to be a horse in a field, and it changed, though I can't remember why. Water is cool, though. (My photo.)

Makana, our foal. Know something? My photo.
Super cute, even though not my photo. This was her favorite kind of background to do -- a little abstract.

Horse: my photo. I was also there the 10 million times we baled hay, so, the background, well, it's practically like my photo.
Having an artist in the family was kind of like having a dentist for your dad. The dentist's kids hardly ever got their teeth cleaned, and the artist's family hardly ever got paintings of their own animals. This was one of the rare exceptionsCatherine painted this of my mom's dog, Riley. (Sure is a great photo. Wonder who took it.)
One of my favorite dog portraits she ever did and also one of her first.
Dad and I would always give Catherine really good ideas on what to include in her paintings. We tried to convince her to have blood covering this pheasant and all over the ground, but that didn't fly (no pun intended).

Occasionally she did graphite (=pencil) drawings, but her favorite medium (as you've seen above) was pastel, which is a lot like chalk. Pastel paintings are still called paintings, however, even though they don't use paint. Don't ask me why. I'm not the artist.
Catherine was never much into abstract work. This was as abstract as she ever got. Pretty radical, huh? Good thing she used my photo, or else it never would've worked.
No problem, Catherine, glad to let you use my photo.
Dad and I were so great at helping her name her paintings. I'm pretty sure all our names for this one revolved around imminent death-by-tiger-attack...
...and our names for this one were all about imminent death-by-wolf-attack. That, or about Bambi mourning for his deceased mother. (It was our our mission to keep Catherine humble by not taking things too seriously.)

There was much weeping and gnashing of teeth revolving around painting that water.

This was one of my favorites. She would spend hours on that fura typical painting was 20-30 hours of intense work. (Caption: "Too much rabbit gives you a stomachache.")

I think these would be cute if they didn't remind me of opossums. And don't get me started on opossums.
Some of my favorites of Catherine's were scratchboard. Basically, it's like a glorified Etch-a-Sketch. You take a knife and scratch off black pigment that is on a board. Thereby, "scratch-board." Actually, you don't scratch Etch-a-Sketches. But it's kind of similar. Don't expect to understand. You're not the artist.
If you think the eyes on this one are cool in a picture, you should've seen them in real life. They were unreal. Or unbelievably real. Same difference.
And the best for last. This is my only painting of Catherine's, and it hangs on my wall all the time -- a drawing of my own horse, done before I even owned her. But that's a story for another day... maybe once I'm the artist.