Thursday, September 29, 2011

October Newsletter

The heavens declare the glory of God!

...especially in a sunrise over the Pacific Ocean.

Today I sent out my October newsletter. If you are interested in receiving my newsletters, please send me an email at and I will gladly add you to my update list!
May the Lord bless you greatly.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Popcorn, Potlucks, and Princess Bride?

Tension crackled in the air as the princess froze, blindfolded and a knife held to her throat. The Man In Black approached the two seated figures slowly, eyeing the table between them. Two empty glasses waited for the Battle of Wits…

The butter knife was from the kitchen, the hostage was a large stuffed dog, and the wine looked suspiciously like a bottle of water. But the real cries of delight emerged when the entire sparring dialogue (including the reveal of the deadly iocane powder) was shouted in Tok Pisin!

It was a Saturday night, and we were all laughing until tears streamed down our faces as we watched our fellow students and staff perform in POC’s Got Talent! Old PNG commercials were re-enacted (Wopa crackers, anyone?), Canadian folk songs were danced, a piano duet announced the SugarPlum Fairy (Christmas is welcome year-round), and even Hotel California was re-mixed into Hotel POC featuring our very own goat, Glenda, as the leading lady.

Lest you think life at POC is all work and no play, let me draw back the curtain and give you a glimpse of what it’s like to live among such a marvelous group as the students and staff here.

We are all eagerly waiting for the potluck to begin!
Let me start with the obvious: food. Tons of food. Not only do we eat every meal together during the week, but during hous kuk weekends, we decided it was only natural to continue the pattern and hold a regular Saturday night potluck. BYOD—bring your own dish and partake in the feast cooked over fires--sweet potato fries, custard, soup, coconut pie, chicken n’ dumplings, apple crisp, spaghetti, pizza, tacos, shepherd’s pie, rice dishes, various salads, banana bread, pumpkin scones and more! Of course, there was the Bake-Off with the prestigious Silver Spoon Award, followed by the hous kuk building competition in an attempt to determine which would best withstand a trip to the Land of Oz.

Friday night is hamburger night, followed by a kid’s movie and popcorn galore—but even the adults crowd into the Meeting House to watch Nemo swim around the South Pacific (now close to our heart as three clownfish inhabit the kitchen’s aquarium after a trip to Rempi where we spent the day snorkeling and canoeing in a tropical paradise). Evenings find us in fellowship groups on the volleyball court or perhaps clustered around kerosene lanterns playing any number of games.  If that wasn’t enough, one Saturday we roasted s’mores on a bonfire and laughed until our sides ached as veterans of PNG swapped stories of the adventures of life here.

On Sundays, we’ve had the privilege of worshipping with each other and being blessed by the experienced pastors among us, especially the times we don’t attend a local church. During the half day of prayer, we were further encouraged as we lifted up each other, our pastors, and local and global needs, reminding ourselves that we are indeed part of the Body of Christ. The children and babies have acquired a plethora of new aunts and uncles and grandparents as each takes a turn at holding, rocking, swinging, feeding and generally providing an open lap to give relief to the heroic efforts of their parents.

The dining room: where much laughter and much ministry occurs!

Of course the tightest bonds are formed over shared challenges—crashing through saltwater waves in a semblance of swimming and scaling PNG’s versions of Mt. Everest, rubbing ash from eyes in smokey fires and ending up in someone’s lap when the brakes squeal on the Hino. We wash dishes together, hunt through Madang for the elusive baking soda, and pass the frantic word when the internet finally works. And when sickness penetrated nearly every room on the Center, friends are quick to take over duties, prepare meals, and ease discomfort.

Life at POC during the adjustment to the many new practical skills, language barriers, and cultural differences of PNG is not always easy. But, having such people along for the ride as these make it worth all those extra bumps and bruises…

Just as you [might] wish. :-)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tangled (Not the Movie)

Here I am, practicing my bilum-making

I looked with dismay at my hand. It was a mass of lime green string, tangled around my thumb and pinky, with a needle hanging lifelessly down the center. My was-susa or host sister reached for my hand and gently began to pull the knots from my fingers. I could see her trying hard not to smile. “No, you have to go over and then…over. Yes, here. Like this.” She manually rewound the string. “Now, try again.”

We were sitting on the veranda of my host family’s house, and I was trying to fill in the gaps of my education by learning to make a bilum, the all-purpose string bag of Papua New Guinea. I slipped the needle through the loops, tucked it behind a plastic strip, and slid the knot flat, attempting once again to imitate my was-susa’s quickly rotating hand which simultaneously pulled the string tight and kept it from tangling into a bird’s nest. I studied my efforts. Not pretty, but at least this time it wasn’t a wadded ball that looked like a diseased porcupine. Next stitch.

Bilum-making is the PNG equivalent of what quilt-making used to be in the US—an evening activity to fill spare time or socializing with other women. However, this morning, my wasfemili had graciously set aside other gardening responsibilities to help my roommate Jess and me master this art. They had pulled out half a dozen unfinished bilums, from tiny purses to gigantic bags over a meter wide, and had found a few that evidently were safe for beginners to mangle…er, practice on. Despite my rocky beginning, I soon found my many years of knitting and crocheting held me in good stead. I wonder what my County Fair judges would have thought if I had brought a bilum into the Needle Arts exhibit?

A bilum’s uses are limited only by the imagination and no self-respecting household would be without an ever-growing stash. Men carry small bilums on their chest hung from the neck or perhaps slung over their shoulder, but women rest the strap of the bilum on their forehead, letting the bulk of it swing gently against their back. Up and down slick mountain paths these women trek, often bent nearly double as they carry immense weights in multiple bilums layered on top of each other—one for firewood, one for kaikai or produce from the garden, one for water, and one for a sleeping baby. Their strength and stamina is incredible.

The colors and patterns of the bilums are beautiful!

In this part of PNG, string made from bush rope or bark and dyed with plant material is the traditional material, while in the Highlands wool is the trademark. Now, many women use plastic string in a plethora of colors found in the local stores, valuing it for its long-lasting strength and time-saving preparation. Bilums also carry untold social meaning, most of which I don’t understand yet. My host mother explained she knew which villages or parts of PNG people called home based upon the colors, patterns, and styles of bilums they carried. They could be used to mark relationship health—walk away from a conversation holding your bilum’s pattern or decorations toward your body, and you signal to the world that you and your friend have had a major disagreement that is still unresolved.

My wasmama pulled my bilum onto her lap, fingering my uneven stitches and slow progress. She looked up, beaming at me. “That’s it! Now you’re becoming a real PNG meri!”

Monday, September 19, 2011

Water Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

Water is not dirty, until it is opaque and black, I decided this weekend. And even then, it still has its gardening uses.

Each weekend we practice skills for village living as we cook all our meals over a fire in our hous kuks  (e.g., too thick of biscuits will result in charcoal outsides and doughy interiors). Up until this point, we have been using water from POC’s freshwater supply, but this weekend we purified our own.

Although we live in a rainforest, virtually all the water that is not currently in the clouds is not safe for our consumption—it’s not the ants, leaves, sticks or even muddy brown color that have us worried, but rather a plethora of microscopic organisms that will be sure to keep you up all night in ways you’d rather not experience. During rainy season when the skies open up like clockwork, the deluge of water easily fills all our pots and buckets and washbasins. But, as I’ve mentioned before, right now, we are in the dry season, and we’re rationing water as it is.

So, we resort to other purifying methods. The method of choice is determined by amount needed, time available, preferred taste, and pocketbook depth :) Water filters are great for the long term, but weight restrictions caused most of us at POC to toss that item out of our bags. Aqua tablets work well—but at one tablet per liter, the price soon skyrockets past those rainless clouds. Using the sun to heat clear bottles of water is less labor intensive, but since it requires over six hours of direct sunlight, it isn’t as prompt for morning tea. Thus, most of us resort to either bleaching or boiling our water.

Before you start gagging at the former method, let me assure you it’s really not all that bad. Of course, you must use the right proportions… using twice the amount of bleach to water will certainly make you consider regurgitating most of your breakfast. Take it from me…

A watched pot never boils. It's true.

Once my roommate Jess and I had fixed the concoction, the water was much more palatable, though both of us were rather eager to try something else for our waterbottles and relegate this water to the cooking and dishes and teethbrushing.

Boiling is rather self-explanatory. Water goes in pot. Pot goes on fire. Water boils. Presto! You have clean water. Except, the water needs to boil continuously for a certain length of time based upon altitude. And, inevitably, the wood is still sap-filled, the kindling is sparse, and then that mountaintop breeze which we bless so often, appears and whoosh! The flame is snuffed out and the water that was just so very close to maybe possibly showing a hint of a bubble suddenly cools down to something that could have been drawn from the Arctic Sea. So you start again, and eventually after guarding and feeding and coaxing that precious flame, you have a pot full of boiling water and you can start counting those seven minutes for 1200 feet (not meters) as you frantically try to split more wood to feed the fire to keep the water boiling so you can cook your dinner. Of course, you have to let it cool too—which takes a lot longer when you are thirsty (have you ever tried drinking plain warm water?)

Our trusty clean water bucket. And the bleach.
None of these methods actually taste like spring-drawn water from the Alps—boiled water has a smokey tang flavored with bits of swirling ash, while bleach…well, even diluted you can imagine—so drink flavors, such as Tang, cordial, and powdered milk, along with the ever present tea, coffee, and milo, are staples of the village cupboard. Then there is storage—we all have a large bucket labeled authoritatively Drinking Water Only! But remember, you have to clean the bucket (using clean water) in order to store the clean water and then have clean hands to take the clean dipper to get the clean water out to clean the dishes to begin supper…

As you can imagine, every drop of purified water is precious, and you become very creative in conserving liquid (especially when you remember it all has to be hauled by hand, often from a great distance). Pasta water has a 1000 uses and doing the dishes becomes an art, like some Minimalist composer. After all, just think of how much water you drink in a day, and then imagine yourself living on the equator where you sweat simply sitting still. Now, consider that you’re also going on a hike through the mountains this afternoon…

I better go build that fire.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Reflections from a hike

Be specific, my college writing professor would tell me. Those are not “trees” you are writing about, those are “aspens” or “wilted maples” or “the old oak giant that stood in front of Gerald’s dairy barn.”

Here we go!
“Humph,” I thought to myself, glancing at the tangle of unknown trees, bushes, ferns, shrubs, and leaves towering above, underneath, and around me in a web so thick that I think I’ll start breathing the color green. Ferns more than twice my height scrape against mammoth pillars of vines, dripping down the trunks of the host trees, hundreds of feet tall. Beneath the umbrella of banana leaves, cicadas hum cheerfully, until the whole forest seems to vibrate. Coconut palms skyrocket to the heavens, and for a moment I understand why the canopy of the rainforest could just as well be Mars when compared to the forest floor. Good luck at picking out specifics in that voluminous mass.

I dug my toes into the ridge of hard, red-packed clay, and leaned forward, calf muscles tense. The path crawled upwards so steeply that my hands brushed the hillside, snagging on roots for stability. We were on our weekly hike, a single file of hats scrambling across the mountains near Nobnob and the POC centre.

One of the POC workmen tromped ahead of us, casually swinging his bush knife and calling out interesting tidbits for the gasping line of students behind him. “Over there is Tisa Matthew’s house.”

I teeter on the hillside, peering across the valley. I don't see any house. I see green.

“Where?” another student shouted from down the line.

He pointed with his bush knife. “There.” And I crane my neck… until a speck of a woven bamboo, a brown smudge, poked out from between the trees.

“He walks to POC from here?”

The corners of my guide’s mouth twitched upward, and he didn’t answer, instead turning to start us back up the mountain. Laughter and a few pebbles—is it children?—sparked from the bushes several meters above us, but I could see no one.

Occasionally we encounter another group of students on a hike (we’re sent out with careful calculations to prevent collisions, not unlike those word problems in school:  If Hikers A start walking west at 4 km per hour and Hikers B are walking east at…) and shout friendly hellos and warnings about the path ahead. It’s pretty steep! we holler…never asking if it’s up or down. It’s both. 

Travel in Papua New Guinea is like a sine wave, where the only moments of flat are most likely because the path is a meter or less wide, hacked into the side of the mountain with a drop-off and view on the other side that is breath-taking in all senses of the word. “Only a little bit further!” we pass the message down the line. “only two more hills!” Muscles ache, and we focus on breathing. Don’t stop on the hill—you won’t be able to start again. A hand reaches down, steadies the next person in line. “Careful there! It’s slippery.”

Malolo is a treasured word. Rest. Our heartbeats begin to cease their kundu drum practice as we pull waterbottles from our backpacks, like tropical camels (except these are slightly flavored with stainless-steel and leaves). Some of the women begin to pull seeds from their skirts. I make a cursory wipe across my forehead, but it’s not much use. My clothes are already soaked; I’ll be able to ring them out by the time I get back. But here, there’s a breeze.

Plastic rattles, and someone breaks a beef cracker, distributes it like Sunday’s communion. We stand together, breathing. The wind is spiced with sweat, tree rot, heavy bundles of fruit—still unknown— but precarious above our heads, and a violet spiky-petaled flower at my feet. Down in the heel of the valley we were like ants, peering upwards between the cracks of leaves at the sky, but up here? Here, ridge upon ridge of mountains crest and fall like the Pacific Ocean at our backs, until they fade and grey into the distance, mixing with the clouds, and I no longer know which belongs to earth or heaven.


Yet I will exult in Yahweh, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.
The Lord God is my strength, and 
He has made my feet like hinds’ feet and 
makes me walk on my high places.
 Habakkuk 3:18-19

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


I woke up this morning to the sound of rain.*

I wasn’t sure at first—I hadn’t heard thunder here yet, and we haven’t had rain for so many days that any whisper of precipitation would be foreign. But, even in my sleep-crusted state, I was right. Rain.
You wouldn't think we are in dry season with all of that green!

PNG is called The Land of the Unexpected, and there are thousands of reasons why that title fits—I’m sure I will be able to come back to it again and again and again as I learn more about this beautiful country. This morning, I was struck by how ironic it is that we’ve been praying for rain while living in the tropical rainforest. Currently this part of PNG is experiencing the dry season, which although is not nearly as distinct as in other locations of the world, still can cause our freshwater supplies to run dangerously low…especially with the relatively large population of POC.  But even if I wasn’t expecting it, the Lord knew, and this morning, our tin roofs rattled with the downpour.

I also spent most of this week unexpectedly sick. Although you might suppose this was some exotic tropical disease that would be featured on National Geographic, in fact, I started with the very universal common cold that has struck nearly every room on the campus. So we’ve been coughing and sneezing our way through Tok Pisin classes, and I have tried to grab every spare moment to catch a bit more rest (hence the lack of communication here and the randomness of this blog post).

Then, on Saturday, when I was nearly over my cold and everyone was cooking up delicious meals for the hous kuk competition, I found myself once again flat on my back, cheerleading my white blood cells in their war against a 24-hour flu. The most exotic thing about this new development, I discovered, was the skills need to vomit without contaminating my mosquito net shrouding my bed…

Another thing I’ve learned not to take for granted is a typical weekday schedule. Our activities change often depending upon the weather or the skills that our teachers are striving to impart to us. But, because I know many of you are wondering what I really am doing, here is an outline of what we might do on an average day…but don’t be surprised if it changes!

  • 6 am: Conditioning Hike: This is an optional activity that I try to do (when I’m not sick or not on kitchen duty) where we walk about a kilometer down the mountain, watch the (often) spectacular sunrise over the ocean and then walk back up in time to clean up and go to breakfast.
  • 7 am: Breakfast: We are very spoiled; the women in the kitchen are very skilled and creative, making delicious meals for us!
  • 8 am: Tok Pisin classes: Typically we have Tok Pisin classes in the morning where we meet in small groups with our national teacher; however, sometimes we use this time to go to town or have other lectures.
  • 9:30 am: Tea break: We spend this time practicing our Tok Pisin with the various national employees or our teacher.
  • 10 am: Devotions: Testimonies are shared, and prayers are offered.
  • 10:15 am–12 pm: Class: We have various classes at this point which change regularly, spanning topics from politics to spiritual vitality to malaria treatment to anthropology. Over the weeks we also complete and write reports on a number of readings regarding many aspects of PNG culture and missionary life.
  • 12:15 pm: Dinner: Yum!
  • 1:00 pm: Rest hour: With so many of us fighting illness, this has been a precious time :)
  • 2–4 pm: Afternoon learning: This might consist of more classes or practical orientations, such as breadbaking, fire-lighting, learning to use a primus stove, radio skills etc. On Mondays we go for a hike, and on Wednesdays we swim at Nagada.
    5:45 pm: Supper: Delicious! On Friday nights, it is a cookout :)
  • 7 pm (or later): Evening activity: We have various activities throughout the week, including fellowship groups, wasfamili activities (time with our national host family), kid’s movie night, game night, and other spontaneous events.

On the weekends we spend time cooking in our hous kuk and fellowshipping with other families, as well as worshiping in a local church on Sundays. Eventually, students will be spending either one or five week(s) in a village with a local family (depending on their length of course). We also will be doing longer hikes and activities, including a three-day hike. In order to keep POC running smoothly, we all do chores including kitchen and dining room duty, lighting Martha (the fire that heats water for showers), cleaning bathrooms, and occasionally helping with childcare.

We are busy, but not unexpectedly so :) and certainly not too busy to all stand outside this morning and praise our Lord for sending rain, just as He promises He will.

And that, we really can expect.

*Please note, I wrote this post on Friday, September 2, but Internet has only decided to make its appearance today, after a week absence. That wasn’t entirely unexpected—that’s called “Murphy’s Law” and it, apparently, occurs all over the world.