Sunday, October 9, 2011


Tin roofs are quite noisy.

I was lying on my air mattress, staring up at the dark through my mosquito net. Rain was shattering against the roof in a grand deluge, and the whole house quivered like crockery at the claps of thunder.
Yes, I decided. The traditional morota roof with its sago palm leaves has its advantages.

It was six-thirty in the morning, but dawn seemed to be sleeping in, and I could only just see the outlines of the other women in their nets. We wouldn’t be starting early this morning—rain had been pouring for most of the night. It was the third and final day of our backpacking hike through the mountains of Papua New Guinea, where our lives were rolled in plastic and tucked into 20 kilos on our backs.

Here we are, smiling and dry before we left
Our original hike team had lost two students to sickness and one to a nursing baby, so we were a threesome of expatriate students plus three national guides, who served as our teachers, partners, caretakers, interpreters, friends and much more. We had been hiking through various villages and hamlets, spending nights with local families, and inquiring about language and culture, much like what would be done by survey teams before a translation team would be allocated. We had inquired about idioms and learned how to scrape coconut meat. We taught our waspapa how to make popcorn over a fire and discovered what kind of kumu or greens were edible along the trail.

And now we were in Betelgut, waiting to start the longest and most difficult part of our hike. The town sits near the peak of a mountain, which today, had caught at the low-hanging clouds like ships on a reef, tearing open the bottoms and pouring the wet cargo in a great deluge on the trails.

So we waited. And storyed. And drank tea. And waited. And ate ash-flecked corn roasted over the fire. And storyed more. And munched on beef biscuits. And waited. And discussed our predicament. It wasn’t so much a question of not wanting to get wet—rather, our waspapa and lead guide discussed animatedly as to whether the steep, muddy, single-foot-wide trails would let us get back to POC in one piece or if the many bridge-less river crossings were now floods able to wash us to the Pacific Ocean.
If given a choice, most Papua New Guineans wouldn’t go walking in this sort of rain at all (which ought to tell you something, since they must be some of the most outstanding hikers in the world). But we were at a draw—we needed to get back to POC.

So we strapped on our backpack rain covers, squashed our hats on our ears, slathered ourselves liberally with bug repellant, and began a hike down slippery footpaths, bright with orange clay as slick as ice and often rushing with ankle-deep water. Wel graun, they call it in Tok Pisin. Literally, wild ground. My feet skittered sideways, and I found myself breathing with relief every time the path turned upwards—to descend a mountain in the rain means you might as well sit down and slide.

Here's that cute stream. Before the torrential downpour.

Where the day before had chattered with insects and birds, now I only heard the continuous rush of unseen creeks and waterfalls newly erupted down the mountainside. The cute little stream that had hosted our picnic the previous afternoon now churned across the road with a vengeance, snatching and roaring at our legs until we had to yell to be heard. Rain-hiking is tiring. And breathtaking.

It is a marvelous thing to break out suddenly on top of a ridge where the earth falls away on either side of the path, and as you look over your shoulder, all you can see is wave after wave of mountains, green dulled to grey behind sheets of rain and clouds. No houses. No roads. No people other than your companions’ breathing behind you.

Not long after we finally started, the clouds wrested their broken hulls off the peaks and began sailing toward the next ridge. The cocoa leaves waved farewell, and water trickled off their edges. I slipped off my hat and reached for a banana. After three days, we’d be home soon.