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.