Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Some Suggestions for Webster

A major element of village living was to improve our fluency in Tok Pisin (PNG’s trade language). Our waspapa (host father) took this role very seriously. “No!” he would shout, interrupting another’s question, “You can’t ask them in English! You must use Tok Pisin!”

I could have taken a photo of all my paperwork. This is much prettier!
The other person would look at us sheepishly. We’d shrug. And soon we’d start again (with my waspapa standing guard, ready to squash any deviations…).

These past couple of weeks I’ve been delving back into Tok Pisin instruction as I’ve been preparing lectures and materials for the January POC course. Language learning is always an adventure!

Originally starting as a way for the Australian coffee managers to talk with their Papua New Guinean laborers, Tok Pisin is based on English, German, and other local languages and has a small vocabulary and limited grammar. It has now spread across the country as an effective trade language that allows the people from 830 different vernacular languages to communicate with each other. Tok Pisin only has about 2,000 words—which is very limited in comparison to a major language, such as English, Chinese, or German which each go upwards of 300,000! As a result, many of the words have multiple meanings, and the length of the sentences can increase dramatically.

John 3:16 in English: For God so loved that world that He gave His one and only Son so that whoever would believe in Him will not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16 in Tok Pisin: God i gat wanpela Pikinini tasol i stap. Tasol God i laikim tumas olgeta manmeri bilong graun, olsem na em i givim dispela wanpela Pikinini long ol. Em i mekim olsem bilong olgeta manmeri i bilip long em ol i no ken lus. Nogat. Bai ol i kisim laip  i stap gut oltaim oltaim.

I’ve found Tok Pisin to be an expressive and fun language with a great many words that I think English would do well to incorporate. They (along with many others, I’m sure) have certainly crept into my language! As I was working on the curriculum and lectures for the upcoming course, I started making a list of my commonly-used words...
  • BagarapDefinition: Screwed up. Broken. Wrecked. (Letting the fire char your scones into black nothingness is a perfect time to shake your head sadly and sigh, “oh, bagarap.”)
  • Hap Definition: part (This is so useful because it is so vague. Things, people, places, time periods….it works for one and all.)
  • Laik bilong yuDefinition: Whatever you want to do; your preference. (Which movie do you want to watch? Laik bilong yu.)
  • MaskiDefinition: Forget it. Leave it. Nevermind. (Oh, it’s raining out. Maski.)
  • MaloloDefinition: Rest. (A lovely word perfectly acceptable to invoke at any time of the day, especially upon conclusion of a previous activity.)
  • Liklik hausDefinition: outhouse. Lit. “little house.” (Really, it’s much more pleasant sounding to my English ears to say “I need to go to the liklik haus”).
  • Tok plesDefinition: vernacular/indigenous language of the area. (Were the materials printed in tok ples?)
  • NogatDefinition: Nope. (I love how much stronger this rolls off the tongue with that lovely g and t. Do you have bananas today? Nogat. )
  • i go i go i goDefinition: To continue doing something in a similar manner that goes on and on and on. (We walked up a mountain, down the next one, up the next one…i go i go i go.)
  • Toksave tasol—Definition: Just an fyi… (I’m going out to the market now, toksave tasol)
  • Wanbel (vs. tubel)—Definition: in one accord/agreement vs. having two different, often conflicting, opinions. (Do I eat another cookie or not? I really feel tubel about it).
  • BungDefinition: to gather together; to meet. (Let’s bung at the Post Office.)
  • Em nauDefinition: Yes (with emphasis). That’s right. (You’re the house that had the bonfire! Em nau!)
  • A?Definition: Question marker (comes at the end of the sentence). (You're making bread today, a?)

Brief Pronunciation Guide
There are no silent letters. Consonants are said more forward (close to teeth). 'r' is a flap or trill.
A=father    O=boat        I=keep        E=ate    U=shoot       Au=house    Ai=tie

Sunday, January 15, 2012

On Roller Coasters and PMVs

When I was in high school, my youth group loaded up the church vans and emptied at ValleyFair, Minnesota’s most well-known amusement park. We gleefully ran to stand in long lines and get whipped around in spinning, looping thrills. Finally, a group of us decided to tackle the High Flyer, the oldest of the roller coasters. As we climbed upwards, the struts creaked and groaned, the cars swayed in their heights, and I began to lose a bit of confidence in its structural soundness—a fear that turned into reality when we eventually got stuck on the last turn into the loading dock and the attendants had to climb out and push us back in.

On one of those trips across town, we stopped for gas
Now, here in PNG, I’m finding myself reliving that experience… except instead of two-seater cars on a narrow track, I’m bouncing in the back seat of PMVs through the jungle-laden mountains.

On Saturday, I embarked on my journey from the Highlands to the coast, but we were only 20 minutes into it before we were rolling to a stop. Flat tyre. Four trips across town and an hour later sent us on our way (only to repeat the flat-tyre experience five hours closer to Madang). But, considering the drive, I suppose it’s a wonder that we didn’t have to replace tires more often!

The roller coaster ride began anew as we trundled toward hills that soared upwards beyond the view of the windshield. Caution: 17% Gradient, proclaimed one sign. Another calmly observed: Steep and Winding Road.
Those are indeed clouds, and they are indeed below us.

Finally (and most succinctly), red-painted letters: SLOW.

Their reassurance was stifling. The van’s joints creaked and groaned just like that ancient High Flyer as gravity weighted me into my seat—not unlike an airliner’s take-off. Out my window, the road’s so-called-shoulder plummeted down the cliff, rivaling Six Flags. For a moment, we teetered at the top of the hill, an instant of spectacular scenery—the Highlands mountains tumbling and folding into crevices like a rumpled quilt. Then, over the peak and down… I shoved my knees into the seat ahead of me as we pitched forward at 100 km/hour, leaning around the curves as I braced against the window or ricocheted into my seat mate.
More Highlands mountains, heading down into the valley

Although driving may technically be on the left, in reality, it occurs where the least potholes are (nothing is marked anyway), which makes for hair-raising encounters as you come around the bend and find a massive truck racing toward you on the same little spit of smooth road. Pothole-avoidance is a finely-honed skill and our driver proved his worth, slaloming expertly through a road pockmarked with ditches, as if someone took a massive shotgun and peppered the asphalt with crater-producing bullets. When he couldn’t dodge the holes, our driver skidded to a near halt, then crept forward, gingerly dropping the wheels down the cavern until I was certain the undercarriage must have scraped the ground, before the rest of the vehicle followed suit, and then up again over terrain akin to mountain-goat habitat. Such a strategy assumed, of course, the road was paved—which was only occasionally. Gravel roads, on the other hand, benignly sported rocks the size of paving stones and washed out canyons that lurched and jolted our spring-loaded seats.  Occasionally, I would attempt to read, but when the words blurred into an unintelligible smear from the bouncing, even my strong stomach kindly asked me to give up and look out the window.

In the Ramu Valley. We came down those mountains.
Bridges (or fords, when the bridge didn’t exist) were another whole experience, with the gaps over the water lined up with our wheels and the metal plates bouncing and clattering and the one-lane chicken-race with the other car (the bridge barely being wide-enough to accommodate your side-mirrors). Since ours was a well-traveled road, we didn’t have to cross those bridges that were only the two sets of wooden logs spaced apart for the tyres. I’ll save that for another day.

When we finally reached Madang and I climbed over the seats and out of the PMV, it was with same that rather incredulous belief you have after clambering out of a roller coaster—the realization that solid, unmoving ground still exists.

And to think, I used to pay to stand in long lines and go in a looping circle in order to come to the same conclusion!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


The entrance road to the hospital

One Saturday during my time in the village, my wasfemili (host family) and I made the several-hour trek down the mountain to celebrate the opening of a new maternity wing on the local hospital. Seven different singsing groups from the entire surrounding area had been practicing for weeks to perform their traditional songs and dances in joyous welcome. Even the Prime Minister Peter O’Neill was coming!

The brand new maternity wing! (very exciting since death rates are still high here)

A singsing is a riot of color—pink, orange, red, yellow, black, white, green—dying grass skirts (purpur), slashed across foreheads and arms, woven into bilums (string bags). Feathers, shells, teeth of dogs and pigs, stones and seeds chatter and swing as the dancers stomp and bend to the beat of the kundu drums and garamuts.

Most of the dances happen in a circular pattern

Here they are playing a garamut (left) and a mambu drum

Hundreds of people flocked to see their lain (clan) perform, and several of the women had a brisk trade selling icies, peanuts, and water. Despite the cloudless sky and ferocious tropical sun, the dancers kept going and going and going….

No rain today--all the umbrellas were to provide shade for the eager onlookers

My sister-in-law and aunt, waiting to start the next dance

Even my area, Aronis, had sent a troupe of dancers, including various relatives such as my uncle, grandfather, brother, sister-in-law, and aunt. Earlier that week, we had visited one of their last practices: intense, sweat-gleaming dancers, in a rhythmic pounding circle around a Coleman lantern. The drums make your blood shiver, and I had soon found myself pulled into the circle of dancers, joining the women in their bending, swaying tempo beneath the Milky Way.

Eventually, they would break, gathering “backstage” (under the clumps of trees) where the cigarettes, water, sunglasses and cell phones appeared—quite a clash with the traditional grass skirts and pig-tusk necklaces!

At one point, I found a bit of shade and started working on my bilum; suddenly, hundreds of eyes riveted on the latest cultural attraction—a white woman blithely weaving a traditional handicraft! (Everyone was also thoroughly amused to dress me up for a few minutes in the traditional outfit before we left that morning. On the other hand, my 1-1/2 year-old niece, Respa,was less than thrilled with the attire.)

Yes, Papua New Guineans certainly know how to celebrate!

Monday, January 9, 2012

On The Thirteenth Day of Christmas....

Suppose you want to have a bonfire party. First, you must find something to burn. Then, you must have an excuse to burn it. Next you must have food to roast on said bonfire. Finally, you must have a crowd to join in the festivities outlined above.

On Saturday, all of that came true :)

The Treehouse.
You see, Epiphany was at its peak (we opted to create a Thirteenth Night and hold the celebration on Saturday. Ancient celebrations have to bend to modern working calendars…). We had the Decrepit-Falling-to-Bits-And-Beyond-Hope-Of-Repair Treehouse that needed to be destroyed before some child fell through the rotting boards. And we had lots of food ready to be put in a stew.

Destruction + Fire + Food?


The Strength.
Before we knew it, people of all ages began flooding our backyard (we heard it went upwards of 70), armed to the teeth with sledgehammers, bushknives, axes, ropes, leather gloves, saws, and toolbelts, ready for action. After some folded-armed deliberation (no doubt discussing air speed, tree branch angles, leverage principles, rotten wood strength and other fine details), they hooked a rope around the struts, strategically employed all the high-energy youngsters (well-anchored by more seasoned individuals) and then Heave! Ho! Heave! Crash!!

The Demolition
Within seconds, they were scrambling on top of it, like ants to crumbs. I must say, I’ve never seen quite such an enthusiastic race by grown men to smash to bits the dangerous construction. Before long, a huge tepee of wood was standing, built around our Christmas tree and well-stoked by enthusiastic donations of burnable items by our neighbors. Add a liberal dousing of kerosene and whoosh! We had our own (rather enlarged) version of the traditional Burning Yule Log.

The Very Cool Conclusion
Success! As I watched the flames lick skywards and sparking ash float towards our house, I found myself rather belatedly grateful that our water tank was currently gorged with the gift of rainy season. Of course, it also helped that half the volunteer fire department were standing around the inferno, grinning rather giddily to themselves with their success.

Obliteration makes people hungry, and it didn’t take long before the piles of potluck food gave way to empty bowls and crumpled napkins (and desperate measures—such as when we ran out of spoons and started handing people measuring spoons. Sorry—you’ll have to use the teaspoon…).Although marshmallows aren’t currently in stock at the store, various individuals contributed their coveted bags to the post-destruction roasting party. It took several hours before the massive conflagration could be approached voluntarily (several marshmallow-starved individuals tried constructing roasting shields to protect themselves from the heat), but the eventual treats were worth it.

Eventually, as what used to be the tree house became a smoldering pile of embers and the inevitable drizzle started to leak from the clouds, roasting sticks and hammers were packed into bilums (string bags) and our backyard grew quiet with the silence that follows annihilation.

With a sigh, my housemates and I tucked our leftover vegetables into tinfoil and laid them in the ashes to cook overnight.

And that was the end of the Christmas season at Ukarumpa.