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!