Saturday, 22 October 2011

Over the mountain

I seem to have been quite heavy, in my choice of topics for this blog over the past few weeks. Yet, most of the time, the beauty of this place and the friendliness of most of the people most of the time is what makes up life here.

Yesterday I joined the VSOs I work with here - Bill Oliver, Paul Beaumont, and Jeff Pilgram - to go on a lengthy walk. Lengthy, at least, for me, probably 16 km, but not a lot of that was on the flat. Things aren’t flat here: the whole landscape is like a tissue on top of the enormous forces generated in this region of the Ring of Fire. It folds and shifts, and nothing, certainly not roads or waterpipes, can be counted on to stay where they were put.

We left at 8:30 am, went up past the Lutheran Day High School and the old Lutheran Church, built of corrugated iron sheet back in the 1930s when the first missionaries arrived. The road comes to an end, and then there's a path that goes more or less straight up the mountain. A times a bit of a scramble, mostly just a tough walk up. My breath got, as they say, short. Strange phrase for the length of feeling: ‘I will never be able to catch my breath again,’ I thought. My legs began to complain, too. But overall, I was pleased with me old body. I could keep going, and did.

The view over Kundiawa, with the amazing airport at the back

The view over Kundiawa is amazing. What made that even more notable was that, while we were on the last third of the climb, we became aware that a fight was going on in the town. We could see crowds in the market area surging back and forth. A couple of shots echoed up the mountain - police firing in the air, we learned later. I’m beginning to see that ‘tribal fight’ is a misnomer. This was one gang of youths from a village west of Kundiawa coming to seek retaliation against another, from the east of town. One of their number had been beaten up the night before. Pay back time.

We got a text from Reynante Cruz, the other VSO in town; he works with the Provincial AIDS Council. Rey was in the market, and was worried, because the police weren’t able to control the kids. Another text a few minutes later told us he was OK. Things quietened down for long enough that he got out. We heard a rumour later that an old man had been hit on the head by a stone, and was in hospital. (Interestingly, the Tok Pisin phrase “Em i dai.” translates as “He was injured.” I thought the poor man had been killed, but that would be “Em i dai pinis.” Anyway, all was long over by the time we got back, some 4 hours later. And Rey is OK; everyone is concerned to keep their VSOs safe!
Bill, Paul and Jeff

So, we got to the top of the mountain. Now my idea from Britain is that you climb a mountain, and there's a bare peak. Here, of course, there were villages and trees and gardens. A youngish woman passed us, going down. She gave us each a sugar fruit, then hopped off down the slope, almost running with about 30kg of sugar fruit in her bilum, on her way to market! Took her shoes off to do it! Wow! Jeff commented that it’s their ‘hobbit feet’ that allow them to do this - large feet, splayed toes, toughened from a lifetime of going barefoot over stones and the loose, grainy soil, and even over the red clay that, when wet, challenges bearing grease for overcoming friction.

At the top of the mountain, we encountered Mondo, an old man with a mahogany face carved out of time. Many children gathered around him in front of his beautifully kept bamboo house. He told us he was a descendent of Jim Taylor (one of the Australian Kiaps, and a real legend in these parts. Mind you, I seem to have heard a lot of people claiming that he was their father. Either the man spread more than the law here, or this is legend in the making!)

We walked along the top of the mountain ridge, then asked and were guided to a little path that turned right down the other side, through grasslands and strangely shaped limestone rocks.One stone reminded me of the Birthstone on the West Penwith moor in Cornwall, but this was more elaborately carved by the wind and water. 
Melanesian Birthstone?

Endlessly we made our way down the slope, trying not to slip on the dry and dusty crumbled rock. I didn’t take my shoes off! Luckily my ankles and knees didn't complain as much as I thought they might at the down hill walk. We got down to the bottom, and crossed an iron bridge. There were hordes of children, their smooth brown skins shining with drops of water from the river which rushed by below us. As always, they were curious and suspicious in equal measure, but as we talked to them, took a photo, etc, they warmed and were delightful. As always!

Mangi on the Bridge

Now we were on a dirt/stone road, and we met loads of old papas and a few susas from the Nazarene Church, who made a great point of saying how welcome we were on their land - no roadblock or charging us for the privilege, they said. Much handshaking and the usual asking where we were from, where we'd been today, etc. Finally, we came out on the dirt road that goes from Kundiawa to Gembog (Mt Wilhelm), and turned downhill towards Kundiawa, about another 2 hour walk away. 

The problem with this road, apart from it's being rutted and full of huge boulders, or the landslides which regularly block it is that it's got lots of people walking back from Kundiawa to their villages. On a Saturday afternoon that means lots of spakman (drunks). However, this time we only encountered one group of boys obviously the worse for wear, and they were friendly. One lad, Ali, wearing tracksuit bottoms, bare chested, and shaved head, wanted Jeff’s phone number! (I guess that in this country avowedly Christian, calling yourself Ali is an act of rebellion.) For the rest, we met a number of people who know Bill, and the walk was slowed down by the handshakes.
Vero welcomes you to The Coffee Shop - and a cool SP

Eventually we got to Kundiawa. I dragged myself up through the market, and we made our way to the TNA Coffee Shop. That first SP almost sizzled down! There followed a well-earned relaxation. Gerard, the French ex-pat who owns most of Kundiawa, joined us for local and international political discussion. Most of that is a story for another time, but it’s worth ending this with the picture he painted of himself, when on a previous occasion there was a fight in town, and he appeared with revolver in hand, firing over the heads of the youths. Apparently one of them had managed to  buy or steal a carton of SP beer. Dropped it and ran! This really is a frontier town!

No comments:

Post a Comment