Sunday, 4 September 2005

Yesterday we went up to Chuave, in Simbu. In the back of the ute, the drive takes a few hours, up along the highlands highway. The road is great until crossing the provincial border into Simbu; chunks of road are missing here and there, and the going is slower. In the back of a ute, it’s also a bit more jarring (I am feeling it today). But the sun shone and puffed up white clouds drifted around, so it was a pleasant drive.

Before reaching Kundiawa (the capital), we ducked left, down a road made of rocks, and bounced up and down for a few kilometres. There’s been no govt-funding for this road; several haus-lines (clans) in the area have banded together and made the road themselves. It’s actually one of the best unpaved roads I’ve been on(though, being unpaved, a few kms takes nearly an hour). We’re driving uphill, quite steeply; passing a few thatch-houses, a church, a few gardens, but mainly bush. There are goats – Seventh Day Adventists are in the area – and a few hens. There are about 2 000 people living around here, but they’re scattered and most don’t live near the road. There’s no school or aid post; you must travel out to get them.

Eventually we stop: coffee beans drying on white cloth in the middle of the road are the sign that we don’t need to go further; they are the x marking the spot. We get out and stretch, and as we stand people come trickling in from down the hill, from up the hill, from church, from bushes it seems; the five people standing around when we first arrive increase at least ten-fold. (I’m travelling with two locals, another highlander, a Sepik girl, two NZers, someone’s dad and a student from Oxford).

We wait around for a while. We are going to explore some caves which are the domain of three haus-lines; representatives from two are here, and someone has gone to get some from the final line.

Although I am the only volunteer amongst our group, we stress that we are all volunteers, not expats or tourists – and not tourist agents. Anyone whose done a bit of anthro knows about cargo cults; I think the term is a lazy label, but it remains a useful pointer for a type of mentality that is strong in parts of png: the belief that one day an abundance of “cargo” (material goods and money) will arrive and everyone will live happily ever-after. It stems from the first white people who appeared out of nowhere, bringing with them boxes and aeroplanes and boats of goods (and remember, whites first came to the highlands in the 1930s, not even 100 years ago). This pattern – many many things arriving out of nowhere – is a significant part of people’s worldview, and the appearance of whiteskins in your village is typically taken as a sign of its possibility. The tourism industry – which deserves to flourish, people and places are amazing and I urge everyone to come and spend there money here – is unfortunately tied up in this type of thinking: foreign tourists will come with money and goods and it will be gutpela sindaun, the good life in abundance – not after a few years, but immediately.

Our group are the first to come and see these caves. The visit is very important symbolically: if it goes well, people believe, all the tourists will come and life will be good. So we stress that we are all volunteers, that we do not conduct tours, that cargo will not be immediately forthcoming. Our bags with food are left in the car rather than brought out and shared (sharing is something I’d do in other contexts, but here it will confirm the goods-for-nothing and “whiteskins with their plenty” attitudes). At the end of the trip about 20 kina is given to the big men of the haus lines, and held up in the air, displayed to the whole community so that everyone knows how much has been given (often rumours spread and disputes begin because it’s believed that x squirreled away money from a common fund), and to make it clear that this is not cargo, it is a limited amount.

When reps from the three haus-lines are there, we begin to walk along a path to the caves. The path is beautiful: it is smooth, about a metre wide and lined with white rocks and carefully planted flowers – not just for 50m but 1km. It sounds funny as I type this, raving about a path, but it has been so carefully made: its inclines are never too steep, it is flat and broad and carefully tended: it must have been planned, taken months and many hands to do. Impressive.

The sun is shining merrily on and it is hot when we reach the cave entrance. About 40-50 people are walking with us; we all stop and one of the big men talks about the importance of this visit, before offering a prayer. Then we go inside. It’s big and cavernous; the floor is half rock half mud, so you’ve got to watch your step. Around the first bend are two knee-high mounds with half a (human) skull perched atop them. Villages used to place their dead in here (stopped since they become Christians); a high shelf hidden in shadow is pointed out where some skeletons remain.

We go deeper in; as usual I have impractical shoes and am worried about slipping, but a village woman sees my hesitancy and happily takes my hand and guides me to the rockier places (oxford isn’t so lucky and slips! Not that I am laughing). There are several pathways we could take, but we don’t have enough torches so we do a simple walk and go down to the underground river. I am surprised at how roomy it all is; I’d been expecting a tunnel and to feel oppressed. Instead, the space feels light and airy; it is like a cathedral in the dark.

**

We got back to Goroka around 4pm. For the last 10 minutes of the drive, we were caught in the afternoon downpour; Oxford could wash the mud off her pants, but that was about the only good thing about being in the back. I was wet and cold. And tired. Did I mention that I did all this after a big night out and about 4 hours sleep? S-T-A-M-I-N-A.

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