Thursday, September 3, 2009

Engaging the Senses

Living in Papua New Guinea is awakening my senses.

I’ve decided that when we live in one place for a long time, we begin take for granted familiar sights and sounds and flavors and such. Take, for instance, French fries. When was the last time you sat down and enjoyed – I mean really savored – some French fries? The warm, melt-in-your-mouth softness of potato that has been cooked just right, with a crusty layer of crispy, clog-your-arteries, vegetable-oil-induced yumminess, dipped in ketchup, or better yet, Pommes Frites spice and German mayonnaise … mmmm.

I miss French fries. Can you tell?

But, to get to the point … imagine dipping bananas in ketchup. Doesn’t it sound delightful? No? Well, I’ve learned that there is a difference between “eating bananas” and “cooking bananas.” Take some cooking bananas, if you can find them, slice them lengthwise, and fry them like French fries. If you weren’t looking, you would think you were eating fried potatoes. Who knew?

One thing we have had much of, and will have much more, is kau kau – otherwise known as sweet potato – of which there are several varieties as well. Taro is the root of what we would call an Elephant Ear plant. It has a very dense, root-ish texture and rather bland flavor. Aibika is a green that tastes much like spinach, and while pumpkin soup here is very good, did you know the pumpkin greens can be eaten as well? Kulau, the milk of a coconut, is a great source of electrolytes. Getting dehydrated on a hike? Cut a hole in the coconut and drink the milk.

Without passing judgment on any of the above, let’s just say that PNG has awakened my sense of taste.

Back in Fort Worth, at night we would frequently hear people racing down Everman Raceway … I mean, Parkway. Here? Geckos gather on our window screens and chirp the latest news to each other at night. Village roosters crow the coming of dawn … at 3AM, 4AM, 4:45 … I’ve even heard them as early as 11:30PM. But you know what? It doesn’t seem to matter when they crow. Dawn still doesn’t come until 6AM.

I hear children playing and giggling as they walk barefoot down the road. I hear languages being spoken around me that I will probably never learn, and yet I also hear a language coming out of my own mouth that I never knew before. I hear the sound of blakskins and waiskins laughing together when the language barrier has been broken and a joke is shared.

I hear wind blowing through the palm, banana, papaya, and mango trees. I hear rain pounding the corrugated metal roof above me at night before it drains, as drinking water, down into the holding tank.

Smell – now there’s an interesting sense. I’m sitting here trying to remember the distinctive smells of everyday life in America. Smog? Fresh French fries?

Fire is a part of daily life here – not for us, yet, but for these people who have no stoves or ovens or guaranteed clean water. Fire means smoke, and smoke has a very distinct smell.

Sea water, too, is a unique smell, as is the diesel fumes that come from the open-backed truck carrying 24 people, in first gear, up the mountain on winding, narrow, pot-holed dirt roads.

I think the smell that has captured me the most, though, is the raw odor of sweat. Masses of humanity baking in near-equatorial sunshine, with no running water and no air conditioning. I suppose I could list sweat under each sense category here – just yesterday we were hiking and I was covered in it. I could feel it draining down my neck and back, see it pouring down my arms, and hear it smacking the ground when I tried to wipe it off. I could taste it running down my face and into my mouth. Trust me – there’s little you can do about it. And the smell? Oh. There are no words. Inhale deeply early next Tuesday morning – unless you live very close to Detroit, you might be able to smell it from where you are.

What about sights? Do I miss the roads crowded with cars and trucks and vans and semis and motorcycles, etc., ad nauseum? Do I miss the neon signs beckoning me to “have it my way” or “drive thru?” (Ok, if it means French fries, maybe.) Do I miss the suburban neighborhoods with their cozy little homes where people hit the garage door opener at 5:30PM and disappear until 7:30 the next morning?

Here in PNG, houses are for sleeping. Life is lived outside, in community. Cooking, washing, gardening, playing, making the things needed for life is all done publically and corporately. Relationships are valued.

My eyes can’t get enough of the million dollar views from this hill called Nobnob. New varieties of trees and flowers, and especially insects, entertain me regularly. Seeing hundreds of flying foxes hanging from the trees in Madang, and watching these same bats spread their five foot wingspans in flight above the city in broad daylight … unbelievable.

Looking through my snorkeling mask at coral teeming with tropical fish and the occasional sea snake. Urchins with foot-long spines lining the sea walls. My son emerging from the water holding the latest starfish find, bright blue and 14” across.

The ladies sitting in the market place with their handmade clothing or bags, or selling vegetables, fruit, or peanuts.

PNG is a sight to behold.

In the States, I remember the feel of the steering wheel. I remember the fluffiness of freshly-dried towels and the static that comes when the clinging dryer sheet is peeled off. I remember the feel of carpet under my feet. I remember petting the cat.

I have not driven a car in almost a month now. Instead, I regularly grasp the wooden bench in the back of the truck so the potholes don’t toss me about too badly, and I feel the wind in my hair as we ride to town. Here, I miss fabric softener. Though the cold shower feels immeasurably more wonderful after returning from a hike coated in a 2” layer of sweat, when finished I reach for a clean, but rough and crinkly towel.

Carpet has been replaced by a concrete floor and a woven mat, and I miss the cat.

The feel of PNG money is different. Not only is it prettier and more interesting (as is the case with the currency of basically every other country in the world) than US dollars, it has a distinctive texture. There is a little window on each bill, too, made of a plastic-like material, that displays a near-transparent hologram. Their one kina coins have a hole in the middle.

Tucking in the mosquito net every time I get into or out of bed is a new tactile experience, as was making an outdoor kitchen last week (that’s another blog entry in itself). Pounding the poles, made from trees, into the ground with only our hands, and securing the bamboo and other materials, not with nails, but with twine, was something new for all of us.

There is one feeling that I am still looking forward to here. That is the touch of a Papua New Guinean hand - the clinging grasp that we’re told comes with relationship and friendship. Men hold the hands of other men; women hold the hands of other women, and for them it is not awkward. Instead, when they feel close to you, it is as natural as laughing together.

I’m looking forward to that.


  1. Keep telling your story. I want to read it for four years, then I want to plan that double date upon your return! We'll all eat French fries, just cuz!

    “The LORD bless you and keep you;
    The LORD make His face shine upon you,
    And be gracious to you;
    The LORD lift up His countenance upon you,
    And give you peace.”

  2. Sharon, your descriptions bring back such a flood of memories from Venezuela. I would go back for the parchita ice cream alone.
    You know that people pay money for those insects on Ebay, right? ;)

    Praying for the day when PNG is more home to you than Texas.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this. So descriptive, I felt like I was there. I'm glad you're settling in and getting accustomed to certain aspects of PNG. I'll pray that other parts become normal for you as well.

    Miss you around here!

  4. It is funny - we are one of the few generations to have lived in such a way where body odor is not frequently smelled over here. I honestly don't know if I could ever get used to the smell of unbathed humans... and possibly the bad breath that comes with it.

    Like you, I too became *very* aware of different sights, smells, and sounds when I first moved to the desert. All those little things you take for granted. You know that story.... I will continue to pray for your adjustment! :)

  5. Fascinating story telling ... I can't wait to tell my kids about the ketchup on bananas. There is a student at school who does it without cooking the banana.

    Its all reconditioning ... and that's what God does best.


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