Friday, September 25, 2009

A Walk in the [Rain]Forest

“Blessed are those who … walk in the light of your presence, O Lord.” ~Psalm 89:15

“Those who hope in the Lord … will walk and not be faint.” ~Isaiah 40:31b

Last weekend we had four-wheel driving lessons. If you have never driven off-road (well, actually it was on-road, but on-road-PNG-style rivals some of the best off-road-US-style) in a 4WD, let me tell you that it really is a different kind of driving experience. First, there are two, count them, two gear shifts. Second, you must bring the car to a full stop before you can shift between 4W Hi and 4W Lo. Something about a gear ratio. Third, in some countries, you are supposed to do all of this, AND avoid the craters AND get through the rivers, all the while shifting with your left hand and staying on the left side of the road!

But, I digress.

The reason this is relevant to my story is that last weekend was the first time I had driven a vehicle since August 3.

Yeah, I know!

You think that’s crazy, you should have seen my driving!

Again, I digress.


So, what was my point? Oh, yeah. While we have ridden in vehicles many times (usually the open-sided sort with wooden benches that you try really hard not to bruise your hiney on after the Dyna hits a bump that sends you flying eight or nine inches off your seat) I have not driven. Instead we have been required to use that most burdensome mode of transportation: feet.

From walking up to the market on Saturday, to walking all about the town of Madang carrying purchases on your back, to walking miles and miles back and forth between the dining hall, the meeting hall, the dorm, the Haus Win, and the bathrooms. (OK, I exaggerate slightly, but sum it up over all these weeks and maybe …)

Not to mention the hiking.

Oh, yeah … that was what I was getting to. OK, so they expect us to hike every week. I know, that isn’t too much to ask, but for one who hikes on summer vacation five days a year in June, preferring terrain that, at least relative to recent experience, would be considered flat, these “wokabouts” are a bit challenging.

Remember, we live on a mountain.

Which means, if we want to get a shower, we have to make it back to the top. Using our feet.

Hike #1 was called the Community Survey Hike. We walked around to several villages in close proximity to the POC grounds. (Keep in mind, when a Papua New Guinean says “close” it may or may not mean the same as what most sane Americans would mean by “close.”) We hiked for two hours, up and down, but not too strenuous.

Come to find out, they were just baiting us so they could move in for the kill.

Weeks 2, 3, and 4 brought “real” hikes. Now we were beginning to understand just how difficult life can be for the people of PNG. We would hike through a village and then thirty minutes later, some distance down the mountain, we would come upon the garden that they walk to (often barefoot) nearly every day of the year. This season’s garden, that is. No crop rotation here … just land rotation. They work a new garden each season. The process is simple:

  1. Mark the plot of ground in some way – typically plastic bags tied to the top of six-foot sticks stuck in the ground
  2. Cut all of the bush on the plot. Whether it is shrubbery, tall trees, coconut palms, or plants that are bilas tasol (only decoration), it all has to go
  3. Let it dry completely. (This can be difficult in years like this when there is an unusual amount of rain during the “dry” season.
  4. Cut and haul all of the wood that could conceivably be used for fire wood or for building houses.
  5. Burn everything that is left. (Also difficult under unusually wet conditions.)
  6. Get rid of all the burned material and dig up the ground for planting (many times with nothing but a stick).
  7. Plant your garden. (This is not tossing grain out among the rows like we think of … this is planting each sweet potato plant or each pumpkin vine individually … with a stick.)
  8. Go back to check on your garden and harvest as each thing matures … hauling it back up the mountain in a bag on your back just like you did the firewood.

Yeah, I kind of feel like a wimp complaining about walking on these same trails, with good quality walking shoes, carrying only a bottle of water. Uh huh.

There is always a national guide and at least one staff member who accompanies us on these hikes. The guides (and sometimes the staff) prefer to hike in bare feet, or maybe flip flops. Don’t ask me how.

Please allow me to insert a sort of Public Service Announcement at this point: If your group is going to do the so-called “Week 4 Down and Up Hike” in the afternoon and you were nauseous enough that you had no choice but to skip lunch and sleep, it is probably not a good idea to actually go on the hike. It could be that you are worn out by the time you get finished with the “down” portion, which makes it rather difficult to accomplish the “up” portion without nearly passing out. And it might be that once you get to the first road of the whole hike (a whole half kilometer from your ending point), they may have to radio for a vehicle to come pick you up. And it may be that you may toss your cookies upon reaching your room.

I’m just saying.

OK, so week five brought us the infamous “Kamba Hike.” The village of Kamba lies some two or three mountain-tops away, depending on how you go. We went the three-mountain direction and came back the two-mountain direction, but you can do whatever you want. We left at about 8:20 in the morning and hiked about 6 ½ km. En route we passed a group of vines strong enough and in a perfect location for doing Tarzan imitations. Paul and several others indulged.

After arriving at Kamba at about 11:15, a POC truck came and met us there with lunch before it hauled the school children back to POC. The cheaters.

But I’m not bitter. After all, I got a ride home last week, right? Anyway, we left about 12:30 and finished the 5km or so back to POC at around 3:30. This was our first “all-day” hike. There were no casualties from this hike except for a pretty badly twisted ankle (not mine). Convenient, I’d say, for hoping to get a pass on the next two hikes.

So this past Monday week we (with the exception of the twisted-ankle-victim) did the “Gear Hike.” It is exactly as it sounds. Us. Hiking. Carrying Gear. Yep.

The goal of this hike, other than to satisfy the sadistic affinities of the staff (they did not go), was to prepare us for the “Three-Day Hike” next week. We had to carry our gear – whatever we planned to take on the hike next week, plus an extra kilo of water to substitute for the food we will carry. Paul carried my father’s frame backpack (think 1980s … now quit laughing) with 13 kilos. I carried a day pack with about 8 kilos. The thought was, if you had to toss out something, toss out the “water pretending to be food” and they would re-weigh the pack upon return to see how much weight you should plan to carry next week. Pretty nifty plan, eh?

My hiking partner, Donna, and I decided on that hike that we won’t really need a plate or a spoon or clothes or a towel or a mosquito net or a water filter. We’d just hike with food, a liter of water, and deodorant, sleep with the bugs, and pray. I’m thinking I may skip the food.

Not really, of course, but I tried to die. The first hour of the hike was in direct sunlight – no shade – and it happened to be one of the hottest days since we’ve been here. At about the 45 minute mark, I was wheezing and struggling for breath. Never before have I had any symptoms that presented like asthma, but I hear now that there is some phenomenon called “stress-induced asthma.” Ding, ding, ding! I think we have a winner! :)

But, after a good rest, I recovered and was able to walk the next 15 minutes into the cover of the bush. That made a world of difference. A few minutes later we arrived at a picturesque village called Ba’ap. It has an amazing view of Madang and the coast north of it. It made my near-death experience worth it. Almost.

No, seriously, it was beautiful. And, as in every other village, it was as if the Pied Piper had come to town. Children came from every direction to see us. They universally love to have their picture taken and with the advent of digital cameras, they can see their images immediately. What fun! On our way out of the village I noticed there were about six kids following closely behind us. I asked them (at least I think I did) if they were going to go back home with me. They giggled and nodded. I decided I would teach them a skill that would be infinitely helpful to them as they grew to adulthood: “Gimmie Five!” Oh, how they loved it!

At one point, one child tried to "gimmie five" up in the air, opening the door for teaching the additionally beneficial "High Five."

When at last we arrived (read: me dragging myself in by my teeth) at POC, we all, except for the water we had drunk and the weight we’d lost through sweat (I could literally wring out my clothes), had all of the kilos we started with. I suppose that would be what one might call a “success.”

The three-day hike takes place next Monday-Wednesday, Sept 28-30. Check back for an update after that.

Now, to figure out what I really can live without on that three-day hike.

1 comment :

  1. Are you dead yet? Miracle Max says: "Oh - you are just mostly dead.. not all dead" :)


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