Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Step Aside Prom . We've Got Banquet!

(or, “Fun in the Remote Highlands of New Guinea,” Vol. 11)
I can’t prove it, but I am quite certain that my niece’s prom dress this year was priced somewhere in the three digit range.
Imagine for a moment, if you will, a lovely eighteen year old girl beaming a smile while announcing that her dress was bought for $7 at a second-hand shop in the nearby town.
Now imagine futher, her date proclaiming with pride that his mother bought his entire suit online for under $10.
Another young lady reveals that she is the sixth person to wear her dress, as it has been passed around between attendees for several years.  In fact, her sister wore it last year, and she bought it for $5 on the For Sale board.
Allow your mind to envision a couple dozen girls, some on the arms of male friends, some in groups with other girls, donning with dignity wrist corsages that have been lovingly made by community members.
Envisage the lot of these kids walking into a building that has been transformed from skating rink/floorball court/periodic hamburger eatery/teen hangout into Elegant Banquet Hall with little more than butcher paper, paint, sheer fabric, and strands of Christmas lights.
Welcome to Banquet.
Yes, it may be because we have little else to do here, but for whatever reason, this iconic Ukarumpa event remains a community attraction year after year.  Literally hundreds of people bring lawn chairs, camp out in the grass, and stand behind the ropes to garner a view of high school Juniors and Seniors entering their long-awaited “Banquet.”
While most students arrive by car which, if not chauffeured by a parent (heaven forbid!) will be left with the volunteer “valet,” a few make it a priority to leave their mark in the Banquet history pages with some sort of unique arrival.
This year, six friends (three boys and three girls) arrived together sitting on couches perched high up on a flatbed truck.  The sides of the bed were lowered and a tent made with netting had been erected on top of the vehicle, encasing the couches in what amounted to a grand-scale mosquito-shield.  Once the conveyance utility came to a halt, one young man stood and stepped onto a small platform.  He then pushed a lever that slowly lowered the “elevator” he was standing on, dropping him gingerly to the ground.  He then raised the platform twice more to lower the two other guys and then the three girls.  (While it wasn’t really clear, speculation among the crowd was that the guys descended first so they would be there to catch the girls if they fell.  Fortunately we didn’t have to find out.  We’ve fulfilled our quota of medevacs for the quarter.)
Another enterprising couple chartered an organizational helicopter, and flew in from the airstrip just a couple miles away. 
While this approach is generally employed once every two to three years, they were definitely the don’t-miss arrival of the evening.
Sometimes, students arrive on horseback. 
Or on motorcycles.
Last year, one couple arrived in a trailer-bound speed boat, pulled by a truck driven by the girl’s father.
However, a few minutes later, the three guys that arrived in caskets stole the show.  One of their fathers had made three identical wooden coffins and mounted them in the back of a flatbed truck.  Once the truck stopped, the coffin lids opened one by one and suit-and-cape-clad teenagers emerged to the uproarious laughter and applause of the crowd.
The evening always includes an elaborately prepared banquet dinner and entertainment.  Usually, the attendees watch their parents putting on a 60-90 minute play that is aligned with the evening’s theme.  This year, the theme was “Life’s a Stage” and last year the play was a hilarious spoof of “Lord of the Rings.”  The script always includes numerous inside jokes, playing off of the habits, phrases, and foibles of the year’s Juniors and Seniors.  Also, in a couple of the upstairs rooms, numerous games and activities are elaborately set up for the pre- and/or post-dinner enjoyment of the students. 
In addition to preparing the entertainment, the parents and other volunteers will have spent a couple of weeks transforming the no-frills, utilitarian Teen Center into an elegant banquet hall.  Even the bathrooms look like they should be found in a classy, up-scale restaurant.
The Banquet theme is always a well-kept secret, never publically announced until students arrive on Friday night. For those of the community who are not involved in Banquet, but who are infinitely curious (or just looking for cheap entertainment), enter “Encore.”  Those who attend one of the two Saturday evening Encore time slots are able to view the décor of the Banquet and the games facilities.  And, though they may or may not get all of the inside jokes, they are also privy to enjoy a repeat performance of the play that was performed for the students the night before.  As a bonus, the Encore entry fees help offset the cost of putting on Banquet.
While watching the Banquet attendees enter the hall last Friday night, I spied the parents of a friend of ours.  This couple has been visiting for a few weeks and will, later this month, attend the dedication for the New Testament their son and daughter-in-law (our friends) have been working on for many years.  In the meantime, I approached them and asked if they were enjoying this little bit of Ukarumpa culture that was Banquet. 
The grins on their faces gave them away.
As surreal as the whole event surely must have seemed to them, they were definitely having fun in the remote highlands of New Guinea.

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