MAKING RAIN--from Four Corners:
A JOURNEY INTO THE HEART OF PAPUA NEW GUINEA
(published in Quarterly West; anthologized
in Best American Travel Writing 2002;
winner of the Associated Writing Program Award for Creative Nonfiction
and the Writer’s at Work Award for Creative Nonfiction)
Ambunti is the St. Louis of Papua New Guinea. Sitting on the Sepik River, it is where the missionaries come to “get a break from the bush,” while foreign backpackers find it a convenient place to head in. Tribal people pass through: women with their faces tattooed; men with the septa of their noses hollowed out, light passing through when they turn their heads. Ambunti is the gateway to all points west, the town where travelers converge to refuel and stock up before heading upriver. Here one can catch up on news, make a phone call, mail letters, even cash a traveler’s check. A small police station exists to administer law and order the old-fashioned way: with fear and a big stick. The town was settled by the Australians in 1924 in an attempt to subdue the area’s headhunting populations so exploratory missions could safely venture into the interior in search of gold. There hadn’t been much gold around to make it worth their efforts, but Ambunti became the most important outpost in the Sepik River region—a reputation it still holds today. It is the Last Stop. After Ambunti, the river goes on for days without offering the respite of human presence. Just jungle, I’m told. River and the endless green.
It is in Ambunti that I first hear about a famous Apowasi witch doctor living upriver. He has uncanny powers. He can heal the sick, curse the wicked. He speaks to the animals of the jungle, cajoling them until they walk into a hunter’s hands. But more than anything, he’s renowned for his ability to connect with the gods. He knows the proper spells, and how to lift his prayers higher than the stars until they rest at last in the right ears. The gods hear him. They answer his prayers. The lost become found; the dying, saved. He can work miracles, I’m told, and I want to find him and ask him whether the gods are watching me, helping me. I want to know what I’m doing here in New Guinea, always on the move, always traveling to one dangerous place after the next. When will I be able to stop? When will I end the searching?
Given its unique outpost status, Ambunti isn’t a very big place—a pleasant town of about 1,300 people. The centrally located airstrip is its only main attraction. The village itself consists mostly of traditional and Western-style houses spread out along the Sepik River, people peacefully going about their affairs of fishing, running small stores. A missionary compound and a couple of simple guest houses face the airstrip, and I head over to see about a room. I stop off at a simple-looking shack with a corrugated iron roof—one of the town stores. Inside is the usual food of PNG, the mainstays of Australian bush cuisine: packets of Magi instant noodles, great tins of margarine with a smiling New Guinean boy on the label holding out a piece of buttered bread, whole milk powder from France, gargantuan bottles of cooking oil, Milo bars, rice, Cadbury chocolate. I pick up a jar of the Australian black yeast spread called Vegemite, the most revolting substance ever designed for human consumption.
“It'll grow hair on your toes,” someone behind me says in an Australian accent.
I turn around to see a tall, lanky, red-headed man in olive army surplus pants and broad-rimmed straw hat, smiling at me. “Rob Hodge,” he says, extending his hand.
Beside him is a man with curly blond hair, wearing a sun visor. Though of slight frame, he’s all muscle and sinew. “Yens,” he says with a German accent.
He spells it for me: Jens. He’s from Germany, is taking his “holiday” in Papua New Guinea. He says his girlfriend hadn’t wanted to accompany him here so he has to settle for Rob. I find it odd that one would choose PNG as a vacation spot; I seem to have chosen this country for every other reason—for the raw challenge of the place, for the lack of comfort and guarantees. Jens is reminding me of the trip I might have had: going to a place merely to enjoy myself, to languish on a beach, to swim in turquoise waters. Nothing to prove to myself or the world. Such a trip would seem a somewhat fanciful idea.
I introduce myself to them. Rob inspects me, beaming like a proud father.
“Looks like you've been through hell,” he concludes.
“Do I look that bad?”
“Ya, well, your legs are not so good.” Jens points at them with a serious expression. “All the scratches.”
I shrug. No beauty contests out here. This is what you look like after hacking yourself out of a jungle. My legs still look like war zones, covered in scratches, punctures, rips.
“How’d you get like this?” Rob asks.
I tell them about my hike from Fiak to Hotmin: the heat exhaustion, the mountains of jungle with 90 degree inclines and the never ending rain. I describe the small villages I’d seen, and how the missionaries must be pulling out their hair and mobilizing for a new offensive because the women there were still bare-breasted and wearing bark-string skirts.
Jens shakes his head wistfully. “I am jealous,” he says. “I want to see that.” His disappointment is what safari goers in the Serengeti might have when told they'd missed a leopard sighting.
Rob slaps me on the back.
“You've got the blood in you,” he says. “I'm impressed.”
I’m glad he’s impressed; it’s like receiving an acknowledgement that I, a woman, also belong in this place—a place that has traditionally been the playground of male travelers and adventurers. I’ve passed the test. I can do what the boys can do.
“’The blood’?” I ask Rob.
“You’ve got balls,” he says. “I'm going to call you bus meri.”
I smile. A Bush Mary with balls—the male anatomy bestowed upon me to explain the phenomenon of what I've done.
Rob tells me that Jens is a German Navy SEAL officer, a “killing machine.” (Jens blushes.) His skills are in such high demand that he’s often brought over to the States to help train American Special Forces units. No wonder he is so strong, appears so physically fit. I want to know why he’s chosen to commit his life to the Special Forces. What does it give him that he can't get anywhere else?
“Do you enjoy it?” I ask him.
“Of course,” he says.
“What do you enjoy about it?”
He sputters his lips. “It's not an office job, this kind of thing.”
“Do you like the adventure of it?”
“Yes, of course.”
He sighs and looks away. I consider telling him about my childhood fantasy of becoming a female Green Beret, but I don’t want to frighten him with the idea.
Rob tells me that he met Jens in a guest house in the coastal town of Wewak, and that they flew here to Ambunti to hire a canoe and guide for their very own trip up the Sepik River. Jens doesn’t have much time, but their plan is to go up some rarely traveled tributaries, seek out tribes that have had little or no contact with travelers. He asks if I’d like to join them.
It doesn’t take me long to decide. We’ll try to find the Apowasi witch doctor.
As we leave the store, I ask Jens what he teaches his American Special Forces students.
“It depends, you know.”
“Bombs and stuff? Explosives?”
He sighs. “Ya, ya. I teach some of that.”
“Teaches ‘em how to blow the enemy to smithereens,” Robert offers.
Jens is blushing again. “Ya. That kind of thing.”
“Do you teach them how to conduct secret training missions?” I remember the books about the Special Forces and Navy SEALs I used to read as a kid. “You know—scuba-diving to enemy ships and planting explosives on the hull?”
Jens looks at me curiously. “I can't talk about it, you know.”
But we don’t give up asking, Jens’s reality so surreal to us.
“One thing I’m wondering,” Rob says. “Do you know how to strangle people with wire?”
We follow the course of the airstrip, waiting for Jens to reply. A pilot loads some screeching piglets tied up in hand-woven, string billum bags into the back of a small plane next to a coffin. Jens pulls out his camera and takes a few pictures—this is the world Jens considers bizarre. Rob reiterates his question. Wires. Strangulation.
“I’m on holiday,” Jens says simply.
Rob slaps Jens on the back again. “We’ll just get you pissed, Mate. Loosen the tongue.” He grins devilishly at me.
We head over to the hut of a well-known guide in town. This man, Joseph Kona, says he is familiar with the Apowasi witch doctor called The Chief, who is the bigman of his tribe. We are invited into Joseph's hut to work out the details and expenses for visiting him. It turns out that the Apowasi are far up a branch of the Wogamush River, a western tributary of the Sepik. Their village isn’t on any of our maps, the people themselves living inland from the river in a remote area. Joseph says they’re visited by Westerners maybe once every few years.
We make final arrangements, and Joseph invites us to spend the night in his hut. I feel my usual burden of anxiety lifting, as I won't be traveling alone anymore and don’t have to rely on myself if anything dangerous should happen. I’m with two men, one of them a German Navy SEAL. Not bad. Better than carrying a machete.
And it turns out that Rob has been everywhere. He’s been attacked by hippos in the Serengeti, has made daring leaps from cliffs onto trucks in the Australia outback. He’s canoed down the Klondike River, every last mile of it, and has seen the sun rise on the Alps, the Himalayas, the Andes. Rob has seen it all, and none of it was ever enough for him—until now. Now, he’s content. We eat Sepik River catfish with rice before the glow of a kerosene lamp, and he sits back against the palm bark wall of Joseph’s hut, smiling a big Irish grin.
“This has got to be the one place I would most want to be in this moment,” he says. “Here it is.”
Jens glances at him, amused. He won’t be caught with Rob’s moist eyes or goofy smiles. Not a word out of his mouth sails beyond the present and the practical. Jens, a warrior by profession, a specialist who teaches others how to kill, must find sentimentality a sign of weakness. A liability.
But does he hear the sound of children playing outside in the night? The soft conversations in the native tok ples—meaning literally, “talk place”—language from Joseph’s family in the back room? The banter of the frogs? There is a sense of our being told a secret now—right now. We’re being let in on what should, must, always matter in life. The intimate sounds of life go on around us as if they have no intention of ever stopping. I wonder if Jens hears. I sit down near Rob, who is grinning mysteriously, and we smile at each other. We know. We share this night.
When we all finish eating, we head into a spare room of the hut to set up our mosquito nets. I choose a place between Jens and Rob, enjoying the safety of their proximity and relishing their company. They change out of their clothes in front of me as if I weren’t here. I sit and watch them, their chests, the beautiful male bodies. Why not? I watch them until they slip into their mosquito nets—Jens in boxer shorts, Rob naked. Now I slip off my own shirt. I catch them watching me, and it’s as if we belong to each other.
We three sit in wicker chairs in a large dugout canoe. “The lazy way,” Rob calls it. Joseph sits up front, sleeping, his younger cousin, Alphonso, piloting us along. Jens is also asleep in front of me. Though fair-complexioned with blond hair and blue eyes, and wearing only a thin T-shirt and shorts, Jens is convinced that sunscreen is a useless gimmick of the West, and he refuses to wear any. His skin is red and crispy all over, his curly blond locks bleaching in the sun. Rob goes to the other extreme, wearing a long-sleeved army shirt, straw hat, pants, and boots. I fall somewhere in between, in T-shirt, skirt and Australian bush hat.
For the first time since arriving in PNG, I’m feeling as if I might just be “on holiday,” like Jens. I’m just enjoying the world, postponing all tests. It always amazes me how intrusive beauty becomes when the mind allows itself to rest. The body relaxes, the senses turn on. Perfection imposes itself upon the earth, and I am gorging myself on the spread of river that twists and glides to the west, to some space seemingly beyond the horizon. This feeling is the same as looking at a night sky—all the immensity, the grandeur—only here it is a feasting of color. Clouds sweep broadly across the sky, rising in pillars and arcs of gray and white. I can almost feel distant rain pounding down on some immutable shore. The river waters catch and rattle the stands of wild sugarcane bordering the river. Sunlight falls haphazardly upon the inland jungle, lighting the tops of trees in one place while another group falls into darkness. Crocodiles, the kings of the PNG waterways, slip into the water as we motor by. Joseph points at them with reverence. They’re big out here, he says. As numerous as the stars themselves. He tells us that the crocodile is a special creature. In the beginning there was nothing but water, but then a giant crocodile swam down to the bottom of the sea and returned with mud on its back, creating the world.
We exit the Sepik for a small river that heads south, toward one of the largest lagoons in the country. Rob wants to see a bird-of-paradise, PNG’s national bird and a species famous for its spectacular plumage, so we’re taking a side trip to a village called Wagu at the far end of the lagoon.
Joseph has his reservations about taking us, though, because my female presence might emit “poison,” which could chase the birds away. He tells me that women in PNG are believed to give off poison much more often than men, their menstrual cycles and genitals causing sickness, injury, death. Even worldly Joseph, missionary schooled, English speaking, a prominent man in Ambunti, firmly accepts this. He’s seen it happen, he says. Couples who “don't take the tradition seriously” will pay the price for not bewaring of the female poison: The men will grow weak and die young.
Just as a town would want to separate infectious typhoid patients from the general population, women in these villages are whisked away to menstruation huts—haus meri—at the first sign of their monthly evil because Joseph says they’re “full of mischief” and can spread poison. Poison is spread in the most unassuming ways. Maybe a woman sits down on her husband’s chair while she’s menstruating, and he sits there after her—well, he’s just caught her evil and has infected himself, and chances are his health will begin to deteriorate. Food preparation and cooking must be done by another woman during this time, to avoid having menstruating women infecting the meals and causing the man’s body to “rot” from the inside out. But what the men fear most is the vindictive wife who, wanting to get back at her husband, practices “sorcery.” Maybe she leaves some menstrual blood where he’ll walk on it, or—God forbid!—is intent on spreading her poisonous sex fluids on him during intercourse. From the man’s point of view, the hazards must be many, the risks great, in order to lie with a woman to perpetuate his clan.
I don't tell Joseph or anyone else that I’m currently having my period, and revel in the thought of all the poison I’m unleashing onto the world. Joseph says that one of the worst things a woman can do is to step over a man doing her “blood time.” Feeling mighty and wrathful, I make an effort to step over Joseph several times as I get in and out of the canoe during the day. The poor man suspects nothing.
After slipping across the lagoon's wide, black waters in the canoe, we reach Wagu at dusk. It’s a small village of a few stilt huts spread along the water. Mosquitoes are mysteriously absent, and I walk casually along the lagoon’s shore, staring up at the ever brightening stars. The night air is cool and pleasant here, and I’m surprised that the Bahinomo people of Wagu Village are the only ones to have chosen to settle beside this lagoon; it may be that fierce tribal fighting allowed them to keep this paradisiacal part of the country all for themselves.
We wake up before dawn to seek out the birds-of-paradise. Our guide, a local man, leads us up a steep slope into the neighboring jungle. We chop a path, sweating and cursing our way through the thick foliage until our guide stops us.
Two birds-of-paradise with bright red feathers taunt each other and fly into the air, their long, frilly plumage flaring about them. Rob and Jens pull their cameras out and start to take pictures, as our guide lets out a high-pitched call, hoping to attract more. The two birds fly off. We sit down and wait, flicking off the little wormlike leeches that jump onto us from the foliage and inch up our arms and legs. No birds are returning. Nothing.
Joseph is becoming increasingly furious. “It's no good. That man—” he points to our guide, “—was with his wife last night. She put smell on him. The birds smell her poison and they don’t come.”
Joseph repeats this to the guide in Pidgin, and the Wagu man looks at his feet like a guilty child. Joseph is spitting and frothing in anger now, berating the silent man. Rob raises his eyebrows at me, and we try not to laugh, waiting for Joseph’s tirade to end.
With the birds staying clear of us, we have no other alternative but to return to Wagu. Joseph, still piqued, tells me that if a man sleeps with a woman then goes on a big fishing trip, he won’t catch anything. She leaves her evil on him, jinxes him. The animals and fish can smell her and they stay away. “Our guide knows this,” he says to me. “Stupid man.”
Rob nudges me, but I’m not laughing anymore. I’m starting to get really sick of women being blamed for everything. When we get back to Wagu village, I’m determined to step over both Joseph and the guide a few times. And maybe Rob and Jens, too.
We’re on a small tributary of the Wogamush called Piyowai Creek, trying to reach the Apowasi people, and I don’t even know if I could get the days and dates right now. The arching of branches and vines overhead obscures the movement of the sun so that life feels timeless here. Enormous butterflies with wings of blue and green satin flutter and cavort with each other in the patches of sunlight streaming down through the jungle. Bright red and blue damselflies skim the water's surface, rising in abrupt swirls to settle daintily on plants lining the shore.
The bird life here would please even the most discerning ornithologist. Parrots announce our canoe’s approach in a flash of green and red wings. Black-and-white cockatoos, creatures I’ve only seen inside cages, watch us fearlessly from their perches. Joseph points out a large bird with black body, white head and an enormous yellow beak—a hornbill. As it takes off, it makes a loud, propeller-like sound, as if it were a chopper flying off in retreat. Crown pigeons with red eyes, bluish-gray bodies and large tufts of feathers on their crowns, study us from the trees. Alphonso shoots a four-pronged bamboo arrow at one, misses, and the bird flies away over the treetops with a loud whoosh-whoosh-whoosh.
The creek narrows to no more than fifteen feet across, and the water becomes shallow and cluttered with rainforest debris. Using the outboard becomes hazardous, and we’re forced to pole ourselves along. Our progress slows. Dead trees block our passage, and we’re constantly getting out of the canoe to drag it over them. When we encounter large tangles of tree trunks, our only recourse is to chop them apart so we can make a corridor for our canoe. This is Jens’s and Rob’s idea of adventure, and they eagerly shed their shirts and take up an axe. I offer my services, but Joseph and Alphonso shake their heads and grin at the idea. Men only.
Fine with me—it’s full sun and 90 percent humidity.
“Move that axe a little faster,” I tell Rob from my seat in the wicker chair.
Joseph is concerned about the time it’s taking us: Not only is it the dry season, but there’s been very little rain this year. Our canoe is now starting to drag along the bottom of the creek, making him wonder if we should forget about trying to reach the Apowasi people. He’s worried there won’t be any creek water left when we're making our return to Biaga. What do we want to do?
Rob is unperturbed. He doesn’t mind dragging the canoe back to Biaga if he has to. Jens wants to get to these Apowasi people, see “people who wear traditional clothing.”
“I'd still like to see the Apowasi chief,” I announce.
That settles it. We’ll continue.
It’s the late afternoon when Joseph says we’ve reached the spot where we’ll be leaving the canoe behind for a hike through the jungle. The water is so low that we have to pull ourselves up a six-foot-high, muddy embankment just to reach the shore. A ramshackle hunter’s hut sits in the midst of an overgrown clearing, birds streaming from the structure as we approach. The sun barely reaches us here, the jungle crouching over the hut, crowding out light so that everything appears in dim, greenish hues. Insects screech and fidget from the reeds near the creek shore. Birds high up in the canopy let out sharp calls. This place feels haunted, as if ghostly eyes of the ancestors stare at us.
We put all of our things in the hut and prepare for the hike to the Apowasi village. I trade my dingy floral-print skirt for the greater mobility of a pair of Jens’s swimming trunks, and fill my little backpack with plenty of bottled water. Jens and I take our cue from Joseph and go barefoot, but Rob won’t be converted—he wears his army boots, camouflage shirt, and pants.
We follow a faint, muddy path through primeval jungle, trees towering at least a hundred feet above us, vines creeping from limb to limb, hugging trunks and hanging from boughs like gigantic tentacles. Tall, skinny aruka palms compete for light with large red klinkiis, renowned for their strong wood, which is used by the locals for making canoes. The competing black klinkiis have wood so heavy and durable that it sinks in water and is used primarily for paddles. Every jungle plant must have its utility in the lives of the local tribes, from the edible sago palm to the wild sugarcane used for making mats.
Our pace is unusually fast, as if this were a bushwalking competition. Rob, Jens and Joseph are directly ahead of me, Rob slipping from time to time on muddy tree roots because he wears his boots. Jens, though, seems to be back in Navy SEAL training. He’s as adept at this kind of travel as Joseph is, and easily twists and breaks off branches with a flicker of his hand. When Rob slips one too many times, Jens passes him up. Rob, unpleased about losing his place, stays right behind Jens to try to re-pass, our pace speeding up even more. I’m thinking that their competition must be a male thing.
It’s been an hour of this fast-paced jungle hiking. The terrain we travel through is more swampy than hilly, and there are a number of streams we have to cross on the familiar single-log bridges I’ve come to hate. Jens, capable warrior, crosses after Joseph with hardly a break in speed. Robert in his boots can barely grip the wood and bungles the crossings. I try not to laugh.
The path opens up now. We see a small village on the edge of a large stream. Mountains of rain forest rise to the south, clouds languishing about them, the departing sun already warming the sky and jungle with an orange glow. Everything looks softened, as if a god were resting a gentle hand upon the earth, quieting it, preparing it for rest. The stream travels over stones, which catch the sunlight and cause the water to glitter. Naked children chase each other through the water, laughing. They haven’t seen us yet. No one has. The village is completely undisturbed; it is the most serene place I have ever seen.
Joseph calls out. The kids playing in the stream look at us, freeze, then run off in terror.
“They never see white people,” Joseph explains apologetically.
Jens has his camera out and is snapping pictures of the retreating children.
A man in a dingy, unbuttoned white shirt, wearing a breechcloth and pandanus leaves around his waist, comes out to greet us. Cassowary claws erupt from the tops of each of his nostrils, and large hoop earrings made from bird quills graze his shoulders. A band of bright red and yellow beads encircles his head. A half-moon kina shell is tied around his neck—surely his prized possession as this shiny, abalone-like shell had been traded all the way from the ocean. These kina shells themselves are so highly prized that the PNG monetary unit is called by the same name.
“This is the Chief,” Joseph says.
“Does he have any other name?” I ask. I’m reminded of one of those cheap Westerns from the 1950s.
“Everyone calls him the Chief.”
The Chief’s face is stern as he examines us. Rob points to a necklace he’s wearing, made of tulip tree fibers woven about a round piece of wood.
“Mourning necklace,” Joseph explains.
He tells us that the Apowasi people wear a necklace whenever one of their family members dies. The necklaces contain the soul of the deceased, and only once the necklace falls off will the mourning period end and the soul pass on to the spirit world.
Joseph and the Chief chat in a tribal language, presumably about us waitman na wait meri, white man and white woman, and what we’re doing here. They’re both laughing heartily.
The Chief says something, and Joseph translates.
“He asks if you want to take photo.”
The Chief holds out his hand. He demands one kina for every picture we want to take of him. Jens has already taken several and pays up. I look at Rob. Neither of us wants to seem like some ridiculous, camera-toting tourist, paying for a photo beside the guy in the Mickey Mouse suit. Yet we are tourists. Silly tourists fascinated by the man before us. And this has become a business venture for the Apowasi. It’s curious that this isolated tribe knows to collect money from us, as there’s nothing to spend it on and the nearest stores are in distant Ambunti. Yet, Western infatuation with money creeps into this culture just as steadily as does the introduction of steel and the gospel on May River.
We all pay up. Rob stands beside the Chief as Jens focuses the camera. The Apowasi bigman looks off in a different direction, not wanting to make eye contact with the lens.
Another man, dressed like the Chief with large cassowary talons sticking out of the top of each nostril, comes forward, asks for a kina from each of us, and poses next to his friend for pictures. Rob uses his Polaroid, giving them both instant shots, and they pass these along to family members who start to emerge from the nearby huts. Jens must be disappointed: None of the Apowasi women are wearing bark-string skirts; all have converted to a cloth laplap, or sarong, around their waists and a T-shirt worn threadbare over their breasts. One old woman appears in the distance, though, wearing only a bark skirt, and Jens charges toward her with his camera. I’m embarrassed. I want to apologize to everyone for breaking into the routine of their lives, for not having anything meaningful to contribute except, perhaps, my wad of kina bills.
The Chief and his friend disappear, and about ten minutes later we hear a low-pitched, ominous whooping coming from the nearby jungle. Suddenly the two men burst forth with spears held aloft. Bright yellow paint covers their bodies. Pandanus leaves are tied about their arms and legs. They charge toward us with a sharp holler and I find myself running for my life. I retreat toward the village but am quickly cut off, the Chief’s spear only inches from my face.
He smiles. I try to smile back. Thirty years ago, I may have actually been speared. Now he lowers the spear and shows it to me. He insists I run my fingers down the length of its shaft, touch the sharp bamboo point. Jens comes over and tries it out, pretending to be a javelin thrower. He calls Joseph over to translate, and thus begins a heated discussion about whether the spear is for sale and how much it costs. Rob wants a spear, too, and so the Chief’s friend runs off to his hut to get some more. It’s the Home Shopping Network, PNG-style, spears, bows and arrows laid out for our money. Jens pulls off his T-shirt and exchanges it for several arrows. The T-shirt I’m wearing could buy me two spears, but I'm not interested. I didn’t come here to buy anything. I just wanted to meet the Chief and ask him to explain what I’m searching for here in PNG, why I don’t seem able to stop.
I wander off along the stream, watching the mountains growing increasingly pink in the declining light. If I could, I would walk off to those mountains, but with none of the rush and exertion of past travels. This time I would do it slowly, taking weeks, perhaps months, stopping to learn the names of all the plants and insects—the local names, the names that have special meaning to the people. I’d learn how one plant relies on another, how a single seed sprouts and a tree comes into being. I’d start from the beginning, learn about life all over again, if only, by the end of it, I would be able to understand why I’m here in PNG, what quakes of the soul had set me adrift.
Children hide behind the posts of the stilt huts, watching me silently. I’m the perpetual stranger. I hear Rob saying that this place is his idea of “utopia,” but I don’t know what a utopia is supposed to be, or where one could be found. I sometimes think that it is the place where fear and doubt end with the realization that around you is everything you need, and there is nothing else to find.
The old woman with the grass skirt comes toward me and hands me a few of the mourning necklaces she’s made. She pats my hand, says something to me, and smiles a toothless grin. Thinking she’s trying to sell them to me, I reach for some kina bills to pay her, but she shakes her head and speaks softly to me in her tok ples language. She pats my hand again and I watch her shuffle off, back bent, bare feet following the ground’s well-worn path. I am beginning to understand.
“Is she selling those necklaces?” Jens calls over, his arms full of arrows.
“No,” I say.
I walk over to the Chief, and have Joseph ask him about the gods. He may find my question strange: I want to know if the gods are kind.
“They are full of mischief,” the Chief says.
“People want many things,” the Chief says. “The gods hear and give them big gifts, but people don’t give a payback. The gods are angry.”
“Can the gods hear us now?”
The Chief points at a bird flying across the stream. “There. He hears.”
I have Joseph explain to the Chief that I know he has great magic, and I’d like to make a wish and have the gods hear.
The Chief tells me to wait. He suddenly points to a large crown pigeon that has alighted on a nearby tree, and nods. I look at it, make my wish. I want to find a way to end my crazy searching. The Chief is smiling slightly. Jens comes over wanting to see the mourning necklaces I’ve “bought” and I hand them over, my eyes still on the spot where the bird was. Here in Apowasi village, life is inseparable from magic. The hunter who catches a large cassowary in the jungle has been favored by a god’s magic; the little girl who grows sick and dies is the victim of evildoing. But it’s not easy for me to believe. I find myself wanting evidence, proof.
It’s getting late, and all of our things are back with Alphonso at the hunter’s hut beside Piyowai Creek. Joseph wants us to get going, but the Apowasi chief stops us. He will do us a favor. He said he’s heard from Joseph about how difficult our travel was up Piyowai Creek. He wants us to have easy travel back to the Wogamush River in our canoe, so he says he will make us rain.
Jens sputters his lips and ties his arrows together with a strip of bark. I’m looking at the sky. A few distant clouds. No sign of a storm. The jungle announces night in the dark red hues of dusk. We’ve got a jungle to get through, and I’m feeling nervous. I don’t want to hike when it’s dark out; the jungle makes me feel claustrophobic enough as it is.
The Chief goes and gets a newly cut sago palm branch, closes his eyes, and says some words in a deep voice to evoke the spirit of the water. He opens his eyes and breaks the branch over the river, the pieces floating away in the current. We all watch as they knock against rocks and bob through rapids. The Chief smiles serenely: We will have our rain.
He points at me to tell me the gods have heard—I will have my wish.
We are nearly to the hunter’s hut. I’ve been waiting for the Chief’s promise of rain, and it begins now, like a benediction. Suddenly the wind tears at the trees and lightning flashes. The dark sky wants to drown us. The path below our bare feet disappears with water and I fumble along a trail I can’t see, stepping where the person ahead of me steps, feeling for footholds with my toes. The night cracks and booms as we slosh through mud, never knowing what we’re about to step on.
Joseph, in the lead, lets out a squeal and knocks into the rest of us as he backs up. In the circle of light from his flashlight we see an eight-foot-long snake traveling across the mud. “Poisonous,” Joseph says. Even Rob hasn’t a calming wisecrack now. We wait in the deluge until the snake passes, and Joseph’s frail flashlight beam once again bounces off the darkness of water and jungle. We’re practically running now. As we wade across a small stream, the water comes up to my chest. I stop, terrified. Rob takes my hand. Cooing to me, he leads me across.
We fumble up to the hut. The rain gushes upon us, and Joseph is telling us to hurry, hurry. Alphonso stares out of the doorway at us, eyes wide. The magnitude of this storm is like nothing any of us has seen, and the night tears at the hut’s thatch roof, water streaming in from myriad places. The thunder shakes the wooden foundations and pounds away across the jungle. Alphonso sits with his knees pulled in against him. Rob gives him a friendly pat on the back, but the man isn’t comforted. He shakes his head, mumbles something in a language we don’t understand. Joseph tells us that Alphonso knew this storm was magic—the Chief's magic. The gods are everywhere, he says to us, shaking.
We all go to bed, rain soaking us through our mosquito nets. If I should be scared, I’m not. Rather, I find myself comforted by the determination of the storm.
Dawn. The rain has ended and sunlight streams through slits in the palm bark walls. I hear Alphonso exclaiming, and crawl out of my mosquito net to see what he’s pointing at. Directly outside of the hut is Piyowai Creek. Where there was once a six-foot slope down to its waters, muddy water now surges past.
Joseph hurries us. “This is special for us,” he says. “Chief makes water for us. Normally, the water stay like this for two, three days, but this water is just for us. Chief said we must leave early because the water will go down.”
Our canoe, having risen with the water, floats beneath the stilt legs of the hut. We pull it over and load our things into it. Rob has his video camera out to record this creek turned river.
“Should have asked the Chief to make us some cold Fosters,” he says.
We get into the canoe and shove off. Our work is minimal; we merely let the current take us back to the Wogamush. I’m surprised to discover how swift this current is. How determined. We travel so quickly that even the outboard is unnecessary, and the giant logs which had blocked our way on the approach are now deeply submerged, only the very tips of their branches poking through the top of the water. The sun glares down on us from a cloudless sky, the heat becoming intense, yet we’re speeding along as if a great wind were behind us—or a god’s hand pushing us along. I’m ecstatic with the feeling of speed.
Slowly, the water returns to where it’d been the day before. The nearer we get to the end of the Piyowai, the more the bloated creek recedes until finally, like a gift, the current graciously releases us into the great, black spread of the Wogamush River.
“That was special for us,” Joseph reminds us.
Jens adjusts his wicker chair and leans back, eyes closed, face to the sun.
“We could use a little rainmaking back in the Outback,” Rob says, beaming.
I sit in the prow, watching the tip of our canoe break the black waters. Reflections of the jungle appear on the river’s surface—trees, a bird swooping across a screen of blank sky. The passage of our canoe pulls and distorts the images until they’re taken by the waves. Last night’s rain might have been a complete fluke. I know this. Yet, I still believe.
FOUR CORNERS: A JOURNEY INTO THE HEART OF PAPUA NEW GUINEA
by Kira Salak
Salak undertook an epic, solo jungle trek across the remote Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea--often called the last frontier of adventure travel. Traveling by dugout canoe and on foot, experiencing the dangers and wonders of a largely untouched world, she became the first woman to traverse PNG. Salak stayed in villages where cannibalism was still practiced behind the backs of the missionaries, meeting mysterious witch doctors and befriending the leader of the OPM guerrilla movement who fought against the Indonesian occupation of Western New Guinea.
The New York Times Book Review selected Four Corners as a Notable Travel Book of the Year, writing, "Kira Salak is tough, a real-life Lara Croft." Book Magazine called her "the gutsiest--and some say craziest--woman adventurer of our day." Edward Marriott proclaimed Four Corners to be "a travel book that transcends the genre. It is, like all the best travel narratives, a resonant interior journey, and offers wisdom for our times."
THE WHITE MARY
by Kira Salak
"A gripping debut novel."
Publishers Weekly Pick-of-the-Week
"There aren't many books that we hand to friends, urging,
'You have to read this.' The White Mary is one of them."
Cleveland Plain Dealer
"With The White Mary, journalist Kira Salak makes a stunning
debut as a novelist. This is a story whose beauty and power
sweeps you along, like the jungle rivers that bear her heroine
into the heart of New Guinea in search of a vanished American."
© 2008 Kira Salak, KiraSalak.com--all rights of reproduction in any form reserved