I don’t like flying. Not because I’m afraid of heights, or because my father was a pilot and I have abandonment issues, or some psycho-babble like that. No, I don’t like flying because of my stupid friend Nikki. A couple of years ago, she dragged me onto Blackbeard’s Fury, a pirate ship ride at a northern Melbourne fun park. It terrified me, I squealed like a hysterical banshee, and I’ve never been so close to pissing my breeches in a sober state in broad daylight. Ever since that day, I’ve freaked out at anything that comes close to giving me that swoopy feeling in the guts.
Things like flying – an activity I partake in fairly frequently, unfortunately. I’ll admit that for most of the journey to and from the Cook Islands last year, I had my eyes squeezed shut and was gouging my nails into Nikki’s shoulder like a wet cat. She handled it with good grace because she knew she was responsible.
So having confessed this, what could possibly make me look forward to climbing onto this little rattle trap for a trip over the turbulent Morobe mountain ranges? (Oi, GOF. Help me out with geographical names here.)
Lae, that’s what. Let me reiterate – LAE IS THE WORST PLACE ON EARTH. Apart from the perfume section in Myer’s. The second thing that would make me climb aboard Air Bush Kanaka would be a smokin’ hot Canadian pilot.
Lawd Jesus, I leapt on that plane quicker than a cougar on an antelope. Anyway, after some initial jitters, I busied myself with taking photos throughout the thirty minute trip, and finally a video of the runway approach.
I had strange emotions landing at Pindiu Station. My parents have had a beautiful artwork of the area hanging on their wall for as long as I can remember, and first I had the uncanny feeling I was stepping right into the painting. Next, I felt home. The landscape is almost identical to the area I grew up in – the mountains, the forest, the heat, the vegetation. I never fully appreciated why my ridiculous father would choose a misty, muddy block in backwater Far North Queensland to build his home, but the very instant I stepped out of the plane I understood. He found that soggy block of land, and he felt like he was home too.
After giving Hot Canadian Pilot a cheeky little cuddle, I’d set about finding my luggage amongst the pile of pandanas matting and produce on the ground when a tiny girl came up to me, threw her arms about my waist and announced herself as Jojo. Jojo, it turns out, is my 12 year old cousin and self-appointed leader of the entire Pindiu community. Jojo gots att-i-tuuude.
So Jojo had been sent to collect us from the aircraft and lead us back to the family compound. I found it odd that no other members of our family had made an appearance, considering the bulk of the village had lined up at the fence to observe the proceedings in eerie, utter silence. I later learnt that silent observation is the forte of PNG villagers – these people will Silent Stare the living daylights out of you without the slightest hint of embarrassment. Unless, of course, you proffer a hand and greet them in their local dialect (Dedua), in which case they will break into a red buai-stained grin, take your hand and pump it with enough vigour to repeatedly smash your right bosom into your eye socket. Then they will grip your middle finger in a clicking motion , and you’re expected to reciprocate with the timing necessary to elicit a loud snap between your respective fingers as you release hands. They will repeat this process three or four times, all the while nattering at you in the local dialect and not really caring that you don’t understand, because they’re just happy to be standing there shaking hands with you.
Anyway, Jojo cheerfully helped herself to about three times the amount of baggage I’m physically able to carry, and ushered us into the village like a proud mother hen. Then I discovered why the rest of the family hadn’t come to the airstrip.
They had staged a veritable Broadway production. First, a priest met us at the gate and said a prayer, as I tried to look suitably pious while simultaneously shooting bemused looks at my American cousin Nicole. Two small boys (who also turned out be cousins) placed marigold wreaths around our necks as we stepped through the gate, then the local children (most of whom were also cousins) performed a lively traditional dance for us. Nicole and I applauded and were about to start greeting our peeps, but before we could go any further my American uncle grabbed us and whispered “Wait! Step-mum has to make her big entrance!”
Grandma is not my biological grandmother. My real grandmother passed away several years ago, and after this trip I’ve been sad that I never got to know her at all. This grandma is my grandfather’s second wife, and I don’t mean he remarried. Polygamy is still legal in Papua New Guinea, and my mother and her siblings grew up with two mommies in the house. Mum has told me stories of the discord this created, and having met this particular lady I’m not surprised.
Back to Grandma’s entrance. Someone pressed the play button on a cheap ghetto blaster, and everyone started singing in Dedua – Mum and my uncle included. Nicole and I stood in mute astonishment while Grandma appeared from behind the corner of a hut, crawling on her hands and knees through the dust, her unfettered breasts nearly dragging in the dirt. She had a necklace of pig tusks around her neck, and a fully loaded traditional string bilum slung over her back. She was covered in ashes, and children were chasing after her and firing toy arrows into her back. She crawled right up to my and Nicole’s feet, singing and wailing the entire time, then paused theatrically with her head down and her hands thrust up towards us. It’s one of the few times in my life that I’ve been at a complete loss for words, action or logical thought. My nana is face down in the dirt with her tits out. What the hell do I do? Luckily at that moment my uncle muttered “take her hands and lift her up!”, so we each clutched a dry, dusty hand. As soon as we did, the music became loud and joyful, and with my uncle’s surreptitious coaching we started bouncing around in a happy granddaughter fashion.
Eventually we were lead up the stairs of the hut in which we were to spend the next two weeks. They had built it especially for our visit, and barely finished construction the day before. The priest said yet another prayer, and we all trooped inside to be met with the smell of fresh timber, bamboo, and a large Welcome Home woven into the wall.
The rattle trap flies into Pindiu only twice a week – on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Now all this happened on a Thursday, when they had been expecting us on the Tuesday. Due to various circumstances in Lae, we couldn’t make the Tuesday flight. Sitting here now, it breaks my heart a to think of little Jojo running out to the plane on Tuesday and finding it devoid of overseas visitors; having to trudge back to the excited family to tell them we hadn’t arrived. I imagine my family all decorated in their traditional gear, the local children, the priest…all of them dressed up with nowhere to go. And yet none of them said a word about it, and we were received with the performance of a lifetime despite turning up two days late. Then I think of all the times over the years I’ve said impatiently to Mum “they’re NOT my family! I don’t even KNOW them!”
One more perspective changed.
A few days later, my uncle walked in on Nicole and I debating the meaning of Grandma’s performance. “She was definitely a pig being hunted,” claimed Nicole, “she had tusks about her neck.”
“No, I think she was a turtle. That bag on her back was supposed to be the shell.” I said.
“Then why did she have pig tusks?”
“I don’t know! What was the bag meant to be if she was a pig?”
My uncle interrupted us at this point and explained the actual meaning of the song… basically the lyrics describe being in a low place, everyone against you – and then someone arrives in your life and their presence lifts you up and you’re able to dance and sing.
Yeah, we felt like arseholes. On the other hand, our parents should have taught us Dedua.