Saturday, December 12, 2015

Stranded in Goroka

The line at Kundiawa
The road workers
Scenes from the drive
Markham Valley on the way to Lae
Two years ago today, according to my Facebook feed, we were approaching our first Christmas overseas -- our only Christmas overseas, and we were stranded in Goroka.

After seminary graduation at the end of November, we all embarked upon a cross-Papua New Guinea trip.  Harry, Donna, and my family were all headed to Lae to get things we each needed to move forward with our work.

I love road trips, and driving in PNG took them to another level.  The Highlands Highway is a two lane highway that travels east-west across the center of the country, snaking to and fro through some pretty impressive mountain ranges.  Some places it is paved, others it is not.  Because of daily rains, even with asphalt, it is littered with giant potholes and obstacles. Lanes are only suggestions - cars drive where the potholes aren't, on either side of the road.  The highway goes through villages where people walk alongside the road or sit and watch the traffic go by.  Pigs or dogs can dart out at any moment.  As isolated as it feels, it is astounding that there are ALWAYS people everywhere along the road.  They usually  smile and wave at us, and it would be rude to not smile and wave back.  A drive was always a good cure for a bad mood.  It was hard to do that much smiling and waving and not start to feel better.

November had been very rainy, and the Highlands Highway had literally collapsed just east of Kundiawa.  The line of cars went on for miles. Semi-trucks weren't getting through at all, and the only smaller vehicles that were getting through paid for the privilege, but that meant they were paying to take on the risk.

I think Jeff enjoyed this part a bit.  Okay, a lot.
It sounds selfish, but the only way to get things done in PNG is to put yourself forward.  This was sometimes a challenge coming from a culture where we have been conditioned since preschool to stand in line and wait our turn. Jeff could astound me how well he could assert himself when he had motivation.  He led our little convoy down the right side of the road to the very front of the blockade.  The machines that were there clearing the road were out of the way; our way was open.

Jeff steeled his will and made to go, but was stopped by a worker who was very upset.  In Pidgin, he hollered at us "You white skins come here and you don't respect our laws."

"I respect your laws," Jeff responded in his most diplomatic tone. "I am a missionary, and I am just trying to care for my people," gesturing to us and the two cars behind us.  The man calmed down.  Missionaries are respected in PNG.  They know we are trying to help, and usually do not get much gain from being there, and unlike a lot of the businessmen, we respect the nationals.  A culture so centered on family and tribe, it is hard for them to fathom that we would leave everything to come be with them.  Jeff spent a few minutes commiserating with the guy, and then the guy told us he would let us know when we could go.

We waited for over an hour.  I'm pretty sure the foreman received tokens of appreciation from all three of our cars. He pointed the way we should go, and it seemed impossible or at least insane.  It just looked like sludge and piles of loose dirt, precariously close to the edge of the highway.  Jeff threw the Land Cruiser into low and shot forward.  At one spot, we had to swerve sharply to ascend a mound of mud and caught air at the crest.  I could hear the mud splash underneath our tires as we landed, and the edge of the road and the precipice loomed a little too close for comfort, but we all made it and were on our way to Lae.

With our business done in Lae (which is a series of other stories), we headed back toward home. The road was still blocked at Kundiawa, only now it was completely impassable.  Abandoning any thought of repair, the road crew had cleared the road away and started building that stretch of the highway anew, adding huge pipes underneath to channel the river that had wreaked such havoc.

So we stopped at Goroka, at the New Tribes mission in Lapilo and made ourselves at home for the next several days.  Some of it was nice.  The guesthouse had a bathtub, and the internet was fast enough to do things we couldn't do at home.  But it was a restless layover.  Donna needed to get back because she was due to leave on furlough, and so every day that the road was still closed was bad news.  At two days from her flight date, Harry drove her to Kundiawa where she trekked across the construction to where Anton was waiting to bring her home.  Harry was also feeling restless so he decided to go back to the coast to Madang where he could do some repairs on mission properties there.

If we had to be stuck anywhere, I am glad it was Goroka. Goroka sparkles in comparison to Mount Hagen when driving east. The roads seem cleaner and more organized. They city actually has trash cans along the roads.  The grocery stores and supply stores are new and huge.  Goroka is the first refreshing stop driving west as well.  After the oppressive heat and smells of the Ramu Valley, the cool air and beautiful hillsides seem otherworldly.

After Harry left, we went grocery shopping, and it was the first time we heard Christmas music. Somehow, in the midst of our travels, we forgot about Christmas. We were in the third week of Advent and there had been nothing to really point the way, until then.  November was full of graduations, and then we were contending with sweltering heat in Lae.  Nothing had said "Hello!  It's Christmas!"   I am usually the Scrooge of the family, and even I began yearning for Advent hymns and all things Christmas.  Getting home and back to Timothy Congregation became urgent.  We felt like we were floundering, and needed church and our traditions to steady us.  Even though our Christmas things were still in a container somewhere on the ocean (or more likely, still sitting at the Port of Los Angeles), we ached for lights and Christmas trees; anything that would restore our sense of time.

A couple of days later, there were rumors that it might be possible to get through Kundiawa. We gave it a shot, and it worked.  A few hours later, we were in Mount Hagen getting supplies for the next few weeks, including a fake Christmas tree.  Any other year, a fake tree would've been unthinkable to Jeff.  Now, that little tree WAS our Christmas.

 A couple of week after we planned to arrive, we were home. we set up the little tree and decorated it as much as we could, with a Singapore Airlines toothbrush and a few Kina coins hanging off of it (they have holes in the center, so we could put string through them).  We waited for the fourth Sunday of Advent and church with anticipation.  What would they sing during Advent?  What traditions would be here?  We could barely wait....

....And the songs were the same eight or so songs that we sang EVERY Sunday since we arrived, sung with boisterousness, energy and love, but the same songs all the same.  And they were the same songs on Christmas Eve.  And they were the same songs on Christmas Day.  Nothing was different.  Nothing besides the sermon itself marked the birth of Christ and the liturgical year.  It was more disappointing than I ever could've have imagined.  It was our first encounter with culture shock.

There were still good things, we were able to feast and sing with other missionaries and friends who knew Christmas carols, and returning to our regular life rhythms provided comfort as well.  And ahead of us were new things -- moving to the new house, working with our friends and neighbors, and the coming school year when Jeff began teaching.