Our last weekend in the States was spent in a blitz of packing. Many thanks to Alan and Lisa Smith, Marty Zimmerman, Matt Pietropaoli, and Jess Wabler, for their efforts in boxing up our house and playing with Anastasia.
Getting here was an adventure in itself. Due to a series of practical miscalculations and taking the wrong turn in New Jersey, we arrived at the airport only an hour before our plane was to take off. To calm myself down, I repeated the mantra “We are on a mission from God.” With the help of a zealous baggage man, we made it to our flight from Newark to Los Angeles on American Airlines. However, in the rush to get on the plane, we left Anastasia’s diaper bag in the car. Thankfully, a couple with a small boy gave us a few diapers and some wipes. Otherwise Annie would have had to wear airsick bags!
We arrived at Los Angeles around 10 pm and had about a two hour layover, with our plane being slightly delayed. However, this was the equivalent to 2 am to 4 am Eastern time, so we were a bit zombified. Annie slept our whole time in LAX and we watched the end of a Netflix disc that we brought with us – Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams – which I then gave to a woman working at the Qantas desk to return for us, since, according to her, the mailboxes in airports were removed after 9/11 (though I have no idea how you would smuggle a bomb through security and then mail it from the terminal).
The Qantas flight from Los Angeles lasted about twenty hours. The service itself was great on Qantas – we were served rather substantial hot dinners and breakfasts (with free alcohol) and they had special meals prepared for Anastasia. The back of the coach section was stocked with free snacks. We were provided with pillows, blankets, and headphones and each seat had its own audio-visual entertainment system complete with games, an interactive map, and a generous selection of movies and tv. In comparison, our American Airlines flight to LAX and Virgin Australia flight to PNG served us no free food and the AA flight had a single silly movie on teenage witches playing on overhead TV’s. If it were just CC and I traveling, the Qantas flight would have been quite enjoyable. However, Anastasia was not as enamored of the entertainment options as I was, and mostly wanted to make endless marches up and down the aisles. Unfortunately, even though the plane was a double-decker, we were not allowed outside our coach area, and so could not run up and down the stairs. Yet we survived our flight with our marriage and belief in the goodness of God intact, and hopefully the people sitting in front of us will forgive us for Annie endlessly bumping their seats.
In Brisbane, we ran into trouble. After going through the transfer station and thereby avoiding Australian customs and having to recheck our luggage, we presented our confirmation number to the Virgin Australia desk. We had bought our tickets through a travel agency, MTS, and MTS only gave us a confirmation number to present at the various counters in order to get our boarding passes—we had no contact with the airlines directly. For our flight from Brisbane to Port Moresby, the capital of PNG, MTS had bought us tickets on Virgin Australia through Airlines PNG. However, Virgin Australia and Airlines PNG had a falling out some months ago and stopped working together, and either Airlines PNG never told MTS about the breakup or MTS never told us. So Virgin Australia had no tickets on record for us and the man at the desk said that we would have to call Airlines PNG and straighten it out with them. But I had no mobile phone, and so had to use the pay phones, which I (on very little sleep) had endless trouble figuring out. I finally got through to Airlines PNG and they told me that since MTS bought the tickets, MTS would have to call them. So I tried calling MTS – it was about 5 pm in the US – and only got to talk to someone for a minute or two before my time on the phone ran out. Rebecca e-mailed them about our troubles. They simply resent us our defective confirmation number and then closed up the office and went home. So this was a sad time – Rebecca was sitting by the counter, watching me fight with the payphone and watching PNG nationals walk down the ramp.
In the end we went through Australian customs and found a cheap hostel to stay in near the airport. It was quite the dive, but the staff was friendly and they provided breakfast and dinner. Providentially, CC had applied for Australia transit visas, so we were able to leave the airport. I actually had a nice time in Brisbane. After having Indian food for lunch, I took Anastasia for a long walk to the river that flows through the city. She played at a very nice playground in a city park along the way and we made friends with an Australian father and toddler that we met both at the park and at the waterfront. I was asked for directions twice while walking about, so either the beard or the Anastasia must have struck people as authentically Australian. Meanwhile, Rebecca was in a long distance wrestling match with MTS and Airlines PNG through Google Voice (a computer program that enables you to use your computer as a phone). MTS offered to buy us new tickets, which we would have to pay for, and to ask Airlines PNG for a refund on our old ones (with no guarantee that they would refund them). Fortunately, my steadfast wife convinced Airlines PNG to book us flights on the next day Virgin Australia plane to Port Moresby and we were able to do without MTS’ “assistance.” In one way, this delay was beneficial; Qantas had misplaced some of Annie’s luggage, but it was waiting for us when we came back to the airport on June 7.
By the way, car seats are not really used in PNG. It was a bit amusing to see airline attendants take out their manuals in order to review their policy on children sitting in car seats while flying. We had done our homework though, so everything was fine.
Our flight to PNG was uneventful. Upon landing, we walked across the tarmac to the terminal and found therein a three member band singing welcome songs and playing traditional instruments. And so PNG made a good first impression. Immigration and customs were a breeze – we’ve had our visas for some months now – and some Capuchins were waiting for us outside the airport. We stayed with them in a hilly suburb of the capital for four days while we waited for Father Clement (the rector of Good Shepherd) to return to PNG from an Oceania rector’s conference in Guam. The friary was very nice and had a Mediterranean feel: there was a square courtyard with gardens in it and two levels of cells and other rooms. They gave us two rooms that were next to each other (note, friars do not stock double beds) and were generally very accommodating. We are very grateful to them for we were quite tired and Anastasia’s sleep schedule was completely awry (she woke up at midnight the first night, at 2:30 the next night, and was eventually waking at 5 am our last day there).
The area we were in (Bomona) was quite safe and very Catholic. The Catholics own a considerable amount of land on which they have a seminary and houses for 7 or 8 religious orders. Nearby is a cemetery honoring those that died repelling the Japanese from PNG’s capital (one of the turning points of WWII!), and there are secondary schools, a police academy, a Seven Day Adventist school, and a secular university. The seminary gives pre-Theology training to the seminarians of religious orders and Theology training to all the seminarians in the country. They currently lack a proper philosophy professor, so all you starving Ph.D candidates out there should consider applying.
We had rather moderate adventures while in Bomona. We attended a party at the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart on the Feast of the Sacred Heart (June 7). This was our first mumu—a feast in which the main course is pork and sweet potatoes that were wrapped in banana leaves and then buried with hot coals and left to cook. I talked at length to the president of the seminary about my dissertation topic and we talked to an elderly Dutch priest about cultural and thinking differences between those whose countries have gone through the Enlightenment and those that have not. We also watched to the top of the Catholics’ hill and had a great view of the hill country leading up to the mountains north of the Capital. The hills are quite dramatic, they are very steep with small rounded tops, almost like the hills in Dr. Seuss books. A seminarian from Banz (the town Good Shepherd is at) befriended us and took us on a walk about the cemetery. Monday was the officially designated Queen’s birthday (no actual connection to her nativity), which the seminarians celebrated by having the day off from studies and by playing sports. I joined them in volleyball, touch rugby (my first time playing rugby), and soccer, but I was woefully out of shape (and we played in the heat of the day) and could only last 15 minutes in the sports that require running.
Also on Monday, Father Clement arrived. He and his rector friend Father Peter drove us around Port Moresby and we had tea with Father Clement’s sister-in-law, a Kenyan woman named Florence (who is a doctor). Florence kindly explained to me the PNG voting system, which will be the subject of a future post. They also took us to a mall by the city harbor and bought us ice cream! Being in and about Port Moresby was a nice transition to PNG in that most of the people we met spoke English and the way of living is more Westernized. The mall for instance, other than being rather small, was little different from one in a western country (except perhaps for the security fence, and the fact that people drive in with their children sitting in the beds of their trucks.) Here in the Highlands, everyone mostly speaks tok pisin or their tribal language.
To bring an end to my verbosity, on Tuesday, June 11, we flew from the capitol to Mt. Hagen, the largest city in the Highlands. In the airport, Father Clement ran into some relatives (“cousins”) and Anastasia gave the children lollipops. On the flight itself, Annie made friends with a stewardess, who gave her a bag full of apple juices and cookies (everyone else only got one each). Once in Hagen, we again walked across the tarmac to the very small airport building. Luggage was returned by simply being dumped all together on a concrete slab and people fished out what was theirs, though security guards later checked to see that your luggage receipts lined up with what you picked up (perhaps an improvement on our system?). A car from the seminary was waiting for us and we were driven an hour to Good Shepherd Seminary in the village of Fatima, near the town of Banz, in Jiwaka province. A small group of teachers welcomed us (their sign read “Welcome Brandon Family”) and they fed us a tasty dinner of pork and fresh vegetables cooked over an open fire. And so we were at our new home.