On June 9, I climbed Mt. Wilhelm, the highest peak in Papua New Guinea and, according to some, the highest peak in Oceania.
My ascent was the fruit of a few months of frustrating trip planning. It was all worth it though. It taught me the truth of a proverb: “Nothing is easy in Papua New Guinea.”
The students asked me to plan the trip back in February, but the way to plan trips in PNG is to find a personal contact who is at the destination and ask him to make the arrangements. Then you simply figure out how to get to where the arrangements begin. Wilhelm is in a very remote region in the Chimbu province. The gateway to this region is a village named Denglagu where the original Catholic missionaries to the Highlands set up a station in the 1930’s. The original walking route of the missionaries from Madang on the coast to the Highlands went right back Denglagu. So arranging this trip meant working through Fr. George Mondia, the national priest stationed there. I originally had 16 students and staff signed up for the trip, but miscommunications and lack of communications between myself and Fr. George nearly doomed the trip. Also, my seminarians claim to have no money, so when Fr. George seemed to say the trip would cost 150 kina per person (about $60), everyone backed out. However, I found out a few weeks before the supposed trip that the cost would be 60 kina instead. So then 6 students, one staff member, and a missionary from Austria (Horst) agreed to go with me for that price.
The plan, as I arranged it with the Vice Rector, was for the seminary to provide transportation to Kundiawa, the capital of Chimbu and back. Fr. George would arrange transport from Kundiawa to Denglagu and back. The Vice Rector also agreed to provide some crackers, sweet potatoes, peanut butter, and rolls for us to eat on the way there and on the trail. However, I learned to my chagrin, that the seminary does not have a hierarchical power structure. I should have made my plans directly through the Rector, who thought (with annoyance) that I was simply assuming that the seminary would provide various supports, because I had not made the plans directly with him. In short, our leaving was confused – the departure time was changed thrice, I ended up buying some of the food for the seminarians myself while on the road, three people dropped out last minute (including one student literally getting out of the back of the truck at a stop and not getting back in) – and it was a bit of a miracle that the trip happened at all.
However, the Vice-Rector did drive us the two hours to Chimbu. There were two police checkpoints and a place in which a tribe broke the road so that they could personally check passing cars to see if a wanted murderer (from a high school rugby riot!) was trying to get away. Fortunately, since the Vice-Rector is from Chimbu, all he had to do was speak a few words in the local dialect and explain that he was a priest, and we got through just fine. We waited at the Kundiawa cathedral for Fr. George’s car to come pick us up:
It’s rather small, in part because the bishop does not actually live near the cathedral, but at Migende, about 30 minutes down the highway, which was the original mission headquarters for the Catholics in this area. The priest in charge of the cathedral was a kind host to us, especially considering that no one told him we were coming. He was confused, though, why Horst and I wanted his kitten to sit on our laps, since nationals show little affection to animals.
Fr. George’s driver, Michael, picked us up in a couple hours in an pickup landcruiser. The four students and Horst rode in the bed while I got shotgun. Michael was interesting. He had gone through the whole seminary formation to be a Capuchin priest, but dropped out before his diaconate ordination because his parents died and he had to take care of his younger siblings. We reflected together on whether there is only a single road to happiness for each of us in this life, or whether a number of different happy lives are open to us. Michael’s young son, Novestus (!?), rode in the back with the students.
The road up to Denglagu was amazing – it’s all cliffs and narrow river valleys between steep mountains. It’s the same route Rebecca took when she went to an ordination in Chimbu last September. We stopped at the death site and the grave of Fr. Morschhauser, one of the original Catholic missionaries. He was killed by the natives in 1936. Apparently, the locals later came to think that their land was cursed due to the priest’s death, and they began holding various compensation ceremonies to end the curse. It was not until a decade or so ago that the Catholic Church organized a large memorial mass and told the people that everything was definitively fine – no more compensation! It is an unfortunate part of PNG traditional beliefs that when something goes wrong – pigs die, crops fail, landslide – that there must be some human activity to blame for it. The worse manifestation of this is when the community finds a scapegoat (often an old man or woman), accuses the person of witchcraft, and then either tortures, kills, or exiles the ‘witch’. Here are the two sites:
The Catholic compound at Denglagu was large and beautiful. Situated in a river valley, it boasts a primary school (dedicated to St. Therese of Lisieux), a vocational training center, a health clinic, and other programs. Horst and I found a local guide and went for a walk to the local secondary school, which is on the ridge above Denglagu. In case you are looking for work, the school is in need of teachers – only 14 for 800 students. On top, we walked the old and now defunct landing strip that used to support the school and mission. Here is Denglagu parish looking down from the ridge. The primary school is on the right. The long bluish building on the left is the parish church.
We also invited ourselves in to the home of Mr. Sieland, a lay missionary from Germany who has been working and living in Denglagu for 56 years! He married a local girl and now has a large family. It was his son Christian’s ordination that Rebecca attended last year. He was happy to talk in German with Horst, but he was quite bitter at the fact that many of the projects of his earlier days have fallen into disrepair when the the transition was made from missionary to national leadership. Chief among these is a hydro-dam that he built for the parish. It was destroyed in a flood five years ago. The waterway and dam were rebuilt, but the bishop has been unable to find money to repair the turbine and Mr. Sieland is convinced that it will never run again. It was a sad meeting, though perhaps it highlighted the futility of placing one’s happiness in earthly accomplishments, even when though accomplishments are missionary works. Here is the dam for the hydro:
Yet, I think Mr. Sieland was too hard on the resourcefulness and abilities of the PNG nationals. For just a short walk beyond this broken hydro was a little hydoelectric generator that the villagers use at night for their private homes (the wheel is raised during the day and lowered at night):
On the whole, I had a lovely time walking about Denglagu. I also experienced the vague idea of distances that many nationals have. Apparently there is a graveyard about a 15 minute walk from the parish in which there is buried a woman who was claimed to have the stigmata. I was interested in walking there, but some people said it was 2 km away and another person told me it was 5 km, so I gave up due to lack of time. Only later did Fr. George tell me that it was just a short walk beyond this mini-hydro.
We spent the night for free at Fr. George’s guesthouse. The next morning was Pentecost. The service started an hour late in order to accommodate the parishioners who were walking to the main station for this special mass. The church was packed. The service was three hours plus and often in the local dialect of which I know not a word. Going to mass with the nationals in PNG makes me realize just how unreasonable the American and European demand that masses be no more that 50 minutes long is! Many of these people walked hours to get to church, and so Fr. George made sure their time investment was worth it. Here is the inside of the church. Attached to the post on the right are the words to the Salve Regina in Latin, which we sang at the end of the service!
After mass, we divided up the food – six packs of crackers, one jar of peanut butter, four koolaid mixes, and three sweet potatoes for each person – and Fr. George drove us to a trail head in an adventure camp run by a middle-age western man with long scraggly grey hair, who immediately told us that parking was not free! We met some western teenagers comes down off the mountain just as we started up. They were part of New Tribes, a Bible translating mission headquartered near Goroka. Boy, did they look tired. Amusingly to me, through our trip, my four students kept on wondering if the “whiteskins” had actually made it to the summit or not.
The story of how this whiteskin made it “antap” will be in the next post.