Monday, November 30, 2009

A Buzz in the Air

For nearly 40 minutes my mouth hung open in awe. I didn’t know whether to hold on to my seat or jump from the window with the over whelming since of vertigo. Either way, my recent helicopter ride from the mountainous terrains of the PNG Highlands, through the vast Ramu Valley and rivers to Madang’s pristine coastline, was incredible.

Making friends with the pilots who live two doors down from our house on Coronation Drive has its advantages. I was in Kundiawa for an education conference and Jolanda had taken advantage of the VSO vehicle driving through Goroka to climb Mt. Oto before the end of her placement. Neither of us was looking forward to the 6 hour, body-jarring drive back to Madang. Lucky for us, one of the pilots was on a flight from Lae to Madang and felt sorry for us poor volunteers and decided to “scoop us up.” Just like that, like it was no big deal. Jolanda and I couldn’t believe this was happening. What were we going to tell the other volunteers? “Oh sorry we aren’t going to be riding back with you guys. We have another ride with a friend who is picking us up in his helicopter.” That’s exactly what we said before their eyes turned green with envy.

The pilot's phone call to discuss the details was short. How was the weather and cloud coverage? Where was the airport in relation to the town? He had never flown to Goroka. I told him the airport was in the center of town and we agreed to meet in an hour. I finished my hotel breakfast of salmon and eggs (I know, hard volunteer life) and headed to the art market to buy a beautiful helicopter painting I had my eye on as a thank you gift. The VSO Land Cruiser dropped us off at the Air Nuigini airport. But after fighting the crowds of passengers and speaking to the armed guard through a partially opened door, we were told that we needed to go to Pacific Helicopter for heli landings. Great. Where was Pacific? How long would it take us to walk? Is it a safe area? The guard pointed us in the direction of Pacific but we remained uncertain of where the helicopter was going to land. We started walking and a woman pulled up beside us offering us a ride because she said it was an unsafe area to be walking. We jumped in her car and she drove us to Pacific.

The ladies in the Pacific reception gave us a warm welcome leading us into an air-conditioned lounge with fluffy couches. This impromptu “scoop up” was getting a bit formal…visitor tags, signing a log book, call names. Lucky I heard the buzz of the helicopter and we were off before we knew it!

The pilot quickly pointed out a few buttons and helped to fasten our belts and adjust our headsets. It was hard to hear him over the blades, but I later learned that the button wasn’t to eject the seat but to talk through the radio!

Watching the terrain change so quickly from the “broccoli” covered mountains, to the rivers and valleys, to the coconut lined coast was incredible. The highlands were very remote with the occasional cluster of villages with round huts and patchwork gardens. It was amazing to feel the cool breeze through the windows and when we flew through bits of cloud coverage I remember thinking…I am literally in the clouds! When we came to the Ramu Valley, the pilot knew we would be in for an adventure.  We decided to get a bit lower and follow the river. It was amazing to observe life from this perspective. The children were jumping and splashing full of excitement of seeing the helicopter. Men were fishing and women washing clothes and dishes, but all looked up to wave.  Soon the air in the cabin was warmer and the coast came into view. 

Before we knew it, we were back in Madang!  A big thanks to our pilot friends for an amazing view of PNG!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Tip about Buai

Never chew buai after a few beers, coctails, and/or wine!

I am assuming this experienced buai chewer already knew this!

Because I am not feeling particularly well today...I'll do a cut and paste about my first buai experience in I can hardly look at or even smell buai.  Last night may have been my last buai experience!

Buai is a huge part of PNG culture and I have wanted to try it since my arrival. Every few feet along the roads there are stands selling buai and tobacco rolled in yesterday’s copy of the National Courier. Just outside my apartment complex, my neighbors have a buai stand and have offered me buai on many occasions.  Due to fear of my teeth being permanently stained red I have politely declined. Eventually, I caved to curiosity and had a go at this PNG tradition. Once I chewed through the outer shell, the betel nut (buai) was jaw clenching, eye watering bitter. My mouth began to salivate and the spitting began. Some people choose to chew buai without the mustard plant (daka) and lime which provides the “buzz” and the blood red color. I wanted the full experience. Once I chewed the buai into a ball I dipped the mustard stem in the lime, which is taken from coral. Once I began to chew the 3 ingredients together, my teeth, lips and tongue turned scarlet. My mouth tingled and grew hot. Although my entire mouth was filled with saliva, it felt very dry. I didn't feel the notorius buzz that buai chewers seek; however I was quite the entertainment for those walking past. They laughed at me spitting and trying to see my crimson tongue. 

Buai is the green nut you see, daka is the mustard stem, and that's the lime in the plastic bag..not to be confused with anything else!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Karkar Volcano Erupted!

An eruption occurred at Karkar volcano at 6:39 pm on 25th November 2009. The eruption plume reached a height of 45,000 ft. A magnitude 5.1 earthquake hit 90 km SSE of Karkar volcano 7.5 hours before the eruption.

Some of you may remeber that I climbed this volcano earlier this year ( I even wrote a nice little blog about it).  I was sitting on my couch reading the glossy magazines Marleen brought back from Hanoi when I felt the earthquake, but I thought it was just one of the many that I feel here in PNG.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


When they arise, you take them. Some happen once in a lifetime. Some are just around the corner. For persons in poverty, opportunities, unfortunately, tend to be few and far between.

I am not much of a believer in luck or chance and most certainly not destiny. But I have to say that I have been fortunate to have had many incredible, life changing opportunities in my lifetime. And I would have to say that I have had these opportunities because I was privileged enough to live in a Country that offers free basic education and grants for higher education; to be a part of a culture that teaches its youth to pursue their dreams; and to have parents that encouraged me to be the best I could be and supported me to do so.

Beginning in 2010, the educational opportunities for Papua New Guinean children will drastically increase. In an effort to reach the Millennium Development Goal of Universal Basic Education by 2015, PNG is for the first time offering free education for elementary students. Free education will provide opportunities for PNG to become a literate nation. It is intended for all children to begin elementary prep (kindergarten in the US) at the age of 6 and continue to elementary 1 and 2. Although enrollment will not have any age restrictions, the government is aware of the challenges the educational divisions may face with an increase in access without plans to ensure quality. Entire families will have the opportunity to enter elementary together; mothers, fathers and children. PNG plans to offer further educational opportunities in 2012 with free primary education for grades 3-8.

Last week while attending an education conference in PNG’s highlands at Kundiawa, I learned of the shocking numbers of out of school children in PNG. According to a recent document released by the National Executive Council, Madang’s children are the most marginalized, with an estimated 58,791 school aged children out of school. This number is compared to the 51,025 who are currently enrolled. Less than half of children in Madang have educational opportunities. Girls and children with disabilities are the vulnerable groups who are most likely to be excluded. And when I go out to communities to see half of Madang’s children who are fortunate to have these educational opportunities, I find schools with no books, children sitting on dirt floors or under trees, and even more dramatically, eager children without teachers.

Taking this giant leap to provide free elementary education to PNG children is incredible; however, there are many questions that provinces, districts and school communities are asking. Infrastructure: are there enough schools and classrooms? Teachers: how do we cope with the existing elementary teacher shortage in addition to recruiting and training new teachers? Currently elementary teachers undergo a 6-week training course. Now with the introduction of free elementary education, elementary teacher training will be introduced at three of the country’s teacher colleges.

A world of opportunities is just around the corner for the children of Papua New Guinea!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

More on PMIZ

If you are interested in following the controversial Pacific Marine Industrial Zone (PMIZ), check out the very insightful blog of fellow American and Anthropologist Nancy Sullivan, who as been living in PNG for over 19 years.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Halloween PNG Style

We celebrated Halloween by hosting a great party with people from 13 different countries coming together to show off their costumes!

I think Marleen, Jolanda and I had the most fun going to the second hand shops and buying all the costumes for our neighbors (and those who dared to come without a costume). 

Of course we had a good time trying them all on ourselves first!

We had fun carving watermelons

 Stephanie and Dunston were proud of their watermelons!

And the neighbor kids loved bobbing for passion fruit! 

My favorite costumes of the night were Ben and Federica's...Madang's famous flying foxes!

The Beach House

VSO's Country Director and her partner invited us out to their beach house.

We left from the Madang Fishing Club with our reels ready.

It's not a hard life at the beach house.  You float right up to the deck bar for a cold SP!

You soak up the sun after a swim around the lagoon.

And there is plenty of food and cheers to go around!

Alexishafen and the Ramu Valley

My work with Inclusive education has taken me to two buzzing areas of Madang this week. To Alexishafen, where an industrial marine zone is underway and to the Ramu Valley where nickel is mined and other resources are exported from the Country.

The first part of the week I was in Alexishafen to promote early childhood education. I helped facilitate a training targeting community leaders from remote villages throughout Madang. These leaders form the committee that governs the Kindergarten schools in their villages. These men, some of whom never had the opportunity themselves to learn to read or write, have taken a step forward to ensure the children of their communities have the educational opportunities they never had.

Alexishafen is a Catholic Mission station about 25km north of Madang along the North Coast road. It is also the site of a highly controversial National Government initiative to create an industrial port. Many local landowners from the villages surrounding the area are against the Pacific Marine Industrial Zone (PMIZ). My knowledge on this topic is limited to what I read in the National papers and from conversations with others. I believe the intention is to create a ‘zone’ which will enable numerous Pacific and South East Asian Countries to fish PNG and Pacific waters, bring massive ships into Madang’s harbor destroying the reefs and the villagers fishing livelihoods, and build fishing canneries to process the fish and dump their toxins into PNG waters, and export the fish across the world. Basically, that is PMIZ in a nutshell. I am obviously biased, environmentally conscious, and sincerely concerned about the livelihoods of the People of PNG.

The second part of the week I joined John and Marshall from the VSO education team to visit two schools in the Ramu Valley. Traveling along the South Coast road following the nickel pipeline I noted significant changes from last year. There are increased amounts of Chinese workers, heavy machinery and hard physical labor of local community members. The Ramu Valley is abundantly rich in oil, gold, nickel, and particularly in land for the production of palm oil, cows, and sugar cane.

The two school visits were extremely fruitful. As always when I contact head teachers, they say they do not have children with disabilities in their schools. And as always they are surprised when I identify over 10% of their students with special needs. And even more surprised when substantial numbers of children from the surrounding communities who do not attend school are identified through child-to-child activities.

Garim, the first school I visited was quite large, with 23 teachers and over 1,000 grade 3-8 students. All classrooms are on stilts and inaccessible for children with difficulties in mobility. Unfortunately, brainstorming efforts did not result in the simple solution of building ramps when I asked how they could make the school more accessible. It was encouraging to discover two teachers had received previous training in special education; but dispiriting to see they are not practicing the skills they have been taught.

We stayed the night in the valley in a room attached to a local church, well John and Marshall did. The Pastor’s wife insisted I stay in their house, as it is improper for a young, unmarried woman to sleep any where near men. I joined her and her 5 children on a mat on the floor, while Marshall and John enjoyed sleeping on mattresses with sheets to protect them from the strong valley winds. I sat through a long-winded devotion after dinner. It was only when I heard the reading of John 3:16 in Pidgin that I realized the significance of the verse for Papua New Guineans, where children especially male children are so valuable to the family.

I thought of Richard’s story after seeing him earlier that afternoon. Richard lives in Madang town, but he is staying with an Aunt in the valley to seek sponsorship from the Ramu Nickel Mining Company in order to buy a new wheelchair for the upcoming PNG Games. Richard is a PNG gold medalist in weightlifting and track. When Richard told me his story of how he lost his legs, my heart skipped a beat. When receiving his vaccinations there was a mistake. The only option given to Richard’s family was amputation above the right knee and below the left knee. Richard said his father, in all his fury, chased the doctors and nurses around the hospital with a bush knife screaming “My only son, my only son!”

Before leaving the following morning, the Pastor’s wife gave me a bilum from her village in the Highlands made of kaskas fur. My bilum collection is growing fast!

We climbed back in the Cruiser to Walim Primary. Walim is a much smaller school than Gusap with only 10 teachers and 130 students grade 3-8. With a school of this size, I was able to do child-to-child activities in each class. Through role-playing, games, drama, and group discussions, the children were able to understand what it feels like to be excluded. They were able to talk about ways to include all children in school. And together we were able to identify over 60 children who are not attending school from their villages. In an effort to increase enrollment, the teachers went out into the villages to conduct awareness on children’s rights and the importance of education for the future of their communities.

In two resource-rich districts of Madang, we were able to identify numerous out-of-school children. Hopefully we can build a future full of educational opportunities for PNG children who will be able to manage these resources and the changes that come with them.