Falling In Love Again

August 1, 2012

Re “Snapshots from PNG”: there are now photos to go with Lynda’s fine text. Check them out!



I’ve been back in my American home for a month. I may write again, but this piece serves as a farewell for now, dear readers. I am saying for myself what has meant the most in my 10 and ½ months in Papua New Guinea.

 When I began the process that led to teaching at Divine Word, I wondered what my relationship to the place and the people would be. Perhaps I couldn’t expect anything more than how I felt after visits in 1999 and 2000, when I concluded that I no longer belonged. Too much had changed.  Another part of me suspected there was a risk in going.  I might not want to return to the US at mid-year, after the first semester of 2012. By then, I might have fallen in love again with the place and its people.

 Explaining why one loves a particular person is tricky enough. Extending that to a geographic area and to people in general presents even more challenges.  

 Before I went, I didn’t think much about what I wanted and needed to see that would help satisfy my longing for the familiar surroundings of my childhood. Even so, when I saw them, I knew.

 Large areas of tall green kunai grass, separated by tracts of jungle, cover the hills bordering the broad, flat valleys of the Ramu and Markham rivers. Difficulties in the limited free time I had prevented me from travelling to the Highlands, but seeing the kunai grass on an overland trip from Madang to Lae connected me to the places where I had lived longest as a child. So did taking in the outline of the Finisterre Mountains, visible most days from the pool where I swam in Madang and then traversed on my trip to Lae.

 I went on two long hikes, one in the Adelbert Mountains north of Madang, and the other up an extinct volcano on Kairiru Island, off the coast from Wewak (part of the trip I took with one of my co-teachers). The paths snaked up the mountain sides, often stretches of mud marked by exposed tree roots that I hoped would be toeholds but could as likely begin a slide.  I had been on so many similar hikes as a child.

Madang harbor from Halopa Station, Adelbert Mountains

Half-way up Mt. Kairiru on Kairiru Island. Mushu Island, a coral atoll, is in the foreground; Wewak and the mainland are in the distance.

The steep, muddy conditions taxed me beyond what I could do on my own, forcing me to rely on the young PNG men who accompanied us. They pulled me up when I slipped or didn’t have the strength in my quads to step up to the next toehold. “Sori, Sista,” they’d say. Going down, whenever I couldn’t see a place to step, one of them put a bare foot sideways into the muddy hillside, and I stepped on it. We had met only that day, and yet they showed me such consideration. It felt like love.  

The young men who helped me on Mt. Kairiru.


I’m exhausted after the 3-hour climb up Mt. Kairiru, wondering whether I can get back down, even with help. The lake in the background fills the crater of the extinct volcano. We climbed and rested in silence because the mountain and the lake are sacred.

 My early sense of loving people came from familiar images, not so different from landscapes I remembered. A baby sleeps in a brightly colored  bilum (net bag), hanging from a tree branch.  A woman who works at the university, smiles broadly wearing a blue meri blouse (introduced by missionaries to cover a woman’s breasts, now taken over as a national costume), with the strap of a bilum around her head.

Baby in a bilum, hanging from a tree branch on a plantation on Karkar Island


Susan, one of the first people to welcome me at the university.


My love for my students began with the feelings I have had for any student I have ever taught. I love them before I have met them because they are my students. I accept them as they are even as I want their best from them. From me, they get as much caring and knowledge as I can muster.

 At the end of my second semester at Divine Word, a student wrote to say that he hoped to meet me in heaven. I wrote back to thank him, telling him that I love all my students, something I never say when someone is still my student. I may have said too much because he never responded.

 The give and take of loving students gets tested as my relationship with them develops. At first, with Divine Word students, only the barriers stood out. I was tall, white, had the title of “Professor,” with a large, air-conditioned office, hard to find on the second floor of a building separate from the Communication Arts department. My soft speaking voice easily lost out to the flying foxes shrieking outside.  I had to learn to wait while the students carefully formulated a question or an answer to one of my questions and then spoke in voices even softer than mine.

 We became more comfortable with one another, although that didn’t necessarily mean that students were learning.  After Easter, my Feature Writing class ground to a halt. Most students were putting little effort into their work, whether in reading or writing. I hoped the last major assignment for the semester would perk them up. They had the choice of writing either a profile or a travel piece. As one of the examples, I gave them a profile of Rob Bell, the controversial Grand Rapids  pastor whose recent book, Love Wins, has attracted much comment. I also gave them the first two chapters of the book. Bell writes simply and directly; I knew they could read it and I thought they would enjoy discussing his provocative ideas about who is “in” and “out” from God’s perspective.

Only one student did the readings over two class periods.  I wrote to two of the older students, asking for help.  One  reported back that the students wanted to read PNG, not American, writers. (This attitude surprised one of the PNG staff who knew them well.) From then on, I used only PNG examples in the class.  I also suggested to the students that they needed two representatives. One had the responsibility of signaling when I was speaking too softly. The other passed on questions from students who hesitated to ask me on their own. The representatives didn’t have a great deal to do; my making the suggestions helped to clear the air.

 Sometimes the struggles were comic. About a month into the semester in this class, I made a chocolate cake, frosted it, and brought it in with green cordial. The students loved the cake and sipped a little cordial.

Later in the semester, when I knew more about the drinks I could buy, I wondered whether I had served them cordial concentrate, to be diluted with four parts water to one part cordial. No wonder they hardly drank it. When I went to buy drinks for our end-of-semester party, I asked for help from an attendant, explaining slowly and carefully (I thought) that I wanted a drink that did not have to be diluted. When I brought the two jugs into the classroom, the students looked at them and laughed, asking if I had any water to mix with the cordial. “Oh no! Did I buy the same drink in March?” I asked. “Yes,” they giggled. Several students and I diluted the cordial in my apartment, which was close by, and the party went on.

 The students in this class came to understand that I took them and their writing seriously. I could help them develop as writers if they wanted that. For their final, a portfolio of the major pieces they had written during the semester, I asked them to reflect on themselves as writers, using evidence from their pieces and any revisions they had made. Their answers had to come from within, not from anything I said. It was these students who later wrote to me that I had made them writers.

Some of my Feature Writing students, First Semester, 2012

 When I retired from teaching and faculty development work at Grand Valley, I knew I would be replaced with excellent, dedicated professionals. At Divine Word, chronically short of staff and underfunded, I knew I had contributions to make and did so as actively as I could. My personal responsibilities and relationships in Grand Rapids required that I leave, but it also felt too soon. Divine Word needs staff that will stay.  

 The Vice President who oversees research had an idea I responded to immediately. Would I be willing to work with doctoral students, part-time and long-distance? I now have a three-year appointment as Adjunct Professor. I’m working initially with one student, a Lutheran pastor who knew my parents in Port Moresby as a young man. I may also serve on other committees and read and comment on dissertations in their final stages. At some point, it may be appropriate for me to return for a short period to work intensively with these students.

Personally and professionally, I now have a second home in Papua New Guinea. I had gone with the best I had to offer, even as I knew I had much to learn. Gradually, my students and I moved closer together in our teaching/learning enterprise. Sometime during my second semester, I realized I belonged, an unexpected byproduct of love.


Snapshots from PNG

July 2, 2012

I visited Catherine in Papua New Guinea this spring, and she has asked me to venture into the world of blogging.  I offer some “snapshots” from my two-week visit.

Snapshot #1:  The Grand Chief wearing a traditional lap-lap (sarong).  During my first morning in Madang, I accompanied Catherine to the faculty/staff morning coffee at Divine Word University.  Each of the visitors was introduced.  I was introduced after a delegation from theSolomon Islands and the Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare, four-time prime minister and father of the nation!  As a political scientist, that was a special moment for me.

Snapshot #2:  A rusty copra boat.  When people ask me about my travels in PNG, I invariably mention our three-night trip to the tropical island paradise of Karkar Island.  Getting there was a big part of the adventure.  To get to Karkar from Cedar Rapids, where I began my trip, travel as far from home as possible, then board a boat and go another fifty miles.  To get the full experience, take a copra boat for twenty kina.  (Copra is coconut that is used to make coconut oil.  Copra and cocoa production are big businesses on the island.)   The boat departs at 10:30am.  Or 11:00.  Or 11:30.  As people boarded, men strung rope around the boat’s perimeter to prevent people from sliding off of the deck.  The voyage takes four to five hours.  Or well over five. The boat, by the way, has no bathroom.

For about the first hour we progressed slowly out of Madang harbor past a series of small islands.  The boat has no chairs for passengers, but we sat comfortably in the front of the boat on a raised platform.  Then the fun began.  As we passed beyond the barrier islands and into the open ocean, the seas got heavy.  Local men who were in the front with us ushered us aft, where we found more men as well as some women and young children.  They were kind enough to make room for us.  Since the Pundok is an open boat, waves began washing the decks.  We had to hope that the boat was as trusty as it was rusty.  After we disembarked, we were assured of the vessel’s seaworthiness.  During the trip, however, while focusing on the horizon and willing my lunch to stay down, I alternated between humming the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song and tunes from “South Pacific.”  I also watched the men chew betel nut and casually toss their empty beer bottles – South Pacific “brownies,” of course – off the back of the boat.  I tried not to think about the recent ferry boat accident.  Fortunately, we arrived on Karkar without incident.


Snapshot #3:  Beneath the waves.  I had been told that PNG has some of the world’s finest dive sites and that I couldn’t go all the way to PNG and not scuba dive.  So, dive I did.  Two of my dives were very special.  The first was when Joseph, the dive master, took me to Barracuda Point off of Pig Island.  We went down 25-30 meters, which is deeper than I usually go.  The water was cloudy and comfortably cool.  At one point, I looked up and saw what I thought was the shadow of the dive boat’s underside – but, no, it was not of one piece, but many.  It was a school of fish.  A barracuda swam past us, followed by a couple more, all swimming in single file.  Then school was in session.  Schools of barracuda, trigger fish, and trevallies – all good-sized fish – swam by, some going in one direction, some in another.  It was a well-choreographed show, with different species of fish crossing paths.  (The fish were “playing,” Joseph told me later on the boat.)  Joseph stood on a coral and provided a knee for me to sit on so that we could watch the show with as little movement as possible, though the fish seemed to take little notice of us.  Up and around, back and forth they went.  Finally, we moved on to see schools of smaller blue-colored fish, star fish with arms as long as my forearm, orange and white clown fish, and a variety of flora.  “Amazing” just doesn’t do it justice.

Catherine was on the next dive, her first.  Joseph gave her a brief introduction to scuba diving, she practiced a bit and took to it like a pro, and away we went.  We dove off of Pig Passage.  One of the highlights was seeing a puffer fish asleep in a bed of soft coral.

Snapshot #4:  Outrigger canoe meets megayacht.  Four of us were kayaking in Madang Harbor when we encountered boys in outrigger canoes alongside an enormous dark blue yacht.  We talked to a member of the yacht’s crew – a fellow American – who knew neither where he was nor where they were going.  He told us the yacht had a crew of sixty.  He couldn’t tell us who owned it, but said that if we looked up the name (“Octopus”) on the internet, we could find out.  At over 400’, the Octopus is one of the world’s largest yachts and is equipped with two helicopters and a submarine.  It’s owned by Microsoft’s Paul Allen.  A $200 million yacht in the harbor of a developing country.  One wonders what the boys in the outrigger canoes thought of it.

These are just a few of the vivid images I brought back from that wonderful trip.  I am very grateful for the warm hospitality of Catherine, other expats, and the Papua New Guineans I encountered.

Lynda Barrow

My Easter Season, 2012

May 25, 2012


I’ve had the goal of posting a blog entry before the Easter season is over. With Pentecost on Sunday, I have two days left!

 Heartwarming experience of the semester: At the end-of-semester Communication Arts barbeque, my third-year Feature Writing students presented me with an elaborately woven bag from the Sepik River, in the north of the country. In the card inside, which they had all signed, they wrote, “You have made us become writers, and we will always carry that with us.” As I said to them, I’ll always carry their bright, generous spirits with me.


 I’m fortunate to be here at a momentous time for PNG. Friday, the 2012 election period was officially declared open after a dedication service in Port Moresby. Candidates can now officially campaign, having paid their 1000K to register (about USD500). Four thousand people have declared as candidates for 109 seats in Parliament, most of them affiliated with one of 46 parties.

 The actual election will begin June 23rd. Because of concerns over violence, intimidation, and fraud, there will be only one day to vote in the Highlands. Women will have their own booths. Elsewhere, people will have two weeks in which to cast their vote.

 Each person can vote for up to three people, a system called Limited Preferential Voting. The same system was used in the 2007 elections and reduced the large number of candidates receiving a small number of votes. Thus, whoever is actually elected has more of a mandate to serve. Chances for post-election violence are also lessened.

 The election will end ten months of uncertainty and embarrassment for many Papua New Guineans. Last August, when the then prime minister, Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare, had been in Singapore for three months recovering from heart surgery, Parliament voted in Peter O’Neill as his replacement. Somare is acknowledged as one of the fathers of the country and as someone who has served faithfully for his entire adult life. Now, however, he is 75, and he and those around him are known to be corrupt.

 When I arrived in early September, people questioned the legality of Parliament’s action, but breathed a sigh of relief as well. Perhaps now they would have the energetic, forward-thinking leader they knew they needed.

 Somare has never conceded O’Neill’s legitimacy as prime minister. He took the question to the Supreme Court, which has now ruled twice that Somare is the rightful prime minister. News accounts refer to “Parliament-elected” Prime Minister Peter O’Neill and “Supreme Court-affirmed” Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare. We have two of everything—Ministers of Education, Forestry, etc., with, presumably, salaries for everyone. In the meantime, hospitals across the country have had their budgets cut in half and there aren’t nearly enough teachers for all the schools.

 It hasn’t taken long for O’Neill to show he’s not the one to take the country forward.  Early this year, Parliament under his control passed the Judicial Conduct Act. It allows Parliament to remove Supreme Court justices under certain conditions—a blatant act to get even with the court and its decision to support Somare.

 The Thursday before Easter and the beginning of a four-day weekend, Parliament voted to delay the elections for six months, another overt act to keep O’Neill in power.

 Voting to delay the election proved to be the spark needed for people to say they had had enough. In short order, trade union members, teachers, students, women’s groups, and church leaders organized a march in Port Moresby that attracted 10,000 people. O’Neill and co. back-pedaled quickly. Now, the election will go forward as scheduled and O’Neill has said he will accept the Supreme Court’s ruling in the next government on the legality of the Judicial Conduct Act.  

Christianity and Traditional PNG Spirituality

 The Language and Literature class I’m team-teaching has ended with our reading Two Seasons, a novel by Bernard Narokobi. Like Somare, Narokobi, who died in 2010, was one of the country’s early and long-term leaders. Two Seasons tells the idyllic story of a boy growing up in a traditional village in the Sepik area, also the home of my co-teacher. In the novel, the spirit world has as much reality as the physical world. Plants, animals, spirits, and people are one, each affecting the others.

 Surprisingly (to me), Narokobi uses Christian imagery to describe the novel’s high point, when a spiritual leader goes into the jungle to appease the spirits who have made the boy sick. My co-teacher sees no conflict. She says Narokobi uses the Christian imagery so that his Papua New Guinean readers will have a better understanding of what happens in the jungle. She describes herself as a devout Catholic, with no need to deny the reality of the spirit world. As both she and the students say, “God made the spirits.”

 In our last discussion of the book, one student said she didn’t used to believe in the spirit world, but now she does. I told them I don’t think I have the ability to believe in the spirit world even if I wanted to. It’s not something I can will myself to believe. I remember my father writing from Karkar Island in 1938, recognizing that the “natives” had a connection to the spiritual world beyond anything he could comprehend. I feel the same way.

 This co-teacher and I will have a grand adventure before I leave PNG on June 22. We will go overland to Wewak, near the Sepik River, and from there go to her two islands, Kairiru and Mushu. On one, we’ll climb an extinct volcano, which has a lake and a statue of the Virgin Mary at its peak, and on the other we’ll bathe in hot springs. We’ll also visit her priest-cousin, who lives in Angoram, up the Sepik.


Easter Itself

 Outsiders can heighten one’s experience of something special. That happened for me during Holy Week, when my friend Lynda visited from Iowa. With two services on Good Friday, we elected to swim and snorkel in the morning. Saturday evening, we attended the Easter Vigil service, the oldest Easter worship form. Lynda commented afterwards that it’s such a rich liturgy, it “spoils” Easter Sunday. She’s right, and, after many years in the Episcopal church, that’s okay with me.

 When there’s a festival service, students take every opportunity to enhance the worship by dancing in traditional costumes to music from traditional instruments. During the Easter Vigil, different groups danced in at the beginning, before reading the Gospel and taking up the offering, and then again at the end. The dancers stepped deliberately, often going backwards almost as often as they went forwards. They took our time and theirs.

 Sunday morning, we were down at the ocean for a sunrise service held by the Catholic cathedral. Now, “older” people sang and danced us into the spirit of Easter. The sunrise helped as well: on its own, not exceptional, but the size of the sky and its ability to delineate each color made it one to remember.

 The Polish friends who invited us to the sunrise service also invited us to their traditional Easter  breakfast. We had cold hardboiled eggs, bread, and delicate meats, all served with tea, and using real china and linen napkins. The meal ended with an elaborate Polish poppy-seed cake, served with coffee.   


The photos below are a sunrise from outside my apartment and a photo of me with two DWU students, their faces decorated in a traditional pattern from Bougainville. The woman on the right is my student. I’m wearing my Kalibobo “Kingdom of Tonga” shirt!


March 27, 2012

I haven’t yet mastered a fool proof way of inserting photos into WordPress. I wanted this photo at the end, not the beginning. But here it is, and I’m out of time. Finally, the flying foxes make a visual appearance in these pages! Those little black umbrella-looking things are hundreds of bats at rest but still making noise.

And now, on to “Kalibobo”:

I say my favorite Madang word, “Kalibobo,” as often as I can. No one I’ve talked to knows what it means.

 There used to be a village by that name on one of the many lagoons in Madang harbor. Now, only a fish market remains at the site, the one by the Lutheran church, where I bought half a yellow fin tuna the first week I was here. Every day, women sell fresh fish out of coolers (“eskies,” they call them). They also grill and sell small reef fish, which I hope to have the courage to try before I leave.

 The nearby resort also uses “Kalibobo” to identify some of its room choices and as part of the name for its small cruise ship, which, over Easter, will take people up the Sepik River, and at other times, offers a trip to the Trobriand Islands, off the far southeast coast of PNG.

 If my friends and I say we’re going to Kalibobo, we don’t mean any of the above. We mean Kalibobo Used Clothing (“Kalibobo Haus Colos” in Tok Pisin), one of six or seven used clothing stores in town, but by far the largest. It sells aggressively, advertising that it’s open every day from 7 am until 6 pm, claiming to sell 10,000 items during that time.

As you can see from the photo at the end of this post, even though the store has an exotic name and big goals for itself, it looks shabby and unpretentious. When you enter, you have to meet with the approval of a guard, who won’t let you back in after you’ve bought something. Once he lets you in, you notice first the rows and rows of clothing, 28 of them in two sets, perpendicular to each other. Each row is about 75 feet long. Wire mesh walls and a gate separate the items for sale from bales and bales of used clothing, not yet hung out for sale.

 Sooner or later you’ll look up, grateful for any breeze you can get from the fans. Only half of them run. You’re not surprised you’re already sweating when you also see insulation peeling off the ceiling.

 Off on the right, there’s a large clock with a photo of Marilyn Monroe behind the hands. It’s the one where she’s leaning forward, whooshing up the ruffles in her skirt above her knees. After you’ve taken that in, you might notice the music playing over the sound system. Last week, a solo flute played “Flow Gently Sweet Afton,” followed by one of those girl sopranos who keep coming out of Ireland or England, sweetly singing something I didn’t know. At other times, it’s country (John Denver is a big favorite here), but I’ve never heard anything raucous.

 Before you start on the one-two hours you know you have to allow to find anything worthwhile, you look around for what else you might buy besides clothing. Under a glass countertop, you find shoes, boom boxes, toys, tea pots, cups and saucers, other dishes, sauce pans, and various items of table ware. If you’re looking for a baby bib, there are 12 feet of them along one wall; close by, place mats, dust ruffles, sheets, towels, and duvets. Books and magazines have their own alcove off on one side.

 I have yet to figure out the rationale for prices. One day, I paid the equivalent of 80 cents for a March 2005 copy of Gourmet Traveller, for the experience of holding and reading something glossy. (No magazines for sale in Madang.)  I paid five times that for a stainless steel mixing spoon, nice enough to be taken back to the States. Yesterday, I was admiring the white linen shirt a friend wore kayaking, that would easily cost USD 100 in Grand Rapids. He paid 40 cents for it.

 Once you begin your serious looking, you can count on equivalent finds, whether or not it makes sense to buy them. In fact, you soon stop thinking about whether it makes sense to buy something because most things are so cheap, you tell yourself it doesn’t matter how well it fits or whether it needs a button.

 My personal favorite finds are a 100% wool tartan kilt (never worn, judging by its condition) for less than USD 2, next to a dark green taffeta cocktail dress, that one with a stain in back, and as cheap as the kilt. While I didn’t buy either one, I did buy a bright pink top with “Kingdom of Tonga” embroidered on it, which I plan to wear to coffee at Starbucks some Saturday morning in Grand Rapids.

 I know more about Kalibobo than most of its customers because one of its Senior Team Leaders spoke to my two Business Communication classes. They were working in groups, setting up yet another used clothing store in Madang. To assist them in their task of recommending a supplier, my co-teacher arranged for the manager to speak.

 Kalibob is the flagship store of a PNG-wide operation of multiple outlets in five towns. Men’s and children’s clothes, not women’s, have the greatest demand. If an item hasn’t sold in two weeks, it’s taken off the floor. The manager told us his store’s weekly profit, but he didn’t indicate the number was for broadcasting on the internet, so I’ll say only that anyone reading this blog would be ecstatic at the thought of that much income each week.

 The business is Christian, the manager said, donating regularly to the owners’ favorite causes. The staff begins every day with devotions at 7 am.

 And now, back to dog-paddling electronically in my sea of student papers, wondering whether I can help students who are currently failing, and chipping away at the complexities of bicultural teaching relationships. People here usually call me “Professor Catherine.” A more accurate title these days might be “Beginner Catherine.”

 I miss our regular contact and your thoughtful, warm-hearted comments. As one of you said, we are indeed “a community of writers and thinkers.”

 27 March 2012

Early Teaching

February 26, 2012


Ferry Update: Thursday evening, the university had a memorial mass for the two students whose drowning has been verified. Seven students survived. Others are thought to be missing, although no one yet knows the exact number. At the end of the service, students offered their remembrances. One student wrote and sang a song for her friend, who was only 18, and whose mother died along with her. The young man who drowned would have graduated this year. We closed with the song written for the memorial mass in October for the victims of the plane crash. 

 I’ve finished my first two weeks of classes. With 111 students (thus far) in four writing classes,  the semester will go by in a blur. I say “thus far”: the university has a waiting list of students wishing to enroll, depending on whether accepted students actually register.

 I have three classes of first-years: two sections of Business Communication, taught with a national staff member, and one of English Language and Literature, also taught with a national staff member. Team-teaching these classes complicates offering them, but, in the long run, ought to enrich the experience both for us and the students.

 The literature on team-teaching, especially bicultural team-teaching, stresses the necessity of facing differences head-on. The big one this week, with first assignments coming in, has been what to mark and how.  I’m concerned first with students expressing themselves, particularly in early, informal assignments, wanting to increase their comfort writing in what is their third or fourth language. The two national staff, on the other hand, stress correctness.

I can already see that had we been able to spend more time planning before the classes began, we would have been off to a much smoother start.

   Besides working with my co-teachers and grading papers, my main energy outside of class goes towards identifying the level at which I should teach so students can understand what I’m saying and can apply the principles. In class, I struggle as much to understand them as they do me. I have lost some of my hearing, and they speak so softly! I now always move towards the speaker, stopping perhaps a foot away and leaning down. Even then, I don’t always understand. They have worthwhile things to say, and I’ll keep trying.

 I’m also teaching Feature Writing, with third-year students. As with upperclassmen in the US, working with these students is a relaxing change, much as I like the first-years. They have returned from six-week work experiences, wanting to apply what they’ve learned to the classroom. They are confident and positive. No doubt, they were once not so different from this year’s first-years, a measure of the difference that the education here can make.

 The physical circumstances of teaching at Divine Word wear me down. The classrooms I teach in are in three, long, parallel blocks of buildings, all painted the same faded blue and white.  Although their architecture varies somewhat, it’s taken a surprisingly long time to figure out where I’m going. It doesn’t help that three of the four rooms I teach in don’t have room numbers. Personal needs can be difficult to meet: there are no toilets in these blocks. If I’m teaching classes back-to-back and forget to plan, too bad.

 One classroom is in between two big ficus trees, home to hundreds of noisy flying foxes, and, on the other side, a loud pump that runs continuously. We have to have the windows open for the modest bit of afternoon air that comes in. Only the windowless computer lab that we use in Business Communication is air-conditioned, except for when the “air-con” breaks down, which it has twice thus far.

 Each day, an apparently simple thing brightens my day. I’ve never heard of scheduling classes so they meet at different times during the week. Feature Writing meets at 8 am on Monday, 9 am on Tuesday, and 10:30 am on Thursday. English Language and Literature meets at 11:30 am on Monday, 10:30 am on Tuesday, and 8 am on Friday. And so on. Everything lightens up because each day differs.


When I walk out of my apartment door, I see these trees. There’s a frangipani in the middle, and the big one with its roots far out of the ground is a pandanus. Does anyone know what the other two trees are?

The sun rises to the right of these trees. I see the first pink clouds at 6. This morning, taking in the pink, I also noticed the light, sweet smell of the ripening guavas I’d bought in the market. Later, when I cut into one of them, its pink matched the pink of the sunrise.

26 February 2012

Madang, PNG



February 7, 2012

I’m writing the fifth day after a ferry capsized in rough seas southeast of here (close to Siassi, for those of you familiar with PNG geography). We don’t know much beyond what we knew the first day: that about 250 people have been rescued of the 350 that the boat was authorized to carry. One of the survivors said that as many as 500 people were on board. According to a newspaper on Friday, there were only enough lifeboats for 250 people.

Classes begin here this week, and the Vice President for Student Affairs says that about 30 DWU students were on the ferry. One, I know, was my student last semester. The ferry owner hasn’t yet produced a passenger list, making it impossible to know for sure who was on the boat. We will, no doubt, learn who has survived only as each person tells us.

The plane crash last October that killed eleven family members of students came towards the end of the semester. Now, we begin this semester under a new shadow of sadness. 


Most of this post will be on the much less serious topic of the malfunctions in my travel from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Madang.

The morning of Friday, January 20th, after the 15-hour flight across the Pacific, I transferred to the domestic terminal in Sydney, for my flight to Brisbane. I showed my e-ticket to an airlines rep, who stared at it and said, “But this is a ticket for Wednesday the 18th, and today is Friday!”

My stomach tightened as I realized that my friends in Brisbane must have gone to the airport on Wednesday, since I had said I was arriving on the 18th. I had missed Thursday, having crossed the International Dateline, but they had had a Thursday. Now it was a day later, and they had still heard nothing from me.

I re-booked, paying a fine for changing a reservation, and called my friends, even though it was only 6:30 a.m. They graciously came to pick me up in Brisbane, telling me the efforts they had made to find out what had happened to me. They had called two other families in the Brisbane area whom I was going to be visiting, and along the way various people contacted their American relatives who might have known what happened to me.

I thought back to making my reservations in October. The process had taken several hours, spread out over a weekend. Part way through, I changed my flight out of Los Angeles so I would have an extra day with friends there. I had already identified the Sydney-Brisbane flight I wanted and did not think to go back to check to be sure it would fit with my new arrival day in Sydney. After I printed out my tickets, I must have looked at them twenty times, never noticing the discrepancy. 

My week in the Brisbane area with old friends (both NG friends and former high school teachers) more than made up for my early embarrassment—although I’m expecting they won’t let me forget having messed up anytime soon! 

Friday the 27th, I was in a shuttle from the Sunshine Coast to the Brisbane airport for the two flights needed to get to Madang. From listening to the driver talk to another shuttle driver, I knew he was concerned about a creek flooding the road from all the rain in recent days. I stopped thinking about the rain when the shuttle driver, hearing I was going to PNG, said, “Oh, they just had a coup there.”  “Might as well keep going,” I thought to myself.

News of the coup didn’t surprise me. PNG has had two men claiming to be prime minister since August, Michael Somare and Peter O’Neill. Somare, one of PNG’s founding fathers, who was again serving as PM, had been in Malaysia for three months, recovering from heart surgery. Somare is long past his prime and known to be corrupt. O’Neill and his party took the opportunity provided by Somare’s absence to seize control of the government.

The day I left PNG in December, the Supreme Court declared Somare to be the rightful PM. O’Neill and his supporters have never accepted the decision, and the  to-ing and fro-ing between both men and their supporters has continued. Army leaders loyal to O’Neill quickly put down the coup led by Somare’s army head. Churches in PNG declared Sunday a National Day of Prayer for resolving the strife in the government.

That second Friday in Brisbane, I arrived at the airport only to learn that my flight to Port Moresby had been cancelled. Not delayed or re-scheduled–cancelled. The cancellation had nothing to do with the coup. The subsidiary airline contracted for the flight didn’t have a plane to make the flight.

In the tedious, four-hour process of re-booking on another airline, I met other passengers in my predicament. One couple lived in Madang, and they called a friend there to find out whether the coup had ripple effects in Madang. None, the friend said. I thought perhaps I’d still get to Madang that day.

We arrived in Port Moresby, learning first-hand how the coup was affecting domestic flights. My flight to Madang had been cancelled. Another flight to Madang was cancelled because it was scheduled to go on to Wewak, Somare’s home territory. All flights to Lae were cancelled because Lae has a reputation as a tinderbox.

The airline put me up in a nice hotel in Port Moresby, and I flew to Madang the following day with no problems.


My five weeks in Grand Rapids and North Carolina, visiting my son and family, were a welcome break. It’s a pleasure now to be greeting new friends from last semester and to begin teaching, feeling like I know where I am.

I’ve also had another bonus since I returned. In November, some women I have coffee with in Grand Rapids on Saturday mornings sent me a package. Although I know now that it arrived at the university on December 7, for PNG reasons, I didn’t get the package until this past week.

Here is everything my friends fit in a medium flat-rate US Postal Service box: a dish drying mat, a daily calendar of “women’s wit,” a refrigerator magnet on peace, four flexible cutting mats, a Santa gel cling, a windup snowman, two Republic of Tea tea bags and a package of pumpkin spice tea, air freshener, magnolia perfume cachet, fine French soap, six bowl (which, my friends noted, I spelled “bowel” in my email thank-you) covers, a collapsible colander, three small American flags, fall cocktail napkins, a decorative pumpkin, six tiny perfumed candles, a head massager, and a paper turkey honeycomb centerpiece.



Above are two photos from my first visit to the Orchid Village last fall. I haven’t yet fully mastered how one uploads photos to WordPress, but here’s a start. Hope you enjoy them!

7 February 2012


Taking Stock

November 27, 2011


Exultation is the going

Of an inland soul to sea,

Past the houses—past the headlands—

Into deep Eternity—


Bred as we, among the mountains,

Can the sailor understand

The divine intoxication

Of the first league out from land?

                                     –Emily Dickinson

 One morning this past week, with time before an 8 am meeting and no TV to distract me, I memorized this poem. I found it as the epigraph of a novel sent me by an Australian friend, who had asked me what she might send me—some vitamins, some books? I chose the books.

 For those of you who don’t know Dickinson, she’s an American poet from the second half of the 19th century. Many of her poems challenge readers to stretch the bounds of their thinking. Some use religious language as this one does, not because she was a devout Christian, but because she wants to draw on her readers’ deepest associations to make her point. Our minds and hearts are world enough for her.

 I’m using this poem in my last post for the year because of how well it captures many of the feelings I’ve had in being here for the past three months. I’m not the inland soul of the first stanza or the sailor in the second.  Even so, living and working in Papua New Guinea has pushed me into the heights and depths of experience beyond what I could have imagined when I first considered this idea 18 months ago.

 I expected to like my students, but I didn’t know whether we would relate well to each other as people or whether I could find good ways to teach them what they needed. I knew I would learn from them, but I didn’t know what. I expected to like my colleagues, but I wondered how easily I would be accepted, and whether it would be possible and appropriate for me to work with them on their teaching, one of my loves. Would the fruit and vegetables be as seductive as I remembered, the rain as hard, the humidity as oppressive, and the scenery as full and rich?

 I’ll begin with the fruit, vegetables, rain, and scenery. I had forgotten that fruits and vegetables have their seasons here, just as they do in North America. In recent weeks, I can easily find mangoes, pineapples, and tomatoes in the market. Two weeks ago, I had a watermelon, sweeter and redder than I thought possible. When I came in September, I had to look hard for gallip nuts, sort of a cross between almonds and Brazil nuts, and felt lucky to find even one woman selling them. Now, several women sell them, in and out of the shell.

 As I write, the second burst of rain in the past 24 hours has begun. It has started and finished in the time it has taken me to write these two sentences. Now, it has begun again. For the past six weeks, fierce rain has fallen almost every night, and often in the early morning and late afternoon. (My kayak group can count on being able to go out on Saturday mornings; any early morning rain will have stopped.) When it rains after 3 am, the flying foxes quiet down, back from feeding in the jungle, and I take out my earplugs. I tolerate the humidity less than when I arrived. I remember writing that the humidity made me feel like a cucumber, delicately misted in a grocery store. Now, with the increased moisture and higher temperatures (it’s summer in Australia), I sweat most of the time.

 Unlike when I lived in PNG as a child, I have the time, inclination, and resources to take in the beauty around me. For half the time I’ve been here, I’ve had access to a university vehicle. I’m developing a sense of what I can do on my own and where there are safety risks.

 Madang proper has no beaches, only coral outcroppings along the shore. As long as I’m with someone, we can drive to one of the resorts, park our car, and take a five-minute boat ride, costing less than 50 cents, over to Krangket Island. Five thousand people live there, in well-kept, traditionally built houses, surrounded by attractive gardens. A half-hour walk down one of the island’s fingers takes us to a lagoon with a white-sand beach and excellent snorkeling. Within minutes of our arrival, the landowner sees us and collects the equivalent of USD2 from each of us to use the beach. No complaints from me.

 Writing about people will always be more complicated than writing about beaches and watermelon. I can say at least this: that the Divine Word community is one in which I can continue to grow.

 When I met one of my students from last semester off-campus, she asked what I would be teaching next year. I mentioned Feature Writing, the course she had taken from me and my co-teacher, and she began, “Then you’ll do a better. . . .” She stopped, probably thinking she was being impolite, and I finished the sentence, “I’ll do a better job.” We both laughed. She and I had had a misunderstanding that I hadn’t been aware of until the end of the semester. That experience has reminded me to check in regularly with students. Doing so will be especially important because I’ll be teaching mainly first-year students. I know I can still count on their generosity, good humor, and thoughtful approach to their studies.

 My best chance getting to know Divine Word staff came with two, week-long writing retreats I did at the end of October and beginning of November that involved about one-quarter of the staff. People came, curious about what it would be like since they had never done a writing retreat. Almost everyone appreciated the structure and support offered in the retreat, which enabled them to work more effectively.

 Those who had a project had defined something with social benefits, an apropriate focus for academics in a developing country. One person was working on a research proposal to find out why parents of disabled children in Lae have stopped bringing them to a clinic. Another wrote stories in English for the children in her home village, explaining traditional practices to them, such as how to catch fish. She is in Goroka this week, working with linguists to translate these stories into her mother tongue.  

 A great, unexpected benefit of my venture to Divine Word has been writing this blog. I expected to write at most every two weeks, certainly not every week and with such long posts. I often felt like I had no choice but to write, even with the challenges of some of the topics. You, my readers, are various (family, friends, former colleagues, current and former missionaries and their adult children, members of the Divine Word community), and now there are 120 of you! All of you who have posted comments or written to me privately have given me a sense of writing for an audience that I’ve never had before. Such a gift!

 I’m leaving here December 12th and will be back the end of January. I’ll be writing again in February. With national elections coming up mid-year, I’ve been thinking about how I can write about politics, as one of you has suggested.

 Thanks again for being such attentive, receptive readers!


28 November 2011