A Picture from Long Ago, and Far Away

December 31, 2014 — Leave a comment

At the end of the year I’m reminded of all the photographs that have streamed across my consciousness, some beautiful, some horrific. Most are looked at and then forgotten as we go on with our busy lives. And so when I found a photo the other day, I really looked at it and I was transported to another place. A lifetime ago, almost.

The photo shows atap roofs reaching low over bark-walled huts on stumpy stilts dotted over a slight rise, jungle providing a heavy backdrop. The colours have faded but I know they were verdant greens of varying density, leaves small and soft, or long and sharp. The sky, just visible, silhouettes palm fronds as a nearby source for building material. There are no shadows, proclaiming a dull day with just enough cloud clearance to allow entry to this hidden world.

A foot-worn path leads up the hill to where a couple of women stand, hips hoiked to provide a perch for infants watching the excitement below. Halfway down the slope what looks like rudimentary goal posts frame a bare-breasted and seated woman suckling a baby, but which could easily have been a piglet. Down the path from her four or five stocky men, arms folded, hold the centre ground as a gaggle of children, some naked with bellies protruding, keep safe distance on the edge of the small plain. There are no pigs or curs in the photo, maybe they are hiding from the drama or scrabbling over a bone tossed from a cooking pot.

In the foreground is the red and white bulge of a small helicopter, the door being held open by a tall, shaggy-haired and bearded European. A long-sleeved bush shirt is tucked neatly into belted grey shorts that lead down long legs to calf-high canvas jungle boots tightly laced to stop the ever-blood searching leeches from taking up residence between his toes.

It could be somewhere in Africa but it isn’t.

Instead it is in the Papua New Guinea highlands. I’m not sure which village, one I don’t think I have visited as I know I did not take the photograph. It is though a scene witnessed in other mountaintop villages.

The arrival of the whirly winged bird, or sometimes a small fixed wing equivalent, offers excitement, a break in the tedium of a hard life spent tending terraced gardens of kao-kao, maybe a few coffee bushes, some bananas. Sometimes a health worker emerges from the flying machines, or a government employee attempting to count the villagers, or a policeman intent on discussing with the local kiap, or headman, a possibly generation-long disagreement with a gathering of huts on the opposite hill. If officialdom is anticipated, or spotted descending the steps, spears, axes and bows and arrows hastily disappear.

This particular day the visitor is the Morobe Provincial Government civil engineer. A white man who elicits curiosity, particularly when he starts conversing with the kiap in fluent pidgin English. The children creep closer, some will dare to touch his pale skin before darting away, startled by their own temerity. He smiles at them but offers no sweets, no incentives to draw them close. Their teeth at this age are strong and white, not yet destroyed by the bui and lime, a mild narcotic that eases the distances travelled on foot by allowing a soporific stupor to take hold, or sometimes used to pass the day, or relieve pain. He might kick a ragged football with them for a few moments, but his real business is to assess their needs with regards perhaps a one-room school, or a small medical centre. He might be gathering workers to help build the road to their village, and which will one day reach far across the Owen Stanley Range from Lae on the Huon Gulf to Port Moresby on the southern coast.

The man looks happy, fulfilled, eager and utterly at ease in what to many would be a most alien environment. He was not to the manner born. Instead an implant from the West of England on a two-year tour with VSO (Volunteer Services Oveseas), the organisation upon which President Kennedy based the American Peace Corps.

There was no grand expatriate life for the man in the photo. Rather subsistence living in a one-and-a-half roomed house on the edge of Lae with a rudimentary bathroom, a stove and a small fridge. He shared it with another volunteer, who spent weeks at a time surveying even deeper into the mountainous jungle, a man more at ease with nature than the cocktail circuit. An army of red ants, rudely inured to any attempt to destroy their regulated lines, terrorised their home, and cockroaches scuttled across the floor and down the walls whenever the light was extinguished. No amount of toxic spray annihilated either.

And so as I look at the photograph now framed on my desk, I am reminded of years spent in a newly independent country on the Pacific rim. A country of immense contrasts, from stunning coral reefs filtered with multi-coloured fish to staggering mountain ranges, home to magnificent birds of paradise. Of dusty towns, corners loitered with youths drawn from the hills by the hopes of work but often sadly side-tracked by the readily available beer. Of villages clinging to steep hillsides or nestled in valleys, of commercial farms precision-planted with rows of coffee and copra.

The man in the photograph has not changed very much over the years. Responsibilities may have changed, and grown, but he is essentially the same person. Not readily enamoured of the more usual expatriate experience, but rather more at one with the people of the country in which he might be living.

This picture, and all those flickering across our screens, tell so many more than a thousand words. I’m going to try and take the time to read those photos more thoroughly, to not dismiss them so readily, and to hope 2015 brings fewer pictures of pain from around the world. Happy New Year!

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