The People of the Bird excerpt 2

(Part) Chapter 7 - The Return

Despite my two decades in PNG, I’d not actually returned to Mambusu since the rugby game that started my PNG adventure some twenty six years earlier. It’s not that I tried to stay away but the circumstances that would allow me the time to travel up there never presented. At least that was my excuse. In reality I realized I’d just allowed myself to become so busy that I’d procrastinated on returning. Until now.

It was still a reasonable drive, taking several hours. The road was bitumen all the way. This time I was in the comfort of a government issued, air conditioned 4WD Toyota Hilux twin cab. The road took the same route, not that I could remember much of it after all these years. The bends as it snaked up the mountain sides were the same even if the dust was not.

The village had grown considerably since 1972. It was now almost a small town, though maintained the character of a village. That was mainly because of its primary ethnic Moiaimba population, where everyone knows each other and most people are related. A guest house was run by the local progress association and my secretary had booked accommodation there ahead of time by telephone.

“You’re very lucky to get through on the phone,” she was told by the receptionist. She’d requested a room with ensuite bathroom for the four weeks I’d be there. Unfortunately there was only a common bathroom for all guest rooms.

I must admit to deep feelings of both excitement and apprehension as I set out from Port Moresby mid morning. Returning to the place where it all started had a sort of fairly tale feeling to it, yet what would I find? Would the reality of my teenage remembrances be shattered by the stark reality of a now urbanized community? From my experience around PNG I knew that there were few, if any, towns now that did not experience major social issues ranging from alcohol overload to youth gangs. Growing settlement and squatter fringe communities who usually bore the brunt of accusations of crime.

What sort of reception would I find now? Would anyone remember me after all these years? Would I recognise anyone or anything there?

The drive seemed to take forever yet the time passed quickly as my mind raced through my many questions, intermingled with distant memories of my first visit. I found myself driving slower than normal in the last few kilometers as I approached the village, wondering what this revisit would find, savouring the excitement of the unknown. What new adventure may I be getting myself into now?

The last bends into Mambusu seemed familiar, though it was probably just in my mind. Then there it was, the last hill. As I rounded the last corner, the village emerged over the hill as I slowly, almost majestically, drove in and parked outside the local guest house. Mambusu Guest Haus, the sign read. The paint was flaking but the words gauged into the wooden sign would remain for years to come. There was no welcoming committee, no fanfare, no leis around my neck, just a few locals strolling around the street and some children playing nearby.

Ah, incognito. At last. I was a nobody just passing through. That’s how I wanted it.

I recognized the school building, both aged and modified. The old village square where we sat round a fire and watched singsing dances was now a street, part bitumen and part pothole. Permanent material buildings now lined each side of the road, some timber, some fibro, some painted, some not. Some were business premises, some residential. Some both.

Behind and beside these I could see numerous settlement houses made of bits of plywood, tin, corrugated iron, blue tarpaulin and bush timber. Throughout PNG urban growth has been so rapid that the creation of infrastructure has had no hope of maintaining the pace required to support it. Most towns now had squatter settlement populations both within and shrouding their outskirts.

Mambusu only mirrored the national trend as more and more people moved from their villages into the town – probably in the hope of work and a better future. Some had received an education in the town and found it too hard now to move back to the village. This settlement population at Mambusu may have been no more than several hundred people, but it was in microcosm what the larger towns were now experiencing.

I grabbed my bags and entered the guest haus, noting as I climbed the timber staircase that this building was also in need of repair. Behind a desk in one corner of the foyer was a young local woman who greeted me, obviously awaiting my arrival.

“Hello, welcome to Mambusu. Are you Mr Orlando?”

I nodded and replied. It was nice now to have one person at least know who I was and be expecting my arrival. She introduced herself as Lily, and offered any assistance I needed during my stay.

This was a strange situation for me though. As a senior public servant I was used to having an entourage of people welcome and look after me when I visited different places. In the course of my duties it was in the best interests of both the mining companies and the local community to ensure that I was well catered for. That way both groups could ensure I was working in their best interests. Or should I say, that I had no reason not to work for both of their best interests. I realized that I’d tried to keep this visit as low key as possible, including not allowing my Secretary to state my job position. How strange it felt to not have the kind of fanfare I had become used to.

The receptionist interrupted my thoughts. “I’ll show you to your room Mr Orlando, it’s number 12.” I thought she sounded better educated than I would expect a receptionist in the middle of nowhere to be.

The walls of the Foyer and Reception area were decorated with carvings and artifacts that I presumed were from the local area, though some had a hint of influences from regions I knew better. A Sepik crocodile. A Manus garamut. An Oro tapacloth. I followed her down a rather plain corridor until we came to Room 12, and Lily opened the door and ushered me in.

“We’re so glad that you’ve come here,” she said with surprising sincerity and warmth, as if she knew something more than her words revealed. “We hope you enjoy your stay. Just contact me if you need anything.”

I had some basic questions, such as where is the dining room and bathroom, but these could wait. So also could the questions I had about how I could achieve the things I wanted to do here – quality time to spend with the leaders and community, learning some of their ways and understanding how a gold mine would really affect them and their environment.

First I needed a cup of tea after the drive. Fortunately the Mambusu Guest Haus did provide a hot water jug and tea bags, and did have running water, mostly cold, and electricity. As I sat on the edge of what was to be my bed for the next four weeks, I realized that the trip up had been more tiresome than I’d expected. That was probably a result of all the emotional stuff it involved for me as much as the actual drive.

I woke with a start. Someone was banging on the door. It took a few seconds to register where I was and then recognise Lily’s voice.

“Mr Orlando, are you there? Some people have come to see you,” she called.

I staggered to my feet and opened the door.

“I’m sorry to disturb you Mr Orlando. The village leaders are here to welcome you. They’re in the main room waiting for you.”

Copyright © Michael A Jelliffe 2014