It was mid-April 1986, and I waited for some newfound friends in the main street. A stranger sidled up—he must have been keeping me under observation. “Beware of those men. They are bad and you will be in danger. I am from the CIS,” he whispered urgently. The CIS was the prisons service. As my three new friends emerged, the CIS man delivered his faux-Wagnerian punchline: “This,” he warned, “is Hagen.”
This memoir appeared in the March edition of Quadrant.
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I was a fairly timid accountancy editor on a study of tax-effect accounting and lease-or-buy decisions in the highlands. At least, that’s what I put on my expenses claim.
Hagen is indeed a tough town. A few months earlier, a potential investor had flown in and teamed up with an accountant at the airport. They arrived in town as the police were tear-gassing rioters. Every shop window in the town had been smashed in retaliation for some offence to clan honour by a white man. Paybacks are fairly indiscriminate, as I was soon to discover.
Nevertheless I had reasonable confidence in my new friends. Victor, aged somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five, wore a Talair Airlines promotional T-shirt, once white but now dark brown, and ragged shorts. He was bare-footed. We’d struck up a conversation in the local ANZ bank where I entertained him with the holographic bird on my Visa card. He sported a bushy black beard coated with dust. But he had an open, happy face and his grins displayed Hollywood-standard flashes of teeth.
I told him of my problem. I had to travel 150 kilometres from Hagen to Goroka in three days in order to catch my plane back to Port Moresby. An expected lift had fallen through, I had no driver’s licence for a hire car, and I’d been strongly warned never to ride in the PMVs (public motor vehicles, or minibuses) used by the nationals. One expat had told me that a white passenger had been dumped by a PMV driver fifty kilometres from nowhere.
So I asked Victor, should I risk a PMV? He laughed, and said, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
Victor turned out to be an elementary school teacher on a few days’ furlough. He was mission-educated, with a copious store of biblical allusions, folk wisdom and proverbs. “Fear not my beard,” he said, or quoth.
I suggested he come on the bus to Goroka with me. He had a better idea. A friend had a Toyota Scout ute and would take us in style.
We found the ute at the registration office where the driver, Bocil, was having difficulty getting a roadworthy certificate. The ute consisted of little more than the metal cab, chassis and tray from which the plastic and other non-steel materials had disintegrated. But by some miracle (don’t ask) the roadworthy was obtained and the Goroka trip was stitched up for the following morning.
I was still perturbed by the CIS man’s warning and confronted Victor. “I do not know that man. He should not judge a book by its cover,” he replied. I decided Victor was trustworthy, but it turned out the CIS man was not wholly wrong about Victor’s pals.
The truck rolled up an hour late next morning with Victor, Bocil and two escorts. One of them, Mick, was older and wiry. He wore a sort of turban over his balding pate. In attire and comportment, he made Victor seem a Beau Brummell.
Neither Victor nor I had mentioned paying for the trip. This issue had to be resolved sometime, somehow, but it seemed uncouth to raise the subject up-front. Mentally, I was trying to estimate fair payment for man-days, petrol, whatever, but it was all too hard. Victor likewise had his expectations, but these were enmeshed with highlands culture. His expectations of me, while dramatic, had nothing to do with wage rates and out-of-pockets. The misunderstandings formed the sequel to our adventure.
The trip began as a rural idyll—the ute labouring up hills to vistas of dark blue mountains, lush high-country forest, patchwork gardens and little clusters of huts. Our engine roared through rust-holes in the muffler.
As we made our way along the rutted road from Hagen to Goroka, civilisation’s infrastructure faded away. The track became a goat-trail and bridges were a few wobbly logs stretched over the creek beds.
It seemed a day marked for festivities. We stopped in front of a band of forty villagers, the men near-naked and carrying bundles of spears. The bare-breasted women wore elaborate feathered headdresses and shell necklaces. A trio of them giggled flirtatiously with our party. “Nice little bitches!” Victor said to me sotto voce—his only vulgar remark for the whole trip.
One man was totally blackened with oily gunk, as though he had been dipped into a pond of warm tar. His eyes gleamed whitely out of his black facial carapace. He raised a quivering spear and ran at me, stopping just short while everyone laughed at my ill-concealed fear.
The party divided to let us drive through and we continued for half an hour through roadsides of cane and scrubby vegetable plots. The fresh spring morning was giving way to a hot midday.
Suddenly Mick banged on the cabin roof. He had heard singing of some sort down to the left. Soon we caught up with a throng of excited people hurrying to a big wedding.
We stopped the ute and I distributed my valuables—cash, cards, travel bag and air tickets—among my four pals, since nothing could be left in the ute.
The groom was from the Arnge clan on a hill near the road while the bride came from up the further hill. She was being decked out in her finery by relatives.
The day before, a dozen pigs had been slaughtered and on the ground was a pyramid of blackened cooked pigs’ heads and great slabs of fat. On the groom’s hill four young women, gorgeously decked out, were dancing and singing, welcoming the bride to the clan.
The village courtship is rather like ours—the couple live together for several months before the marriage bells (or drums) tie the knot. The bride’s price was $6500 in cash, eighteen live pigs, twelve dead ones and one live cassowary. This bird or beast, eyes glaring hate, was trussed to pinion its powerful legs.
I was a most acceptable guest as all parties loved being photographed. My ever-present notebook cramped my photographer style, so I gave it to Mick. We got separated.
A number of tablecloths marked out a clearing, with respective clans at each end. The bride-to-be capered across, her tall headdress of red and yellow bird-of-paradise feathers bouncing. She huddled briefly while presents were fished out of a well-made wooden box. Then she capered back with bunches of banknotes now pinned to her blouse and long skirt. She kept repeating the trip and her pinned-on money stacks got ever more lavish.
As a courtesy to an honoured guest, they handed me a piece of pig fat. I expected it to be similar to the fat bits on pork roasts at home. But it was undercooked and shockingly rank.
Shortly, a commotion broke out on the bride’s hill. People began running and shouting and whacking each other with their long sticks. Something barbaric and un-Melbourne-like was happening. “Get back in the truck!” shouted Victor as he ran towards the fight. The cab was locked so I tried to make myself inconspicuous on the tray.
After some time, Victor returned looking distressed. Just as suddenly the combatants cooled down and I could walk about again. My valuables had been secured or retrieved—possibly ransomed—but my shorthand-filled notebook was lost. “Someone is hiding it, don’t worry,” said Victor.
It transpired that the groom’s clan had grabbed the notebook and now wanted an unspecified sum for it. Their justification was that I would probably write bad things about their village.
The drama began to crystallise. A small group of elders squatted on one side of a dip in the ground; Victor, myself and one escort on the other. Haggling was in plestok, the local language. I fed Victor some good lines about my high status with the PNG government and how I would post my best photograph of the bride to the village. Their disbelief was manifest.
As far as I could make out, the notebook’s ransom was around $A1000. I was delighted when Victor eventually retrieved it for what he said was $1.40. The real figure, I found out later, was $30, which he had paid secretly from his teacher’s $75 weekly pay-packet. The notebook was crumpled and damp with someone’s sweat but I could have kissed it, given the many days’ work it contained.
Our escort, Mick, turned up with a bloody nose, split lip and swollen face. He set off on foot back to Hagen and thus ended his active role in my story.
There were other ripping yarns on the road to Goroka. But it all ended happily as I smuggled my three remaining pals into my hotel room for the night and treated them to their first ever hot baths, television and clean sheets. Several hours of television wore them out, especially Victor, who had made determined efforts to write down every joke in an episode of The Two Ronnies. The three lay on the double bed like sardines and were asleep in seconds.
In the morning I gave Victor a good grilling about the fight and the following story unfolded.
Our escort, Mick, was a slightly bad man, and when some of the groom’s people had been in Mick’s territory he and his friends had beaten them up. The clan could hardly believe its luck to find Mick in their midst carrying my valuables. He claimed some sort of diplomatic immunity, which they chose not to recognise. They set about giving him a thrashing, which had drawn Mick’s own people into the fight.
My valuables had been captured, then recaptured. Mick’s survival prospects had seemed dubious but he managed to flee into the hut of a Christian woman, who then refused entry to the revenge-seekers. Eventually he had crept away and rejoined us.
Victor had sufficient status to act as peace-maker, running between the combatants and shouting “Stop the fight!” in plestok. He assured me that if anyone had attacked him, his friends would have fought to kill. “Our wontok system is very tight indeed,” he said.
Victor confided his hope to win a seat in Parliament in Moresby next year and expel an expat lecturer who had given him a “fail” grade at teachers’ school. He also wanted to visit me in Melbourne. “But not all dreams come true,” he said wistfully.
I gave him what I thought was generous pay for the trip, although finance in these parts didn’t seem to make sense. For example, the $6500 bride price was astronomical, even without the supplement of the pigs. Maybe these weddings kept everyone poor but chuffed.
Back home in Melbourne, I noticed that women in Little Collins Street kept their breasts covered, and was relieved that waiters at lunches for the press did not serve semi-raw pig fat.
In the mail about two months later came an envelope with a PNG stamp. Victor, in good copperplate, hoped I was well, and asked if I could send him enlargements of the colour photos I had posted. No problem.
As I recall, the letter finished:
Right now we are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed. The coffee harvest was very bad and coffee prices are bad too. We also bet on the forward market that coffee prices would go up. We’ve paid all we can but we don’t know how to get the $14,000 still left.
How is your wife? Give her our best regards.
Your best friend, Victor.
My heart sank. I couldn’t become guarantor for their coffee speculations. I posted off the enlargements with a friendly letter, but knew I was letting Victor down. He would lose status mightily in Mount Hagen.
Nor is there any tidy way to wrap the story up. For me, life went on and memories faded. I hope Victor came through all right, and doesn’t think too badly of me.
Later, an old PNG hand was able to explain to me the high bride prices. Some funds were recycled from earlier bride exchanges. Clans are often large and each member can be arm-twisted to put in, say, 100 kina from sources like coffee sales. No one bothers about savings so anything in the bank is taken out. “And anyone who has a government job might ‘find’ a bit of cash stashed somewhere or get their hands on a saleable asset,” my informant said.
Tony Thomas is a regular contributor to Quadrant and Quadrant Online.