I lived in Papua New Guinea for 2 years…Here’s what it was like

Dear Daughters,

This Coronavirus Pandemic is horrendous.

It’s scary, stressful, depressing, inconvenient, and certainly tragic for the many who’ve suffered, died, loss their loved ones, their jobs, their homes, and so on.

But here’s the thing. Despite the social restrictions, I don’t feel isolated at all. Not like I did when I spent 2 years in Papua New Guinea while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

In case you didn’t catch my drift so far, yes, this is one of those “when I was a kid I had to walk 10 miles in the snow barefoot” stories.

Well, it’s probably more of a nightmare tale for your technology-dependent selves.

Prepare to be horrified.

My Living Conditions in OKSAPMIN, PaPuA NEw Guinea (PNG) 1989-1991

First of all, a little geography. Oksapmin is a tiny blip surrounded by mountains in the Sandaun Providence of PNG. Small plane was the only way in and the only way out at the time. Over the two years I lived there, 50% of the bush pilots died because of the dangerous flying conditions.

Oksapmin, Papua New Guinea

There was no electricity on the station. No cell phones, no landline telephones, no computers, and of course, no internet.

Communication was limited to an unreliable two-way radio near the grass airstrip that was a mile walk from my tiny house.

No television…I repeat…No television.

Lighting consisted a set of florescent lights via a car battery + 2 kerosene lanterns. And a couple flashlights.

Water had to be pumped by hand every single day from a corrugated water tank. Sometimes it had to be boiled as well like during a three month drought when the water level dropped to six inches of sludge.

Hot showers or baths? Nope. And let me just add that at 5,000 feet in the mountains the water was freaking cold. If I grew desperate for a hot water bathing experience, I built a fire in the wood-burning stove, warmed up a big pot of water, then ladled the water over my head. (It took about 45 minutes for this process.)

Mail service was via those small airplanes. Average time to receive a letter from the United States? 1–3 months. This is how I “got” the mail. Hark! Is that the sound of a small plane engine cresting the mountain tops? Time to sprint like a track star for 1 mile over a rocky trail to reach the grass airstrip before the pilot unloaded his cargo and took off again. Sometimes I made it! Sometimes I didn’t and I had to wait another week or three for a letter from home or an outdated copy of Newsweek magazine.

Doctor? Hospital? Clinic? Nope. No medical services. The Peace Corps provided a copy of “Where There Is No Doctor” book and a medical kit. If an emergency occurred, the only quick way out was via med-evac helicopter. That is if the two-way radio was working so you could call out.

No refrigerator or freezer. Want to keep something cold? Float it in a plastic bag immersed in a metal pail of cold water. Seriously, I did that with blocks of cheddar cheese obtained through quarterly supply trips out to the nearest “town”.

No stores. Just an outdoor small market with lots of plantation bananas, pumpkin vines, and kaukau (yams).

No dining establishments. No takeout.

Wood burning stove/oven and a two burner propone stove for cooking.

No microwave.

No store bought alcohol.

No vehicles and not a paved road in sight.

No Amazon.

Oh, and there were only four Caucasians on the station and I was one of them. I include this VIP fact because when one is a minority in a geographically remote place located in a geographically remote province located in a geographically remote island located in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, far, far away from home, one feels even more isolated and vulnerable.

You are probably freaking out right now. Good. Makes the read more exciting.

how did You survive 2 years in extreme isolation?

Glad you asked, daughters! Here’s a list. You know how I love them so.

First and foremost, I immersed myself in the people and in my project tasks which included health outreach, water catchment tank projects, and small business skills training. That’s why I was there after all. You’re probably thinking, “Duh!” Well, no it’s not a duh. A lot of volunteers cruised their entire service because you could. Supervision was very minimal. Sites visits too.

Some other things I did to entertain myself and pass the time. Speaking of time…time in PNG passed very slowly. In fact, the whole concept of time, work and schedules was the opposite of what we are familiar with in the U.S.

Now onto the rest of the list.

I read books that previous volunteers left behind and that family and friends sent.

I handwrote bad poetry, sometimes decent stories, and lots and lots of letters.

I explored and hiked and marveled at the insane National Geographic worthy wildlife, especially the birds. Papua New Guinea is renown for its Birds of Paradise.

I daydreamed about hot showers, pizza, movies, etc., etc.

I tried to grow things. Sometimes I was successful.

I learned to sew really ugly curtains with a manual sewing machine.

I spent a lot of time cooking and baking everything from scratch.

I occupied many hours performing manual labor such as scrubbing clothes in a washing tub.

I played Yahtzee and tried to learn how to tell fortunes with a pack of Tarot cards.

I listened to Voice of America news on a short-wave radio every single day. It was a lifeline.

I played basketball on a dirt court with the villagers who were amazing athletes (both the women and the men). Note: they were considerably shorter than me but still kicked my butt.

I enjoyed the best stargazing of my life. Holy Moly! The Southern Night Sky was AWESOME!

I learned Tok Pisin (a creole language) of Papua New Guinea. Fun fact: 839 living languages exist in PNG because of the rugged topography.

I exchanged cultural stories and laughter with villagers.

I memorized all the words to all the songs on the five cassette tapes I brought with me.

I figured out how to make banana wine. It sucked but I drank it anyway.

I made homemade beer. It wasn’t bad and I drank it anyway.

I feasted on local favorite foods like water buffalo, goat, marsupial, and some other mystery meats.

I danced to those five cassette tapes.

I took excellent naps and, once I felt safe and relaxed enough, I slept deeply every single night because of the mosquito netting around the bed. The netting was not just to keep out mosquitoes but also the oversized creatures including flying cockroaches and ginormous spiders the size of my hands!

During those two years in Papua New Guinea, I did not have to contend with the Coronavirus Pandemic but tropical diseases such as Dengue Fever and Malaria were always a possibility. Open wounds could and often did kill, and remember, there was no doctor, no clinic. Just a First Aid Kit and a basic medical book.

No, I didn’t have to wear a mask and stay away from other people but communication, entertainment, services, information, transportation, & modern conveniences were non-existent or severely limited. Plus, I lived in the mountains where bad weather meant no flying. Oh, did I mention that tribal warfare was always a looming threat as well?

So although it was a surreal and challenging 2 years, I survived and often thrived in geographic, cultural, and technological isolation because I embraced the whole experience…the good, the bad, the sad, the scary, the weird, the wild, the amazing, the boring, the dangerous, the make-your-own-fun, the poignant, the obstacles…all of it. I focused on what I could do and NOT on what I couldn’t do and just persevered.

Daughters,

I hope you enjoyed this account of my Peace Corps service in PNG. Go forth and seek your own wild and wonderful life/mind/heart changing adventures. You’ll never know what you’re truly capable of unless you do.

I also hope you can better understand why the current social restrictions don’t make me feel the slightest bit isolated. Not when I can call and Zoom family and friends. Not when I can get in my car, drive on a road, and shop at a huge grocery store. Not when I can order anything I need or want on Amazon.

All My Love!

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