Pology Magazine  -  Adventures in Travel and World Culture.
Travel and World Culture   
Papua New Guinea
 Photo: Kevin Ross
Papua New Guinea
 Photo: Joanna Bardsley

Invisible In Papua New Guinea    
By J.D. Riso

The morning brings a new confidence.  Yesterday’s angry mobs, riots, and clouds of tear gas dissipate with the rising sun.  It’s hard to believe that Maya and I spent half the night whispering through the paper-thin walls of our room, debating if we should risk the drive back down to the coast.  Could we live with ourselves if we were beaten and gang-raped?  If we survived, that is.    
“Want to leave early and drive halfway to Madang?” I ask Maya as she comes out of her room.  “That way we’ll get a head start on the raskols.”
 “Okay,” she says.  She smiles weakly and lights a cigarette.  “It would be a real shame to turn the car back in and fly back.  I’m willing to take the risk.”
I flip through my dog-eared guidebook to Papua New Guinea.  The pages are stained orange from when I spilled a can of soda on it.  I call the Lutheran missionary guesthouse in Ukarumpa.  Of course they have a vacancy.  No travelers pass by that way anymore. 
“You don’t want to be driving after dark honey,” the shrill, wavering voice says.
“Oh, we know that; thank you,” I reply.  
We pull ourselves away from the Goroka Show in the afternoon.  It's a yearly festival where most of the many tribes in PNG come to perform ceremonial dances.  They adorn themselves in feathers from rare birds and grossly exaggerated penis gourds.  The air is thick with pig grease and Melanesian funk.  The ground shakes from stamping feet and chants.  Bodies swarm like a human kaleidoscope.  It’s primitive, yet psychedelic.  I’ve waited all my life to see this.  I don’t want to leave. 
We pull out of the security gates surrounding the Sports Institute.  The armed guard tips his chin at us, his way of saying farewell.  The streets are filled with the flotsam of last night’s riots.  Only a few stragglers shuffle along here and there.   
Not long after leaving Goroka, we come upon a truck overloaded with men.  I tense up. 

Please don’t see us.  Please don’t see us. 
But they do see us.  I smile a bit hysterically and wave, hoping to break some of the tension.  The men glare at us.  The look in their eyes is a mixture of amusement and menace.  I force myself to meet their gaze, calmly, without defiance.  I don’t challenge them, but I don’t let them know that I am scared.   
“Invisible.  Invisible.  Invisible.  Invisible,” we chant over and over.  It’s an attempt to lull ourselves out of the panic. 

I keep my head clear by formulating a plan of escape.  What will I do if they decide to attack?  I’ll run them over.  I won’t have a choice.  The cops will take our side.  To them, a few less raskols is no loss to a country out of control.
After a few long seconds the men turn away.  The panic dissipates, and I’m overcome by an odd thrill.  How close can I get to danger and come out unscathed? I wonder.

In the midst of terror my head is surprisingly clear; my mood light.     
“We’re not cool, though,” I remind Maya.  This is what we’ve been telling ourselves when we get too cocky.  We can gloat when we make it out of this mess.
“No, we’re just normal girls,” she says with a firm nod.    
I navigate the truck down the pothole-scarred road.  We pass by a few solitary women.  They shuffle along, permanently stooped over from the weight of their billums.   

That thick red line on the map turned out to be seven hours of two-track road through the jungle and mountains up to Goroka—on the left side of the road.

After several hours each bump in the road becomes a lit match to my already frayed nerves.  I almost yearn for another crisis to snap my head back into the clear.  Dusk descends, and we haven't even reached the turnoff in Kainantu.  I clench my teeth together.  Pain shoots through my temples; my stomach knots up tighter. 

Maya lets out an annoyed sigh.  I want to throttle her.  Bitch.  I’d like to see her do better.  She hasn’t once offered to help with the driving.  She could at least help me navigate.
A battered sign announces Kainantu.  I strain to find the turnoff to Ukarumpa.  I don’t want to ask anybody.  I don't want to appear vulnerable.  There are no streetlights.  Crowds of people file through the streets.  They blend into the darkness; the only thing visible is their brightly colored clothing. 


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