herald

Monday 24 September 2018

Diary of a travel writer

Far-off land of 830 different languages

MONDAY: I am at Gate 27 in the bowels of Sydney Airport awaiting Air Niugini flight PX2 to Port Moresby. There are 6,000 languages spoken around the world and 830 of them are to be found in Papua New Guinea.

I am transferring through Port Moresby to the mountains and Mount Hagen, a thriving community that was unknown to the outside world until the 1930s. I am met by Anis Waka, whose grandfather told Anis that the first time he saw a white man he thought the spirits of the ancestors had returned.

Anis's grandfather was astonished by the technology that the whites brought, modern axes, guns, airplanes. But the thing that overwhelmed them the most was the umbrella. In a place where the rain can be heavy, the umbrella was the business.

TUESDAY: A tour of the extraordinary Wahgi valley. A group of elders dress in their feather head-dresses and talk to me about pigs. The pig is central to economic and social life here. The elders all have necklaces with a wooden notch for every 10 pigs. The eldest elder has 48 notches. I get the impression that they think I am quite backward because I have not a single pig to my name.

TUESDAY NIGHT: At dusk there is a ferocious tropical thunder storm, but the lightning is down below me in the valley as I sit in the rain forest.

WEDNESDAY: They haven't had a tourist here for a month. I feel safe here, but they do get me to avoid the village of Kondapena because an election riot has taken place and teenagers with machetes are returning down the mountain. The new prime minister of Papua New Guinea is half-Australian with the intriguing surname of O'Neill.

THURSDAY: Kaut Idel and Bugau Idamon hosted me in Madang. There are 175 languages in this province alone. Kaut speaks the em dialect of the Darus language, Bugau speaks the ea dialect of the Darus language. They can just about understand each other. How do you make society function in a country of 830 languages? You make up an 831st. Pidgin (Tok Pisin) is easily picked up and seems to have helped bind the country together since the 1990s. The language diversity is breath-taking. It is like Fingalians cannot understand Malahiders or Drogheda-ois.

FRIDAY: Simon Lusam from Sokaka village says the young children are rejecting traditional instruments and dance. He thinks Papua New Guinea needs a Michael Flatley to change their minds.

SATURDAY: I had forgotten how painful coral could be. It was just one little scrape as I snorkelled off a drop-dead gorgeous island (Pierce Brosnan swam to it during the making of the 1994 version of Robinson Crusoe). But it HURTS.

SUNDAY: Port Moresby is a shabby capital with pot-holed roads and a sense of distance, not just from the Westernised world, but also from the rest of Papua New Guinea. If I spent just one day in each of the cultures here it would take three years.

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