Remaining Buoyant

One doesn’t recognize the really important moments in one’s life until it’s too late.

– Agatha Christie

It was 1970 and my fifth year at Strathallan, a Scottish boarding school just outside Perth in Scotland, a school that was slowly clawing its way into the modern era striving to leave its Victorian attitudes behind – classes six days a week, compulsory sport five afternoons and military cadets every Friday. Leave a cup of water beside your army style dorm bed and it would freeze on cold nights. Students were caned for mundane reasons like leaving a rugby shirt on the changing room floor. And we had schoolmasters like Mr Johnson, a bachelor in his fifties, unaffectionately known as Dracula. A strict disciplinarian who made his abhorrence of liberal thinking quite clear seemingly taking pleasure in denying students’ most minor requests. As he strode from class to class both his flowing black hair and robe would stream out behind him. Dracula was but one of the many strange and often unlikeable characters that were entrusted with my education.

Thankfully there was Mr McPhearson. He taught English Literature always pushing us hard as we studied Shakespeare’s ‘Henry IV’ and William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’. But at some point, in each class he took a little time out to talk about his two years volunteering at a refugee camp in Nepal. In nineteen fifty-nine China invaded Tibet and many Tibetans including both their spiritual and political leader, the Dalai Lama fled across the border into neighbouring Nepal to become refugees there. McPhearson told stories of the Tibetans and the life they endured in the camp. Some were funny, others were poignant. We learned about food shortages, difficulties with sanitation and of having your head shaved to get rid of lice. I lapped up the details, loving his stories and was inspired. The idea that you could do some good in the world and have a wonderful adventure at the same time fascinated me and I promised myself that I would follow in McPhearson’s footsteps.

Fast-forward to 1982. I had graduated from Glasgow University, moved to Western Canada and was already mulling over options for a career change. I had been working for five years as an engineer specializing in sawmill design, construction and operations. One afternoon sitting in my office browsing industry trade magazines I read “Saw-millers wanted for Papua New Guinea”. It was for CUSO, who I discovered were the Canadian equivalent of Voluntary Service Overseas, the organization McPhearson was with. My path became instantly clear: I signed up for a two-year contract knowing that this would inevitably transition me to a new career.

So began life in Kebani, a remote jungle village of about three hundred tribal people. They are Gogodala, one of over eight hundred tribes and distinct language groups in a country of only three million. The village stands on the banks of the Aramia River, in the Western Province of Papua New Guinea, which abuts the border with the Indonesia’s Irian Jaya. Maybe seventy meters wide it is a slow, meandering and very muddy river, draining a huge area of swamp and dense, rich and staggeringly diverse jungle. This was a jungle full of diverse tropical hardwoods with names that I had never heard of and an amazing richness of plants, birds and wildlife. I had been asked to help Kebani run their tiny single-blade sawmill project and to assess three other villages along the river wanting to run similar mills.

Home for the next two years was a three-room bush hut standing on stilts looking out across the river. All cooking was over an open fire in the middle of the living space, the smoke filling the room keeping the bugs from eating the leaf roof above – but with walls and floors of split black-palm and gaps big enough to stick a finger through nothing kept back the menacing clouds of mosquitos. They created havoc for my lower legs which became a swollen mess as I itched and scratched relentlessly. Every meal was some variation of swamp fish, sago grubs, banana, coconut, eel, cassowary, wallaby, hornbill, wild boar and various other jungle foods, all depending on the season. Always there was sago, a flour made from the pith of a palm tree. It was consumed at every meal. Everything was eaten with one hand while the other constantly waved back and forth over your plate to keep the flies off. After four months, I had lost over sixty pounds and had already experienced my first bout of malaria. At night, as soon as I blew out the kerosene lamp and climbed under the mosquito net I was tormented by the constant scurry of rats and any nighttime trip to the outhouse had me furtively searching for some slithery creature that might be waiting to attack.

CUSO had briefed me that life in the jungle would be tough so I had made a commitment to myself that I would not leave in under six months. No matter what the conditions I would stick it out for at least that long.

In the third month it was time to revisit Pisi, one of the villages I had been asked to assess, a sixty-kilometre journey up river. For the first time I traveled up the river on my own, this time in an aluminum dinghy powered by a powerful outboard. It had been lent to me by a government officer in Balimo, the largest town within a hundred miles, but still with a population of only a thousand people. The boat was not quite derelict but one seat had long ago disappeared and it was missing rivets that left it peppered with holes through which little fountains of water squirted. No problem – I pulled out the stern drain bungs and the water exited faster than it entered so long as I kept the speed up. I enjoyed the freedom of traveling alone, the feel of the wind in my hair, the comforting roar of the outboard motor, the jungle flying by on both sides. Every other journey had been in a massive dugout canoe capable of holding a dozen or more people, only the standard fifteen horsepower Yamaha outboard brought it into the modern world. On one journey Kapala, an older man and leader of the village, had pointed off into a remote stretch of jungle and said “that is where my mother is buried, but without her head”. She had been killed in a raid by the neighbouring Bamu tribe. His sister had been abducted and brought up speaking their language so that they are now unable to talk to each other.

I relaxed, enjoying myself as the dinghy skimmed over the water. The jungle flew past on either side – until the outboard suddenly died. My world collapsed briefly back into silence before the sounds of the jungle reasserted themselves. I searched desperately around me hoping to see a house, a person or any sort of refuge close by, but nothing. The sun was getting low on the horizon, night was not far away and all I could see on either side of the river was swamp grass and dense jungle. There was the reverberation of life in every direction – jungle life. The endless chorus of tree frogs, the occasional screech of a hornbill or some other large bird, the rustle of animals in the undergrowth and the incessant hum of mosquitoes and flies. There was no route through the swamp grass that formed a great barrier between river and shore. I had heard too many stories of the crocodiles that inhabited the river in huge numbers, as well as the collection of lethal snakes that lay in wait in the long grass. They included Taipans, Papuan Blacks and Death Adders all of which made me abandon the idea of making any concerted effort of getting to shore. Only two weeks earlier I had eleven close encounters with snakes in just seven days. Every time I went to the outhouse just behind my hut I passed the lonely grave of a seven year old – dead from a snake bite.

I took stock of my position. The only useful items in the dinghy were a small plastic bucket and a stick. I looked down at the little fountains slowly filling the boat. At least, with the bucket, I could keep the water baled out. The mosquitoes were in full attack mode with the boat stopped and no breeze to keep them at bay. I bailed with one hand and flailed at the mosquitos with the other. I needed to make a decision – stay in the middle of the river or try to find a way to the shore? I was indecisive. The last three months had taken every shred of mental energy. I had no resilience left and I knew without doubt this final setback had broken me. A night on the river keeping a lookout for whatever lurks there and I would be on the first flight home. If I lasted. I tried to brace myself for the inevitability of floating slowly back down the river in the dark with no way to control my path or destination other than the stick when suddenly I caught sight of a snake swimming straight towards me. I grabbed the stick and stood braced to attack if it came over the side but after several minutes I relaxed. I have no idea where it disappeared but clearly it was not after me.

My indecision continued. Slowly a barely discernible rhythmic puttering coming from somewhere down river penetrated my consciousness. It didn’t seem to belong to the jungle and I wondered what it might be. Over the next fifteen minutes the sound grew and, as the sky turned a deep smokey bronze under the setting sun a long dugout canoe rounded the bend in the river, a dozen people with food and supplies were making their way home, the fifteen horsepower outboard strained under the huge load.

They were from Pisi village, my destination. This country is home for them and they smiled and laughed as they took me in tow. A broken down outboard is a normal event in their world.

In the tropics you have daylight and night. There is no twilight, no dusk. As my dinghy traveled silently at the end of the towline I lay on my back and looked up at an unbroken canopy of stars. Tears streamed down my face as I realized how dazzlingly beautiful this country was. There was no explaining to my rescuers in the big canoe my transformation from broken traveler to uplifted soul. Fortune had shone down on me. There would have been no more canoes coming up river that night. It had taken just a few heartbeats to transform me from being being without hope to loving the jungle, the people and the country. I had been given a chance to live in one of the world’s most fascinating and least understood countries among amazing people.

I knew then with total certainty I could and would stay for the full two years of my contract.

Sometime after I returned to Canada I saw a CUSO advertisement that read “the toughest job you will ever love”. The ad drew me back to my life in Papua New Guinea where I had learned that my greatest passion in life comes from testing my limits by doing something outside my normal comfort zone. Joy cannot exist without sadness, heat without cold and pleasure without pain. I would need to always find ways to push and challenge myself if I was to experience life’s greatest rewards. I now understood that this had become an intrinsic part of my makeup. As I looked at the ad I gave a small prayer of thanks to Mr McPhearson. His profound influence had helped to enrich my life.


13 Responses to “Remaining Buoyant

  • Jim Corbett
    1 year ago

    Wow Andrew I though only I had attended a school like that!! Must have been the norm for the day. Great read Andrew especially the bit with the snake coming through the water. Had I been there the water would have turned a dark shade of brown and hopefully blinded the bugger!

    • Hi Jim… yes Scottish boarding schools have come a long way since our days. I get the school magazine and they are now co-ed and the place looks like a school for young ladies and gentlemen and with some incredible extra-curricular programs. I would love to go back and start all over again.

  • Barbara McCann
    1 year ago

    Love the recounting of your life in Kebani. Always so admired your commitment Andrew. Mala Kapala is the man whom I will never forget— and for reasons most unpleasant.
    Thank you for this recounting of “time before “.

    • Thanks Barbara and nice to hear from you. Looks like you and Bill are keeping busy and active from your Facebook postings. Kapala was Mala’s father and a wonderful old fellow. My days in PNG count as some of the most special.

  • Jennifer Little
    1 year ago

    Hello Andrew – wonderful article and a lovely insight into your PNG days. You write so well – write the book – I’ll buy it!!

    • Thanks Jen and it is very gratifying to receive positive comments on my writing. Learning to write well is a wonderful learning experience and the more I write the more I realize how much there is to learn.

  • Jacquie Clayton
    1 year ago

    Ohhh!! Andrew: Thanks so much for sharing this article. What an incredible experience….this and your quest for the challenging, explains much of why you made hiking the length of Great Britain a retirement goal. My experiences in Uganda were not nearly as uncomfortable, but can relate to the joy of knowing a very different culture…..and to cherish what we have here in Canada….not to live with the constant threat of civil war and extreme poverty.

    As I am sure that you have had other amazing experiences, and if you wrote a book… and I hope that you do…..I, would also buy it,

    Thank you……Jacquie Clayton

    • Thanks Jacquie and I would love to see your Uganda photos. In the meantime I am looking forward to seeing your northern India photos on Friday.

  • Dawn Hope
    1 year ago

    I am a travel book junky. Keep writing!!

    • Thanks Dawn… Let me know if you have some new recommendations. Like you I love travel books.

  • Hi Andrew,
    I read your blog. What a story! Is this the one you would like to submit but believe you can’t because it has already been published?
    I think you should write to the NSWA and ask the committee if something written on a personal blog disqualifies one.
    I found THE WELL! and a few other things.
    I’m not sure about your quote at the beginning because you didn’t leave it until it was too late.
    Did you ever manage to contact that inspiring teacher.
    I attended an all girls’ school but we also had our fair share of female Draculas

    • Thanks Rose… sadly I never did manage to contact McPhearson. I contacted the school to see if they had any contact information for him but, sadly they did not and so I suppose I never will be able to contact him.

  • This is utterly beautiful and very moving. I have been in contact with one of my x- teachers who inspired me many years ago, and we have arranged to meet in a few months. It occurred to me that you may be able to contact the individual who has inspired you, if he is still alive, I am certain your words would mean a great deal to him.

    I would like to pass on your piece to our dear friends Kent and Pauline who used to work in Papua New Guinea. Their daughter Nija died just before Christmas, and like you she had an extraordinary sense of adventure, having worked as a nurse in Greenland. Is that OK with you?

    Thank you for this posting. Much love x x

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