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IV. Sound Machine 

A path through the noisy jungle. 


On my first night in PNG, I wake up at 4:00 a.m.—to my body, still on Boston time, 2:00 in the afternoon—and listen to the sounds. The world is a loud noise machine. 

The ocean plays a base beat, waves smacking sand then sucking back, back, back to Kimbe Bay and past that, into the Bismarck Sea. Layered over the steady lapping are animals that talk like other animals. There is a frog that croaks woodpecker taps. A bird that shrieks like a cheetah, and one that crows in snooty rooster imitation: cawww, caaawwww, caaauuuggghhh. Then I hear a bird that’s evolved past the call of fauna; it whistles like a school bell. Biologists think there’s lots of birds because, in part, there are no big cats. The scariest, called a Guinea quoll, is chocolate brown with white fawn spots, kitten-sized. 

In the darkness of night’s middle, an insect, maybe a fly, sounds loud as a drone. I lie under the mosquito veil that canopies the bed, listening to its whir of metal wings. During the day I sit alone at the table in the kitchen where we cook and eat our meals, while Pete and the students he’s advising, Tina and Theresa, take turns diving twelve reefs, recording clownfish habits. The front door stays open to let in the lazy breeze, and the windows are mosquito screens without glass panes, and I write while listening to the cicadas. They launch without warning into the susurrus of their song, which sometimes ends like clacking castanets and sometimes like the deadly shimmy of a rattlesnake. What prompts them to start, and how do they decide it’s time to stop? Do they sing because the wind changed? Because the temperature dropped one-tenth of a degree? Because a lady cricket just flew by? If there’s a pattern I’ve not yet discerned it, but I’m learning from Pete. I input data in my notebook: 

1:14p.m., 57 secs. >> 1:52p.m., 29 secs. >> 2:06p.m., 1 min: 14 secs >> 2:09p.m., 3 secs

Conclusion: Further observation required. 

Kids sound the same everywhere. I hear wails and sometimes shrieks, but, mostly, kids rhyming songs, teasing, laughing. The kids I’ve seen look happy, even though life is hard for them, and for their mothers. Women here are still the property of men. One of the ways in which a boy becomes a man is by drumming up enough bride-price to buy a wife. Bride-price might include kina, the official currency, or more ancient types of payment like shell money or leaf money—dried banana leaves etched with repeating linear patterns—or it might come in the form of pigs, symbols of wealth and status, or SP Lager, the local beer. Once bought, women do the lion’s share of work. They carry food home from the market, sometimes in huge baskets on their heads, while the men walk ahead, unburdened. In the 1980s, a University of Toronto anthropologist with the somewhat unlikely name of Gillian Gillison spent months living in Ubagubi, a remote Highlands town. She wrote of husbands forcing wives to sleep with pigs, so as to ensure the safety of this precious livestock. And pigpens were for the lucky ladies. Others slept in female communes on villages’ peripheries, where warring tribes were likely to strike first when attacking. Those women’s screams served as alarm, waking the men tucked safe within the inner sanctums, allowing them extra seconds to grab spears. These days, still, a woman is considered dangerous when she has her period, and dangerous women are often condemned as witches. The lynchings and torture-murders of those accused of sorcery are not rare. Rape is also common. Human Rights Watch and UNICEF offer these horrifying statistics: approximately seventy percent of New Guinean women experience sexual assault, with nearly half of rape victims under age fifteen, and thirteen percent younger than seven years old.

The feminist—and human—in me revolts, though I’ll likely never witness this violence or abuse, sheltered as I am within the Mahonia-Walindi compound. But Cecilie Benjamin must have seen at least some inequality when she arrived from Australia in the ‘70s. Her son, Cheyne, who now runs the resort, tells me about his fierce mother. She used to go alone into the villages to introduce herself and establish relationships. In many cases, her arrival was first contact—the natives had never before seen a white woman. Ema, Cheyne’s wife, a lovely Italian whose nomadic childhood rivals my own, tells me that even today, in the Kimbe town market of 2017, some children cry when they see her. Others, awed, try to touch her face, her hair. I think about Cecilie slashing her own path through the jungle forty years ago whenever I get upset because there’s a spider in the shower or my phone’s taking too long to send a text.  

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