Pluto is not a Planet but Obama is President

“While you were in Papua New Guinea, did you miss the announcement that Pluto is not a planet?”

Evidently, yes.  Living in Papua New Guinea for three years did mean that it wasn’t as easy to keep up with normal news and happenings in the US and California.  I don’t think we are always cognizant of the changes that happen gradually in our immediate world.  But having been away, the things that have happened gradually for everyone else happen instantaneously for me.  These changes in the world that I use to think I knew is one of the reasons for reverse culture shock.  And I can’t always be prepared or anticipate what I’m going to have missed.

For the most part I don’t think I missed any big announcements.  In November 2008, I was in the village when Obama was elected president and I found out because my host brother brought me the paper with the news headlines.  Everyone in the small village outside of Madang, Papua New Guinea were just excited to hear who was elected into the American presidency.  June 25th, 2009 Michael Jackson died and I was in Ukarumpa, in the Eastern Highlands.  But because of internet access and phone connections, we all heard the news fairly quickly.  And of course I heard about the royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton on April 29th, 2011 but mostly because of the British contingency living in Ukarumpa at the time.  These are obviously not an all inclusive sample of the most important things that happened while I was in PNG but they are the ones I could think of right now.  I’m sure there were other major things but even if I didn’t find out right away, I heard them eventually.

However, there are things that I did miss and some I am sure that I still don’t know about.  Coming back I realized right away that I had missed the rise of the smartphone.  I had also missed the spread of Redbox and the demise of Borders.  I also missed lots of movies and TV shows which gained and lost popularity over the last three years.  In this category I also realize that some shows I had access to in PNG on DVD and therefore thought were mainstream and popular, were only popular in my small expat world and nowhere else.  Some of these things aren’t super important for everyday life but they still impact me if only in small ways.  Sometimes this makes me feel like a complete outsider because other people make assumptions about my general knowledge.  But for the most part living in a village in Papua New Guinea is a pretty good, generally acceptable excuse.

If you had asked me before Friday night how many planets there are, I would have answered 9.  But evidently while I was out of the country scientists gained more information and decided that Pluto is not a planet.  I still don’t understand all the ins and outs of why this decision was made but it’s official for now.  And so I looked this up on Wikipedia and evidently this actually happened in 2006 which wasn’t while I was in PNG but I was in Ghana, Africa and so I still have an excuse to have missed this little solar system update.

All this to say if you have family or friends who have lived abroad for any length of time, don’t assume that they have kept up with normal American politics and general news.  Although the world is usually more in tune with American politics and popular culture than with other countries, your family and friends may actually be learning more about what is happening in the political system and culture of their host country than in America.  And that’s ok.

For me I just have to be willing to ask questions and sometimes admit when I have no idea what people are talking about.  And for now I can just be happy that I finally know how many planets there are and at least until November I know who the president is.

To Shoe or Not to Shoe

US customs, trends and other cultural observations from a westerners third world perspective.

So I don’t normally research my posts.  But in this case I decided to google “Barefoot Running” and “Barefoot” because I just wanted to see what else was out there.  I searched for fans and foes and read through at least 16 different websites and this was only just scratching the surface.  Was I surprised?  Yes.  Should I have been? No.  Do I still think I have a unique viewpoint?  Yes.  So read on.

The Trend: Running barefoot and even living barefoot in a society that still says “No Shoe, No Shirt, No Service.”  Or if barefoot isn’t working for you, there are now many different varieties of almost barefoot footwear.

The Good: Running and other outdoor activities are great for healthy living.  These websites claim that running barefoot or even just switching to more minimal footwear helps return the body to its natural state.  This natural state can be seen in runners gaits and the impact their feet and joints receive and some websites even claim that certain cases of flat feet can be dealt with by just going barefoot.  They even claim that runners receive less injuries when running barefoot.  When the feet are engaged with the ground instead of shrouded in shoes, all the senses engage and this makes the running experience even better.  Our ancestors did it, why can’t we?

The Bad: Not everyone agrees with these claims.  Some claim that injuries increase without shoes and that barefoot runners are twisting the facts for their own agendas. Being barefoot is obviously not healthy for people with diabetes or with other foot problems that are more painful without supportive shoes.  It also depends on where you walk and run.  True barefooters claim that walking over rocks or hot cement isn’t a big deal but it might bother some people.  It is one thing to be barefoot on clay, grass or other surfaces that give.  From my own experience different surfaces really do make an impact on your joints.

The Reality: In my mind the jury is still out on being barefoot.  It seems, like with most things, that it is great for some people and it doesn’t work for other people.  That’s life.  Shoes are here to stay but they will continue adapting.  Running shoes no longer means only heavily padded, heavy shoes.  Now you can buy everything from thick socks, strappy sandals, vibram toe shoes to lightweight but still traditional running shoes, all the way to the very traditional heavily padded shoes that companies are not going to stop making anytime soon.  The more minimal shoes are great for many reasons.  I have a friend who uses them because they are lightweight and easy to just throw in her purse when she walks to and from work.  Minimalist shoes do change the way you run and depending on your body, this may help your gait and make your running experience more enjoyable.  But in the end it is an individual decision.

A PNG Perspective: PNG was traditionally barefoot and still is very barefoot.  Maybe it isn’t related to the barefootedness but the majority of people in PNG are flatfooted.  Being flatfooted in the US causes problems and trips to a podiatrist.  But in PNG, it is just the way it is. In cities or other larger towns most people wore flipflops, many wore a certain type of shoe (sorry I can’t remember the name right now) and some even wore work boots or rubber boots.  However, it wasn’t uncommon to see people with bare feet in stores, restaurants and around town.  In the villages the majority of people were barefoot or wore flipflops.  Footwear choices were based on lots of factors but mostly cost, availability and need.  Being barefoot wasn’t normally a problem but shoes were cherished and worn until they literally fell apart.  In Madang (on the coast) people preferred to wear shoes when walking on the roads because their feet were cut up less.  And in the Southern Highlands (in the mountains) I saw many barefoot people with thorns in their feet and other injuries.  This includes kids living with splinters in their soles.  They have super thick soles but that doesn’t completely protect the feet.  Papua New Guineans generally have no trouble running over rocky ground but that doesn’t mean they are impervious to injury.  A thorn can still go through the thickest sole and then (from experience) the thick sole makes it much harder to remove and it also takes longer for it to grow out on its own.  In general Papua New Guineans live with a barefooted reality but are thankful when they did have shoes to wear.

This Westerner’s Words:  When I finally settled into life in the village I was barefoot most of the time.  Every once in awhile I thought that I would do better with shoes for hiking but the mud always proved more powerful.  Shoes just stood as another slippery layer between my feet that the log bridges and clay hills.  However, when I developed a foot fungus brought on by the constant dampness and when the weather was constantly cold and wet, I found myself wishing I had shoes that would keep my feet warm and dry.  In Ukarumpa I wore shoes most of the time because the rocky roads weren’t foot friendly for me.  But lots of other expats and of course Papua New Guineans walked on the roads just fine.   However, in a heavy rain when things were wet and slippery or on wet grass bare feet still were best.  Now that I am back in California I am enjoying wearing the shoes that sat unused for three years.  My feet really aren’t soft but they aren’t tough and leathery either because although I did spend many months in bare feet I chose to walk on grass and clay and other softer surfaces.  I still enjoy being footwear free but shoes are a part of life in California and I am going to enjoy them while I can.

Some Websites with Various Perspectives:


More Shoes

And More Shoes

In Favor of Barefoot Living

Against Barefoot Running

In Favor of Barefoot Running

Want more information?  Just google it.


Babies in Bilums

Bilums (string bags) are used for just about any type of carrying in PNG.  They are purses, grocery bags, suitcases and backpacks.  And they are also diaper bags, strollers and cribs.  Although bilums look different in different parts of the country, most PNG babies find their first bed in a bilum.

My cousin recently had her first baby and so I sent her a bilum.  I knew she wouldn’t carry the G-man around, hanging from her head, like women in PNG do but since it is a highlands bilum and the handle ties together I figured it could be used like a regular snuggie.  Isn’t little G sweet?

This child is actually almost 8 (a bit small for her age) but she got sick and needed to be carried back to the village.  Her sister has a strong neck like most PNG women who are use to carrying heavy loads like this and so it was no problem.  Just stick the kid in the bilum and get them where they need to go.  Comfortable and convenient.

In the Madang area, babies get hung up while they sleep.  Just find a sturdy tree branch or a hook in the rafters of the house and the baby can sleep peacefully.  While I was in Madang I saw lots of women who had a hook or favorite tree branch and they would just hang up the babies and let them sleep peacefully while they were cooking, gardening or doing other tasks.  Gives a whole new meaning to the nursery rhyme- Rock a bye baby in the tree tops…..

Rod i Bagarap Moa Yet

This is an old sign but it was almost true at the moment.

Due to heavy rains the road leaving Madang is particularly bad.  There are work crews diligently trying to fix areas and make it passable but all it takes is another heavy rain to wash away their work or create a new muddy, practically impassable hill.  All of the pictures don’t do justice to the slippery ice-like conditions that are created by the clay-like mud.  Andrew was driving the red truck with Jesse.  And Lisa and I followed behind with William in a blue truck.  Both trucks had 4 wheel drive which made this trip actually possible.  And their Canadian driving-on-ice skills definitely helped too.  Lisa and I watched multiple times as the back end of the Toyota slid from side to side on the road.

A PMV stuck near the top of the hill.  Andrew pulled them the rest of the way as the work crew watched.  This was probably the worst hill because it was very bumpy in addition to the thick mud.

The steepness of some of the hills adds to the challenge.  This part of the road wasn’t too bad but it does have a 17% grade.  The scenery makes up for it though.  This road has lush sprawling jungle on either side.

I think the random places where the road just drops has more to do with the earthquakes and unstable ground in PNG then rain and poor weather.  But the mud certainly doesn’t help the situation.

These potholes were very very deep.  As we drove by I looked down and couldn’t see the bottom.  It’s a good thing the other side of the road was clear and we could just drive around them.

You can see all the tire tracks where other trucks and PMV have gone around the puddles and probably skidded too.

This is the beautiful view at the top of the mountain ridge before descending into the Ramu Valley.

But you have to get down the mountain first.  This required more sliding and maneuvering through mud.

There are parts of the road that are paved, smooth and easy to drive on.  Just watch out because even these roads aren’t immune to potholes.

And it doesn’t take much to knock out a bridge.  This is what the river crossing looks like on the Madang side of Ramu Sugar.  They have made it so cars don’t have to ford the river to pass.  But hopefully the bridge will be fixed soon.

Back in the highlands again.  This is the Yonki reservoir with storm clouds brewing.

Once we were on smoother roads Jesse enjoyed sticking his head out the window, breathing the fresh air and waving to the PMVs as we passed.

Despite the roads, we made it safely up to Ukarumpa in less than 6 hours.

Another Wasfamili Visit.

Martha (chewing buai), Jerome (not quite awake with his breakfast cracker), Patrick (distracted by a passing PMV) and Beatrice (as cute as always).

Now that digicell put a tower up in Ukarumpa it is easier to keep in touch with the family who I stayed with for 5 weeks during training in August 2008.  They call me about once a month on a weekend evening and I spend about 10 minutes saying hello and goodnight to the whole family.  It doesn’t take much but these phone calls remind me of the relationship I have with them.  So when I am in Madang I try to make it out to the village and spend a bit of time with the family.

Patrick and Jerome

Patrick came into town on Monday with his uncle who owns a PMV and they took me back to Sarang.  It was wonderful to see everyone again and to sit and story, catching up on their lives.  Patrick is currently waiting for a Elementary training course to start so he can be trained to teach.  And Martha’s days are full just taking care of the family.  With recent rains the water pipes broke so now everyone has to walk further to the school in order to fill their bottles with drinking/cooking water.

Martha with her little sister Amanda and niece Annette filling bottles from the constant stream.

We took a walk over to the school in order to fill bottles and wash in the river that flows by.  While waiting I watched Beatrice and her friends swim and splash around in the river.  This is bath time (not much soap, just rinsing off the dirt) but the kids have fun too.  Some of the boys even had little boats they had made out of limbun (a certain tree bark).

Beatrice climbing onto a fallen palm tree.

The rest of the afternoon and evening were filled with visiting and relaxing.  The house that I stayed in during my stay has been made into home for Patrick, Martha and the kids.  As Patrick and I talked about everything from school reform, job prospects, government policies the kids played nearby and Martha cooked a delicious dinner.

Eshron and Jerome.

My past couple of visits Jerome had forgotten who I was and was afraid but this time he sat with me a couple of times, played with my watch (he likes to light the background light) and I even got a smile out of him a couple of times.  After dinner we storied some more with other family members joining us.  And then it was off to bed.  I fell asleep listening to the sound of crashing waves on the beach.  I seem to always sleep well in Sarang.

Me and beautiful Beatrice.

The next morning I woke up, packed my things, ate a cracker and drank part of a cup of tea before heading over to the Uncles house to catch the PMV back to town.  As usual my family had loaded me down with gifts of food.  I carried back 4 kulaus, 6 coconuts, 3 pineapples, 4 hands of bananas, a whole lot of green beans, a bag of cherry tomatoes and 6 papayas (including one huge 16 pounder!).  They were thrilled that I was going back by car to Ukarumpa which meant that I could carry most of their gifts with me.  This food came from all different family members.  It really is their way of taking care of me.  It’s just part of the relationship we have.

Madang Perks

An Ocean View.

Having to go to Madang for work has its perks too.  In addition to being absolutely beautiful, I can go into the city and shop in various stores and the market too.  Even after a year and a half I am still finding foods that I have never seen before or tried.  I saw these at the market so I brought some back to share with the V-berg boys.

J and his fruit.

It’s not spiky- it just looks that way.

I don’t know what they are called but the inside is soft, sticky, sweet and delicious.  J and W taught me how to peel back the skin and eat the inside around the seed.

The tasty inside revealed.

In addition to coastal foods, Madang is a great place to enjoy swimming.  I miss being in the water while i’m in Ukarumpa.  But in Madang there are pools to swim in at some of the resorts around town.  And of course the ocean is close at hand.

Jais Aben with the POC group.  The snorkeling is beautiful and the sand is perfect for building castles.

Some of the local people paddling by in their canoe.

The V-berg family swimming together at one of the pools in town.  Yep that’s the ocean in the background.

Madang Mentor Visit with Betty

The main purpose of my trip down to Madang was to check on Betty, see the work she had completed, encourage her and to get a better picture of her work and life.  Betty picked me up in town, we went shopping for food and then we climbed into a PMV that would take us out to the village.  The PMV was an large open back truck with an awning for shade.  It was very full with people sitting on the side benches as well as down the middle on top of large sacks of rice and chicken feed.  Riding on the main road isn’t too bad with the wind making the Madang heat bearable but the side road into the village was very bumpy.  And due to recent rains there were parts of the road that were very muddy and sometimes flooded.

Once we reached her village we sat and storied, caught up on what has been happening the past few months since the last STEP module and I got to meet some of the other ladies who live in the house.  Betty is currently living in a house built by the church to house ladies who come from other areas to work in a near-by factory.  There is a common area and rooms with an open area with benches and a shared cooking area underneath.  I am always amused to watch reactions of people who walk by and say hi not expecting a white person to be sitting there.  Sometimes people just stare or frown, look confused, some kids laugh but mostly they just grin and shout a quick polite greeting and continue on their way.  There was lots of opportunity for this as we sat, storied and cooked our afternoon meal.

The next morning I woke up with the sun and enjoyed a hot cup of tea and some biscuits (crackers) for breakfast.  Then Betty and I sat down and went through all her assignments before heading off to visit the school.  It was nice to see new buildings that has been built since my last visit.  I got to shake hands also with some of the teachers who were cleaning up their classrooms and meet some of the kids as well.

The New School Building

Balama is a village in the middle of the language group Ogea.  However since it is very close to town many of the kids do not speak Ogea anymore.  They are almost all learning tokpisin first.  The parents would like for their children to speak Ogea and they are learning different ways to help encourage their children but it is difficult in an area where tokpisin really is the language with the widest use.  However they are trying to start using Ogea in the schools and also teach with some English materials.  It is a really big job to make a curriculum to meet all the diverse needs in this community.  And then to produce the materials and books needed to follow the curriculum.  Betty has her work cut out for her.  I am glad that I was able to go and encourage her.  Seeing the school also gave me a better idea of how to help her during this module to equip her for the challenges in Balama.

Some English Materials

Madang Mentor Visit- Take 2.

The Madang Lighthouse- as seen from a 206 (a small airplane).

Tomorrow I will fly to Madang again.  The purpose of this trip is the abridged version of the trip planned earlier this month to visit with Betty and to check her work for Module 4 and make sure she is ready to come to the STEP course.  In addition to spending time with Betty I hope to get to visit with my village living wasfemili (literally: watch family) as well as see a couple of friends who are currently working in Madang.  It is always fun to be able to leave Ukarumpa behind and tackle the challenges of a large PNG city.  I enjoy walking through the stores, not knowing what i’ll find and perusing the market for lowlands fruits and vegetables.  This trip will be short- only 10 days but it will be nice to be able to work with Betty again outside of Ukarumpa and also to visit with the V-bergs who are still Madang center managers.  On the 24th the V-bergs will be driving back up to Ukarumpa so I will join them.

Please pray for a safe flight down, good communication and a good visit with Betty and repaired, passable, safe roads for the drive back to Ukarumpa.

I will post again after I return on the 24th.

The V-berg Boys


Boys will be boys.  W and J are great kids who love their legos, juice and the men who work with Guard-dog, the main PNG security company.

Here in PNG the slightest thing, cut or otherwise, can get infected or progress rapidly.  And both W and J are prone to scraps and cuts just like every other little boy.  W and J had not-so-fun eye issues while I was here.

jesseeyeJ had a virus that affected his tearduct.

williameyeW had an infection that was complicated by a cyst under the eyelid.

Lisa is very thankful that there is a doctor from New Zealand working in the eye-ward here in the Madang hospital.  He was able to diagnose and treat the boys after the basic eye infection treatments were ineffective.

frogsLast night, the boys were feeling better and so they showed off their rokrok (frog) catching skills.  So far Lisa and Andrew have noticed no decline in the frog population.