A Minute With Mike

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 8/20/96.

July 2, 1996

I'm home, sort of.

After two months of a vagabond existence, living out of a suitcase, I arrived yesterday at my home for the next two years, Lumi High School.

It's a magnificent place, nestled in a valley among the Torricelli mountains, surrounded by tropical rainforest. The rugged landscape and steep slopes are masked by the lush vegetation that encompasses the human communities living among these low mountains.

On a map, you can find Lumi in Sandaun Province, the northwest corner of Papua New Guinea. It is located about 25 kilometers inland from Aitape, a coastal city that bisects the beach between Vanimo, and Wewak. If you can't find any of these cities on a map, I figured Lumi's coordinates to be 3.4öS and 142.2öE.

It is accessible mainly by air. A road does go all the way to Wewak, but it's steep and plagued by landslides and mud during the wet season. I'm told the trip to Wewak can take 12 hours under bad conditions, and I estimate it to be only 150 kilometers as a crow (pisin) flies.

I flew. I left Madang early yesterday morning. I was a little nervous about the rather small plane that needed to carry me and my mountain of stuff. After a stop in Wewak, I left behind paved airstrips and my deputy headmaster. While I went straight to Aitape, he stayed and waited for the plane to return and then take him to Vanimo, where he needed to do some shopping for the school. Accompanying him was another pilot who would get his plane at Vanimo and then come to Aitape and pick me up to go to Lumi. Confused? So was I.

The Australian pilot couldn't understand why I would volunteer to spend two years in a remote area like Lumi. I didn't even bother to explain the opportunities to meet people, to learn about myself, and to help shape minds that exist for me here. He described himself as an eternal capitalist, who worked here because "they pay me a lot of money."

During the flight, he pointed out an abandoned airstrip, built by American soldiers during WWII. As we approached Aitape, I asked him if the clearing ahead was another old airstrip. "No, it's the one we're going to use," he responded.

After changing airports in Aitape and waiting for four hours or so, the pilot and plane arrived from Vanimo, and the last leg of my voyage commenced.

This flight alone was worth venturing halfway around the globe. Once again, I got to sit up front with the pilot. The song, "Treetop Flyer," popped into my consciousness as the plane cleared the trees at the end of the runway by 10 meters. During the previous flight, the Aussie pilot told me airfields aren't maintained very well, and the trees at the end creep closer and closer, making the strips shorter and shorter.

Once airborne, the view quickly grabbed my attention. The plane was never over 1,000 feet above the ground, at least in my estimation. The jungle was like a dense green carpet over the terrain. At one point, we flew through a narrow mountain gap, with clouds directly above us and earth on three sides.

You wouldn't mistake the trip for a ride on a 747. On turns, the plane tilted 45 degrees. There wasn't any air conditioning nor a pressurized cabin. The pilot warned everyone to inform him right away if they started to feel sick. To land requires dipping over the runway, turning around, and dipping down to the dirt strip. The plane used the slope of the runway to stop and then went downhill to gain speed for takeoff again.

In Lumi, as my headmaster brought me to the school four kilometers away from the government station and airstrip, I soon realized why driving is so slow. Despite it being the dry season, with the roads in "good" shape, the five-speed truck was in first gear, for braking and climbing, as much as it was in third. We didn't use fourth or fifth. During the wet season, trucks need to be pulled and pushed up the muddy inclines by hand.

I now have a week to settle in to my house before starting to teach on July 8. There's a lot of cleaning and fixing to do. It is a lot like opening a summer cabin in Minnesota. My to-do list is a mile long.

The only drawbacks to living in such a biodiverse place, that I've discovered so far, is the ecosystem in my house. Living things thrive in this climate: warm days and cool nights. But I'm not so thrilled about them living with me.

The ants I can handle. I brought a number of them with me from Madang in my food supply, and I've decided to share my pasta and rice with them. How could I decline? The critters are feasting now, but I'll get my revenge when it's time to cook!

So many spiders have taken up residence with me that it's a wonder there are any bugs left. In the morning, they try to catch me by stringing their webs across the doorways. I don't think it'll work.

The only tenant that really bothers me are the rats. I found rat peck peck all over my kitchen counters this morning. I'm trying to encourage them to leave by stowing my food securely, and I'm storing my clothes in safe spots for my own sanity.

Mosquitoes aren't a problem, but I sleep under my mosquito net for protection, hopefully, from larger furrier pests.

(Michael, a former Press reporter, is currently serving as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Papua New Guinea.)

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