Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Good Bye Tekin

I don't know where to begin. The end of our time in Tekin has come and gone as of a week ago. It is time to write about it. My heart is full and my mind is brimming with poignant memories. At this moment we are worlds away from Tekin, and yet geographically so close. I am sitting in a plush hotel room in Jayapura (a birthday gift from Eric's parents), just across the border. My surroundings are surreal. It is taking time for my heart and my mind to catch up with my body.

Yesterday a very nice man from the Sundaun Province Ministry of Education drove us from Vanimo to the border. The coastal drive was breathtaking. After clearing PNG customs in a little ramshackle building we strapped on our backpacks and carried the few other pieces of luggage we had down a strange path through no-man's land. I turned around and waved to the country that had been our home for so many months. The country ahead didn't look very different, except that the customs building was a little more upscale, and the cars parked outside a little newer and shinier.

Much has happened over the past three weeks. Eric's niece Kelsey came for a visit in Tekin... I had malaria... school finished... and we said many, many good byes. Before crossing the border into Indonesia, we spent a week in Vanimo (PNG coastal town) debriefing with our headmistress and friend Glenda Giles. We did not have any power or running water during that time. Both heat and humidity were high. We got bitten repeatedly by mosquitoes and other "bities". It was a hot, sticky, itchy last few days in PNG.

Let me begin with Kelsey's visit to Tekin. She came to PNG mainly to visit her grandparents on her mother's side, but decided to take some time out to fly into our area for a week-long visit, and to see where her father grew up. The night she arrived I began showing symptoms of malaria. Because Eric had already had it, we recognized it immediately and I started the treatment without delay. I still went through several rounds of chills and fever and was generally exhausted, but Eric and Kelsey helped me around the house and we managed to eat quite well. I was unable to join them on the hikes up and down the valley. I had to sit in a chair or lay in bed. I was sad about this because it was our last chance to see these places before leaving. School was winding down and we would soon have to pack up the house in preparation to leave. God was my comfort and was very near to me through this experience. I was not afraid and I was not alone. On day five of my treatment I did not have the chills and fever. I remained weary for a few days, but soon recovered fully.

Two days into Kelsey's visit, Glenda found out that her grade nine selection meetings in Vanimo had been bumped up by a couple of weeks and she would have to leave ASAP in order to make it to them in time. The good byes were beginning. Our good friend Mark Glammis (deputy headmaster) would be leaving on the same MAF plane as Glenda in order to attend a course for his masters in Madang. Thankfully we had already enjoyed a final meal together as a staff and expressed our appreciation to each other. I was in the clutches of malaria at this point and had no energy to make it down to the school for a final good bye. I couldn't watch them take off either, because Glenda and Mark ended up having to hike 11 km down the trail to catch their plane. The wind was just too strong for a plane to land the morning of their departure.

But a plane did land that morning. About an hour after Mark and Glenda headed down the trail, we heard the drone of an engine in the Tekin circuit. We shook our heads. Who was it? They were crazy. A Central Aviation PAC 750 came barelling in for a landing and managed it safely! Some representatives from Sustainable Development PNG had come to inspect the OLPC project (see a prior blog) that had come to the Tekin area a few months before. They had a quick look around, took some photos, had bilums presented to them, then got back in the plane for a nail-biting departure from the valley. We breathed a sigh of relief when the plane cleared the trees and mountains at the end of the airstrip. The tail wind was very strong that day.

The decision was made to close school early, now that two of our six teachers were gone. End of the year festivities began. There were good bye mumus (pig roasts) given by the primary school, the grade nine class (who pooled their money), and Oksapmin High School (provided from school funds as a gift to the grade nine class). We were invited to all of them. I didn't have to do much cooking in those last days. There were lots of speeches mixed with tears, and unfortunately given before the food was eaten, so that our delicious food was cold by the time it reached our mouths.

Somewhere in the midst of all the feasts, an SIL plane came to pick up Kelsey. Her Arsjo grandparents were on board. There was time enough for a quick hello and couple of group photos. It was a beautiful morning weather-wise, and the little 206 took off and rose up out of the valley with no trouble.

This was it. Only six days until our scheduled flight. It was time to begin the packing, sorting, and giving away. In the midst of it all, our Oksapmin neighbours and friends decided that it would be a good time to bring Eric all their little electronic gadgets to be fixed - things like portable DVD players, a keyboard, and a solar panel. He did his best to teach final classes and work on all these little technical problems while I worked up at the house on the packing, etc. We didn't see much of each other!

On Friday, the last day of school, Eric called me on our walkie talkies to let me know when the students were having their final assembly so I could come down and say good bye. As I approached the small patch of grass I could see the students standing in clusters looking up at the teachers on the knoll. Mr. Alieng was giving some final announcements about the next year; how much school fee would be, when the start day would be, and how much bush vine to bring in for the year! Then the teachers handed out the report cards and the students were dismissed. Quietly and quickly they shook our hands, murmured blessings and parting words, then disappeared with their few belongings. Some of them turned to give a wave and a smile. Others just quickly walked away, facing a long hike ahead and a family who would welcome them at the end of it. I could not believe that we would never see most of them again. They have left an indelible impression on us. We were privileged to be their teachers for this short time.

At Eric's last OLPC teacher training class, the same afternoon, the teachers presented us with many parting gifts. We received beautifully carved arrows, bilums, paintings by our artist friend Simon, woven laes, a penis gourd, a bilum cap, and a brand new Ok Tedi mining shirt with Matty's father's name embroidered on it for Eric. He was stoked! Various teachers stood up and gave encouraging words of thanks and teary farewells. Eric showed the class a video he had put together called "The OLPC Story", and they had fun watching themselves and their students on the screen.

The weekend was a blur. We would be leaving Monday morning. Clothes and food were given away to friends, and Oksapmins came and went to say their good byes. Many of them left bilums behind to add to our growing collection. They shook their heads and clicked their tongues, asking us if we would ever return. "We hope so," was always our response.

Saturday night we had a final meal with Susan Glammis (my close friend and bilum teacher) and her son Becher. Her husband Mark, had already flown to Madang as mentioned above. They were like family to us during our time in Tekin. Glenda's cat Handasa joined us too. We ate roasted chicken and vegetables, and tried to be as festive as we could in the absence of Glenda and Mark. It was hard. All of our minds were on leaving. Susan, Becher and their little piglet Nasse would be leaving on Monday too. They had been living in Tekin for four years. Most of Becher's childhood had been spent there. It was going to be a big change for him as they moved back to the lowlands where his mom and dad were from.

Sunday passed all to quickly. Our friends Simon and Matty helped us carry many boxes down to be stored for the next volunteers (none are in the works yet - any takers?). Everything was packed into our backpacks and large, expandable market bilums in preparation for our flight. Our arrows and spears were bound together and wrapped in paper. At midnight we finished. There wasn't even a dish left in the house, so we drank some tea in empty honey jars. Our last time sitting by the woodstove! It had been a long week of "lasts".

In the morning we awoke early and scrambled down to the school radio to listen to Patrick get the MAF report on our flight. We wandered back and forth to the school, waiting for word. We finally were able to determine that the plane would come for us some time after 10 AM. Simon and Matty carried our big pieced of luggage up to the airstrip shack to be weighed. We followed close behind, noticing that the wind was picking up. It was a tail wind. Not good.

After the weigh-in we waited up at the house, hanging out with Simon and Matty and others who dropped by. People from Divanap (up the valley where Eric grew up) came to the house to say their good byes and to give us gifts. Eric recorded some of them giving messages to his father. From our big dining room window we watched a procession of villagers walk by, carrying all of Susan's household goods in suitcases and boxes. Her little piglet was led up to the airstrip on her rope, and a carrier followed behind with her makeshift pen hoisted over his shoulder.

At about 12:30 we finally heard the Twin Otter plane roar into the circuit. My heart started to pound and my eyes well up with tears. This was really it. We grabbed our bilums and exited our brown house for the last time. No time for a last look. The MAF plane was landing on the strip and we had to run to the top of the hill to catch our flight. I tried to take everything in hungrily for the last time as we quickly made our way up.

There was a huge crowd gathered at the plane to say good bye. Susan was surrounded by crying ladies clinging to her. The piglet squealed violently as she was pushed and then nailed into her tiny box. Becher was standing with a group of his little friends with wide, scared looking eyes. What a moment.

Friends stepped forward for one last hand shake or hug. Little Jaya, Eric's special friend and daughter of one of our colleagues was standing there with a very sad and worried look on her face. She had been our enthusiastic greeter every day in Tekin, any time we ran into her. She gave us one last "Goho Eric! Goho Hannah-Lee!" and waved her little hand. It was painful and heart-wrenching. Our student Zulu stepped forward to give me a hug, and Eric a hearty handshake. Another hard good bye. I was finding it almost impossible to hold back the sobs, but knew that if I let go I would really "lose it". I swallowed them back.

All the cargo was loaded and Patrick was calling for passengers. I wanted to scream, "No! We're not ready!" but knew that we would never really be ready to make this break. It's something you just have to do. We turned and waved to everyone, and took in their faces for the last time. "Goherio!" we shouted. ("Good bye to all")

Robotically I climbed the ladder into the plane. I found a seat and did up my seat belt. There was none of my usual fear in me that day; no fear of the small plane or the increasing tail winds. My only thought was of our friends outside the plane and the separation that had already occured between us.

Patrick stuck his head in for a last good bye smile and then closed the door. It was final. We were leaving.

The pilots started the engines, did some checks, then taxied to the end of the strip, next to the mountain wall. More checks, then the engines slowed. I prayed for a safe take-off and for our pilots in that moment. The engines were revved. They increased power and began to roar. This was our moment. The pilots reached up and joined their hands on the throttle to strengthen their efforts during the take off. I always find this to be touching and in my emotional state this started my tears flowing. We began to shoot forward and pick up speed. We rocketed past all the waving Oksapmins and I cried as we waved frantically back. Then we were leaving the ground. Over the dip in the strip we went, and normally we would go shooting up at this point, but the pilots were going to have a fight with the winds this day. Down we scooped and barely skimmed the rest of the strip. The winds were pulling us down, as if to say, "You can't leave yet." I'm normally a nervous flier, but for once my heart agreed. Now I was waving to our house, to the church, to the school, to little Handasa down there somewhere. We skimmed over the trees, staying low. Through my tears I was barely aware of our precarious position. The pilots steered to the right over the river so that they could have a little more time to pull the plane up before approaching the ridge. At last we escaped the tail winds and rose up up over the ridge. Now they could turn to the left and steer next to Bald Mountain and over Mitikanap village. The terrain then became less familiar. We had had our last glimpse of Tekin valley.

We have said many good byes over our years of teaching overseas, but for some reason this one felt bigger and more final than any before. I will not be facebooking or skyping any of our Oksapmin friends or students in the near future. For now, there is no internet connection to this remote place. Staying in touch will be tricky. It will be only with great effort on our part that we will ever see them again in this world.

As our students sang at the grade ten banquet in their soaring Melanesian voices:

"...We know we'll miss you a lot.

Some time, some day, somewhere...

Bye for now, but remember that we will linger

As memories of you in our mind

It's sad to say good bye...to you all our friends."

Good bye Tekin. Good bye Oksapmin friends. God bless you all and may we meet again some day!


  1. Grateful for experienced pilots and that you made it up past the tree line! I am sad with you all, but "what a day it will be when we all get together"!! Cheri

  2. Thanks for reading, friends! It was good to get that all off my chest.

  3. Heat-wrenching, especially having to live through it all again after nearly 18 years. Dad

  4. Thank-you for sharing this incredible experience with us. It has been a true pleasure to follow your adventures (both incredible and difficult). I hope you are reunited with your dear Oksapmin friends one day soon.

  5. Thanks very much for sharing!

    (Marshall, if you happen to see this, I've just submitted a draft of a book manuscript on the social history of Oksapmin mathematics to Cambridge University Press. I appreciated your dictionary as well as your long ago advice with an early study. A belated 'thanks!') -Geoffrey Saxe

  6. To Geoffrey,

    Glad to hear your book is finished. Nice feeling. I published a book last year about our time in Nandah called, "The World at My Door." Good to write down some of the memories.