Running for Life
Lae, Papua New Guinea, 1985
Running for life, roadshoes on gravel, tracking two bulky highlanders in bare feet for the first couple of kilometres, then a swing around the settlements of poorer houses, a kunai grass track, and out through the back fence of the Unitech campus.
Like stepping through a looking glass, beyond the charmed circle of armed security guards and searchlights, into the no-go twilight zone of the fringe dwellers with their impossible dreams of a job and a house and education for their children.
At first the road was bitumen, abutting the wire-wrapped world of the university on one side, village gardens and secondary jungle on the other. I had thought to circle the perimeter of the institution. On the road led, to the secured gate of the Post and Telecommunications College. Surely there would have to be a track into Unitech from that? I ran past the baffled patrolmen, across the manicured lawns, down a track to nowhere, to banana trees and stands of pit-pit (wild sugar cane). If there was a hidden path, nobody was telling. A couple of village women, their tongues bright red with beetle-nut juice, gave me instructions in Pidgin for the respectable way home, but fine nuances of the language beat me. Were they saying “turn left” or “turn right”?
So I came back to the gate and turned right, and ran, and ran … A cemetery, fresh wreathes on the graves, a branch in the road, and the end of the tar. I swung west, so it seemed, down between three metre stands of pit-pit and kunai. Surely this road would bear around and link up with the main Taraka highway? Each curve unveiled a vista of another kilometre of dusty track between walls of green vegetation. I persisted; on it went. I looked for bearings, up to the blue-green mountains ruffled in clouds that nested about Lae. The road seemed to be leading, with each curve now, south and east, away from my destination. It was getting late. Shadows lay across the track. I sensed a mild menace in the isolation. After fifty minutes of hard running it seemed, finally, that the only way home was the long road back.
My first messenger was a small, dark, ragged man with a machete half the height of his body. He had his wife with him, wrapped in a shapeless meri-blouse, and they were worried enough to stop a white barbarian from another planet, who probably didn’t speak their language, in the lengthening shadows of dusk. The little man gestured down the empty road which was my lifeline, and the drift of his message was that bandits were waiting in the kunai grass up ahead to ambush me. In a country of a thousand tribes, eight hundred languages, unstable town squatter settlements, pervasive poverty, simmering discontent, danger was not unexpected. Yet I was more constantly surprised by the kindness of strangers.
But in the menace of a tropical night, this moment, speak of Hobson’s choice! Well, even for fear of bandits, there was no way I now planned to follow that road south into the never-never of darkness. I shrugged and picked up a fist-size rock. My messenger looked unhappy, but he seemed to say that he’d hang around as a witness to see what happened.
Now the road was a gauntlet, and the walls of rich, poisonous green seemed pregnant with danger. My hand sweated a little on the rock, and I ran steadily on the crest of the road’s camber. After seven or eight minutes there was a sudden rustle in the long kunai grass. I half swung around, baring the rock, and glared into the lattice of grass and shadow. The rustle subsided. I didn’t shift pace, but wished there were eyes in the back of my head.
The next sound was an ambiguous messenger. I could hear the truck coming from behind. I moved to the margin of the road, waited for the cloud of choking dust. It changed down gears, revved down, idled up behind me. This could be harder to handle than the invisible enemy. There was a matter of face, theirs and mine. Should I resist a kidnap? Would they be drunk? Rational? Homicidal? It had all happened before, too often in this country. Sometimes a drunken spree, sometimes a straight shotgun blast to the head.
The truck, a small yellow Suzuki, pulled alongside. Two bearded Melanesian men studied me severely, like an errant child. “You shouldn’t be here,” said one at last in perfect English. “This place is very dangerous. It is infested with rascals. They are waiting to attack you.”
I confessed my stupidity and begged a lift. Bumping along on the tray of the little Suzuki, as the sky turned orange and then black, I watched the man-dwarfing blur of vegetation on each side and wondered what other world I might have encountered if I had been dragged struggling through its screen.
They left me at the cemetery, at the start of the bitumen, and I ran once more past the bemused guards at the PTC College, clambered over the ditch and through the magic hole in Unitech’s chain wire fence, along the grass track, and down the benign avenue of trees that led to my high covenant house. I suddenly noticed a painful blister on the bottom of my foot. Funny, it hadn’t been important enough to make itself known before.
Running for Life © Thor May 1985-2015