The King of the Jungle

On the second day of our trek, we picked our way down another incredibly steep hill and finally reached a creek bed. Five minutes later, I was walking in the middle of the stream, when one of our native guides called for me. He put his fingers to his lips and motioned to a tree. I strained to see what he was pointing at and saw something coiled around a branch. I almost jumped when I realized it was a large snake, perhaps a Papuan Black, one of the most venomous snakes in Papua New Guinea and the world. New Guinea is home to over 80 species of snakes, some of them — the Papuan taipan, New Guinea death adders, the New Guinea brown snake, and the Papuan black — highly dangerous.  

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When I reached for my camera, the guide stopped me, “No pictures,” he said. By then, the rest of the group had caught up and one of the other trekkers made a move toward the opposite bank of the creek, just feet away from the tree where the snake sat. I grabbed his arm and pointed up above. We stood there awe-struck, examining the snake. “Let’s keep moving,” the guide said.

When we reached our lunch spot, we learned the entire story of the snake. Our lead guide explained that some of the carriers had come upon it as it slithered from the underbrush. Had it been another species they might have killed it with their machetes, but this snake was something to be feared and respected. The carriers, he said, assured it that we were just passing through, that we wouldn’t disturb it or its jungle home. And they saw to it that we kept to that promise. When we inquired about swimming in a pool beneath a waterfall to wash the sweat and grime from our bodies, they told us no. At first we didn’t understand. Then they explained that it would be disrespectful to disrupt the snake’s home and by taking pictures and swimming in the pool, we would be doing just that.LRG_DSC00991

We had another four hours of hiking left, and for the rest of the day, I thought about that snake and the carriers’ reaction to it. Somewhere along the way, I came to understand that the snake was their totem – the king of the jungle. It was an animal they revered.

 

Frisbees and Friendship

When my dad and I were packing for Papua New Guinea, we put a lot of thought into what gifts we would carry with us to give to each village. My dad suggested that we bring Frisbees, one for each village that we would stay in. He recounted how my mom and he had brought a Frisbee with them when they visited the island in 1995. They had only brought one, so they could not leave it behind, but the whole village had turned out to play or to watch the magic disc floating on air. So, along with our other gear, we packed into our backpacks 12 colorful Frisbees.LRG_DSC01610

After arriving at a village, reaching our designated grass hut, and settling in, my dad and I would grab a red or blue or bright yellow disc and venture out toward an open area. The plastic toy immediately caught the children’s eyes and they would follow us, excited for a game. My dad would fling the disc as far as he could, and the children, never having seen this object before, chased after it. It took awhile for us to teach them the art of a good backhand or how to finesse a forehand. Some were naturally skilled at it and some were not—so much so that I would often have to cover my head and duck. 

After a few village visits, this became the ritual: unpack, unwind, rehydrate, present the Frisbee, teach, play, and then, the following morning before departing for the next village, get in one last throw, before we left the Frisbee in their hands.

PNG Frisbee #2Playing Frisbee with the kids (and adults) of the village was a way to build a bridge, to gain each other’s trust. We were largely unknown to each other, divided by our dress, our language, our customs, the color of our skin, our education. But through the simple act of play, we could connect with one another, and that gap narrowed. In the process of sharing this flimsy circular toy, flinging it, dropping it, watching it roll, laughing, instructing, and, finally, successfully passing it back and forth among us, we felt more alike than different.