BY JOHN STANDINGFORD
I THOUGHT IT WAS AN ACCIDENT SCENE when I saw four or five vehicles blocking the road ahead. Then I saw a young man approaching us waving a 2-kina note.
He saw me in the passenger seat and immediately substituted a 5-kina note. Ruben rolled down the window and exchanged words in rapid pidgin. Money changed hands and we drove on.
People had told me about road blocks on the Highlands Highway. In this case there was a good pretext. The young men were filling a particularly deep channel that had been gauged across the road by heavy rains, so road users were being asked to pay an informal toll.
Ruben explained that he was willing to pay something if a public service was really being performed, but too often it was just an attempt to get some easy money. The village elders generally frown on it, but in a spirit of compromise they let the youngsters do it for a couple of hours in the morning.
Wikipedia sums up the Highlands Highway as follows: "For most of its length the Highlands Highway is no more than a single carriageway two-lane road which is often hindered by potholes and land slips. It is also notorious for being the place of numerous armed hold-ups and robberies committed by local bandits called rascals."
We saw no rascals, but everyone has stories of trucks being held up and looted.
Four of us were driving south from Mount Hagen to visit a rural development project, with the rehabilitation of a gravel road as its centrepiece. I was to have a chance to explain my assignment and seek help with periodic surveys to assess the project's effectiveness.
We were taken to a schoolroom to meet about 30 elders and representatives of various interest groups: women, youth, churches. The meeting was conducted by the mausman (spokesman). He was a retired teacher with a voice much bigger than his frame and an even bigger smile.
Everyone was invited to address the meeting, and the women's representative was the last to speak. When she finished, the half-dozen members of her group came forward to present each visitor with a traditional knitted cap.
As we were leaving, the mausman approached me and spoke in English for the first time. "John," he said, "when you are writing your report you must wear your cap so you will remember our village."