…to bring you the breaking news from Papua New Guinea.
(My apologies to any readers who were enjoying the parade of pictures from the recent Cultural Day and Independence celebrations, but I am interrupting the show to being you the news that is rocking Madang. I promise there will be more weird and wonderful pictures later.) First of all, a little background.
On the first weekend we were in Madang, Linda and I went into town to do some shopping. We had to take one of the local PMV’s, which are minibuses that ply back and fore around Madang and which, to our amazement, are never overloaded! They are licensed to carry thirteen passengers and thirteen passenger they carry! That was surprise Number 1.
Surprise Number 2 was when the bus dropped us off at one of the busy bus-stops in town. We thought we had walked into the aftermath of a massacre! There was blood everywhere, splattered all over the floor in all directions. The puddles, where rain had collected, were bright red! Welcome to Madang.
It turned out that our assumption had been wrong. The splattered substance was not blood at all. It was ‘buai’ spit. Phew!
Chewing buai is a very popular local pastime and much more common that smoking around here. The buai is a betelnut that grows in abundance around Madang, so they are cheap to buy. In the Highlands, the prices are much higher, but the habit is no less widespread. For many people chewing buia is an essential part of relaxing at the end of the day, or, indeed, during the day.
The following pictures will give you an idea of how the system works.
You open the nut and chew the kernel. However, for maximum effect, you have to get a packet of lime powder and some sticks of mustard. You dip the mustard stick into the lime and then put it in your mouth with the betel nut. As your saliva reacts with the nut, the mustard and the lime, you start to get the mild ‘high’, which is the whole point of the exercise. However, in addition to the ‘high’, you also get, as a free bonus, stained teeth and bright red spit. Since you cannot swallow the whole unholy mixture, you eventually have to spit it out, hence the splattered blood stains all over the pavements in town.
Divine Word University tries to ban the habit, but with only partial success. Apart from the fact that low-flying red spit is a trifle unsightly, not to say revolting, buai chewing is associated with mouth cancer, although there is very little publicity about this, partly because so many people make a living off it. Apart from that, TB is a bigger killer here than malaria, so spitting, in whatever range of colours, is not something that you want to encourage.
Anyway, why am I telling you all this? Well, last week there was trouble up in the Highlands. A young man was killed after an altercation with the owner of a PMV over the correct fare that needed to be paid. Outraged, the family of the deceased banded together and set off to wage war on the family of the bus owner. Result? Fighting, bloodshed and chaos, And the only road that links the Highlands to the coast became impassable. One of our colleagues, by unhappy coincidence, found himself on the road in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had nothing to do with the killing of the young man, but because he was from the same clan as the killer, his car was stopped, he was stripped, beaten and robbed, being left on the side of the road in his underwear.
It took the authorities over a week to restore any kind of order in the area and during this time the prices of vegetables in our local market doubled, because so many of the vegetables are grown in the Highlands.
Now, you would think that the fact that thousands of people, who have little money to spare, saw their weekly food bill double overnight might have caused some comment in the press. But no, the headline the following day was all about the soaring price of buai. Funny old world!