Register Wednesday | June 26 | 2019

Orange is for Danger

A memoir of the Peace Corps in Papua New Guinea

“Safety is the primary concern,” boomed Brian. “Why?”

Fifty-two Peace Corps volunteers—including my husband John and myself—blinked and wiggled in response. In the past four days we had traveled from San Francisco through Seoul, Hong Kong and Manila to Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea. Jet-lagged and achy from immunizations against tetanus, polio, hepatitis and typhoid, we were gathered in a hall at the Institute of Public Administration to be trained for our two-year tours as rural development workers and high school teachers. The lectures ranged from Pidgin language and pig roasts to being modest (for women) and declining sex (for men).

Brian was teaching us how to stay alive. He wrote on the board his five Zones of Awareness:

White = Safety
Yellow = Caution
Orange = Danger
Red = Pain
Black = Death

“White is your state of mind in the US. Never be in the white zone in PNG. Just forget about that kind of carefree la-la land of the mind. Here, you need to be aware of your surroundings. Always.” He turned around and pointed at zone two. “Always be in the yellow zone. Listening. Observing. Thinking. Watch what the locals are doing. Are they moving away from that drunk guy, are they leaving a crowded street corner? Then you get the hell out of there, too.”

“Always be prepared, be suspicious,” he continued. “Because, I’d say, about half of you are going to encounter a situation in the next two years that is going to require that sort of reaction. And that’s the orange zone—reacting to a dangerous situation and getting out of it. Don’t miss your split second to react.”

But what if there was no such split second? The day before, a fellow volunteer had her money belt lifted by three men in Port Moresby’s outdoor market. Some months before that, two women from the previous group had been attacked. An Australian volunteer had been abducted from her house and raped in a coffee field. And recently a busload of nuns in the Highlands had been held up and reportedly raped. There is no terrorism in Papua New Guinea. Just terror.

“My advice works. I’ve been in many dangerous places and, as you can see, I’m still in one piece.” When their two boys were small, Brian and his wife lived in Afghanistan. He spoke of the brain-racking stress of placing his feet only in fresh tracks—human, animal or vehicle—to minimize the risk of being blown to pieces by a landmine. He drank a lot of Smirnoff in Afghanistan, he said. “If you act in time, you will not experience the red zone. That’s physical danger. That’s blood and pain. And then there’s black.” He paused. “But if you stay in the yellow zone, alert to your surroundings at all times, you should be fine. You should have the time you need to save yourself.”

Brian tapped his marker on the D word. “You’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

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My husband and I were assigned to teach at Mainohana, a high school near the southern coast on the Kawabunga River. The closest town, Berena, was a forty-five-minute walk away. One Saturday soon after we arrived, John and I missed the truck to the weekly market, which provided the village’s supply of food and betel nut—the stimulant of choice in PNG. Faced with a week of going hungry, we decided to walk, setting off down a sun-baked road bordered by poisonous snakes and malarial mosquitoes. After ten minutes, we were offered a lift in a passing pickup. In town, word of our foolishness got around. The locals warned us not to try that again, explaining their concern with one word—rascals (Pidgin for criminals)—accompanied by a slow, ominous nod.

Did we understand? Yes, grudgingly, we understood: we could be robbed, which would certainly be frightening enough, but also, I could be raped, and that was a notion that I alternately pushed from my mind and forced myself to confront. Our trainers warned the women volunteers not to make eye contact with Papuan men, as such boldness might be misconstrued as sexual interest and lead to unwanted advances. Papuans assume all Western women are like those in our movies and magazines, and so see us as exotic and exceedingly promiscuous: surely we want sex.

The sexual revolution and women’s liberation have yet to make a showing in this island nation. All women wear long skirts, loose blouses, and rarely travel or live alone. Expect to see plenty of women with black eyes the morning after payday—boys’ night out—we had been warned with an apparent indifference that infuriated me. Alcoholism, spousal abuse and gang rape were not to get in the way of respect for the Papuan culture. Cultural relativism, I discovered, was the Peace Corps’ sacred cow.

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About a month after our arrival, a dingo suddenly ran up to me and sunk its teeth into my calf. It didn’t like my black dress, explained its owner. My thoughts became dominated by visions of a dog surprising me from behind or leaping up to take a bite out of my nose. Thereafter, John and I generally stuck to the school grounds, disappointed—after traveling halfway across the globe to see the world!—to be so confined. After classes and on weekends, I stayed inside our house, reading and writing, and occasionally sent John over to the canteen (visible from my favorite chair) for a lemon soda or some cookies.

I was eating plenty, exercising none and sinking into a swamp of despair. Adding to my mounting misery, the headmaster downgraded me from teaching grade nine to grade seven, “until you learn the customs.” Perhaps my long skirts, bought in the USA, were considered too close-fitting by local standards—and thus too stimulating for the older boys.

Brian had told us that to enjoy our experience, we must connect with the locals. But how could I do that when I felt dread every time I left my house? I couldn’t imagine living like this for two years. I couldn’t imagine quitting, either. When we joined the Peace Corps, John and I quit our jobs, sold our house and cars, found a home for our cats and gave ourselves over to the whole experience—whatever it involved.

It was a quiet evening in Mainohana. The school water pump was malfunctioning and the supply truck had broken down. All 550-plus students, mostly boarders, had been sent home to their respective villages until the situation improved. John was using a computer in a nearby office, and I was in the bathroom (a shower and toilet on the verandah with a tarp for privacy), humming a little tune and thinking about making dinner. As I was pulling up my pants, I heard footsteps inexplicably near. For someone to get upstairs, at least one door had to be unlocked and one set of stairs climbed. I had heard neither. I desperately searched for a pleasing explanation of what I was hearing. I thought, “Yellow zone,” while holding out hope that my husband, or perhaps a neighbor, would call out, “It’s only me.”

But what I heard next was the slight and devious crunching of the bathroom tarp. I forced myself to comprehend what I longed to deny: someone was here who should not be. My body responded appropriately; I could feel the adrenaline spewing forth in me as if from an uncapped fire hydrant. I pushed away the hammering fear so that I could fight, attack or kill, if that’s what it came to. Then before me stood a Papuan man who I did not recognize—but maybe he looked familiar. He was in his early twenties, nearly my height, well built and dressed in an old button-down shirt and jeans. We stared at each other. Out of conditioned courtesy, I allowed him the briefest moment to explain his uninvited presence. My gaze dropped to his chest, to which he clutched something flat and sharp and metal. Instantaneously my synapses relayed the message: sinister—fight! I screamed loud and long and our eyes met again. His cocky “I got you” gaze dissolved into wide-eyed shock—even fear. A screaming woman is unacceptable and entirely unexpected in Papuan culture. He thought his weapon and his sex were sufficient, but he couldn’t have anticipated my weapon—utter indignation at his intentions.

I surged forward with my palms open. But instead of contact with the intruder or his weapon, I fell forward, landing on my hands and knees. I continued screaming and looked up. My assailant was hopping over the verandah railing, jumping to the ground below. I kept up the noise, now belting out “help!” over and over. Were there more men down below? In the house? On their way? Rape in this country was often a group activity. Finally I noticed faces in the dark below, watching me, puzzled. Teachers and their families had gathered; help had arrived. I abruptly stopped screaming, assured my audience that I was all right and asked that someone get John from the office. Then I went inside and locked the doors.

John arrived, panicked, along with a barefoot “policeman” clutching a homemade gun. In sound bites, my pulse frenetic, I told them what had happened. The local Australian priest also made an appearance, and his unaffected expression conveyed, “Home alone? What did you expect?”

They left, and I laughed. I was unharmed. And now I had a perfectly good reason to get the hell out. The swarming bugs, the blistering boredom, the sexual hierarchy, the feral dogs, the monotonous food, the lack of water (clean or otherwise), the absence of so much American: none of these were an acceptable out, but coming face-to-face with an attacker—now that was a valid reason to bail!

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The three-hour drive into Port Moresby, on the flatbed of a large pickup, was dusty and painfully bumpy. Patrice, the caretaker of our guesthouse, told me that my assailant was not a rascal. Rascals come in groups to rape and pillage. This guy was just a lone drunk who had probably been watching me and waiting for his chance. Next to her, Mrs. Eieo nodded. At our one stop, Philo, a former student of mine, bought lemon sodas for John and me, removing the bottle tops with her teeth. I didn’t want to take anything—even this small token. I had come to Papua New Guinea to give, and instead I was taking and retreating. Yet what could I do but accept her gift and thank her?

A nun told me Mrs. Eieo’s husband drinks and then beats her;0Philo was quitting school to get married. They cannot leave, I thought. Why do I deserve such a privilege? Yet since the attack, I had been carrying a ten-inch bush knife everywhere I went, my stomach wrenched in knots. This was no way to live.

Once in Port Moresby, I encouraged my disappointed husband to stay on and travel the Highlands for a while; as a man, he would be relatively safe. But I took the first airline ticket available back to the United States, where I had nothing but a storage space full of carefully boxed possessions—and, stretching out before me, a life full of astonishing freedoms.