Being a missionary as a wife and the mother of two young children is a handful. There are definitely limits to what I can be involved in here in terms of how much I can be out with the people, how long I am out and where I can go. In spite of these limitations though I have still been able to be involved in quite a bit of village life and also been able to go on some short trips away from our island with Tigak friends. This is mostly because of my super amazing hubby! Tom is very committed to helping me to get out, invest in relationships and be a part of life here, even if it means he has to sacrifice a Saturday to spend watching the kids and holding down the fort. I am very very thankful for my sacrificial husband. 🙂
A month or so ago I was able to take part in a certain cultural activity (called a “culture event”) that I have been dying to do for a long time. I had been involved in little parts of it, but never the whole thing and because of Iris’s needs I had previously been unable to leave her for the whole day. Now though, Iris is a year old and able to chomp down on all kinds of food on her own so my chance to go the “bush” (jungle) and wash saksak (hang on, I’ll explain it in a bit ;D) finally came!
Saksak is one of the staple foods of the Tigak people, as well as many other PNG people. It is harvested through a very complex process, from the saksak tree which looks like a massive, thick version of a palm tree. When referring to harvesting saksak, people say they are going to “wash saksak”. You’ll find out why in a bit. Our island is very small and does not have any of the saksak tree’s growing on it so when anyone wants saksak they have to canoe to a bigger island where the jungle is thicker and has lots of saksak trees. Usually when people go to the jungle to wash saksak, they canoe there. I can canoe and we do have our own, but I will readily admit that my upper body strength is nothing like my Tigak friends. If we had had to canoe to the jungle this time… I might have died. 😛 Thankfully this time there was a largish size group of us going (including our terrific partner Aimee) so we went in a boat. Yeah! 🙂
We all left our island at about 7am armed with our bush knives (or as Jude likes to call them- “swords”), lots of water, sunglasses and some snacks. Our friends brought their knives as well, pots and rice to cook while we were in the jungle and a myriad of bags and tools they would need to wash the saksak. Our area of PNG is super interesting to me because the landscape changes so quickly from island to island. In a matter of a 45 minute boat ride you go from our flat white sanded island to rocky beaches, huge rock formations jutting out of the water, big waves and dense jungle. I cannot explain it all to you… you shall just have to come and see for yourself some day. All that to say, it’s really amazing to me and I love every chance I get to see the surrounding islands and villages of Tigak people. (All Tigak people who have yet to hear the gospel, by the way: the waiting mission field for our small church here, growing into maturity so they are able to reach them!)
Ok, where was I?
Oh yeah. So we arrived at our destination after a pleasant 40ish minute boat ride and hopped out of the boat into the shallow water filled with piles of broken coral that would have KILLED to walk on had Aimee and I not been been wearing our trusty strap on sandals. I do not have thick skinned Tigak feet! 🙂 After having a few minutes of fun looking at a tiny fresh water spring, we all made our way along the beach to the place we thought we would be washing the saksak. When we got their, one of our friends Kas hopped into the jungle to check on the spot only to return minutes later to tell us the saksak tree she had wanted had already been harvested so we needed to go further up the beach to find a new spot. No worries, go with the flow.
We continued to make our way along the beach getting a nice work out as we walked through the super coarse, heavy red sand and hopping over the slick lava like rocks that were all over the place. Not sure what they were but they were cool. 🙂 Eventually we made it to a hut right on the beach and were welcomed by the people there and invited to sit and rest. The owners of this hut were related to our friends (the owner of the house had six toes… interesting) so we waited while Robin & Kas tried to get permission to go into their section of jungle and harvest a saksak tree. We waited, and waited, and waited. We talked. Some of the ladies took potty breaks in the jungle…Wasi played with Aimee’s hair… Luta, Darina and I unloaded some stuff off the boat and brought it to the hut…we talked… we waited some more…we told jokes… we sang songs… we waited… then we snacked and waited some more.
I’m not sure exactly how long it was because I don’t wear a watch and PNG culture is NOT time oriented but I believe we waited for about 3 hours! These are the kinds of times I really feel like an American. It can really drive me insane to wait around sometimes. All I am thinking are things like, “what is taking so long? Why aren’t we getting to work already? Isn’t there anything I can do to speed this up? We are burning day light here people!” 😀 Of course I keep all these thoughts very well hidden inside my head and play it off like I am totally fine to sit on the beach all day if need be. I was beginning to fear this was actually what we would end up doing.
FINALLY Kas appeared and told us that permission had been granted and the guys had gone ahead and the tree was already being cut down. So it was time for us to go. Sweet relief! We gathered our small amount of things and followed after Kas in a single file line through the jungle. It is well known to our friends that we cannot hike as fast as they can through the jungle. My pride is only slightly wounded by this conclusion only because I know they are right. I really, really love hiking through the jungle. It is just breathtaking. When you look up at the massive trees and canopy of green you feel like you have shrunk and it feels like another world almost. My biggest problem when in the jungle is that I want to stop and look around and take it all in. I’m the annoying little kid who wants to stop every 12 steps and ask questions. I always want to take pictures of everything, yank plants up and bring them home with me etc. My poor friends. 😀 This time however I really tried my best to control my curiosity and keep up with the rest. Nevertheless I brought up the rear of the line. 🙂
Walking through the jungle is more complicated in some areas than others. At the worst areas it is extremely muddy and you just sink down into thick muck and it can be really slippery. Often people who have gone before you have tried to lay down skinny branches, bamboo poles are any kind of brush that may have been handy on top of the mud to make walking a bit easier. Sometimes these pieces help, sometimes you just slip off of them. My confidence in walking through these slippery muddy areas has greatly improved over the last year as I have come to realize that the worst that could happen is that I fall flat on my face- big deal. So the best thing to do is just charge through it and don’t worry. We continued our hike for a while with sporadic conversation being careful not to take our eyes off the path for more than a few seconds at a time (so as not to trip and fall). Occasionally we would pause for a moment to let Kas pick a few leaves here and there for her to chew her beetle nut with later. In no time at all we descended a hill and came to our destination, the place where we would be washing saksak.
Disclaimer: Before I go on I just want to be clear and say that I will not attempt to give you an in depth explanation of the whole process of harvesting saksak. There is simply too much to explain and it’s not even like I am an expert at it yet. 🙂 Just telling the basics will be a long read! So, if you are crazy interested in this for some reason, either come out here and visit us or you can e-mail me and ask your questions. 🙂
Upon arriving we saw right away that the guys had indeed felled a large saksak tree already and had gotten as far as chopping off the branches, pealing back the bark and had begun using their sapal’s (the special tool they use) to pound the inside of the tree into large pulp like saw dust stuff called “mut” (pronounced: “moot”). I just have to say, watching the guys pound the inside of tree is pretty crazy. It’s almost hypnotic to stare at them while they rhythmically pound the inside of the tree. Thud, thud, thud, thud, thud. Sometimes when a few guys are working together they will have a little fun with the job by timing their swings to be in sync with each other. That sounds really cool. It takes a lot of strength and they just keep going and going. They do take breaks of course but it’s a big job! It could take several guys half a day to get through a whole tree. Phew! The guys feet were stretched out in front of them and they brought their sepal down super hard only inches from their feet. Yipes! I was so afraid someone was going to smash their foot open! All the guys told me they have never hit their foot before. Who knows if that is actually true…
While the guys continued with their work of pounding the tree it was the ladies job to get all the washing stations set up, which began by digging a hole in the ground to collect water from. The ground of the jungle was very wet and would yield a quickly filling well at just about any place someone would dig a shallow hole. One hole had already been dug by a previous group who had been at this spot, so that hole got scooped out and we watched as new water quickly filled in again coming through many tiny streams in the side walls of the hole. The other water areas were quickly found.
Next, branches and leaves were cut and laid down on the jungle floor to form a kind of square bed platform thing. Four sturdy stakes were pushed into the ground forming four posts around this branch bed. Next, the four corners of a large square piece of fabric was then tied with rope to each corner post so it hung down like a hammock “bowl” over the bed of leaves. A total of four stations were made and two of them were trough stations and two were strainer stations. As you can see from the pictures the trough is the large base of a branch from the saksak tree that is cut and trimmed into a good shape like a trough and put in place with several strategically placed stakes and cross bracing stakes. In the end of the trough a thin piece of fabric is jammed in place to act as a siv to keep the water free of saksak debris… later. The strainer station is set up by placing four tall “Y” stakes in the ground above the hammock bowl in order for the strainer to straddle them and rest in and directly above the cloth “bowl.”
The whole thing is really amazing to watch. Each lady knows exactly what they are doing and can get the stations set up so strong and relatively quickly. It would probably have taken Aimee and I half a day to just set up one washing station!
Once all the stations were ready there was only a short time before the guys were filling up tall bags with the saksak mut and bringing them to us. Now it was time to wash the saksak. Whether you are using a trough or a strainer, water must be poured over the saksak shavings (mut) and then the shavings must be kneaded and squeezed, then more water is poured over it again and again as the washing continues. The water running off the mut then travels through the strainer cloth, keeping it free of debris and runs into the fabric bowl below. This saksak water is filled with tiny particles, almost like silt that will all go to bottom of the cloth bowl and collect, forming the final saksak product. The saksak that can then be eaten. It is very amazing. Aimee & I have said many times that had we not had this whole process shown to us and taught to us we would never ever have guessed where something like the final saksak food came from or how on earth you harvest it. Really, truly, incredible.
It may not seem like it but this is actually hard work! Aside from the fact that you are working in the humid and steamy jungle, the repeated action of lifting the full buckets of water or stirring and tossing the mut is a real work out! Aside from trying to keep myself from panting out loud sometimes I was often most preoccupied by the challenge of keeping sweat out of my eyes! It is such a great opportunity to work along side our Tigak friends! It’s great because they can see our care for them in our willingness to learn from them and help them and it’s also a super huge opportunity for pre-evangelism as they watch the way Aimee and I treat one another and experience how we treat them. I have never felt so constantly observed as when I am doing something knew with a Tigak friend. I’m ok with it though, for the sake of the gospel. 🙂
We had one little break in our work when the cooked pot of rice showed up and we joined the line up to eat some rice. Aimee and I didn’t eat much and at this point were still energetic and eager to work hard so we took over one of the stations as our pals sat watching us and eating their rice and tuna fish.
To fast forward a very long day I will just say this: this work is only fun for a short period of time. After your hands are full of little cuts, your body is sore and your clothes are soaked through from sweat and jungle swamp, that is when time starts to crawl. I was kicking myself for not bringing my rubber gloves! (I know, I am crazy but I would have stood for the teasing if it would have helped my hands last longer!) We washed and washed and washed the saksak until finally the last remains of the saksak tree were pounded into bits and we were told we were finishing for the day. One lady was going to stay there over night and finish washing the remaining mut the next day. I confess this was sweet news to me. I was missing my kiddo’s!
After helping gather up a few things my pride had yet another opportunity to be wounded as our friends discussed how they wanted to have Darina lead Aimee and I out of the jungle ahead of everyone else so that we would not hold them up. Oh good grief. I was tempted to argue a bit and insist that I could keep up but then I thought better of it. Besides, I wanted to cut myself some bamboo on our way out and now I would have my chance! So off we went trailing behind Darina through the jungle trails as dusk settled and rain started to fall on us. Oh goodie. I did have my chance to hack a few bamboo pieces down on our way out and then my dear friends Darina and Aimee helped me carry it out (such troopers!). That was very interesting, especially for Aimee and I as we balanced the long bamboo poles on our shoulders, also carried our bags and bush knifes and tried not to fall as we slipped and climbed through the crazy trails. I think we both lost our sandals at one point but we all made it out eventually. By now the rain was actually falling for real and we lost no time in dashing into the ocean to get a full body rinse! We have learned from the Tigak that the best way to scrub yourself clean is to use the oceans “micro-beads” = sand! So we scrubbed our hands, feet and legs with sand and tried to get them as clean as we could. A lot came off but we were still stained gray and purple from the saksak. After getting home we would take care of the stains with lemon juice… that stuff is crazy powerful!
Very soon the rest of group had emerged from the jungle and all the bags of saksak were lined up inside the boat. At this point the sun was setting and Robin had to decide how he was going to get us in the boat, out to open water through the waves that were crashing into shore. If there is anyone we can trust to do this safely it is Robin! Never the less though the process was a bit tense at times and brought about several rounds of screams and yells from all those inside the boat as a few waves came over the side and soaked us. A few of the guys got into the ocean and proceeded to lead us out through the waves as they followed Robin’s orders. I probably should have been nervous but I was mostly amused as we watched the heads of the guys slowly disappear as the water got deeper and soon all we could see were their hands.
Thankfully the guys all did a smashing job of safely getting us through the worst waves and soon the motor was down and Robin has our boat zipping through the swells. Now this was a ride! Oh yeah! Fast boat rides through rough water is the closest to a roller coaster ride a Tigak person is going to get and as a lover of roller coasters I will say, it is quite a thrilling ride! No seats, no belts and splashing water makes it especially exciting! Aimee and I were cracking up as we watched the nervous faces of our friends! Priceless! We arrived back at our island after dark and Aimee & I carefully found our way back to our houses with out flash lights.
And that was my Mommy’s day out. It was a great one. I was glad to be home, glad for the chance to bathe, hug my kiddos and rest! I learned a lot as always, deepened friendships and had fun.
When will my next Mommy’s day out be? One never knows… but I hope it will be soon!