One way ticket
Robert Armstrong headed east. His trip took him through five continents in as many months.
THE GPA ART AWARD APPLICATION FORM asked "What would you do with the award money if you got it?" I answered that I was going to Papua New Guinea anyway but if I got an award I would go sooner.
OK they said! They said OK!
"It depends how much protection you want" the doctor said. "These malaria tablets are only suppressants anyway, but I'll give you the statutory things like cholera, tetanus and typhoid. You might like to consider gamma globulin against infectious hepatitis and a rabies shot." A rabies shot!
I was offered the "lend" of a backpack. No thanks.
Second-hand guidebooks poured in. '~You'll come back knowing all about how to deal with taximen at airports." "You won't come back at all."
For the price of a return trip to Papua New Guinea I could buy a Round The World ticket. So I thought "why not?"
After a quick hop, skip and jump across Europe I flew to Egypt.
Arriving at Tahrir Square in the centre of Cairo is like being set down in a roundabout from a Keystone Cops movie but with sound effects. So much for the ancient civilisation Of the Egyptians. The Pharaohs. The thirty dynasties. The main railway station is named after Ramses II and the square in front of it is Ramses Square. A giant statue of his highness surveys a scene of utter chaos'. Egyptians drive cars as though they were a flock of sheep being chased by mad dogs. Inside the station thousands of people with their worldly possessions squat on the platforms, There are scores of ticket hatches selling seats on different trains to different destinations 'If different times. First, second and third class.
The journey to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings takes twelve hours. Getting a ticket takes aeons. The train itself is comfortable. Great big reclining green leatherette seats with families of mice running around' underneath them.
A group of Egyptian businessmen divide their time beetween munching longsticks of sugar cane and kneeling on their seats facing portside and praying. Chat (tea) was served regularly. Day became night and twelve hours became sixxteen.
The hotel provided a bicycle for the seven kilometre trip to the Valley of the Kings. First by ferry across the Nile and then the road follows some irrigation channels and eventually climbs towards the mountains. There is nothing above ground in this graveyard except the piercing bright yellow rock, the heat of the sun arid a hideous cafeteria. Here are the tombs of the Pharaohs Tuthrnosis, Seti, Ramses, Tutankhamen and others. The wall paintings are spectacular and in some tombs the painting is unfinished and you can see preliminary drawings and corrections.
In astreetside 'cafe in Luxor an American I had met in Cairo turned up again. Now he had a scarf wrapped around his head Arab style and he was calling himself Eddy Ali Mohamed. He made jokes about the Flintstones: "That Barney Rubble, he sure can act," and "Say, Barney, wanna go bowling?" "Oh I dunno Fred, I better ask Wilma."
THE BOMBAY AIRPORT BUS DROPS YOU OUTside the Taj Intercontinental Hotel. The route takes us through miles of shantytown. Impromptu tent houses cover the pavements. Beggars wait at the traffic lights.
As the bus builds up speed along Chowpatty Beach the warni air of the Arabian Sea wafts through. The traffic is ordered and disciplined. People move briskly and with purrpose; The impressive colonial architecture almost makes it seem plausible.
Leopolds in the Colaba area of Bombay is a large resstaurant and bar with a number of doors open onto the street. Beggars, cripples and hustlers of all sorts hang about. They don't cross the threshold, but tables near the door are constantly under siege. Upstairs is a Permit Room where Indian Spirits can be purchased in the sornpany of beautiful young Indian women. Arab sheiks and iranians are fond of this place.
I was having a Bombay beer with a Belgian named Michel at a table near the door. A skinny teenage boy wearing a dirty white shirt and trousers curled his boney arms around the door. He offered hashish for sale. Michel was interested. I had planned to take a boat that afternoon from India Gate to Elephanta Island. The island and its caves had Surrvived for centuries. They could wait. I could get a look at some shady dealings in the backstreets of Bombay.
We took a thirty-minute bus ride to a very different part of town. Along the way our guide showed us a doctor's prescription proclaiming him a "heroin addict". He told us about brown sugar - heating heroin on silver paper and inhaling it.
We were in a Moslem ghetto with street after street full of grotty shops and stalls and traffic and pedestriansjockeyying their way through. Our guide slouched in and out of buildings through dark curtains arid finally emerged with a sample.
Michel was not impressed. He could locate its place of origin .: "Kashmiri, not the best quality." We pressed on. So much bustle in such squalid surroundings. A rickety old wooden mosque looked like it would fall on top of us.
A dapper young man approached us. "I got very good hashish," he insisted. Within seconds, through elaborate hand signals, hissing and clicking of fingers, one of his lackies produced a small polythene bag with a neatly cut piece of hashish inside. He flamboyantly broke the seal and confidently offered it for inspection. Michel was satisfied. He suggested that our guide should "make his business" With the dealer, but the dealer was having none of it. Finally, Michel "made business" with him, a few rupees. What a desperate existence I thought and Michel agreed. "But at least he's 'appy dis night," he said, "he has his brown sugar."
LET THE COOLIE TAKE MY BAG. to FIND A deck space on the Bornbay-Panjib ferry isn't easy. It's a twenty -four hour trip and the boat is hopelessly overcrowded. The last one on board is a sissy. Barefoot coolies in blue khaki uniforms get past the frantic passenngers with ease. They carry enormous trunks and even tar barrels on their backs.
From Panjib I took two short bus journeys to arrive at Calva Beach. It is traditional amongst travellers in India to go to Goa for Christmas. Colva is one of the quieter beaches. Less likely, I thought, to attract the mature hippy types. Mippies! Wearing dhotis and nose jewellery.
I found accommodation close to the beach. I established myself as a regular at the Lucky Star Restaurant. Vijoi, a tamil waiter from Madras, approved of my taste in posttcards. Images of Hindu Gods and Goddesses - Vishnu, Siva, Brahman and especially Ganesha with the elephant trunk nose. One evening an insufferable crowd of mippies made a scene about papadams. They felt they should be included with the meal. They always addressed the waiters as baba. "Papadams should be served with curry," said the mippy.-CurryrVijoTexplained thathe knew about Masalas and dahls and pouris and papadams since before they were out of their dhotis.
Kerela has the highest literacy rate in India. It is a narrow coastal state bounded by the Western Ghats on the east and the Arabian Sea on the west. It is very fertile. Irrigation is much more sophisticated here than elsewhere in India. The. state made history in 1957 by electing the first Communist Local Government in free elections anywhere. Indira Gandhi soon put paid to that and Rajiv delivered the coup de grace in last year's Lok Sabha.
I reserved a berth on the train from Trivandrum to Madurai. The trip involved changing trains and my name was duly posted on the appropriate carriage of the second train.
Indians are extremely efficient. Twelve million people travel by train every day. Seats reserved are just that. No Indian coffee shop would be complete without a clerk filling in forms. Any bank clerk worth his salt, and Indians know the value of salt, would have several carousels of rubber stamps on his desk. "Excuse me, could I change a travellers cheque?" "Oh yes sir I'd be delighted."
The city of Madurai is one great bazaar. A maze of streets around the enormous Shree Meenakshi Temple. There are four huge outer towers (Gopurams) and five inner ones. These are elaborately carved in tiers depicting scenes from Hindu mythology. Inside are bazaars, bathing ghats, counttless shrines and the hall of a thousand pillars. The temple is named after a lady who was born with three breasts. The third breast disappeared when she married Lord Shiva.
A FAMOUS TAMIL ACTRESS IS CAUSING A STIR at Madras airport. She sits just in front of me on the flight to Kuala Lumpur. Indians like their acttresses and their prime ministers plump. The men around me are like boys on a school outing. Lunch consists of a series of samosas followed by fruit chaat, chicken masala with dahl and "spicy lady's fingers". Knives and forks cause the men to giggle and look surreptitiously around to see what everyone else is doing with these strange implements.
These Indian travellers are most likely "making business" in Malaysia or Singapore. Silver is cheap in India, gold is cheap in Singapore. A few silk saris sold in Singapore will cover the flight expenses. A video costs 300 dollars in . Singapore and can be sold for 1 ,000 dollars back in India.
The city of Kuala LumpurIs-stunning. Gleaming new skyscrapers and moorish temples mix perfectly. It could hardly be more different from Madras. Wooden scaffolding -is used in the construction of tall buildings in India. Thin branches of trees are tied together to form the structure. Sometimes they work one floor at a time, jamming boughs between concrete floor and ceiling.
From Kuala Lumpur, a short planehop to Penang and the Chinese Wee Hing Hotel. My room had a huge fourrposter bed complete with mosquito net, fan and latticed windows overlooking a little courtyard. Georgetown is mostly Chinese. A collection of small streets with restaurants and stores, hundreds of motorcycles and trishaws pedalled by sleepy old Chinamen.
On the train to Bangkok I met a middle-aged German who was returning to Thailand. He had only left there beecause his three-month visa had expired. Now he was trying. to sneak back sooner than he should. At the border armed Thai guards noticed that his visa wasn't in order. They all moved to the quieter section of the train, between the carriages. Bribery must be conducted in private.
Bangkok is a grimy city. The air is full of sex and carbon monoxide. Nothing about this gigantic sprawling city is attractive. The serenity of the golden Buddhas is curiously at odds with the metropolis.
River transport is pleasant and the floating market is one of the official tourist attractions. The Grand Palace and the Golden Temple with its three thousand images of Buddha is sensational. At the National Gallery I came across a book entitled "The Paintings Of His Highness The King Of Thailand". That Yul Brynner, he sure can act!
Patpong Street glitters with flashing lights and sparkling teeth. Beautiful teenage girls entice visitors into the bars. The dancers wear revealing leotards and number tags. There are upright chrome bars which the girls wriggle around for erotic effect. Off-duty dancers chat up the customers and feed them drink.
"Where you fwom? Where you stay? Wha' hotel?" "You like buy me drink?" "You like me come you hotel?"
Payments are made not to the girls but to the bar. Some places offer more exotic entertainment. Older girls perform various tricks such as inserting ping-pong balls into their vaginas and popping them into a glass between their feet. There are tricks with bananas, with cigarettes and even with razor blades.
In the massage parlours the girls are presented with nummber tags attached to slinky evening dresses. They sit in a glass box. You can see them, but they can't see you. Heinz 57 Varieties! I made my excuses and left.
If Bangkok is the massage parlour of the East, Singapore is the supermarket. The city is an extension of the airport duty-free. Block after block of shopping centres and shoppping malls. Escalators and perambulators take shoppers across the busy streets from one complex to the next.
Raffles Hotel, even though it is dominated by high rise buildings, is something of a refuge from the jingling cash , registers of the city. Old, white and elegant, it is surrounded by "fan" palm trees and tropical gardens. I ordered a Singapore Sling, opened my Somerset Maugham and reelaxed into the eighteen-nineties.
PORT MORESBY, THE CAPITAL OF PAPUA New Guinea is a one-hour flight from Australia. From there I flew in an Air Niugini Fokker F28 to Madang on the northern coast. Tourist literature desscribes Madang as the "prettiest town of the Pacific". Next to the thriving market is an old German cemetery - malaria had wiped out the would-be colonisers. Hundreds of flying foxes (fruit bats) hang from the surrounding trees. Their shrieking is incessant. At dusk they take to the air. Their wing span is about a metre and they glide as if a black lace curtain were being drawn across the sky.
From Madang to Wewak - the gateway to the Sepik Èone of the world's great rivers. To get there I had to find a PMV (public motor vehicle) going the hundred or so kiloometres to the river post at Pagwi. Almost every vehicle in Papua New Guinea operates as a PMV. I soon found myself on the back of a Toyota truck with a man, a woman and a koki bird. The woman's face was tatooed and the cockatoo perched happily on her lap. She smiled all the time and so did Barth. He was very lively and he spoke good English. His teeth had the familiar red betel nut stains. According to custom in his village the men must have grown five good beards, covering their face and neck, before they can marry . Barth had a wispy beard.
I got off at Maprik. There is a particular style of Haus Tamberan in this area which I wanted to see. The Haus Tamberan is where the spirits of the ancestors reside. I walked for an hour along a narrow track. The jungle was incredibly dense and full of strange noises. Exotic butterrflies wafted by. I waded through two shallow warm rivers before meeting a man who took me to Kimbangoa village. The Haus Tamberan was further up the mountain. Excited children led the way and at last we reached a huge forwarddleaning building with three large mask faces painted on the front. Below them a row of carved figures and a tiny entrance at the bottom right hand corner. It came to a .point at the back and the roof was thatched with sago palm, leaves. Men only are allowed into the Haus Tamberan. It is used on ceremonial occasions such as the initiation of young boys.
THE SEPIK RNER IS MAGICAL. WHERE I MET it was 600 miles upriver and it was half a mile wide:
It flows with all the determination of lava from a volcano. For miles on either side there is only mud and swamp, The river has outlived the rocks which were its banks, and carries floating islands all the way to the sea:
Like its crocodiles it changes course as it pleases.
Ronga James had elaborate scarification marks on his . chest, back and arms. It is part of New Guinean mythology that men descended from crocodiles and the marks of ritual scarification resemble the scales of the crocodile. He agreed to take me about 100 miles downriver in his dug out canoe:
We stayed overnight in his village on an island in Chambri Lake, where I slept in the Haus Tamberan. Some men took: charge of erecting my mosquito net. A few old men were sitting and lying around on benches, while a dog suckled a litter of pups. Someone brought five cornered fruits and a coconut for the visitor. Later on I was given smoked fish and sago pancake.
Ronga explained to those who turned up to see the dim dim, who I was and where I was going. It's almost possible to follow the pidgin when you know the jist of the story. r showed slides of my paintings and the GPA catalogue. They loved it all. They didn't find it in the least bit strange.
The following morning we took a lighter, faster canoe, with Ronga's mother-in-law coming along as far as Kaminibit to sell betel nuts. We stopped at all the villages along the way. The dim dim wanted to see the carvings in the Sepik Haus Tamberans. While I was taking photographs and rootting around Ronga relaxed in the shade and caught up on the local news. Back in the dug out it was extremely hot. I dipped my cotton hat into the water and put it back on my head. It dried in minutes.
Kanganaman has one of the oldest and one of the most spectacular of the Sepik Haus Tamberans. It is a two-storey building and all the support pillars are carved with crocodile and bird motifs. It is full of statues, masks, garumut drums, penis gourds, cult hooks,jewellery , and musical instruments."
The number of mosquitoes was astounding, swatting them was an endless business. While I remained still just long enough to take a photograph, dozens of them lit on my hands andarms. They even bit through my light cotton trousers.
Mount Hagen in the highlands is cooler. The mountain range which divides Papua New Guinea in half is about 3,000 feet above sea "level. The only extensive road network in the country runs through this area.
I had met a German woman on the flight from Australia, who invited me to visit herself and her husband at Taluma, west of Mount Hagen in Enga province.
There was confusion about PMVs. Some were travelling, others were not. It seems that some bridges were down, but I went with the PMV which was giving it a try. The countryyside is really spectacular. Winding dirt roads, now very muddy, led across mountain ridges and into deep valleys.
Eventually we came to the damaged bridge. The previous night's rain had swollen the river and washed away its bank. It was gushing like a severed artery. It pumped fast and brown.
We settled down to wait. Vehicles came and went. Planks arrived, nuts and bolts too. Police were at hand. Women set up impromptu stalls. Local boys wearing arse grass (lap laps) brought sugar cane. A woman struggled for a time before finally getting her pig in to her bilum. Everything goes in to the bilum - fruit, vegetables, betel nuts, even babies. The women carry them from-the top of their head down along their backs.
Around Wapenamunda a tribal war was in progress. Two' inen had been'. killed the previous week. They were shot with arrows, with one having been chopped up with axes.'
It seems a local had returned from Port Moresby to visit his line (clan): He had some money and it was stolen. His line reckoned that another line was responsible - so they burneddown the other crowd's disco. The war had been raging for weeks now. One day we met a convoy of police trucks with confiscated spears sticking up from their fennders. Later on we saw warriors with arse grass, sports coats and bows and arrows emerging from the bush.
Pius; my guide around the Enga villages, found a yellow bush orchid with a powdery stem inside it. He drew it across his cheeks leaving a yellow line. Later a sort of white fungus by a stream provided a paste which he applied in a roughly symmetrical pattern. Bilas is the pidgin word for beautifiication and decoration. The highlanders have no tradition of carving so they produce little or no artefacts, but they decora te themselves profusely. On ceremonial occasions they paint their faces and bodies, and wear jewellery and wigs. And they make fantastic head-dresses from bird of paradise and cassowary feathers, cous-cous fur and leaves. It is commonplace in the highlands to see people's faces painnted or flowers or grass in their hair.
As we walked through the Enga villages Pius kept adding to the bilas. The villagers were eager to be photographed. Too eager. I was more interested in photographing Pius, who by now was beginning to look like a Christmas tree.
PAPUA NEW GUINEA WAS MY DESTINATION but it wasn't the end of. the journey. I left "the last unknown" to return to, the all too familiar. I still had to cross the Pacific, the continent of America and the Atlantic. I: did it quickly. Computers confirmed the onward connections and every single flight arrived on scheed ule. In five months I had taken seven long train journeys, several boat, bus and taxi jaunts, and twenty-five plane trips, to arrive back where I started.
"What would you do with the award money if you got it?" I'd go around the world again. •