Sunday, June 16, 2013
My Life in A Box
Of course, now that I am in Papua New Guinea, I should probably stop calling it “my stuff” and start calling it “my cargo” in deference to the “cargo cults” that exist in the highlands of this country. During World War II, this island, along with most in the South Pacific, was used by the Allies as a staging ground for all of those epic air and sea battles against the Japanese. As a result, the indigenous people of Papua New Guinea were exposed to modern technology, many for the first time. They saw vast quantities of war supplies arriving daily by airplanes, which to them clearly demonstrated the magical, supernatural powers of these foreign people. But they also assumed that these strangers were stealing the cargo that the ancestral gods must have meant for the New Guineans! So, in a cross between the stranded children of Mad MaxBeyond Thunderdome and the Kalahari Bushmen of The Gods Must Be Crazy, the natives dropped their work, and with near-religious fervor, created mock airplanes out of reeds, makeshift landing strips, imaginary offices and loading docks in the jungle, and waited patiently, praying for the proverbial manna from heaven to be delivered to their doorsteps.
I, too, am waiting for my cargo to magically appear, and while I know more than the cargo cult followers about the origins of my goods, I am just as perplexed at how and why we managed to accumulate so much of it. On a macro level, this question was at heart of Jared Diamond’s book Guns Germs and Steel where he hypothesized how certain civilizations managed to get a jump start on all the other tribes of the world and thereby become the “haves” rather than the “have-nots”. The genesis of his book came from a question posed to Diamond by a native New Guinean who asked why white men had so much “cargo” and New Guineans had so little. Unfortunately, while Diamond’s subsequent theories on geographic luck, development of steel technology and the spread of deadly small pox by Westerners go a long way to explain economic disparity, they do little in alleviating it, leaving many New Guineans with the nut of the question unopened.
The cargo cults that developed during the war to try to tap into the seemingly endless Western bounty still exist today, at least in some parts of PNG. Some believe that it was this underlying belief in magic as a factor in the distribution of wealth that led to a recent case of a well-off tribal woman being beheaded by her neighbors. They believed she practiced witchcraft—and why wouldn’t they? How else would she be able to afford schooling for her children and a house with permanent walls?
My own cargo accumulation process is much less magical, although it does include numerous deliveries from my husband’s and my ancestors. With each of our international moves, I have tried to be a little more brutal in culling out unwanted/unneeded junk and paring down to just the basic essentials-- which is easier said than done. I won’t know how well we managed to do that until the boxes arrive. The uncertainty of what we are actually going to get is compounded by the fact that the shipment due to show up here in PNG by early August was, for the most part, packed away in June 2010 in Costa Rica! Further complicating matters, we had everything staged out of our DC storage unit which comingled the Costa Rican shipment with items that have been in storage since we moved to Peru in 2003! We didn’t open most boxes before deciding whether to send them onward to PNG or back to Dante’s ring of hell reserved for hoarders, so I am not sure of what is on its way and what we may have misdirected. But I am certain that it will be way too much cargo, and, like the coke bottle dropped from the sky onto the Kalahari plain, I will be looking for a way to get rid of some of it. I suspect there are many people here who would see my excess cargo as a gift from the gods… but hopefully not many who would attribute it to the mark of a witch.