This blog post has proved difficult to write (this being my 6th attempt)! I want to be objective and unbiased when comparing two separate countries especially cultures, but alas I am not. So, instead of trying to force a list of differences and similarities, I am going to recount a few memories that captured my experience of the two, very different places and maybe a little more…
I was only really in Battambang, Cambodia for a week in July 2016. Most of my time was spent with both family and strangers, some of which became friends. My strongest memory is walking into one of the rooms in local trauma hospital, with over 20 injured children and women cramped (it was actually much better than a lot of places I am sure) and laying eyes on all that pain and hurt that my small hands couldn’t fix and my small mind could only just handle. I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t know the culture and I felt so guilty. I have so much and here I stood, with nothing but my small hands and weak smile to offer. So I spent my time, trying to play games and smile, and comfort people. I played ‘Connect 4’ for quite some time with a young girl named Chea. -I will quickly confess that I can be extremely competitive- So here I was playing a simple game that changed the way I experienced the world. I could see how she understood the objective, but rationalised that there was space a plenty for us both to connect four of our different coloured chips. Chea didn’t want to stop me, she wanted to create patterns, art, in the midst of the blood and bruises a beautiful pattern of red and blue connected chips swirled on our vertical playing board. It wasn’t a race, it was a dance between us, a work of virtuosity that we all could benefit from. This was beauty. She was covered in scars from a motor accident but all I could see was that prevailing beauty. She was next to a young girl who wouldn’t speak, from the shame she carried about being sexually abused. This whole place changed my heart. I sit in memory, eyes welling and full of guilt for turning my back and walking away. But I will always treasure the way Chea taught me a lesson in harmony, kindness and love in the midst of pain and suffering.
Another strong memory was working with a group of girls about how to be strong women, particularly in regards to faith. It was a lot of fun! I was told that these girls were orphans, which didn’t always mean that they had no parents. It could mean that their parents had given up on them or they had run away. These girls saw my pale skin, light hair and blue eyes and called me beautiful; despite being slightly overweight and not particularly beautiful. They were raised with the perception that those features makes a person beautiful. Many times I heard mothers telling their kids that I was beautiful, and when I looked I would see stunning and mesmerising women looking up at me. The child in their arms saw me as superior, even when they and their mothers were far more beautiful both outwardly and inwardly. These orphan girls were full of so much humour and laughter that I almost forgot how hard their lives were (or maybe still are). And it didn’t take long for me to feel that, no matter how hard I tried, they would never let me see their pain. I don’t know if that is something they hide from the entire world, just foreigners or themselves as well…but it was something that made it hard to connect on a deeper level.
PAPUA NEW GUINEA:
My first memory and experience I want to share is less about the culture and more about the environment. On one of my days in Divini we took a dingy (small metal boat) out to Keleton Island, just off the coastline. It was awesome to pack maybe 15 people into this small boat and speed along the top of the sea, salty water and air teasing our hair. Once at the island some of the men took the boat out to spend the day fishing, leaving the women, children, my father and me on an island full of shells, coconuts, palm trees and wildlife. This was the first time I got to go snorkeling on a reef,and boy did I take to it like a…well…fish to water! I spent a solid 3 hours swimming in the most life filled, colourful reef I have ever seen! There was so much variety in the sea life, and down past the drop off, in the murky waters some REALLY large fish could be seen swimming around which was awesome to see! I am a little scared of sharks so I was very hesitant to go near these areas, but so glad I could see that well in this water! We spent the day eating fish we had caught and cooked bananas. Could I ask for a better day?! I got to see how incredible these kids were at swimming, hunting and canoeing! I got the chance to see a nearly untouched reef in action! But my father told me about how much it had changed in just 30 years. The reef was smaller, less fish, less healthy. Without the pollution that so many reefs face, and without the dramatic over fishing, it is still be affected. The demands the local fishers face, combined with ‘dim dims’ (white/foreign people) wanting the beautiful and rare fish and creatures has been affecting the wildlife at such a dramatic rate. Even the sea levels are rising at rate that can be seen easily over the last 20-30 years. I had an incredible experience but learnt just how badly PNG is being affected environmentally.
When in PNG I made the decision to wear a white shirt, and this was probably a mistake. Although it isn’t stained it made a lot of work for my Aunty which I still feel guilty about. Whilst there my Aunty did a lot of my washing despite my protesting, and after our day on the island my white shirt fell into her hands to be washed. Three days later and I hadn’t seen it. I assumed it was ripped or lost and didn’t particularly mind as it was just a shirt. However quite unexpectedly my Aunty told me a story about a school that she worked at and a teacher there who always wore white pants. One day she feel in the mud and this poor lady had no idea how to remove the stain and was struggling and struggling to scrub away the mud. My Aunty then proceeded to explain that she took the pants and cleaned them for her and laughed about it. The next morning my shirt appeared white as ever and cleaned. My father explained that the story was her way of telling me that she had bleached my shirt. Papua New Guineans are so polite, they never want to inconvenience you and they won’t ever say that they have done something for you, but they will find a way to let you know! Even if it is a bit hard to interpret sometimes!
There are just a few memories that show a little bit about the lands!
But here are a few other comparisons that are probably more related to travel and more helpful!
The climate is similar although I think being near the oceans in PNG made me feel much cooler and I also swam a lot so that helped my body temperature feel much lower than whilst in Cambodia. Battambang is inland so the breeze was much thicker and came down from the mountains instead.
Fashion was both similar and different as the typical cheap sporting clothes were worn in both countries by a large proportion of the poor. In PNG however, I saw a lot more traditional clothing being worn and advertised. I also saw some politicians in PNG who were very well dressed and assume this would be the same in Cambodia but cannot confirm it.
Food in Cambodia was much more confrontational. There were a lot of insects, frogs, meat and sweet deserts being sold and this made it feel very different to my Australian upbringing, which I loved. In Papua New Guinea on the other hand I ate a lot of locally farmed veggies and meats, and staples that reminded me so much of either sailor or war rations.
The influence of Christian missionaries is much stronger in Papua New Guinea than in Cambodia, so if traveling to PNG be prepared for a very strong religious background. Although I did spend a lot of time with christian missionaries in Cambodia, I felt that christianity was not as prominent.
And lastly, the cost. The cost of travel is similar in the countries, but more expensive in PNG. Not by a lot, but do expect your budget to take a bigger hit whilst in Papua New Guinea. That being said, if you play it right and find locals who will take you in (but be willing to compensate for their generosity!!) you may find it quite cheap!
AND there you have it! Two very different cultures and very different countries more or less compared! I loved traveling through them both and am sure if done right all fellow travelers would too!
Johanna – Wakilele