Generally when you ask a 16-year-old girl what she wants to do for her holidays and birthday, she wont say “ the Kokoda trek”. And there's a fairly decent reason behind that! I don't think I have been more exhausted or sweaty in my life, but I wouldn't trade my birthday experience for any crazy party or shopping spree, ever.
I had never been out of Australia before, and seldom travelled without my family. I didn't know anyone with me, and I was about to embark on one of the most challenging Treks in the world. What on earth was I thinking? To be honest it was all a little too surreal for me to comprehend what was going to happen as I set off on this adventure.
We were completely caged in, protected from whatever assumed danger lay behind the wire fences. Two young boys sat on the other side, silently gazing in at us, their eyes so bright and white in contrast with their dark skin, eagerly searching for answers. They were wearing nothing but pants and faded t-shirts, while I was kitted out in the best trekking gear. Their tiny, calloused, scabbed hands gripped the wire mesh separating our parallel universes, and for some reason I was instantly drawn to them; their innocence and curiosity was impossible to resist. I walked over slowly, and sat directly in front of them, slowly placing my hand up to the wire. At first they were really hesitant, but after a few seconds of careful deconstruction my facial expression, both boys placed their hands up against mine and smiled bigger than I have at any birthday present.
They are our closest neighbours, yet I knew nothing about their culture, their people, or their living standards until I set foot on their land. And boy did it hit me fast. When walked out onto the streets that afternoon, I quickly noticed they were lined with litter and muck, and above us on the ridges, fires and smoke littered the almost-peaceful scenery. The sidewalks were painted with discarded Buat. To foreigners like us, the rich red spit stains could easily be mistaken for blood. All this chaotic mess co-exists with the people and their lifestyle, they didn’t expect anything else. This is their ‘normal’.
An overactive imagination in this town can quickly take you from a casual meander in the park to some crazy scene from a horror movie - that is, until you interact with the locals. The children are on swing sets and the teenagers playing rugby, and although you can’t speak their language, it's amazing the connection you can make, and how happy you can make someone with simple gestures, or by a piece of string or pair of shorts. The joy and gratitude encapsulates everything around them as a bright smile spreads across their face. I saw this all throughout Papua New Guinea over the next three weeks, and because of it came to have a whole new appreciation of life, and an understanding of the world around me.
By Sallie Geary, 18