Me, about to board a flight from Port Moresby to Singapore (May 9, 1990)
When you take a picture and then look at it the following week, it’s a straightforward action: you are looking at a recognizable person or place, an event still fresh.
But tuck the picture away a while and then pull it out again, you will not only be looking at a person or place, you will be looking at time.
It can be a little hard to make sense of. The picture has transformed, and it’s not just that the chemical dyes have broken down and the colors faded. You stare at it, eyes squinting, trying to figure out how the trick was done.
It’s not the first time my mind has felt tripped up in an effort to understand something — in this case the passage of 30 years. Here are the last two lines of my journal, written at the end of the day on which this picture was taken, May 9, 1990: “It sure is different and hard to believe that we are gone from PNG. I really don’t know what to think about it all.”
Sometimes when people learn that I lived most of my teenage years in Papua New Guinea, they’ll respond with some version of, “Ah, so you were traveling a lot even when you were a kid.”
My answer to that is yes and no, with the emphasis on no. I moved to Papua New Guinea when I was 12 and didn’t leave the country, at all, until I was three weeks shy of 17. It’s true that I had traveled to the far side of the world. But I wasn’t globetrotting once there. Instead, I was living in a small town, where I learned the language, got to feel at home, put down significant roots.
What I knew of the wider world didn’t come through travel but through Voice of America shortwave radio broadcasts, Time magazines that were a couple weeks old, the occasional visitor from the outside world.
I was in PNG long enough for mom to cut my hair 38 times. (For some reason, a way to mark time I suppose, I kept count in my journal.) But after four and a half years, the day came to leave. It was a big event on many levels. The weeks leading up to May 9 were a series of goodbyes, of roots being pulled out of the earth, of pain. From my journal on May 7: “I’m getting depressed, but would be in tears probably if I wasn’t so busy.”
To be almost 17 and depart a country that has come to feel like home, and to go to a country that is your home but doesn’t feel like it anymore, is a significant life event. In the picture above, I’m a grasshopper about to shoot out of the grass (because time is rustling the grass and I need to move on), fly high into air (35,000 feet), and land who knows where (Singapore was our next destination, but you know what I mean).
In other words: I’m seconds away from the end of a chapter of life.
Of course, the stream of difficult emotion was coupled with another stream, which would be more fully felt once on the plane: anticipation. There were things to dream and look forward to, a huge world beyond this Melanesian nation I had come to love. There were people to say hello to, not just goodbye to. From my journal:
We boarded our plane at 3pm and left at 3:37pm. It is a nice jet — A310-300 airbus. Saw Borneo on the way. Got into Singapore around 9:30pm PNG time (7:30 SIN time). Took a taxi to the YMCA. Me and Tiff have a room separate from Mom and Dad with TV, air con, and carpet! — The Modern World again. The women here are very beautiful. After 4 1/2 years in PNG, it’ll take a while to get use to mini skirts and great looks!
That last line is a little embarrassing. A good time to remind the reader, not least myself, that I was 16 and had indeed been living in a very small town in a remote corner of the world.
After several days in Singapore and one week after leaving Papua New Guinea, we stopped in Cairo, where I was still in flip flops and my shorts were still too short. From here we would go to Amsterdam and begin a ten-week camper van trip around Europe. In August we would arrive in the U.S. (May 16, 1990)
A SONG I LOVE
All these years later, I’m older of course, and since that flight out of Papua New Guinea there have been other significant life events, and more will come. Some deeply painful, some full of joy. Among the joys: returning to PNG for visits in 1992, 2002, 2017, and 2019.
There’s one song that often brings to mind May 1990, and by now is intermingled with memories of other notable departures too. It’s John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”
But the dawn is breakin’
It’s early morn
The taxi’s waitin’
He’s blowin’ his horn
Already I’m so lonesome
I could die
So kiss me and smile for me
Tell me that you’ll wait for me
Hold me like you’ll never let me go
‘Cause I’m leavin’ on a jet plane
Don’t know when I’ll be back again
Oh babe, I hate to go
When you leave a place you love, you hope it will remember you, and that it will show up to say goodbye to you, too. Not least because it’ll help later, in those times when you’re so lonesome you could die, or at least so lonesome you ache terribly.
Visiting my friend Sopam, in 1992 and 2019. I even wore the same shirt. Seriously.
A NOTE ABOUT THE PLANE’S FINAL RESTING PLACE
Out of curiosity, using the registration number of the aircraft my family flew that day in 1990 (P2-ANA), I looked up what it has been doing over the years. Fed-Ex purchased it in December 2004 and flew it for more than a decade to transport cargo. In January 2018, the well-traveled vessel joined the graveyard of planes at Victorville Airport in San Bernardino County, California.
Funny, how both it and I once called PNG home, and now here we are in the United States.