The opening narrative of “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” by Jared Diamond depicts a man named Yali from New Guinea asking the question, “Why is that you white people developed much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?” I was 34 when I first read this book, and the question Yali posed made me smile.
When we moved to Papua New Guinea from the United States, we were afforded by the mission a certain sized crate to ship belongings over. We were warned that at best, the shipment would arrive 3 months after our arrival by plane, thus we were encouraged to bring as much as the airlines would allow with us on the journey, knowing it needed to last us that whole time. My folks had two small children in tow: so our suitcases contained not only clothes and towels and toiletries, but toys as well. At that time, the airlines would allow one carry on bag, and two checked bags free of charge.
Our flight left St. Louis, with a layover in Los Angeles, and another in Honolulu. My parents scheduled us a few days in Hawaii as a means of adjusting to the time change, climate and temperature change, etc. When we arrived in Honolulu, and attempted to hail a cab to take us to our hotel, we realized this could be quite a production. We’d need a van or a large station wagon to carry us as we had so much ‘cargo’ along for the trip.
When my father finally flagged down a large station wagon cab, we crowded to the curb with all our luggage. The driver opened the back of the wagon, then rounded the car to the curb we were waiting on. He eyeballed our bags-all twelve of them-with obvious amusement and skepticism. “Just how long are you visiting Hawaii?” he asked. Mom’s response was quick “Three days.” He stood there gapping, then shaking his head laughing, loaded the car. When we arrived at the hotel, mom quietly asked dad why the cabby acted so strangely. Dad explained, “He thought we each had 3 suitcases for our visit to Hawaii. That’s one suitcase a day for each of us.”
Little did we know that this interpretation of our baggage would serve as a metaphor for our whole tenure in New Guinea.