Initially, we thought it was a very good idea. We would hike the third highest mountain in the country, and we would arrange the hike without any adult missionary involvement – just us three high school seniors. Having at that point quite a bit of experience with hiking in our adopted Melanesian country – and the money drama with the locals that always seemed to ensue – we decided we would plan a hike that would be fun, challenging, and culturally appropriate. The absence of an adult Western missionary would save us the trouble of landowners and villagers seeing us as potential cash cows – or so we thought.
Kosta, a local and a native of this particular area, would serve as our hike consultant and guide on the way. Kosta always had a bit of a sketchy demeanor about him, but my mom had had several good years of partnering with him in helping to sell his traditional woven baskets to Westerners, and by and large he had proven himself trustworthy. His crew of basket weavers and sellers even kept an eye out for my mom’s safety whenever she would go into the nearby crime-ridden town. Kosta’s tribal area had a mixed reputation. It was known for its tribal warfare and for the elderly who had died in recent decades with strange smiles frozen on their faces – an unfortunate result of having eaten human brains at cannibalistic feasts when they were children. But the area was also known for its rich natural beauty, including its 12,000 foot mountain.
My companions on this hike would be my close friends and classmates, Caleb* and Will*. These two had proven to be eager participants on many misadventures and were also like spiritual brothers to me, always ready to enter into serious spiritual conversation just as they were always ready for a good laugh. Caleb had grown up on the missionary base where the MK school was, where I had also lived since fifth grade. Will was a dorm kid, whose parents still lived out in a remote tribal area. He had moved into the dorms on the compound in high school and would go back and rejoin his family four times a year during the school breaks. He was also from rural Canada, and this combination of hardy backgrounds resulted in an unusual mixture. Will could tell you how to hunt crocodiles in the lowlands by thrusting your foot through the wet mud above a den in order to feel around with your foot for if the creature was in there (apparently the den is too narrow for the croc to open its jaws and bite off your foot). Will also liked to hike in a pair of bright red onesie long-johns, the old-fashioned kind designed for the winter so that it had a butt flap that unbuttoned. He wore a pair of faded jeans over the bottom of this outfit as well as hiking boots, but let the top of the red long johns function as his shirt. Will was the fastest hiker among the three of us and we would often see his bright red long-john top making its way up the next rise just as we reached the top of the previous ridge. His cool head and natural sense of direction meant he was good at scouting out the way.
We had agreed beforehand with Kosta regarding the price we would pay for his service as a guide – and that we would pay for one guide for each of the three villages. We had also received his confirmation that since his villages and clan were landowners of the mountain, we would not be accosted for extra landowner fees along the hike, a dilemma we had regular faced as random men would appear out the jungle claiming to be “papas of the ground” who deserved their compensation for our hiking privileges. As Westerners, this kind of opportunism drove us crazy, though looking back we also could have done a better job of understanding the cross-cultural misunderstandings going on over something as simple as a hike up a ridge. In the West, hiking is often considered a right of sorts. I’ve even read that in the UK the right to hike across others’ open land is enshrined in law. But I’m certain that Melanesian culture meant that legitimate honor/shame concerns were also mixed with simple greed when it came to this issue of paying to pass a certain portion of jungle trail.
However, we were not cash-laden tourists. We weren’t even adult missionaries. We were seventeen-year-old missionary kids from an hour down the road. We spoke the trade language and our guide was a local whose clan owned the mountain. Surely this time we would sidestep all that frustrating money stuff.
The day of the hike arrived and our party of four caught a ride out to Kosta’s village. After a half hour down the only paved road in the highlands we turned off onto a dirt road and wound our way another forty five minutes or so into the mountains. It was still mid-morning when we arrived and spirits were high. We were greeted by many residents of Kosta’s village, not an unusual development, but the greetings in the trade language soon turned into lively discussion in the tribal tongue – a discussion that lasted a very long time. My MK friends and I became impatient, eager to get on the trail. When the discussion was finally over, I asked Kosta what it was all about.
“We will have eleven men from our three villages come with us as guides,” said Kosta.
“Eleven!” I protested. “We agreed on paying three men from the three respective villages here, plus you.”
Kosta diverted his gaze and shifted his weight uncomfortably.
“We didn’t bring any extra money with us. So if there are twelve of you, you will all split the same amount and each get less. You need to tell them that,” I insisted.
“I will, don’t worry,” said Kosta. And he proceeded to say something to the group in the tribal language. There was some sort of heated discussion that followed, and then some kind of agreement.
I noticed with concern as we finally made our way to the trail that seven local men were still with us, including Kosta. I shook my head, hoping that this would be the last of this sort of surprise we’d have to face.
It was now almost noon and the bright highlands sun had long since melted away the cool morning fog. It beat down on our heads as we made our way up a very difficult ridge. A couple hours later we reached the crest, sweaty and glad that we had seemingly made some progress. But our hearts sank as we looked across a broad valley and saw the mountain we were aiming for, on the far side of the valley, climbing steeply into the clouds. The broad valley in front of us was dotted with villages and gardens – and a road wound around the ridge we were on, arriving at the foot of the mountain.
“Um… Kosta,” I began. “Is that the mountain?”
He nodded an affirmative.
“Isn’t that a road we could have driven to get a lot closer to it?”
He nodded again.
“Are those your clan’s villages then?”
Here he shook his head. I looked at him in confusion.
“Those villages are the ones that have the primary claim of ownership over the mountain. Our villages only have a secondary claim. We didn’t want to split any of the guide money with them, so we decided to climb this ridge and sneak through their gardens. That way we’ll get to keep the guide money. Don’t worry! They’ll never see us.”
My friends and I looked at one another in alarm. Why hadn’t Kosta shared this crucial info with us beforehand? Our well-laid plans were clearly falling through. We were now unwitting participants in petty – and perhaps dangerous – tribal intrigues. And we had just climbed a different mountain unnecessarily, purely to enable Kosta’s and his kinfolks’ sneakery. Our attempts at a protest were too little, too late. The only choice was to continue, to pray, and to hope for the best. Still, the view of the mountain from here was at least a pretty one.
“Quick! Kosta said, “We can’t stand here and gawk. The other clan will see us. Follow us quietly! No talking.”
And with that we began our ill-advised attempt to sneak through the patchwork of coffee, banana, and sweet potato gardens that filled the valley to the left of the villages.
We made it most of the way across the valley before we suddenly came upon a woman in her garden. She eyed us suspiciously and started a series of aggressive sounding challenges in the tribal language. The men with us brushed her off, hurled some tribal speech back at her, and moved along.
“It’s only a woman,” they said to us.
“But won’t she tell the rest of the village about us?” we asked.
“Of course! But by that time we’ll be on our way. Let’s go!”
We made it to the initial ascent of the mountain without any further run-ins. Finally, we would begin the real ascent. By now it was mid-afternoon and as so often happens in that part of the world, the afternoon rain started. This made a steep ascent even trickier, as the packed clay trail turned slick and our clothes got soaked through. At this point, the three of us friends were fighting to stay optimistic about the whole thing. Still, it was not the best start to a hike that we hoped would be simple and fun.
Halfway up the mountain we decided to stop for the night. The late afternoon was fading fast and we had come upon a rock overhang that would provide some protection from the rain. A group of the local men with us scattered into the surrounding jungle and brought back firewood and kindling. It wasn’t long before they had a good fire going – quite the feat of jungle-craft considering how wet everything was.
We ate some supper, the rain tapered off, and everyone seemed to feel better. One of the local men, whom we dubbed “Moe the pirate” due to his beany cap, machete, and sharp features, took us on a short walk to a nearby spur of the mountain. The view was stunning, even in the twilight darkness. The moon and the mist played beautifully off one another as we stared off the alarmingly steep cliffs that ran around the spur, wondering just how far of a drop it might be.
There were times growing up in Melanesia when I was almost able to step outside of myself and look down with a third-person perspective, struck with gratitude or wonder by what a strange or beautiful setting I found myself in. I remember this being one of those moments. Will, Caleb, and I took some night photos together and the group wound our way back to the campsite. I don’t recall much about that night, and we must have slept soundly.
I awoke to the sound of a tribal call, echoing up the sides of the mountain. The highland locals have a particular way of yelling from one mountain top to another, leveraging the echoes and the space to send and receive message across remarkably far distances – a kind of Melanesian yodeling of sorts. Kosta was standing nearby, one foot perched on a rock. He was leaning in and listening hard.
“Kosta,” I said, “What are they saying.”
“They are saying that a group of rich European tourists have trespassed on their mountain… and that they are sending a war party after us.”
Kosta’s voice was surprisingly steady as he told me this.
“A what? A war party? What should we do?”
“Don’t worry,” Kosta said, “We’ve got plenty of time. We’ll reach the summit, then on the way down we’ll come to a place where the trail forks. We’ll take that fork off in a different direction though the jungle, and that will take us to the main road.”
“You sure that will work?” I asked.
“Don’t worry!” Kosta reassured me. “Everything will be fine.”
By now I was coming to have significant doubts about Kosta’s judgement, and his body language was betraying some uncertainty even on his part. But as with the previous day, there wasn’t much we could do other than press on, pray, and hope for the best.
Breakfast on a mountainside is never quite as good as dinner, but we made the best of it, brewing some tea mixed with milk powder and local sugar cane sugar. Before long we were on our way, greeted by a gorgeous morning.
This was the best part of the hike. The jungle around us was now breaking up and becoming patchy grassland. The sun was warm but not too hot. Our progress was obvious as we would mount one spur, look at the amazing view behind us, then descend in order to make our way up the next ascent. Caleb and I fell into good conversation as we walked, chuckling at Will’s red long-johns always one hill ahead of us, guiding the way.
We met several locals on their way down the mountain, having ascended from the other side. Though small in stature, these Melanesian highlanders were all remarkably tough. The women carried huge loads of firewood or garden produce on their backs, often hefting these burdens with the help of a large woven string bag, held to their body by its thick strap which lay across their foreheads. Most carried machetes as a practical tool for traveling jungle paths and doing garden work. All were barefoot. Decades of traversing trails had leathered and broadened their feet until they almost resembled those of hobbits – except that they weren’t very furry. These feet were so tough that local soccer teams would play barefoot and seriously bruise us with them even when they collided with our cleats and shin guards.
At last, around lunchtime, we reached the summit. The view was stunning. Those who have hiked mountains before know the endorphin rush that comes when you finally reach the top – and how much more delicious chocolate tastes at the summit of a mountain. We broke out some chocolate bars in celebration and the three of us friends began taking the sort of posing photos typical of high school boys feeling triumphant. I also snapped a classic shot of Moe the Pirate, smiling mischievously with a backdrop of distant peaks and clouds far below him.
It wasn’t long, however, until we noticed that Kosta and the rest of the guides seemed agitated, discussing something among themselves. Kosta soon made his way over to us where we were seated on the pile of rocks that made up the summit proper.
“I’ve spoken with the other guides, and we’d like you to pay us now, not later as we talked about before.”
I frowned. “Kosta, why do you guys keep changing the plan on us? Didn’t we agree on everything beforehand so that there would be fewer problems? Look at the mess you have gotten us in.”
“Also,” continued Kosta, “The boys didn’t bring enough food with them. They want some of your chocolate.”
We looked over at the crowd of guides who glanced our way hopefully. Sighing, we handed Kosta the guide money and the chocolate.
“This is all we have, other than money for some sweet potato lunch on the way home. I guess you’ll have to divide it seven ways.”
Kosta delivered the chocolate and the small amount of cash to the rest of the guys, who seemed somewhat disappointed. But the chocolate and the straightforwardness of the situation seemed to cheer them up. Now they were sure we really didn’t have any other money, so in one sense they didn’t have to worry about that anymore. I wandered over and did my best to offer them a sincere thanks for their help, and refrained from complaining about the sneakery and its likely consequences, and this seemed to go a long way.
We were a happy bunch as we began the descent. The guides kept assuring us that we’d make the needed turnoff in plenty of time to avoid the war party, and that combined with the beauty of the day and the joy of having achieved our goal kept us in good spirits.
Once again, Will managed to break out in front of the rest of the group. For about an hour and a half we continued like this. Suddenly we realized that for a while we hadn’t seen the red long-johns reappearing on the distant trail below us. As we reentered the thicker tree cover, we soon found the reason why.
Will stood at the junction of the trails, pale-faced and wide-eyed, staring at the war party’s advanced scout, a livid and screaming man with a bow and arrow, sporting blood-red teeth from chewing beetlenut, and a wild head of hair.
We were too late. We had been intercepted at the very junction where we’d hoped to make our escape.
“You!” He yelled at us. “You have committed a great crime! I have come to tell you to come down to the river where we will hold court. The rest of the war party is on the way to take you.”
At this point Caleb, Will, and myself started to get quite worried. Our group of guides started conversing with the wild scout excitedly in the tribal language. Ten minutes passed and the scout calmed down more and more. Kosta kept motioning to the escape trail as he talked and it looked the scout was seriously considering letting us go.
Then the rest of the war party arrived. It was about a dozen men, well-armed with machetes and bows and arrows, all just as livid as the wild scout had originally been. Some had wrapped jungle foliage around their heads as part of their combat attire. As they repeated the same angry demands, Kosta and our guides quickly became submissive and sheepish and motioned for us to forget any thoughts of escape and to do as we were told.
We made our way down to the river a much larger and much more sober party. Caleb came up next to me, whispering.
“I’m worried about what we should say in our defense. If they know we grew up here they might get even angrier with us, since that would mean we’d know the culture. Maybe we should just say we’re tourists so that we can plead ignorance?”
“I don’t know,” I said as I shook my head. “That wouldn’t be true, and it might be that claiming to be tourists would make things more dangerous.”
Caleb sighed nervously.
“We’ll just have to pray and tell the truth,” I continued, “After all, we did try to do right by everyone in this situation, so at least we have that.”
As we descended the final slope we offered up some desperate prayers on our way to the riverside court hearing.
Having arrived at the riverside, the “court” was arranged. The war party stood facing us, brandishing their weapons, with the river on their right. The three of us MKs stood facing them. Behind us and to our right, Kosta and his kinsmen stood huddled sheepishly at the edge of the trees.
The wild scout was appointed spokesman for the war party, which would presumably act as prosecution, judge, and jury.
“You have committed a great and shameful crime!” The scout-spokesman began. “You have come here and climbed our ancestors’ mountain deceitfully, trying to rob us of our rightful guide money. We own this land and you have violated our culture by trying to sneak around us. You are rich, European tourists! And we know that means! Whenever tourists come to climb our mountain they pay us our rightful share.”
Now the scout-spokesman transitioned to the agreed upon sentencing.
“Because you have done this, we have decided that we deserve compensation. So, we will take your money, your cameras, and your clothes!”
I was a bit taken aback by the final part of their demand. Our clothes? I looked at Will and at his bright red long-johns. What in all creation would the local villagers make of such an unusual garment? Would its buttoned butt-flap make it the prized possession of the village, presented to the chief, to be worn by him proudly as the only one like it in perhaps the entire country? I couldn’t help but crack a smile at this image.
A contingency plan was also quickly forming in my mind. If this war party didn’t listen to our defense and proceeded with their verdict, they might actually put us in a very powerful position. No one in these villages had likely ever seen three naked white boys – that would be shocking in and of itself. But missionaries were also held in high esteem in this culture. Missionaries who had died while serving the people of this land were even more highly revered. And my father was buried just an hour and a half up the the road. If we had to, we could march into the village, naked (or wearing banana leaves), calling down a world of shame on the this war party who had disgraced themselves by presumptuously robbing and shaming missionary kids – even those who had lost parents for the sake of these very people. Honor/shame cultures can, in a pinch, be flipped on their head in this way. It all comes down to who has been the more unjustly shamed and can get the crowd on their side. The rest of the villagers might even demand they beat up the war party for the sake of our honor.
It was now our chance to speak. I glanced at Kosta and our guides. They were going to keep their mouths shut, hoping to hold onto the pay they had already received. No help was coming from those guys. I looked at Caleb and Will, and their eyes told me they wanted me to make the defense. Each of us were feeling shaky with fear, and Caleb looked quite pale. I took a deep breath, sent up another desperate prayer, and started speaking in the local language.
“Respected men of this area. You say that we are rich European tourists who have robbed you of your rightful guide money. If this were true, then your anger would be just. But I am sorry, we are not rich, we are not European, and we are not tourists!”
Here a murmur went up among the war party and they exchanged glances.
“No, we are not these things. We are simple children of missionaries who have grown up and live an hour and a half from here. Our parents sacrificed greatly to come to this country to serve your people. For years we have heard of your beautiful mountain. We have desired to come and see it with our own eyes and now we have. It is even more beautiful than we had heard. You have an amazing land.”
Noises of approval and nods came from the war party.
“We came, we climbed your mountain, and we plan to tell all our friends what an amazing place this is. However, you must know, we agreed with these gentlemen (and here I motioned to Kosta and co.) to hire one guide from each village that had a claim to the mountain. When we arrived, they did not allow this to happen. But we three are innocent in this situation. Please let us keep our clothes and our cameras. The only money we have is for some sweet potato for lunch. If you would accept our apology for all of this, we would be very thankful and we will give a good report about you to others where we live. That is all I have to say.”
Kosta and the other guides were looking very uncomfortable at this point, and a lively exchange followed in the tribal language. Finally, an agreement was reached.
“We have agreed,” said the scout-spokesman, “that you are telling the truth and that you are not tourists. We will let you keep your clothes, your cameras, and your money.”
The three of us shot hopeful looks at one another.
“But!” he continued, “Our clan expects us to come back to them with lots of money. They are eagerly awaiting this. So we will let you go, but you must sneak around our villages again and escape. We will tell them that we could not find you!”
Our smiles quickly turned to frowns. Would there be no end to this foolish sneaking about? Another conversation was happening among the war party. Soon the spokesman turned back to us.
“Actually, we changed our mind about one thing. The boys would like to buy some smokes. We’ll take your lunch money after all.”
We handed over the little change we had left and everyone shook hands. Broad smiles came out all around, some white and brightly contrasted against the locals’ dark skin and black beards. Other smiles were blood-red, the tell-tale sign of beetle-nut chewers.
I decided to take a risk with all this newfound goodwill. “Friends! Can I take your picture?” After a brief discussion they all agreed and I snapped a photo of an armed, but smiling, war party – with the very camera they had just threatened to steal.
After this, the war party led us on a winding path through their gardens. I found myself becoming friends with the scout-spokesman. I decided to try to reason with him about his clan’s conduct.
“Do you want more tourists to come to your area?” I asked.
“Yes, of course.”
“What do you think will happen if you rob the tourists that try to climb your mountain like this? Do you think they will spread a good reputation about your people? Do you think you would get more guide money?”
“No, they would tell other people not to come here.”
“Exactly. It’s wrong to treat visitors like that.”
“Yes, it is wrong.”
“It was bad what you tried to do!”
“It was bad what we tried to do.”
“Don’t ever do that to visitors again.”
“We won’t do it again.”
I shook my head at the whole situation and the strange earnestness of these hot-headed tribesmen.
Soon we parted ways as the war party went off to spread their fiction about their failure to find us. We climbed a slope that we thought would lead back to Kosta’s village. Unfortunately, our guides got a little lost and we crested a small ridge in full view of one of the war party’s villages.
“There they are!” we heard the villagers shout as they started scrambling down below us.
“Run!” Yelled Kosta as we turned to flee down the slope to our right. We could see a large flatbed truck coming down the main road in the direction we needed to go. We ran and slid down the slope so that we could catch it in time.
“Get in the truck!” Kosta yelled as we ran up beside it.
“What about you?” I yelled back.
“Everything will calm down once you are out of the area. Now go! I’ll come to see you soon! Oh, and don’t tell your mom about this!”
We threw our bags into the truck and hopped in, yelling farewell to Kosta and his clansmen. There was no way I was not going to tell my mom about this. Let the honor/shame implications for Kosta’s reputation and basket business fall where they may. The truck rumbled down the road, and after some more misadventures involving a baby pig and a rainstorm, we made it safely home.
A couple weeks later Kosta came to visit me and my mom. The two of us sat together on our porch swing, drinking iced tea.
“You told your mom, didn’t you?” he asked.
“Yes,” I admitted.
We swung some more in silence. I could tell Kosta was feeling deeply embarrassed.
“You know, even with all the problems, we still had a great time,” I said. Kosta looked down.
“But I have one question,” I continued. “When we were having court down by the river, and that discussion happened between your group group and the war party, what was being said?”
“Well,” Kosta answered. “They were saying that they liked you – and the one in red – because you were not afraid. But they said that Caleb was afraid, so they should beat him.”
I sat up and stared at Kosta, his hand on his forehead in the traditional sign of feeling embarrassment or shame. Then I started to laugh. How in the world did Will and I not appear afraid? And poor Caleb! Kosta looked confused. What the war party had wanted to do – beat the one who showed fear – appeared perfectly logical to him.
“Kosta, promise me you will not tell Caleb!”
Kosta looked up from under his hand, and shot me a mischievous grin.
*Names have been altered
Photo by Vika Chartier on Unsplash