Saturday, March 22, 2014

Finding Onya

I wrote some thoughts about bucket lists a while back.  Andrew, the man who has spent most of his life translating the Bible into the Ketengban language, told me in a recent email, 
Onya is a place I always had on my “bucket list” but could never get there on foot.
Getting the airstrip open at Onya has been on my own list for some time.  Now, with Ketengban Old Testaments piled high in our hangar, a full complement of pilots, and four operational Pilatus Porters, it seemed like the right time to get in there.

So last week, on an early Tuesday morning, my colleague Tim Harold and I flew a full load of Scriptures into Omban, the closest Ketengban airstrip to Onya.  We unloaded the majority of the Bibles in Omban, but left 10 boxes of Old Testaments on the airplane for the people of Onya. 

On the ground in Omban, tying down the Bibles for Onya.
We then took off from Omban and headed northwest, following what the pilots here call The Long Valley.  Looking down at the terrain below I can only imagine how many hours of hiking it would have taken Andrew to check this particular trek off his bucket list.

With the GPS showing us within a half mile of the airstrip, we still couldn't see it.  Having never been there before, I wondered if perhaps we had the wrong coordinates...but I didn't have any reason to believe our data was wrong.  Besides, we'd followed what I remembered of Andrew's instructions to a tee: "From Omban, go out into the Long Valley and hang a left."

Just as my worry motor was firing up, Tim spotted the airstrip through the dissipating morning fog.


When the weather in these mountains calls for patience, patience is what you give it.  With plenty of fuel on board, we circled overhead and got to know this little cul de sac off the Long Valley better.  As we circled, the fog steadily lifted and soon the approach path was clearing nicely.


Perched on a picturesque ridge line, the community at Onya had done an excellent job subduing their mountain into an airstrip.  After a couple of practice approaches, we were soon touching down on the smooth, firm surface.


As soon as the prop stopped moving, the reception committee started a high speed spin-cycle around the aircraft with the now familiar Ketengban whooping overpowering our senses.






Once the mayhem settled down a bit, we had a short time of prayer thanking God that these Scriptures had come to the people of Onya.  After more than fifteen years out here, I'm finally catching on that ceremony is important, so we made one up on the spot.

On a remote ridge line in the Star Mountains of Papua, under the wing of an airplane that God's people gave specifically for this task, pastors and elders from the seven churches in the Onya valley received boxes filled with books that held the very words of their Creator.  

Looking at the crowd pressed in around the airplane, I guessed there were about a hundred Ketengban folk cheering each time a box came out of the airplane.  My spiritual eyes don't work very well yet, otherwise, who knows... I might have been able to count the angels cheering. 

Yusup, a Ketengban Pastor at Onya.

Organizing the impromptu ceremony.

Tim passes a box of Bibles to an elder from one of the churches in the Onya valley.



One last look at beautiful Onya.
Tim Harold took the photos for this post.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Back...I think.

I should probably explain my absence from the blog.

From the beginning I told myself that off the path would be something that I would do in my spare time for as long as it served as an outlet for the things banging around inside my head and heart.  At some point, what little wind I had in those particular sails went away.  At about the same time a stiff breeze picked up for another 'free time' project that would absorb all the spare moments I could give it.  That particular project has slowed some and the wind is filling these sails again...while it lasts, I'll try my hand at scribbling here a little more often.   

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Just a quick peek into today's flight:

For the past couple of weeks, our team has had the amazing privilege of flying some 9000 Bibles into the Lik and Ketengban people groups.  I think we're more than half way done.

32,000 pounds of Ketengban Old Testaments
ready to be flown out to the villages.
photo Tim Harold
This morning, Tim and I had over 1200 pounds of the precious cargo in the back when we landed at the Ketengban village of Okbap.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

Missed Chance To Wok The Dog

I am not especially fond of our dog.

My days often start before the sun is up and much of my antipathy towards the dog is rooted in the number of times I've been walking to my car in the pre-dawn darkness and planted a half-awake foot in some unpleasantness she insists on depositing in the center of our driveway.  Got a whole yard-full of grass but the only place she'll leave these bundles of joy is smack in the middle of the driveway.

Then there's the fact that she barks at everybody.  Everybody.  From two-year-olds to grandmas and everyone in between.  Friends, enemies, red and yellow, black and white...she's an indiscriminate barker.

Got a new neighbor recently and I asked how he liked the area.  "It's great except for that dog of yours.  She barks at everybody."  Tell me about it.

I should mention that she pees in the driveway too.  Generally not too much drama on this one... unless it's rained.  Then you have no clue which puddle is loaded.

Did I mention she's covered in mange?

The low point of my day (assuming I got lucky and made it through the driveway-minefield with no trauma) is pulling back into that same driveway after work to be jumped on by a frenzied, mange-covered dog.  Why she's happy to see me I have no idea.  Believe me, I give her zero encouragement (I can do the 'mind-over-matter' thing, but I just can't bring myself to pet mange.)  And trying to keep her down is as futile as trying to keep her from barking... which, incidentally, is the only way I get a break from the jumping-on.  Some innocent soul will walk by and she'll tear her mangy self off me and sprint after said innocent soul, barking up a blue streak. Based on their use of language, she apparently scares the innocence out of a lot of souls.

Not fond of the dog.

So yesterday, one of our neighbors asked if they could cook the dog for a birthday party they were planning.  Not kidding.

My dear wife told them no.

She told them no.

I'll let you know when I recover from the depression.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

An Outhouse With a View

In 1989 my uncle, Greg Gordon, built a cabin on the top of East Haven mountain in Vermont. Check out http://www.ehmicabin.com/

The Cabin.  East Haven Vermont.
On the opposite side of the summit from 'The Cabin' is the only outhouse I've ever seen with a picture window, offering glorious views of Vermont's mountains during what is otherwise a rather inglorious undertaking.

A couple of weeks ago, after landing at a mountain runway here in Papua, I clambered over the edge of the airstrip to rid myself of a cup of coffee that had made its way from my thermos to my bladder.
At 6000 feet above sea level,
Okpahik clings to the side of one of the Star Mountains.
Lo and behold I was greeted by the incongruous sight of an outhouse precariously clinging to the cliff.  Someone, quite some time ago by the looks of things, had anticipated my need.  I must say that this outhouse, due to its sad state of repair, gave even better views than the one on East Haven Mountain.  With no front, the whole thing was a picture window and the view of the Kiwirok valley was unparalleled.  With the roof long gone, one even has a view of the heavens whilst performing the most earthy of tasks.


While the business end of the outhouse (i.e. the hole in the ground) still seemed quite functional, the wooden boards around it didn't appear to be very trustworthy.  Since I could think of several hundred other holes I'd rather fall in, I chose to take my business elsewhere.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Another Stowaway

I am, of course, kidding.  Not a stowaway.
Two pups were legit passengers on a recent flight
and I couldn't resist the photo op.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Bucket List (Back To Pipal Part III)

Gonna add that to my Bucket List.  

The fact that I think in these terms shows how prone I am to swallow concepts the world feeds me without much of a second thought.  A second thought would, it seems to me, reveal that making a list of self-centered things to do before I kick the bucket is simply the current recycle of the 'you only live once, pack as much in as you can' philosophy that sketches out the road map for the broad path.  The whole idea runs squarely against the flow of Christ's lonely call for us to seek first his not-of-this-world kingdom...and allow the Master to sort out which of life's amazing experiences he'll have us encounter along the narrow way.

And what happens if we ever get the list done?  What then?  Ever met anyone checking off the last box on their bucket list?  I wonder what sentiment you would find there.

A short time ago, I actually had the experience of witnessing a man check off the last box on his life's to-do list...though I am positive he'd never heard of a bucket list.

With the first test landing successfully completed (see previous post), the day came for the official opening of the airstrip at Pipal.  We brought government inspectors in along with Bram and Pak Aby (Bram's mentor).  At some point in the festivities, Paulus says, in earnest,

Now I can die in peace.  
The last thing that I have prayed that God would allow me to accomplish, 
the opening of an airstrip for my people, 
is finished.

Having brought the Gospel over the mountains for the people of this entire area, and having watched it begin to transform an entire culture, Paulus' home village remained one of the few groups in the area without direct access to the outside world through an airstrip.  This mission was the last thing he wanted to see happen before his waning years came to an end.

Now I can die in peace.

To die in peace.  Now there's something worth adding to our lists.

And then I begin to wonder... how much different would our lives be if we made a list of things we wanted to happen after we kicked the bucket?   Call it the post-bucket list.

The days when I'm even partially successful at keeping what happens after my last breath in view are remarkably different than those days when I'm striving towards something that won't outlast my own visit to this planet.

When I step back and set the goal of conducting the next hour of my life in such a way that I might hear 'Well done!' from my Master...well, then life takes on real meaning, is guided with clarity and filled with peace.

Lots of churches have wings, right?  Aby delivers a message.

Rapt attention.

Paulus and Aby... warriors both.

What I would give to be there when the missionary with the net bag
 and stone ax meets Jesus face to face.

Pray for Bram as he continues his outreach to the people of Pipal.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Chickens (Back To Pipal Part II)

Kept bumping into chickens the other day.  

The first one was me.  I've long tried to maintain the right dose of coward in my soul... tends to aid longevity in this line of work.  First landings at new airstrips may seem like the kind of thing missionary pilots live for, and to be sure, they are momentous occasions.  But this particular missionary pilot is getting old enough that adrenaline has lost much of its novelty and elevated risk gives me heartburn.  That said, at some point somebody has to go break these places in, and so, after getting a good look at the airstrip on 6 May via helicopter (see previous post), it was time to go back in to Pipal in something with wings attached to it.

Eight days after the helicopter foray I was once again overhead Pipal.  Mark Hoving was along as an extra set of eyes to help identify those "that looks dumb, let's not do it" scenarios.

We took our time flying test approaches and mapping out what altitudes to use over various landmarks along the approach path.  The airstrip is located in a tight little box of a valley that allows you in, but at about a half a mile from touchdown becomes so tight that you can't turn around and get back out.  We needed to make sure that we were spot on passing that point of no return.  

Below is the runway chart that came out of all of our buzzing around that morning (thanks to Courtney Zehr for his charting wizardry).


After satisfying my inner chicken, we finally jumped in with both feet, flew past the committal point and landed.  Parking on the tiny flat spot carved out at the top of the 15% slope we were soon surrounded by a throng of Ketengban dancing away in their Sunday best. What a party.

Welcome to Pipal!
A bit hard to see, but note the Bird of Paradise plume
placed in Mark's hat to honor him as guest.

Laitus is Pipal's chief.
It took awhile, but once the hubbub died down we proceeded to install the runway markers.

Looking down the newly-marked airstrip at Pipal.
With our work done, we all head off to feast.
One thing you learn quickly about Papuans is that they really know how to party.  I think Jesus feels so at home with them in that regard.  They prepared a feast to mark the important day in their community's history and Mark and I had the privilege of sharing it with them.  Pigs are slow-cooked by super-heated rocks in a manner similar to a Polynesian luau. Tender and delicious.  This is also where I met the second chicken of the day.

Mark and I were given the assignment of finishing off this massive pile of pork.
We did it great harm, but ended up taking probably 40 pounds of meat home with us. 

The chicken was all ours as well... I stayed busy with the pork.
I'm privileged to know many followers of Jesus in the West who keep very loose hands on their possessions, giving generously.  We operate millions of dollars worth of aircraft that remind me of that fact every single day.  

Papuan followers of Christ will not be outdone.  As we were preparing to get back in the airplane to leave, Paulus, the man who has spent his life bringing the Gospel to this remote area, presents me with a gift of a chicken (this one very much alive and feathered).  When I think about the percentage of this man's material wealth that he gave me so freely, I am ashamed at how painfully I part with much, much less.

As a filthy rich missionary, I could do nothing but graciously accept the incredible gift from my even richer Papuan brother... who sleeps under a grass roof deep in the Star Mountains.

The Third Chicken

Has not God chosen those
who are poor in the eyes of the world
to be rich in faith
and to inherit the kingdom
he promised to those who love him?


Thursday, June 20, 2013

Make Friends With Helicopter Drivers (Back To Pipal Part I)

A year after hiking into the airstrip site at Pipal (full story here) we were finally able to get it open for service this past month.

A report filtered out of the jungle that the Ketengban community in Pipal had finished the work required...the airstrip was now landable.  

Having not been on the ground in Pipal for twelve months I wasn't particularly excited about the first landing on the unproven airstrip.  What fun, then, to hear that Helivida, one of our partners in ministry here in Papua, were going to have a helicopter in the Pipal area.  I jumped at the chance to not have to choose between a couple days of tough hiking and scaring myself in the airplane.  Helivida graciously agreed to let me bum a ride.  

And so, in early May, I found myself looking down at the same river, the same terrain that had taken five hours of hard slogging to traverse on foot back in April 2012.


The helicopter made the exact same trip in, get this, four minutes.  That's one minute of flying time for every hour and fifteen minutes of walking (and this particular walk--perhaps because of this particular walker--involved multiple falls, spills and losing my footing crossing rapids.)


Thanks Helivida!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Stowaway

This little guy tried to get a free ride the other day.  My colleague Brian found this green tree frog in a fresh air scoop on the airplane we were readying for flight.





Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Eight Years Later

Eight years ago I flew a man named Melky from our base on the coast across the high mountain ranges into the small village of Langda.  Graying at the temples, this grandfatherly guy clutched a newborn baby boy to his chest.  An unwanted child.



As pilots in Papua, we're often privileged to enter into the critical scenes of the dramas happening around us.  The vast majority of time, after playing our cameos, we exit stage left, move on to another play and don't get to see how the original story turns out.  Occasionally there's an exception.

A few months ago I was back in Langda.  The fog was rolling in fast and I needed to unload my cargo and get out of there as quickly as practical.  Two passengers wanted to come out to town with me, one of them a familiar face.

"I want you to meet someone," Melky says to me.

I'm a bit hesitant, glancing nervously at the wall of fog to the south as Melky disappears into the crowd at the edge of the airstrip.  Moments later Melky reemerges with a little boy in tow.

Do you remember?  
In August 2005 you flew us in here.  
My wife and I have been raising him ever since.

These are the people I choose as my heroes.  Anonymous, little people, doing much harder things than I, sacrificing so much more...doing it cheerfully and taking the time to thank others who have played bit parts in their dramas.