With a satisfying smack of the hammer, the last runway marker was pounded into place and the job was done. Well, almost done. We still had to climb the hill.
For the Ngalum tribesmen helping mark their new airstrip at Diphikin, the walk back up to the top of their new airstrip is one of the easiest in their entire territory. A different story entirely for me, the middle-aged wimp whose middle-aged eyes are looking at the 14% grade that the middle-aged legs will have to walk up if his middle-aged self wants to get back to the airplane and fly home. Trudging up the hill, I do my best to mute the awful rasping that my middle-aged lungs are making, hoping to hide the racket from the maddeningly cheerful Ngalum for whom this wouldn’t even qualify as a Sunday stroll.
14%. The maximum grade for a road in mountainous areas of the United States is 7%. In Papua’s Eastern Highlands you’ll be hard pressed to find a straight piece of land longer than 100 meters with only a 7% grade. For the Ngalum of Diphikin, the only straight piece of land suitable for an airstrip site just happens to have this ridiculous grade. Don’t mind landing on it, not one bit, but walking up it is for the birds.
To my delighted surprise, I don’t pass out on the way up the hill. Cresting the top into the flat parking area, we arrive to a hubbub in full kerfuffle. The folks who stayed at the top of the airstrip are butchering a large pig. A Ngalum man deftly uses an axe to do the job. They will send out the prized pork with me as gifts to our team in thanks for opening up their airstrip for service. A huge hind-quarter has my name on it--they present it to me dripping with blood, ready for the grill. It’s easily a $150 piece of meat, probably worth much more.
In the midst of this melee, a tiny little old woman weaves her way through the crowd carrying one of those ubiquitous little black plastic bags that are everywhere in these parts. She hands me her treasure gingerly. “For the pilot,” she says, and disappears back into the crowd.
I peek in the bag. It’s full of tiny eggs from her chickens. I can buy much larger eggs back in town for 15 cents a piece. But these are worth much more than money.
The pork is given with equal parts of pure gratitude mixed with hopeful expectation that we’ll return the favor with frequent air service to the village. The eggs are given…why? She knows I don’t need them. She knows that I live like a king compared to her. I really don’t know why she gave me those eggs. All I can think of is that she was simply being kind.
I continue to be blessed by these ‘little’ people who belong to the the Lord, scattered throughout the hinterlands of Papua. May I learn from them. May I grow to become like the little woman in Diphikin who gives to those who don’t deserve, gives without strings attached, and walks away with nothing but the sweetness of knowing her Master is smiling.
[originally written November 2014]