National Geographic : 1994 Feb
SHE SEPIK RIVER meanders through the vast wetlands of northwestern Papua New Guinea, its swirling brown water spilling over banks as much as a mile apart. But sunrise turned its cur rents pink as we watched from our motorized dugout for a chink in the towering grasses that marks a season ally flooded channel-a baret-leadingto the Bahinemo village of Wagu. I was raised in this remote village in the Hunstein forest, the daughter of American anthropologist-missionaries. The improb ably named Hunstein (a legacy of 19th-century German colonial ism) is one of the country's most undisturbed rain forests, rising from swampy lowlands into a mist-shrouded mountain range that peaks at 5,069 feet (map, page 47). I was four years old when we moved here in 1964. My family became members of a Bahinemo clan. I grew up speaking Bahinemo and playing barefoot in a shredded palm-frond skirt. My memories are of watch ing men carve cedar canoes and of breathing the aro matic showering of soft red chips. Of gathering fire wood with my Bahinemo girlfriends and securing it in a harness of carrot-scented vines that twisted around my forehead and hung down my back. A year after I graduated from the boarding school I attended in Papua New Guinea's highlands, I moved to the United States. Now I was coming back, with my husband, Rob, an T. WAYNEDYE aircraft mechanic, and our seven-year-old son, Gabriel, and five-year-old daughter, Sarah. After 11 years of living in the U. S., I was coming home. The dark green foothills of the Hunstein Range rose at the horizon of the winding baret. Herons, cormorants, egrets, and hawks watched us intently. Parrots screamed and raced away. We crossed the wake of a crocodile and cut into the hills. The view of four-mile-long Lake Wagu opened like a slowly drawn curtain. Mount Hunstein towered blue in the distance, and sweet jasmine drenched the air. As we beached on the rough, pebbled shore of Wagu village, people rushed toward us hugging, clinging, laughing, and cry ing. With each pair of eyes I met flowed thousands of silent thoughts. There is no Bahinemo word for "hello," and only an extended absence requires a greeting: "You're here," they said. "I'm here," I replied.