Everything happens for a reason – or so I’m told. But some lessons are hard to learn even if the outcome turns out for the best. This is the story of why we decided to spend 12 months in a village in Papua New Guinea and then why, after making massive changes and spending lots of money to make it happen, we decided we wouldn’t.
It’s also, inadvertently, the story of how we ended up here (both physically and mentally).
Me, J and Lil’ I would be packing our bags and heading off for 12 months in the Western Province of PNG right about now if all had gone according to plan. The decision to do that had been epic. It meant taking a 2 year old to go live in a village where there was no doctor or guaranteed access to a hospital when needed. Access was by small plane only, and only during daylight hours weather permitting.
Where we were headed is one of the wettest places on earth with high rates of most tropical illnesses. In fact, PNG has the worst health record of any country in the western pacific and the Western Province the worst rates in PNG. There were safety concerns as well, but being in a village, these were nowhere near as daunting for me as health risks for Lil’ I.
Needless to say we didn’t make the decision lightly. I worried whether it was worth it. Whether our reasons were sound. Whether we could forgive ourselves if anything happened. At the same time I didn’t want to be ruled by fear and I don’t believe that having children means adventures of this magnitude are out.
We were going so that I could complete a PhD in anthropology. The position had been advertised and was financially supported. It was part of an Australian Research Council project held by the University of Melbourne. It was looking at the ways a group of people were redefining themselves in relation to a massive liquefied natural gas project underway. My particular interest was in changes to ethnoecological understandings and the transmission of such knowledge. It was right up my alley. It also meant relocating to Melbourne for 12 months which I was excited about but which J was dreading (the man hates cities – what can I say).
I had a pretty good understanding of what Melanesian village life would be like from time spent doing research in the Solomon Islands. I knew it would be different to the Solomons but that there would be many similarities. I knew the food would be bland and starchy, protein sources few and far between and privacy rare. I worried how J would cope. In fact, I worried about everything.
In hindsight I can see why it all went wrong. I wanted it so bad though. Melanesia, ethnoecology, resource development, a chance at ‘real’ and long-term ethnographic research that was funded, a chance to further my career with my husband and child by my side. The last one especially appealed to me. I knew I could conduct research and still be a stay at home mum (if that makes sense). In fact I saw Lil’ I as an important part of my research and planned to observe how people showed him how to be a culturally situated person.
I could see such benefits for us as a family – bringing Lil’ I up in a village, banding together during hard times, living simply without the distractions of technology. I would have learnt so much.
In January we went for 3 weeks. This was a scoping trip – for me to suss out the applicability of my methodology and for us to understand better what we were in for and what we would need to bring back . We were made very welcome. Our house was comfortable. Lil’ I was adored. The river was astonishing. We got a glimpse of the friends we would make, the skills we would be taught.
After only a few days in J decided it wouldn’t work. He was afraid for Lil’ I’s safety especially with the river so close (the river really was astonishing – super fast, cold, deep and murky) and afraid of what it really meant to live there. I had tried to prepare him for that but I guess you can’t know until you see it for yourself.
I was gutted but I couldn’t really be angry. I couldn’t argue against his strong sense of unease. I had to trust that intuition as I hope he would mine. But man it was tough. Not least because it really messed up the project and my supervisors.
I felt, and still feel, totally responsible. I should have known. Deep down I think I did know. and that’s a lesson I need to learn – to know when to say ‘ that would be so awesome but not at this point of my life’. That’s what being a family means. To be honest though, as soon as the decision was kind of made for me a whole heap of stress lifted from my shoulders. I realised just how worried I was about taking Lil’ I with us.
So, after packing up our life in QLD, heading to Melbourne for the best part of 12 months and completing 10 months of a PhD, we pulled the pin on the lot….
…and the result is we ended up here! Another reason why I can’t regret that we decided to do it and then decided not to. It’s as if we needed to hit rock bottom, to have our lives, and ideas about each other and ourselves, flattened to be able to critically assess our future – what we needed as individuals and as a family. It really nearly broke us.
Maybe that is shaky ground on which to commence this new, also epic, adventure – owning and creating our little place in the world. Maybe. But I’m not the least bit worried about this decision. It feels more right than anything has for a long time.
It’s been a whirlwind 15 months. Since first seeing the PhD project advertised, applying to the University of Melbourne, resigning from work, moving to Melbourne, preparing for fieldwork with a small child, heading to the village, deciding not to return and what to do next, packing up our house in Melbourne, buying this place…
I’ve since enrolled in a different PhD at the University of Queensland. The project is one I was designing before the PNG option came up. In many ways I’m more excited about it than I was about the PNG project. It’s a project of my own design, it’s applied and I can see the value in it, and I can see post PhD employment opportunities that do not involve relocating to a city.
I still get sad thinking about the lost opportunity – especially the life that Lil’ I would have had in the village. Everyone loved him and he loved having endless kids and pigs to play with. But the future is bright. We just might have to get ourselves some pigs to fill the gap.