In 1999, a whole lifetime ago, I had the opportunity to lead a botanical survey in Papua New Guinea. Lucky me, my boss at the time despised being in the bush and rather than suffer through six weeks of being in the Papua New Guinea lowland forests he decided to send me — who neither had led such a large survey before nor ever been to PNG. Being young and stupid, I gladly accepted and off I went. The stories from that experience requires a telling on its own, but suffice it to say that I was proud to have been part of an effort that yielded numerous new plant species and the re-discovery of rare flora. The chief botanist would report at that time that it was one of the most prolific surveys he had been on and owed it to the enthusiasm and motivation of the community participants, one of whom was a young man named Sabogar.
Some context: In the days leading up to the trek, all my preparations were functional. But now, here I was with people I had met for the first time, all of whom were male, and we would be stuck in the deep bush together for a whole six weeks. And in the middle of it was me, the one who didn’t know what they were doing. I observed our team of four readying the equipment – the chief botanist, his assistant, the forester and me – and I thought “This could only go one of two ways: we would wind up the worst of enemies or the best of friends.” And already the chief botanist was having issues with the American project staff. The first day of the survey was met with torrential rain. I was sick to my stomach with fear. When the truck got stuck in the mud and teetered over a ravine, my knees went weak and I was ready to vomit. The point is, I was scared in a way I had never been in my life because I put myself in a situation of extreme vulnerability.
As we traversed the lands of different landowners we hired women and men from each clan as a way of employing locally but also as a means of engaging the local communities while getting to know the area we were in. On this rotation scheme, we changed over our local staff every five to seven days. Sabogar would join us from the very beginning.
He stood out for a number of reasons, first and foremost because of a right eye, milky white and blind. I never found out the real reason for it. One story I was told was that he had simply ran into the sharp end of his father’s spear as a child. Another version was that his father mistakenly nicked him in the eye with a machete as he cleared grass for a garden. Whatever the reason, I never found it in myself to ask him. And besides, as we worked together it became abundantly clear that it made no difference in his abilities. Neither did his lack of a formal education. Being blind, his father apparently decided that schooling would be wasted on him and so, unlike the others who came to work with us, he was technically illiterate. I say “technically” because while Sabogar might not have been able to read or write, he had other qualities and capacities that were far more valuable. He was quiet for the most part but not shy, for I’d seen him gregariously recounting stories around the fire (the only entertainment that far into the bush) and flirting with the girls. But for his eye, I would imagine he would be a catch for any of the ladies. Within the first week of working for us, he had proven his value. He was fast and oriented easily so that when our team divided up to move camp, he was our runner to carry messages back and forth between myself and the chief botanist. He was strong and persistent. Where others (including myself on occasion) gave up on trying to get that last specimen from high up in the trees, Sabogar would disappear only to return later with those flowers and a big grin on his face. What impressed me the most, however, was his thoughtfulness and foresight. In keeping with local custom, the women’s enclave was a good 300 meters or so away from the men’s tents. Sabogar had built us a sturdy A-frame beneath which our tents were protected from the elements, especially rain. It was situated at the top of a ridge that overlooked the Guam River below. The constant breeze off the water gave much needed relief from heat and mosquitoes. This was a welcome improvement after the misery of Camp #1. The day after we set up, I was surprised that Sabogar decided to stay behind on a collection. He hadn’t missed any so far. For the rest of us it was an arduous day of slipping and sliding through muddy ruts and I managed to sprain an ankle. When we finally returned to camp and I hobbled up the hill, I found Sabogar putting the pounding finishing touches on a small table for us to put our sundries on. He had also fashioned a fence on which we could dry laundry. And, best of all, he built a bench at the lip of the ridge so we could watch the goings on in the river. I asked the chief botanist if he had put Sabogar up to it but he assured me he did not. And that was Sabogar, always making things better. I dug out and re-read my journal for this blog to make sure that I hadn’t created some idealistic, false memory of him. To my relief, I hadn’t. Below are details from my journal that helped me fill the gaps of what I could remember.
Between the hours of 5:00 and 6:30 or 7:00 I spent sitting on the bench overlooking the river, either bird watching or reading. It is here that Sabogar and I would sit every afternoon, almost like clock work. Many times we would just sit there. We couldn’t really say much to each other because he knew so little english and I knew only phrases in Pidgin. But sometimes it was nice not to be able to talk to one another. It can be entirely too exhausting. I rather think he felt the same way. Neither of us were compelled to fill the silence between us and instead took in the beauty of the moment and the sounds that filled the sunset air. We understood each other without words. Our pastime became watching these six ducks that would roost in the riverbank across from us. Everyday we watched them waddle to the river and make their crossing. Jokingly, I told him in what little Pidgin I knew, that if I saw only five ducks the next day he would be in trouble. He laughed and said, “no kilim.” Unlike the others on night patrol around camp whose faces I would suddenly find peeking into my tent – rather unnerving when I was lying down and feeling “prone” or half dressed in an effort to dry out certain body parts – Sabogar had the courtesy to whistle or cough, a signal that he was approaching. Sometimes he would sing. And he always kept a respectful distance from the women’s tents. By the time we were on to camp #3, Sabogar had been with us for three weeks and the workers from his community were long gone. The American project staff questioned his ongoing participation. Resources were limited, they said, and continuing to pay him was not only draining our cash, it established an unfairness to those who had kept to their rotation. I had been waiting for this. People, it seems, love intrigue and Sabogar became its subject. I asked Ali to intervene. Ali was the chief botanist’s assistant whose easygoing ways quickly endeared himself to everyone from the grandmothers and children to the clan patriarchs. Working in a tradition where women are socially outranked by pigs, Ali became my voice, conveying plans and instructions for the day with humor and an authority that generated a gung-ho survey team.
The chief botanist and I (both foreigners) relied heavily on Ali for decisionmaking but also for smoothing things over when tensions in the camp arose. He was an all around diplomat who garnered everyone’s trust. Like Sabogar, Ali had become particularly protective of me. When our teams split up for collection or I was left behind to close up camp while the rest went ahead to find new camp grounds, one of them always stayed with me. On this occasion, I asked Ali to find out what the community members were saying and to break the news to Sabogar that it was time to go home. As much as it irked me, on the point of perceived unfairness, the project staff had a point. Coming from a small community myself, I knew that it was small things like this that could set off major roadblocks further on down the line. The next day Ali came with his report, nobody cared that Sabogar was there. They had just assumed that he was part of the core survey team, having been welcomed into the ranks of the chief botanist, Ali, our chief forester and myself. Moreover, like Ali, Sabogar was well-liked for his initiative, helpfulness and entertainment value. And at any rate Ali said, he would not leave anyway. More precisely, he was not leaving me. I was like a sister to him, Sabogar had said, and only when I left the bush would he be going home. I will never know the true intentions behind his attention and his kindness. I can only make assumptions based on how he made me feel and that was safe. In all our time together, I never caught him looking at my body, or at my equipment. He always maintained his distance and, actually, seemed uncomfortable when we were in close proximity. But he was there when I got myself into trouble like waist-high mud or a swift river crossing, and not there when I needed to be alone, yet never too far. He was interested in the satellite phone and water purifers and my tools but also indifferent to them. The only thing he had ever asked for was batteries for the flashlight he used on night patrol. By this time we had our routine of early breakfast, all day collections and then processing the specimens in the evenings. We had all settled into this bush routine and I forgot all the fear I had felt in those early days. What on earth was I so afraid of? Then my boots were stolen from right outside my tent door one rainy night. Shortly thereafter, we received word of a small group of disgruntled landowners armed with guns, making their way toward our camp. The fear, the vulnerability all came flooding back. We were far inland. The nearest road was hours away. Our daily explorations had made me forget how isolated we were. I have always prided myself on being self-sufficient and able to take care of myself, but the threat of violence made my/our vulnerability very real. “Sabogar and me will send them floating down the river,” Ali assured me. Ali the peaceful seventh day adventist. I didn’t doubt him, giving me something more to worry about. After these and other, more minor, incidents I didn’t care what anyone thought of me and Sabogar. He wasn’t going anywhere. We got back into our routine of collecting, discussing, planning. And then it was suddenly over and time came to go home. Standing by the roadside, waiting for our ride back into town, we were greeted by familiar faces from Sabogar’s community. It was the end of the survey and they came for a last goodbye and also hoping for leftover supplies or mementos. Everyone, except Sabogar.
At the end of it all I could not believe he asked me for nothing, it was almost disappointing. If he did want something of mine, he indicated nothing. In the end I gave away just about everything. I gave the girls my clothes and soap, the boys my batteries and shirts. Sabogar got my flashlight and Leatherman tool. He was smiling when I hugged him goodbye, while I held back tears. I had so many things to say. Mostly I wanted to tell him what an amazing person he was and how lucky I felt to have met him. That if there were such things as angels then he was certainly mine for the time we worked together. But just like always, the silence would speak for us. All I could do was thank him profusely through red-faced sadness. Just as quickly as he had taken to me did he seem to let me go. For years after, I received letters from some of the young men and women who worked with us. I also got a few cargo cult letters, reminding me of my responsibility toward my “real” family back home in PNG. Please send clothes and money. But nothing from Sabogar. I wrote back and always inquired after him to no avail. Then, my novelty wore off and the letters stopped. As the project in PNG changed leadership over the years, I’ve asked the favor of asking the community members about him also to no avail. It’s been almost 20 years and it bothers me that I have no idea what happened to him. So I created this scenario in my head that he found himself a good wife (or two or three as per custom), and had children whom he taught how to hunt and fish and build, after all he never had the desire to leave the bush life. He might visit his friends in town once in a while and take his family to the seaside where we started our trek. He is happy and smiling as always.
I know for a character Sabogar’s name is unusual, not particularly aesthetic and maybe even difficult to pronounce for some readers. But there is no other way for me to capture the kindness, willful protection and trust Sabogar, the person, cast over me that the character has then cast over Haigan. Just like my friend, the character does this with no expectations, wanting nothing in return. Where they differ, of course, is that the character is in love with Haigan. And I still don’t know what will become of them. Stay tuned.
Sabogar has been around since the beginning of the survey. Because he is such a hard worker and is truly trustworthy, we have allowed him to stay and be our messenger and all around handyman. I always knew he was coming because of his whistle