The Field Trip That Wasn’t

The Field Trip That Wasn’t

by Kevin Wilson

Kevin Wilson volunteered in Bougainville, PNG 2009-10 and in Maliana, Timor-Leste 2012-13. He joined Palms’ staff as Communications & IT Assistant in July 2014 and coordinates all Palms networks.

I last visited PNG and Bougainville on the Palms Field Trip in June 2018 and this year, with three new participants in placement, a fourth to come, and new partner projects to scope, another trip was due and timely. And for me, just perfect!

Bougainville: Can you hear her song?

Christine had already plotted my itinerary well- various meetings around Mount Hagen and Madang, with the thoughtful assumption I would follow these with a week’s holiday back in Bougainville (my own 2009-10 placement). Originally, we planned to combine a scoping visit to the Solomon Islands with the Kiribati Encounter later this year, but then with Corona concerns, the i-Kiribati government very prudently imposed early quarantines on arrivals. Now with that trip in doubt, it was decided to tack my proposed few days in Honiara onto this excursion, ahead of the flights to Port Moresby.

Archbishop Douglas Young, Mount Hagen

So it was settled. 11 flights in all, using four airlines, which I booked amid “Reconsider China travel” and then “all travel” advisories (yes- there were also the usual warnings of danger in PNG). A clockwise sweep of Melanesia, starting on 19 March in Honiara. I would meet Archbishop Cardone and Fr Paulus to scope their request for Holy Name of Mary Seminary in Tenaru. A few days later I’d head to Mount Hagen via Moresby. In this more familiar territory, I would catch up with Palms participant Cathal Nolan, who is mentoring the plumping crew of Mount Hagen Archdiocese, and Archbishop Douglas, our long-term partner. From Hagen I could get a PMV, or maybe a lift by Cathal, to Good Shepherd Seminary in Banz. Here Palms has two participants assisting staff and student capacity, Charles Dufour (philosophy) and Greg Lawson (finance). A new partner, Umi Aid Post, would also be visited and scoped during my time around Hagen.

Staff at Good Shepherd Seminary, Banz

Eight days into the trip I’d fly to Madang, again via Port Moresby (just how PNG is). Palms stalwart, Max David, has made his life at Brahman Mission, outside of Madang town and under the care of the Archdiocese (yes- it was set up as a station for brahman cattle). Max has long requested someone to assist at the remote mission and we finally have someone. Over five days between Madang and Brahman, I’m to meet up with Archbishop Bal, Max and Diane Harrison now filling the placement in Brahman.

I had shared great times during their Orientations with the field participants, Diane, Charles, Cathal and Greg, and looked forward to the friendly catch-ups and deep conversations we’d be having. From calls, texts and emails, they and the partners were also excited about my visit. All good! Once the Madang leg is done, I’ll spend a night with the SVDs and Br Raj (my usual stopover) in Port Moresby before I fly to Bougainville. No other plans: Things would just work out as they always do after setting foot on the Holy Island again.

Was that some shadow of foreboding felt when all this was booked? Did Fate knock at the door?
Nonsense! Even my doctor -fully expected to advise against travelling- was enthusiastic. Once on the plane to Melanesia, all the euphoria of coming home would engulf me! Yet…

In the weeks before the trip, the devastating spread of COVID-19 gained more and more attention. One by one, countries were shutting borders. No word yet that travel in PNG was affected beyond the norm. Routine checks on arrival were understood. Locally, our churches introduced precautions, government and media advised social distancing. More screening of arrivals. Kept in the loop by Christine and Roger, Palms participants began leaving the field and returning home. Where was this heading?

Friday 13th: New Zealand cracked down with mandatory isolation of arrivals. It was rumoured the Solomons would do the same. That day came emails advising “DO NOT TRAVEL”, and the airlines offering deal after desperate deal. The next Saturday morning I joined my family in a club café to organise collection of mail, watering of my garden etc. while I was away. In hindsight, the gathering was so extraordinarily normal, though the new global issue did dominate conversation. Those doubts surfaced again as I even felt a bit of a cold. I’d hate to pass this nasty bug to a remote village community. The evening news brought word Australia was isolating arrivals too. This could stretch the itinerary somewhat, especially if PNG followed suit.

Monday in the Palms office we closely monitored things. PNG field participants were returning home too now. By Tuesday afternoon we anticipated that the country would also close its borders soon, and pulled the plug on my trip. A flow of cancellations and apologetic emails to partners and friends followed, two days before the expected departure.

When last I saw my Bougainvillean family, I was moved and challenged by expressions that I hadn’t forgotten them. Telling them now I could not visit over complex travel restrictions seemed lame considering they lived through civil war, exile and a ten-year blockade. There’s some relief though that I won’t spread anything there.

Melanesia: Always patient.

Our Palms field participants are now home, self-isolating and dealing with yet another version of culture shock (as we all are to some degree). In the last weeks even the healthiest of us have felt more and more the effects of the pandemic, with further restrictions on our lives. It’s worth keeping perspective. The privations we feel in Australia now are very little compared to the various traumas and endemic poverty experienced by communities who partner with Palms. There is grief in leaving them behind when many of our projects are just gaining momentum. But Palms remains committed to their (and our) development vision. We will continue to recruit and fully prepare more qualified people, sending them back to the field when borders open again.

So, while some things are on hold for now, we continue recruitment to fill the growing requests of overseas communities. Their needs will be even greater during and after this hiatus. My flights are credited, and with Melanesia, so patient, loving and forgiving, fixed in my heart, I will make that journey to visit even more partners and participants there in future.

Oh yeah- my cold is just that, but I’m staying home like everyone else. Stay safe all.

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