Mi paitim saksak!

I would have written about this sooner, but I thought for the longest time I already had.  Another story from PNG...

During my stay at Walagu, my teammate and I were set up to rise with the sun and go with other bus meris (women of the bush/village) to paitim saksak (lit: beat sago palm).  I was excited about FINALLY having the opportunity to do something that the natives did-legit work.  By the time this week came, I was accustomed to walking barefoot around the village.  The ground there consisted mostly of hard-packed red clay, so it was easy on the feet.  We were advised to apply plenty of bug spray and take along our water bottles, beef biscuits, bus naip (basically, a machete), and various other small things for our day's adventure.  Once packed, we waited for one of the bus meris to come get us.  I honestly had no idea what was ahead...our hosts kept it a slight surprise.

We walked maybe 4/10 mile down the main path and the bus meris randomly stopped and offered gamshus (gumshoes/garden boots?).  I was slightly clueless as to why they would offer us these when we'd been walking along the main red clay path.  Then one of the bus meris started walking off the main path, into some SERIOUS bus-as in the kind that's nearly as tall as you.  My teammate and I looked at each other and looked at our guiding bus meris to see what kind of foot attire they had on-they were barefoot, so why shouldn't we go barefoot, right? I weighed the present situation for a few moments and spoke up to say that we would gladly take the gamshus.  I praise God for that moment of wisdom.  I love going barefoot and flip-flops are my footwear of choice, but this ground was not to be walked on without proper protection.  We slipped on the gamshus and trekked through the bush, proudly wielding our bus naips and putting them to good use chopping vines, stumps and tall grass in our way (first legit time!).  This journey to the saksak was not predictable.

After walking several yards through the tall bus, we approaches some trees, beyond which we could not see.  Soon we discovered that the trees hid the slope of the mountain.  There was a slight path to follow behind the bus meris, but it was a very winding path.  The gamshus that I was wearing were big for my feet, so when our path was met with the roots of palm trees (if you've never seen them, they are shallow and slippery when wet), there was a lot of sliding.  Had I not been concerned with causing anyone else to fall and if I knew the way, I like to imagine that I would have been the first one down, due to my skill of surfing palm roots.  :)

After maybe 30 minutes or more, we finally reach the sago swamp-and swamp it was.  I had never been to anything like a swamp before, so trudging through muck that was as high as the gamshus I was wearing was not delightful.  Oh-and I believe I forgot to remind you readers that we were wearing skirts, as required.  For reasons I haven't yet sought to understand, sago turns things reddish, though no part of the sago palm that I saw was red.  The sago swamp is almost divided into sections for the different stages of paitim saksak.

The first step of paitim saksak is to actually cut down the sago palm.  This stage is completed by the men.  The substage following this is the *real* paitim saksak, when the men (and sometimes also the women) use an axe-like tool that is angled with dual edges to allow productive swing while sitting.  At this substage, the sage palm has already been felled and the outer layer has been split to expose the pulp.  Workers will then sit on/in the sago to paitim.  When the initial chunks are made, it is more often the women who come behind to use their bus naips to further paitim the saksak.  Once the saksak has been paitim enough, the women will gather the pieces of pulp into their bags (these bags are comparable to rice bags-the kind you'd find at an authentic oriental store, only larger) and take them to the next section.

The second stage of paitim saksak is the "washing" of the sago pulp.  The women take care of this portion.  There is a slanted troth-like structure about waist-height and 4 to 5 ft long that has two filters.  The first filter is about half-way down and the second filter is at the bottom.  Below the second filter is a tub of sorts constructed from multiple bags and bark.  The pulp that was collected at first stage is placed at the top of the troth and "water" from the tub is poured over it.  The next step consists of alternating paitim saksak and squeezing the pulp, mostly paitim saksak, though.  Once whatever water passes through the first filter catches in the second half of the troth, it's all squeezing pulp from there.  From the second half it flows into the tub and the actual pulp settles at the bottom and it's the "water" that sits on top that is reused for "washing."  (The initial source of "water" comes from the swamp.  The most accurate description of the "water" that I can come up with is a beer pond.  It both looks and smells like a big puddle of dark beer-quite disgusting.)  *Note about the second stage: there will be multiple sections, divided by family, though some have more than one.*

Once the pulp has been collected from the bottom of the tub, it is stuffed into bamboo and cooked over a fire.  The consistency becomes something like partially hardened Play-Doh or chalky gummy bears.  There isn't much of a flavor, but it all depends on how it's cooked.  There are a million ways to cook sago (comparable to the number of recipes for Bisquick), but the most popular is definitely plainly in bamboo.  We later heard of more appetizing ways to prepare it, such as with coconut milk in pancake form (didn't have opportunity to sample this).

Having gone on this adventure, we earned the title of bus meri. :) I'd say it was worth it, even if I got too many mosquito bites to count.

**there aren't any pictures because by this point, my camera battery had died. :(