* by guest story-teller Steve Doenges a.k.a. Dad [with occasional commentary from Steph]
Our eyes opened at 5:15 to Wednesday, December 22--the day we would be able to hug Stephanie. [Sniff, sniff.] This was also the day that Mom's throat decided to partner with "sore." We grabbed a quick self service continental breakfast and were on our way to the domestic terminal of the airport by 6:15. Upon inquiring about the streets already being busy with people gathering and walking, the explanation was that the day started "when daylight came."
Due to the nearness of Christmas day, the airport was crowded--so crowded that security had roped off an area guarding the entrance. [In 25 years of traveling through POM, Dr. Jim said it was the worst he had ever seen. Now that's bad.] Since the luggage carts had disappeared due to high demand, we had to lug them from the van to the first of several "Checkpoint Charlies" and show flight itinerary. Some of us stayed with the luggage at the curb, some carried, and some stayed with the luggage inside. The 2nd checkpoing Charlie was a quick moving security scan. This is when Dad felt in his pocket and realized he had stolen the room key from the mission guest house. (It was supposed to be left at the check-in window.) However, the emptying of pockets was not necessary here as Dr. Jim instructed us not to take anything out of pockets or carry-ons unless told.
We then entered the mass chaos chorale of people. The thought of mooing came to mind but we decided to ignore that for fear of starting a stampede. In getting familiar with the surroundings, we eventually noticed that the 7 counter positions had designation signs indicating the different flights. Once that was recognized, one could make out the pseudo lines of sorts. It was almost 7:00 by then and the "Hagen" flight was nearest to us and we crammed in with everyone else. The departure was for 9:05--we made it!
However, after 45 minutes of moving forward 3 feet, we were starting to doubt the "we made it!" thought. Somehow along the way of the masses, Mom and Dad got in front of the Radcliffes. This was not a desirable location! As if in a maternity situation, the doctor behind us soon started shouting at us to "keep pushing" and thus making the crowd buldge all the more. (The question came to mind as to why the line wasn't moooving at all. There were two reasons--one, people were not only checking in but several were purchasing tickets on the spot and two, when someone did make it to the counter, 7 other would come out of thin air to join "the family" at the counter.) Another "keep pushing" was heard from the back. We thought that at any moment the bulge was going to "pop" all of us through the security held line. After an eternity of minutes of having a pitiful look on our face, and the need of pushing had stopped, the security guard unhooked the rope and gave us the nod to enter the next line--the short ticketing line. Due to the gringo looking similarities, the Radcliffes were also able to break through before the guards closed the opening. Only three in camo were in front of. Once at the counter, the suitcases were hosted up to pass over the scale. All were tagged as "heavy" and we feared that an argument would follow about extra fees. But our worries were unnecessary as the agent understood that we were entering from the U.S.
With passports displayed, Mom and Dad received their boarding passes and were free of the luggage that now felt like twice our body weight. Uncertain of where to go next, we finally were directed to the forth and final checkpoint Charlie. Shoes again were left on. Against all hope, we at last entered the one (an only one) waiting room of the terminal. Unbelievably, it was a half hour before boarding.
Upon seeing the Radcliffes arriving 5 minutes later, Dad checked his shirt pocket for his iPod, then checked the carry-on bag, then checked all again. He came to the conclusion that he must have left it in the little container at the last x-ray machine. Dr. Jim joined him in going back, asking security if an iPod was found. The answer was negative, but a passenger said he noticed a young boy picking up a device like an iPod. He offered to identify the thief and scanned the crowd but didn't see anyone of resemblance. As Dr. Jim went to have an announcement made, Dad searched the carry-ons one more time--and of course found it buried in the bottom of Mom's bag. We had switched bags after receiving our boarding passes.
The one hour flight seemed only minutes, especially after the flight over the "big lake." The wheels of the plane touched the miniature runway (again in PNG style--with a hard drop) and taxied over to the two room terminal. (Speaking of wheels, the million people living in the Highlands were not known to exist until 1930. The prevailing thought of the years before was that the mountains between the eastern and western shores of PNG were too rugged to be populated. However, upon crossing the first range of mountains in May of 1930, gold seekers found a valley filled with people and garden plots. In seeing white men for the first time, the Highlanders thought the explorers were spirits of their ancestors. The wheel had not been invented here! Then after 75 years, cell phones arrived.)
Pleasant mountain plains and views were fabulous as we came down the steps and headed over to the small one story building that was labeled "Kagamuga Airport." Outside the lined fence were many PNGers also waiting for their family to arrive for Christmas. Steph snuck past the man at the security door while he was distracted. [Not true! I asked to come inside and didn't take "no" for an answer.] So she was in the passenger side of baggage claim to greet us with open arms and a big PNG smile.
This time there was no conveyor belt for luggage pickup. Upon looking back at the plane, the large luggage carts were being loaded. Soon they were pulled over to the waiting passengers. We looked like cattle stampeding hay wagons. All were found except Lydia's suitcase which was recovered the next day. This is one airport that actually checked the baggage claim against the baggage tag before stepping through the door and entering the new world of the PNG Western Highlands province!