Captain Write-Off

Part 1 of The Trip to Onei

Sebby, a translator from Sumo, was waiting for me when I arrived at the Arop translation center. He was to be my guide for the next six days, but he surprised me. He wanted to go to the village of Onei before going to his home in the village of Sumo. I thought, why not? Our Survey department had asked me before what I knew about the language situation in Onei, and I didn’t know much. Maybe I could find some things. I agreed to go.

Sebby kept looking at me intently.

“Now?” I asked.

“Now,” he said.

I was in no shape to go now. I had just packed up a house in the highland mountains the day before, got up that morning at 5:00 AM, and caught one of our mission planes to Aitape, where Debbie and I bought some food at the market. We had just sat in the back of a pickup truck for an hour and a half with nearly a dozen others, traveling on a gravel road riddled with potholes, to Arop. I still had to repack my bags to go walking through the jungle with Sebby.

I had tried to text Sebby to confirm the date with him the week before, but his phone was out of power, a pretty common experience in a place without power lines. Phones are recharged here by solar panels. Sebby never got the text and showed up a day early.

A group of young guys with sour expressions stood with Sebby. I figured they didn’t like me putting them off a day, but instead they wanted 100 kina (a little less than $40) for petrol. “One moment,” I said. I got the requested money out of the house and paid up. Expressions instantly switched to big smiles.

The next day, Sebby and I walked maybe a couple of miles to Wauroiyn. He told me the captain’s nickname was “Write-Off.” I got the idea that Write-Off was the sort of character to watch carefully. He was a stocky man with an upside-down smile.

Captain Write-Off

Captain Write-Off

We got into the dinghy, followed the river back and forth down to the lagoon, and boated maybe a half dozen miles across the lagoon to the place where it joins the Pacific Ocean. Write-Off stopped there for more petrol. He came to me and said, “Boss…” I thought, uh-oh. Sure enough, he wanted another 100 kina. If I refused to pay, we could be stranded. I heard a very similar story before from another missionary, who had no choice but to pay. I glanced over at Sebby. He had his phone out, looking at texts. Not good. I thought I had no choice but to protest.

Complaints in this culture mean yelling so the whole community knows that some grievance needs to be resolved. To an American who has never seen the custom before, it looks like a tirade. I didn’t think this case deserved that big of a scene, but I did put some heat in my voice, and a couple of Papua New Guineans heard me. “You asked me for 100 kina,” I said. “Now you ask me for another 100 kina. You think I’m made of money?…”

Write-Off’s face turned to grief. Sebby came to act as intermediary. He told Write-Off to put it on credit.

Write-Off’s request was legitimate.

He went off to wherever he needed to go for petrol while Sebby and I stayed in the boat. I checked with Sebby privately to be sure Write-Off wasn’t stealing from us. Sebby told me that Write-Off had waived his fee for us, and was only asking for enough money to pay for petrol. I dug out another 100 kina out of a pocket in my backpack and handed it to a young guy who was sitting in the boat us. He ran off to give it to Write-Off.

When Write-Off returned with fuel, Sebby continued to act as intermediary. He laughed and slapped Write-Off on the back. “’Ha! ‘Write-Off’ has other meanings in English. Steve was confused. He thought you were no good.”

Write-Off scowled at me. “I’m a good man. I don’t do this for a business.”

I knew then I would need to apologize. Just saying “I’m sorry” is a white-man’s custom, and would not be enough. In this culture, a gift must be given to the offended party.

We headed out into open ocean in a dinghy. Write-Off opened up the engine and the boat slapped the water as we went. We followed the coastline for maybe 20 miles. Small fishing boats with triangular sails of black, white, and yellow appeared far out in the water. Sheer-sided mountains covered with trees met the Pacific Ocean for much of this distance, and in some places, waves smacked rock and sprayed upward with a boom.

We rounded an outcropping of rock and found a sandy beach. Sebby stood up and yelled, “I’m Sebby!” He said something else I didn’t catch, but either the proper custom had been fulfilled, or permission had been granted. Write-Off pointed the boat to beach. The engine roared. My first thought was, “We’re gonna crash!” but I had an idea what he was doing. The dinghy hit the beach at a fair speed, driving most of the boat up on the sand. Some children had already appeared. I learned later they run for the shore whenever they hear a boat engine. Some adults appeared, too, and everyone worked together to pull the boat well up onto the beach, where it would be safe from the ocean’s tide.

Pulling the boat at Onei

Pulling the boat onto the beach at the village of Onei.

I didn’t know if I would ever see Write-Off again. I quickly pulled out a packet of coffee from my backpack. I touched his shoulder to get his attention and said, “Mi tok sori,” meaning, “I’m saying sorry,” and gave him the coffee. He looked up with surprise and a smile. Restitution had been made.

Part II: Not Dead Yet

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4 Responses

  1. Catherine Hahn says:

    I love your stories….colorful, well written, and amazingly real.

  2. You make it so real, I felt like I was there!

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