The next morning, back in Ulapunguna, John is sitting on his haunches, hands over the fire, head down. There are no flowers or ferns in his curly black hair. He is deeply agitated.
Joshua says the spirits of Kopao came to John in the night. The skulls spoke to him. The black sockets had red eyes like some nocturnal bush creature. The skulls said they had seen John bring a white man into the sacred place. They had heard John tell the secret story to the white man, and they were angry. This was a story for the Meakambut, not for the white man.
John is worried that the spirits might punish him by killing Lidia. He has a bad feeling. He wants to leave immediately, run out of the mountains to the river and paddle downstream to wherever she is. I am to blame for his fears and feel as if I have betrayed these people.
Belief in sorcery and witchcraft is common throughout Papua New Guinea. Amnesty International cites media reports stating that 50 people accused of sorcery were murdered in 2008; some were burned alive. British author Edward Marriott describes in his 1996 book, The Lost Tribe, how he was blamed when a woman and four children were killed by a lightning strike, and he was forced to flee for his life. If Lidia dies, it is likely that I will be blamed.
We explain to John that paddling downstream will take several days and that our motor dugout is expected back upstream tomorrow, when we can take him to the clinic in Amboin. Satisfied with the plan, John surprises us by admitting that his people ran out of food yesterday, so today they must make sago. When I suggest we go hunting instead, he shakes his head.
We follow Mark and his wife, Jelin, to the sago camp. Making sago is an arduous operation. Mark hacks out pulp from the heart of a felled palm tree; the pulp is transferred to a trough filled with water, and Jelin squeezes it against a coconut-husk filter, pressing out an orangish white paste. The group works for six hours, glistening with sweat, slowly fatiguing. By late afternoon they've collected 40 pounds of gummy sago—not bad for an afternoon's work—and we head back to Ulapunguna as the rain begins.
That night it's fire-fried sago pancakes for dinner. Sago is a carbohydrate with essentially no protein, fat, vitamins, or minerals. Although John had made it clear they were proud to be hunters and that they shot a pig every week, we haven't seen any meat.
John, Joshua, and I sit by the fire, chewing the bland, gummy pancakes, talking late into the night. John begins to let down his guard. He admits that his group hasn't eaten meat or killed a pig for over three months. He is deeply worried for his people. He says that there used to be several hundred Meakambut. Now they lose two babies for every one that lives. He says that there are no pigs left in the mountains, no cassowaries in the jungle, no fish in the streams. When the campfire dies out, John whispers something he wants me to pass on to the government of Papua New Guinea. It is a message.
Just after daybreak the Embarakal group begin decorating themselves for the journey out of the mountains. The men stripe their faces with black and orange; the women blanket their skin with dots. In a climate where clothes are superfluous, this is how you dress up for special occasions.
We reach a camp called Wakau, halfway to the river, by noon. Resting here in the oppressive heat, we suddenly catch human hoots drifting down from the mountains—it is the rest of the Meakambut returning over the ridge. The Embarakal group decides to join them, and John asks me to find Lidia, Michael, and the baby and send them home when they are well. Privately, I am relieved that John is not coming with us. I worry what would happen if Lidia has died.
We reach the motor dugout late in the afternoon and travel downstream until dark, eventually reaching the riverside village of Awim. Stepping from the dugout, we are shocked to learn that Lidia and the others are all here. The only working clinic in the region had no supplies to help her.
But Lidia is still alive. Simple antibiotics have saved her. She is still weak and unable to walk, so we put her on an IV drip for the night. Michael and his son are recovering as well. By dawn, Lidia is able to smile and rise unsteadily to her feet, although she is still hacking.
At breakfast, I find Sebastian Haraha sitting by the campfire. He hands me a cup of coffee and motions for me to sit beside him. He was compelled to temporarily abandon his plan of mapping the Meakambut's caves—the goal of which is to save their habitat, and thus ensure the continuation of their culture in the future—in order to save their lives in the present. He says the choice was clear. He is a human first, an ethnographer second.
"Protecting the caves? What does it matter—if there are no Meakambut left?" asks Sebastian. He is angry. Lidia's close call has shaken him.
"The Meakambut are on the edge of extinction. They are dying from easily treatable illnesses. In ten years they could be completely gone, and their culture and language would vanish. This is one of the last nomadic people in Papua New Guinea!"
He is obviously appalled, but also energized.
"When I get back to Port Moresby, I'm going to walk straight into the prime minister's office and do something." I nod in agreement, then pass along John's message verbatim:
"We, the Meakambut people, will give up hunting and always moving and living in the mountain caves if the government will give us a health clinic and a school, and two shovels and two axes, so we can build homes."