Mary Heebner
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"Papua New Guinea Up Close"
Islands Magazine

text by © Mary Heebner
photos by © Macduff Everton

My husband and I, in our twenty years traveling together, usually let serendipity be our guide—a style I don’t associate with cruises. What appealed to me about expedition cruises was its emphasis on smaller ships with itineraries that offered extended land time and destinations off the beaten track. We signed on for a cruise to visit little known and hard to reach places in Papua New Guinea, a series of islands that seemed to me the farthest away from what is familiar, and that was its allure. Tauck World Discovery chartered a small luxury ship, the Orion, for eighty-five guests all of whom were world-savvy travelers and many of whom had traveled before with Tauck on over a dozen trips. As one loyal Tauckee quipped, “Honey, you don’t get screwed with Tauck and I know I’m gonna be pleased when I get home!” We were to be indulged in style by Orion’s seventy-five crewmembers including an award-winning chef, for twelve days of exploration, using Zodiac boats to maneuver us into less accessible areas. Still, I’m skeptical. After all, this is a guided itinerary, with pre-planned stops. I wonder whether a cruise, even one with an emphasis on sea and land expedition, and a staff that was knowledgeable about the natural and cultural world, can deliver an experience that rings true for us. Will there be any chance to make real connections with the place and people? And if so, how? Then, I met Justin Friend, introduced to me as Orion’s expedition guru.

The Orion anchors at dawn after our overnight voyage across the Bismarck Sea. We start our first Zodiac outing in the midst of the South Pacific Ocean, near the mouth of the mighty Sepik River in Papua New Guinea, heading for the small village of Watam. A beautiful green dragonfly, its wings beating gracefully up and down like syncopated oars, emerges from the early morning haze and flutters towards our cotillion of eight motorized rubber boats. As it approaches, the rumble of a Yamaha motor reveals my dragonfly to be a small craft crammed with villagers in full ‘bilas’ - finery – fanning the air with delicate fronds of palm. As they close in, suddenly the villagers shout threats and make to hurl spears at us, jolting me from my reverie. Once they ascertain we are friend not foe, we are escorted to shore, where the rest of the 400 kind villagers of Watam have turned out to greet us. I turn to our guide, Justin Friend, and ask him how on earth did they know when we were coming? “Well it’s complicated. I’ve only done this a few times and, after all, these remote Sepik villages have no electricity, no phones, no email, no outside visitors, no post.” He continued, “So, what I do is email a linguist who works with a village at the end of the road —literally, at the road’s end—and then the message is conveyed from village to village solely by garamut drum, which is basically a hollow log, till it gets all the way up to Watam, around sixty nautical miles! The message comes back received in the same manner, by village drumbeat, and on down the road.” “Everyone in the village has a signature pattern. I’m a drummer myself, and learning the patterns was far too complicated, so when I use the garamut drum I just beat out some nonsense, and if it sounds like nonsense to them, they say, ‘oh, that must be Justin trying to reach the chief!’”

“Remember,” he continued, “all the while you are photographing, shopping and talking with these folks, you’re entertainment for them!” Entertainment indeed! Papua New Guinea is the world’s second largest island, after Greenland, where over eight million people live a largely subsistence life. In local tok pisin, the lingua franca of this area that boasts a skein of over 800 distinct languages wound among its steep mountains, valleys and zillions of islands, we outsiders are simply, not maliciously, called dim-dims. Dim as in witted, and we rate a double. Justin’s words resonate as I look around. We are a pretty funny lot, faces all zinced up with sunscreen, large floppy hats, loose baggy clothing mostly in the khaki shade, dark googly eyeglasses and metallic devices round our necks that we hold up and point directly at people as if to see them better. If I see a dragonfly coming towards us, one can only wonder what they see approaching them!

After our Zodiac beaches, I hop out in ankle deep water and walk towards a woman adorned with colorful shells and plants and she daubs some fuchsia-hued goo on my cheek, a paste made from the annatto seed, as a gesture of welcome. I pass through a curtain of palm frond, and bow my head to accept a lei of sweet-smelling frangipani blossoms. Then the dragon appears!—a gigantic, thrumming, multi-legged dragon, with the head of an enormous scarlet-faced feathered being astonishingly manifest through a clutch of pandanus, feathers, leaves, paint and shells. We follow the dragon along an immaculate path into the village proper. A large, raised wood and thatch men’s house, then similar structures in which extended families of each of the seven clans live, flank both sides of a common area, which is more like a grassy thoroughfare. Here, the dragon disassembles into a score of men, each embellished with body paint, shells, bone, tusks and feathers, dancing up a storm. They sing. They soar like birds. They rattle like serpents. How could one not marvel at these muscled, copper-colored men whose plumage rivals exotic male birds, and whose skin carries the scent of sweet red dye and coconut oil? Home to them is to me one of the most exotic destinations I’ve ever traveled, but how is it possible that I am welcomed into their home without spending months, years, getting to know this place?

Justin Friend, lives up to his name—an amiable soul with a Santa Claus frame and a heart to match. Curiosity pulled this Aussie from a good job working on the Great Barrier Reef into the wilds of Papua New Guinea. He wanted to experience life in the villages, and in the beginning, he just showed up, with his indefatigable, trusting grin and people took him in. “I knew the moment I came here that this area was ripe for a new sort of tourism. I learned very quickly that the best way to know Papua New Guinea was to meet someone.”

A centuries old clan system of relationship and alliance means that when you meet someone it inevitably opens the door into an entire network of family and friends. Justin plied the coastline in a small outboard, journeyed up rivers and into the highlands, learned Pidgin, fell in love with a Highland woman and married her, savored the local cuisine, including sago palm (“tastes like warm snot”), built a home, and even became a village chief. The friendships Mr. Friend cultivated over the last dozen years multiplied and deepened. This is why, arriving to a series of islands, practically falling off the edges of most maps, we are able to enter and be welcomed as honored guests into Papua New Guinean villages in a way travelers rarely experience. Over the next twelve days, Watam, Bilbil, Kofure, Panapompom, and Kitava, would become much more than pinpoints on a map of the vast Pacific.

The dancers regroup for a formal presentation of school supplies, medicine and clothing that Tauck brought to the seven clan chiefs and the schoolmistress. A market place is in full swing, as the people from Watam and from neighboring villages spread their wares. Getting into the groove, we dim-dims, with the bright pink dye now drizzling down our sweaty cheeks, begin accumulating shell necklaces, carved walking sticks, masks, bowls, toy birds and boats. We become walking assemblages of both worlds as this spree brings glee to shoppers and sellers alike.

“By the way,” Justin adds with a grin as he watches Macduff select a golden kina shell necklace for me to try on, “in the contract we made with the chiefs here, the Spirit-being that led us into the village was duly noted as ‘Mr. Dragon.” Over the course of the afternoon, villagers also took note how I called to my husband, for when we climb back into the Zodiac, now laden with such a rainbow of handmade objects it looks more like a carnival float than a black rubber boat, they wave, “Goodbye Miss Mary! Goodbye Mister Sweetie!”

Leaving Watam, the Orion motors a few miles north to the mouth of the 850-mile long Sepik River, and we use the Zodiacs again, this time to watch white tailed eagle and Brahiminy kites soar and hunt along the riverbanks. We cross a distinct divide in the water where freshwater discharges from the thousand foot deep river mouth into the teal colored Bismarck Sea. The powerful, serpentine Sepik has no actual delta—no brackish-water mangroves— and a surge of river water leaves a mud-colored birthmark on the Bismarck Sea as far as fifty miles out, so that even outlying islands can scoop up sweet water. In late afternoon, we head south towards Madang, and dolphins dart across our bow as cottony clouds grow into monster-clouds close to the horizon.

Six AM sketch: We glide along the Dallman Passage approaching the entrance to Madang’s beautiful harbor in Astrolabe Bay, and hill beyond hazy hill overlaps like a watercolor from which pencil thin streams of smoke rise. I love this silent time when the world awakes to bird chatter, the putter-put of overloaded water taxis, fishermen, kids hallooing to us from front yards as laundry hangs motionless in the sultry air.

From the dock, the smell of toasted coconut seasons the air, for copra is processed here to extract its oil, for soaps, and food. A group of beautifully ornamented kids and adults welcome the ship with song and dance. To their feather and shell headdresses, they’ve cleverly added white doves cut from cardboard boxes, a touch that would make any collage artist proud. We transfer from ship to small busses to check out the bustling Madang market, and a nearby village, Bilbil. Afterwards, we head for the bar at Madang Resort, the main hangout in a town straight out of Somerset Maugham, with its desultory colonial feel. On the way, we walk past a group of ladies seated along the river bank. Justin chuckles, “This here is called the ‘lean down market’, because you have to lean down to buy their smoked fish, and produce.” Over South Pacific beers, we recap our visit to Bilbil earlier that morning. Their ancestors were great seamen, sailing two masted canoes for hundreds of miles along the coast, trading their wood-fired containers made of river clay for food and other items they lacked on their little islet just offshore Madang. Now their village has relocated to the mainland and their wares are decorative, small enough for a tourist’s pack, but still made in the original way, as they demonstrated to us. Eschewing potter’s wheel and coil, they press into a solid chunk of clay, alternatively spanking it into shape and hollowing it, as if it were a carving—not unlike gouging out a log to make a canoe.

As we leave Madang, cruising past green hills tattooed with shadows, we head for Cape Nelson’s volcanic fjords and the bay of Tufi. At starboard, mammatus clouds funnel into the last day-glo sliver of orange until a blanket of grey flannel mist swallows the sun. Later, around midnight, my husband and I go onto the deck and watch the gleaming white wake of the ship split apart the stark black sea, as a few stars glitter among the clouds.

At sunrise, I see the long arm of Cape Nelson stretching into the oily calm Solomon Sea. A massive surge of lava from three volcanoes created fingerlike tropical fjords nearly three hundred feet deep that rise another 450 feet into the moist blue sky. The mysterious fjords are protected by a healthy coral reef system. We ride in outrigger canoes with paddlers into a mangrove-thick world of bird beauty to a garden area below the Kofure village at Tufi. “Shhh, if you are quiet you can hear the birds!” remarks one of our group, chiding the others for chattering away the morning stillness. Foliage mirrored in the water fractures into a green mosaic. Mangrove roots and their reflection create diamond patterns, chevrons, and wiggles, the selfsame designs that appear as motifs on the tapa bark cloth for which this area is famous.

By now I know the drill: singing and dancing, time for photos, and a demonstration. It’s not that I am becoming blasé; it is because this is becoming less 'other'. As the abstract gets real, I take a closer look. Village ‘subsistence’ gardens all contain flowers and colorful ornamentals planted deliberately for adornment, dance, and for sheer pleasure in their beauty. There is plenty of food— mangoes, yam, taro, sago, greens, fish and fresh water. Clothing is now either traditional weave of bark cloth and grasses, or Missionary style floral muumuus or the ubiquitous T-shirt. The average life ends at 54. School supplies are meager and while English is now the official language, replacing the tok pidgin that originated in the colonial era when different villagers worked the mines, the plantations and the fields, their original languages are still spoken, not lost. I now regard the villagers as the ultimate hosts, entertaining and sharing with us a smidgen of what it is like to live here, graciously putting up with dim-dim dogged eagerness.

Every village entertained us, welcomed us and showed us such courtesy. In Bilbil we saw how pots were fired. In Tufi we learned how the pithy center of a sago palm was washed, shredded and baked into a loaf and then wrapped seamlessly for storage using only leaves. In Panapompom, we met one extended family—the remains of what was once Australian Dusty Miller’s copra plantation—who comprised the entire population of the island. In Kitava, one of the Trobriand Islands, we hiked to the village above the beach where women were plaiting pandanus leaves into mats as their babies slept under netting. We learned about the cycle of reciprocal giving and receiving called the Kula Ring that bound islanders for miles across treacherous seas in an ongoing exchange network of trust and alliance. On an uninhabited islet called Nivani, or as I call it, Nirvana, we snorkeled in the heat of day over a submerged Japanese Zero, and were indulged by the Orion crew with ice cream bars served from a cooler afloat in the water. Every visit ended with the marketplace, and exchanges that were utterly familiar. What had seemed exotic in the faraway became strikingly recognizable in the nearby. Kids showed us their classrooms, mothers and fathers showed us their babies, and we showed photos and traded addresses, baseball caps and purses.

In Kofure village I ask to remain behind in between two groups’ visits from the ship. I mistakenly believe I will be able to wander about looking, making some sketches, perhaps playing with the children. But, it soon becomes obvious that after their formal welcome to our initial band of 30, where kids belted out the National Anthem with the gusto of Mama Cass, and dancers danced and the performers—many of them with full body paint or facial tattoos—willingly posed for photos, that they were done. They want a break before the next group of ours comes to this spit of sand below the village proper and here was this dim-dim – what was I still doing here? Was I OK? What should they do? In this very traditional and scarcely traveled place, the kind and hospitable people wondered what the hell to do with me. The chief, Mr. Josiah Suruba, put me with his wife, Ivy Elsie, and so we sit, and, as gals do, check each other out. She tries on my bracelet. I admire her tapa cloth. She notices my woven bag from the Peruvian Amazon, counts the strands, makes a mental note of the pattern, distinct but similar to the New Guinean billim bags, and then her eye turns to four of her five children, whom she introduces as they gather around her and this stranger on a wood plank between two logs. She nudges me and nudges me again down the plank, I finally realize, to afford me more shade as the sun nibbles away at our bench. She offers me refreshing pineapple. I pull out photos of my mother Claire and my granddaughter Aida Claire and a gathering group of ladies comes closer jockeying to take a look. A few of them have full-face tattoos and others sport soccer jerseys. Then when the boat comes for me, Ivy Elsie stands. Perhaps to be spared another sight of the ungainliness she noticed when I first slung my bag, camera, hat and notebook about like a flailing hooked fish or perhaps it is just her natural graciousness, but Ivy Elsie insists on carrying my bags to the boatman. The relieved villagers shout good-byes, knowing they took good care of this dim dim as they wave her on her way.

On our final day in Papua New Guinea, we sail from Cape Nelson to Alotau in Milne Bay, where a shipping agent boards to help those passengers who wish the convenience of sending their treasures home. Piles of booty fill the lounge. After I list my items, the agent admires a few. She has no idea where we have been, what we have done. To her, we are clients on a fancy ship – nothing more. As I tell her how I acquired a certain inlaid bowl from an ancient man with smiling eyes, I unexpectedly feel a surge of emotion, as my recollection is so vivid. I tell her how we came all the way to Papua New Guinea on this expedition cruise to meet the people and learn something of their islands and culture. I mention that we brought school supplies, medicine, children’s clothing, for villages along the Sepik, the Trobriands, Madang Province, and even a one-family islet named Panapompom. She spontaneously reaches for my hand, saying “Thank you, Thank you so much.” “No, thank you and this amazing country”, I reply. Again, she returns the thanks, holding my hand. The ring of islands we visited, strung together with mesmerizing days at sea, ends in this handclasp. Our own Kula ring of giving and receiving, defines this expedition.