Alotau, Milne Bay
The first man I saw with a bloody red-blotched mouth had me wondering what on earth he could possibly have eaten to make it so stained. It looked as if he gargled some red cool aid and forgot to rinse his mouth. Then I noticed more of them. In fact, I had to start looking for someone with normal white teeth. Everyone’s mouths are blood red, teeth at times non-existent, men and woman alike. The elderly man under the tree must have noticed my bemused expression at these interesting red- lipped people, so when he approached me I could detect the ‘something’ in his hand. “ Halo my friend, can I have your telephone number” is the first thing he asks me. “ Here is mine.” He rambles off a number and presumes I remembered all the digits. I don’t know if he is being serious and his friend just smiles at me with his incredibly red stained mouth. “ What is this you guys eat, that makes your mouths so red?” I had to ask. What followed was a brief introduction to consuming Betel nut (kaikai buai), Papua New Guinea style. Mister Peter probably hasn’t trimmed his nails in many years, but he has an incredibly nimble way of demonstrating this age-old tradition to me in the middle of a busy bus rank in the town of Alotau. “ You peel and core the nut with your teeth, then place the fruit part in your mouth. You take the mustard stick (daka) and dip it into the crushed coral lime (cumbung) and place it in your mouth. Chew. Keep chewing, and whatever you do, don’t swallow. When you are ready, you can spit out the red saliva that builds up. Go on, try some kaikai buai.” I love trying new things and don’t feel like being just another dimdim, so I follow Peters decree and within seconds after masticating the tart concoction, for a brief while, I feel like I am a plastic pink panther walking on the other side of the moon. I feel weightless and fabulously amazing, but at the same time as if I have electricity running through my veins. My eyes can’t focus on one thing at a time and I feel like I want to talk to everyone that has now crowded around me. Although I have a slight feeling of paranoia coming over me, I also feel incredibly relieved and happy. I wobble away, not knowing how long this is going to last, asking locals along the way what I can do stop tripping. They laugh at me, but not in a nasty way. I laugh with the strangers and I immediately fall in love with this incredibly friendly, colourful and mysterious place, my red stained teeth and I.
You kinda need the feathers to look cool with red teeth
People from all over PNG annually trek down to Alotau for the Milne Bay Kundu and Canoe festival. We are lucky to be here over that time of the year. Papua New Guinea is definitely among one of the best places in the world to see people dressed in traditional regalia. Like the beautiful birds of paradise in nature, the men wear fantastically colourful headgear that no words can properly describe. The women on the other hand wear simple reed woven bands with white chicken feathers on their heads. These people are so humble and beautiful. The amount of times we are greeted is insane – everyone wants to say hello. I see so many interesting faces and I asked many of them the simple question: ”Inap mi kisim poto blong yu?” Not once am I told off or said no to. The Papuans seem to love having their photos taken, at least in this area of this vastly scattered Megadiverse Island.
Friendly children are everywhere
Men will spend months hunting for specific birds to decorate their elaborate headdresses while woman use only chicken feathers
Faces of PNG
Kitava – Trobriand Island
The lightning splits the tempestuous dark morning sky more frequently than I can inhale in five-second intervals and with every crack of intense thunder I can feel the beautiful energy of the approaching cyclone. We are in the low-lying coral islands of The Trobriands, and just saying the name Trobriand to myself while I watch tropical cyclone Ita pour her large teary raindrops over the ocean has me missing the people of the small island of Kitava before even meeting them.
Tropical low over the Trobriands
We are the first people off the tender. Tam has to set up a medical centre ashore for the day because there is no infrastructure whatsoever on the island. We step onto the white sand that is highly contrasted by the dark looming skies. At first we wondered where all the locals are because it is almost eerily quiet, only the tropical wind is whispering through the palms. Then, similarly to if you had to spot a tree kangaroo in the thick jungle for the first time, I saw them. Hunched up and huddled together sheltered from the rain, the men woman and children were taking refuge from the deluge under the canopies of the broad-leafed trees. Beady eyed and red mouthed they were ready to trade and sell beautiful artefacts and shells that often were passed down by generations; they smiled at us and I immediately felt an incredible sense that this is the real deal. We have experienced many encounters with local islanders in other parts of the world, but on this remote place the genuine smiles and inquisitiveness of the people made me realise that not many foreigners come here. We hand out some storybooks and stationary to the kids and even as I write this I get tears in my eyes; I give a group of boys a soccer ball as a gift and they jumped, and sang out in joy like I have never seen. They run off in the rain with the ball while the wet white sand becomes the pitch for a long over due game of footy.
Not a bad place for an office, Tam hard at work
These boys were so stoked with the ball I gave them that it helped me appreciate all the things I have in my life even more and not to ever take the small things for granted. Their appreciation is what made this trip one of the most beautiful experiences of my travels around the world.
5 Kina to cross the deep trench separating the smaller island and you get an experience of a life time if you choose to do it on a dugout like this. I couldn’t get enough!
You wont find this one on a map, guaranteed. A piece of paradise separated from the already small Trobriand Island of Kitava.
At first I thought someone lit a match and then placed it back into the matchbox to set the whole thing alight. I used to do that as a kid and that smell is as distinct as most things when it burns. There was no one standing next to me though so it could only be one thing; Mount Tavurvur. I could see it in the distance with smoke coming out of the crater, sulphur filling the air. Neither one of us have ever seen an active volcano so this one of the highlights of our visit to PNG.
Almost the whole of the old town of Rabaul is buried under deep, black volcanic ash. When Tavurvur erupted its brother, Mt Vulcan, on the west of the bay also blew its top. When we stand at the top of the bay overlooking Rabaul one can just imagine the sight when both these volcanoes erupted at the same time. The whole of the town was destroyed but according to our cabdriver no one died during these eruptions. When we drove towards the Rababa spring at the foot of Mt Tavurvur we could see construction vehicles busy working to dig up the ash. This is going to take many years, as the area is massive. As we drive over the black volcanic sand toward the spring our cabbie explains what is underneath us. “Here we are driving over what used to be the golf course, the clubhouse was over there. This whole area used to be Chinatown.” “ Over there was the BSP bank, and over there was the market area.” Everything is under the ash. Here and there a building stands out but most of it is dilapidated. It is hard to imagine that a whole town is buried underneath the moonlike landscape.
Just like when I witnessed the Alaskan glaciers shaping our planet by moving and crunching their way through rock, I watch on as the smoke plumes out of this magnificent volcano, and looking around me I can see how it has changed this piece of Earth dramatically. It is still active and can blow its top many times over. We can’t control when it will happen.
We can control so many aspects of our lives, but we just can’t control things like volcanoes and the weather. Cyclone Ita has been following us on this whole trip and because of safety issues we have to head back to Australia earlier. It has grown in size and some fear that it is going to cause more damage than Yassi in 2011. From Rabaul we sailed to Kiriwina Island and after making an assessment we decided it’s unsafe to tender ashore. My heart sank deeper than the volcanic ashes reach over Rabaul when the captain announced that we have to cut the trip short and get the hell out of there. An earthquake, 5.1 on the Richter scale, struck PNG two days after we left the edge of the reef at Kiriwina Island and the cyclone grew into a category 5 storm destroying many houses and small villages. We were lucky.
Children playing on the black volcanic sand, most probably standing on top of a building now underground
I feel like there is unfinished business here in Papua New Guinea. From what I have heard and researched the surf is unbelievable. For my Papuan totem I could only fill my bank baggie half full with some black volcanic sand and need to go back to fill it. So how about it my surfing friends, lets tailor a surf trip to a place off the beaten path where your encounters with the Melanesian culture and daily intake of mind blowing scenery will leave you feeling like a graduate from the School of Enlightenment.
The colour of our skin is different and my shorts may have contrasting stripes, but for a brief while I felt like one of their tribe.