Heading West to dimdim-mania

We headed west, bound for the island of Panapompom where the two yacht rallies, one from NZ and the other from Australia, had arranged to convene and complete an en masse customs and quarantine clearance. We’d been in touch with both, and in return for carrying aid they’d agreed to include us in their clearance process. It was an offer too good to turn down, the alternative being a long trip West to the mainland, with the accompanying potential safety issues and the long beat back to Aus from there.

But the trip was more than one day’s sail so we made two stops on the way, wanting to catch up with some friends in a couple of villages as we passed. In Hessessai Bay we arrived with a huge spanish mackerel surplus to our fridge capacity that we could give to our friends Nathaniel and Claudette as a gift, and they reciprocated by inviting us to a meal the following evening. When invited of course we accept and it’s lovely to be asked, but none of us go anticipating any culinary treats, more a dutiful trudge through plates of taro, sweet potato, sago and other largely tasteless morsels. On this occasion they had killed a chicken in our honour, so there was a nice chicken curry to add a bit of flavour. But inexplicably they insisted that we ate while they watched, leaving us hoping that they had sufficient food for their family to eat later (they said they did) and feeling thoroughly awkward. We couldn’t figure out the protocol behind this.

Our second stop was at PanaUmala, where we were keen to catch up with three or four friends but disappointed to find that they’d all taken off to Misima on sailing canoes to sell fish or attend infant clinics, and in fact none of them were there. Still, we wandered through the partially deserted village and found one or two people we recognised, including the mother whom we’d rescued from the outer reef with her newborn baby about a month ago. True to their word they had named the boy after one of us, the little chap now proudly bearing the name of our youngest Jacob. When we told Jakey about his new namesake he seemed singularly unimpressed, which seems a bit off given how few of us could make such a claim!

Then onwards to Panapompom, where we arrived to find 12 or so yachts already anchored, and watched amazed as 20 or so more arrived over the next day. This was the two yacht rallies and quite a culture shock it was for us, who for the last year had barely had one other yacht to share a bay with, now surrounded by them!. And not just any yachties, but two groups of boats who’d been travelling together for awhile and were full of high spirited bravado and back-slapping piss-taking . One group invited us to drinks on their boat, and Rebecca and I sat exchanging amazed glances amidst the deafening hubbub of 12 or so friends meeting, drinking, and talking over each other. This probably sounds ridiculous, but we’re so not used to this – what must have been completely normal for us just over a year ago. It was great though, and it showed us that there might be a wee culture adjustment when we get home!

We’d heard that the rallies had arranged a sailing canoe race, but we hadn’t expected that so many islanders from all along the Louisiades Islands would travel to compete, some travelling over 100 miles to do so. The canoes assembled on the beach opposite our anchorage, and by midday there were over 40 of these magnificent creatures. The neighbouring island of Panaete is the centre for canoe building, and pride themselves on supplying sailing canoes (called sailhaus) to the whole archipelago. They range in size from the 4 metre 2 or 3-man canoes, up to the 10+ metre beasts that can carry up to 18 people. For many islands these are their daily workhorses, the occasional outboard-powered longboat used only when petrol is available.

They all use a similar design, long deep-V canoes with a curved underbelly leading out to a carved bowsprit at water level, joined to an outrigger float by a latticed wooden frame where passengers perch and the sail is set up a short mast. Short of materials as they are, the sails are often patchwork quilts of old rubbish bags, discarded plastic or tarpaulin material, but the canoes on display here sported sails made out of one piece tarps, even in one or two cases sail material! We’d carried up a couple of old discarded sails to give away for this purpose, and the old jib we left to a canoe-maker at Hessessai Bay clearly made his day.

We’d seen our first canoe on our initial arrival in PNG, amazed at their speed and pointing ability. But until we watched a replay on video, we hadn’t twigged that the boats are double-enders, and when they tack they don’t change the boat’s course but instead spin the sail around and attach the front to the other end. Simple, but so obvious when you think about it. Because they’re push-me pull-you devices, they can’t have a fixed rudder and steering is provided by a burly islander perched on the back holding a huge paddle in the water, the pressures being such that they have to trail their feet in the water to keep the paddle in place! Anyway, all this makes for exciting tacking and gybing when racing, and we took the dinghy out into the middle of the course to watch the canoes screaming around the bay, the outriggers flying out of the water much of the time and spray flying everywhere. Each canoe had, and clearly needed, one man on board dedicated to bailing! Much whooping and hollering was exchanged between audience and competitors, and we got the distinct impression that winning was a big deal and most boats had chosen their wildest and most fearless sailors. As it happened, I’d been to the local church the day before thrilled to be told that I was the first dimdim to ever attend and had met a couple of demure God-fearing young men dressed to the nines in white shirts and trousers. I recognised these same two on their canoe the next day, transformed into wild seaborne warriors screaming their challenges into the wind!

The whole event was quite spectacular, and we snuck away early the following day having cleared customs and witnessed sailhaus that made our expensive yachts look like regular slugs. Next stop PanaUmala, where we’re quietly hoping we can persuade our friend to arrange a sail for the boys on one of their own canoes.

Soapbox time

We’re well on our way West now towards our yacht rally and customs rendezvous at Panapompom Island this weekend, having made a couple of good day-passages downwind through the island chain. But our hearts are still in Rossel, and this blog outlines a few things about the place that for reasons that may become evident we thought it best to write about after we’d left.

Rossel doesn’t get many visitors. Currently there is a kiwi archaeologist visiting the south side of the island, but land-based visitors are very rare this far out from the mainland, the simple logistics of getting here a sufficient deterrent in itself. As for water-born visitors, most years the island may get 5-6 yachts but for some of them this is simply a stop in the journey from the Solomon Islands to Indonesia and not a destination in its own right, so their visits are fleeting. The yachts that do spend time here are dominated by serious God-squaders on a mission to convert, a mission that seems to involve much bible-bashing, plus critical commentary on current customs such as betlenut chewing and their custom beliefs.

We’d heard that many years ago the state-sponsored United Church suffered from a lack of leadership, and a splinter denomination CRC (Christian Revival Church) broke away and formed an alternative, the split itself proving quite divisive in an otherwise close-knit community. So now there are two distinct churches with very little to distinguish between them, and islanders have to make the choice. Unfortunately the United church is still tainted with some complacency and corruption amongst the older pastors, and the previous pastor here in Tryon Bay was one such. Some say that early attempts to filter aid through him ended up in his grabbing the good stuff and very little getting distributed to those who really needed it. We’d heard that he also managed to get a local girl pregnant out of wedlock, and his behaviour so rankled some of the islanders that two of his huts were burned down.

Sadly, despite this pastor having moved on, the United church here continues to suffer from a tainted reputation. The Godsquad yachties having turned their attention from the United church to the CRC, and all aid has been directed there. But the CRC church doesn’t represent the whole bay, in fact probably fewer than half, and thus much of the aid hasn’t been widely distributed; the aid that is distributed often stays within the congregation or is sold in order to collect funds for church activities. This fact became evident when we surveyed the possessions of each: the CRC church has VHF and HF radios, solar panels and petrol generators, lighting for its church, a DVD player and other modern stuff, all of it donated by missionary yachts. The United church simply has it’s building, not much else. Suffice to say that there is much politics between the churches, not perhaps always helped by the visiting dimdims.

We were careful not to get involved or take sides, distributing aid equally through both denominations, but we did get a sense of some of the complexities early on and, knowing that the CRC church had received the lions’ share of dimdim attention thus far, we’d spent more of our time with the United church who evidently have the greater need. This is a long-winded explanation for the particularly warm welcome we received from the United church villages. A couple of the elders described our visit as ‘a breakthrough in dimdim relations’, a statement that we thought a bit over the top, but it seemed that finally here was a dimdim yacht that wasn’t judging them based on history.

They told us this statement was also related to our interactions with them: whether it was the boys charging around playing with the local kids, Rebecca and I hanging out getting to know a few of the guys, or perhaps our evident confidence in letting the villagers keep their own eye out for Jakey’s wellbeing as he careered around the village. With perhaps one exception, it may be that most other visiting yachts haven’t chosen to hang out in the same way, perhaps focussed more on charging around doing good deeds ashore or otherwise cooped up on their boats. We know that some westerners feel anxious about catching illnesses from the locals, getting sicknesses that they’re not geared to cope with, and so may hesitate from getting too physically close for that reason. I guess in that respect we’re very lucky to have the good Doctor Starr’s expertise on hand. Either way, the villagers we’d got to know best had been effusive about our stay, and this made the visit all the sweeter for us.

We found ourselves very sensitive to our own and other dimdims’ behaviour. Some rally yachties stayed on their boats and barely went ashore, leaving the villagers scratching their heads as to why they were there. For some others, there is an underlying assumption that they bring superior knowledge and tools and the villagers should be catching the pearls of wisdom as they fall from their lips. And to be fair, it’s easy to see where this attitude comes from. By way of example, I can relate that some villagers on a nearby island regularly complained about how long it took to cook their yams, never having considered that cooking yams whole took a lot longer than cutting them up….ah-ha! And there is no question that we can help, but the question is how? Do we help by lecturing them on the evils of betlenut? Do we help by persuading them to use mudbricks instead of wooden sidings? Do we help by talking to them about the outside world (our good friend and very learned pastor Matthew asked me the astounding question “when people say ‘America’, where are they referring to?” which led to a discussion over an atlas that may have been his first viewing of the world in this way).

Of course we don’t know the answers to these questions, but it’s the underlying premise of our presence here that I think is important. We hadn’t come here to help, although it’s wonderful to bring aid and we sought opportunities to help wherever we could, these opportunities presenting themselves to us every day. We weren’t here to preach, or in fact to change their lifestyles in any way. Who the hell are we to do so? What makes our lives so much better or more fulfilling than theirs? No. We’re here to experience them, and the only way to do that is to get to know them. And in a way we’re hoping to learn from them also. When I say learn, I don’t just mean how to make fire with just two sticks (not easy), how to paddle an outrigger without going in circles (definitely not easy), how to make yams palatable night after night (almost impossible), how to safely build a fire inside a wooden hut, or how to open a coconut with the blunt edge of a machete (that one is pretty cool!).

These islanders live in a community environment and social system that is so much more supportive, self-policing, and I would suggest naturally tuned to human happiness than ours, it makes us feel quite keenly the inherent loneliness of our Anglo-saxon way of life. We live the nuclear family – they live the extended clan. We tell them that in our world, it would be unusual for a dimdim to hand their child over to another dimdim to bring up and care for (outside of formal adoption), or to go and visit for more than a few days… and they look on uncomprehending. Children move freely within the community, safe in the knowledge that someone is always looking out for them, and are commonly raised by extended family members.. We tell them that we pack our wrinklies off into old peoples’ homes when they can’t survive on their own, and they gape at us. “Why don’t they live with you?” they ask. People help each other out in a way that isn’t comparable to our would you mind popping over to help us move a wardrobe? protocols. They truly live what goes around, comes around Villagers from one clan help another build their canoe, build their house, or bring up their children for awhile, knowing that the favour will soon be returned.

Now, it would be easy for us to glorify their lifestyle. Lord knows, we wouldn’t want to eat sago and taro everyday or live in smoke-filled bamboo huts with leaky sago leaf roofs, we’d be driven mad by the rumour-mungering that these small communities generate, and probably left speechless by the immediate attributing to black magic any illness or death that can’t be easily explained. And they endure physical hardships and discomforts that would show us in our truly wussy colours alright. So we’re not entirely starry-eyed about the place. But we have been left deeply moved by many aspects of these people, and on the other hand quietly embarrassed by some of the behaviour shown by a few of our fellow dimdims. Time to put the soapbox away. Enough said.

Rossel sendoff

Rossel send-off
Early this morning we lifted our anchor and set sail to the west. After an month here we were departing with heavy hearts. Early this year we promised ourselves that we’d find somewhere amazing to stop and really get to know, and Rossel delivered this in spades. What an incredible time we’ve had, and our last day here bore this out with an endless succession of canoes visiting us to say farewell, a final game of volleyball with the church youth group and a wonderful evening of kai-kai, speeches and singing put on by the village in honour of our departure. The islanders use the English expression s pinning to mean the activity of just hanging out, circulating amongst friends and chatting, and this is how we spent most of our last day. In fact, much of our month was just spent spinning.

We’d made good friends ashore and so did a final round of hut visits in the afternoon to deliver parcels of presents containing printed photos of the families, clothing for their kids, yeast packets and other stuff. There were three families that we felt especially close to; in one case Vagi the church youth group leader who’d spent hours patiently showing Gabriel their native fishing methods, and his wife Margaret whom Rebecca had taught new recipes; a couple of other women who Rebecca got close to, and in my case one of the local elders Matthew, who’d spent many hours chatting with me and trying to teach me their language. Matthew and I formed an instant mutual liking from when we met. He’s about my age, a strong wiry man with admirable housebuilding, gardening and fishing skills who also doubles as the stand-in church pastor, preaching with such passion that he even inspired Gabriel to go to church! I hadn’t appreciated how much our friendship had meant to him until his wife, on the day of our departure, started welling up and told me how Matthew never had a brother and maybe I was the replacement. We all promised to stay in touch.

For the boys’ last day of school ashore, the teachers organised a kai-kai (bring a plate meal), speeches and presents from both classes. A wonderful send-off for the boys, who’ve not only loved their time at school here but seem to have made quite an impression on their classes. Amazing though it was for Rebecca and me to believe, both of them had willingly taken on extra work from their teachers. Gabriel’s class was taught by Mr Chris, the headmaster, a wily old trooper with a huge afro and wickedly dry sense of humour who took a big shine to our boy and presented him with an intricately carved giant spoon. Luca was taught by Mr Amos, an inspiring graduate teacher who excelled at drawing and gave Luca drawing classes after school. Having dimdim children attend was a first for the school, and overall it was proved a great success.

The Minister announced that our friends wanted to throw a special event for us on our last evening, and after sunset the meeting hut was lit and a meal was laid on freshly-cut banana leaves on the long wooden table. The village all attended, and we ate our way through the array of breadfruit, taro, chicken and fish curries, scones and fruit. We’d baked a banana cake and a bowl of popcorn, both of which were consumed happily mixed in with rice, noodles and sweet potato. Popcorn seems to be a winner here every time, and it’s now become our signature dish for this events!

Like most of the Pacific countries we’ve visited, these guys like their speeches, and so we were hosted by speeches that were only matched in their long-windedness by the over-the-top appreciation for us as a family. By this stage Jacob had crashed on our Rebecca’s lap, which was her firm excuse for not standing to make a speech, so it came to me to talk and in keeping with the windbag school of Melanesian public speaking I held forth for far too long. Most audiences here seem take a fairly half-hearted approach to listening when speeches are made, as you would given how long they go on for, so it was flattering to see everyone perk up a bit and actually listen, presumably speeches made by dimdims being something of a rarity and there being the possibility that we might say something they hadn’t heard before.

We had the idea of delivering a farewell speech in Rossel language, and my friend Matthew had spent an hysterical evening with us earlier in the week trying to get us to make noises that approximate the extraordinary guttural growls, pops and plosives that make up Yele Char, their language. Some words require noises that only a sick cow, or perhaps a Frenchman with a speech impediment, would ever make. We figured our speech would at least give the audience something to laugh at. Which of course they did. Here’s the amazing thing though: the Rossel language is only spoken by the 4 or 5 thousand Rossel islanders, and there are seven different dialects. But get this: on the neighbouring island of Sudest there’s a village of no more than 500 people who have their own unique language. This place is like a linguist’s wet dream.

Our evening class was so ridiculous that after Matthew had left, we sat around making up silly songs on the guitar using Yele Char words, and finally came to write a song about Rossel that, for better or worse, we elected to insert into the speech. So you can imagine that it was with some apprehension that I stood to speak, but I needn’t have questioned whether our PNG friends would appreciate the Nolan sense of humour or our taking the mickey out of their island…. they loved it. PNG people have a sweet way of expressing appreciation or a sense of ?ow which they do by tutting (much as we’d tut a naughty child), and the speech and subsequent song was greeted with a chorus of loud tuttings and laughter. The evening finally drew to a close, and everyone lined up to say their final farewells, formal handshakes mixed in with big hugs and one or two tears. It was a truly beautiful send-off, and as a family we felt blessed by the warmth and generosity of our friends. Diaghi yi ntamu ahm-niah non non nmoo-ur (we will remember you always).

A bay full of dimdims

I woke up this early morning to the unusual sight of the sun streaming in through our cabin portlight. Finally Rossel has given us a break in the rain. It gets light early here, the dawn easing its way in over the mountain from five o’clock and full daylight by five thirty, and we’ve found ourselves sliding into islander time; going to bed early and waking up with the daylight. I’d inherited a headcold from one of our island friends and this morning I finally feel like I’ve shaken it, so quietly got up and moved to the front of the boat to enjoy the sunrise, and the extraordinary sight of ten yachts bobbing at their anchors around us. This is the most yachts Rossel has ever seen, and also more yachts than we ourselves have seen outside of Australia for the last year.

They came in earlier this week, all ten of them lined up in a row as they negotiated the passage around the bay’s outlying reefs. This is the New Zealand rally, a first-time experiment organised by the Island Cruising Association as a change from their annual South Pacific Island run. They’d just made the 3 day trip from the Solomon Islands. We’re members of the ICA and know the organiser, having bumped into him in Vanuatu last year, and we’d expected them to turn up in the Louisiades Islands somewhere sometime around now. In fact, we’d let the elders ashore know that they might get invaded by more yachts, but somehow none of us were quite expecting to see them here. I think the islanders were a bit overwhelmed by having so many yachts in their bay at one time, but as it turned out most of them saw this only as a place to catch up on sleep before continuing on, and only a few attempted to engage the locals. During their morning radio call the organiser introduced Tonga Moon as the local knowledge base, and we had a stream of dinghies approaching us to ask for directions, names and introductions, which we were happy to give. We got a regular question “..and how long have you been here?!” which carried a sense of us having gone a bit tropo. They left just two days after arriving, heading out across the lagoon in a long row like ducklings walking to a river, no doubt the locals watching with a low grade sense of anti-climax.

I’d expressed an interest in watching the thatched roofing being built on a new house. I’m harbouring the silly idea of building a small native PNG hut in the garden when we get back and was told of a new house being built in a nearby village. As it happened this coincided nicely with a visit to a friend Revina living in the adjoining village we’d previously promised, so Rebecca, myself and Jakey set off on what turned out to be a truly amazing morning’s experience. Revina guided us up the hillside path to the new house, and we arrived to find the largest working bee we’ve ever seen. Over 100 villagers had gathered to help an elderly couple erect their house, completing the final roofing stage in just one day. Writing about this simply won’t do justice to the sense of community shown by the event, but for anyone who’s watched the old movie about Amish people in the States, the one starring Harrison Ford, you may recall the scene when they come together as a community to build a house, the combined labours are beautifully filmed as the house goes up. Well, this was like a rainforest version, similar in many ways but involving even more people and a lot more noise. Twenty or more women sat preparing food, older men shredded coconut and made cream for soaking the sago, the very old men sat sedately dividing and folding the sago leaves for the roof. (Incidentally this included Stephen, a founder of a village we’d visited earlier who claimed to be 100 years old but we’d calculated was at least 90, old enough he said to have been a late teenager in the war and to have been around when stories of eating people were still topical rather than historical). Other workers sat carving small needles for sewing the thatch, more stripped vines to make roofing ties, and meanwhile 30 or so young men clambered over the structure, some passing framing strips or sago leaves up, others perched on the roof putting the thatch in place.

We were almost a month into our stay here, and we recognised many of the workers and were welcomed wherever we wandered. I wanted to get a closer look at the thatching work, so clambered up the makeshift scaffolding closer to the men on the roof. I recognised a couple of them, and they immediately shifted over to make space for me and helped me up. Lots of (no doubt ribald) jesting in local language as I photographed them up there. The women and men prepared food for big eats once the job was complete, in one corner a mu-mu (ground oven) was laid for baking, throwing clouds of smoke over the village scene that seemed to bother none of the workers, and many huge pots smoked over open fires with bubbling sago, wrapped banana or sweet potato. Sadly Jakey’s cold got worse that morning, and a feverish boy dragged us away before the roof was completed. But what an incredible sight it was, no-one apparently in charge yet everyone somehow knowing what job to do and getting on with it amidst the constant background babble of friendly banter.

Meanwhile, the end of our stay here approaches. We must travel West to meet the rally at a different island for an en masse customs clearance (it’s that, or travel 100s of miles West to the mainland, so definitely the lesser of two evils), and we’ve told our friends ashore of our departure date. Canoe visits to the boat have intensified, many of them coming to chat and make sure they see us before we go, some of them extending an invitation for us to visit them also, so we’re suddenly finding ourselves in abit of a social whirl, something we’re definitely not used to.

Cannibals and murderers

Question: What do cannibals have for supper? Answer: Human beans! (not a local joke, Rossel people being a tad sensitive on the topic)
The unpalatable topic of cannibalism reared it’s ugly head in the most recent custom story that Luca and I gathered yesterday from some friends who live up the mountain overlooking our bay. Hilda and Rex had befriended us early on our visit here, Hilda bringing us fruit and a beautifully woven basket. She is a tall good looking lady, always elegantly turned out in a community where clothes aren’t easy to acquire and people pretty much wear whatever they can get. Her husband Rex used to be the local policeman (whatever that meant, perhaps more like sheriff) and comes from a long established Rossel family. They live in a village high up in the rainforest between two mountains. We’d included them in our lunch date last week, and during the general conversation I’d suggested that Luca and I climb up to visit them in their village. Hilda insisted that the climb would be too difficult and treacherous for us, and that instead they should come down to us. And right there the challenge was laid. These guys climb the hill every day, surely us dimdims could manage it too?

So Luca and I planned our wee adventure, and set off on Saturday morning with a school friend of his to help guide us up. This friend Justin wears a T-shirt with dragon written on the back in big letters, so we’d decided he needed a nickname and have called him dragon since, much to his pride and his parents bemusement. The previous day had seen continuous rainfall, the path was steep and extremely slippery, and we began to see what Hilda meant. Still, we had a point to prove. Dragon showed us the safest footholds, leaping ahead in barefoot assurance without a care for the steep drop-offs, and so after an hour or so’s strenuous climbing, much slipping and undignified sliding, we staggered down the forest path into their village, a beautiful array of huts set in the dip between two hills. It turned out that we were only the 4th or 5th white people to make the climb, and our arrival created something of a stir.

On the way up we’d passed Rex working in his garden, which he’d recently expanded by cutting down and burning bush on a steep section of hillside. He proudly showed us his handiwork, and we stood there teetering on the edge of a virtual sheer cliff, looking down his terraced garden, wondering how on earth he manages to safely walk through it, let alone tend stop plants on it. Honestly, this garden needed crampons. Still, he clearly does manage it, and I guess given the steepness of most of the terrain this is how the islanders here survive,. So Rex chaperoned us into the village, taking us into his hut to sit on the floor matting along with several other interested bystanders.

The story he told us was one of cannibalism on the island. Although there was some debate about dates, he explained how the practice only stopped here as recently as the 1940s or ’50s, and it explains why there are so few people living on the island. I understand that in some countries cannibalism was practised for ceremonial purposes; for instance, some Vanuatuans believed that eating body parts of their defeated enemies would give them the strength of that person. Not so here. The islanders here ate people for food. Somehow, that seems all the more scary.

Rex’s great-grandfather lived down by the water in the nextdoor bay in the early 20th century, and their village was regularly invaded by cannibal hunters, the numbers of children and weaker adults decimated by their regular visits. His great-grandfather took aside his oldest son Waga one day, and suggested that they should create a new clan village somewhere safe from the cannibals. Above their bay sat two mountains, both considered sacred places where no-one would dare transgress the local custom laws. Waga and his father had found some flat land in the dip between the two mountains, and figured that cannibals wouldn’t hunt on the ridge because of the proximity of the sacred grounds. So they moved the clan up there, thus establishing the village now known as Dameju. We worked through the ages of Rex’s folks and concluded that the village was probably established in the 1920’s, cannibalism still alive and well here at that time.

Meanwhile, back at the waterfront unbeknown to us a wee drama was unfolding in the form of a newcomer to the island, a man from the highlands in central PNG, who had hitched a ride in on one of the rare supply boats and was traipsing round the island looking for refuge. He was apparently wanted for murdering a woman at Alotau over a gold deal, and was on the run. There were a group of policemen now at Misima on his trail. As if we needed more evidence that this island was truly the wild west? On the following morning whilst chatting to a couple of friends ashore, a man walked up and sat near the pier, clearly taking an interest in our conversation. I broke away and headed for our dinghy, and he struck up a conversation with me, asking about my home, the boat etc. He claimed to be a gold prospector working for a large company, and was on the island looking for gold. The man had the looks of the highlands that I recognised as one of the boys’ teachers was also from there, and although friendly enough there was something about him that didn’t sit right. Within minutes of meeting me he asked for my home address, suggesting he’d like to visit NZ to search for gold. I told him there was no gold down there, cut off the conversation and and promptly set off for the yacht. Subsequently, the villagers told us this was the same man, and he’d been moved on from several villages and was finding it hard to meet anyone who’d help him. Rumours about the guy were getting quite out of hand, including one suggesting that he had approached us, offering to sell us drugs for weapons. I had to clarify with our friends ashore that we weren’t carrying any weapons (other than Rebecca’s legendary look of disapproval), and sadly no drugs had been offered. Still, you’ve got to admit it makes for a pretty cool blog story.

Nigella Lawson visits remote PNG

Last week we invited a few of the local families we’ve got to know best onto the boat for lunch, just as a way to say thank you to them for their warmth and hospitality. Coming onto a dimdim boat is a fairly big deal for these guys, and on some islands there can be a sense of one-upmanship amongst those who’ve wrangled invitations onboard and those who haven’t. It wasn’t like that here, of course, but we were aware than none of these guys had been on a yacht before, so thought they’d like it. We ended up with 12 people squeezed into the cockpit as we served freshly-baked bread, pumpkin soup and popcorn. They wolfed down the bread and popcorn, but I was a bit miffed to see the soup generating pretty marginal excitement, some avoiding it altogether. We had emphasised that they needn’t eat anything we gave them out of courtesy, but I did quietly wonder how a soup made up entirely of their local ingredients pumpkin, yams, chicken stock and onions could fail to be a hit? Rebecca clearly took quiet amusement from my chagrin at my cooking being rejected. Anyway, the meal seemed successful although conversation a bit stilted. I think it may have been the number of them there, or perhaps some subtle social code that we didn’t understand, but once some of them departed and four of them remained for a leisurely afternoon of coffee and talk, things loosened up nicely and we had a great time.

They told us that they thought we’d achieved something of a breakthrough in dimdim relations, a comment that left us quite perplexed. But it seems that few previous yachties have spent time with these guys, really stopped to hang out with them and their kids, and this simple fact has meant a lot to them. For us, we promised ourselves and the boys that we’d find a place where we could stop for maybe a month or more and really get to know. We’ve done it here. We plan to stay for another week to experience PNG Independence Day (16th Sept), which could prove to be quite a spectacle.

Last Sunday after a lengthy church we’d suggested pulling together a canoe race, throwing in our two inflatable kayaks to compete against the local canoes and outriggers. At the very least we figured there’d be entertainment for the villagers in giving us dimdims a good thrashing on the water, but I secretly suspected that our inflatables were lighter and quicker, and beneath the jollity and light-hearted humour lurked a strong undercurrent of serious competition, the locals here just as sporty and competitive as any of us. On the day they’d rounded up a few of their own canoes and we ran several races including a mens’ division, womens’, kids’, and finally dads with toddlers. This not being a serious race, and not wanting to flagrantly blow our own trumpets on this blog,.I shan’t dwell on the fact that both Rebecca and I won our heats… YESSS! What a result!!! But this quickly changed when we swapped canoes and tried racing on theirs. Impossible to steer them in a straight line, I found their outriggers pretty quick but sadly not in the right direction, and there was much hilarity and thinly disguised heckling as yet another dimdim went tearing off in the wrong direction. I sensed we all felt the need for an event like this to lighten the load after two hours of hellfire and brimstone preaching during church that morning.

We’ve had a few days of strong winds that meant disturbed sleeps and frequent nighttime anchor checks, and during one of these Rebecca found herself pondering on the villagers’ culinary options. In a moment of late night clarity, she came to the conclusion that they could make mayonnaise (not something they were familiar with). Well, what else would she be pondering in the middle of the night? So she ran the thought past a couple of her village friends and on the strength of their enthusiasm, organised a cooking class for a number of them in one of their huts. This had to be the ultimate irony: my wife, known for her dislike of all things to do with cooking and the kitchen, holding court with women hanging off her every word, catching the pearls of cooking wisdom as they fell from her lips. My quiet comparisons with Delia Smith weren’t well received, for obvious reasons perhaps, but a tactical switch to Nigella Lawson seemed to settle things down. Anyway, the women have now found another way to eat yams (with mayonnaise), and Lord knows they need as many yam options as they can get!

Bush justice

At the Youth Day last week we met the husband of a local teacher, a sweet soft-spoken lady Marilyn who’d visited us on the boat and formed an instant liking with Rebecca. Her husband Dominic was brought up on the mainland near Port Moresby, and stood out to us as a good-looking, energetic, well-educated young man with excellent English. It transpires that he’s also remarkably well-travelled, having visited Fiji with a touring Taekwondo team, and been one of PNG’s Youth Church representatives in both Australia and Japan. In an environment where most have never left this island, this is well-travelled indeed. Now he is living the island subsistence life here in Rossel, supporting his wife where she’s posted from school to school and helping to look after their three young children. He’s a nice guy, and has taken Gabriel out fishing in his canoe.

Yesterday we were sitting around chatting with Dominic and a friend about sport, and Dominic told us that he can no longer play soccer, pointing to dramatic scaring on his leg and foot that resulted from a dog bite a few years ago. No ordinary dog-bite, it transpires. He told us that he was attacked whilst asleep in his hut by a dog that was in fact not a dog, but a witch in dog’s form, leaving him with a paralysed lower leg that needed 8 months in hospital to recover from. The witch had performed this piece of black magic through some form of jealousy that Dominic didn’t clearly articulate. Once recovered, he and his family set about exacting justice, and did so by burning down the witch’s house with her inside. How do you know it was a witch in dog’s form? we asked, to which he replied my aunt saw it, it was clearly the witch. We asked did the local police or magistrate get involved with the bite or the house burning? He answered no, there was no evidence for either and they wouldn’t have known what to do. This is how it works here. It seems justice was done. These guys don’t mess about.

Many things will occur to you, as they did to us, on reading this story, but it is an excellent illustration of how close the islanders are to their primitive cultural roots, and how much these islands can be a law unto themselves. Dominic isn’t just well-travelled and educated, but has been a representative of the United Church for several years and is still considered a spokesman. Yet like most of his fellow islanders, there’s no shaking his unquestioning belief in bush magic.

Happy clappy Nolans

Rossel is a high mountainous island with steep, rainforest-clad hills, many waterfalls and steep creeks cascading down to beach and mangrove waterfronts. The steepness means that each dwelling has to be carved out of the hills, and the villages are small 4 – 6 hut affairs dispersed all around the bay, some by the waterside and others high up in the hills. Being PNG’s most south-easterly island in a climate dominated by south-easterly winds, it’s the first to get the weather and so gets more than it’s fair share of rainfall. In the 2+ weeks we’ve been here we haven’t had a day without at least a shower, one or two with solid rain. And because we’re anchored in a bay on the NW side of the island, we can’t see the approaching squalls and have little warning of rain, so mad scrambling around the yacht to close up deck hatches has become a regular event. There’s certainly no shortage of drinking water here which is good, and we’re able to resume a more regular washing routine! But initially we found the incessant showers abit demoralising, and climbing the steep hillside paths almost impossible. The islanders pad around in bare feet, negotiating treacherously slippery mud paths with consummate skill, whilst we dimdims slip and slide our way around taking many falls, much to the islanders’ quiet incredulity and amusement. Shoes are pretty useless, jandals especially so, and it only took a few days before we shed the idea of bothering with shoes altogether and tried to speed up our own foot-acclimatisation.

But we’re making good friends ashore and the boys are loving it here, their school attendance continues to be a great success and they’re happily out playing with friends when not studying. And after our initial grumbling about the weather, I think we’ve found ourselves getting used to the dampness and in fact enjoying the thick bush that the rain and (occasional) sunshine generates. When the sun does shine it does so with fierce beauty, the rainfall taking all the muggy-ness out of the air to leave a clear crisp sky. The land here is pretty fertile, and our canoe trading leaves us overflowing with coconut, bananas, pawpaw, oranges & passionfruit, even the occasional guava. Gabriel has switched his fishing attentions to hunting freshwater crabs, prawns and eels in the nearby creek, and a couple of days ago landed an eel that even the villagers were impressed with. I point blank refused to cook it, even touch it, being as I am utterly wussy about snakes and slithery creatures; but Rebecca had no such qualms, presumably being a doctor and therefore used to handling unimaginably disgusting things. So we sat down to a meal of fried eel that night: surprisingly tasty.

We’ve made good friends with a group of local villagers who are heavily into the United Church (the government sponsored church), some of them making up a group of young adults who are studying to become missionaries or pastors. Lovely people, all of them, and determinedly born again. We took the boys ashore a few evenings ago, having promised Gabriel some night-time creek fishing, and ended up invited to an impromptu “singsing” – local songs (christian in this case) sung by a group sitting around a large deck on their stilt-house over the water. I’d brought our guitar in on a request from the organiser Vagi, and we joined an evening of gospel songs sung beautifully in two-part harmonies. They told us that they’d never had dimdims attend their nighttime singsing before, and I suspect our presence bolstered the volume of singing to a point where the whole bay was kept awake. At one point in the evening Vagi turned to me and asked if we had a song we’d like to sing, and not wanting to admit that the Nolan family wasn’t quite as fervently pentacostal as he might imagine, I converted an old James Taylor song into something palatable with the removal of a couple of “ooh babies”, and I think we got away with it! “How sweet it is to be loved by you” sung with my tragic vocal abilities was guaranteed to avoid any further song requests. I think everyone was relieved to revert back to the PNG harmonies after that. Still it was wonderful sitting there, with Luca and Gabriel equally entranced, gazing across the porch at these beaming black faces as they boomed out the harmonies, every one of them seemingly thrilled to have us there, a strong sense of affection pervading the evening. Luca leant over to me and said “What a wonderful way to end a day. Can we do this again tomorrow?”