PNG is simply a crazy place! It's a group of islands north of Australia whose inhabitants, like the Australian Aborigines, migrated there from Africa at least 50,000 years ago. Many coastal tribes have long had contact to seafaring foreigners but none of the remote highland tribes even knew of, or were know to, the outside world until the 1920's when westerners ventured there looking for gold. The mountains and jungles are rugged and the tribes practised ritual warfare and cannibalism. There were still tribes making first contact in the 1970's and rumors persist of uncontacted groups but this seems rather unlikely. It's wildly beautiful but a dangerous place whose inhabitants practise a mixture of beliefs and customs out of the Stone Age thrown into the modern world. In 1992 I spent 6 weeks there traveling and also visiting my sister Kate who was a medical missionary at the Catholic mission in Vunepope, on the island of New Britain.
I actually stayed at the mission house for the nurses, which was surely a bit questionable for the nuns and priests. What might have been even more shocking was for the locals to hear from my sister that her brother was visiting. Even in PNG there was a taboo against incest, which in their culture meant that brothers and sisters had no contact with each other upon reaching adulthood.
Here I am in the op in the mission hospital. Short scrub pants and bare feet were normal due to the always hot, humid weather. I got to see a number of operations and observe both the last breaths of a dying man and the first breaths of a new born baby, moving experiences to see the full circle of life. I only observed of course but I think the locals assumed that any westerner there was probably a doctor. The actual medical staff was all dedicated volunteers who had to deal with working with very limited supplies and equipment while coping with a wide range of problems beyond their specialties. As my sister put it, it's not a question IF they have malaria, anemia, meningitis or a host of other ailments but WHICH is the critical problem at the moment. The Australians had administered the Islands after WWI until independence in 1975 and had left a legacy of civil structures including a system of hospitals and clinics, which was in the process of collapsing due to malfeasance. As simple as this medical facility was, usually running with just 3 or 4 doctors and a handful of nurses, it was then the best in the country.
It was Christmas time when I arrived in PNG and of course they celebrated it at the Catholic mission. People didn't have chimneys for Santa to come down and nobody would know a reindeer from a cow, so in PNG Santa Claus comes in a helicopter to bring toys to the sick kids in the hospital. I contributed a little show of my own and even got a Christmas meal and 25 Kinas for performing at a private dining club where many of the westerners went to in Rabaul.
I didn't fly in the helicopter but did take a couple of flights on the national airlines which is a vital asset in such a country with rugged terrain; boats and aircraft surely outweighed land vehicles in importance. I actually flew in and out of the country through the international airport by the capital of Port Moresby but literally took the first flight out rather than go into the town.
We stopped to see some of the locals by the beach near the mission. Although most of the people around had at least an indirect job or connection to the mission, meeting any new foreigners still seemed to be an exciting event for the kids which here got the universal seal of approval with a "thumbs up".
Many of these families lived from fishing and lived in pretty basic shacks made of scrap. Not as quaint as the traditional construction but probably more durable.
Women like men often chewed betel nut, which stains the teeth a dark red. Most women wore the African style dresses introduced by western missionaries.
We visited a prison where I made a show for these kids of the workers. Yeah, they lived and grew up within the prison compound surrounded by barbed wire. I guess that's what one calls a "captured audience".
Although stores do exist in the bigger towns, the main transfers of commodities are at the local markets. Here I made a show for people at the weekly market in Rabaul, which at the time was the capital of New Britain, the second biggest island in the country. I also performed at the market in Kokopo, which was the closest real village to the Vunepope mission.
Just a typical market scene in PNG. Interesting here is the woman's tattoos. Like in New Zealand, traditional tattoos were also done on the face and in PNG not just by the men!
In addition to recognizable foods like carrots and bananas there were a number of indigenous plants, the most important before the introduction of the sweet potatoes was a tubular called taro. Anthropologists have suggested that due to its advanced agriculture, the highland cultures of PNG were the highest level of human civilization 10,000 years ago. Although they never developed metal, there were an estimated 2 million people living in the highlands of the main island of New Guinea, with a long history of established codes of social interaction.
This sign had paintings of foods listing their pidgin names. As every tribe has it's own language, adopting a simplified form of English, with some German and Dutch thrown in, makes inter-tribal communication possible and is seen as an official language on it's own in addition to formal English which is used by the highly educated and governmental officials. Learning Pidgin is not as straightforward as one might think but most people who stay there for a while find it worth putting some effort into.
Many baskets and bags were woven out of palm like leaves. Not just useful for holding things, one could use such a bag for protection against the intense sunrays.
The other method to beat the heat was to enjoy a frozen desert. I think most such treats were water rather than milk based due to sanitary considerations and local taste.
The markets were always a social event and often a place where such Christian groups would present a musical program in their evangelical attempts. The opportunity to convert "godless heathens" that were once headhunting cannibals seemed to draw lots of Christian fundamentalist fanatics to PNG. Many were obsessed with suppressing much of the local culture claiming it was against God. I was impressed by the Catholics' efforts there however. The emphasis seemed to be to first help the locals in matters of health, education and development while respecting their culture rather than beating them over the head with a bible. I once met a priest dressed up in wild local costume to participate in a cultural ceremony, something that most fundamentalists would have deemed satanic. And the locals' readiness to accept western religions appeared to depend less on spirituality than on hoping to obtain wealth. The white people were so wealthy so their gods must be pretty powerful, so why not tap into a piece of that action.
I saw these women just outside of a market. The bags they use are very strong and beautifully made pieces of handicraft. Most of the weight is carried by the head, while leaving the hands free. I thought of buying one but they were very expensive. The other thing of note is the cigarette being smoked. In PNG tobacco was rolled in a sheet of paper, often in newspaper, resulting in cigarettes of comical lengths.
Visit to plantation
My sister had connections to a large plantation on the nearby Duke of York islands that belonged to the Catholic missions and had originally been founded by the German Imperial Empire. Here they grew and processed coconuts and as seen below, cacao which was being cut open by a worker. Such places employed a lot of locals, but they couldn't tell people exactly when payday was or some of the local bandits, known as rascals, would try to steal the payroll. Such criminality was a major problem through out the country. Typically a rascal would be the guy who sat next to you at the church service on Sunday morning bemoaning the level of crime in the community. Then by night he and his friends would be robbing and pillaging.
This is the son of one of the workers. Here they dried the coconuts producing what is known as copra and processed the husks and shells.
Most agriculture in PNG is still done on small family plots. These larger plantations equipped with farm machinery like tractors are really the exception but earn hard cash and money wages for the employees. But the wages were very low when one considered the prices for anything but the most basic things. Due to low world prices for such agricultural commodities, most such places were struggling for survival and were usually run by a religious or charity organization with the emphasis on keeping people employed.
But trying to aid the people in PNG was difficult. Typically, a charity would build a school for a village and the people in the next village would be jealous and destroy it. Or the village inhabitants would suddenly claim that the charity needed to pay them millions of dollars compensation or they would destroy their own school! Westerners, especially the mining companies, were constant targets for outrageous extortion attempts or robbery by the locals through out the country. While I never got robbed myself, I was very cautious, never going out after dark but it was almost comical how I heard of places that got robbed just before I arrived or just after I left. In one such incident they even caught the rascals who had broken into the Rabaul dining club, got completely drunk, and then tried to hitchhike home with 25 cases of stolen beer.
A group of boys by the plantation were playing with a mandolin. One occasionally saw coastal people with such blond hair, possibly having some German blood in them. The Germans had colonized this part of New Britain Island and many of the nearby ones as well in the 1880's but malaria and stress with the locals plagued them and the Aussies finally drove them out during WWI.
Sightseeing: volcanoes, Japanese war remains
That's my sister and me in the smouldering crater of one of the many active volcanoes near Rabaul. Rabaul had been annihilated by eruptions in 1937 but they keep rebuilding it. It was heavily damaged once again by a major eruption in 1994, which buried it under 2 meters of ash. Many nearby towns were also destroyed displacing at least 90,000 people. Some crazy people are still living there in the ruins although basic services are no longer available and it is only a matter of time before it gets blasted again. At first I wondered to myself why people would live right by a bunch of live volcanoes but with boat transportation being so important, when westerns came to the area they picked the spot with the best-protected deep-water harbor thus the founding of Rabaul.
I also visited the volcano research and observation post in the hills above Rabaul and remember thinking I had never seen a more lush and beautiful jungle view. And the abundance of coral and fish makes PNG the ultimate spot in the whole world for diving. I only snorkelled but even then saw many fish one only expects to ever see in an aquarium or in National Geographic like lionfish, clown fish etc. Like many aspects of PNG, what was to be found in the water was beautiful but also potentially very dangerous. One volunteer nurse there came down with malaria within weeks of arriving and later something poisonous in the water scratched or bit her. The initial wound was minor but within days her leg looked like something out of a horror movie and she had to be flown to Australia for better medical treatment. I was warned not to step on a stonefish. The poison can leave permanent neurological damages and is said to be the most painful thing a human body can experience. Although not usually fatal many victims prefer it were rather than to survive the horrendous suffering. I saw plenty of sea snakes, which I heard were too small to manage a bite to a human except maybe to the webbing between your fingers or toes. Not sure if this is true but although their venom is highly potent, few people seem to die from their bites since most species are not aggressive and the amount of venom they inject seems to be minimal.
Here I am on top of the relic of a WWII Japanese warplane. The Japanese had invaded PNG and used Rabaul as their headquarters. When locals fought them, the Australian press labelled them "black angles". They didn't necessarily care about assisting the westerners but being warriors they weren't going to let the Japanese occupy them either. The Aussies eventually drove the Japanese out during WWII but many such wrecks and bomb craters are still to be found in the area. There were some extensive tunnels near this spot, which had been drilled into the stone by the Japanese to hide out in. I heard that a number of nuns had been attacked and raped there recently. In another village a teacher who might also have been a nun was decapitated as payback for having given a kid a bad grade.
Here were just some dudes hanging out on their boat in the Kokopo harbor near Vunepope. I hear it has become the main hub for transportation in the area after the volcano destroyed Rabaul. Despite the local importance of Vunepope, the catholic mission basically gave up sending westerners there after over a hundred years of history, including being occupied and used as an internment camp by the Japanese during WWII. It wasn't the continued risk of volcanic eruption but the rising level of violence in the country that sealed its fate.
Bigger boats were used for commerce but many families relied on their outrigger canoe to get around or to transport things to and from the local market.