Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Village Life, Tahum, Buka Island

Slipping in with the rhythm of the land and the people brought to the fore the simplicity and beauty of village life. Rising with the sun I would step out on to the deck and do my morning yoga while the rest of the house and village woke from their dreamtime and went about their morning ablutions. Organically, my morning yoga and meditation class of dedicated young students would assemble themselves, joining in for as little or as long as they liked.

There was always plenty of hot water for tea, food to eat, and betel nut for chewing, and very rarely was there not someone from the house or neighbourhood to share this with. In fact eating was so much a part of life and it did take conscious effort not to eat just for the sake of eating, especially when Nick brought back some banana leaf packages filled with steamed banana and ground palm nuts from the local market. Betel on the other hand was much easier to resist especially when taking into consideration that the catalyst for the process was nothing more or less than pure unadulterated lime, the same stuff you get warned to wash off your car after passing through certain road works, and that was what people were dabbing into their mouths . . .

Time was never really discussed unless we actually had to be somewhere early-ish such as on the one occasion I can recall which was the Saturday morning market prior to the evening Mumu (traditional feast cooked underground similar to that of NZ hangi). Otherwise the intent of the activity for the day was given and when all those who were interested in participating were ready to go we would make a movement. An almost organic process unless I thought I had ‘time’ to do something before the main party departed and Aisha would quietly yet quite clearly mention “that’s OK, we will wait”. Then I knew I was pushing the boundaries of natural law and matriarchal order to the limit . . . I guess I was not too good at sitting still when there was so much to explore.

We had a fun family outing to the ‘old house’, Aisha and Nick’s original house on the beach. A wooden house on poles that formally belonged to Mama and Papa now housed Aisha’s younger brother Kelly and his family. There was a huge gathering of people including the village chief and our visitation was the instigation of much feet washing and celebration. We paid our respects at Grandfather’s grave and were subsequently introduced to the majority of the extended family. It was a shame that the tide was out as I would have loved to have taken a swim although saying that, it didn’t seem right to take myself off to the edge of the reef during our first official family visit. The children however had nothing to worry about and made the most of the cool pools of spring fed waters at the edge of the sand.

As Aisha had said “your visit to Tanhum is the talk of the town” and this was clearly obvious when I took the children, or perhaps they took me, out later in the afternoon for a walk up the main road though the Copra Plantations. Here, although everyone knew exactly who I was and where I was staying, found it a useful way in which to open a conversation either in English, occasionally pidgin or in their local dialect through the translation of the children. Although there are over 850 indigenous languages throughout PNG the most common language I heard during my stay was pidgin and as it wasn’t too far removed from the English Language, although I could not always follow the detail of the conversation, by listening and paying close attention to body language I could usually get the gist of it.

Our first afternoon walk together began as an adventure which for the younger kids soon turned to boredom so I asked myself how we could make a game of it. Recalling endless hours trekking in the Himalayas during my earlier years with Encounter I figured that I had better quickly come up with a participatory song before I had a mutiny. And sure enough the boredom vanished, the energy shifted and, much to the amusement of our fellow villagers, the walking was forgotten and we sang and danced our way in and between the pools of water along the dirt road that ran through the Copra Plantation and our walks from then on became part of our afternoon ritual.

During our wanderings we were invited in to the local copra factory to learn what one of Buka’s main industries was all about. Coconuts were everywhere but what the problem was, according to both Aisha and Nick, was that Buka did not have its own processing plant and as a result the island earned very little for exporting its raw product. It did however provide a dozen young men with a regular job and income and our visit provided them with enough entertainment and stories to last for a few betel nut sessions with Bob . . . Reggae was clearly the music of preference on the island and dreadlocks were a common adornment on many of the men.

On one of our evening walks we bumped into uncle pushing his lawnmower down the road on his way home. And, as the sun began to set through the copra he shared with me stories of his childhood experiences during the Second World War. I must have either missed or forgotten that particular history lesson at college as until then I had no conscious recall how much PNG had been involved in the war, having first been invaded by the Japanese and then occupied by the allied forces. And, as uncle recalled these memories, I could feel the fear that was still being carried not only from WWII but also from the more recent Bougainville Crisis, a topic that to this day remains as one that is spoken of in whispers.

On our flight over to PNG Niki had mentioned that she once met Francis Ono, a former employee of Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) and the instigator of the Bougainville Crisis. She described him as a man without a soul and the words of his she recalled from their brief meeting were “that although he did not regret what he did, he did regret how he did it!” Briefly, through what I understand from the few conversations where I was invited to talk about the crisis was that BCL, the mining company were prepared to compensate the local people for the losses they were claiming yet the PNG Govt would not allow this to be done. For more info on the Bougainville Crisis;

Meanwhile back to the story . . .

We woke on our second day in Tanhum to the sound of rain, thankful that it was not the day for our island journey I figured that we would have enough entertainment watching Papa and Niki create their ‘home-brew’. This meant Papa taking an early morning trip to the local markets to purchase a pineapple, perhaps the only organic ingredient that would go into the cauldron of sugar, water and yeast! And while Papa and Niki perfected the art of home brewing the girls made the most of the opportunity to play with my long hair and weave their own magic.

Having not visited a hairdresser once in the last 20 years it was the longest time I have ever sat still and allowed myself to be groomed. Even Raffiki, our little vervet monkey in Ethiopia, didn’t have the dedication these girls had! At first I was a little restless wondering how I might endure having my hair pulled into plaits during the course of the morning however the girls could not have been more gentle and did a great job that lasted all the way back to Carins.

Back to the business of food . . . I did my best to produce a balanced meal made of local ingredients for lunch each day. Although there was always plenty of food to go around, the balance seemed to sway very much in favour of carbohydrates with little emphasis on protein or fresh fruit and veg. And what surprised me was that there was no cheap source of vegetarian protein as found in many of the developing countries I have visited over the years. Perhaps this was because most people had access to fresh fish or perhaps it was simply because people were not aware of the importance of protein in our diet.

I also offered to prepare a Banana and Coconut Cake to take for our picnic lunch to Hitou Island the following day. It was a team effort and a roaring success all the way from the measuring and mashing of ingredients and licking the mixing bowl to preparing and supervising the fire for the camp oven and taste testing the final product! And, as it so happened, Niki and Papa also did a great job of their creating which kept the two of them (including us by default) awake well into the wee hours of the morning, and not in any particularly fit state for our excursion to Hitou Island the following day.

Nevertheless our journey to the Hitou, an island off the north east coast of Buka where Mama spent much of her childhood prior to being married by arrangement to Papa, ran remarkably smoothly. Nick ran two shuttles between Tanhum and the beach at the north where we boarded our boat to Hitou. It was a big day out as none of Aisha and Nick’s children had ever been to Hitou and Aisha hadn’t been since she was a child. It amazed me how well behaved all of the 12 children were but then I realised that there were just as many adults as there were children and everyone quite naturally took care of whichever child was closest to them.

Upon arrival at the island we were greeted with the customary foot washing right next to a turtle that was being butchered. I was wondering if this might be a special delicacy in our honour and was very relieved when lunchtime came and we were offered fish. Lunch however was the least of my concerns as before that happened I had an opportunity to explore the reef and take a swim off the edge and into the blue while Louisa and Aunty collected shellfish. Oh, how I wished I had brought a mask and a snorkel with me as where the reef around the main island of Buka had been destroyed by locals fishing with dynamite during the earlier years of mining in PNG, the far reef off Hitou was completely unspoilt.

We eventually made it back to base where having just finished lunch, dishes and tea were the priority, that was for everyone except Niki and Papa who both badly needed their siesta even more than they needed tea. We figured this gave us just enough time to indulge in our second green drinking coconuts for the day, consume our share of fresh fish and still have time to explore the rest of the island before we had to leave. I was beginning to enjoy hanging out with the kids and as much as I was teaching them they were teaching me how to live lightly with a beginners mind and a sense of fun and playfulness.

Our journey back took us via the island of Maloulou which although predominantly a fishing island provided us with a sheltered sandy bay that was perfect to take the kids for a swim before returning to the mainland and an early night for a house full of sun and sea weathered travellers.

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