Friday, 20 January 2012

So why the bloody hell would you go there?

I’ve been here for about 6 months. So far, no visitors. Now I’m not surprised, it’s not as cheap to get to as say, Indonesia, the food is better anywhere in Asia, it’s not as safe, and basically it’s an unknown quantity. Actually I’ve never met anyone who has said, “I’ve always wanted to go to PNG!”. So, with this blog entry, I don’t expect to singularly boost sales for Air Nuigini (please repeat: I will never never fly Airlines PNG), but I still feel that it couldn’t hurt to promote the country a little. If only as a means to put up some nice pics of all the good things here (in the small part of the country I call home). And also, some of you have been requesting more pictures (a subtle call for less prattle? not likely!) so here you are…..

The Tourism slogan for PNG for a long time was “The Land of the Unexpected”. Of course, this became the basis for much sarcasm amongst the expat community. No medicine in the hospital pharmacy? More potholes in the road than road? A boat has taken you to a small island and now there isn’t enough fuel to get you back? Two Prime Ministers? Ha! Surprise, you’re in the Land of the Unexpected. The trouble is, it doesn’t take long for one to start assuming that things will go slowly/not to plan/not happen at all/happen in a way that is completely ridiculous and so it all becomes very predictable, and, well, expected.

Maybe that’s why they changed the slogan to ‘Land of a Million Different Journeys’. I think this might refer to what happens when you try to find out what’s going on (when something that’s supposed to be going on isn’t going on) and you hear a million different incomprehensible stories explaining why things have gone to shit. I propose that the next slogan be simpler, “PNG – it’s never boring”. And this, I can assure you is true. It’s also really beautiful, so let’s get started with the photo display.

One popular thing to do is to climb one of the many volcanos. This is an activity not to be undertaken lightly, a few years ago an Israeli man died after he fell into the volcano. (I’m not very good at this tourist promotion thing am I?) I’m told that it’s perfectly safe to climb if you don’t try and go leaning in near the edge. I haven’t climbed any of them yet but we plan to climb Turvavur soon, (the little one that’s smoking in the pictures) I certainly won’t be trying all that hard to get a look in. Of course, you don’t have to climb the volcanos to enjoy them. I see them every day, and never tire of doing so. They look so different, at different times of the day, with different weather patterns. They truly are remarkable geographic wonders. You can also visit the volcano observatory if you arrange to do so beforehand and see the work they do there (which may involve watching them watch volcanos?).
That's not all cloud - that's smoke!

At the base of the volcanos, and really, all around the island, are the tunnels constructed during WWII by the Japanese who occupied Rabaul at the time. Or, as was pointed out to me, the tunnels dug by local people for the Japanese army. The Japanese army used the tunnels for storage, accommodation, even for hospitals. One underground tunnel hospital could accommodate 800 patients. Today, you can visit these tunnels and walk through them. John Lau, a prominent man around town who is known to us through his generosity to all the volunteers who live in ENB, was born in one of these tunnels (many PNG born Chinese were interned there). I guess that’s the amazing thing when visiting ‘historical sites’ around town, you can then easily talk to people whose lives were shaped by related events.

Entry to a tunnel system, a not too tall person can stand up in here

This may just look like a rocky formation but the gaps at the base are storage tunnels.

Still on the subject of ‘historical sites’ the Bitapaka war cemetery (just out of town) is a strangely beautiful and contemplative place. Many of the Allied troops who died here (including many from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) lie in graves marked ‘soldier known unto god’. The grounds of the cemetery are huge and immaculately kept. The truly paradise like surrounds somehow make the senseless deaths of many young men all the more sad. It also seems somewhat bizarre that so many men, from such different parts of the world were united in fighting in a place so remote and foreign to them where the local people had absolutely nothing to do with the war other than it landed on their doorstep.

Yes people really dress up like this - will explain
 in later blog entry
For more war related stuff, there is a museum which has a collection of war remnants, cultural artefacts and a few unfortunate ‘pets’, namely a crocodile in a small pool of water and a cassowary in a cage. Not perhaps the highlight of the tourist itinerary. When Geoff and I went there, the sign said it was open, but the gate was locked. We just yelled out to the gardener who let us in and took our 5 kina ($2.50Aus). Apparently this is always the case and many people go and leave, thinking that it’s closed. Some of the records of the old town and some of the items salvaged from Japanese war wrecks are worth a look, but the museum certainly could do with some love and attention. Then again, this is the price you pay for what some tourists consider the holy grail of tourism – there aren’t any other tourists. Of course, you could skip the museum and just walk along the main street. There are literally abandoned and rusted WWII tanks just lying by the side of the road.    

What else? Ah, the market. I've written about the market before, so I’ll just include these two photos and add that the market has some things which make good souvenirs like earrings made from Tolai shell money, bilums (colourful woven wool bags from the highlands) and woven grass products, (mats, purses, baskets). There aren’t really enough tourists to support the crafts at the market but the products aren’t fake artefacts made to attract tourists (like so many of the awesome things for sale in China), local people carry bilums, use woven purses and wear jewellery from the market too. 
Basket, bilum, coin purse, earrings
The market is also a great place to talk to people. Everyone at the market is super friendly and you can practice your Tok Pisin. For those of us who love languages, this is fun, and for those of us who claim they ‘can’t learn a language’ will find that suddenly they can! Tok Pisin is certainly not as intimidating as Mandarin or the like, eg: displa i kostim hamas? = How much is this? Easy right?

Lastly, but most importantly, the beaches. Let’s be honest, it’s all about the beaches. Some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen are the beaches around the Duke of York Islands (about 40 mins away by boat). You can arrange a boat ride out there and a village stay with a local dive company or if you know someone with a boat, (as we do) you can just head out (though you may need to pay a small amount to land owners if you come across any – fair enough). Also beautiful are the beaches at Wata Plantation (sorry, some FB friends have already seen some of these photos) where we went for a boxing day party and Kabaira (where we often dive) is a stunning place too. Little Pidgin island is also a beautiful place and last year we went camping there with some friends (it’s uninhabited and only a 20 min boat ride from Kokopo). Our friends caught a tuna on the 20 min ride out there and ate it sashimi style for dinner. Awesome.
Wata Beach
Wata Beach

Little Pidgin Island - where we camped

Rapopo Beach, Kokopo

The Beehives in Simpson Harbour, Rabaul (many wrecks lie in this harbour)

The Duke of York Islands

The Duke of York Islands

The Duke of York Islands, kids playing

The beaches are amazing for just relaxing and swimming but also the diving or snorkelling is top notch. There are even some war wrecks in about 5 metres of water which you can easily see just snorkelling. Pods of dolphins (the largest I’ve seen was uncountable, hundreds) also regularly swim near Kabaira and the Duke of Yorks and they are amazing to watch. My friend Mike has some great videos of them leaping, twisting and balancing on their tales (kind of like Seaworld without the sadness) which I will endeavour to get my hands on once he’s back in the country. 
dolphins race the boats

clown fish

some kind of slug?

awesome evil-eye fish

 sea slug (they are thicker than your arm)

My absolute favourite, the Frogfish. He has a permanent home on an abandoned
metal frame on the Kabaira house reef. 

He even has little fin-feet to walk around on!

This fish stalked us for 45 minutes. You can't tell here, but it's  the size of a small TV.

Big lion fish (sorry, not good light)

OK, it looks like a lump on the wreck, but it's a Stonefish in camaflague. 

The other thing I love about the beaches here is that whenever you're on one, you can see mountains or volcanos as well. There are some truly spectacular views around. Oh, and just because I want to include some pics - I've never been anywhere before where there are so many colourful flowers blooming. In the six months that I've been here, the trees have continuously bloomed in stunning pinks, reds, purples and white. 

our street

our street, taken from in front of our house

frangipani are everywhere and they smell so nice

Lastly, the great thing about Kokopo, and this probably goes for other parts of the country, is that as there aren’t huge numbers of foreigners (though there are certainly a lot more than I expected) if you are new in town, it’s easy to get in touch with people right away. Everyone gets how difficult it is to access stuff and so people become very generous with their things, their time and their knowledge. You can be in town for a few weeks and people will invite you to their parties, take you out fishing on their boat, give you a lift to a nearby village, etc. And if you walk around, greet people in the local vernacular, carry a billum or – gasp – wear a ‘meri blouse’ (like a muumuu) you’re in like flyn with the locals. (If you’re a man though, I don’t recommend the meri blouse plan, maybe a laplap or a bush knife?) Walking around, not driving, attracts positive attention, people are very happy to see that you’re not scared of them (they hate the rep they get from the troubles in places like POM). You also win friends in abundance if you’re seen drinking from a coconut and eating locally prepared food at the market. (I’ve heard, countless times – “you can eat PNG food”! Lovely to be congratulated for knocking back some banana, sweet potato and freshly caught tuna!)

It’s often said in tourism brochures that the warmth of the local people is the thing you’ll remember, blah blah blah, but what can I say? It’s true here. In the picture below, Geoff and I were walking through bushland (for only about 40 mins), with our colleagues and local people from the centre of Watom Island to the coast. We all had to carry diesel and cargo and the path was quite treacherous. I kept slipping around in my thongs (jandles, flip flops, whatever) and nearly losing my heavy load (oh OK, I was carrying the life jackets – but they were awkward). All the other people wanted to help me, including the women you see here who are balancing much heavier loads on their heads. You can’t see it in the picture, but one young woman even had a load on her head, a bag in one hand and a baby balancing on her hip in the other hand. They all still tried to help me. Everyone was smiling and laughing and when we got to the sea, they all just ran in in their clothes (as did I). 
Watom Island
We met some fabulous people on Watom Island that day; in PNG, people love to ‘stori’, just sit around and chew the fat and they are genuinely pleased to have international visitors on their little island paradise. Somehow, they make you feel happy you just turned up.

So, anyone in? Oh sure you need so many vaccinations you’ll feel like a pin cushion. You’ll need to fly through POM. You could get Malaria. Or Dengue. It’s hot. There are no fabulous dining spots. We don’t have any ‘atmospheric laneways’ (that’s for you Melbourne). Yet somehow, I have a feeling, you’ll feel happy you turned up too. (awwwww- admit it, you kinda wanna come now don't you?)