By the time the rest of the group loads into the green pick up truck that is to take us on our island road trip, the only seat left for me is the middle.
To spend a day in Papua New Guinea, a place that pulses with natural energy, confined under a roof in the middle seat of a truck when the skies are such a vibrant blue and a sea of palm trees surrounds feels viscerally wrong. So I climb instead into the bed of the truck along with Simon and Exley – our tour guide’s sons, ages 12 and 8, who are joining us today.
Of course, there are several risks in ridding in the back of a pick up truck in Papua New Guinea. What concerns me most is probably not the first to come to your mind – in being in the truck bed I’m cut off from our guide and the information he’ll share with the group. As a journalist, or at least as a blogger who travels guided by the purpose that each day on the road is a new day to uncover potential stories to share here, the gravity of this concern cannot be underrated. I quickly find out, however, that it is certainly misguided.
As we pull away from the harbor and drive into the town of Kavieng, Simon and Exley are chattering away, telling me about all the sights we pass – the memorials that are scattered throughout town, the types of vegetables they grow in gardens here, the main market in town and what time is best to buy fish.
By our standards in the West, Simon and Exley may be young, but this is Papua New Guinea, and children grow up differently here. They’ve spent their lives wandering every corner of this small island, passing days off from school on tours with their father, afternoons at the market with their mother and evenings listening to the heavy rains beat down. Without iphones, after school programs or club soccer they’ve come to know this island so very deeply and thus have amassed an amount of knowledge that is on par with many much older guides in other places around the world.
We stop at a stop sign and Exley waves to a man in the distance.
“That’s my cousin,” he says. “We like to wave here.”
All while the boys are talking I’m scribbling away in my journal, furiously trying to jot down the knowledge their sharing while the truck jolts up and down.
“Why are you taking notes,” Exley asks.
The real reason is because I don’t remember a lot of things that happen in my travels unless I write them down and that taking notes in some strange way helps me experience things more vividly.
But this is not what I tell these boys – I tell them a simplified version, as all stories are.
“I like to write stories.” I say. “I’m taking notes so I can remember today and write a story to share with my friends.”
“We like to draw,” Exley says, and then he and Simon launch into stories of their own of all the pictures they’ve drawn as of late.
The Friendly Island of Kavieng
New Guinea is the second largest island in the world, sitting just south of the equator and sprawling like a long ribbon atop Australia. The country of Papua New Guinea occupies the eastern part of this island, and there are some 600 offshore islands that also fall in the country’s borders.
One of these islands is Kavieng, a trading hub in the New Ireland Province. Nowhere in Papua New Guinea is overly touristy – the entire country gets less than 200,000 visitors a year – but Kavieng is one of the more popular tourist destinations with excellent options for diving, trekking, cultural immersion, and an airport. Many visitors will opt to stay at the overwater bungalows of Nusa Island Retreat or the private island of Lissenung Island Resort and take a boat into town for road trips like the one I’ve just begun.
Kavieng has a reputation for safety and many residents were quick to tell me that the island is home to the friendliest people in the region. Because of the peaceful atmosphere, Kavieng is a place visitors can let their guard down, at least enough to take a road trip like this one.
We drive along the perimeter of the island, hugging the coastline, stopping in at villages along the way to wander through stranger’s homes to see how the people here really live, perusing crafts local women have made for sale. We later stop at a tree house that was built and then abandoned by a Kiwi ex-pat.
Back on the road we are once again surrounded by a sea of trees.
“The palm trees are beautiful,” I say, pointing to the scattering of tall green that lines the road.
“That’s not a palm tree, it’s a coconut tree,” Exley says. “That is a palm tree,” he says, pointing to a smaller, stouter tree further down the road.
Children grow up differently here.
Cathy and the Eels
“Whenever I get gloomy about living in this place I go see Cathy and then I fall in love again,” Shaun, the owner of Nusa Island Retreat told us in the morning before we embarked on our journey.
Cathy is a slim woman in her 60’s, which is old for Papua New Guinea. As we crawl out of the truck and approach this revered leader, Simon and Exley scatter away and the rest of us join a gathering of women who are holding court in her presence.
In the South Pacific, as in many places in the world, land is the most important asset. In Melanesia, tribes are either patriarchal or matriarchal, meaning land is either past down through the male or female line. In Kavieng, most tribes are matriarchal, and Cathy is the matriarch of this specific tribe.
Cathy welcomes us to her land and tells us stories of her life. Compared to most residents on the island, Cathy is a woman of the world, having worked as a flight attendant with Air Niugini for 22 years. Over the years, she tells us, she saw most of her friends marry BOBs (best on board), and move abroad. But not Cathy.
“No BOB is necessary for a good life,” says Cathy. “They change women like underwear.”
We erupt in laughter as she continues telling stories about the men she met in the skies over her country.
Today Cathy spends her days on her land, surrounded by her descendants (she has no husband but many children), and her eels.
I walk down to the river to touch the eels. A woman stands in the water with a bucket of fish so that the eels will gather for our group. I reach down and touch them. They are tough and slimy.
“Don’t touch their teeth – they are like razors,” Simon warns.
And so when one turns over and causes the others to stampede (or whatever it is eels do in a river), I scream and jump. Simon and Exley erupt into pearls of laughter. I smile back.
Before heading back to town, we visit Warra Bulau, a local watering hole with deep turquoise pools and green shady trees.
Large trees loom over the water and boys run up them, with the aptitude of lizards and jump off, catapulting into the air and flipping in circles before diving straight into the cool water. Men in traditional canoes paddle by, bringing goods and bamboo back to their villages, paying no head to the intermittent splashing sounds and spray that fill the air.
As in most places, I long to do as the locals do and I follow Simon up a tree, jumping off and swinging out over the water with just enough time to shout “I love PNG!” before I make a splash of my own.
Closer to the ground, I hold hands with Exley and Simon as we stand at the edge of a dock and jump into the water all together, a tangled row of three.
After all this running and swimming, there’s only one way to refresh ourselves as we pile back into the truck to head back to Kavieng – with fresh coconuts. We buy three from a local vendor and sip out the juice. When the juice is gone we smash them open and suck on the coconut meat. When that is gone we throw the coconut husks over the side of the truck bed and watch as the tan shells bounce along the side of the road.
With its early mornings and physical activities, Papua New Guinea has a way of wearing you out. Tiredness overcomes me in the afternoon, and I find I’m not the only one as Exley and Simon both fall asleep all around me.
That these boys feel comfortable enough around me to fall asleep brings my heart a great joy. Touched by the innocent softness of the moment I close my eyes and fall asleep as well.
Rushing Rains and Fond Farewells
“Once you get one drop on you, you will be very cold,” Simon told me earlier as rain threatened in the distance.
We are awoken by the first drops of rain, which pick up in speed as we rush to unfurl the tarp that sits in the back with us and cover our heads. We barrel on down the road and the run stops; sun comes out.
“Sun! I love the sun,” Exley proclaims, as he throws his arms open wide and looks up at the sky, a huge smile on his face.
Back at Nusa Island Retreat the rains pick up again and bucket down so hard that no one in the group can hear one another speak. As the adults in the group sit down and sink their feet into the sandy floor of the beach-themed dining room, Simon and Exley crawl up a set of stairs to a small nook that overlooks the resort. I’m not ready to leave their company yet so I follow them up.
I pull crayons and notebooks from my pack – things I had brought along in case I would encounter any children – like these and want to give them something.
“What are you going to draw?” I ask Exley as we sit on the floor and soak up what we both know will be our final moments together.
“I’m not,” he responds. “I’m going to write stories like you.”