Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A day in Alotau, Papua New Guinea


After a week of diving at Milne Bay, I decided to head into the jungle and the islands of the Solomon Sea. This involved first travelling almost two hours from the dive resort back to Alotau, the provincial capital, then crossing the straits into the nearest village.

The person who was supposed to help me with this was a girl named Rita, the receptionist at a local inn. We had corresponded via email up to a month before the trip and she knew exactly what I wanted to do and see on my trip.

But there was a rude surprise waiting for me when I turned up at the inn. None of the staff seemed to be aware that I had a room reservation, much less an entire trip booked through them. It was only after a great deal of exasperating conversation that I found out Rita had abruptly quit and taken all the paperwork with her. This obviously threw a huge spanner into the works, because I now had to try and source for all the connections by myself - and I had exactly zero clue where to start.

The proprietress of the inn, a European woman with a commanding size and voice to match, turned out to be of vital help. Her neighbour's housekeeper came from one of the islands in the Solomon Sea and she knew the the region well. I decided to hire her as my guide for the next three days.


All that remained then was to walk to the market place and look for a boatman who could take me to the faraway islands. (Boats in Alotau can be found in two places - one being the industrial shipyard, and the other the long jetty at the local market. Since the settlements are so dispersed along Milne Bay's coastline and islands, and roads not often in good shape, the locals typically travel here by boat to trade or buy goods.) This was easy enough - there were no other travellers around, and more boats than local supply necessitated. To secure the deal I simply had to leave him fifty litres of gasoline and a promise I would be back the next day.

There weren't many sunlight hours left to the day after that was done. Travellers are told to return to their lodgings before 6pm, because the violence that Port Moresby is famous for is increasingly spilling over into Milne Bay. "It's a pity," a local English teacher who stopped me on the roadside for a chat said, shaking his head. "Milne Bay was always peaceful. We are the safest province in the entire country. But these days even that is not enough. People carry guns on the streets. You can get robbed if you stay out late."



Still, while the sun was in the sky, you couldn't really tell it was dangerous. The market was bustling with people as whole families went about their shopping. Dirt-streaked lorries and cars lay parked in a bare patch of sand ringed by kiosks selling everything from snacks to toys, the likes of which you don't see in Singapore this generation, and there was a festive mood in the air as a soccer game played out in a pitch nearby.

All around villagers peddled their wares, the simplest and most common of which were long beans. Contrary to intuition this isn't because the long bean is something that features strongly in their national cuisine. Instead, it's dipped into a fine powder of crushed coral and limestone and eaten as a snack. It's carcinogenic, but deeply entrenched in their ways. Almost everyone you meet will have a bottle of this squirrelled somewhere on his person. Because of this and the no less unhealthy habit of smoking and chewing betel nuts, most of the locals develop mouth and gum diseases, including cancer. As a side effect the taste buds are also dulled, which leads to the tendency to over season their food with salt and sugar, resulting in a whole host of other health problems. Another person I met, this time an expatriate who founded the biggest supermarket in Milne Bay, recounted a story that illustrated just how extreme the situation can get.


"There was a sugar shortage a few years ago," he said, "and there was no sugar at all in this town for about a month. People were getting desperate. Finally, we managed to get some shipped in - but only one truckload of it. Somehow word got out and when the sugar was being transported from the shipyard to the supermarket - and I live on the hill overlooking the main road so I could see all this - people started running after the truck. By the time it reached the supermarket, there were about fifty people running behind it! We sold out within a day."

It didn't take too long to explore the town - there was a total of two supermarkets, one bank branch, a school (where I was invited to speak to the students), and a bunch of family-owned shops. I ended sneaking into the back of the crowd and watching the soccer game together with the other Alotians as the sun set into the sea.


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