Wednesday, 20 July 2016

PNG 9 Mt Hagen - Brian Lahey

We spent the day with Brian Leahy whose father, Danny, Gabrielle had known in the 1970s. Danny Leahy was the first white man to arrive in the highlands in 1933 at the age of 21. He was a young Irish lad trying to survive during the depression and heard there were opportunities in PNG. There were rumours of gold in the hills and somehow Danny found his way here with his brother. They  had walked from Port Moresby. There was enough gold to encourage them to stay and he took to the place and began a series of ventures, early coffee plantations among them. He took two highland wives and had 10 children by them. Brian would have been a youngster of about 10 when Gabrielle was here. In fact he would only have been here in school holidays as he was at boarding school at Nudgee College in Brisbane in those years. A series of documentary films was made in the 80s which told the story. Look for "First Contact" or google Danny Leahy.

Brian's mother is a tribal woman and therefore, as a mixed race man, he has the challenge of navigating two families and all the complications associated with that. The most recent challenge was organising the funeral of his older brother who died a year ago. He has played a leadership role in his family and so had the task of navigating the expectations of both immediate family and the traditional village tribe from which his brother's mother came. No easy task.

There were angry scenes, demands and even subtle threats all of which revolved around local protocols and, in Brian's assessment, money. His solution: stand firm and face down those who were not immediate family; make it clear that gifts of money and pigs were not required; and insist the service would be held in Hagen, not the village. Most importantly he found ways to weave traditional rituals throughout the week of mourning. Each day involved mourning and crying rituals. On the final day Brian had arranged for all the mourners to have equal status by insisting that they all come through the same entrance to the open area where the service was to take place and, and this is quite amazing, when the tribal group entered and began their traditional crying and mourning ritual, the white educated guests and members of the family found themselves carried along in that same expression of grief. Brian, a big man, a rugby player, a strong man, said he experienced a cartharsis unlike anything he had experienced before. He said he felt cleansed and was close to tears again as he shared this story with us.

 At the end of the week even the angry village relatives congratulated him on how moving and significant the whole thing had been. They had ignored his bar on gifts and had brought money and 60 pigs which Brian immediately handed over to the tribal family thereby avoiding all the complex reciprocal expectations which exchange of gifts involve.

PNG 8 Mt Hagen Arrival

Gabrielle and I are in Mt Hagen after a disrupted day of flying which saw us sit in the Rabaul Airport terminal for 8 hours and Mick miss his flight to Brisbane.

Mt Hagen seemed like the wild west after sedate Kokopo (though Kokopo itself felt a bit challenging when we arrived a week ago). I often think of Beirut when I feel overwhelmed by chaos and decay (though I've never been there), but Hagen sets its own standard. The roads appear tp have been bombed so large are the potholes, the town is heaving with people none of whom appear to have homes - so many are there on the streets, hanging by the roadside, sitting in open spaces, selling meagre amounts of produce or betel nut on plastic mats by the roadside; the buildings mostly appear to be war surplus and about that old (though only built relatively recently) and everything is coated in a thick layer of dust. It felt threatening. A feral shanty town.

Last night the advice from our hosts at the Mt Hagen Missionary Home (we're travelling as fake missionaries) was a little unsettling. Yes its safe but not at night and not beyond the city centre and make sure you walk confidently, don't look lost or confused and always keep your guard up etc etc. We felt our confidence sapping.

This morning we got the driver at the accomodation to drop us in the town centre which turned out to be one block away. We got out and looked confused and were immediately approached by people not out to rob us but to help. We had a coffee, began to relax and went looking for the house where Gabrielle lived in the 1970s. Gabrielle didn't recognise the surroundings but a couple of blocks from the centre and there it was. Again we looked lost and a group of about ten people came to our aid, one of whom then spent the next three hours shepherding us around town and giving us a tour of the market. We'll see Anna again we hope.

Hagen is the food bowl of PNG so fresh produce was there in abundance along with hand made bilums and traditional bush string cloth and clothing.

We're feeling much more comfortable. Gabrielle has made friends with almost every trader in the market and along the street by taking their photos and we're chasing a couple of contacts we have from Australia. The accomodation is good; we're well and it all feels pretty positive.

PNG 7 Mask Festival

To quote the Post Courier of Port Moresby: "This years (National) Mask Festival was not as successful as some had expected. It was a poor representation of provincial culture."

Well, we've never been before so we didn't notice the difference though there did seem to be more than a little confusion around the event. As we spoke to people around town there were some who told us it had been cancelled, others who said it was beginning on the Wednesday or the Thursday or perhaps the Friday. There were no notices around town and it all seemed a little strange especially given the fact that we had been picked up from the airport on arrival by Elis who told us she was the festival organizer. She did acknowledge that there had been a rough leadup tho the event and she wasn' sure which groups were coming, the withdrawal of national funding and few sponsors etc.

The big event was to be the enactment of the annual tubuan/dukduk (good spirits/bad spirits) ritual where boatloads of Tolai people arrive on the island from across the waters (the Tolai were originally from New Ireland) to challenge the  west New Britain tribes  for the right to come ashore (there's a chance I have this completely wrong). This traditionally occurs at dawn. But which dawn? Again no one was sure. Strange since hundreds of the locals were to be the actors in this event!

The festival has been a five day event in previous years (it began in 1994 - the year of the volcano eruption) but has languished recently. Other province capitals (Kavieng, Madang) have begun to stage their own dance/mask festivals rather than come to this one. In the days when it was a genuine national festival they all came - the mudmen of ....... Highlanders. It was a genuine cultural celebration for and by the tribes axross PNG. This one has degenerated into a display for the tourists who fail to turn up in numbers sufficient to underwrite the costs. Maybe 200 in total over two days.  It a vicious cycle. Even the locals didn't show up.

Having said that, as I said we didn't know the difference, but sensed there was a lack of enthusiasm for the event. The photos tell the story. The dawn event was pretty interesting apart from the insensitivity of some tourists who wanted to walk into the middle of the ritual to get a beter photo. That behaviour continued over the two days and resulted in some Europeans intervening to restrain the overenthusiastic. The real highlight was was the Fire Dance at a local village on the first evening. Two hours of chanting and singing in a field with only a fire burning in the centre as lighting. It was trance like. The masked dancers, all male (the whole mask festival was male), wore giant masks which we were told were based on the native bee. The dancers moved around in an erratic, non choreographed way dancing with tiny steps and occasionaly charging towards the fire to sideswipe the blazing pire or kick a shower of embers into the sky. There was the same uncertainty about the fire event (no surprise - it had become the norm) as about the festival. It was on, it was off, it was transferred to a different village; no one was going.

Gideon, our historian friend, was our guide. He spent an hour in Kokopo talking before deciding it was on; then another thirty minutes at the village on our arrival confirming it was proceeding. Apparently there had been some protocol difficulties There was conflict between two villages who both thought they should be hosting it (there was a profit to be made). Someone had mischievously been putting the word around that it was cancelled. It turned out to be a great night. A full house. Unfortunately, very little light so few good photos.

The worst part of the final day was the tourists and their cameras. The best part was the finale when the tubuan returned to close the festival with a high energy dance full of great singing and dance which had a strange mesmerising power. Great.

By the time the chairperson of the festival committee made the closing speech and the hand over of ceremonial spear to thenext host community (again done in challenge mode) had occurred  we were virtually the only people left watching. A fitting , if somewhat low key ending. 

Friday, 15 July 2016

PNG 5 - New Ireland part 1

7am. Boarded John Lau's boat, "Stephanie" bound for the southern tip of New Ireland, home of the French/Italian colony of 1880 - 1882. Took my kwell tablet and held on tight.
John likes speed and he has a fishing boat that behaves like a missile. 150 metres from shore he gunned the 1500hp twin engines and we were almost tossed out the back (stern - boat terms now that we're heading into St George's Channel).
Port Breton, our destination (not called that now - or ever by the locals), lay two hours away. New Ireland was just a hazy undulating line on the horizon. I almost succumbed to  the lumpy, thumping ride but the kwells did the job and we were greeted by a pod of thirty spinner dolphin performing a welcome dance for us as we approached Lombon, the community of two thousand who live on the island at the entrance to the bay.
First impressions: tiny inlet; hardly worthy of the title "port"; dense jungle tumbling from steep slopes to the shoreline; no sign of arable land or a likely sight for 300 settlers. What were they thinking? We seemed to be surrounded by a range of preferable options on East New Britain and north of this point on New Ireland. Even on Lambom Island which we now approached. John sounded our horn as we glided past the settlement, trying to attract someone who might be able to assist us; someone to act as our guides for the day. Immediately two canoes appeared from the sandy beach and approached us.
John invited three men on board and after an explanation of our needs, their spokesman, Digel, offered to accompany us. He proceeded to guide us to nearby English Cove (the south arm of a twin cove inlet) where he negotiated a powered "banana boat" and crew for us. Minutes later we stepped ashore at Irish Cove, the main site of the colony.
We were joined  by the traditional owner of Irish Cove and a retired teacher from English Cove who confounded all presumptions about traditional village life by sharing with us his knowledge of national politics, history and the local environment. Remember we were in a remote location accessible only by boat and four hours (by banana boat) from the nearest shop or service.
What did we find? A collection of 19th century bricks intended for the promised church; a foreshore skirted by a rough retaining wall (the Italians were dry stone wall masons) ; a fresh water spring which had been given a stone treatment to create a shallow resevoir;  a clearing containing a scattering of bricks in a format suggesting a couple of buildings had occupied the space; a large cast iron cylinder - probably part of a grinding mill for grain and the odd ceramic shard, a remnant of a water container or similar.
For the next two hours we were given a tour of the site. TBC

PNG 4 - Rabaul Museum

At Rabaul we met Mundon Bray, a Canadian who described himself as of mixed race - part eskimo (Inuit) he insisted. He was introduced to us as the man who ran the Rabaul Museum set in the building which had formerly been the Rabaul Club, now a shabby hulk housing an eclectic collection of war and historical memorabilia.  He and a few eccentric old stagers are working to keep it running and in reasonable condition. It gets no funding so it struggles but at least someone loves it, which is more than you can say about the Kokopo Museum which is open on request but appears to have been abandoned immediately after WWII. It's just a collection of rusting pieces of war machinery and smaller objects with illegible descriptions (or none) and a room largely devoted to Queen Emma.

Mundon was sitting hunched over a bowl of noodles at his desk/table as I approached him. He stood and greeted me enthusiastically shaking my hand and mentioning his Inuit heritage. He looks late 60s maybe early 70s and is wearing boxer shorts and thongs and nothing else, his chest and stomach white and soft. It's a little off-putting in a museum manager but it quickly seems normal and I can see he is in pretty good shape for his age. He has an soft accent modified perhaps by 40 years in the tropics surrounded by Australians and international missionaries and tok pisin speakers. His head is like a bowling ball with stubble.

'Do you believe in God?'  he asks me within the first few minutes of our conversation. 'I was brought up Catholic' I tell him and he corrects me - 'Roman CathoIic,' he says. I don't argue. 'And you?' I ask. It's a game I'm amused to play. 'Church of England', he says. 'Anglican,' I reply. 'No Church of England,' he corrects me. I ask the difference half knowing the answer will be part of a new riddle and we segue into conversations about Rabaul and the war and why PNG would have been better off being retained bt the Germans after WWI rather than being handed to the Australians. 'Australia has been lazy' he says. 'Germans get things done,' he says. I'm tempted to defend my Australian compatriots but hold my tongue.

We get back to religion. I promise him I'll ask the Anglican Bishop ('Church of England,' he corrects me) in Brisbane to consider funding the restoration of the Rabaul Anglican Church.

'What do you believe in?' he asks me before I leave. 'Me, the universe,' I reply.
'Maybe as you get older you'll find the need to believe in a god of some kind,' he says, suddenly looking as though there's something in him that needs this escape route from life. It feels like he's trapped here in this dying town. It once had a population of 40 000 and is now 4000. At some point he knows he'll be going and it will be 3999.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

PNG 3 - Queen Emma

Kokopo has seen its characters. 
    It was the mainland base of the 19th century American Samoan trader Emma Coe and her copra empire (she had begun her PNG empire on nearby Duke of York island). She became known as Queen Emma and her sprawling Kokopo mansion and gardens are now the site of the Gazelle International Hotel. Only the concrete front steps of her residence Gunantabu, survive.
    Australian writer Geoffrey Dutton has written "Queen Emma of the South Seas", an entertaining account of her exploits. She was beautiful, wealthy, ruthless and independent. She had lovers and a series of husbands and when she finally sold her business holdings in the early 20th century (perhaps sensing the approaching calamatous world war and being intimately connected to German Nue Guinea), she retired to Melbourne and later Europe (where she died), a millionaire. 

The main restaurant at the Gazelle International in named after her.


It's the 8th of July. Day one of our trip to PNG. Weirdly that is the exact date 136 years ago on which the Italians boarded the steam barquentine, the "India", in Barcelona to begin their adventure.
    Kokopo, our base on New Britain is a dusty, run down coastal town a 25 minute drive from the  old capital Rabaul. Rabaul sits on an impressive harbour (Simpson's Harbour) with the quietly rumbling Mt Tavurvur close by. All that changed in 1994 when the volcano chose to remind the world of its latent power. Rabaul was wiped out, its houses and its array of impressive colonial buildings, links to its  past. Collaped sunder the weight of volcanic ash.

    Kokopo was the beneficiary of its demise. Overnight it became the new centre of business and government for east New Britain.
    Kokopo, largely lacks charm. As well as having lost its beautiful old colonial buildings through neglect or misfortune or redevelopment, it lacks a harbour and a genuine centre. Rabaul, though generally regarded as a ghost of its previous self by those in Kokopo, retains an impressive main street, a wide boulevard lined with frangapani trees. Its harbour has allowed it to survive as the import/export centre of east New Britain. It's a designed town;  designed by the Germans in the late 19th century as the capital of German New Guinea. Kokopo by contrast has grown around an access road which skirts a foreshore with no shelter. One long street with no plan. Since 1994 there has been money spent upgrading it to the standard of a provincial capital, with a new market, roundabouts and government offices but its never going to be a silk purse, always destined to be the sow's ear.