Dalom, Papua New Guinea
I’m 200km down New Ireland’s Boluminsky “Highway,” the only paved road down this narrow island/province. It’s been a weird route to get here, having lost three days stranded in East New Britain province attempting to take a boat from Kokopo to Namatanai, the nearest town to ENB on New Ireland, only slightly further down the road. Two boats of passengers were lost in the last week of bad weather. I’m a bit relieved that our boat never left, our driver refusing to depart after lackadaisically wasting away the sole brief window of good conditions — but the cost was great, as I missed the Shark Calling Festival.
After an extraordinarily expensive 30-minute flight to Kavieng just to take a PMV truck almost but not quite all the way down to Namatanai, at last: Dalom, this tiny village of a few dozen people. Immediately upon arrival, seeing the extraordinarily idyllic emerald river running through it, I decide to stay for three days — doing what with so few people, limited electricity by generator, no cell reception, and little activity, I don’t know. But on this one weekend, it’s swelled by maybe a hundred – there’s a Seventh Day Adventist church camp comprising of kids and adults from surrounding villages literally camping out in the open between the few houses in this village.
It’s given an energy I wasn’t expecting in this place – the river teeming with children jumping in off the bridge and swimming against its current, its confluence with the ocean full of others playing ball in low tide. There’s a lot more people bathing and washing clothes in the river than usual too, that’s for sure. And then there’s me, since that very refreshing river is the only option for a so-called shower.
Everyone seems to enjoy my company as much as I enjoy theirs, and I’m paraded around by one of the church campers to take photos of literally every person we encounter. Around half of the older folks have facial tattoos – not the typical church crowd I’m used to. Here in New Ireland, it’s usually a single line on the right cheek: a little more subtle than the forehead tattoos I saw in offices in Port Moresby. Some people here have forehead and cheek markings; they must be from elsewhere.
Unlike Port Moresby and Kokopo, I’m encouraged to walk anywhere here: not only is it safe and hassle-free (despite people’s constant insistence to escort me, as usual for PNG), but beautiful. A few minutes down the beach is more people doing their washing at another river and village. A few minutes inland is the source of Dalom’s river, leading to a tantalizing but narrow cave entrance of stalactites and stalagmites — too bad I had no flashlight. A few minutes up the hill are some banana plantations. A few minutes down the road is a larger village with a waterfall visible from the roadside. Everywhere I go, people greet me, and several invite me into their yard to chat, offering branches of peanuts to snack on.
Back in Dalom, other guests come and go, including two foreigners who both stop for a single night, but there’s one Papua New Guinean group also staying in the guesthouse upon my arrival.
“I live in Port Moresby. I’ve got relatives living in Namatanai but I choose to stay here. I feel refreshed here. You can walk in any direction on the beach as far as you can see, and Mama here makes the best food. I brought some extra gasoline for the generator, and some chicken for Mama to prepare – come join us for the mumu. Cooked under hot stones.”
— “Thanks. This is delicious. Do you come here often?”
“Yes, about once or twice a month. Cost me about K1300 ($400) to fly here one-way this weekend though. I have a car and a driver in New Ireland, he picks me up from Kavieng and drives me here. When I need cell phone reception, he drives me a kilometre up the road. He’s driving me back to Kavieng early tomorrow morning for my flight back to POM, but my father will stay here for a little longer.”
— “Wow… that’s a lot of money and time but you clearly like this place. What do you do?”
“I work in real estate. I’ve got about 200 employees. Port Moresby is an expensive place. What’s in demand rents for A$2500 per week.”
— “Per week?! How is it so expensive? And frankly speaking, Port Moresby is a bit of a mess…”
“I know. I used to work in the city planning department before I went into the private sector. It’s the Australians and their companies. They’ll pay anything to house their employees.”
— “How did you work your way up to this?”
“I’m from the Sepik. Angoram. I went to university in Lae, worked in local government, took a master’s in finance, and took every opportunity I saw. I’m even taking another master’s in accounting right now.
“People here, they stay in their villages , and they’re happy. They don’t work jobs like us. Maybe 2-3% of PNG does.
Well, that seems a little dubious.
“But this country has a lot of untapped potential, and people aren’t aware of it. It’s rife with corruption and people are indifferent to the fact that it’s inefficient. We produce and can export so much, and yet Fiji, a much smaller country, overtakes us in exports.
“I ran for election in the Sepik last year and finished 2nd. There’s no democracy here. My wife and children have already moved to Cairns for 17 years, and I’m just waiting for my own citizenship before moving there. I visit them every two weeks, but I make my money in Moresby.”
— “What do you mean no democracy?”
“It’s why this country has so much corruption. People only vote for members of their own tribe. It doesn’t matter if they’re criminals. It doesn’t matter if I have a good plan for the country.”
— “How does this country function as one? Everywhere I go, I see that people are proud Papua New Guineans. Why do you think that is?”
“Everyone looks after each other. People move around from one province to another, marry someone from another place. They’re adopted as one of their own.”
— “That I can see, but that’s not my question. Papua New Guinea as a country is a colonial construct. Before British Papua and German New Guinea, these 800 tribes speaking 800 different languages weren’t acting together as a country. They have no obligation to do so after independence. People are proud to be from their tribe, but what I see is every other person here wearing a PNG shirt. We definitely don’t see that in Canada. So how are people proud to be from this country?”
“They see other regions of the country as their own somehow. This country may be prone to tribalism, but people still have love. But I don’t know. Maybe it’s because we all speak Tok Pisin?”
— “Maybe it’s because you all chew betel nut.”
I pause for a second. I hadn’t actually seen anyone in this very religious village chew betel nut, the stimulant responsible for the rather grotesque sight of red mouths and rotted teeth across the country, as well as the red spit marks that typically mark any ground surface. Accompanied with coral lime and mustard sticks, both carried in separate containers by partakers, it’s supposed to give off a buzz. Seems like a lot of effort for it.
— “Well, everyone except here. Maybe it’s the pidgin then.”
Church begins as a formal affair. Two hours of gospel singsings, a sermon in Tok Pisin for an hour. While everyone usually seems to go too far out of their way for a foreign tourist, it’s oddly refreshing that they didn’t translate the whole thing just for me. The lady sitting beside me tried to, though. Something about bringing back the hymns. In a culture that places such heavy emphasis on music and performance, it’s a message that resonates.
After a break for lunch… a whole afternoon of outdoor singsings. Two whole hours, in fact. Skits, Bible quizzes replete with pretend hostage-taking, costumes only consisting of nametags, and actual costumes, this may be the closest church ever gets to a variety show. The Adventist way, I guess?
Five whole hours of Saturday church service now finished, the camp packs up and the village turns into the quiet place it’s always been. For me, maybe a little too much so, even if I get the river all to myself.
What do people do when there’s nothing happening? If it’s pouring, as it often did during my stay, probably nothing but sit on the porch. But when it isn’t? The fishermen go out in their boats. Local boys head to the fishing tide pools at low tide to collect what’s been trapped there the night before, then play a few games of soccer on the sandy shoal — their only flat field — before the tide comes back in again. A few women head off to the gardens near the village limits, where they grow their vegetables. A few others do their washing, while the kids jump off the bridge into the river until they’re bored. But otherwise? There’s a whole lot of sitting in groups, staring at the ocean in conversation or in silence. Hours of it. Even in the dark, since there’s no electricity. They do this every day.
I can take about one more. My, the sunset sure is nice.