Boluminsky Highway, Papua New Guinea

“Ni hao! Oh, you’re waiting for the PMV? Please sit. Leave your bags here. Have a drink.

The Konos supermarket is full of customers, and I awkwardly sit between cashiers. Like in some other developing countries, Chinese people own all the supermarkets in New Ireland, maybe the entire country. Every time I walk into one, there’s that wordless glance that says it all: “wait, I know every Chinese person here, you’re new, what’s your story?” Straight to Mandarin.

— “Thank you so much. How long have you been here?”
“Oh, about 4 years. He’s been here for 12 though.”

The elderly gentleman helping me points to a younger man, speaking pidgin to another customer.

“You’re traveling on your own? That doesn’t seem safe. We don’t go out here.”

This runs completely counter to my impressions of New Ireland so far – quiet, friendly, placid.

— “Don’t you see other tourists here? I ran into an American riding a bicycle down the highway, it’s not that uncommon for foreigners to visit.”
“Really? We don’t see tourists here at all.”
— “If I may ask, why did you move here of all places? You’ve been here awhile. Do you like it here?”

The younger man hears and replies.

“Oh, it’s too hot here. We’re here to do business and make money — we just heard from other Chinese people in Kavieng. There’s a group of about 10 of us from Fujian scattered around the villages here. We go home about once a year. We fly from POM to Hong Kong and take the train up.”

Flummoxed, I ask for help to catch the PMV to Libba. But first, the washroom. The elderly man takes me upstairs above the supermarket: small and clean but cluttered. Is that their whole existence here?

The younger gentleman has never heard of Libba, despite it being just three villages away, a scant 35 km down the road. He asks a staff member who promptly points me to an arriving PMV outside. I say my thanks and goodbyes, and they all go straight back to work.

Quiet on a holiday Monday, Libba’s master carver, Ben Sisia Jr, is out of town. I’m instead taken to visit Eruel Silias and his group, all working feverishly on masks and carvings in time for the New Ireland Day festivities at the end of the week. They’re on the outskirts of the village, and I wonder where everyone’s at when I walk through.

The art of Malagan carving is only practiced by one clan of the one tribe here, with ties to neighbouring Tabar Island. No other village’s tribe does this – despite New Ireland being so small and skinny, it’s home to dozens of unrelated language groups living side by side. “Katenau,” the greeting I used in Dalom, is completely useless here. Tok Pisin of course is the only means of communication between even neighbouring villages.

Ben Sisia Sr was the original master carver, and I get to at least peer into his son’s workspace through a window. To see his carving work up close though, I was taken to the town’s church, where Ben Sr carved each pillar and parts of the façade. Stylistically, it doesn’t seem traditional at all, but it’s undeniably impressive and so large in scale.

The masks are fascinating, used to represent spirits of the deceased. The boards, just for decoration, seem to be themed around sea life. While Ben’s work was more reddish, Eruel’s seems to be more yellow, and no less masterful to this untrained eye. His team was hard at work for masks to be used for the opening dance at the New Ireland Day festival, painting them with stiff orchid stems. The colours are all natural – yellow from ginger, red from soil, black from charcoal, and white from coral lime – the same lime used by virtually everyone in conjunction with chewing betel nut. And hey, the carvers are chewing it too.

“Yu go wer?”
— “Bol. Bol guest house.”

The PMV truck driver beckons me on, insisting I sit in front. Four PMV trucks so far and I still haven’t sat in the back with everyone else yet. I’m sure it’ll happen eventually. He shifts from Tok Pisin to English, not that his question would have been any different.

“Ah, tourist huh? I also live in Bol. We have a nice river. Come stay with me. Free. But no pressure.”

Eric beams and shows me a photo of his lumber yard instead of his house. I assume I’ll be sleeping on some pieces of wood… but I can’t turn down the hospitality, and say yes.

After eventually unloading all passengers, we continued up the road to Bol, detouring onto an unmarked road up the mountainside, past a palm oil plantation. There’s the lumber yard – and a shack, with his wife, nephews, and nieces greeting me curiously before returning nonchalantly to whatever it was they were doing.

Well, we were definitely both right. The children led me to the river – a stunning emerald gem all to themselves, a half hour walk away from the main village of Bol. And after I dried off and returned, they showed me the planks of wood covered in a straw mat that would be my bed for the night. I gave them some of the food I was carrying – some rice and canned tuna, not much but a welcome augmentation to what otherwise would have a meal of a dozen sweet potatoes and a few leafy greens. Meat isn’t a common treat, and if it’s there, it’s usually of the canned variety.

— “You’re so far from the rest of the village. How did you end up here?”
“Juliet and I used to live in Namatanai and I used to work in the mines on Tabar Island. I got tired of it – 12 days on the island with nothing to do, and just 2 days to see my family. I trained in Australia for the PNG National Force too, but that wasn’t for me: the Australians weren’t very nice to us. So I bought a PMV truck to make money, moved to Tandis, then three months ago I moved up here where my family has land. Our children have grown up, but some of our nieces and nephews live here with us, while others come up for the day and return home in the evening. We adopted this one after her parents didn’t want her.”

He pointed to the smallest of the seven children milling around.

— “You’re not the first person I’ve met who says they didn’t like working for the mine.”
“It’s the Australians and the Malaysians. We had so many industries before – fishing, copra (coconut oil extraction), agriculture, and timber like I have here. Now all the government wants is the big money. Everything is being replaced by mining and palm oil plantations. We don’t see any of that money, and we don’t even use palm oil here. There’s a big gold deposit just up the road here on my mountain. I own this land. No one goes in without my permission. Many foreign companies have come but I will never let them in.
“Look at New Ireland. Nothing’s changed in 20 years. The government always promises so much but it’s always the same.”
— “So… How do you change that? I see that New Ireland has reelected its governor recently.”
“I ran for election last year and lost. People always vote for who they know, people from their own tribes and clans. I don’t trust that the government will ever help us develop. I’m just going to have to do it myself – at least I can help my neighbours build with my timber. We’ll look out for each other.”

The kokomos flew away as the sun set, and the flying foxes flew in as it got darker. Another night of the Milky Way once we finished dinner: all of my canned tuna and rice mixed with their homegrown greens and soy sauce. Finally, some flavour! Just enough to feed six of us too. There’s no electricity here beyond their solar flashlight, though the kids have taken Eric’s cell phone, freshly charged from the driver’s seat of the PMV truck, to watch some Hollywood movie about the war in Afghanistan. Off to bed at 8pm to the sounds of gunfire.

On a Sunday, there isn’t too much in the way of public transportation. Neither is there on a holiday Monday. But it’s now a regular Tuesday, and I’m still waiting an hour for a PMV.

“That’s New Ireland for you. Always a holiday. We don’t even know what yesterday was for. Remembrance Day, J think?”

I’ve been ushered to a shaded area to wait for a passing truck, with at least four locals asking around on my behalf. I didn’t even need to ask them. The one talking to me seems to take pains to show that he’s not like the others.

“I moved here from East New Britain to be with my wife. New Ireland feels so behind.”
— “What do you mean? I just came from East New Britain. Both places are pretty nice.”
“Nothing changes here. No development. At least we have industries in East New Britain. All the government here does is declare new holidays to distract us.”
— “New Ireland Day isn’t a holiday though.”
“Just watch, they’ll make it one.”
— “Why don’t things change here? Why can’t you replace the government?”
“Oh, I’d love to. But there’s no one to vote for! I looked at a different candidate last year, but then I found out that he can’t read, he’s illiterate. How can he go and write new laws? They’re just not good enough.”

I looked up the last election results for the local district. There my host was: in a sea of 16 independent candidates, only half had over 100 votes, and he wasn’t one of them. The most popular independent had a few thousand votes but placed a very distant third. Surely not all of them are illiterate, but I wonder, on an island full of spread-out villages and small clan-based bonds, how can you possibly stick out from the pack?

A truck finally arrives, heading to the provincial capital “city.” But I’m making another stop first — for years, an elderly woman has been feeding the river eels on her property in Laraibina village. She passed away a few years ago, and her daughter Paula’s taken over.

I offer up a can of tuna from my backpack — nope, wrong type of fish, Paula says. Apparently they’ll only eat mackerel. I pay for a can, and she opens it up, swishing it in the river. I see maybe two eels in there.

But suddenly, more and more start appearing from out of nowhere. They swim over my feet and around my ankles, fighting over the mackerel. At least they don’t eat human.

It’s another hour on the roadside, one free ride in a truck to Lakuramau, then a PMV van ride to Kavieng. I fall asleep multiple times on a stranger’s shoulder, gently prodded back awake. Who knew paradise would be so exhausting?

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