Kavieng, Papua New Guinea
The waters off of Kavieng are renowned for pristine reefs, pelagics, and WW2 wreckage. Despite my stolen wallet, I splurged on the chance to scuba dive. Wowed by the alien world of colourful coral, strange creatures, clouds of fish, Nemos (clownfish) hiding in anemones; large creatures like tuna, Spanish mackerel, sharks, and rays; and getting a thrill out of swimming through tight caves and crevasses, I opted for a second day. The shaky videos and photos in variable water clarity don’t do the experience justice: I can’t tell a blurry reef shark from a WWII torpedo.
I’m joined by a middle-aged Australian man who didn’t show up the previous day because he was too hungover to dive. Owing to his many visits in the past to dive sites nearer to town, we’ve headed an hour out west, weaving through shallow turquoise waters. He hangs up the phone after talking to either a business associate or secretary.
“Just booked three flights home for about A$3500 in case any of them don’t work out. The airlines are so unreliable here. Gotta make sure I can get back to work.”
— “What do you do?”
“I’m a geologist out in Milne Bay. Been living out here for over 20 years, after the divorce.”
— “Do you think you’ll be here for good?”
“I’ve moved all around the world for work opportunities – Asia, Africa, Europe – but I decided to come back to PNG. I’ll never move back to Australia. I tried once. It’s too… regulated. Too safe. Too many handrails. And Aussies are insufferable.”
— “As opposed to this country where things like scheduled flights don’t run? You haven’t had many good things to say.”
“At least life’s good here, and you can do whatever you want. Used to have a girlfriend in every city too. At least I always made sure to treat them to breakfast the day after though. I treat them with respect, I take them to nice restaurants. The locals don’t judge.”
I contemplate the meaning of the word insufferable as I tune out the next five minutes of lurid trysts in PNG and red light districts around the world. At least one person has told me before that Australia treats PNG like its own backyard. Aside from the Chinese, they’re the most visible presence of expats. They’re not all like this man, or whoever he’s describing.
–“Have you travelled around the country much? There’s so much more I’d love to see but I don’t have the time. Bougainville, the Highlands, the Trobriand Islands…”
“Oh, the Trobes are real nice! They’ve got that yam festival. Free love and all that. I was there during a rugby match and things got wiiiild. Two people died.”
“You know he ran for election in the Highlands right?”
Flashback to another conversation, another town. I’m with an older Japanese man, a friend of the local I was staying with.
— “No, he never told me! I guess he didn’t win?”
“It was close. He ran against his uncle.”
“I flew in from Japan to support him at a rally. He arranged for a helicopter to take me, but we tried three times and couldn’t land. It wasn’t safe, people wanted to attack. Eventually they dropped me off in the middle of the night, but the pilot refused to pick me up again and told me to arrange an alternative.”
— “It was that bad? Why? This is family we’re talking about…”
“Families are big here. He and his uncle were never close. Besides, his uncle stole votes. He paid people off. He stole a box of ballots and refused to let them be counted.
“That’s the thing. Our friend here wanted to listen to what the people need, and promised to address it. Better roads, bridges, an investment in the future. But people can’t resist immediate gifts. His uncle was only interested in making himself richer with a government position.”
Three election candidates I’ve met now, all of whom believe in their own vision. Do I believe them? In this constituency fought between uncle and nephew, tribal violence took over. 15 people died between their clans — lives senselessly lost and some in the name of my friend, a shockingly normal occurrence in what is also one of the most devoutly Christian countries I’ve ever visited. Neither candidate won despite tens of thousands of votes to each: uncle and nephew finished second and third respectively to the establishment incumbent. Their combined votes wouldn’t even have been half of the incumbent’s.
Having missed the Shark Calling Festival, the two-day celebrations in Kavieng for New Ireland Day were somewhat of a consolation prize. Seems like the whole island’s flooded in — even Eric is there with his PMV, and Eruel with his carvings. His masks were used in a dance that opened the festivities in front of visiting dignitaries — the governor, the Japanese ambassador to PNG, and the president of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville.
The current governor of New Ireland and former prime minister of PNG, Sir Julius Chan, led things off with a speech. “New Ireland leads the country, with just 2% of its land and people… We introduced the kina… the national high jump champion is from here.” Okay. Still nothing about what else they lead the country in. But he did announce a new annual public holiday for New Ireland Day. Of course he did. The Japanese ambassador then gives a speech where he calls New Ireland “New England” at least once.
The rest of the festival was a competition of choirs, culture groups (of which the heavily percussive bamboo bands were perhaps the least traditional but by far most popular, playing tunes by hitting tubes of bamboo with sandals), and string bands, many of which had genuinely catchy music with a bit of funk to it. Extra points for songs incorporating the eye-opening theme of “autonomy.” Interpretation was often literal, simply repeating the word, but varied otherwise with simple lyrics from “I love New Ireland” to “future of our imagination.”
Taken together with inviting the president of Bougainville, which voted recently in favor of independence from PNG after a long civil war over resource control, it all seems like a thinly-veiled but nonsensical provocation for a peaceful region. The Bougainville president had a good point in his speech though: why New Ireland? Why New Britain? Why New Guinea? Why not forge their own paths and identities? As his speech goes on to castigate PNG for breaking the promises laid out in its constitution, mentioning on live national television that Bougainville has reached the point of no return, I wonder why Bougainville is keeping the name of a French explorer. I also wonder if they’ll actually declare independence in 2027 as intended, since few preparations seem to be happening to diverge from PNG’s currency, infrastructure, and foreign relations.
On the sidelines, there was a very, very tall greasy pole with large prizes attached to the top. It took merely two hours before a keen contestant with some rope and patience surpassed everyone else clamouring and sliding at the base to summit. And then, for another hour… no one brought the poor guy a ladder. It started pouring rain. Someone eventually tossed him an umbrella, barely before the rain ended.
As a tourist, I was frequently ushered beyond the audience lines, right in front of the performances, and with an even better view than the dignitaries. I wonder what they thought, seeing me. Or perhaps the locals just let me through thinking I was part of the Japanese delegation.
Up front with me, enthusiastically taking videos with his phone, was a Chinese man – I could obviously tell he wasn’t part of the invitees. Maybe only I could.
— “Excuse me, I don’t think you’re a tourist… do you live here?”
“I do! I’m from Fujian, work for a Chinese construction company, I’ve been here for three years now. We built this stadium! Oh, and the new airport and the government building.”
— “Wow, so many people here from Fujian. I met some down the road. They didn’t have many good things to say, they’re too scared to go out and do anything. Do you like it here?”
“Very much! It’s so peaceful here, and I got to visit the Tsoi islands, they’re so beautiful. I feel quite safe.”
Gathering a bemused group of performers with him, he grins with them and asks me to take a photo for him. I oblige. He’s definitely not the only Chinese worker in town. This is the biggest day of the year. I wonder where the rest of them are, cause they don’t seem to be at this festival.
“People here are so friendly!”
Having had my phone snatched at the New Ireland Day festival in addition to the already stolen wallet left me despondent to my unusually terrible luck. But on top of that, government incompetence and a lack of foreign currency reserves led to the second fuel shortage of 2023 in the country, grounding all domestic flights for what was fortunately just one day (instead of the two weeks that happened in January). Yet for no specific reason, the daily flight from Kavieng to Kokopo had already been cancelled for a week straight.
A man at the airport had been waiting for the same 45-minute flight for four days already, checking out of his hotel at 4 am every day only to be turned away at the airport every time. He gave up and shelled out US$500 for a 17-hour charter hopper journey instead. Another group of holiday-making locals had their weekend trip involuntarily extended. They wondered what their employers would think. Not knowing when, if ever, our flight would depart, unable to give up and go home even if I wanted to, stuck in a cycle of automated cancellation emails at 4pm every day, this was the lowest of the low.
Stuck for what would eventually turn into three additional days of idling after the festival (a cruel twist of irony on top of the three days waiting for a boat to get here in the first place), there’s only so much I can take of walking to the beach and the surrounding villages at the outskirts of town where I’m staying. At least it’s pretty and people are friendly, just like everywhere along the rest of the Boluminsky Highway.
You’d hardly be able to tell there was a brutal murder of an elderly man on one of those days, a few houses down. Robbers came in, locked him in his home, then killed him with machete wounds to his wrists and back of his neck. There’s an open police case with no leads. Local reactions are just a few shaken heads and sighs of pity. No one seems scared or shellshocked.
There really isn’t much to do in Kavieng’s town centre beyond walking to the various Chinese-owned supermarkets to buy food…and of course, a new phone. Beyond that, maybe a PNG t-shirt. For whatever reason, the local selection just pales in comparison to what I see people wearing on the daily.
“Hello, what are you looking for?”
— “Just a PNG t-shirt.”
“Oh… we only have this one. Come back in a few days, we’re getting more stock.”
— “We’re tourists, we fly out tomorrow.”
Sensing something a bit different about this Chinese supermarket owner, I asked where she was from: Hong Kong! Relieved after constantly struggling in Mandarin at every other shop owner encountered, I launched straight into a self-introduction in Cantonese.
— “How many years have you been here?”
“Oh, over 40. Since before independence from Australia. My husband’s family has been here far longer. They’re precolonial Chinese, like the governor’s family.”
— “Wow! Do you think you’ll stay here forever?”
“I don’t know, but I wouldn’t mind at all! I love it here! The scenery is so beautiful, and this place is so peaceful compared to the rest of Papua New Guinea. I love catching the sunset at the town beach, going to the resort on Nusa Island for a fancy meal, and looking at the stars. I can stay healthy and exercise outside. The air is clean, not like Hong Kong.”
— “And you like running the shop? Do you think about retiring?”
“I’m 70 already!”
— “You look younger than my mom!”
“I also recovered from a stroke a few years ago. I would direct my employees from a wheelchair. Now I’m back running around again, I still have lots of energy.”
— “I don’t think my parents could ever…”
“I’m sure they had it hard too, immigrating to Canada. No matter where you go, immigrating is hard. I learned Tok Pisin. They learned English. We’re all far from home, away from our family and friends. I made a new home here, and they must have in Canada too. You should appreciate that.”
— “I really do, all the time. I’d be a completely different person if they didn’t immigrate. You’ve definitely had it much harder though, in a place like this.”
“Vancouver’s a beautiful place from what I’ve seen, and you have a much larger Chinese community. Though what is your government doing with that drug crisis… Terrible.”
— “I’m surprised you know about it.”
“Oh, I watch a lot of TV. Not much else to do. Hold on, let me get you something to drink! And I made some banana muffins last night, hold on…”
She’s not taking no for an answer. She runs off and runs back with four muffins and a knockoff Coca-Cola, getting a local employee to bring me a stool. It’s a little awkward sitting in the middle of a shopping aisle like this. “We’re speaking in our tokples!” she says to her employee. Tokples is the counterpoint to Tok Pisin: “ples” means “place,” that is, the one which you’re from. It doesn’t seem like there are any other Cantonese speakers on all of New Ireland… except the governor, of course.
“I love the people here. My employees are great too.”
— “Everything you’ve said is so different from the other Chinese supermarket owners I’ve run into. They’re scared of everything. They put security cameras everywhere, all aimed at their employees.”
“Oh, there are so many newcomers from Fujian. I feel like a part of the community here. They see me now as a Papua New Guinean. These people don’t seem to make any effort. We send our sons and daughters to Australia for school for better education and opportunities, but they all come back here. They’re Papua New Guinean too. “
She beckons her son to come over. No Cantonese, just English, but with a heavy Australian accent. He happens to be the New Ireland liaison for the Australian embassy, which also covers Canadians in PNG. Should’ve gotten his number just in case. Still, here he is, selling phones to other customers in the supermarket. (If only I had waited to buy mine.) His father? Reading a newspaper behind the till out front. Hong Kongers doing their thing, thriving away from the homeland, all out on their own here in New Ireland.
I may not be thriving right this moment, but for some reason I feel less alone now.