Not five minutes into my arrival from Port Moresby back to Brisbane, I literally faceplant in exhaustion while trying to catch a train. I get up and run in, with bloodied hands and knees, and laugh it off.
Adrenaline keeps me going in a brief reunion with Vyvian. Oh, the novelty of having a lovely restaurant meal with a friend again! Of a beautiful Saturday morning market stroll! Of a haircut to finally feel fresh again! Of an afternoon enjoying the sunshine and the skyline view from South Bank!
It lasts until I drag myself to the airport, endure yet another delayed flight, then onto Sydney, where I’m unable to buy a transit card with no credit card until I plead with an attendant to use hers and I repay her in cash. It’s hard to get by in an increasingly cashless society when your stuff is stolen. I’m tired.
Sydney is one of the world’s most famous and livable cities, renowned for its beauty. You come here for the Harbour and Opera House, of course. And in this week in particular, the Women’s World Cup, with the whole country rallying for the Matildas.
Yet at this point, a week from the end, all I want is a taste of home.
Ambunti, Papua New Guinea
From hundreds of kilometres away in either direction, tribes from the Lower, Middle, and Upper Sepik all converge once a year in Ambunti for the Sepik River Crocodile Festival. It’s a show where everyone brings the best of their diverse culture in singsings, art, the biggest yams, and of course, crocodiles. I’ve said my piece in the full entry — here’s the best of what I captured.
For logistics on how to visit the festival or Papua New Guinea in general, click here.
Photos and videos ahead→
Upper Sepik, Papua New Guinea
The Sepik River might be the closest thing people imagine of PNG: hard to access, tribal and traditional, spirits inhabiting nature, and a slow, remote way of life. It’s considered one of the signature spots of PNG identity and culture; in a country with few tourists, a place that a large portion attempt to visit despite the hassle. Even PNG’s national parliament building in Port Moresby is modeled after a Sepik spirit house. It’s those very houses that I first saw on TV years ago that planted the seed for this trip, and so the Sepik is the centerpiece — one that almost didn’t happen.
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
Consistently ranked in the top ten least livable cities in the world, Port Moresby, the capital and by far largest city of PNG, has a formidable reputation. The high violent crime rate is top of mind. Information online says not to walk anywhere. Canada’s travel advice recommends hiring private security while in the city, in addition to granting PNG the distinction of being the only non-African country with an orange “avoid non-essential travel” rating.
Get into town and you’ll see the what the PNG government promotes. Fancy hotels, giant malls, and billboards in Waigani district. A stunning parliament building in the style of a Sepik haus tambaran. There’s a shiny new convention centre built for the 2018 APEC summit, next to Ela Beach, surrounded by glitzy mid-rises. The pièce de résistance? A giant “Amazing Port Moresby” sign by the shore, at the best spot from which to watch the sun set.
Reality, as usual, is somewhere in between.
Rabaul and Kokopo, Papua New Guinea
From Kokopo, in good weather, there’s a tantalizing sight in the distance: Mt. Tavurvur, an active volcano at the edge of the Gazelle Peninsula, past the town of Rabaul.
Having been rained out of visiting Rabaul during the Mask Festival, and spending the rest of my time after it waiting for a boat that never left, I had every intention of returning to East New Britain for four or five more days after New Ireland. Alas, the national fuel shortage and arbitrary airline shenanigans stranded me there, leaving me with just one day back in Kokopo and Rabaul before my next flight.
It’s just enough for a speed run, and a quick hello-again to my new friends at the guesthouse in Kokopo. It’s sadly not enough to accept their invitations to visit their villages, including one who greeted the first visiting missionaries from Fiji by, uh, eating them. Their bones are still kept in the village… but at least the village is Christian now? Would’ve been an interesting stop. Thanks,
Obama Air Niugini. Ahem, back to Rabaul.
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.”
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.
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.
Kokopo, Papua New Guinea
When people think of Papua New Guinea, they think of traditional cultures. On my first true impression of the country, well outside of the messy capital, Port Moresby, I had the chance to see that in full concentration at the National Mask Festival & Warwagira held in Kokopo, the first in three years.
East New Britain province (ENB) is home to four main cultures: Tolai, Baining, Pomio, and Sulka. That’s but four language groups of PNG’s over 800. Yet even within these four, there’s vast diversity of kastoms (customs) — rites, ceremonies, singsings (songs and/or dances), and whatnot performed for initiations, funerals, bride prices, and so on.
Yet all of this coexists with what appears to be a very Christian country. And in this day and age, how often do we see traditional cultures in the world practiced as more than a costume we put on once in awhile? Is anything still considered sacred? For PNG, we know that answer already — a big yes to both — but I’m here to learn what exactly that looks like and means.
Bleary-eyed after a 13-hour flight, I go for a walk in West End and end up on Granville St, eventually turning onto Boundary. After braving the brunch lineup at a hip café for a delicious meal and coffee, I top up my TransLink card at a train station, before opting to walk some more to the nearby waterfront for a ferry ride instead. The weather’s spectacular as I watch the glistening glass towers of downtown disappear in the distance. I disembark by a park, and walk along a pedestrian path bisected by a bike lane, surrounded by picnickers on this lovely Sunday afternoon. After some more aimless wandering, the sun’s going down and I’m hungry. I head to the night market — packed as usual, full of people speaking everything including Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, and the like.
If it weren’t for the cars running down the wrong side of the road, if it weren’t for the accent… I may as well have been describing a lovely summer weekend at home. Oh yeah, it’s winter here.
Brisbane may be on the other side of the world, but the similarities to Vancouver don’t end there. Both are the third-largest cities of their respective countries. Both have a metro population of roughly 2.5 million. Both have a vacation-friendly Sunshine Coast about an hour away. And for whatever reason, both cities like to thank their bus drivers when disembarking. I think that’s great.