Sunday, 29 March 2015

I'm in paradise.

Avinoon tru! It’s been a crazy week, and I feel like my first month here is flying by. Now it’s Sunday evening and just as the sun sets, the power has turned back on. Thank you sweet Jesus for ceiling fans!

The past week at work has been pretty fantastic. My assignment with the ABG Archives Office essentially involves assisting the transition to a new database, enabling training and capacity building, and assisting with the continual processing of archival material. Michael and I have already identified a lot of goals that we’d like to achieve this year, so it looks like it will be a busy one. One of the projects I am involved in is the coordination of some research being done for the Bureau of Media and Communication by the Centre for Social and Cultural Media (University of Goroka, PNG). In true Bougainville style, the project didn’t happen for months and then all engines were go; the University of Goroka researchers flew in to Buka for a few days this week, so Michael and I spent a lot of time in meetings discussing research and workshopping with field researchers from around Bougainville. We’re still in the planning stages, but I feel very excited to be involved with ‘real-life’ research after years of writing essays within the four walls of Victoria University! Hopefully when the time comes to actually collect the data, I’ll have the opportunity to travel around Bougainville with some of the field researchers. It will be a great chance to see more of Bougainville, as well as to meet people, build up the research capacity in Bougainville, and hopefully, engage with and improve communication with some communities in more remote parts of the mainland. There is a small, eager Liv inside me that wants to go back to my development studies lectures and yell “I’M DOING FIELD RESEARCH!” at the top of my lungs.

After such a full on week at work I needed this weekend to treat me well, which it most definitely has. On Saturday afternoon, another VSA volunteer Moniek had her go pinis (farewell party) as her assignment is coming to an end this week. A whole group of friends and workmates hung out on the beach, played volleyball, and ate and drank a lot. It was a stunning day, much like any typical Kiwi barbecue except for the buckets of kulau (young drinking coconuts) and abundance of SP beer. To follow up a great afternoon with an even more amazing afternoon, today Moniek, her partner Paul, Bryn and I went to White Island with some of Moniek’s World Vision work friends and their families. White Island is a small island around 5 minutes boat ride from Buka town, and it is absolute paradise. Crystal waters fringe the white sands that lead to the leafy, shaded heart of the island. Only around 400 sq metres, White Island isn’t inhabited but is a popular picnic spot for people from Buka and the surrounding islands. Moniek’s friend’s Cecy and Vivienne had brought lunch with them, so the men built a fire and proceeded to cook up a huge pot of rice and around 30 chicken thighs for us all. I swam in the warm Pacific with Cecy’s daughters, walked around the island, got asked by two men visiting from the Sipik in PNG if I would take a photo with them, and achieved a gorgeous tshirt tanline. As the sun lowered in the west, the shadows of the palm trees lengthened and the day softened with golden light. After a few hours of bliss on what could have been the setting for Castaway, we arrived home just as the orange sun was setting behind the mango trees in Buka.

White Island.

Bryn and I.

Kids playing on a canoe.

Looking over Buka Passage, having arrive back to town.

Next week, over Easter weekend, Bryn and I are travelling down to Central Bougainville to stay on Pok Pok Island with another couple of VSA volunteers who work in Arawa. I’m really excited to get out of Buka and see more of Bougainville, and I’m also looking forward to a break from the business of town. I will be missing the annual making of hot cross buns and blown Easter eggs with my family, but, for me, Easter is a time to think of redemption and reconciliation and what better place to do so than in Bougainville, where these concepts are so central to the peace process?

I’ve loved my first month here. Buka becomes more familiar every day, and the fact that the people here are so friendly and quick to laugh makes it even easier. Being away from my family, Dan, and friends, is still hard, but less visceral. I feel very proud of myself. It may sounds strange to say, but I am in a place in my life where I have to have faith in myself and my ability to adapt, and I am proud that I am able to do that. I have many mountains to climb yet, but I think I’m going to be okay.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015


The sky melts, from lilac to soft orange to the pink flesh of a pomelo. The vibrant ceiling of colours is pierced by the black silhouettes of the coconut tree swaying in the wind. The sounds of the night filter through the thick, sticky air; a child crying, the crackling of the fire, the pulsing of the ceiling fan. Slowly, dozens of small shadows appear on the horizon, bearing down through the last rays thrown out by the sun. Bats, with their wings spread wide to catch the slight breeze, make their evening exodus from the hills, from warm slumber to the night-time feed. They fly over me, graceful and weightless, through tangerine orange and in to the indigo of the evening.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Poroman, Work and Wantok.

So I’ve been here almost two weeks, and while the bright sheen of new experiences hasn’t quite worn off, I’m settling in and slowing down.
Buka itself is a fascinatingly varied place. Coconut trees line the gorgeous passage which walls in one side of the market. Women sell their vegetables, coconuts, mangos, jewellery and bilum (bags). Right next to this picturesque island scene, a dusty road is lined with coke cans and bright red buai (betelnut) juice seeps in to the clay. It is hot. It is so hot that the five minute walk home from work warrants an afternoon nap; so hot that as I sit under the mango tree waiting for the bus, droplets of sweat roll down my neck and trail down my spine. Cold showers are a given, as there is no hot water at my house, but they are also a necessity.

One fool proof way to cool down is with a swim in the Buka Passage. On Sunday, a few other volunteers and I organised a boat ride to one of the islands not far from Buka. We planned on having a swim, lying around on the beach and having some lunch before returning home. However, the boat failed to show after a miscommunication about what time we wanted to head out so we instead went for a swim in the passage at an inlet not far from my house. There were about 30 kids all swimming there too, jumping off the rusted wreck of an old ship, diving and splashing. As soon as us white meri (women) and man (men) jumped in too, we were incredibly entertaining and elicited many laughs. I’m not sure what the kids found so funny about us, but the journey from being self-conscious to just accepting that you’re always going to be hilarious to the locals can be quite humbling. The water was clear and calm, and the turquoise rocks below shimmered as I dived in. I gathered some poroman (friends) as I swam, three girls that would not let go of me while I was in the water. Luisa, Mary-Jane and Aliente were all young schoolgirls that live in Buka, and we had a hilariously broken conversation in English and Tok Pisin. Luisa reminded me of myself, talking about how much she wants to go to a gudpela skol (good school) when she grows up, and maybe she could go to university like me! I definitely tried to encourage those dreams. Education is so empowering, and here in Bougainville the youngest generation is benefiting from an education system that has only been re-established in the past 15 years. They are the future of Bougainville.

Kids jumping off the back of the boat that ferries vehicles across Buka Passage.

I started work last Monday too. My office (the Division of Media and Communications) has around 20 staff in it, all of whom are incredibly friendly. At the moment I'm working with my counterpart, Michael, to get to know the Archives office and how it works. He is a lovely guy and incredibly willing to teach me all about Bougainville history and culture. We're also possible going to get in to some research this year, which could be exciting. Due to the regular power shortages here, I've had many an opportunity to escape my desk and sit outside under the mango tree to chat to the other women I work with. Many women here marry quite young, have completed their university studies in Port Moresby while raising children, and now work full time while being wife and mother. They are pretty incredible women!

It seems that it is much easier for women to do such things in Bougainville due to the Wantok system, which in a way is similar to the role of hapū in Māori culture. When women are working, their sisters, or in-laws, or aunties, will help raise children. Many family households are made up of various parts of the extended family and several people will be responsible for looking after the children are various times. Wantok literally means ‘one talk’, and refers to the people who speak the same language as you, or an extended family. The concept of homelessness is strange to people in Buka because if you are in need of money, food, or shelter, your family will always provide for you. In this way, the government does not have a welfare system because the intricate web of Wantok means that people will not rely on welfare to survive. Of course, there are holes and the system is not perfect. Nor is it able to fit perfectly in to an increasingly capitalist and urban society where families move away from their village and become more isolated. But in Bougainville, the system is still very much intact given the low levels of urbanisation and the geography of the islands.

Looking out to the eastern mouth of Buka Passage from Ieta Village.

So, after a wee while here, I feel like I’m slowly getting to know Buka. My body has relaxed into the slow rhythm of Bougainvillean time, succumbing to the heat and the lethargy. I miss home, Daniel, my family, a lot. But I am taking it one day at a time. While I feel like my sense of self has been put through a complete overhaul, I am coming to love this place and its people. I know the novelty will soon fade and it will become more difficult, but seriously – bring it on. What an experience! 

Thursday, 5 March 2015

I'm here!

The journey to Buka was long and tiring. I flew to Brisbane on Tuesday at 7am, met up with my fellow volunteer, Bryn, and we continued to Port Moresby (POM) to stay the night. POM is beautiful but difficult to get around safely so we were confined to the hotel. The hotel had a great pool though, so we took advantage of one more night of luxury before hitting Buka.

After a somewhat emotional night where I had a slight freak out ("What am I doing? Surely I must be crazy?!"), Bryn and I took a shuttle to the POM domestic terminal on Wednesday morning, which was a thoroughly overwhelming experience. A grainy speaker gushed forth constant announcements in Tok Pisin and English, none of which were decipherable given the constant static. People lined up and milled around with kids and bags everywhere. It took an hour to check in, but we eventually got on to the tiny plane and after a stopover in Rabaul, East New Britain Island, we arrived in Buka.

Flying in to Buka from the East.

Buka is so stunning. Any worries about my vocational choices were put at ease as we cruised over breathtakingly beautiful beaches, coconut plantations, mountains covered in thick bush and the turquoise Buka Passage. We landed on the shortest runway in the world, screeching to a halt outside a tiny tin shed where all the bags were dropped. Chaos ensued as people rummaged for their baggage, and Bougainville Security officials checked their bag receipts to make sure nothing was being stolen. Bryn and I were met by Raewyn and Chris, the VSA staff in Bougainville, and another VSA volunteer, Annabel, who works in my office. I quickly developed a sheen of sweat covering my entire body; Buka has a reputation for being the hottest part of Bougainville! The temperature hovers between 28C and 32C with around 90 per cent humidity. There is, however, a nice ocean breeze that provides some relief, and for the last 24 hours it has been raining, which means it is nice and cool, with geckos chirping around the house and crickets (I think) maintaining a deafening chorus.

My home for the year - Bryn lives downstairs, and I live upstairs.
The view from my balcony.
I have been into the Division of Media and Communications office to meet my workmates and boss, but I start proper work on Monday. For the last couple of days Raewyn and Chris (Chis is from Buka originally) have been taking Bryn and me around town, checking out the supermarket and the outdoor veggie markets, the trade stores and (my favourite part so far) the second-hand clothing shops! At the market the women all laughed at me when I asked how to cook a suspiciously prickly vine/green leafy vegetable. Everyone seems so nice and despite me being a white meri (woman) who seems to make a fool of herself all the time, the locals are incredibly welcoming and friendly. One thing I have learned is that if people say a meeting is at 9am, no one will actually turn up until 10:30am. Island time indeed!

Last night the VSA volunteers had dinner with the New Zealand Police Community Taskforce who are based here in Buka, as well as in Bruin and Arawa. On Saturday, a few of the other volunteers and I may organise a boat trip to one of the outer islands, and on Sunday we’re having a pot luck lunch at Annabel’s house. So, despite my occasional homesickness, I feel positive about making connections with people and getting to see more of Buka – and hopefully, down the track, more of Bougainville! Looking at the full moon as we ate dinner next to the passage, I was reminded that it was the same moon as in New Zealand.

I’m missing everyone at home terribly, but there are so many exciting new places to explore here, and people to get to know. I know it’s going to be hard in these first few months, but I’m also hopeful about the relationships I will build and the experiences I will have.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Haere rā, friends.

I have the most wonderful friends.

The last week has been an overwhelming haze of goodbyes and packing. After spending last weekend in Auckland for the gorgeous Charlottes hen's, I flew back to Wellington on Monday, packed all my stuff up and shifted in with Dan for the week. I had a gorgeous dinner at El Matador with my wonderful flatmates followed by goodbye drinks at Southern Cross Garden Bar on Thursday night. Then on Saturday, Dan and I went for a beautiful walk along the south coast of Wellington, followed by Ekim Burgers and a beer. Sunday morning was full of tearful farewells as Dan saw me off at the airport for my Wellington to Auckland flight, and then last night we had a barbecue at Mum and Dad's house.

I fly out tomorrow morning at 7:00am, and after a stopover in Brisbane and a night in Port Moresby, I will be in Buka at 1:00pm on 4 March. I'm flying from Brisbane with another VSA volunteer called Bryn, so it will be cool to not be the only rookie on the block. I have no idea what to expect and so I'm keeping an open mind and an open heart...que serã, serã. Thank you to all those wonderful people who make it so difficult for me to leave! Because of your love I am able to go to Bougainville, confident that I have a support network ready to lift me up when I fall and cheer me on to the next adventure. I am so grateful for you! 

I'm also grateful for a beautiful evening with the bride-to-be.

For my two favourite people who get along wonderfully.

For Mollie, who is going to change the world.

For Vic, who has a contagious laugh.

For wonderful flatmates. 

For weird flatmates.

For the beautiful Whanganui-A-Tara.

For the person who makes me laugh more than anyone.

And for my family, whom I will miss immensely.