Friday, 10 April 2015

Mipela bin go long Pok Pok

Over Easter weekend, Bryn and I travelled down to Arawa and then out to Pok Pok Island with some other VSA volunteers called Ann and Richard. It was such a wonderful weekend, and full of the relaxation and distance from Buka that I needed to refresh me at the end of my first month in Bougainville.

On the Thursday morning before Easter weekend, we took a boat across the Buka Passage to Kokapau and hopped in a PMV (Personal Motor Vehicle, a bus-cum-taxi-cum-death trap, used as the main mode of transport in Bougainville. Most PMV’s you catch in Buka are Toyota vans, whereas the PMVs that transport people to other parts of the islands are either Land Cruisers or flatbed trucks). The driver assumed Bryn and I were married and so graciously offered us the front seat to share; while we assured him we weren’t married, we weren’t going to give up the prime air-conditioned spot in the Land Cruiser. Having strapped our bags to the roof, we pulled out of Kokapau with Bryn sitting by the window, me wedged in between him and our friendly, buai-chewing driver, and eight other people piled into the back of the Land Cruiser. Speeding along the road, we bounced over potholes and were serenaded by an extremely loud soundtrack which included Rihanna, Eminem, Nirvana and the ever-present-in-Bougainville PNG/R’n’B mixes. 

The road from Buka to Arawa is largely unpaved, except for the odd newly-constructed bridge which provides 30 seconds of relief from the constant jolting of racing at 80km/h over a gravel road. Either side of the road, impenetrable bush makes way for the occasional coconut plantation. Young boys walk along the roadside swinging bush knives (not as weapons; bush knives are necessary to travel through the thick bush, and to open coconuts) and young women walk swinging children or bunches of firewood. Liklik markets scatter themselves along the road, selling buai, kumu, banana, kulau (betenut, green vegetables, banana, young coconut). We sped past all this, a daze of dust and blue skies and lush canopies and white smiles in dark faces. Suddenly, over a particularly rough part of the road in Tinputz, the driver bought the car to shuddering halt on the side of the road. Flat tyre. We waited while some of the men in the truck changed the tyre, and off we went again. Despite the increasingly hard road, a lack of sleep the night before had me nodding off. I awoke an hour later and the truck was stationary. I asked Bryn what was happening; flat tyre #2. In fact, the very spare we had just changed was completely deflated. This time, being down a spare meant that we had to wait on the roadside for another PMV to come by to lend us their spare. While we waited, I got out of the truck and had a look around. We were in Central Bougainville; the mountains rose to my right and at their feet coconuts palms bowed, laden with a climbing vine that is prolific and destructive here. A small track off the road led to a village from which two fat, beautiful roosters crowed and wood smoke rose to mingle with a mist rolling off the mountains. One could break down in a worse location. 40 minutes later we were off again, and soon we were driving in to Arawa.

Arawa is a world apart from Buka. Buka is dry, dusty and busy. In Buka the sun scorches and the wet heat seeps into every pore. There is no fresh waters source apart from rain, and the shops are crowded together in a bustling centre. Arawa is a few degrees cooler and any thirst quenched by the many rivers that run down the mountainsides. Wide streets lined with rain trees outline large, flat, green spaces. The exceedingly well-planned town betrays its old identity; a beautiful, manicured, spacious and prosperous mining town and centre of government. Now, the burnt-out shell of the old government headquarters and overgrown, disconnected power poles lining the road remain standing and derelict, a testament to the tragedy and destruction seen in Arawa during the Crisis. The old Arawa Carpentry warehouse, steelworks factory and Arawa Motor Company site are marked solely by the steel skeletons of structures which have been burned, looted and are now collapsed. Despite the scars of the Crisis, Arawa is slowly being transformed. A large marketplace bustles and overflows with the riches harvested from mountain soils. Small trade shops are dotted around the town and houses are slowly being rebuilt and lived in. The people are friendly, and despite unsafe drinking water and an unreliable power supply, there is an air of hope and possibility in Arawa. 


Ann and Richard are both working and living in Arawa. Ann works at the Arawa Haus Sik as a physiotherapist and Richard is working with Bougainville Earthworks as an engineer. They are a fantastic couple, and are full of stories about Bougainville before the Crisis; while they had three young boys in the 1980s, they spent five years living in Arawa while Richard worked for the North Solomons Provincial Government (Bougainville had an independence movement in the 1970s that was temporarily appeased by PNG making it its own province; something that was rather token, given that the rest of PNG was split in to provinces as well). 

On Friday morning Bryn, Ann, Richard and I headed down the coast to Kieta to meet Joe, an old friend of Ann and Richards from Pok Pok Island who was looking after us for the weekend. The coast around Central Bougainville is stunning; as we rounded the corner and climbed the hill before Kieta, a blue expense of water glittered in the sun, framed by banana leaves and the white sand of the coast. WWII relics scatter the shores of Kieta port, alongside the small market on the beachfront of Kieta. Here we met Joe’s nephew Martin, who lives in the village we stayed in and was to drive us in his boat there.

Pok Pok Island is quite large, perhaps with a few thousand inhabitants in various coastal villages, and lies only one kilometre from the mainland. On the way to Martin’s village, Uruna, we stopped off at another larger village to top up on petrol for the boat. While waiting I began to play with some of the kids on the beach and joined them for a swim. They were gorgeous! I’ve always been a sucker for kids, and Bougainvillean kids have won my heart. Very few of them have the luxury of TV or toys. Instead, they spend their days outside in the water and sun. This builds a resilience and independence, and most Bougainvillean kids I’ve gotten to know are incredibly well-balanced. They are happy to make their own fun and learn at the same time. These kids on the beach were floating around on a few blocks of polystyrene packing material, and one kid was causing havoc by wearing a yellow, chicken tea cosy on his head which everyone else was trying to steal off him. As we were playing around in the water, I stepped on something that sent a sharp pain in to the ball of my foot. Unsure about what it was, I walked ashore and in the shallows, squeezed the spine of a small sea urchin out of my foot. At this point a small crowd of wet children surrounded me. Several wounds where more spines had lodged themselves were bleeding, and it was incredibly sore. Promptly, a small girl named Bernadine picked a rock up off the beach and began pounding at the wounds with it. Martin explained to me that they do this to break the spine to pieces inside the wound and when rinsed, the pieces come out. While I am dubious of the science behind this theory, eventually my foot didn’t hurt as much and within a few days it was completely healed.

Kids on Pok Pok Island. Bernadine is the girl in the middle with the blue shorts on.

After our stop at the big village, we continued on to Uruna. We were staying in a saksak (sago palm) and wood house, which was beautiful and simple. Flanked either side by the village, the house was right on the beachfront, where white sand meets crystal clear waters, under which colourful fish and giant clams on the coral reef can be seen. When snorkelling, the colours of these giant clams amazed me; mustard yellow flesh with huge feeding tubes gave way to maroon and violet lips, spotted with turquoise dots to attract smaller fish. These creatures are awe-inspiring, growing over half a metre wide. Around the giant clams, small electric blue fish, angel fish, fish of all colours feed and swim. The ocean truly is another whole world to explore. 

On Saturday morning, Ann, Bryn and I awoke at dawn and went out fishing with Joe. In the early morning sunrise, the reef looked like an aqua-blue gem, shimmering with activity. We sped out past the outer reef and in to the open sea. Thousands of small, luminescent blue specks sped underneath the boat as we motored along, creating an underwater Milky Way. A pod of feeding dolphins passed us by and hornbills and white cockatoos soared over the treetops of the mainland. Mount Bagana, the only active volcano in Bougainville, shimmered behind the morning clouds and spewed smoke in to the sky which mingled with the white mist. We spotted some bird feeding further out, and it was then that I began to understand the term “chasing the tuna”.

We sped over to the boiling patch of water where seagulls were diving at feeding fish and dropped out hand lines into the water behind us. No sooner had we begun trawling, Ann landed a yellowfin tuna at least three feet long which Joe hauled in barehanded. We raced around chasing tuna for the rest of the morning. We didn’t catch any more yellowfins, but I landed a small tuna and a rainbow runner, and Bryn also landed a nice fat rainbow runner. As we fished, flying fish skimming over the surface of the ocean and we spotted a marlin jumping out the water a short way from our boat. The ocean stretched for miles to the north east, and was spotted with gorgeous, white-sand islands to the west. We stopped off at a tiny deserted island called Kurukiki and ate a breakfast of fresh pawpaw, then headed home. We arrived back with our catch just as the sun began to beat fiercely off the water.

 The sunrise while fishing. The small reef marker that is only just visible in front the island in the photo was built by the Germans during WWI.
Joe, Ann, and Bryn with the yellowfin tuna.
We spent the weekend eating fresh fish, coconut and pawpaw until we couldn’t stand any more. We swam, napped on the beach, played cards, read our books, swam some more. I spent a wonderful afternoon on Saturday talking to two women from the village, Nancy and Justine, along with their kids. Justine taught me more pidgin and I managed to win the heart of her one-year-old daughter Ursula (although her grandson Casper remained terrified of all white people). We talked about their lives, arranged marriages, what New Zealand is like, where they were each from. Nancy is from Buka but had married a man from Uruna, and Justine is from Uruna. I was so sad to leave them behind; I feel like it’s quite hard to make good friends in Buka as everyone has their own families and friends, and it was so lovely to spend time with Nancy and Justine for just a few days.

After our few days in paradise, we headed home on Monday morning and Bryn and I spent the entire day travelling back to Buka (sans flat tyres, thankfully). We arrived home to refreshing rain and a birthday dinner for Paul (another VSA volunteer). On Tuesday had to return to work, and to reality. A reality which is still wonderful, but involves a lot more time in the office. C’est la vie!

Joe's well-worn fisherman's hands.

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