Bougainville

I had heard of this island state, but always heard “Bogan Ville,” which made sense since it was Australian occupied for so long, but didn’t add up why there would only be bogans. But, its actually named after some French guy Captain Louis-Antoine de Baugainville who mapped it for the first time a long long time ago but never set foot on land when he sailed up the east coast of the island in 1768. It was the burial ground of many Japanese during WWII, while Australians and Americans also left some dismal footprints, and It just came out of a bloody “crisis,” a war waged between Bouganvillieans and the Australian over a ludicrous mining industry that took copper and lime-stone from the land without proper land-rights compensation. After being discovered in 1964 and thousands of people and millions of dollars were invested in the mine, Panguna mine was shutdown in 1989, and a civil war broke out as Papua New Guinea’s richest town became a black hole, deserted by the government and declared an independent republic in 1990. Some 12 years later, Papua New guinea recognized Bougainville’s claims to autonomy, and now that peace has been restored, only the burned-down remnants of Arawa, the mining town now squatted by locals, and a few road blocks to the mine still remind one of what actually happened.

Bougainvillians are usually black all over, but these kids have some red or brown blood, with light hair, and oh so cute

Bougainvillians are usually black all over, but these kids have some red or brown blood, with light hair, and oh so cute

I flew from Rabaul to the auntonomous state of Bougainville, where a smaller island north of the main island called Buka with a city of the same name has remained largely unscathed and now full of expats (they say its one of the fastest growing cities in Papua, along with Kokopo). I stayed with some Kiwi girls, who volunteer for the Volunteer Service Abroad, and also the head guy for Australian Aid there. He comically explained to me its not fair to be white in Bougainville, since everyone can always seem him at night but he always jumps out of his socks everytime someone passes him and says “Evening!” and he can barely make out the whites of their eyes right beside him. They really are as black as night, and one of the independence slogans I saw for Bougainville was “Black is beautiful.” They call other people, who  aren’t jet-black, brown or red, which I nearly could have resembled as far as skin tone, but since I didn’t have the fluffy hair, I was white as white. Some of the super-black skin had brown or red hair, which looked almost blonde in the contrast, but I haven’t really figured out why. It cant just be sun-bleaching, since I’ve never seen that in West Africa, but it could be genetic, or even a sign of malnutrition.

I took a PMV from the north of the island accross the Buka passage to Arawa, a 4 hour journey, and made the mistake of not peeing on our pee break. So when I finally got the courage to ask the driver to stop for me, he nearly broke a sweat trying to find a place, since everywhere he slowed down to check out, he’d speed off again saying “no no, plenty people.” I couldn’t see a soul around, and quite frankly I thought we were in the middle of nowhere, but finally he liked one patch of jungle more and let me out to pee. The woman beside me came to guard watch, and after 3 mosquito bites on my rear end, I returned to the car relieved.

I couchsurfed with a german guy who works for Geneva’s International Committee of the Red Cross, and his project there is fascinationg. They’re helping families find missing persons (which are mostly bodies in unlocated mass-graves) to facilitate the process of closure to many people’s grieving. The energy in Arawa made me strangely aware of this unfinished business, with the spooky energy of a destroyed town and its forgotten history never properly dealt with. People were peaceful, but also incredibly timid, shy and quiet, their inaudible voices rising only out of a whisper if you were more than 5 m away and heard a friendly greeting of “abynoon” (pidgin for “good afternoon”).

Toby took me snorkeling at one of the most beautiful coral reefs I’ve ever seen, and if you could ignore the sunken car batteries and floating plastic, you’d almost believe you were creeping up onto the Great Barrier reef. More than that, it was on a totally deserted beach, backed only by a few private fwellings, so keeping with their very sensitive land-use rights, we paid for our snorkel with a few beetel nuts to the land owner.

A Solomon Islander/Bougainvillian couple gave me Fanta and icecream before our boat journey together from the market in Buin to the airport in Balalae

A Solomon Islander/Bougainvillian couple gave me Fanta and icecream before our boat journey together from the market in Buin to the airport in Balalae

Eventually I ended my tour of Bougainville on the southern end, where the town of Buin is closer to nearby Solomon Islands than Arawa. It took another 3 hour PMV to get to the end of the island, and while I lucked out with the passenger seat up front, the rest of the men sat in the open-air cab of the jeep, hooting and hollering the whole way. I’m not sure if they were screams of joy or just normal greetings, but all the passerby’s hollered back and the fireflies seemed to twinkle more in response.

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Rabaul under Ashes

I flew from Port Moresby to Kokopo, which is the replacement city to Rabaul, a harbor town destroyed by two volcanoes in 1994 (and 1937). There was once a booming town, now buried under 6 feet of ash, with a busy domestic airport and lots of international tourism, but all there’s left of it is a steamy volcano crater, and 3 or 4 concrete buildings that still need to sweep away ash that gets blown around on a daily basis. Miraculously the town is actually covered in green, the mounds of ask creating the perfect fertile grounds gor a new forest to spring up, and the roads have been excavated to provide access to a few villagers still squatting the modern-day Pompeii, but most of the life has moved 30km away to Kokopo, PNG’s quickest growing city.

Rabaul under ashes

Rabaul under ashes

The little harbor between Rabaul and Kokopo is basically a chain of volcanoes, 3 which are dormant and 2 which are very active. I had heard of atleast 10 hotels between Rabaul and Kokopo I could stay at, all ludicrously expensive, but after trying my luck at 6 of them which were all full and almost getting killed by a coconut walking out of the Ropopo Resort, I called my friend in Port Moresby to help. He made a few SOS calls, and 2 degrees of separation later, I had the friend of a wife of his friend of his put me up in her cozy apartment in Kokopo. I got attacked by a huge butterfly at the golf club and went to the housewarming party of some aussie, and otherwise most of my time was spent closer to Rabaul, taking in the scenery of a near-Armageddon.

ontop of the Mother

ontop of the Mother

A group of us hiked up a dormant volcano called Mother, which looked down on the dormant Daughter and the active, steam-billowing Tavurvur beside her. We ate coconuts on the way down, the coconut milk, meat, and some weird variation of a seedling coconut whose insides turn into this fluffy cotton candy floss. I spent some time at the market, where the common fare is betel nuts, mustard sticks and lime powder, but also pineapples, cucumbers, tomatoes, peanuts, lettuce, eggplant, avocado if you’re lucky, and some very colourful hand-woven purses.

the man purse

the man purse

They were made of palm leaves and yarn, and no matter what shape size or colour, they all ended in frilly bits and unkept ties, slightly resembling ths feathers-on-a-stick charms called “fascinators” that they sell, all to resemble the most beautiful birds and flowers found in nature. The man-purse was taken to a whole new level, since men had just as colourful handbags, but hung them around their necks in an attempt to make them more masculine. But no man went anywhere without his wallet, a woven-leaf basket in a half-moon shape, holding all his most important things (money and betel nuts).

An Introduction to Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea is a huge place, with more animals and plants than scientists even know exist. They’re still finding new species of birds and strange marsupials*, and haven’t even covered half of the country’s densely forested highlands, still inhabited by tree-dwelling tribes that speak over 700 languages. Although it seems like an obvious tourist attraction, the infrastructure is nearly non-existent, and in fact, the tourism industry that once was is even dwindling, since during their colonial ties with Australia in the 60’s and earlier, many more tourists used to come and tour companies and services have since slowly disappeared. Now there´s hardly any recognition of a tourist, traveler or budget backpacker, but the resident ex-pat on holiday or government official largely make up the clientele for guesthouses and domestic fliers.

the beautiful nature scape of Rabaul harbour

the beautiful nature scape of Rabaul harbour

The official languages are English and tok pisin, a kind of pidgin English mixed with some german words, but its hardly a mutually intelligible dialect since a native English speaker wouldn’t understand more than 80%. Its not a complicated language, so learning it would come quickly, and reading it was slightly easier, since its actually quite simple and phonetic. Ten Q is how they write thank you, and wantok or 1tok means one-talk, and your one-talks are the people from your village who share one of the 850+ local languages with you in addition to the universal tok pisin.

The form of public transportation is in mini-vans or Land Cruisers called PMV’s, “people mover vehicles.” If they’re longer than an hours journey, they make random stops along the side of the road for pee breaks, market shopping, or fresh water holes.

The local beer is a big capital SP (South Pacific) in yellow on a green can, and its plastered the same way in every other shack that sells it, warm or cold, sometimes they’re out, you never know. They’re not cheap, at 2 euros each, but I wanted to buy 4 from a guy who was sitting in for the lady boss, and he couldn’t compute 4 times 6, but she had written a time table in her notebook “1xSP= 6 kina, 2xSP=12kina, 3xSP=18 kina” etc. He did very well at making change of 1 kina for my 25 I paid him.

The prices of things here are outrageous. Like, think expensive, then double it, then that’s what you should expect. One guy told me he paid $1000 per month for internet (800 euros for 20GB was his exact quote), and to rent a Land Cruiser costs $500 Australian dollars per day… including the driver but not including fuel. A crappy hotel can cost anywhere from $75 to $175 per night, and somehow they’ll still fill up with government officials and visiting NGOs or volunteers from abroad. An internal roundtrip flight will cost you more than going to Australia and back, and the less than 2hr flight to Honiara, capital of neighbouring Solomon Islands, will cost you more than flying from Auckland to London. But, ironically enough, there are still tribes in PNG that use a special type of shell as legal tender, and this currency is often used in dowry payments, even by foreigners marrying a local.

the cockatoo begs for a scratch from the meri

the cockatoo begs for a scratch from the meri

A woman is called a “meri,” and most ex-pats have a house meri, and I was the visiting white meri. I spent a day with one of my couchsurf host’s meri, and she took me to the Nature Park/Botanical Gardens in Port Moresby to cuddle some cockatoos and other beautiful birds. They have birds of paradise and plenty of the same-named plant, and in one bird atrium, a lorikeet took a fancy to a students afro and tried to mate with his head. The cassowaries, beautiful black versions of an emu with multi-colourful heads, were in bigger pens that we walked above, and my house-meri guide wouldn’t come within 10 feet of the snake or crocodile pens. We saw more types of kangaroos than I knew existed, especially off the Australian continent, and the wallabies and tree-kangaroos cuteness could have melted a grown man’s heart. After a kid-in-the-park afternoon, I offered her some money in gratitude and she eagerly replied “thank you! I love you!”

this is the most they'd smile for the camera... but they do have red mouths

this is the most they’d smile for the camera… but they do have red mouths

The men and meris love to chew betel nuts, which kind of look like miniature green coconuts, and inside is a yellowish white seed thing that they chew, with the help of some green mustard stick and some white lime stone powder. It looks like flour or cocaine, but apparently that’s what happens when you burn lime stone. The biggest mystery is how it all turns blood red, and people’s smiles are stained so brightly red that it looks as if they’ve chewed a whole tube of lipstick. They spit out mouthfuls of bloody spit, more than you’d believe fits between their cheeks, and after a while it stains their teeth so black that only a few remain among their rotting gums.

Kakadu National Park

Kakadu is one of, if not the most famous national park in Australia, and even worldwide, boasting caves filled with Aboriginal stone art from 20,000 years ago all the way up to the 20th century. It’s a living nature reserve and aboriginal culture museum, burned and flooded every year throughout its six indigenous seasons. It’s massive in size, taking nearly the same amount of time to drive through as it takes one to drive clear across Iceland. Half of it isn’t even accessible in the wet season, but the whole of it can hardly be called ‘accessible’ in the dry season since it was a scorching 42`C high every day and hiking around to all the art sights, billabongs and look-out points were nearly suicide missions (I swear I almost melted).

a dwindling billabong, crowded with birds

a dwindling billabong, crowded with birds

It’s nearly the end of the dry season, and the only water left was a few muddy puddles, covered in lilies and hundreds of birds, plus three major rivers, affectionately named West Alligator River, South Alligator River, and East Alligator river (aren’t their only crocodiles in Australia? and the South one was really the middle one, since they were all parallel in a row… unimportant technicalities I guess). It was scorching hot, even at night, and I don’t think I’ve ever drank so much water or sweated it out so quickly.

aboriginal rock art

gunbim at Nourlangie rock

Luckily we had a car with air conditioning to provide temporary relief between the walk-abouts, and the hikes always proved worthwhile once you stood under a shady cave covered in cartoony but intricate images of fish and kangaroos painted by someone in red-ochre thousands of years ago.

We saw dozens of kangaroos and hundreds of birds – geese, storks, and colourful parrots to boot. Yellow-crusted cockatoos flew overhead as often as lizards crossed our paths, and we even saw one crocodile make a lunch out of one unlucky bird (or fish, it’s hard to say… just glad it wasn’t one of us). Our luck continued as we drove out of the park, where we sighted a dingo cross the road, and 3 wild horses, aka brumbies, grazing right beside the road!

the park is purposely burned every year, causing huge smoke plumes

the park is purposely burned every year, causing huge smoke plumes

We found the perfect Kakadu decompression site on our way home, the Douglas Daly hotspring national park, where we bathed in hot water, but at maybe 36`C, the water mas still cooler than the air and we managed to enjoy it under the shade of cockatoo-perched trees. It’s hard to imagine places like this exist, naturally, and total in the wild, and all it took was a weekend roadtrip from Darwin to find them.

South-east Asia to the South Pacific, via Australia

There are only 2 direct flights out of Dili, the one from Bali that I took to get in, and the one to Darwin I took to get out. Landing in Australia was only a 90 minute flight, but years and worlds away from Timor. The last time I was down under was 2007, when I lived in Brisbane, and the North Territory is totally different to the east coast. It’s gotten a lot more expensive, according to my memory of the average price of a meat pie and gingerbeer, and the Australian dollar is also stronger, so I was happily couchsurfing to avoid the $30/night hostels filled with German teenagers.

Maguk Pool at Kakadu

Maguk Pool at Kakadu

I wanted to go from Timor to Papua, since they’re sort of geographically contingent, but of course that doesn’t matter to airlines. If I wanted to do that, I’d have to go to the Indonesian side of West Timor, fly to the Indonesian Paupa, and cross overland to Papua New Guinea and take a handful of days to travel overland to Port Moresby. Or, I could fly to Bali and pay another $35 visa on arrival and $20 international departure tax just to use Denpasar. But, the easiest and probably most enjoyable way to cross from South-East Asia to the South Pacific is through Australia.

I didn’t spend much time in Darwin, but landed on a Friday and spent one roaring night out with my host Nick. In our brief introduction chat, he suggested Kakadu national park as a place to spend the weekend, since he had never been there either but had a jeep and the weekend off. So I spent Friday afternoon rushing around Darwin trying to take in some of the shops and sights, and made it as far as the post office to send some post cards and birthday gifts. I saw the man-made beach, but didn’t make it down the 80 steps to the crocodile-free lagoon.

My couchsurfing accomodation

My couchsurfing accomodation

To get to Port Moresby, I coulnd’t fly from Darwin, so I took a 2.5 hr internal flight to Cairns. I once drove there from Brisbane, and remembered the low-lying square blocks around the CBD which reminded me of an old Western town – just replace the cowboys with European backpackers and swinging-door saloons with tourist booking offices.

I couchsurfed with Willy Chu, whose name made me want to break out into singing Beyonce, at an apartment that slightly resembled a resort in Bali. I ate some pies and actually made it to the crocodile-free lagoon there, and Willy took me hiking to a freezing cold water hole where we could swim under waterfalls without worrying about crocodiles.

Willy Chu at Bahana Gorge

Willy Chu at Bahana Gorge

Permaculture in Baucau

I went on an impromptu roadtrip to nearby Baucau, the so-called second capital of Timor Leste. Its about a 2 hour drive, but takes 4 hours with the local bus (plus an hour or so, sitting, sweating and waiting for them to fill). My couchsurf host in Dili sent me straight into the arms of his Macau raised Portugese farmer friend, Fernando.

Fernando's garden

Fernando’s garden

Fernando moved to Baucau 3 years ago and rented a small plot of land surrounded by rice fields and local farmers to try and develop his permaculture project with Na-terra. He said the village people would all come and watch him farm, gawking at his strange techniques. Later he upgraded to a larger piece of land, and today he rents a 2,000m2 garden he’s grown and nurtured to the most bio-diverse plot of land in all of Timor! There are chickens, ducks, bunnies and over 100 species of trees and plants thriving in his little oasis, and all of it works together to form an ecosystem that’s totally self-sustainable and renewable, constantly supplying food to both animals and humans.

white bunny fertilizer machine

white bunny fertilizer machine

We arrived at his farm, surrounded my old big palm trees and a wooden fence. Before we entered, he prepared me by saying “make sure you’re aware of the space around you, the lay of the land and whats the highest point, where is there shade, where’s the water and how does it flow. I felt like I was entering a Jurassic park ride. Once we entered, the fence was completely living from the inside, with vines and grasses growing all the way to the ends and corners of the whole plot. No tree was older than 3 years, but still the canopy was meters above our heads.

We ducked under huge melons and stepped over potted seedlings, and through the cool bamboo trees. We watered the aloe vera and fed the fishes, watching little cat-fish whiskers poke out from the water’s surface We sniffed the lemongrass and the one (and only) Bilimbi plant in the garden (and probably all of Timor… he imported the seed himself from Chile). We harvested tomatoes and papayas to take home, and fed and pet the bunnies who produce all his fertilizer. Then he wriggled our fingers through their poop, mixed in with hay and a bazillion worms, to show me how fertile their fertilizer really was.

He thought me about the Moringa tree, which has 1000% percent more vitamins and good stuff in it than all other individual fruits combined – apparently it’s the obvious solution to solve malnutrition worldwide, but no one knows about it yet. There were vegetables, flowers, herbs and medicinal plants, and all the trees, plants, and permaculture knowledge is given freely to the local people. This way, the farm generates food security, nutrition, and even improves business since the markets now have more fruits and vegetables to trade.

Fernando and his friend on the beach for sunse

Fernando and his friend on the beach for sunse

Fernando talked with such excitement and enthusiasm for every leaf and rock that the garden came creaming to life in front of me, and even the smelly duck pond had an important function in his little circle of life. After cuddling some more with his sugar-cane loving bunnies, we retreated to yet another oasis, Fernando’s cliff-perched house, and watched the sunset from the beach below. For dinner we had spear-fished octopus with all sorts of delights from the farm, and for breakfast we had a Moringa smoothie – a perfect recipe for detox and rejuvenation.

A Tourist in Timor Leste

East Timor is one of those places totally off the tourist radar, but big with ex-pats and foreign NGO’s. It just came out of a bloody 25 year occupation by the Indoniesian, and its one of the youngest countries in the world at only 12 years old. It was colonized since the 16th century, but as soon as they declared independence from Portugal in 1975, the Indonesians literally moved in right away and caused non-stop grief and oppression until 2000 when the international media and UN finally took notice. The haunting Resistance museum covers the black years, when tens of thousands of Timorese people were killed or starved to death, and hundreds of thousands fled the country as refugees. Today its difficult to see any of these hardships on people’s smiling faces, but maybe they’ve just chosen to forget and instead focus on the happy peaceful days.

a Timorese house and shade shelter made from a flower bush

a Timorese house and shade shelter made from a flower bush

Though it’s a long way from a prospering country, they have a rich country, in history, culture and natural resources. Australia’s (still) trying to dig their greedy fingers into their oil and gas reserves, Starbucks (and others) contribute to nearly a quarter of their export economy with coffee beans, and the coast of Timor is jeweled with some of the world’s most pristine coral reef. There are a handful of languages, but most people still speak Tetum, despite Indonesia’s attempt to enforce Bahasa, and the official language of education has been reinstated as Portugese.

boiling salt

boiling salt

I couchsurfed with a Portugese guy who’s job is to start a publishing house. I met many of his ex-pat friends who were mostly teachers for the ‘reference’ schools, and the kids always assumed I was one of them and called me “teacher!” Their smiling faces always impressed me, and many kids also spoke a few words in English. Our conversations would start with “Hello miss, how are you?” although sometimes they called me mister, or sometimes sister. Then the exchange of “what is your name?” and then a fit of giggles when they learned my name and shouted it out in chorus.

dry rice fields

dry rice fields

It was arid and dry, even the ride fields dusty and grey, so the water buffalo were replaced by cute piggies and piglets. There was no karaoke obsession, but similar only to the Philipines in Asia, Timor Leste is a predominantly Christian country, but their animalistic beliefs have held strong. One of the most striking was their treatment of cats and dogs. Some believe that only the souls of perfect beings can be laid to rest in the mountain tops, so often you’ll see cats with purposely mangled tails, just so we humans don’t have to compete for space with all those cats. Dogs are just large rats, not worth much except meat, not ever pets or even guard dogs.

scanning for saltwater crocodiles

scanning for saltwater crocodiles

Crocodiles are the most fascinating animal – the Timorese call them “abo,” which means Grandpa, since they believe they are very sacred animals carrying the souls of their grandfathers. The problem is that there are a lot of crocodiles, and huge salt water crocs, that regularly kill people, taking them in the water, from the shore, or even from their boats. But since they’re such wise, sacred animals, they only kill those who should deserve it, so either the deceased or his/her family has done something wrong. There was the story of one elderly woman who was killed, and a 17 year old boy, probably by the same croc, and the villagers were so furious that they declared the croc a wild crocodile, and killed him when he wouldn’t return the body of the boy. A shaman later came to the village to mediate between the people and the croc, and after some intense chanting, peace has been restored.

the barely-driveable roads

the barely-driveable roads

I realized that before coming, Timor was one of the more worrying countries I was going to show up to with no plan. Since it was difficult to find information, I arrived with a tabula rasa, and all that I found were pleasant surprises. People were much friendlier here than I remember anywhere else on my trip, and though the roads are tremendously bad (it took 9 hours to drive 190km), traveling around always felt safe. And as long as I stayed away from the sea, I didn’t have to worry about any peace conflicts, since I’m certainly no match to a wild croc and that was about the only dangerous thing I encountered in Timor Leste.