Adjusting to Papua New Guinea
The sun has already set and it must be a bit after 7pm. I wouldn’t know for sure cause I stopped checking the time since I arrived in New Ireland, my first destination in Papua New Guinea. In Planet Earth time, this is my 3rd day here, but time flows on a different dimension here. A new beach, another conversation, the beetle nut red-toothed smile, a coconut picked up from the palm tree, that yummy seafood, another pink sunset, and when I add them all up, it feels like I’ve been here for weeks.
Today was spent chilling with the locals at the beach and playing football with the children at the village school. I am now in Watten’s spare bedroom in a wooden house with a roof made of craftily placed palm leaves. I’m rehearsing for the shower: how to hold the lap-lap (aka sarong) around me with one hand so that it covers me but also gives me the freedom to soap up with the other hand. This preparation is needed as the “shower” is a good old river and because my first experience was more of a refreshing dip than an efficient cleaning. But I am more confident now and off I go to the river. I get myself slowly in the water and wait a few moments for my body to adjust to the chilly water carrying away the sticky dust off my skin and all the thoughts out of my mind. I finally start putting into practice my plan. And it works, for a second or so. Then the fabric starts floating and the stream takes away the soap from my unsuspecting hands. In the blink of an eye, my rehearsed showering technique transformed into desperate attempts to catch the soap while covering my modesty from any neighbors who might have me in their field of view.
Getting closer to Watten. And God
Back at the house, I tell Watten about my experience and she obviously has a copious laugh. She is chilling on the porch with her pet pig that she bought after her husbands’ death. She was supposed to sacrifice it but that never happened. She’s the pastor’s widow and she took it upon herself to keep doing God’s work after the pastor passed. She spends her days in activities to support and help the community grow, from Sunday school for kids to women’s empowerment sessions. It isn’t hard to imagine her as the motherly figure making sure everybody is happy, even though she is not the village leader. She extended her motherly warmth to me, always asking if I needed something, if I’m comfortable, if I slept well or If I had a good time at the beach.
Her home is not a known guest house. She tells me that I should take it as a favor that she hosted me. At the same time, she doesn’t mind if more people come to stay over. She likes having guests but wants to keep her freedom to decide when to take somebody in. If somebody needed a bed, she would happily offer them one, because the house where she lives is God’s, not hers. She will treat every traveler like she would want her own daughters to be treated, but she won’t advertise a guesthouse because she doesn’t want to owe anybody anything except for God’s love. And I could feel her heart full of love.
We spend the rest of the evening on the porch, talking about her life in New Ireland, how peaceful it is and how she doesn’t miss at all the time she spent in the States. She studied and lived there for a few years but the weather and the people are too cold.
Going deeper in the island
Here, in New Ireland, societies are matriarchal, the village leaders are women and wealth is handed down to the females in the family. It’s also women the ones that do most of the work, fishing every day and preparing the food for their families. They own the lands that provide the valuable plants that are used for both food and construction material. Some houses have enough electricity to power a lightbulb or two (but not more) from the solar panels and batteries provided by the government. There are small shops that carry luxuries like canned tuna or basics like soap but most people can still make their own so most of the times, money is not needed. The big majority of New Irelanders over the age of 10 chews beetle nut and this is the only thing they need money for, as it doesn’t grow on the island.
Children here are incredibly independent, strong and skilled. I’ve seen seven-year-olds climb a coconut tree a few stories high, drop the coconut, come down and open it with a machete all of it without breaking a sweat. And I wouldn’t be such a fool as to think I can climb a coconut tree, but seeing them handle the machete, it did cross my mind that I could open my own coconut. Spoiler alert: I can’t make the minimal cut through the husk, never mind making the opening in such a way that I can drink the water and not kill myself in the process.
Civilization as I know it seems like a distant dream right now. And sitting on the porch with Watten, talking about life and God, I think about how this place and my idea of heaven are pretty much the same thing. But as much as it is beautiful, it is raw and wild and I probably wouldn’t survive a day on my own in this environment. And as much as it is beautiful, it is vulnerable to the damage that civilization brings, with its plastic bags, raised sea levels, deforestation and overfishing. And I can only hope God will take care of it.