Sunday, October 31, 2010

Nem Blong Em

Tiny spinner dolphins played in our bow during their breaks from corralling a silvery sparkle of fish dancing out of the water. We were approaching the entrance to Put Put Harbor (Rugen Harbor), notorious for its narrow, steep, pass and the right angle turn through the jungle mountains at the entrance. It can be hard to spot when approaching from the south with the prevailing current pushing you along at 5 knots. But our Garmin chart plotter was off by only a few hundred feet so we had not trouble navigating through the 100 ft wide pass between docks over the reef to starboard with kids playing in the surf near the point and jungle cliffs sloping down to the reef on the port side. There is a large, manicured, western-style building complex right on the northern bank, visible as soon as you line up with the entrance. This is where the German saw mill used to be located. Apparently it is now used for balsa wood processing. And some of the complex that we saw may be the 7th Day Adventist church.
Supposedly the logging company used to maintain a red and green marker, arranged "Red Right Returning" in the US convention, and opposite to convention of the rest of PNG and the world. But when we arrived, there were no markers to be found, except the single leading white triangle pointing the way into the entrance, set on a pole on top of a reef at the back of the right angle turn in the harbor.
It was almost 5 o'clock when we pulled our anchor deep into the mud in 40 ft of water near the mangroves, just south of a concrete wharf and just east of the unmarked, but charted, coral head. The teenagers on the wharf were carefully putting their clean, polo shirts and shorts back on after having spent the Saturday afternoon doing back flips ("spins") off the jetty into the shallow water in their underwear. Larissa insisted we put the dingy in the water and paddle around the small "weather proof" bay here on New Britain Island (04 deg 33.909' S, 152 deg 21.357' E) to search for ruins, like the old German steam engine at the lumber mill. So we drifted down wind and out with the tide towards the wharf as we pondered the friendliness of the natives, and whether to paddle on to the opposite shore where the lumber mill used to be. Eventually the boys waved to us so we paddled over, asking permission to anchor in their harbor and exchanged the other formalities like learning where everyone was from. It turns out all the boys were from different islands. They'd applied to go to school here and needed good grades to get in. We also learned that it was Chris's 19th birthday and they were planning to celebrate with "table food." Arthur, Chris, and the other teenagers were attending the local "Secondary School" run by the Catholic missionaries that also ran the copra (coconut) plantation. When asked what kind of music they liked (Arthur was carrying a portable music player) they all said in unison "gospel." Arthur explained, "the school doesn't like us to play pop music." We nodded and explained our understanding that it was Saturday so they didn't have to go to school today. One of them mumbled something about it being the "Sabbath." Clearly they have learned the Catholic and 7th Day Adventist vocabulary. These were smart boys, devoted and well-trained by the missionary teachers at a school that is apparently quit famous throughout PNG.
The boys explained the local businesses around, like cocoa bean (chocolate) plantation owned and run by a Brazilian company. It seems that nearly all of the limited number of businesses in the outer islands of PNG are run by foreign institutions, usually religious missionaries. Unfortunately the only foreign investment flowing from the United States seems to be focused on the one natural resource that is plentiful on these rocky, jungly islands... human souls. Other foreign companies are happy to help extract the more concrete resources of the area--gold from Australian mines (Woodlark Isl), fish for Taiwanese long-liners paying villages to hide from regulators in their harbors (Louisiades Archipelago), German lumber mills (Put Put Harbor) clear cutting old growth ebony decades ago, Brazilian cocoa (Put Put Harbor), coconuts at the Indian copra plantations (Panapompom Isl), and military communication for Japanese trans-pacific telegraph repeaters and airfields (Woodlark Isl) before WWII. If we'd had time in the mosquito-free hours of the day to walk up to their school (1.5 km up the road) and the plantations, we would have enjoyed learning more about how business runs in PNG and what drives or drives away foreign investment. Presumably the locals and mainlanders (Port Moresby) don't have the market knowledge, technology, or the capital to develop family-run farms and processing mills. Chris and Arthur wanted to be "businessmen" when they graduated from secondary school. When pressed, Chris admitted that he'd like to be an accountant. "Being and accountant is good work." "Won't you have to work in Port Moresby?" "Yes." So as the sun sank below the mountains fringing the harbor, we let the boys return to their walk up the hill to the school and paddled off to the other side where the lumber mill seemed to be hidden among the jungle trees. We explored up a little creek mouth until our way was blocked by a coral stone dam at one tributary, and a low wooden footbridge across the other branch. This must be the path they walk to get to the 7th Day Adventist church or lumber mill from this shore of the harbor. We were hesitant to bring the dingy too close to the lumber mill buildings as they looked like they had been occupied by local squatters and a Misima-style "dunny" seemed to be hanging out over the water at the small village with dozens of children running around and following our progress up the shore. Four of the young girls were energetic enough scramble over the rock dam and up the creek to catch us, but we couldn't get them to speak a word other than Hello. We asked them their names and the name of their village, and told them ours, but still not a peep. Sometimes we'd get the beginning of a sentence "Where..." and then a giggling duck behind the older girl to hide. Eventually a lady that appeared to be in charge walked over the dam and invited us to bring our dingy to her home to "talk story" with them. We waded the dingy over sharp coral rocks to the building that looked like the overhanging, open sewer, outhouse and tied to the tree to keep it from touching the shore. The children quickly assembled themselves along the edge of the porch of the hut that we'd thought was an outhouse. The matriarch encouraged them with pidgin, "Yu askem nem blong em." Eventually giving up and turning to us to ask us to "talk story" instead. She explained to us that the village was named Samira, and Larissa noticed that her cheek was tattooed with an arching vertical stripe (I thought it was a scar at first). Apparently the women in each village have a unique tattoo to mark their home village. Men seem to only have tattoos on the rest of their bodies, not their face. Since it's a matriarchal society on many islands, these must be like jewelry for a western woman, indicating her home village and thus the extent and value of her wealth (land). The pidgin word "Blong" seems to have origins in this uniquely island way of understanding "being" and "owning." Blong is used for everything from "named" and "owned" to "is" or "is from." Who you are in PNG is wrapped defined by where you are from and your name, your village... where you "belong" in PNG society. It's such a part of you that your tattoo it on the most visible part of your body.
I'm sure the locals would gladly tattoo a cross on their forehead or cheek, if the church didn't disapprove of such "mutilations."
The well-dressed, clean lady from Samira village tried to encourage the children to ask us our name. After a dozen proddings and 10 minutes of us "talking story" about Los Angeles beaches, and movies, Hollywood governors, and Indonesian presidents, eventually a young girl was able to get out the full phrase "What is your name" without giggling and hiding in shyness or reverting to pidgin like "Nem blong em". The matriarch then also translated their pidgin to explain that they wanted lollies to do a "singsing" for us. She relayed our reply that we didn't have any lollies, only popcorn and asked if they would like some popcorn tomorrow morning instead, and they all yelled out in chorus "yes please." She orchestrated the performance like a school teacher. She must run the local elementary school just up the road behind the village. In the end they enthusiastically belted out a couple verses of "Father Abraham," but looked on quizzically as I joined in once I deciphered their odd pronunciation and tune and chimed in on the choruses, raising my "right hand, left hand, right foot, left foot." Apparently they don't know what any of the words mean. That's impressive that they can mimic the sounds of English words for a song so lengthy, without understanding a lick of it. Anything to impress the local missionaries and religious school teachers.
Because the children had trouble with English, and the man on the porch seemed to content to smile and nod and encourage the kids with a word or two here and there, we spent most of the evening talking to the woman. We learned that she had "good friends" on a sailboat from "Sweden" that had stayed here. "Many years ago." "How long did they stay?" "Two, three, or four days, ... maybe a week." In the typical PNG way, I think she was trying to shame or encourage us into staying with her "long time" ourselves. She even remembered the names of the couple from Sweden. Impressive memory. Western contact is obviously still very important to villagers, even this close to civilization. We are now only a short road trip away from Rabaul which is "Big Smoke" for sure, with it's active volcano that destroyed half the city. It's only another short hop from there to Kavieng, a popular destination for tourists. And Larissa's pretty sure she saw or heard a car rumbling along the road somewhere at the edge of the harbor among the jungle trees.
Twilight was fading and the insects were starting to bite, so we retreated to our bit of civilization in the middle of the harbor. We'll have to make it an early morning to get the kids their well-earned popcorn before they have to scamper off to Sunday service in their bright clean clothes. No matter how squalid the village, nearly everyone maintains at least one very nice set of clothes. There is nearly always laundry drying on a line. New Guineans take pride in their appearance, especially on Sundays or in talking to scruffy unkempt cruisers that they, like Africans, must consider to be "dirty" in comparison to the missionaries and priests they normally encounter.

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