Sunday, July 24, 2011

Rain. Rain. Rain. Repeat.

So much for experiencing the great scuba and snorkeling opportunities that are present in Madang. The past few days have been completely shit as far as the weather goes. Every day it has rained, putting us under guest house arrest for the time being. The other day we attempted to check out an old Japanese air base north of here, apparently an easy bus ride away. We boarded a bus where four of the staff told us they were headed there, only for us to pay them right outside of town and be informed ten minutes later that they're not going that way, and we had to pay to go back into town. While it only ended up being less than two Kina, it was still annoying to be blatantly ripped off. And to add insult to injury they even had the audacity to ask us if we wanted to charter the bus for one hundred Kina. The good part of it all was we met an old lady, Mary, who tried to help us find another bus to the airfield (which we gave up on after an hour). She offered us to stay at her place if we make it to Vanimo; another example of how friendly Papua New Guineans can be.

And tomorrow, the birthday boat to Wewak! Yes, that's right, it's my birthday in PNG tomorrow. South Pacific beers on the South Pacific sounds like a right way to spend the anniversary of your birth...

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Immediately after my onslaught of improperly oriented blog posts we jumped on a PMV from Kokopo to the Submarine Base we had visited a couple weeks prior. The old man that runs the place, George, had told us we could camp there the last time we visited him. We headed there and by mid afternoon the tents were set up just above the seashore and we were out snorkeling the pristine reef on the edge of a three hundred meter drop off to the depths below, only twenty meters from the shore. It was the best snorkeling I've ever done, with tons of marine life that ranged from anemones to sea cucumbers to tropical fish of all sorts of dazzling and radiant colours. The most amazing part of it all was the next day when I was out snorkeling around again and had the privelidge of being passed by a school of dolphins. They were too far away for me to see, but simply hearing the clicks and whistles of their sonar was awe-inspiring enough.

Now we are in Madang after a quick flight yesterday. The first impression of this place was positive; it seems like a nice seaside town, and actually has the only gardens I've seen in any PNG city so far. We wandered around for a couple hours looking for accommodation with the help of a couple friendly locals, but soon realized that we were going to have to pay handsomely for the beauty of this town. The cheapest one was sixty Kina each person (roughly twenty five dollars), and when the owner informed us the kitchen had been shut down by health officials due to a Cholera scare, we declined to stay there and opted for the ninety-five Kina guest house run by the Lutheran Church. I hope accommodation prices aren't going to be like this throughout the mainland, because my wallet hurts. We just booked a boat ticket for Tuesday to the town of Wewak, gateway to the Sepik river, where we'll hopefully be canoeing down in a week or so. Now the battle is to figure out if we can hit up the Crocodile Festival on the 9th and the Mt. Hagen Cultural Show on the 12th...

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Dancing With Fire

Ok I fucked the order up and did it backwards, so this is the oldest backed up post.

I’m totally beaming right now. I just got back from seeing one of the coolest, if not the coolest thing on my trip so far. Matt and I jumped on a tour heading up to a village back in mountains, where the Baining people live. There they were putting on one of their local ritual dances, which takes place at night around a roaring bonfire. I had seen this before on a travel show, but it seeing it on tv could not be compared to seeing it in real life. We arrived to a steady downpour, which ended up lasting the entire dance. Rain couldn’t stop the party though, and the dance and subsequent photography started in full force.

Once the coals of the bonfire were red hot and the flames sky high, the dancers started appearing out of the black jungle, their white ceremonial masks contrasting against the palm leaves that cover their bodies. The mask themselves are made from banana wood, taking four months to carve and decorate. They feature two giant white and red painted eyes set above a white beak, and below it a white and red neck. The dancers head fits into the beak of the mask, giving the masks a tall and imposing stature. The dancers dance between the fire and a group of singers who fill the air with the beat of hollow bamboo poles against a wooden floor, and a constant singing and chanting. As the pace of the dancing increases, the dancers run towards the fire and with a great kick, send the hot coals flying through the darkness, showering themselves in sparks embers, giving them a demonic look. No matter how hard they kick the logs or embers, they keep on dancing, sometimes emerging from the fire with smoke trailing from their palm coverings. The whole spectacle is surreal, what I saw with my eyes is something I cannot fully put into words.

These people have been doing this dance for hundreds, possibly thousands of years, and I feel so lucky to have seen this, just as it was done in the past. That really is the magic of this place. The archaic nature of this country holds many treasures, rituals that haven’t changed or been influenced by the modern world, and are still here waiting to be discovered. We were also lucky to see another ritual this morning, a ritual where spirits are called on and emerge from the water, heading up the beach and into the forest. Local tribesmen in canoes chant and sing brining out two spirits (tribesmen dressed in a dome of palm leaves with a painted mask on top) It was a great spectacle, but not nearly as amazing as the Baining Fire Dance.

Alas, these wonders do come at a cost. I knew that PNG was expensive compared to the countries I’ve been traveling on this trip, but being here is slowly starting to sink the reality of the costs into us. Nothing here is cheap, and yesterday things became even more costly for us when we realized that the three Kina to the Dollar exchange rate turned out to be just less than two and half Kina to the Dollar. To give you an example of the costs, thirty megabites of internet usage costs twenty two Kina. A flight from Rabaul to Madang (just over an hour long) cost us about seven hundred and fifty Kina each. And then problem is it’s hard to avoid the costs and keep things cheap. We’ve managed to avoid food costs a little by buying and cooking our own food (which I’ve enjoyed), but flights must be taken due to the lack of roads, and it seems like everything here must be done with a guide.
We will overcome and keep on rocking PNG, hopefully discovering more wonders as we go.

Becoming New Irish

And now for the backed up blog posts:

The island scenery has been changed. On Friday we took a banana boat, aka a speedboat, to New Ireland, the next island over from New Britain. Original names, huh? The boat ride over was excellent, taking a little less than two hours. We even got to see some whales that are still unknown to us, I thought they looked like Killer Whales but their presence in the South Pacific seems unlikely, especially given the time of year. The wildlife we saw the most were flying fish. Until seeing them in the Philippines, I had no idea there was such a thing as flying fish, I thought they were just a thing dreamt up by Nintendo to kill Mario and Luigi. I was amazed by how far they can fly above the water for. Cruising along at sixty kilometres an hour, some of the fish hovered alongside us for up to five seconds.

We arrived in the village of Namatinai a little too late to catch the PMV to anywhere else, so we stayed the night at a local guest house and played cards with the family that ran it. The next day we headed down to the bus stop outside of the local market to wait for a PMV to our next destination. This is a fitting time to introduce the notorious betelnut. It’s a fruit kind of thing that the locals here chew. Basically it resembles a lime on the outside, but once you peel the outer husk off of it, there’s a bean-like substance in the middle, which is eaten with mustard plant and a little lime powder. The combination of all those turns the mixture red, and a deeper red the more it is chewed. Essentially it’s a different form of chewing tobacco, you spit the juice out instead of swallowing it. The only problem with this kind is that it will stain your teeth red, then after enough years of chewing it, it stains your teeth black. Basically everyone in the country has nasty teeth. And at this bus stop not a square inch of land was free of betel nut husks or spit juice.

We finally jumped on the PMV around 2:30, bound for the Dalom village guest house. We arrived two hours later to a beautiful guest house on the beach, right beside a fresh mountain water river. The river is so fresh that there’s no shower here, you simply bathe in the river with the locals. On Sunday we attended a mass at the church on the same property as the guest house. I was honestly expecting a pretty upscale mass, something with lots of singing and rhythm, but that wasn’t the case. It was more like bible school, and given my strong atheism, I found myself quickly bored. Later we took a walk up the beach to a point in the distance, which turned out to be way in the distance. The coastal landscape here on the east side of New Ireland is amazing. We walked over nice white sand, over hardened coral slabs, across the trunks of huge trees that extend over the surf, around the bases of huge cliffs, and through many cool freshwater streams. And of course past a ton of friendly locals.

Monday was another easy going day, spent on the beach and behind a book. I also befriended one of the dogs, Audi, that belongs to the owners of the guesthouse. A wire haired pointer mixed with possibly some German Shepherd, he’s a dog I would love to have back at home, a medium sized, well behaved dog. He followed me on a long walk down the other end of the beach, not having to be called once. The next day he also accompanied us on a walk to the local canteen. It was pretty hard to leave the comfort and peace of the beach life, so we stayed another day.

On Wednesday we headed out to the village of Lambuso to stay with a friend, Augustine, that we met on the boat ride over from Kokopo. He lives in Rabaul but was going back to Lambuso to visit his family at their home village for a few weeks, and kindly invited us to stay with him. It turned out to be some of the best days of my vacation, and some of the greatest hospitality I’ve ever been shown before. We arrived there thinking we would stay a night or two and just see the village, but it turned out to be so much more than that. When we arrived in the morning we were taken to his home and introduced to the family. Calling Lambuso a village is a loose term, it’s more like a community of homes spread amongst the forest and seaside, mainly centered around the local Catholic Church. Augustine’s home is just off the main highway on the jungle side, and has four dwellings on it. One is under construction and will house a brother that is currently working in Australia, another is for the women, a small hut houses the boys while Augustine is away, and a fourth house in tucked back in the trees. The first three homes are centered around a fire pit and courtyard, and back further into the bush is the jungle garden.

It’s incredible how much the forest provides for the people here in New Ireland. Immediately after arriving, the oldest boy, Isaiha, expertly scaled a palm tree and knocked down some coconuts for us to drink and eat. We were also treated to guava and passion fruit, which I fell in love with. The garden and fruit foraged from the bush provides enough food to feed over twelve people in that home, totally dispelling the need to rely on buying food from a market. We were also treated to oranges, grapefruits, yams, sweet potatos and greens, all picked from the garden. It’s truly amazing to see people survive off the land like this, something nearly impossible to do year round in Canada.

That afternoon we headed out to the beach with over twenty kids from the local village in tow, all eager to see and be around a white person, something that doesn’t happen for them. We snorkled around a pristine reef, watching the boys provide for the family by catching fish with homemade harpoon guns they rig up from wood, thick rubber banding and a long metal spike. For being so young, they sure were great fishermen, catching about six fish off the reef until handing over the harpoons to us clumsy, untrained white men, who couldn’t catch a damn thing. After a quick fish fry on the beach, we headed to the local river, in a quiet spot in the jungle, and rinsed off in the cool, pristine jungle water, loving every minute of the day so far. That night we sat around the fire pit, which they keep burning all night as a sign of light to let the spirits know people are alive in the home. We were lucky enough to have three nights of full and nearly full moon, giving us clear views of the giant fruit bats cruising around the trees. I’m not understating them being giant; they are fucking huge! Their wing span must be around six feet, and when one flies over you, the sound of the wings flapping makes you feel like they’re flying inches over your head.

The next day Augustine took us out for a trek in the jungle to a remote swimming hole up a small stream from the trail that cut through a palm nut plantation. Walking back that far in the jungle I got a quick, brutal feel for the amount of misquitos the jungle produces. It was fucking retarded. Completely unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, I was being bit in six different places at once. Thankfully we didn’t hang around their long. Instead we opted for the trail through the grass, which contains tons of thorn bearing grasses that ripped apart my unprotected, flip flopped feet. Note to self: next time while trekking in the jungle, wear shoes and pants. That night we went back to the reef to do some night fishing under the now full moon. One of the local villagers guided us out into the inky water, armed with an underwater flashlight, a spear gun, and his wits. We hovered above, watching him dive down the reef to spot the colourful fish below, then harpooning them for the feast that was about to come. Apparently the catch we got is unusual for a moonlit night, when the fish tend to still be awake and more wily. In the end he bagged ten fish, a squid and a lobster. The feast that night was nothing short of amazing.

We had planned to leave in the morning to Kavieng, but Augustine had persuaded us to stay (as if we needed to be persuaded) one more day to see a local sing sing that was happening a few villages down, something that is very rare and even more rare for a white man to see. When he said sing sing I was thinking it would be something like some local school kids performing some songs or something like that, but I was in for a major surprise. The sing sing turned out to be a huge local festival, with different villages putting on their own traditional dances, and a giant feast for everyone to enjoy. The festival itself is based around honouring the dead, but without knowing the local language it was hard to detect that aura at all. We sat back and I snapped away with my camera at the amazing dance rituals that were performed, all with different styles and bright colours.

The first group to perform was a group of orange skirted girls with orange and baby-blue head dresses. They performed a choir-like slower paced dance. The second group was made up of men dressed in red skirts, grass necklaces, each man armed with two decorative wooden paddles carved in various designs and colours. The beat and rhythym of the music was hypnotic, and I was lucky enough to have a great spot on the front line to snap some great photos. I don’t think I can come close to capturing the spirit of these dances though, it would be impossible for an electronic device to do so. While these dances are going on, village people will run up with a handful of ash and slap it over the backs of the dancers as a way of showing how much they enjoy the show, of course with a few laughs from everyone.
The next group has an amazing and tragic story behind it. A month before the sing sing, these group of men venture up into the jungle to fast for a month, drinking only water. They then perform an incredibly fast paced dance, the rythym set to bamboo cane drums. A few of the dancers hold leaves wrapped around ground up human bone, channelling spiritual power through them that makes them shake and convulse during the dance. It is truly awe inspiring to see these men, who must have hardly any energy at all, perform this dance with such intensity and devotion. The tragic part of the story is that while walking along the highway from their village to the sing sing, one of the younger men was struck and killed by a vehicle. Yet they still performed. After telling that story I’m not sure if I can make the next group sound cool, but trust m in saying that they were just as good as the others, but this one seemed to involve the crowd more, with people running up to and throughout the group, adding to the joy of the occasion. To even further spoil us, Augustine got his hands on a pair of decorative paddles the second group of dancers used, one for Matt and I to each take home.

Another great thing about the festival was the feast that was in the middle of it. The villages all put money and resources together to provide a ton of food to feed the hundreds of people that attend the sing sing, all in all amounting to a couple pigs and about a thousand potatoes and bananas. The pigs and potatoes are wrapped in banana leaf and cooked in what is called a momo, basically a pit of stones heated red hot from a fire. The food is placed on the stones, more stones are piled on top and the whole thing is covered in dirt, creating a simple but amazingly effective oven. After two hours, the momo is dug out and the perfectly cooked food is distributed to the crowd. The way it’s distributed is the coolest part. Every man in the village the sing sing is hosted in runs up to the pits, grabbing a handful of food to run back to the crowd with, all the while obeying the shouts and gestures of the village elders, who direct the men like traffic on a busy street. Then when all the food is distributed to the crowd everyone digs into an amazing feast.

That night we sat around the fire again, chatting with Augustine while the boys sat around my laptop watching the Dark Knight, I’m sure their first viewing of the infamous Batman movies. We got to have a deep conversation with Augustine about their beliefs and customs over a few South Pacifc Lagers. One of the most interesting parts of the conversation was about Black Magic and Witchcraft, which is still recognized in the PNG culture. Rarely does this ever have a negative connotation attached to it, especially so in the islands where people are less volatile, but the people of PNG do still believe that sorcery is practiced. He even told us of villages still having Witch Doctors who provide spiritual and medicinal healing to the local populace. This further heightens my marvel at the culture of PNG, which sometimes seems so primitive but yet maintains a harmonious balance with the people.

The next day we took our leave of Augustine and his family, and jumped on a PMV bound for Kavieng. The whole family and some of the villagers came to the road to say their goodbyes and see us off. I was pretty sad leaving these people who for the past few days took us in as family members and showed us the most hospitality I’ve ever felt. The saddest thing about saying goodbye to them is the nagging thought in the back of my head that I may never see these people, who are now like family, again. I do hope that at some point in the future I’ll be able to work around the geographical and financial barriers and make a return to PNG, because I feel so happy, lucky and fortunate that we met Augustine. He showed us the village life that we could never see on a tour or simply a walk around the jungle, and was so enthusiastic to show us his culture and customs. The people here are truly magical and every day turns out to be a truly greater adventure in this country.

Red Faced Hockey Dad

Prepare for an onslaught of blog posting from a week of great adventure...

The past couple days we've been finishing up in New Ireland, in the capital, Kavieng. We did some amazing scuba diving on a great reef with a mind blowing amount marine life, including a reef shark, stingray, barracuda and lots of anenome fish. The coral there was so healthy, eons better than the bleached mess around Thailand. That night we were invited through a diving friend and his nice friends to a surf resort just across the bay from town. We had a great time there despite the douchebagish expats that populate that place. Unfortunately we've encountered a couple uncool people the past few days: the expat douches and an angry hockey dad type that ran a guest house we stayed at last week. Basically we made a deal with them to pay one hundred Kina instead of one hundred and sixty last time, so thinking the deal would still be honored, we went back. What ensued was being yelled at on the phone then kicked out of the guest house by the prick two hours later. Thankfully we ended up in a much better one down the road and now after a quick morning boat ride, we are back on New Britain, headed for the Submarine Base where we'll camp out for a couple days before flying to Madang on the 21st.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Volcanic Post

A few days ago at the cultural show we met a local woman, Rebecca, who gave us some info on the upcoming festival, and about the surrounding area. She ended up helping us arrange transportation to Rabaul and to Mt. Tarvurvur, an active volcano we wanted to climb. On Saturday morning she picked us up in a PMV (Public Motor Vehicle) with another tourist from Israel, Leo. We headed off to Rabaul and ended up taking another PMV to Matupit Island, a small village just outside of Rabaul that wasn’t totally destroyed by the volcanic eruption in 1994. From there we were introduced to a few of Rebecca’s relatives who we to take us to the volcano. The idea was to paddle across the bay to the base of the mountain, but once in the canoe and after an hour of paddling and getting nowhere we realized the increasing wind was going to make the voyage impossible. Instead we opted to take a walk around Rabaul with the guys and see the ruins of the once-thriving town that was almost completely buried by volcanic ash nearly twenty years ago.

We stopped at the local market to buy some food and fuel first, the other half of the plan being to stay at Rebecca’s brother’s home in Matupit Island for the night and make another try at the volcano early in the morning. We strolled around the town drinking beers with the guys, except for Leo, who everyone was slowly disliking more and more, due to his critical, ignorant, cynical, and typical Israeli attitude. We even nicknamed him Mr. Negative. Rabaul itself has a real ghost-town feel to it. The history here is amazing; the Germans were the first people to establish colonialism there, being pushed out by the Australians in WWI. Just over twenty years later the Japanese arrived, establishing a huge naval base at Rabaul that was never conquered by force. Now, after a volcanic eruption, nearly all of the historical gem is buried in ash. The main street that was built by the Germans now sits under a foot of volcanic ash. Some monuments such as Admiral Yamamoto’s Bunker and the Royal Yacht Club still stand, presenting an eerie spectacle, relics of their former selves. The airport side of the city ended up the worst, being closest to the volcano. The terminal building is barely visible, buried under meters of ash, the land completely barren and unusable.

Staying with Rebecca’s family was a great way to experience local life and a get a feel for their local culture, which can be pretty complex. One of the coolest things presented to us was the island’s use of their own currency, which is tied in the the Kina, the local currency of Papua New Guinea. Basically they can measure a value of goods with these cords of shells braided into them, a primitive type of money unlike any I’ve ever seen. The amazing thing is that you can make money off of it as a local, simply by paying for them to be made, buying goods like a sack of rice with it, then selling the rice for more money then you paid to make the shell money in the first place. This is an economic professors nightmare. We did manage to buy a string of them off of Rebecca’s mother.

Now for the coolest part of the story. We woke up early to low winds and we were able to jump in the canoe and paddle over to the base of the volcano. Upon landing on the beach, I was amazed at the terrain, something I’d never seen anything like. The beach was black volcanic sand, forming out of a wide lava field that looked like something from an alien planet. The volcanic eruption had laid waste to the entire area, a large stand of dead palms sticking out of the volcanic ash like matchsticks. Strange colourings of yellow and green painted large sections of rock where poisonous sulphurous gases leak out of fissures in the ground. The entire scenery of the mountain is set in a kind of chaotic pattern, with small gullies snaking their way through the ash, down the mountain and through the lava fields. Small plums of volcanic gas can also be seen leaking from various points on the mountain, giving it a hellish look. Walking on the volcanic ash you can hear the hollowness below you, likely old (or possibly active) lava tubes snaking underground. The ascent is a tough one, the last leg of the mountain is steep and the ash is loose, making the footing very difficult. The last leg is also where there’s the most gas vents.

Arriving at the top we realized we it was a false crater, not the active one, a mere two minutes stroll up the old crater’s rim. Our guides (if you can call them that, it was their first time up, too) took us up the side of the mountain that turned out to be the right side to take, being completely upwind of poisonous gas clouds that were spewing out of the active crater with ferocity. The density of the cloud and the amount of gas spewing out of the crater was amazing. Thanks to the high winds, we were able to get close, only catching occasional whiffs of rotten eggs, only feet away from gas erupting from the bowels of the Earth, gas that would certainly kill us had the winds shifted for a few seconds (sorry mom and dad). We had our few moments of glory, spitting into the crater and throwing a rock into the cloud, watching it disappear into the cloud right away, then got our asses back down the mountain and stopped pushing our luck with death. Arriving at the bottom we chatted with a bunch of guys who had canoed over from Rabaul to dig up the eggs of native pheasants that nest in the ash at the foot of the volcano. From there Matt directed my to an old Japanese naval gun on the beach. I couldn’t reach it though, due to the fact that the water on that end of the beach was literally near boiling point. Honestly, the beach was fucking steaming; my feet could only bear to be on the sand for a second of two. We jumped in the canoe parched and needing water, but fully satisfied with seeing one of the most powerful forces of nature at work right before our eyes and below our feet.

By the time we arrived back at the village, Matt and I were exhausted and were ready to call it a day. We started back in a PMV towards Rabaul, making a detour to drop the selfish Leo off at a hot springs that the other seven of us didn’t want to go to. The whole car was happy to be rid of him and we had a good laugh at his expense. We then headed to an old Submarine base used by the Japanese during WWII. An old man there named George, who was familiar to us from the PNG episode of an awesome Canadian travel show called Departures (that partly inspired me to do this trip), toured us around the huge caves, telling us stories of the days during the Japanese occupation. His son then showed us around some bunkers and fortifications above the tunnels. Seeing the beauty of this place, it’s hard to believe it was part of a full scale world war, being a major focal point of fighting for many years. Just meters off the shore, the ocean floor dives off a shelf to amazing depths of three hundred meters, making an amazing contrast of blue when viewed from the sheer cliffs above. I hope I get a chance to further explore that area at some point and hang out with George some more, he was a pretty cool old man.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Me Down There With the Starvin Pigmies in New Guinea, Amen

Here I am, living my dream of traveling Papua New Guinea. Waiting for the flight from Manila, we were offered a buffet in the lounge for around $15, which included drinks. We got our money’s worth out of that. After drinking enough to kill a small animal, we boarded the plane with a couple smuggled beers and started our journey to PNG. Getting drunk was a good idea in the end, I slept the entire flight until the plane hit the runway at 5am.

We chilled out at the Port Moresby airport, sleeping on the benches until our flight at 3pm. By then we were hella-sick of waiting around airports, eager to get out and start experiencing PNG. We jumped back on another plane bound for the island of New Britain, landing just in time to see a nice sunset over the runway. We arrived at the airport just outside of Kokopo, the provincial capital, having no idea how to get anywhere on the island. I asked a local security guard, and before you knew it we were on a bus full of them, heading for Kokopo with a promise to be dropped off at a cheap guest house. They turned out to be a great bunch of guys, and took us to a guest house where we managed to get a good deal on a room.

At first sight the locals here look intimidating. It’s quite the change from the rest of Asia, where I’m as big or bigger than most people. These people are much bigger, some of the men looking a lot like Kimbo Slice. Some of the people can also have hard looks, expressions that make you think they’re not to be messed with. But that’s where it ends, everywhere we walked around today we were greeted with smiles and hellos, and most people were incredibly friendly and talkative with us. Just walking around today we were given some local strong drink (at 9am), hung out with some local fisherman on the pier, and were given a lot of info on the surrounding area. Saying all this though, I must add that there apparently are some bad people around here, a group of men we talked to stressed (about six times) that we not walk around the streets after dark. And when they used the word ‘psychopaths’ to describe why we shouldn’t walk around at night, we decided we will definitely heed their advice.

Anyways, this place seems a lot safer than I’ve read in books and on the internet. And it’s beautiful here. Our guest house is right on the beach with a view of Tarvurvur, an active volcano across the bay that still belches steam and ash. I’m excited to see the sun set tonight, it looks like it’s lined up right behind the volcano. Unfortunately my picture uploading will be nonexistent here on PNG, the internet usage is based on buying cards that give you a megabite limit, and they’re not cheap.