For someone who has been used to celebrating Christmas in a cold, gloomy (and sometimes, if we are lucky, in a white!) environment, Christmas in PNG is quite the opposite, and a less traditional way of celebrating this festive season.
In Madang they already started to decorate the shops in October with some kitsch and plastic kind of decorations and with songs as ‘I am dreaming of a white Christmas’ and ‘Driving home for Christmas’ coming out of the speakers. Back in the Netherlands this would really put me into the Christmas mood, but in the tropics every effort the people make just seems so much out of place. Everything feels so artificial and kitsch, and the tropical climate doesn’t really add something good to that. But hey, if you don’t know any better because you grew up in a tropical country, than you’re just fine with it.
Anyway, this year I decided to stay in PNG for the Christmas and New Years period. Many people started to leave the country in the first weeks of December, either permanent of just for holidays. It was also the time that many incidents related to security issues had happened in Madang and PNG. One of the long term expat residents was broken into, and was attacked and brutally assaulted by a few men. This was actually the final drop after a range of incidents which happened in the weeks before. Actually months before. We could tell there was a high influx of criminal activities in Madang, which made everything and everyone more tense.
Friends, colleagues and/or other people we know experienced hold-ups at gun points, attempted hold-ups while they were driving in their car, shootings at their cars and so on. We ourselves also experienced that once when we came back from Goroka, while all of a sudden four men with masks and guns jumped on the road and tried to stop the bus. Fortunately the bus driver pushed the accelerator and hit one of the guys. We didn’t really realized what happened until I looked over my shoulder and saw the men with their guns on the road just standing there, trying to grasp what just happened.
The other day I listened to the song ‘Macho City’ by The Steve Miller Band, and unconsciously I changed it into ‘Raskal City’. Lately so many things have happened that Madang has changed into (what we call) a ‘raskal’ city. Since my arrival in PNG I have never really felt safe, but I just learned to accept that. Even before coming out to PNG I knew that it was not an easy country to life in, and that riots, hold-ups, murders, rapes, break ins and many other criminal and cruel things are an every day issue. Even with this knowledge I choose to spend two years of my life in PNG. I realize that PNG is not the only country in the world which has this reputation, but the thing is that hardly anyone knows ANYTHING about this country. Back home people only associate PNG with backwardness and penis gourds, and that’s about it. In my opinion this is not a fair and real image of the country, even though the reality might not be that much better. In Western countries we don’t read anything about the big corruption scandals of the PNG government, the exploitation of natural resources by foreign (mainly Asian) companies, the malnutrition and poor health care system, the submission of and violence against women, the poor education system, the increase of HIV & Aids infections, high rate of child mortality etc. If you read all of this you immediately think this concerns an African country, and in many perspectives it faces the same day to day problems and concerns. However PNG doesn’t get the same attention and aid from the western countries as the African and Southeast Asian countries are getting, because it is too far away and not ‘sexy’ enough to get the individual to sympathise with it. Besides PNG is not that of an interesting trade partner for the western countries due to its reputation of a corrupt system. Developing work and humanitarian aid is often entwined with economical relations. The donor needs something in return like trade in natural resources. PNG mainly has relations with Australia and other countries in the Pacific. China is an emerging economical partner and is actually taking over a lot of businesses and companies. In most cases these deals often only benefit high politicians and businessmen and do not reach the ordinary village man. Money stays in the higher levels of society and doesn’t trickle down to the ordinary people of PNG.
The daily news in the newspaper is therefore quite depressing. Everyday we read about big money scandals done by politicians, corruption, mismanagement of funds, etc. If you turn the page you read about the beheading of a woman who was accused of sorcery by the people of her village. The article under that one is about a young man (son of a local politician) who broke in to a safe house where young girls stay who are HIV infected. He raped one of the girls. A discussion started about if he had to go for trial or that his possible infection of HIV might be enough punishment for him…
In the beginning of December the Madang based NGOs (national and international) held a meeting to discuss the incidents which affected the work of the NGOs, and decided to setup a sharing network of information, contacts and incidents happened, in order to strengthen our position towards the local authorities. It was also the time that Madang suffered from a cholera outbreak and that an international NGO was based in the hospital to deliver their services to prevent further spread of cholera. They also experienced a great deal of resistance, hold-ups and such while doing their job in the villages and hospital. They decided to pull out for a while, because they could not exercise their job in this situation. Another international NGO which provides eye care in the hospital and communities also decided to cease their activities for a while, until things would start to settle down again. The people of Madang, the civil society and NGOs called upon a reinforcement of law and order by the local authorities while organising marches in the streets. This was quite a unique event, because PNG does not really have a history of social movement or public demonstrations. The organisers called upon all business houses and civil society organisations to close their offices and premises in order to support these actions. Almost all of the business houses and offices did this in order for them to give their employees the opportunity to join the marches.
The local authorities listened and promised to step up to these criminals who are terrorizing Madang. We don’t know to which extend they can really keep their promise, but at least they are aware of the major concerns of their residents. A curfew and a three months liquor ban were a result of their first actions. The curfew only lasted for a week or so. I remember us hurrying to get in before 10 pm, while other cars just passed our house at any time of the night! A fact is that the police doesn’t have the resources or capacity to really monitor this curfew. The liquor ban is unfortunately still effective. When we heard about this ban, we immediately started to stock up!
Another potential threat was the possible ‘Anti-Asian’ riots which were announced on the 31st of December. These anti Asian sentiments already started to grow before I came to PNG, but it seems to be getting stronger now. I remember reading an article published in one of the Dutch newspapers (de Volkskrant, 16 July 2008) last year in which the Dutch journalist wrote about these sentiments in Madang. Earlier this year we already experienced an outburst. A mob invaded the streets of the bigger cities of PNG and started to destroy Asian shops and business houses. Shops and markets were closed for a week.
An action group demanded the closure of all Asian owned shops and business in PNG by the end of this year. If this would not happen, they would do it themselves and violence would be used. All over the country rumours started that this was for real and it would not be safe for any Asian to stay around. VSO decided to evacuate their Asian volunteers, just as a precaution.
The government took this threat quite serious and started to undertake measures to avoid these riots. It paid off in the end because it stayed quiet all over the country.
'My Brown Eyed Girl' performed by Kate, Jolanda and Marleen
We (as in Jolanda, Jon and I) decided to leave Madang, but to stay in PNG. The Niugini Islands in general are safer than the mainland of PNG, and we also just wanted to see more of the country than just Madang. We already booked our flight tickets in advance, because we knew that travelling around Christmas would be a busy time.
We left Madang on the 23rd of December and stayed one night in Port Moresby with Jessica and Dan. Jessica drove us around in POM and took us to some nice places to eat and drink.
View over Port Moresby at Jess and Dan's place
After some busy weeks at work I really moved into my holiday mode!
The next morning we had an early morning flight to Buka, Bougainville. Dan told us to be in time at the airport, because things could become very crowded. We didn’t want to be a burden to Jessica and Dan and decided to call a taxi to pick us up at 4 pm! Of course no taxi arrived and their call centre didn’t answer their phone. Dan already expected this to happen, and he was so sweet enough to drop us off. It was indeed a madhouse at the airport!
Eventually we were bumped off the flight because the plane was simply over weighted! All the Buka passengers took their whole furniture or something like that with them, because each passenger had about two trolleys with stuff to check in! The amount of passengers was not reached, but it was just the excess luggage that made it not possible for us to get on the flight.
So we were stuck. Air Niugini didn’t want to put us up in a hotel, while they were actually responsible for this. We took it up with the supervisor of the supervisor, the manager of the supervisor etcetera, and finally we got two nice hotel rooms at the Lamana, which is quite a nice hotel in POM!
We decided to do a nap first, because we were exhausted of that busy and exciting morning.
Next morning we had to be at the airport at 3 pm! This early mornings did not really add to our feeling of having a relaxing holiday. Again it was a big mess at the airport. It was funny to see how different people from different regions of PNG deal with the delays of the flights. The Island people are more relaxed and just seem to take it as it is. They don’t make a big fuzz about it. While in another queue for a flight to Mount Hagen in the Highlands, people started to get anxious and impatient.
Again we saw ourselves being bumped off this flight, so I decided to jump the queue and asked one of the supervisors if there was priority given to passengers who were bumped off the flight of the day before. It seemed there was, but no one thinks of mentioning it. We felt a bit uncomfortable while heading for the check-in counter, because there were plenty of other passengers who were in the same situation. You just know what they are thinking: ‘of course, a couple of white people are being given priority’… We explained to some people why we got checked in, and a few seem to understand. But still….
Anyway, we were so excited when we got our ticket to Buka: finally we could start our holiday!
In Buka we stayed in a pretty ok hotel. We shared the room with the three of us. Jon felt obliged to cover his eyes with his sleeping mask, while we changed ourselves. Despite the fact we just turned our back to him and told him it didn’t matter, he kept on doing it till the end of the holiday.
You might think something else was happening in the hotelroom...
The famous Buka baskets
We met a German volunteer from Horizont 3000 whom I had contact with by email. She also works in the disability sector. Johanna took Jolanda and me for a small tour over the island Sohano where she lives, while Jon was recovering from a cold in our hotel room. The setting of the island was just magnificent! So serene, lush and peaceful.
View from Sohano
On our tour we were accompanied by a local who insisted on coming with us. He was already a bit drunk, and he didn’t want to go away. Somewhere on the road he gave me a necklace with two beads on it. He claimed it was dolphin brain (!?) and used for bride price! Well, what a great an unusual bride price he gave me! I must be worth a fortune!
Even when we got back to Johanna’s place, he didn’t want to leave us. We made several attempts and excuses of getting him to leave, but he seemed determined to stick around.
When we took the PMV boat back to Buka to have dinner, he jumped in the boat as well. Man, this was really starting to become annoying. At one point we just had to ‘tok stret’ to him and to tell him off. That helped.
Next morning, Christmas Day, we decided to go for a trip around the island. We brought some wine which was took with us from Madang, and nice cheeses from POM to make our Christmas a nice one.
Johanna arranged with the same boat driver of the day before, to pick us up and drive us around. It was a great day; the sky was extremely blue and the sea was calm. We finally got to an island where there were no people and we decided to have our lunch there. Jon had also brought some Spanish ham he received in his Christmas parcel from home. It was such a treat!
Our boat driver was drinking his ‘stim’ (spirit) with coke, and was getting more drunk, but not in an annoying way.
Christmas in the tropics!
At one point a boat passed our island, and decided to turn around and to come to our island instead. Five drunken men arrived on the beach and behaved very aggressively and intimidating. The next following minutes were quite terrifying; I think the most terrifying ones in my life! There were a few scary moments where we thought that we had to spend our Christmas day with these drunken guys on a deserted island. This whole incident really set the tone for the rest of our holiday. Not a single day went by without someone of us mentioning it…
Anyway, it made a big impact on all of us but you couldn’t imagine how relieved we were once we were back in Buka. Bougainville has experienced a traumatic past in which many people were killed. A civil war started in the nineties in which the gold mine played a major role. PNG army and the Bougainville Resistance Army (BRA) fought their battles and many civilians got killed in this horrible war. The United Nations had to intervene by sending troops. Even though the war has ended, the society is traumatized. There are still a lot of resentments among each other. Our incident at the island was also a result of an unsolved conflict in relation to the war between our boat driver and the drunken men.
Sinterklaas was with us all the time..
We left Buka for Kavieng, New Ireland. Last year I cycled quite a bit on the island with my sister. This time we decided just to stay and relax at Nusa Island Retreat. Even though the place was fully booked, we managed to get some sort of accommodation because my sister and I stayed there the year before, and they were willing to make some exceptions.
Jolanda and I ended up in the liquor storage room with a baby owl monitoring every movement we made, while Jon got his little bed on a veranda at the staffs quarters! We didn’t mind at all, because we were just too happy to stay there in the first place.
But the same as they did with Dorien and me last year, they arranged some better accommodation for us. So Jolanda and I left the storage room and the baby owl for a small room of a staff member, while Jon stayed in his bed on the veranda watching over us as our guard dog!
It was perfect; we had our own veranda and were close to the toilets, haha!
We left Nusa, after having stayed there for 4 nights, for Rabaul and Kokopo on East New Britain. On our way to Kavieng, we had to make a stop in Rabaul before continuing to Kavieng. We used our time very wisely by confirming our accommodation in Kokopo. It was a good thing we did, because the reservation didn’t come through at all… While we were in Kokopo we noticed that there was a liquor ban, and we realized this was not a good sign for New Years Eve. Even though Jon had brought a bottle of champagne from Madang (which travelled all over PNG and came back with us in Madang!) we needed more alcohol to have a proper New Years celebration. While we were in Kavieng we decided to buy a carton of beers; divided the cans between our backpacks and brought that back to Kokopo. This was the most luminous idea we ever had and enjoyed every single beer we drank on our balcony of our fancy bungalow! We had a view on the balcony of the Governor General of PNG, Sir Paulias Matane. The ‘GG’ is the highest authority of PNG and appointed by her Majesty the Queen of England of being the representative of the British crown since PNG is part of the British Commonwealth.
Kokopo was impressively well developed; I could imagine myself walking in a suburb of Spain or France with some commercial centres still being build and the road recently paved. No potholes; that was the most amazing bit of all!
View from Kokopo Beach Bungalows
We spend New Year’s Eve in the hotel with all the guests and staff. The party started off a bit slow, but once the staffs put their flashdrives in the computer, the music started pumping. Unfortunately they had to end the party at 2 pm because of the GG….
Happy New Year!
Next morning we were pretty wrecked and stayed in bed all day long. Jon managed to order breakfast through room service, because we were too tired to make it to the restaurant. We were so lazy that day; we were waiting for one movie after the other coming up on HBO! Those moments you really appreciate having a television, even though the movies were crap (The incredible Hulk, Iron Man, etc).
Queen Emma's steps
The day after we decided to climb the volcano in Rabaul. In 1994 two volcanoes erupted simultaneously which covered Rabaul (once the pearl of the Pacific) in a layer of ashes. Nowadays the city resembles a warzone: grey and depressing; remains of houses and building and dead trees. It was very impressive and surreal.
Hotel Rabaul covered in ashes
The once so beautiful Hotel Rabaul was a sad remembrance of what it used to be. Everything was covered in ashes because the volcano is still spraying its waist and makes the hotel look run down. Apparently the Australian owners can still make a good living out of just because it is an extraordinary place to stay in.
Obviously we couldn’t climb the active volcano Tavurvur, but Kombiu (Mt. Mother) gave spectacular views over the volcanoes and on what impact the eruptions have made, and destructions have caused on Rabaul. It was truly impressive.
View over peninsula Matupit which has been entirely covered in ashes but the people refuse to leave...
The active volcano Tuvurvur at the background
Whit that in our memory we left Rabaul and flew back to POM where we had to spend the day before catching the afternoon flight to Madang.
We started with a nice breakfast and excellent coffee in Hotel Airways and decided to do some ‘sight seeing’ in POM. After consulting the Lonely Planet we asked for a taxi to drop us off at the House of Parliament and the neighbouring National Museum. The Parliament house was very impressive, while the museum was a bit disappointing and run down. It’s got a lot of potential but it seems it wasn’t updated since 1984!
Knocking on Parliaments door
We actually hoped for another delay in POM so we could stay another night in the Lamana! But unfortunately Air Niugini took off according to schedule which is quite exceptional.
Anyway, we could appreciate being back in Madang as well. At our house I encountered a pregnant teenage pussycat named Dolly! She is not even one year and already knocked up! Now I am trying to figure out what to do with Dolly’s offspring, cause no one seems to be interested in a little kitten…
Currently I am by myself in the house, because Charlye left for a job in Cambodia and Jolanda finished her placement and started with her 8 months grand tour through Asia.
Somewhere in the next few weeks I will be moving out of my “castle at the sea” as well, and will be trying to adjust to the kind of accommodation which is supposed to be for an ordinary VSO volunteer!