Kew’s Corner: Papua New Guinea

The Exotic Shimmer–Papua New Guinea

…a paradise so unspoiled and sensuous that it could have flowed from the brush of Gauguin.–National Geographic

Tonight, we dine on passionfruit and parrotfish. Dehydration, reef wounds, and a betelnut daze bolster the scenario.

Chewing the chalky, bitter kernel of this green nut stains teeth, reddens saliva, blurs brain. Kabau, my host and betelnut aficionado, ejects his spit with extraordinary force, accuracy, and aplomb.

“Human flesh is delicious and very sweet, he says. “It was like eating the cassowry bird.

My head spins. Oppressive heat, SP Lager, and two weeks of Kavieng’s surf had taken a toll, but the betelnut buzz iced the cake. Known locally as buai and generally chewed with lime powder, it’s one of the most wretched things I’ve ever tasted.

Melanesians crave the stuff. Down Port Moresby way, roughly two hundred thousand nuts are consumed daily. City pavement is splattered with crimson spit stains, as is the dirt floor we sit upon. Kabau invited me into his rickety plywood/aluminum shack on the edge of a palm forest as I strolled with the sunset, snapping photographs. He welcomed the company of a foreigner.

“First time I saw white man, I was confused. Was this a human? Was it a spirit of the dead coming back to life? I did not know.

He spits again. Twilight wind rustles the palms. Darkness gathers and a candle is lit on a small table beneath a large Bob Marley poster. Lacking electricity, Kabau embraces night through dim touch and sound, surrounded by absolute black until dawn.

Fatigue soon ensues; I opt for sleep. A final spit/rinse/beer swig, and I bid farewell to this man.

Outside, the ocean, insects, and breeze take me in. Sweet hibiscus fragrance is there; numb weight of moistness presses into all senses. Walk to the sand and reflect on Kabau’s solitary, candle-flamed alcove on this South Pacific dot. Yes, island life perseveres–a throwback fragment on the edge of nowhere.

And its surf is good.

I visited Papua New Guinea in my imagination before making the actual journey. Then, through the windows of Air Niugini, it presented itself.

Picture a delicate Pacific island culture rewound from…us. Our vastly material, monetary influence; our wrinkled timecards and brief lunchbreaks; our gridlocked highways and luxe SUVs; our immense web of communications; our world-altering trends and status quo; our fatty diet and rampant societal obesity; our gross consumerism. Picture this, then picture a licorice-skinned people, unspoilt, at what is perhaps the twilight of their innocence.

“The local crew, yeah…the whole mindset and peoples’ values and their judgments, their headspace. Yeah, very primitive in many ways….

Nick relays his view as we lounge in blackness beneath a rain-slammed bungalow awning, gazing out across the strait–at nothing, essentially. Nick, sharp and slight-statured, is proprietor of Nusa Island Retreat, a rustic accommodation outfit on the southeast corner of tiny Nusalik Island. Shedding Australian society, he has effectively created a harmonious existence here, with the bungalow retreat a business byproduct of his 1997 homecoming.

The rain intensifies, pounding the palm frond roof, gurgling in miniature waterfalls down to the sand. We guzzle long pulls of cold beer and absorb the raw vibe of Papua New Guinea’s wet season–high summer and the hottest, stickiest time of year, even at this late hour. The beer is consumed quickly, effortlessly. An inch-long black beetle suddenly lands on my leg, then twitters off. Nick rolls a cigarette and the conversation resumes.

“I’ve traveled around a bit and I’ve seen other places in the world that are so-called ‘exotic,’ and I reckon Papua New Guinea offers that and more in terms of exoticness. Easily. It’s better, I reckon, because it’s more undeveloped and the local crew are more…just more basic, more traditional. It’s not so modern as the rest of the world is. It’ss different; it’s still got it’s own thing going on….

More beer is opened and our words fade. The squall continues; the earth steams. Warm rain, cool sweat, mustiness, mugginess. Thick, tropical darkness allows for olfactory awareness.

Nick nods good-night and leaves me with my thoughts. Two degrees below the equator, a long way from anywhere and surrounded by rain drops, a vision of World War II seeps from the stillness. Nearby, the ocean floor hosts several famous relics of warfare, as it was: Loud fighter planes, sinking battleships, bullets, bombs, death, destruction.

None of this is happening tonight. Out here, in this sweltering twenty-first century rain forest scene, halcyon harmony of culture and nature embraces a great peace and naivety from the rest of the globe. Today is Sunday, and the islanders’ lethargic stride of life slows further to a blithe crawl. It’s a sensitive portrait.

Tuesday morning. Bright, windless, oppressively hot. Heat and humidity differ slightly: morning flows into the afternoon, the afternoon feels like the night and the night unravels to morning. And so on.

We launch the skiff and motor around the point. Out of the stuff of dreams, palms thrust from the white sand lining Nusa Island: their fronds of green, the source of Earth’s tropical affiliation; their fantastic nuts, the legacy of these sustenance trees. As sunlight sears the mist, the dawn song of the Bird of Paradise echoes through the flora.

Stepping from the skiff, Pacific salt clears my skin. Instant therapy–stroke down and touch the coral, eye the sky, then reach for the surfboard leash. The beginning of another session sublime. Flawless, head-high lefts loop along the reef, expiring into coral heads on the inside.

Melanesian waves induce fantasy, yet this is not. In Papua New Guinea, reality supplants time.