As we leave PNG, a reflection on our time in Melanesia
Updated: Apr 9, 2019
It may sound crazy to be looking forward to western luxuries at an Indonesian outpost on far west Papua, but after six months in Melanesia, this is what it’s come to. We’ve been sailing the islands of Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea for a while now. We spent a bit more than a month in the northern islands of Vanuatu. This was our first stop after leaving Australia and we got a taste for the melanesian culture. The main features of cruising this part of the world is the trading and cultural interactions. Don’t get me wrong, the islands are beautiful, and we’ve done plenty of diving and snorkeling, too. But the combination of a shared language, a culture shaped strongly by missionaries, and a poor but not extremely poor population made for great cultural exchanges—and other types of exchanges.
We tried our best to get off the boat and meet each village we anchored near. Sometimes it was easier than others. We have great memories of a few villages where we played soccer and volleyball, ate generous (though rarely delicious) meals of local root vegetables, and traded clothes, batteries, and food for fresh fruit and carvings. Our efforts to make small talk and ask questions were often rewarded with hilarious stories and mind-broadening perspectives. We met a few people who had been mentioned to us by cruising friends who passed through in previous years, and we could connect around our common acquaintances.
Occasionally, the interactions were more strained, which made it harder to motivate the kids to put on long shorts, get in the dingy and go to shore. There was always the chance when we first greeted a local in a dugout canoe off the back of the boat, that we would be met with a request for an “anchoring fee,” a list of goods the residents needed, or an aggressive salesman of wood carvings. We had a few rough interactions with some villages that—while never threatening or dangerous—made us feel like unwelcome but necessary parts of their annual budget. We didn’t stay long in those spots, and were frequently warned off by other cruisers before we even arrived, so they were rare.
We also chose our path carefully to avoid places that had been over-exposed to the exploitation of other countries. In these spots you’d find migrant workers and young men who left their villages to work for mining, logging, or other foreign companies. It’s in these places where the people are out of sight of their local chiefs, leaders, and families that you find theft, violence and drunkenness. We could use satellite images to determine where clear-cutting scars visible from space marked places we should steer clear of. This strategy kept us far from the larger islands and bigger towns, mostly.
We would occasionally stop into cities for provisioning and diesel. The main cities in northern Vanuatu and Solomons were Luganville and Honiara (on the WWII famous Guadalcanal island). These proved to house mostly dusty, buggy, nearly identical shops owned by Chinese immigrants. We could only count on finding bug-infested flour, rice, milk powder, and an impressive assortment and amount of what I would call ramen noodles and spam. The occasional unexpected luxury discovery was cause for a celebratory binge. And just to be clear, I’m not referring to anything so exciting as parmigiana or heavy cream (which are some of the things that have consumed our sleeping and waking dreams for months). Some of our biggest binges were on apples and cream cheese. The cream cheese turned out to be expired and a bit sour, so we just used it for cheesecakes and icing, but nonetheless that was a big day. The apples were more expensive than the ones I find at Whole Foods, and far more beaten up, but I bought the whole case. My kids behaved as if I had returned with an entire case of movie-theater candy—eyes popping, speechless, giggling and bouncing.
To balance out the shortages of some kinds of food, I should point out the abundance of others. Despite our own de-fish-encies (I can’t resist a pun), the locals and our fellow cruisers have stepped in to compensate. We’ve been flush in lobsters, squid, yellowfin tuna, and reef fish of all shapes and sizes. A common meal is a starter of sashimi or ceviche followed by a whole grilled fish, tuna steaks, or battered and fried filets. We’re always loaded with papayas which we’ve learned to use in all stages of ripening, from green papaya salad to a sweet papaya smoothie. The limes, bananas, squash, eggplant and coconuts are everywhere and seem to produce year-round. We’ve enjoyed the decadent seasons of watermelons, pineapple, mangos, and tomatoes. At these times, you need to eat some at every meal or you won’t get through the mountain you’ve accumulated through trade.
After Vanuatu, we headed north to Solomon Islands where we spent almost three months. We had a quick trip home from here and also hosted some friends for a visit. We started out in the very remote reef islands and had some lovely interactions with the locals. Then we headed into Honiara, the capital city. There are many tales of crime, drunkenness, and rough people here, so we were a little worried to stay, but we found a safe “yacht club” that looked after the boats anchored in the harbor, helped organize fuel, and served some decent fish and chips. There were some drunk and homeless seeming men—less than you’d find in a US city. And our teenagers got some leering looks and catcalls—also less than you’d find in a US city. Aside from that, it seems like a reasonable stop and the fresh market was amazing!
One of the harder things to adjust to is the switch from kava to betel nut. In Fiji and Vanuatu, the intoxicant of choice is a muddy, peppery drink made from the root of a kava plant. In Fiji, it is dried and powdered and is like a Kool-aid version. In Vanuatu, they pick the root fresh, grate it like ginger, and squeeze out the juice from the mash to mix with water. The result is stronger in flavor and effect than the Fijian powder. While it is more prevalently used by men in both countries, there are some places where the women also drink kava. They were all happy to offer it to me, everywhere. The stuff in Fiji did little more than numb my lips, but in Vanuatu, it was a little scary. I didn’t want to feel drugged or stoned in most of those villages so, I would decline or take just a small sip. Paul learned the hard way that one coconut full was his limit. Though he now has a pretty solid preference for Vanuatu-style kava.
We crossed the imaginary line between these contiguous islands into Solomons and betel nut, we started immediately to see the blood-red, vampire-mouthed people on the shorelines and in the dugouts. Equally prevalent in women and men, even young children had the staining that was everything from a bright red glow over white teeth, to a gaping toothless, burgundy-stained mouth. I’m fascinated by this custom that is apparently as old as the culture and spreads west and north from here all the way to India and even to Madagascar. I ask everyone I can about betel nut and here’s what I’ve heard. It produces a high described as like strong coffee and not as strong as beer. It is an appetite suppressant and stimulant. It grows wild on these islands and while you can see folks walking into the bush to gather the little green egg-shaped nuts themselves, you also see food-cart style vendors set up everywhere there’s a reasonable population. In Kavieng, PNG, we found the enormous fresh food market was at least 2/3 full of betel nut, mustard pods, and ground-up lime powder. People peel the reedy outer shell off of the betel nut to reveal an oblong, almond sized, beige nut. Mostly, the nut is then combined in the mouth with a fun-dip style mustard pod dipped into white, lime powder and sucked off the end. It’s this lime powder (lime from dried coral, not lime fruit) that reacts with the nut and quasi-cooks it producing the stronger high and the red colored mouths.
We found large pockets of Seventh Day Adventists through out these islands who are easy to spot mainly because they lack the vampire mouths. Like alcohol and caffeine, betel nut is not allowed in their faith. Given the obviousness of its use, it is surprising to see that some young men who have spent time in the cities have picked up the habit, anyway. They are then labelled back-sliders, with a small chuckle, and welcomed back into the village, new (old) habit and all.