Sunday 12th March 2017

At Sea

Another chance for a lie-in and breakfast delivered to our cabin!

This morning's lecture was about our next to ports of call, Alotau and Port Moresby, both of which are in Papua New Guinea. The lecturer delivers his talks at pace from a script, so it's more like downloading to his audience – you really do have to keep concentrating, but it's worth it.

New Guinea (the world's largest island after Greenland) was first named by an early explorer who thought it looked a bit like Guinea in Africa. At an early point the island was divided down the middle, and at the end of the nineteenth century the Dutch controlled the western half and the British the east.

In 1905 Britain transferred control of its section to Australia. A northern section was controlled by the Germans but this was taken away from them after WW1 and transferred to Australia to manage. In 1975 Papua New Guinea achieved independence from Australia but remained subject to the British Crown.

In the 1960s Indonesia controversially seized control of the Dutch half of the island, and an independence dispute still simmers today. So, today, the west of the island is Indonesia-controlled Western New Guinea, or Papua, and the eastern part is the Independent State of Papua New Guinea.

The whole of the island is described as one of the most culturally diverse areas in the world, with over 800 known languages. It's also seen as one of the most remote places on the planet. Only 18 percent of its people live in urban centres, and there are believed to be many groups of uncontacted people living Stone Age lives in its interior, where there are believed to be many undiscovered species of plants and animals. The world's smallest wallaby (about the size of a rabbit) was discovered this century, along with previously-unknown types of bat, frog, pigeon, tree mouse and gecko.

Until very recently it's been a very rough and violent place, with head-hunting ebbing away as recently as the 1950s. One of the tribes stoutly maintained that they weren't cannibals as they 'never eat humans', but it then emerged that they *do* cannibalise a neighbouring tribe that they see as less than human. The locals' modern-day penchant for human flesh came to the fore with shocking news in 1961 when Nelson Rockefeller's 23 year-old son, Michael, went missing when collecting artifacts for Nelson's collection now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. His disappearance and certain death was covered in a book called 'Savage Harvest' by Carl Hoffman.

On a more general note we were advised not to go ashore independently but to take organised excursions, as even Port Moresby isn't seen as all that safe! Gee, thanks!

The weather was so hot that we retired from the deck before lunch and spent the afternoon in our cabin and on the balcony. In the evening we had our first try of the 'Red Ginger' speciality restaurant, which offers eastern fusion cuisine. We had a choice of chopsticks – Gill chose Mother of Pearl and I went for Charlton Red ;o) The food was wonderfully tasty, and we chose to remove chilli from one of the dishes. We were offered a tea menu, which was a nice touch – Gill chose Jasmine and I opted for Chinese Gunpowder purely from nostalgia.

Monday 13th March 2017

Alotau, Papua New Guinea

Our day got off to a shaky start when our excursion was an hour late in starting. The roads in this area are small and in rough condition, so it seems that there are no coaches to be hired. Instead they use little mini-buses that carry 14 passengers plus driver, and some of these have seen better days – the buses, not the drivers! It seems that not enough buses turned up, and that drivers had to be reminded and chased, to Sirena's deep embarrassment.

In the end we departed at 9.30am and got to know all about the quality of roads round here quite quickly! The tarmac surface ran out only a couple of miles out of town and was replaced by a rough but tolerable surface for a while. During this time we made our first stop at a village primary school, whose alarming motto was 'Strive to Survive'.

We were led to a classroom where the children were said to be eleven years old – they looked much younger because they were quite small. While I, and everyone else, was wondering what to do, Gill went straight over to the pupils and started talking with them. They were all smartly dressed and seemingly very attentive, and their work in the exercise books that they showed Gill was beautifully presented in neat writing. They clearly enjoyed having a strange but interesting 'dim dim' (foreigner) taking a friendly interest in them and they all gathered around. It was quite heart-warming, really.

Gill and I have talked a couple of times about volunteering as short-term teaching assistants in an under-developed country for the sheer joy of encouraging an excitement in education amongst young children who might later contribute greatly to the wealth of their nation. Today did nothing to discourage us, but it's still only a distant thought ;o)

Setting off again we drove for 40-45 minutes on worsening road surfaces, dodging ruts, crossing narrow, one-track bridges and fording nearly dry streams and arrived at a village. We were in a convoy of eight vehicles, meaning that about 100 of us descended en masse on a village with a similar population. We were led through the village, being shown the locals' housing, graveyards, sacred sites and visitors' accommodation. Just like in Burma last autumn the locals were friendly, welcoming and cheerful.

The housing was typical of what we've seen so far, i.e. built on stilts, with walls made of thin sheets of interwoven wood and roofs made of thatched palm fronds. That's about it. No windows, just openings in the walls. Most of the time nothing more is needed, but it must get a bit challenging when tropical storms race through! After a very pleasant hour we were off again on another bone-shaking transit to another village.

This visit was a bit special, because there was a huge crowd of locals awaiting us, many from neighbouring villages and even islands. We were shepherded into a large grassy arena with groups of villagers ranged in an arc in front of us. We were told that they were going to demonstrate how to catch a wild pig in the net that they'd stretched across the field. The pig was one of their number running on all fours with a poor attempt at a pig's head mask on his head. They taunted and steered him towards the net then trapped him in it. Everyone thought that this was great fun. Well, with no TV and no Internet, or even electricity, it was probably a highlight of their week!

Each group took turns to play their drums and dance. There was one group of young boys with war paint and little spears who kept sneaking up on people, then yelling and waving their spears at them - they looked a bit sharp to me!

There was one group of 2-3 years olds, all dressed in grass skirts and headresses, that really caught the eye. One little girl in particular simply couldn't stop dancing as soon as the drums started up somewhere. She was clearly enjoying herself, but had an utterly deadpan expression – adorable.

In both this village and the previous one fresh fruit and coconuts were offered to us – Gill *loves* fresh coconut milk! I always feel a bit guilty when we descend on a village like this because the locals go to such trouble to welcome us and then an hour later we're gone, having bought nothing, although nothing was for sale. Gill was talking to one of the on-board lecturers who was with us today, and he maintained that Oceania will have in some way made it worth the community's while, but you suspect that the fun that they had with us was justification in itself. We hope so, anyway!

We then had to long plod back down the same road to Alotau and a brief stop at a market near the ship. Gill had changed some sterling into the local currency before leaving the ship, and had a pleasant half hour browsing and buying :o)

Tomorrow it's our second stop in Papua New Guinea, at the capital, Port Moresby.

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