Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Autonomous Region of Bougainville

Bougainville is an amazing place and my exploration there back in 2008 has left me with warm memories. Everywhere else in PNG that I have wandered, I have had reasonable support and guidance, whereas in Bougainville, I was alone but with one exception in Marist Father Austin. Fr Austin helped out when it was necessary but he never intervened to the level of taking over and it did indeed feel as if his guardian approach was minimal.

The best way to get up and down the East Coast Road is via the convoy of Land Cruisers that operate as 10 seater PMVs, these leave Kokopau (right next to the water taxi depot on the Bougainville side of Buka Passage) just before lunch and return each morning leaving Arawa between 3 and 4am. Make sure you book your seat although this does not guarantee a seat, much to my frustration early on a Friday morning.

I booked my seat and was told that the driver would pick me up at 0330 the next morning… so at 0320 I closed the door to my room at the Arawa Women’s Training Centre and stood out in the balmy darkness next to Alfred the Security Man.

“Morning” I said to Alfred and Alfred responded.

“Morning, you know your driver has gone.”

“Gone where?” said I.

“Back to Buka, he picked up some sick people from the hospital and said that you would have to find another PMV.”

All of a sudden, I was feeling sick. How was I going to find another PMV at this time considering I had been told all the others were already booked? Alfred went back to playing the snake game on his mobile. Alfred assured me that a PMV would come by… And one did, it was a group of Tax consultants who were auditing the businesses in Arawa for non payment of GST. I had met them the evening before and we had shared a beer together. While the Women’s Training Centre was very comfortable and the hospitality warm and inviting, they were unable to sell a beer to their customers, but we could go and buy some from the local bottle shop. So in the afternoon I wandered into this shell of a supermarket which had been torched during the Crisis and was structurally very, very unsound, but inside was a little timber hut with a SP sign on the side. I walked up to the window and the chap inside asked what I wanted and I asked for a few green cans, but he said “’fraid not, only got black cans”.

So I bought some black cans and wandered back to the accommodation block buying a few more betel nuts for my new found Tax friends. My Tax friends were well chuffed and they chewed and drank into the evening. Seeing as I had plans to alight in the early hours of the next morning, I retired to my room early.

This brings me back to the car load of Tax consultants who appeared at 0345 in a PMV that they had hired for their business and obviously as a means to find more beer for they were well drunk including the driver. Arawa is a rare town in PNG for it has kerbing and no pot-holes, so as an example, a driver negotiating the streets in Lae would drive in a zig-zag manner avoiding the pot-holes and using the footpath area when necessary, but in Arawa you can drive as straight as an arrow. Unless it is 0345 in the morning and you have been drinking all night and you have a pretty solid 4wd which can handle the kerbs with ease. So this car came up the road and on the footpath and narrowly missed the stobie poles by a bare measure, and then stopped in front of Alfred and me.

“Steve!!!!” the driver cried with beer cans spilling from his car, the fumes from inside overpowered the diesel exhaust.

“You guys are doing well, aren’t you all heading back to Buka today?” I said, making pleasantries.

“Yeah, we’re leaving at 0800… where’s your ride?”

I told them the story about how my man had decided to take the sick and injured back to Buka and that I was just waiting on the off chance that a PMV would pass by. They said that if I wanted to, I could jump into their bus at 0800 and join in the fun.

“But you guys are all drunk; you won’t make it back to Buka?” I questioned.

“Nah, we’re gonna hit the bunks now and get a few hours to sleep off this beer… you want a lift or not?”

“Only if I can drive” I said.

With that comment, we passed farewells and the Land Cruiser launched off the kerb and up the road, turning around and then coming back to me kerbside… Another window opened with more alcohol spilling from within “We’re off to get some more beer!”

I shook my head with disbelief as the PMV swerved down the road and off across a paddock and again narrowly missing a stobie pole before returning to the bitumen. Alfred kept playing his snake game. A PMV then appeared on a road I could see across the paddock and roared along, Alfred said that was my PMV with the patients. I looked up at the stars and questioned whether I was going to see Buka again.

But then a PMV came up the road, Alfred said “You don’t want this one.” But I did, I just wanted to get moving, it was now 0410 and I had been waiting long enough. I attempted to wave it down but it ignored me and stopped a few houses away up the other street.

“Alfred, how do I stop that guy?”

“You don’t want that one Steve; we can wait a little longer.”

So we did and I made a second attempt to stop the PMV when it left the house and came back past us. Alfred said “You don’t want that one.”

“But if I can stop it then he might know of another PMV to swing by???”

We waited in the dark. Bougainvilleans or Bukans are also called Black Skins, as those from mainland PNG are known as Red Skins. I met a red skin in the same burnt out shell where I had purchased the black cans, the red skin was from Goroka and he was manning his Kai Bar. I said “Hey red skin, what are you doing here?”

He responded with “I came here for a look a few years ago, and found my nirvana, this place is paradise, so I opened a kai bar and now I sell my goods to all these black skins” He hailed from Goroka and was a nice guy for a chat. In a society were everyone had polished black skin, this Gorokan and I felt almost like wantoks, there was a connection in that his Highlander skin tone was the closest thing to a white person I had seen for some time and likewise, my skin tone was familiar to him. Well it felt like that.

So in the dark, Alfred was very difficult to pick out, mind you he did have some reflective tape on his Security uniform which helped. I asked Alfred where in Bougainville was he from and his response was “I’m from here, from Arawa”, so I asked if he knew everyone in town and he said “Of course.”

“So, some of your wantoks would be drivers?” I asked.

“Yeah heaps…”

“Got any of their phone numbers in that mobile of yours?”

“Yeah heaps…” he looked up at me.

“How ‘bout you start calling them and getting one of your wantoks to come and get me back to Buka?” I was getting nervous. “I don’t want to be stuck here.”

Alfred said quietly “The same thing happened to Mark.”

Now Mark ain’t his real name, I’ve changed that for two reasons, one; this is the internet and I understand privacy issues and the second is more of an in-joke that I will embarrassingly admit went on for too long. But the pair of us share some common interests and traits and have been often confused by some of the people of PNG in the past. Us white guys all the look the same. So when Alfred said “The same thing happened to Mark.” I knew what outcome was possible, another night in Arawa, and another early morning hoping for a PMV.

But to Alfred’s credit, he started making some calls on his phone although it didn’t sound to inspiring until he finally spoke to someone. He got off the phone and said that everything would be okay, a PMV would pass by. And then one came, but Alfred said “You don’t want this one.”

It was 0420. And then a Land Cruiser stopped. Alfred said “take this one” and I was already inside and on the seat.

“Thanks Alfred” I called out as the PMV left the kerb. I took a look around, no-one was inside, and I thought that was odd.

We drove around town, at the first house, we parked in the driveway and the driver laid on the horn for around half a minute. A tired looking guy came out onto his balcony and looked down at us through sleepy eyes. The driver gesticulated wildly at him, and the man went back inside. A few moments later he returned with a small bag and he walked down the steps. The driver got out and the new guy got in. It was explained to me that the first driver was actually the owner and that the new guy was the driver. I asked where were all the passengers and the new driver said we would go and get them now.

We drove to a workshop where the driver would once again get on the horn; a sleepy security guard came and said that the passengers were waiting for us outside on the footpath. We both got out and we found two men asleep in a pile of beer cans, one of them woke up and climbed into the back of the PMV, the driver and I picked up the other guy and tossed him into the back. We then drove across town where we stopped again, but this time to drag the sleeping drunk out and place him safely on another footpath. What a surprise for him when he awakes.

After a few laps of town (Arawa only takes 10 minutes to walk from end to end), and picking up a few new passengers, it was time to leave; 0450, we then started our trip back to Buka. Now the trip crosses many rivers and in the middle of the first river, we stopped the car and the driver got out. He wandered over to a rock, laid a towel down, removed his shirt and with a bar of soap, he proceeded to wash himself in the river. After drying himself off, he returned to the car and said “Ok, now we go.”

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