Saturday, January 30, 2010

Milne Bay

The pointy end of PNG; and I am disappointed that I never made it out to the Islands. But I did get a reasonable look around the East Cape. It is interesting, I was always under the impression that the coastal people of PNG were taller and leaner then their Highland cousins, but Milne Bay was not the case; the size 28 girls were quite short in stature and petite to describe it at best. The young men of Milne Bay were similar in that I was reasonably tall amongst a crowd.

I once asked my host if there were any raskols in Alotau, and the answer was "No, no raskols, everyone peaceful and loving"

"Sounds good" I say, "I might take a walk down to the markets"

"No, no, no, I will come with you... for safety."

"But you say there are no raskols?" I ask.

"No, no, no raskols but someone might steal your backpack..." was the response.

Ok, so I had my guide for a stroll around town. Tall white guy stands out a bit amongst the locals, so I thought I'd err on the side of caution. On other occasions I have wandered around Alotau on my own and no-one has tried to pinch me backpack, they have tried to sell me all sorts of carvings and shell necklaces, but no raskols. I did buy a fish carving once and he sits above me on the shelf.

Alotau is made up of its various cultural groups, all the Trobiand Islanders live in one part of town, all those from Samurai live in another, all those from the East Cape live elsewhere and the people from Alotau live in the biggest grouping. I soon discovered that there was rivalry between the clans???

Walking through the town of Alotau one day with my friend Tom, I spotted a long waterfall cascading off the nearby mountain. Alotau is a harbour town surrounded by many, many peaks, some over 1,000metres tall, and it was off of one of these peaks that I spotted the waterfall. I asked Tom if he was up for a walk to the waterfall, and he replied that it was a very long walk. I asked "How long?" and he replied "One hour there and one hour back".

"Well let's go!" and off we did. We decided to shortcut through, past Tom's house and right through the middle of the Trobiand clan, but this was cool for Tom was from the Trobiands. He taught me a few phrases in his Tok Ples and I was a riot as we wandered through his village. We stopped and kicked a football around, we sat and told stories with Tom's wantoks and we then continued on our walk up the hill. As we left the Village, a group of young size 28 girls were all calling out and laughing, and slapping each other, and I didn't need to speak the language to understand that their calls were directed at the Tall White Guy. Tom was giggling, so I played along and said "Hey Tom, what are those girls saying about me?"

Tom, between giggles said "They are all saying 'Tom, where are you taking my white husband, why are you taking him up the river'". Tom and I had a good laugh as we continued our journey. Now the road we trod crossed a stream, which I thought was a good thing because waterfalls often end up in streams and we were heading in the right direction. I asked Tom if I should take my boots off, to keep them dry and he said "No point, we'll cross the river only once". I think he meant to say "Once we enter the stream, we will remain in the stream until we return to this point." because we crossed this stream maybe 30 or 40 times, to the extent, we just stayed in the water and waded up.

A fair way up the stream, we came across a group of men working on an inlet to a pipe, the catchment area had silted up during recent floods and these men were restoring the inlet so that the town of Alotau could have fresh water again. We stopped had a chat and said about the waterfall. The interesting thing here is... hardly anyone speaks Tok Pisin in Milne Bay, everyone speaks their Tok Ples and many will speak English. They say they do not want to speak the language of the Mountain people, and they will continue to learn English. The Cameron school has produced some fine and upstanding citizens of PNG, I used to work with a few of the graduates and the people of Milne Bay speak and understand English very well.

So we kept walking and soon afterwards, about one hour from our start including football and stories, we made it to the waterfall and what a poor display of a waterfall! There was this small cliff of rocks with a busted tree leaning up against it with a trickle of water cascading off the rocks. I said "Tom, this is not the same waterfall we saw from Town?"

Tom said "I'm sorry, but that waterfall goes through a clan that I do not trust and I cannot take you there on my own, if we had many friends with us, then it would be okay, but not today."

I replied "Hey that's cool Tom, I am glad you thought of your own safety as well as mine, and this waterfall is alright, besides its a nice spot for a rest and a story and some kaikai"

So we sat down enjoyed some PNG made Twisties, and a can of PNG made Coke and we rested and told stories.

And afterwards, we walked back down to town, through the Trobiand Clan and home again. Maybe one day I shall return, find Tom, organise a big posse and walk to the other waterfall?


Walt said...

Thanks for the article. I found the bit about the attitude towards Tok Pisin interesting. Do you think most PNG coastal people regard it as a highlands language? Or is that just in the Milne Bay area?

Steve Bennett said...

Cheers Walt, my impression is that the further you get away from Moresby and Lae, the level of English improves. Places like Milne Bay and Manus and New Ireland have a wonderful generation of well educated PNGeans. I think there is a real self sufficiency for education with these remote Provinces; they need to learn just to survive.

The lack of Tok Pisin was notable in Milne Bay, to the extent I met locals who couldn't understand my pidgin, and I speak pidgin like a bus-kanaka.

I do recall meeting a wonderful lady at Kokoda Station who was teaching a group of children English, I helped with a lesson or two and the only rules were "English only, no Tok Pisin in this classroom"... with the exception of one young girl from the Moresby Coastline who I was able to chat with in Motuan.