Thursday, September 22, 2011

Hanging out Island style

My first visit to Woodlark Island (Muyua Island) was in January 2010.  I remember the small caravan aircraft that flew us from mainland Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby to the island airstrip at Guasopa Beach.  The beach with it’s breathtaking beautiful white sands, glassy turquoise waters and palm trees swaying with the breeze was as if looking at a perfectly designed set for a Hollywood movie. 
On arrival at this magnificent tropical paradise, many friendly and curious villagers had gathered as they do twice a week to see the small charter aircraft land, refuel, load and take off again.  The Muyua people at that time were a complete mystery to me and a white Australian woman was a complete mystery to them.
A young Muyua woman employed by the company my husband was considering working for, offered advice in very good english as I was bundled into the 4WD vehicle to make the bone shaking journey to the centre of the island where we would be accommodated at Bomagi Camp site. We followed the rough dirt road for an hour and a half making our way through small villages, where locals ran out to the road wearing big smiles, cheering and calling out ‘dim dims’ which is the local term for white people.  Passing over pot holes, through lots of clay mud, avoiding pigs and dogs and chickens wandering over the road, then through a flooded river we finally arrived at the gold exploration camp site.
The heat was uncomfortable, the air thick as pea soup and our last toilet stop had been six hours ago. I had been nervous regarding security in Port Moresby.  I was extremely nervous about the three and a half hour aircraft journey to Woodlark Island where the small charter was tossed around while flying through a couple of storms. So after being pummeled about in the rather worn out 4WD on rough deteriorated roads that were made in the old logging days, I was long overdue for a toilet stop, ready for a cold drink, a meal and even a nap. 
Regardless of the uncomfortable conditions, I was excited and curious as to what this new adventure and new people held in store for me.  Through wide open eyes this was going to be a deep-end experience.  I was as much of a mystery to the Muyua people as they were to me, most of them had never laid eyes on a white woman.
My husband, Kent and I were visiting this remote island of Papua New Guinea for a look-see to consider the likelihood of becoming residents of the island on a fly-in fly-out basis.  Our few days were to give us an overview of what life would be like should I consider being the only white woman on Woodlark Island. My husband’s acceptance of the position was now relying only on my agreeing to reside on the island with him.  No pressure. Ha!
The island people were open and friendly, welcoming me as an honoured guest of their island.  Children were so curious that they hovered around me and followed me almost everywhere - which is to this day quite lovely.  The ambience of this tropical paradise with it’s beaches, forests and reefs were, even then, an attraction to me.  I fell in love with Woodlark Island and her Austroneasian people.  So, we made the necessary arrangements and relocated to Woodlark Island over the next few months.
Camp Life
The challenges of living in an exploration camp were new to me.  An exploration camp is designed by men, built by men, lived in primarily by men who could not even be expected to imagine what the more crucial needs of a woman on site might entail.  Both work place habits, topics of conversation and recreation for camp staff is men focused.  Therefore, as any sane Western cultured woman would understand, privacy and security in particular have been constantly on my mind from day one.  These are the two most significant things that the basic male, being able to use his fists and generally handle himself in a fight and not understanding women's body image issues, is clueless about in regard to a woman.
The accommodation that was to be constructed some distance from the rooms of the other male residents on site ended up being a two room add-on to an existing accommodation block with a veranda that is shared with the constant steam of men who visit the camp.   No laundry - ahhh, the challenge of trying to get bras and bikinis dry indoors in such a humid climate.  PNG National men sitting on their verandah till late at night which is directly outside my bedroom window would become suspiciously quiet when Kent and I would go to bed.  Libido literally went out the window on my part.  The common men’s shower block which is directly outside my living room window where shift workers begin singing on top note and enjoying themselves in the showers at three thirty in the morning left me deprived in general of a good night's sleep. The clincher was that local men constantly hovered under the building moving from room to room listening from just under the floor boards.  
Bedroom activity for the locals is not  considered something that a man and woman should need privacy for.  The Muyua people live in small huts with the entire extended family sleeping in the same room.  I was beginning to feel like a local!  The camp's domestic staff were constantly chasing away groups of young men from under our floor boards. Every time I stepped out of my door there were curious little crowds of people hovering around camp for no other reason but to lay eyes on the white woman.  I did my best to hide the intimidation I was feeling.  If only my husband would have a desire to live in France.  Paris could be nice.
My girl friends back home in Australia are utterly horrified when I share these details with them and think that I am completely crazy for having even entertained the idea of living on Woodlark Island.  The thought of living in Papua New Guinea, no shops, no hairdresser, no pharmacy, no doctor, no white cultured girl friends or coffee shops, extreme heat and humidity, constant monsoonal rains and a hundred or so rough necked males living up close with me in camp has them worrying about me most of the time.
Sometimes, even I worry about me.  

However, it is almost twenty one months since that fist trip to the island and in that time I have accomplished a few things.  I have managed to calm myself during flight turbulence and overcome the feeling that I could just drop right out of the sky at any given moment. I have caught  some good sized fish (wouldn't it be good if fishing didn't include blood and smelly slimy stuff).  I have snorkelled and scuba dived on many of the reefs  (I'm really quite fast at get-a-ways in my flippers when I spot a shark).  I have explored many of the surrounding smaller islands (I'm sure that some of the camp managers would, at times, like to drop me off at one of those uninhabited islands and leave me there for a while - if not forever).  I have swam with dolphins, or maybe they were swimming with me (one of which pushed me  right out of the water back onto the sand - not sure why - a local who saw it said he was just playing with me). I have travelled to and been welcomed into some of the most remote outlying villages.  I've learnt quite a lot of the local language, grown to love the island and the people and have had the privilege of the local women extending to me openness about their culture.  I have become a friend and confidant to many of the young women and have friends and loved ones that have made me richer just for knowing them.  We laugh together and cry together and sometimes we just hug and say nothing.  Most of all, we just do life together. Hanging out island style.