New Guinea and the Pacific: On my way back from Zimbabwe in 1991, I had crossed to Australia and then a number of South Pacific islands and Hawaii. My initial destination was to visit the remaining countries of the Pacific. This involved going first to the island of New Guinea, then through the Solomon Islands, Nauru, Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Guam, Saipan, Palau and then on to the Philippines.
I flew from Canada via Los Angeles to the island of Biak, then to Jayapura and up into Wamena in the Baliem Valley of Irian Jaya (now West Papua). The flight into the valley re- awakened the same powerful sense of adventure of distant and exotic destinations that had inspired me fifteen years earlier. The valley was only “discovered” by Europeans in 1938. Until the 1920s, the mountainous interior of New Guinea was assumed by Europeans to be unpopulated, and the Baliem Valley was one of the last large valleys in the interior to be seen. It had opened up in recent years as an adventure destination, and there were a few dozen other travelers, many of whom were Dutch, in the valley during my stay there. Waiting for the flight from Jayapura to Wamena, I met Andre Brugeroux, who, at that point, had traveled in over 190 countries, written a book, had lived overseas for eighteen years and had spent six years of that global hitch-hiking.
The Baliem valley presented an extraordinary contrast. For me, it represented the ability to visit and interact with a still intact “stone-age” culture, yet with some modest aspects of modernity in the town of Wamena, making food and lodging uncomplicated. I rather liked the fact that less than two weeks earlier, I was pushing papers in a government bureaucracy, and now I was wandering around a valley where the Dani men wore only penis gourds and the women dressed in what was known in New Guinea as “arse grass”. While in the valley, I met Tobias Shneibaum, a global authority on the tribes of New Guinea, particularly the Asmat. To me, the highlands of New Guinea, on both sides of the border, were among the most exotic, fascinating and different destinations of my entire life. This was made even sweeter by the highland aspect of being in the tropics. It was like being in an Indian “hill station”, but even more exotic and exploratory. A small group of us went to a pig feast one day in the village of Jiwika. Otherwise, I spent time walking to various settlements in different parts of the valley in the delightfully fresh air. Yet without overly dramatizing the dislocations, the sudden introduction of foreign visitors into the valley had mixed results that gave me thoughts of reflection. Many Dani were hanging around, just outside the “losmens”, (simple Indonesian hotels), trying to sell trinkets, or cadging money and cigarettes. Few of the Dani were in any position of authority. While we were allowed to visit, the observations within this dynamic and changing situation, were not all positive.
Papua-New Guinea (PNG) was an interesting contrast to Irian Jaya. Indonesia was still a military government and the Javanese in control were, to put it mildly, somewhat heavy-handed when it came to respecting the very different culture of this far end of the archipelago. PNG, by contrast, was independent, had more obvious missionary involvement in the society, had absorbed some aspects of the Australian colonial period and had a more developed road infrastructure. Western clothes, rather than traditional dress, was the norm in the towns and the cities. Yet the rapid shift from an untouched and isolated traditional lifestyle to the modern world was proving painful. Personal security, for myself as a traveler, was much riskier. The widespread availability of alcohol and high unemployment led to serious social problems, particularly in the major urban centers. The limited number of expatriates I talked to were constantly advising caution and were lamenting the major social breakdown with numerous criminal acts of aggression by what locals called “rascals”. Partly due to these risks, and the high costs, I met only a handful of other travelers during my weeks there.
This more solitary form of travel in PNG, compared to the Baliem valley, proved to be more typical than had been the case of my long trip between 1977-1980. The other places where I was to meet numerous other backpackers were in Vietnam and Cambodia, and along the Trans-Siberian Railway. Fortunately, and by being very prudent, I did manage to avoid being a direct victim while in PNG.
I crossed from Jayapura to Wewak on the once weekly air flight connecting the two jurisdictions of New Guinea. I traveled along the Sepik River from Wewak on the north coast. Then I flew to Mount Hagen and traveled by land into the interior of the country. In Mt. Hagen, I met two Israeli couples and we traveled together for a few days. On a bus we met a man named Norbert, who befriended us and took us to stay in his thatched home in the village of Kambul..
I spent career, some of it living overseas, where your job involved brokering the interests of the more powerful in your society in their interactions with other societies. In the Baliem, for different reasons, it was easy, but lightly regulated.
In PNG, this was direct involvement at the local level. No money changed hands with a mutual “broker”. We stayed in the small huts, went hunting for birds by bow and arrow and took part in a “turnim’ head” ceremony, where males and females take part in an elaborate ritual of touching their faces together while chanting. While most of my experiences of authentic culture in the Baliem valley had been lightly commercial, this was a direct introduction into New Guinean society by someone who had become our friend. We stay in the villages of Komia, Tambul and Kumbapugl, all at altitudes between 1600 and 2300 metres. Christianity has had quite an impact, and many of the PNG’ers who spoke English were constantly asking the Israelis questions about the Holy Land. Once back in Mt. Hagen, I took local buses down to the town of Goroka and ultimately to Lae.
From Lae, I flew to Rabaul, part of New Guinea but on the island of New Britain, famous for its location inside a dormant volcano. More so than anywhere in PNG, the town looked clean, prosperous and well organized. Rabaul was different. You could be more relaxed on the security front.
A few months before I left on the trip, a work colleague of mine, Michael Small, now Canada’s High Commissioner to Australia, strongly recommended that I take up diving. The first dives of my life, after my four PADI certification dives in a lake near Ottawa, were to Rabaul, Guadalcanal, Truk Lagoon and Palau. The quality of the dives has probably spoiled me for life. Rabaul had stunning “wall” dives, along with numerous wreck dives.
From Rabaul, in order to get my connection to the Solomon Islands, I flew to Port Moresby. The downtown core of Port Moresby looked like an urban American ghetto war zone in the late 1960s – a few burned down buildings in the city centre, graffiti on the walls, young men drinking beer while sitting on curbs, razor wire around most commercial buildings, and litter blowing in the wind, all evidence of a broad-based social breakdown.
From Port Moresby, I flew to Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands on the island of Guadalcanal and then went to Auki on the island of Malaita. then continued on to Nauru. The Solomon Islands were also Melanesian, but because of the smaller scale of the place, the social problems were less evident. My experience in the Solomon Islands were that many were devout Christians. I was able to connect between Melanesia and Micronesia through the island of Nauru.
Nauru back in the early 1990s was then a strange destination, though to its eternal credit and Club Aventure’s ever resourceful Richard Lizotte, I managed to link flights from Nauru all the way to Hong Kong. The interior of the island had been totally desiccated by guano deposits used to fertilize farmlands in Australia and New Zealand. The vast majority of the 8000 inhabitants seemed to live middle class lives inhabiting middle class but unpretentious bungalows throughout the island. A significant percentage of the population had moved to Melbourne. Back then, the island boasted the highest per capita income in the world, though its main manifestation seemed to be obesity.
From Nauru, I flew up to Kiribati. Kiribati was like a throwback to the South Pacific of fifty or one hundred years ago. It was one of the softest and most memorable destinations in the entire Pacific. I found Tuvalu, less agreable and its slightly authoritarian and militaristic edge bizarre in the region. If Kiribati represented paradise found, the Marshall Islands represented paradise lost. It blended some of the worst examples of American consumer excess, fast food and garbage seemingly strewn everywhere. To be fair, in both Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands I became symptomatic with malaria, probably picked up in the Solomon Islands, despite taking Mefloquine.
I was still recovering from malaria as I went across to Pohnpei to see the Nan Madol ruins, but by the time I reached Truk Lagoon, I had fully recovered and enjoyed the diving immensely. Truk is probably the world’s best wreck diving site. It had been an obscure lagoon prior to the Second World War. It became the major Japanese forward operating base of the Pacific campaign in the early 1940s. As the campaign for the Pacific turned in favour of the allies, the lagoon was heavily bombed in February 1944. The 45,000 Japanese were bypassed as the allies moved on to take Saipan. More than 60 vessels were sunk. After the war, Truk once again slipped back to its isolated status, thus preserving the numerous wrecks intact.
From Truk, I flew to Guam, and it was like suddenly returning to the USA – modernity, lots of cars, McDonalds, Taco Bells and other fast food chains. Guam is a major tourist destination for Japanese, a combination of the visually unattractive, it could be suburban anywhere USA, with the added convenience of easy car rentals, shopping and good music on the radio.
Palau was the one set of islands in Micronesia that was as beautiful above the water line as below. The diving there, in terms of fish and coral, was probably the best diving experience of my entire life. After close to two months in the Pacific, I flew from Koror to Manila. The gentle isolated and quiet islands of the Pacific were behind me. Manila hit me like a ton of bricks. I was in heavily populated, heavily polluted and ear-splittingly noisy urban Southeast Asia again.