The Islands: After spending some time in the Highlands and Sepik River Valley, it was time to head to the islands for a little change of pace.

Upon leaving Wom, I spent a few days at Ralf's place.  The ride back from Angoram was in a private Land Cruiser.  It was 10x more comfortable and four hours faster than the PMV getting to Angoram.  I offered the driver some gas money but he didn't want anything.  Ralf later instructed me the best way to give was to offer it for their church.  I spent a lot of time talking with Ralf.  He's a great guy who is in some ways hopelessly idealistic.  He often doesn't seem to notice the darker side of societies.  Not that there is anything wrong with it, but it's just not the way I think leads to the most realistic understanding of people.

I was going to be heading to the islands and Ralf said that he would give me a ride to the airport.  Only problem is that he did the Humpty-Dumpty thing with his car.  He took it apart to fix it and was having trouble getting it back to together.  Instead, he got up early and flagged down a vehicle for me.  I said goodbye to him and was off to some of the islands.  While at the airport I met a Dutch expat who didn't seem very nice at all.  He said, "You tourists come here expecting to go places no one else has gone, don't you."  I replied, "No, I didn't but I have been places where I was the first tourist to go."  "Oh, yeah, big tough explorer finding uncontacted tribes."   He then started to rip on Ralf.  I simply said, "You know, you're a gigantic dick." and walked away.  Sometimes, you have to call 'em as you see 'em.

The plane landed in Rabaul on the island of New Britain and I found a place to stay.  They had a "budget bed" for 35k which I said was fine.  The woman brought me down the hall, which had a bed at the end of it.  I joked, "Is that the budget bed?"  She wasn't joking.  It was a small bed, right outside the bathroom next to a door that opened to the street, with no secure place for my pack.  Sigh...for 35K, you'd expect a little more than that.  Eventually I found a nice place on the ocean for the same price as the "budget bed" and guess even had a door!

I went for a swim and floated in the water under the setting sun.  Thomas, the owner of the place, was a very forward thinker and thought in long timelines about how to succeed, something often lacking here.  We talked about what westerners like.  For example, he thought about getting some kayaks.  When I mentioned that he shouldn't forget life jackets he looked at me strangely, "Why?"  "Because not all people live on the ocean and learned to swim by age two and besides, it's often legally required in our countries."  He didn't know about that but was eager to learn.  The next day, I went diving but it was the worst diving I've ever had and the equipment was in terrible shape.  I was quite content to return to Thomas' place and float in the warm water as the sun set.

I took a PMV into Rabaul, a city that prior to a 1994 volcanic eruption was considered one of the prettiest cities in the Pacific.  It was a ghost town, covered in 1-3 meters of ash.  I met Michael, a pleasant high school student who showed me around.  All around were hundreds and hundreds of homes filled with ash, walking around them where your feet were at window level.  There was one area that had a very long fence that stuck out of the ground about 10 cm. but beyond the fence was nothing but an empty ash field.  I figured out that it was an airport.  Many houses had roofs caved in from the ash.  All around  were the signs of a silent, very dead city.  We ran across someone from a local village who wanted to show me a downed Japanese WWII bomber.  Afterwards, he tried to charge me, which I declined claiming not to have money on me.  I could see Michael was very embarrassed at this and he apologized profusely.  We spent the afternoon walking around or sitting in the shade.  Later I bought him a soda and when I told him to show the soda to the guy and say, "Here's the money he didn't have", he laughed himself silly.

I spent a few days hanging out on the beach and seeing a WWII site or two.  During the war, Rabaul was a Japanese stronghold.  Tunnels were dug into the hillsides for defense and to hide military equipment and it's common to see these tunnels all over.  Next I headed to the island of New Ireland.  It was an open ocean crossing in small, uncovered boats, not exactly something I looked forward to, but that's the local transport.  I sat on the beach and chatted with others waiting for the boat.  They said, "You're different than most tourists.  You sit with us and talk.  Most whites don't want to be around us."  I was both honored and taken aback.  "Why wouldn't I want to sit with you?"  They were both honored and taken aback.  It seems that many people still have somewhat colonial attitudes toward them, which is a shame.  As in most places, if you treat someone with respect, they'll more often than not return it.

The boat crossing to New Ireland was rather unpleasant as the swells were over 1.5 meters tall in a boat under six meters long.  We couldn't see land in either direction for a long period of time.  When we landed on an open beach and the people saw me tentatively walking over the sharp rocks, they gave me a pair of flip-flops.  Always taking care of their guests, that's for sure.  It was a long wait for a PMV and I spent time with Peter, who invited me to his family home in Namatanai.  His family was very friendly and fed us well.  We sat out late into the night talking under the stars and watching fireflies.  When we went to bed, Peter offered me the bed and he slept on the floor.  I feebly protested, more as a formality than anything, and ended up sleeping in the bed as all such protestations are doomed with the hospitality of the Papuans.  If there is one thing I've learned about this country, kindness is endemic.

I spent the morning with the family and at their suggestion, caught a PMV to Konos, a small village along the coast.  The PMV driver tried to charge me an exorbitant amount.  I ended up paying 15K, which still seemed like a lot.  The drive to Konos was absolutely amazing.  The skies and water, oh so blue, the temperature pleasant, the breezes fresh.  It was a wonderful drive in the back of the flat-bed truck with the wind keeping us cool and plenty of good company.  It's rare that a PMV ride is that pleasant, but there you go.  In Konos, I stayed in the house of Gerson.  He was angry when asked about why the PMV ride was so expensive.  He knew the driver, the Viam Express, and he was on the transport board of New Ireland and told me that he would take administrative action against the driver for charging more than the board rate.  He said, "We only get about ten tourists a year in this area and we can't have them be cheated.  No one on that truck paid more than 5k.  If you see him again, try to get a refund."

I spent a pleasant few days in Konos doing nothing at all.  During the day I would find a quiet beach and pass the day reading and sitting.  I'd go out swimming, look at fish and coral, then go back to reading for a while.  When the tide was low, the offshore reefs stuck out of the water, preventing much circulation of the water.  The sun would then heat up the water to the point where it was downright warm.  Too warm for comfort, in fact, and one had to get out of the water to cool off.  That's not an exaggeration at all.  New Ireland is 2 degrees south of the equator and during mid-day, the sun is very intense.  The only time I've felt water as warm as that was in a hot spring or bathtub. 

In the evenings, I would head back to the village and spend it with Gerson and family and a few of the villagers.  I noticed that when I talked to the men, the women would gather nearby.  Near enough to listen in, but not near enough to take part.  When I made some indication that they could join in, Gerson said that they were fine where they were.  It was then I realized that men and women socialize separately, and it was best if they just listened in. 

One annoying thing I found about Konos is that people wouldn't leave me alone.  It seemed as if I could get no peace when all I really wanted was an hour or two by myself.  When I mentioned this to Gerson, he said, "I've noticed that when you want to be alone, you go sit by the water and read a book."  "Yeah, that's what I do."  He continued, "In the villages, people don't read much.  So when they see you reading they think, 'He looks bored, we better entertain him.'"  Suddenly, a lot of things started to make sense!

I wanted to go diving in Kavieng at the western tip of the island.  That didn't work out for various reasons that are so common in PNG.  The woman who ran the hotel was having trouble with her computer and I fixed it for her as a favor.  She responded by giving me a room to myself with a shower and even air conditioning for free.  I have to say, it's extremely rare that I stay in an air-conditioned place, but there it was. 

I wasn't sure where I was going after leaving Kavieng, but the PMV's last stop was Konos, so that sounded like a good enough destination again.  When I arrived back in Konos, Gerson and family were playing a game with a pig sitting next to them.  That's such a great vision of PNG: a family and their pigs.  Never underestimate the importance of pigs in this society, that's for sure.  They were glad to see me and I spent a few more days with them.  Days were on the beach, evenings with the family.  It's a pleasant routine.

Eventually the road took me to Dalom, another village along the coast where I would spend a few days.  The ocean wasn't as nice here and the village seemed to be centered more around the river.   People would bathe and kids would swim in the river.  I didn't see kids in the ocean quite as much there.  The most interesting part of Dalom was the court hearings.  I met a man who was on his way to court.  He killed a neighbor's pig in his garden and the neighbor wanted 500K compensation.  The judges would be several people from the village who would sit on chairs and take notes.  The people testifying would sit on the ground before the judges, and behind them were the spectators.  When is the last time you saw dozens of people going to a minor civil case back home?  But here, everyone came out.  After the court, I talked to the man and he said he had to pay 150K and not 500K as the pig was tearing up his garden.  Remember, this isn't just a hobby garden we're talking about, this is the man's livelihood and food source.  He wasn't happy as 150K was still a lot to him.  He said, "Next time, I'm still going to spear the pig, but I'll eat it and not tell anyone about it."

I headed back to Namatanai, trying to catch a PMV to the south eastern tip of the island.  Peter lived down there and had invited me.  He said that part of the island gets 2-3 tourists a year.  Sounds good to me.  I had no luck getting a PMV and was told that there was one heading down there in three days but nothing before.  Hmmm....what to do, what to do?  Then, I saw him: The Viam Express.  It was the driver who had cheated me the other day.

Unfortunately, he was just starting to drive away and I didn't get to talk to him.  I wandered around a while and then saw the same driver again.  I started running for the truck.  An albino man greeted me but I just said "Hi" on the run and kept going.  I caught up to the truck and said, "You cheated me and owe me 10k."  He pleaded ignorance and I said, "Do you know who I stayed with in Konos?  It was Gerson on the transport board and he's angry.  He said that you owe me money and if I don't get it back, to contact him and he would see that you lose your license."  He pretended not to have any money but was met with, "Oh look!  There's the post office fifty meters away, looks like I'll have to send Gerson a letter telling him of your refusal.  He'd love to hear about that."  He said, "Ok, ok." And found 5K under the seat.  I said, "You owe me ten."  "I don't have it."  I slyly glanced over at the post office and look back at him, "Oh, here's five more." And pulls 5K from his pocket.  I smile and nod and go my merry way, happy in my little victory.  It's so rare when traveling that when someone tries to cheat you, you actually get a measure of revenge.  This made my whole day.  It might sound petty, but so what?

Shortly after this, the albino approached me and introduced himself as Jason.  Turns out that he wasn't an albino, but an American.  Outside of Kavieng, I hadn't seen a single tourist or even white person and wasn't expecting to see one.  Jason and I spent some time together that day and he invited me to go to a village that was about ten minutes away on the southern coast.  It was close enough that I could return to Namatanai later see if I could find a ride to the southeast.  We caught a PMV and it turns out that the ride to Bom was nearly an hour.  During the ride, it slowly dawned on me that I wouldn't be returning to Namatanai not only that evening but probably never.  Things never seem to work out as planned, do they?  But it's ok.

When we arrived in Bom, a gathering of about ten huts, who should be there...Viam Express!  I say, "Hey man, how are you?"  He says, "What are you doing here?!  Are you following me?"  It turns out his wife is from Bom and wouldn't you know it, we're together again, me and my best buddy. 

I spent two days in the area with Jason and his friend Yvonne.  We didn't do much, mostly relaxing.  I read a story in a local newspaper about a village that had a bridge fall down.  Rather than wait for the government to fix it, they rebuilt it themselves.  It's a common trait in PNG to be self-reliant because if you wait for the government to fix it, you'd still be waiting.  The three of us were supposed to catch a boat back towards Rabaul at 6 a.m.  At 6:30, we saw the driver taking a bath covered in soap wearing a smile, but you always account for such things in your planning here.  I think we got to the boat about two hours later than intended, which isn't bad for these parts.

We eventually ended up at Coconut City which is where Jason and Yvonne were working.  It's a giant coconut plantation and Jason and I walked around for a couple of hours.  Jason mentioned that the workers often slept in the coconut drying ovens as they were quiet and no one could see them.  So when we got to the ovens, we were careful not to make too much noise so as not to disturb them.  I spent a few days with those two and thoroughly enjoyed the solitude of the plantation.

I tried to make arrangements for a place to dive but the phone system was out for the entire day and part of the next morning.  Sometimes it seems as if this country is just going to implode, but somehow they muddle through it all.  When I finally phoned the place they told me they had "backpacker" accommodation.  "Great, I'll book a bed." I replied but then was told, "It's 180K per night which includes food and laundry."   I asked them, "Do you have any idea what 'backpacker accommodation' really means?"  Well diving was nixed and I would be catching a ferry straight back to Lae and a PMV to Madang where I could dive.

It was a good time with Jason and Yvonne at Coconut city and the most profound thing I said was, "I never knew there were so many coconuts in the entire world."  We got up at 6 a.m. to catch the boat and naturally, the power was out and Jason held a flashlight so that I could get things in my pack.  I said goodbye and got on the ferry.  I still, to this day, talk to Jason on a regular basis.  And to think, it all started with thinking he was an albino.

The boat pitched in the swells and every 45 seconds a piece of machinery under the deck went "BANG!" effectively preventing me from sleeping.  I'm a light sleeper and it was one of the most miserable boat rides of my life.  It was a two day journey and it saved about 130K over flying.  A good part of the ride I kept saying, "I should have flown, I should have flown, I should have....."