1. Paradise found
Two days. Two full days of carriage by plane, smaller plane, van, and speedboat separate the scene above from New York, but in all honesty, that is an approximation. After touching down in Port Moresby (via Brisbane via Hong Kong), my crew of four looped through the Western Highlands before resetting in the Papuan capital, as is common, and then flying east toward coastal Alotau. In Alotau, we rumbled down an overgrown road to the lip of Milne Bay, where we discarded our van, dumped our bags in a 22-footer, and in an adjacent boat were shuttled through the wind at impressive speeds toward a far-off paradise. Ninety minutes later we were wading over weedy rock through a foot of tepid water, shoes off, at the gateway to the world above.
And so arrival at Nuli Sapi—the four bungalows above, plus an open-air gazebo, a bar welcoming Milne Bay locals and a crawling, overwater “boardwalk”—came with the great exhale that ends only the longest journeys. Logeia Island, rainforested rock at the mouth of Milne Bay, took us in. On that first approach, we found Louisiana Joe—half of Nuli Sapi’s husband-and-wife proprietorship—feeling his lines for crabs, which were later served with spicy-sweet chili sauce, steamed rice and far-out stories for dinner. Nights were restorative, days filled with fact-finding expeditions with locals on nearby lands like Samurai Island. One evening, there was a cave of skulls; on another occasion, we floated beneath towering, unique-to-PNG mangroves that blew Joe’s mind. The comforts of seclusion and self-sufficiency, and forested wood as the chief building material, were beautifully bare—and Lonely Planet has noticed, calling it one of the “top eco stays for 2014.” I, meanwhile, remember it as the setting for the most restful sleep I’ve gotten in years.
2. Schoolroom in Uskov
I recalled my visit to Uskov in an earlier story, but using text. Above is a visual missing from that recollection: the Uskov classroom, occupied on some schedule by the younger half of Uskov’s school-going population. Memorable exchanges piled up during the twenty minutes we spent inside this room, sometimes behind the lead of these school-goers and sometimes after we outsiders introduced our own questions and activities to the floor. Regardless: What I remember most about the physical space we saw was the preponderance of half-coconut shells in the learning environment. The brown-grey Lake Murray mud they held was used in body-painting instruction—a pillar of education in Lake Murray alongside math, geography and English (note the English alphabet below the chalkboard).
3. Lime for sale in Alotau
Thank you, guy, but we are all set. In the Alotau marketplace, particularly engorged for the Alotau Canoe Festival, half of the vendors seemed to be slinging betel nut (buai) supplies. The conspicuous white powder economically bagged above is lime, known in science circles as calcium hydroxide—and in Papua New Guinea as one of the three components required to achieve a betel nut (legal) high.
To chew betel nut, you:
- Buy a betel nut, mustard sticks and a bag of lime, from the guy above if you like
- Remove the skin from the betel nut and pop the fruit in your mouth
- Chew the fruit, described by someone near me as having the texture of a fibery eyeball, until it is fully broken down (do not swallow it!)
- Wet your mustard stick, dip it in the lime and bite off a piece, and then chew it all together (in the right proportion, the three ingredients turn blood red)
- Do not swallow, seriously
- Spit as your mouth fills up (saliva)
- Repeat from step 4
In cities and social intersections across PNG, the distinctive blood-red splatter of betel nut waste is usually not far. Betel nut is a stimulant, equivalent to several cups of coffee says the BBC, and it supplies energy to laborers and labor-less country-wide. As a stimulant, it curbs appetite, an effect often welcomed by a sometimes hungry populace. For me, it was messy and dizzying, and really not too cool. Will, who traveled with me, said he could see writing efficiently under its influence.
Apparently, up to 10% of the world (concentrated in Asia) has partaken in betel nut. I was new to it, and so in Papua New Guinea it was another new institution in an infinitely foreign land. Its reach, and its ill effects over the long term, were most striking. We saw it in deep-red mouths speaking to us north in Mount Hagen, and east in Alotau and across Milne Bay. Maroon-stained ground was everywhere, and the forsaken teeth of regular users are still haunting. One guy on Samurai Island gave us directions; opening his mouth to help, he revealed a mouth of red and what may as well have been a baby shark’s teeth. It is fun from afar, and sadder up close. From both perspectives, it is a real part of Papuan life.
On the initial Air Niugini flight over from Brisbane, the pre-departure announcements included: “Chewing betel nut is not permitted on this flight.” Just the beginning.
4. Stormy sky above Milne Bay
Out on the eastern tip of Papua New Guinea, held by the land like a claw, is Milne Bay: 200 square miles of tropical Solomon Sea named for Sir Alexander Milne, a former British Admiral of the Fleet (highest rank in the Royal Navy). Milne Bay is seen in the photo above.
Milne Bay is an international diving mecca, but it is also another PNG stop characterized by epic, extraordinary and unusual experiences. On the occasion that I first tried betel nut, Ally, Will, Jenny, and I were steps from the bay on a meandering Nuli Sapi (see above) daytrip. Our free-flowing itinerary had called for snorkeling with manta rays offshore, but then without warning the sky threw its full weight upon us, and we pivoted to taking exotic stimulants with strangers. Out came the betel nut, mustard sticks and lime. Beneath a thatched covering, a few local guys, chewing betel nut themselves, watched over us as Credence Clearwater Revival banged on through an old CD player, through the rain. Then the rain dried up, and the dizzying warm of the betel nut faded. We found manta rays, and to close the afternoon, we outran a man paddling a motorboat and an apocalyptic sky back to Nuli Sapi.
Also in Milne Bay: some truly fascinating snapshots of life (on Samurai Island, for example, former provincial headquarters now in charming disrepair), relics of an unexpected WWII theater (shipwrecks from Battle of Milne Bay), snorkeling and cold Niugini Ices at Tawali Resort, and the tremendous sky photographed above in many more epic iterations.
5. Onboard at the Alotau Canoe Festival
At the Alotau Canoe Festival, it was ten kina—for two—to ride in the back of a canoe with the pros. The included paddles were closer to props than to instruments of inertia, and so between arrhythmic strokes, there was time to soak up the moment (and take this photo) without disrupting the paddlers up front.
We were at a celebration of Papua New Guinea then (canoe artistry on display) and now (telecom tent), and both versions were at this point in the trip still unfamiliar. Even things like lunch—an hour after the canoe ride—swung way out of the ordinary, in theme; on the lumpy grass behind a row of hat and clothing stalls, we reclined eating meat and greens grilled in a huge Hershey’s Kiss of tinfoil. Lunch ended when the eating was over, but also when the cow-part auction wound down and we went for a closer look.
Festivals like Alotau’s are a big part of Papua New Guinea’s growing travel appeal, and it’s easy to see why. Festivals package concentrated Papua New Guinea wonder with the country’s best efforts in tourism preparedness. Canoers and canoe-makers come from far and wide to take part each year in Alotau, just as leaders in other Papuan cultural outlets rally around their masteries at the Rabaul Mask Festival, the Sepik Crocodile Festival, the famous Goroka Show, and on. All offer something different to today’s travelers, and all can be linked to deeper, more probing itineraries by Trans Niugini Tours. PNG, in 2016, is edging closer.