We were trapped!
Eleven photo-enthusiasts, photographer Karl Grobl, a couple of local guides and a bus driver – all trapped.
We had been warned: Papua New Guinea is not the safest place to travel. But, it was not tribal conflict, or spill-over from the recent election upheavals, or even tourist-targeting raskols (bandits) that had us stuck in a hot bus.
It was children!
It was if they had been wound up for weeks and fed sugar and red cordial all day before our arrival: from the moment we turned in towards the Motu village, they cheered and laughed and jumped all over our bus like mad things. It seemed unwise to try to work our way through an overly-enthusiastic crowd of sticky fingers and runny noses with our camera gear. We decided to try again the next morning, when – hopefully – everyone would be a bit calmer. Just getting the bus back out of the parking lot without running several youngsters over looked challenging.
I was glad we had more luck the next day, because these villages are fascinating and unique.
The Motu, long-ago descendants of Polynesian people, are traditionally sea-goers who are thought to have arrived in Papua New Guinea about 2000 years ago. They settled across the Port Moresby area and much of the eastern tip of the country, building their villages on stilts over the water to keep them safe from black magic and bad spirits (see: Koki Fish Market).
Hanuabada, which means “big village” in Motu, is the oldest and largest of the remaining stilt-villages. The original wood and thatch houses were destroyed by fire during WWII, and subsequently rebuilt (under the Australian administration of the day) from corrugated iron and fibrocement, on wooden pylons.
My Lonely Plant guide (2012) points out that you need an invitation to be allowed into the village; we were able to visit thanks to our two local guides who had relatives here. These women were fascinating to talk with. Although marriage within the village was preferred traditionally, obviously today’s social networks spread much more broadly: these women were educated, worldly, and had extended familial connections with Indigenous communities in Northern Australia and the Torres Strait Islands. They spoke good English, as well as Motu, and “Hiri Motu”, the local lingua franca.
The village itself was – shall we say -“rustic”: simple houses built over the waters of Moresby Harbour, connected to the land and each other by elevated and swaying wooden paths. And therein lay the challenge for me: while I was a mountain goat in my youth, these days I get vertigo easily. Even with the patient assistance of local villagers, my cameras and I could not make it too far out onto the rickety, uneven walkways of timber planks.
It was a bit embarrassing: the locals didn’t mind the loose steps or missing pieces as they casually walked around eight-to-ten feet above litter and refuse-filled waters. According to Wikipedia, more than half of the Papua New Guinea national cricket team comes from Hanuabada; I guess running around on these perilous raised passageways improves their sporting performance!
Traditionally, Motu grew some of their own produce in garden plots near their villages, the men fished, and the women gathered shellfish and crabs. They still do some fishing – although the villagers told me the fish was less plentiful – but they buy their produce from the local shops.
So, life changes.
There were few apparent resources in the village for the children, and the dusty car park seemed to be the only play area. Many of the children were chewing mouthfuls of betel nut. They had sores, runny noses, and dental decay.
One has to wonder what the future prospects are for those who don’t become members of the national cricket team. In the absence of toys, the children clearly have to rely on their own imaginations for entertainment.
Perhaps that is why they were so excited to see us.