Article | When friends returned to New Zealand after a period of volunteering in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, I knew almost nothing about the island. I sipped at my tea and listened as Bougainville was vividly bought to life through their stories.
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Then, instead of thinking ‘let’s get home and book flights’, I went home and happily packed my bags ready for work in the morning. I was working on a large-scale government initiative as a planning contractor, a role I’d performed with various organisations throughout the UK, Australia and New Zealand for a while. The thought of Papua New Guinea quickly evaporated as critical paths, hard dependencies and other buzz words filled the void.
Yet, here I am now, five years later, sitting at the kitchen table in Arawa, the pre-crisis capital of Bougainville, writing this article. It’s 32 degrees C and humidity is reaching 90%. The ceiling fans spin on full and a weed whacker whines in the background. My partner and I have been here 10 months so far and we’ve just extended our stay to be here for another 8 months.
We love to travel and had talked about living and working overseas in the future. I had visions of picking grapes in Tuscany, returning at the end of the day to a rustic country cottage, or helping baby turtles into the ocean on a Hawaiian island. It’s fair to say I hadn’t put too much thought into it…Papua New Guinea certainly hadn’t entered my head.
However, I know as well as anyone, even the best devised plans will often change, and my vague thoughts of grapes and turtles took a back seat as the reality of Papua New Guinea took hold. My partner had been talking about wanting to do a VSA (Volunteer Service Abroad) assignment for a while, and for her the sort of vague “I want to do it sometime” had become, “I want to do it now”, so she’d started watching their website for roles she was qualified for. In June 2016, a role was advertised working with cocoa farmers providing project management and reporting support. She’s a big fan of chocolate. It sounded too good to be true.
To be perfectly honest, I still wasn’t completely sold on the idea. No matter how much I tried it was impossible to imagine what my life would be like in Papua New Guinea. Even though I was used to changing my job fairly frequently as a contractor, this was different. I was quite satisfied with my Wellington existence of flat whites, friends, football, oceans, easily accessible walks, superb cafes and flat whites (did I already mention those…?). However, despite this, I’m not one to say no to an adventure and this had the potential to be an epic year. But was I ready to make the move?
Well, no – not immediately. It wasn’t a no, it wasn’t a yes. I knew I needed time for the idea to sink in. I bought myself a flat-white and took a stroll to my local bookshop. I searched the shelf of Lonely Planet books, pulling the PNG one free. My first thought was it was very skinny compared to the others. Opening the book I scanned through until I arrived at the section on Bougainville – there were only four pages. I read about the 10-year civil war, ending in 1998 and the lasting impacts of this brutal event. I looked at a map of the island and noted three main hubs: a place called Buin in the south, Arawa in the centre, where the role would be based, and Buka Island in the north. I scanned for any tourist highlights and read about climbing Mt Balbi and walking the Numa Numa track.
Later that day, I typed Bougainville into Google. Several Wikipedia sites appeared, followed by an article on the independence referendum, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville and the Lonely Planet website. I clicked to page 2 where I could book Hotel Bougainville in Positano, Italy… Looking down the page I discovered very little to help. Eventually, after further digging and more specific searches I uncovered a few detailed accounts of life in Bougainville, including posts from previous volunteers, travellers and people who had lived in Bougainville before the crisis.
I still had many questions unanswered. But the thought of flipping my work/life balance on its head was sounding very tempting. If my partner got the volunteer role with VSA, then I could go with her as what is known as an ‘accompanying partner’. Basically, that means I could tag along without an official assignment and would get a living allowance to cover my expenses whilst there. I had previously reduced my working week in Wellington to four days, as I started to focus more time and effort on hiking, travel writing and developing a new website called Travel Inspired – a place to share my love for the outdoors in and around New Zealand and when possible further afield. Although, I hadn’t planned to work full-time on this project quite yet, maybe this was an opportunity to do that? Or maybe I should be seeking an assignment to apply for myself? I was still unsure, but definitely more positive about the idea as I tried to play out the various scenarios in my mind.
A matter of days later, we were submitting our CV’s – my partner’s for the role and mine as an accompanying partner. We’d taken the first step and I felt that tingle of nervous excitement, which comes with doing something of this nature. I remember getting a similar feeling when applying for a New Zealand work visa from the UK many years ago.
We didn’t have to wait long to hear back and the pace of events ramped up a notch – going through the interview process, attending various briefings, meeting returned volunteers, acquiring visas. Before too long we were putting up a rental advert on TradeMe for our house, and then within no time at all I was saying goodbye to my favourite Wellington coffee shops – for a while at least…
We both finished up our existing contracts, donated a pile of belongings to charity, moved the rest into a storage unit, found a temporary owner for a sea kayak and worked our way through a checklist of seemingly never-ending tasks to be completed prior to departure. It was a period of pure, chaotic, adrenaline fuelled manic-ness that didn’t ease until we were aboard our Air Niugini flight en-route to Port Moresby. I pulled out the Lonely Planet guide and read about the Capital of Papua New Guinea, which did nothing to ease my anxiety.
On the way to Bougainville, we had a couple of nights in Port Moresby, so my partner could meet some of her new colleagues there. Having no assignment, I spent the next 48 hours in a jet-lagged, tired haze, reading about Moresby, aka POM. ‘Do not leave the airport’ was the statement that stayed with me from various publications, which didn’t bode well as an introduction to a new place. Upon arrival in Moresby we were met at the terminal, ushered into a van and shortly after entered a fenced off, guarded compound. During my brief time in the city, I was only let loose once – in the supermarket. Otherwise, I was escorted everywhere in a vehicle. What had I gotten myself into?
Aboard a small propeller plane, the hairs on my arms stood on end and I couldn’t help but smile as the sound of the landing gear lowered and I got a glimpse of our home for the foreseeable future – the Autonomous Region of Bougainville – turquoise water, coral reefs, golden beaches and dense trees as far as the eye could see. My worries drastically subsided with the sheer beauty of the place.
Over the past 10 months, most of the questions I spent so long worrying about before we came have been answered… Yes, the internet is fast enough and reliable enough to develop my Travel Inspired website – don’t get me wrong, it’s not cheap and it’s certainly not fast but it does the job. Yes, I am able to handle the heat and humidity. Yes, there have been plenty of opportunities to get out and explore. Yes, it’s perfectly safe to wander around town and everyone is super friendly. Yes, I miss flat whites. And yes, I also miss football, friends, family and Wellington, not necessarily in that order…
However, despite the things I miss, my partner and I are extending our stay. It’s the small things such as someone knocking on my door and asking if I would like to join them on a hike (with my camera of course!), or someone in a nearby village sending me a Facebook message simply saying ‘thank you for promoting Bougainville’, which have convinced me I want to stay on this island a little longer.
Adam Constanza – Freelance Travel Writer | A Wellingtonian Goes Off The Beaten Track
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