Island Life – Part 3. Write at least half a dozen more paragraphs of this latest blog entry ‘Why do they wear those boots?’ before venturing to the kitchen I tell myself…
My stomach grumbles, unsatisfied by the cup of homemade Greek yogurt with fresh pineapple and a glass of water for breakfast an hour ago. The living room is cool with a breeze passing through the open front door. The sun is low, yet steadily stretches its rays across the wooden floor towards me. The digital thermometer flashes 28.5c. Rain threatening clouds fill the sky, as I peer out through the louvred windows from the sofa, distracting me from writing the blog post. My signal-less mobile and a bottle of cold water sit on either side of me and a scattering of USB flash drives sprawled on the coffee table. Ashlee is hammering old coconuts in the garden to make mulch, whilst simultaneously chatting to the neighbour. I check my phone to see if the signal that has been down for 48 hours has returned. It hasn’t. My stomach churns again and the thought of freshly baked wholemeal bread with avocado flashes into my mind. I push the thought of food aside and come to a compromise. Get the opening paragraph to the blog written and then eat – forget the half dozen paragraphs.
Ashlee calls from outside ‘Can you come and check if I have any spiders or ants on me? I smashed a coconut and they flew into my face. Quick, one just bit me on the eyelid’. I hop up from the sofa. This seems like a good time to take a mini break and then I will write the blog opening paragraphs.
I feel settled. I mean, of course there are things I miss. Having close friends around. Talking to family often. Daily exercise. Football. Flat white coffees. However, there are things that fill the void. Snorkeling. Full time travel writing. Reading. Making bread. Eating tropical fruit. I feel as if everyday events no longer seem like such major achievements, as I adjust to the shift in environment and cultural changes.
A walk to the market. A stroll to the shop. A bike-ride to the supermarket. They feel normal – almost as normal as they would in my hometown of Wellington, New Zealand. Don’t get me wrong, the 10-minute ride to the supermarket still offers its own set of unique events – I greet people ‘good moning’ non-stop. I wave at least 20 times. People wave to me. People smile and laugh with me or at me, I’m not too sure. But these things now seem like the norm.
Walking into the air-conditioned supermarket, I receive a nod from the two security guards at the door. A quick glance at my mobile shows no sign of life, so the card machines won’t be working again. I fumble around in my pocket and discreetly as possible count my cash.
Passing the ever growing collection of footballs and the newly acquired stack of cocoa sacks, I collect a basket and begin the supermarket quest. The usual oats, cake mixes, cereals and crates of Coca Cola, Fanta and a Coca Cola and Pepsi replicas near the entrance, I head into the well-stocked aisle of herbs, spices, sauces, mustards and dried pasta and stock up on staples. A fleeting look through the biscuit and cracker aisle reveals by far the most well-stocked aisle in the supermarket. I resist the temptation of a pre-melted chocolate biscuit and continue on, eyes peeled for new stock. The most exciting part of my regular supermarket experience approaches, the fridges and freezers. I save this till last. Has there been a delivery I think to myself? Colourful ice popsicles fill the chest freezer closest to me as per usual. I skip the second chest freezer, knowing it will be full of loose bright red sausages, catching a glimpse as I pass. I skip the third, which is crammed to the brim with chicken parts. I make my way to the Coca Cola emblazed fridges at the back to investigate the dairy produce and cold drinks options. Round tubs of margarine, fingers of butter and cartons of mini chocolate milk are on display – all the usual suspects. A small stack of expensive, lonely looking cheese slices, tasty, cheddar or lite sit in the corner.
What’s that I think. A new delivery? Chilled cans of soda water, tonic water and ginger ale fill one of the shelves, organised in neat lines and dripping in condensation. I stock up on half a dozen cans of soda water and make my way to the till to try the card, just in case it miraculously works, it doesn’t. I hand over a 100 kina note and leave the shop with a thank you to the security guards and a customary nod with a backpack full of tomato paste, tea bags, cinnamon, hand soap and cans of soda water.
My stomach is still rumbling. I move the now very warm laptop from my overheating legs and head into the kitchen to fill the kettle. Whilst it boils slowly on the stove, I flick some rat droppings from the counter top onto the floor. We’ve had a resident rat for the last couple of weeks. He paid an uninvited and unwanted visit to me in bed last night. I could hear the scuttle of small feet on the wooden floors, awaking me from my stupor, as ‘Rattie’ as he is now being referred, dives under the bed and makes a racket, whilst apparently playing with an empty box of contact lenses. I take immediate action and leap towards the middle of the bed, sitting upright on my knees and hope for dear life that my mosquito net somehow keeps Rattie from reaching me. Meanwhile, Ashlee reaches across to the light switch, whilst I repeatable ask ‘can you see him, can you see him?’. The fluorescent tube flickers on, Rattie speeds out through the bedroom door, towards the kitchen to, as I have just discovered, shit on my kitchen counter before departing outside.
Where was I? I prepare a snack of wholemeal bread with a rationed chuck of vintage crumbly cheese. The avocado sounded too labour extensive. Another glance at the thermometer reveals it is now 30.3c. The rays of sun have since disappeared from the wooden floorboards and the clouds are no longer defined, just a blanket of grey. I get distracted from writing the blog once again with a ‘well-earned’ episode of Breaking Bad, whilst eating and sipping my tea with powdered milk. I hear more voices outside as the neighbour hangs bed sheets on the line. Ashlee is digging holes in the front lawn to plant lemons, passionfruit and orchids. Pausing Breaking Bad, I investigate the hive of activity from the vantage point of my balcony above the garden. I check on the garden progress, make small talk with the neighbours and then assigned the task of transporting jugs of water from the house to the garden to assist with the digging of holes in the rocky ground.
Pulling myself back to the laptop to continue with the blog, I quickly check my phone for a signal, but now the phone has died. I think to myself ‘no point in charging it as it’s not likely to come back up anytime soon’, word on the street is that nearby phone towers have been vandalised. I plug it in to charge anyway, whilst simultaneously thinking about the highlights over the past 4 weeks. Two trips quickly spring to mind. Pokpok Island and Trekking in Rotokas.
New Year is spent on Pokpok Island. An island, just 15 minutes’ drive from Arawa, followed by a 10-minute boat ride. It is a New Year’s Eve, like so many others, which I don’t actually make it till midnight. However, unlike many New Years in the past, it’s because of exhaustion and not an alcohol fuelled session. A day of snorkelling, boat trips and swimming and I am ready for bed by 10pm. No fireworks, no cheering, no dancing, no power and no phone signal. Just a cold can of SP lager, sitting at the edge of the Solomon Sea, watching the mass of stars. The sounds of music and cheering, and dancing, and drinking can be heard from a beach party off not so far away.
Pokpok Island is a place to get away from distractions. No phone signal and limited power really help with this. A place you can relax and do nothing or as I experienced, a place to do everything – snorkeling on nearby coral reefs, on outer reefs, swimming to tiny sand islands, boat trips to surrounding islands, trekking through the forest, spotting hornbill birds and eagles, floating above giant clams 3 feet wide and fishing.
Upon returning to the mainland I contact one of PNG’s airlines, Air Niugini and suggest a potential article about my experience. After a few emails back and forth with the editor, I am typing a commissioned 600-word article for their regular ‘Out There’ column about Pokpok Island, which would be included in the latest edition of the in-flight Paradise Magazine. This article challenges me, albeit somewhat enjoyable challenges. I have a deadline, 7 days from now. It’s surprising how quickly 7 days can pass.
The phone signal and internet is up and down, sometimes for days on end, as it is right now. This makes communicating with the owner of the Pokpok accommodation challenging. If he was on the island of Pokpok he would have no signal and therefore wouldn’t pick up messages until he came across to the mainland, therefore responses on accommodation details, cost, email addresses to book a stay etc. can all take time. With the deadline looming, a draft article including low resolution photographs is sent, followed up with high resolution photographs upon acceptance of the article and a request for the final. I follow up with a Facebook message to the accommodation owner and tell him that the article has potential to be published in Paradise Magazine. He responds with a heart-felt message about how travel has enriched him in a way he can’t explain and would be honoured to read the article if it were to be published.
Several weeks later and I am in the back of a dusty, blue Land Cruiser with a cracked windscreen, heading out of Arawa, 1.5 hours north to the area of Rotokas. I am staying in the mountains for 3 nights, trekking and exploring during the day and eating, reading and resting at night, all whilst trying to avoid mosquitoes. I spend a lot of time trying to avoid mosquitoes in general. The walking in Rotokas is unique in that you spend a lot of time, walking in the river and streams, navigating waterfalls, whilst making steady progress towards the Ukoto Caves.
We picked up quite the entourage, as men and women join us from nearby villages for a day of trekking. ‘Why do they wear those boots?’ one of newcomers asked as she walks bare feet with far more grace than any of us ‘trekkers’. ‘It’s their way’ replies the guide, which is greeted with laughter that echoes down the line of newcomers.
I am the first to admit I am not a huge fan of caves. However, on this occasion I battle with my conflicting brain and heart and edge deeper into the damp and slippery Ukoto cave, with bat excrement coating my boots and lapping up around my shins. My head torch does little but allow me to catch glimpses of crabs, spiders and bats, scuttle, creep or flap away. I guide my way with my palms flat against the cold, damp walls. Two near miss collisions later between fleeing bats and my face, I arrive at a narrow, tall cavern, disappearing into the darkness high above. Bats hang from the cracks in the walls and crabs continue to scuttle around at my feet. A small hole in the cave wall is the proposed route, no larger than 2 feet tall by 1 foot wide. My brain goes into overdrive and forces me back, convincing me that I don’t need or even want to descend further into the abyss.
My head torch guides me back. I hear the familiar trickle of the waterfall at the cave entrance, my eyes quickly adjust to the sunlight and I take the intrepid route back down to ground level, 30 feet below. ‘Do not let go with your hands’ is bellowed from above, as I cling to tree roots, rocks or whatever else I can grasp on my descent. The remainder of the trek was more serene than intrepid. The rather impressive Rauveraka Waterfalls provide a welcoming and refreshing swimming spot. Our entourage reduced in numbers as people returned to their villages with handfuls of banana leaf wrapped crabs for dinner. However, the serenity wasn’t to last for long…
After a break for a couple of days from the blog post – bought on by the internet and phone signal still being down, that’s 5 consecutive days now, I’m eager to crack on. Apparently the outage is due to a fuel shortage to power the generators, which in turn run the phone mask. However, I’ve heard a number of conflicting reasons and will probably never discover the real reason, it’s just the way. The clock has just ticked 8:46 am. It’s a cool start to the day, gently raining – perfect for refilling the water tank. It has been getting low over the past week with a lack of rain, even though it keeps threatening but never delivering. I sip on my hot tea and taste the full cream aftertaste of the UHT milk, that arrived on the island in the past couple of days. A lone doxycycline pill sits on the dining table. The dirty dishes near the sink tease me. I’ll need to commit an hour to them at some point today. The phone buzzes and makes a familiar sound. The signal is back. Messages from an Instagram comment pod advise me that fellow IG’ers have posted photographs and are awaiting a like and comment. Facebook tells me that Mike has posted a new photograph, I have memories from 5 years ago and I have 6 new followers. Right, I must finish the final paragraph of the blog I think, taking another sip of tea. I’m still not convinced about the full cream taste.
To pick up where I left off… The serenity wasn’t too last long in Rotokas as I drop to one knee. The ground shakes violently. I drop the rucksack to the ground and lean against it to keep my balance. The ground continues to shake and sway with a deep rumble for over a minute. I think to myself that this isn’t a bad place to experience a large earthquake. Yes, I am remote and somewhat disconnected but there are no high rise buildings around and I don’t need to be concerned about tsunami up here in the mountains. I look around at everyone else, whom of which are also focused on keeping their balance. One minute seems like an eternity. It stops. I stand cautiously, expecting another wave of shocks, which never arrive. The phone signal immediately dies as I glance up and spot the phone tower on a nearby peak. It looks intact but I would later learn it sustained damage during the rumbling. Shortly after, I am standing at the base of a 200-foot waterfall with earth coloured torrents, caused by landslides and slips, crashing into the pools at my feet. Fresh landslides reveal boulders of huge proportions, uprooted trees and loose dirt on the otherwise green covered slopes encompassing me.
That evening, alternating between playing last card and the dice game Yahtzee, there’s a knock on the door and a soft voice asked ‘would you like to see Mount Bagana erupting?’.
Instinctively, I leap up, search for my camera, spray on some mosquito repellent and head out into the night. 20 kilometres off into the distance, blasting bright red molten lava into the night sky, Mount Bagana is erupting. The sound can only be imaged from distance and in the blackness of the night I find it difficult to fully comprehend the scale of this humbling experience and natural wonder. I watch and stare.
I take a final sip of tea. Maybe I’ll get used to the full cream taste I think to myself. My phone makes another sound, confirming that the phone signal and internet is still available and that this blog post could be live shortly. After listening to some Tracy Chapman doing some push-ups I can fill the blog entry is close. My eye catches the dirty dishes once again. Ok, I just need to pick the photographs and hit publish on this latest instalment of the blog and then do the dishes I tell myself…