Article | What it’s REALLY like living on a remote, tropical island like Bougainville and coming home. When you think about a remote tropical island, it’s safe to say you probably think of white sandy beaches, turquoise water, coconut palms, possibly with a hammock swinging gently in the breeze or something along those lines at least… and all of those things are true of Bougainville, however there’s something more, something about the place, the people, the way of life, that grabs hold of you and pulls you in.
I know I am not alone in feeling this way about Bougainville…
The abundance of conversations and messages I’ve had with people reassures me so. People who have lived, worked, volunteered or simply visited Bougainville, whether it’s before the Crisis or more recently, talk passionately about the place and the time they had there.
Over the past 2 years, I’ve received emails and messages – and continue to do so today – from people who have kindly shared their fond memories, stories and photographs, and often a thank you for reconnecting them with the island.
I now understand why they feel the connection they do as I have the same urge to keep connected to Bougainville and its people as do many of the folks I’ve been talking with.
But firstly, why was I there? I live in Wellington, New Zealand, over 4,300 kilometres from Bougainville, the island I lived on for almost 2 years with my partner through New Zealand’s Volunteer Services Abroad. VSA is an NGO that has volunteers throughout the Pacific and beyond in a variety of capacity building and development roles.
I was accompanying my partner who held an official volunteering assignment with VSA. However, I was formally known as an ‘accompanying partner’, which meant I did not have an official assignment and could therefore use my time as I wished.
And how did I wish to spend my time? Well, I followed my passion of adventure and ended up supporting the development and promotion of Bougainville as a tourism destination, but more on that shortly.
Now after almost 2 years in Bougainville and I’m sat in an Air B&B overlooking Evans Bay in Wellington, wearing long pants, a fleece, warm socks, with the heater on – all things which were foreign to me just a short time ago.
I’ve only recently returned to Wellington, New Zealand, about 6 weeks ago, and the memories of Bougainville are still very much alive at this point. I’ve been doing my fair share of reflection, indulgence and preparation recently.
It won’t come as a surprise that I – like so many others who return from a period of time away – have been reflecting a lot, too much maybe, but who’s to say….
It’s fair to say I’ve been thinking about the place, the people, the experiences, and the opportunities over the past few years, as would anyone in a similar situation.
During this period of reflection, I’ve been talking to a number of people about Bougainville, people who have reached out with plans to go shortly and providing them with information, as well as saying ‘yes, you’ve got to do it, go there!’.
I reflect with nothing but fond memories of the people I was fortunate to forge friendships with, the beauty of the place, the vibrant culture, as well as everyday life in a place like Bougainville, which few visit and even fewer visit long-term and for that I feel blessed.
I’ve also been indulging but it’s not as you may think – it’s not in terms of food – rather it’s indulging in the freedom, accessibility and abundance of opportunities in and around Wellington to get out and about.
It turns out that simply heading out to a trail like Red Rocks on the south coast of Wellington or Otari Wilton’s Bush to just walk for as long as I like, whenever I feel like it, is one of the things I missed most.
It was definitely one of the things I most looked forward to upon my return to New Zealand, even more so than food or drink items, although a flat white coffee definitely comes close…
Now don’t get me wrong, that’s not to say that epic walks weren’t available in Bougainville, they most certainly were and I highly recommend that any avid hikers check out places like Mount Balbi, Lake Billy Mitchell and the area of Rotokas, which are unbelievably wild, untouched and unlike anywhere I’ve experienced before.
It was the spontaneity and frequency of it that I missed. Walks took time to plan in Bougainville, arranging all the necessary factors for a hike like guides, permissions, transportation, costs, water availability etc. and although they certainly never failed to deliver, the feeling of waking up and deciding at the last minute was missing.
And while on the subject of planning and preparation, during my time in Bougainville, I applied for and successfully got a role in Timor Leste, working within the tourism industry through VSA.
This is very exciting and has also ensured that my brief visit back to my hometown of Wellington, New Zealand has been somewhat frantic and full of briefings, medicals and other necessary tasks that come with signing a 2-year contract overseas.
Throw into the mix, moving from one Air B&B to the next every week or so, while trying to downsize on the number of possessions we own, and pack for Timor, (I know, I know, they aren’t bad issues to have right!), while trying to sort through a stack of post that was kindly collected for us during our time away. Who knew we got so much post?! To be honest, it took less than 30 minutes to sort through it, as most of it went straight into the recycling bin, followed with an email to unsubscribe from the companies mailing list. The only exception? The unexpected and unbeknown to us outstanding bill demands and debt collection letters. They apparently don’t like to use email but would rather send endless letters…
But enough of what I’ve been up to since being back – and don’t worry, the bills and debt collectors have all been satisfied for now – so, let’s talk about what it’s really like to live on a remote tropical island like Bougainville.
Obviously my experience of living in Bougainville won’t be exactly the same for you, but you already know that, however it’s highly likely they’ll be some very similar elements. Some of these also happen to be the things I’m asked most often from people considering a trip to Bougainville, especially those thinking of volunteering for a longer duration.
Is it safe? It’s often the first question I’m asked. I always answer yes.
Based on my experience over the past 2 years, I felt safe, my partner felt safe, and nothing bad happened to us. I could walk down the street, to the market, to supermarket or to the restaurant, with nothing but people greeting me with beaming smiles and a gud pla moning, gud avivon or gud-nite.
The only minor issue I had was some items being stolen during a hike but that could have happened anywhere I guess. I remember clothes going missing off the washing line when I was backpacking around Australia back in 2004, so stuff happens and it’s not unique to Bougainville that’s for sure. So, a few items going missing on a hike weren’t the end of the world and I actually got 90% of the items back too, now that would never happen in some places!
In terms of accommodation, we lived in the town of Arawa, the pre-Crisis Capital of Bougainville, which is the second largest town in Bougainville after Buka. As many will already know, it’s located on the east coast of Bougainville, situated between Buka in the north and Buin in the south.
Our house was a 70’s designed and built Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) mining townhouse. It was a functional, yet beautiful 3-bedroom house, with wooden floors, mosquito netting on the windows, and all the mod-cons… an oven, fridge/freezer and fans. In typical Bougainville fashion, it was raised up above the ground on legs with a balcony which looked over a dozen similar style houses, a giant mango tree, smaller pawpaw trees and the ever green garden – thanks to my keen gardener partner – and the tree carpeted hills.
And how would i get around? Generally, I would cycle as my main mode of transport, to the supermarket, the fruit and vegetable markets, to the shops and to fellow volunteer houses. It felt great to cycle as the breeze was much more prevalent and would cool me down nicely in the otherwise baking heat and humidity, plus I just love to cycle.
There are a few other cyclists in Arawa, mostly younger people, although the majority of people tend to walk or take public motor vehicles (PMV) for longer distance. You’ll get plenty of attention while cycling around town as people greet, wave and occasionally laugh at you going about your day.
On the weekends, a few of us would often cycle 30 minutes to Loloho Beach to chat, swim and snorkel.
Or we would catch a ride with one of our neighbours in their vehicle if we were feeling lazy.
If we were particularly energetic we would set the alarm for 04:30AM and cycle out in the opposite direction towards Premier Hill in time for sunrise overlooking Pokpok Island. It was a magical sight. We managed it maybe a half dozen times throughout the 2 years and it was always a special moment to experience.
To mix things up I would also walk the short distance into town, taking 10-15 minutes, if I planned on buying a lot of produce that I couldn’t manage on the bike or was going in with a friend without a bike.
It was a much more social method of transport, as a lot more people would stop and chat, but it was also much slower and much, much hotter. A word of advice – always carry an umbrella just like everyone else does – no matter rain or shine.
I would also regularly grab a ride with neighbours heading into town in their vehicle to stock-up on larger, heavier items like cases of soda water – which were so incredibly refreshing once chilled in the fridge – or packs of Bikpela toilet roll, a particularly large watermelon from the market or if they happened to be venturing to the supermarket and bakery slightly out of town.
So, that’s how I got around but what did I do in between the shopping trips?
Well, as you already know my unofficial ‘role’ became a ‘tourism promotor’, which, as my self-titled job implies, consisted of promoting everything positive about Bougainville including cultural events, natural wonders, talented individuals, idyllic landscapes, as well as everyday life in Bougainville.
After a while, people started to recognise me and get to know me, and I began to feel more confident about capturing activities like wandering around the second hand clothes shops or buying produce at the fruit and vegetable markets on camera, edit videos and share them to promote the life, colour and culture of Bougainville.
The more time I spent in Bougainville, the more friendships developed and the more opportunities that arose, like visiting a friend’s village, exploring a lagoon with WW2 relics or heading up to the infamous copper mine of Panguna with a local.
I captured and shared these experiences through written articles, photographs and videos, and continued to promote the highlights of Bougainville, both within Bougainville to Bouganvillians’, as well as mainland Papua New Guinea and further afield via social media and my Travel Inspired website.
I supported cultural events like sing sings, bamboo bands and other festivals by capturing photographs and videos and promoting the events, as well as Bougainville.
As mentioned slightly earlier, I also continued to provide information to those reaching out with questions about heading to Bougainville including logistics, accommodation, tours, activities and a multitude of other things – like requests for photographs of certain places, houses, gardens and other places special to them.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there was still plenty of down time, especially in the early days, despite my workload steadily increasing as I made new contacts.
During the first year, I tried to challenge myself to go out every single day – no matter where or for how long – just to ensure I got out there, got some fresh air, and was open to opportunities and chance encounters, which happened on many occasions. It also helped get my bearings in and around town, and put my face on the map, so to speak.
During my downtimes, I would go to a neighbour’s house, drink coffee and chat, or catch-up on tv series (and admittedly re-watch my favourites) like I’m Alan Partridge.
There were also the enforced downtimes too, when the town power went down, either due to a malfunction of the generators or more typically, the town diesel supply running out. This tended to happen once a month or so, but was fairly unpredictable in how long it would last, spanning anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 days in length.
Our house was fortunate to be hooked up to a standalone generator, shared between 4 houses in our compound, which meant we could fire it up and have power throughout the day, until shut-down time around 10PM, when we’d settle in for a sticky, humid night.
My home was my workplace, so I didn’t have to go far to start my day with a coffee and breakfast – which depended on what was available at the supermarket but typically would be weetbix, museli or toast – with my partner, before she disappeared to the office on her bicycle. I would crack on with a couple of hours of work on whichever ‘tourism’ related project I happened to be working on at the time – a video highlighting of a recent island trip, a written article for a magazine or online publication about a hike in Rotokas, reviewing, editing and sharing photographs – or catch up and chat with a local friend working in the tourism sector. At some point in the morning, I would usually take a short bike ride to the supermarket or a 10-minute walk to the fruit and vegetable market in the centre of town to stock-up before it got too busy and hectic.
At lunchtime, my partner would come home from work and make her banana smoothie and I would give her a rundown of what new produce had arrived at the supermarket. To be perfectly honest, this was usually very little, if anything at all, but on half a dozen occasions in the 2 years’ cheese was delivered to Arawa, which was very exciting. It was a magical moment – I still vividly remembering seeing the fridge full of Mainland Tasty – and on each and every occasion resulted in text messages to being sent to all my friends in Bougainville as a heads up!
In the afternoon, as the heat and humidity continued to rise, I would continue with my projects. There was the occasional distraction, like a game of darts with friends, a visitor or two from fellow accompanying partners, local friends or the neighbourhood cat called Bruce, or the power going out. At some point in the afternoon, the dark clouds would often roll over the hills bringing with them a cooling breeze and rain, sometimes torrential, which never lasted too long but the relief felt amazing for the short period of cooler temperatures.
In the evening, our friends and us would all get together, put on some music and smash out a short, yet intensive and guaranteed sweaty exercise of burpees, push-ups and planks, while Bruce would prowl around us in search of a head scratch. As the exercise came to an end with the group doing wall sits, we would simultaneously try to distract ourselves from our burning thighs with conversations about our day, what food items we’ve found in town or organise a catch-up at someone’s house to watch an All Blacks game, a movie or to just hang out in different surroundings.
As the sun when down we would retreat to the cool-ness of the fans back at our house, where I’d sit directly under the fan for 15 minutes or so while drinking a cold soda water before being cool enough to take a shower. Depending on what the plans were for the night, I would either do a little more work on a video, edit some photographs or continue to write the latest article. Or do something not ‘work’ related like watch a movie or execute our previously agreed plans to go to a neighbours house. On special occasions and only a dozen times or so times throughout the 2 years, we would walk to one of the two nearby restaurants – Gold Dust or Butterfly Inn – in Arawa for dinner with friends. A steak and chips would cost approximately 60 Kina / $30 NZD.
The weekends were a little more fluid, but often involved a trip out to the aforementioned, Loloho Beach, to catch up with friends, swim, snorkel or simply float in the warm ocean, followed by a 2 Kina ice-cream on our way home. If there was a sporting event on TV, people would come together to watch the game, either at someone’s house or the local restaurant. Occasionally, there would be a workshop, event or festival to attend, where a bamboo band or sing sing would perform, providing a fascinating insight into Bougainville’s heritage and culture and always a pleasure to watch.
We also tried to fit in as many big adventures as possible – long weekends on Pokpok Island, hiking up Mt Balbi, staying in a village house in Rotokas, spending a weekend in Buka or Buin with fellow volunteers or expats.
During our 2-year period my partner and I took two trips out of Papua New Guinea, one to England to attend my brother’s wedding, during which we also visited Scotland and the Fringe Festival, and a trip to Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia, as direct flights had just been offered from PNG. On both occasions, I was excited to get back to Bougainville and after a re-settling in period to adjust to the slower pace of my life and routine, I kicked back into life in Bougainville. That adjustment period was always the most challenging time for me, typically lasting 2-3 weeks, before life felt ‘normal’ once again.
Since being back in Wellington, New Zealand I’ve had a number of conversations, both face to face and over email, with people who are considering a trip to Bougainville. I think it’s fair to say I find it challenging to not get excited on their behalf, knowing a little of what they can expect, and the adventures they might experience. I think it’s very obvious from the way I talk about my experience of Bougainville that it’s a place I have very fond memories. The meet ups I’ve had tend to go well over time, as i delph back into my Bougainville life and tell stories. But after all, there’s something about the place, the people, the way of life, that grabs hold of you and pulls you in.
Thank you for taking the time to read about my time living in Bougainville and feel free to send me an email if you’ve got any questions. And finally, a huge thank you to my partner, Ashlee Gross, for convincing me to take the plunge and give Bougainville a shot, as well as capturing the above photographs of me. Thank you.
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Hi, I’m Adam Constanza, freelance travel content creator living, working and supporting tourism in Timor Leste, South East Asia.
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