I am constantly amazed at how different each country that we visit is, especially when we only sail to the islands next door.
So far Papua New Guinea has been a VERY pleasant surprise for us, particularly considering that it was never our intention to stop in Rabaul. After three weeks here I can’t even fathom why we would have sailed right on by. Oh, right, the “rascals”.
Rascals is the local term that quaintly describes violent and unsavoury characters such as thieves, vandals, drunks who like to fight and machete-wielding crazy men that show up in the middle of night. PNG has a bad reputation about rascals.
It seemed everyone we talked too over the last year had bad experience in PNG. Normally we take such stories with a BIG grain of salt, after all there are bad places everywhere and many such encounters are a wrong place/wrong time scenarios. But these horror stories didn’t seem particular to one small area.
Everyone warned to stay away from the “mainland” which is the large island of Papua that PNG shares with Indonesia. That was a no brainer- decades of political unrest have peppered that islands history with seriously violent outbreaks. Port Moresby is still considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world for tourist. But we spoke to people who had problems at other islands. Let me tell you it is one thing to read stories online about being boarded and threatened but when you met the guy who suffered a broken arm and 16 stitches while defending his wife from a local man who had a machete held over her head you tend to sit up and listen. Carefully.
After much consideration we decided that our safety was paramount to amazing experiences we might we miss out on. We would stop only at Kavieng, a small northern township that we heard nothing but good reviews about. The Fates, however, had other plans for us. After 12 long, slow days on passage, a couple equipment failures and a battle with a Kraken we pulled into Rabaul.
Our hopes for the place were not high. Friends who were here last year fondly referred Rabaul as a shithole. But as an official Port Of Entry we could clear into the country, stock up on provisions and sleep, regroup and set off for Kavieng, about 160 nautical miles away.
We figured we stay 4-5 days, a week maybe.
Almost a month later and we are still here.
We obviously do not share our friend’s opinion of the place. On the contrary we think Rabaul is a tidy little town with a good vibe, albeit a bit dusty. A volcanic explosion in 1994 spewed over 2 metres of ash over the area so a little dust is to be expected. There is definitely a lot less garbage lying around than there was in the Solomon’s; most people actually use the bins in public places instead of just dropping their trash wherever. Gardens and lawns are tended, not only on private property but alongside roads and in front of the market.
And the market is a pleasure to walk through. There is a long open air building with a cement floor, tables for vendors, and a roof for shade. Even outside in the dirt yard, where the market spills over on a weekend, there are tables set in neat rows so no one is squatting in dirt with their veggies as was the way in the Solomon’s.
People still chew betel nut in PNG as they did in the Sollies. Betel nut is a fibrous tree nut that is chewed with powdered lime for it’s slightly intoxicating affect which but causes the user to produce and spit great wads of blood red saliva everywhere. It is a gross habit but in PNG they at least try and keep the mess somewhat contained- both on the ground and in their mouths- so I don’t have to supress my gag reflex when in busy public spaces.
But the big difference we’ve found is the people. Everywhere we’ve gone while in Rabaul we’ve been met with smiles. We’ve noticed that although we are often the only white people around not many people stare at us, not even children. Everyone here says hello or good morning as they pass on the street, because that is the custom, not because we’re tourist. The kids on the wharf don’t use the dinghy as their personal floatie toy. In fact several times I have gone ashore myself I have had kids run to help me tie it up. Grandma’s at the market ask where you’re going and tell you which bus to take. Often when we take a bus back to the yacht club the driver turns off the ignition and waits in the parking lot, watching as we dinghy back to the boat.
The other day as I was in town by myself and as I was leaving a busy store there was a crowd of people gathered on the sidewalk all turned in one direction, watching. I figured perhaps there was an accident, I wasn’t too concerned. Then, before I could take another step or ask someone what was going on an older woman stopped me and told me to follow her, and the other ladies back into the store, “Come, come” she kept saying. I did.
After we retreated I asked her in pigin what was going on. “Rascals.” She replied, shaking her head. Someone was making trouble in the street. Within minutes security was on the scene guiding a tottering man into a car. “OK, its ok now.” She told me and I assured her I was walking in the opposite direction and thanked her for her kindness.
So, yes, we still have to keep our wits about us but he people of Rabaul seem to care; about their town, about each other, about us. It’s been a while since a place has made me feel like this, I didn’t realize how much I missed it.