Small gift, Big Lesson (PNG)

“Lady, lady, for you.”

I looked down to see the little boy tugging at my pants and holding a small, colourful, Bird of Paradise woven basket.   It was the same little boy I had just met at his mother’s stall.  He had such beautiful eyes.  I taught him ‘Inky Dinky Spider’.    We bonded.

We were in Papua New Guinea at the port of Lae.   The cultural tour was over and my head was a maelstrom of weird and wonderful bits of information.

  • Mourning rituals: When a husband dies the wife is locked away for a minimum of six months.  She lives in a semi-starvation state and is looked after by other women in the tribe;
  • Some women make beads for each day of mourning.  Count the beads and you will know how long she mourned.  250 beads means she mourned for 250 days.
  • The MUD people are one of over 700 tribes and language groups in Papua New Guinea. Pidgin English is the only shared language.  When a mud person die they must be buried near their home.  If one should die far away a collection is taken to bring the body home.
  • Mud people have various death rituals all of which end in the body being mummified in mud in some way except for the method where the body is left out to be picked clean by vultures and insects. The bones are then put in caves or kept near the home.  The head is revered and is kept inside the home. “Would you like to meet my father?” is not such a simple question as if you answer “yes” it may result in your actually meeting his skull.  We were told that one man kept the skull of his first wife in a zippered  carry-on bag, introduced her to all and sundry and spoke to her frequently.  Needless to say such luggage now holds a somewhat macabre fascination and I often wonder what marvellous mementos are ensconced therein.

Then there are the Bird people.  Birds with plumage that defies description, flaunting colours that cannot be duplicated abound, and are indigenous to Papua New Guinea  There is an almost supernatural connection between the people and the birds.  They infiltrate all areas of life – the religious, social, political and the magical.  Ceremonies always include people dressing up with feathers, aping the stance, movement and nature of the birds they try to replicate and emulate.  Then there are the Mesmerizers, but that is another story.

Now here we were in the market, much bigger than usual as a cruise ship was in port and this little man, maybe five years old is giving me a gift.  I laughed as he tugged and held the miniature basket/purse aloft smiling shyly.  “Thank you.  Thank you.”   I handed it to Bert and got out US$5.00 from my own purse.  Before I could hand it to my little friend the mother appeared as if from nowhere and said: “No. No.  Basket gift.  No money”.  Her words did not match the look in her eyes which was one of reproach.  She said: “No pay.  Gift.”  I got the message.

Dropping to my haunches (I could do that then) I enveloped the boy, hugged him and said “Thank you” again.  He giggled.  His Mother smiled.  I looked over at the grandmother still at the stall and she gave a slight nod and a gapped- toothed smile.   I felt a shiver of shame.   If I was at home and got a gift I would not go to my purse to offer money.   Here I was, someone who prided herself as a traveller not a tourist doing a gauche touristy thing.  Unintentional, well meaning but a blunder.

Our little friend said something to his mother, she nodded, and he held my hand and said: “Come.”  The six of us in our party all followed him as he led us to many stalls.  Everyone seemed to know him.  Del made a remark that he was a born leader; a Mesmerizer who would be able to get anyone to follow him.  When we got back to his mother’s stall Bert did the right thing.  He looked at all the offerings and bought a wooden ashtray, a woven tray with two place mats, a tiny bowl rimmed with shells.  He was able to do what I wanted to do.  He gave them much needed currency in the best way possible by purchasing the goods without barter.

Our little friend accompanied by his grandmother came to the shuttle bus to see us off and waved enthusiastically as we left.  “Bye,  lady.”   We waved back until they were out of sight.

The Meander:  All the things Bert bought went into the ship’s auction.   I kept my little basket/purse.  I will not use it but it reminds me of my little friend.  It reminds me that life lessons may be learned anywhere and when you least expect it.  I have not made such a mistake again.   Every gift needs only a simple “Thank you.”

Mutiny on the Bounty Lives on in Pitcairn Island

As the longboats slowly pulled away from our ship, the islanders were singing a hymn.  Those not pulling on oars were waving to the cruise passengers lined up along the open deck. It appeared that every passenger and crew were waving back.  I turned to savour the moment with Bert and saw there were tears in his eyes.

“Why are you sad?” I asked.

“What are they going back to?  Nothing.” he said. I wondered at that observation but kept quiet.

Pitcairn lived up to its billing. You are in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean midway between Chile and New Zealand.  You finally realize how the mutineers could ‘disappear’ as we are in fact in the middle of nowhere. It is also the place that proved beyond a doubt that “you can find a Jamaican in every corner of the world”. Yes, the social worker on Pitcairn was English of Jamaican descent.

There were 49 permanent residents plus an administrator, his wife and two children, a nurse and the social worker who are contracted workers.  That was the total population.  Pitcairn is a British Overseas Territory  administered from New Zealand.

By name and nature they are Christian as almost half the population, Caucasian or Polynesian in appearance carries that surname and when the expedition left England to search for the island there was a Seventh Day Adventist Missionary on board who baptized them all.  Pitcairn Islanders are all Seventh Day Adventists.

We learnt  this and more from a Christian, the great-great and more greats grandson of Fletcher Christian, he of the famous Mutiny on the Bounty.  It was a most informative talk. We learnt that they were not totally isolated as they could and did have the means to connect to the internet for two hours most days.  The 45 minute talk became a more than two hour session as the questions flew.

Questions: “What do you eat? Where do you get your food? Do you make anything on the island? Where do you get any money? Who looks after legal matters?”

Answers: “A supply ship comes from New Zealand.  It also brings mail and whatever we have ordered.  Cruise ships like yours stop and bring us things like toilet paper, potatoes flour, soap. We are grateful for all that. We fish, have a few goats, pigs and chickens.  On the island we have a barter system, trading everything and sharing everything. Our administrator looks after the official duties.”

“Our biggest export for money is our stamps. We have brought our post office on board so you can be proud owners of a Pitcairn Island stamp.  Better yet, write a card to yourself and we will frank it and mail it to you.  They are being traded on E-Bay! We also make crafts that are for sale in the market set up in the lounge.”

If the Administrator was the Governor then Steve (or was it Tom?), Christian was the Mayor. There was no question he could not answer and  is often invited to speak about life on Pitcairn internationally.  He shares his fees and gratuities with the islanders. I would guess he has to pay for excess baggage after each engagement.

The current major topic of conversation concerned the recent judgment passed down from the highest court in England. The islanders were accused of incest.  The islanders lost.  They were to be jailed.  A six-cell jail was built, duly inspected and opened ready for the incarceration of the convicted incest offenders.  The jail, perhaps the best built structure on the island was being put to good if unintended use as follows:

One cell was the general activity and exercise room

One room was used by the social worker for one on one consultation

One was a sewing and craft room

One for a meeting place

One was the medical facility

One was used for its intended purpose, though it was rarely occupied.

An excellent use of resources I thought.

As the longboats rowed to the small island and Bert wiped away a tear an announcement was made that Captain Erik had given the order for some earth and sand from the island be brought from Pitcairn and placed on the aft deck.  Passengers were invited to walk on Pitcairn soil. Since we were unable to walk on Pitcairn, Captain Erik did the next best for his passengers.  He brought a little sample of Pitcairn to us. We did walk on Pitcairn soil.  Thank you Captain Erik for an unforgettable experience.

The Meander: As I stepped in the soil, I looked out at the shrinking longboats riding the waves. The singing waned.  I think I understood Bert’s tears. Do these Islanders live a life of only minutiae?  What do they dream about, hope for?  What do they plan for?  Are there any big ideas or desires to be explored or is every day distilled into just the immediate, bare necessities for existence?  I want to think they are rowing home to more than nothing.  I still ponder that.

Oh yes, we did buy postcards and stamps, mailed a few to friends and to ourselves. Maybe if I can remember where they are I will sell them on E-Bay – Nah!

Los Cararoles: The journey in pictures

During our winter stays in Chile we would invite friends to come and stay with us.  I am perhaps the world’s worst photographer but thanks to my friend, June, I can display a few photographs of the journey.

This does look like the trails of a snail – Los Caracoles!

Construction happens. Seems to be on-going and necessary too. The sign reads: Welcome to the Republic of Chile.

The lovely Mendoza River meandering beside the highway.

Snow capped mountain in the Andes.  Breathtaking scenery all the way.



Yes we go through tunnels and tunnel-like structures that are specially built to allow rain water and melting snow  to escape.  Thank goodness for that!

June reminded me of the scream I let out at the bus driver as he was attempting to overtake another vehicle on a switchback. In fact, it was not an attempt.  He did, but I did not see it as my eyes were tightly closed. You tell me.  Is this a good place to overtake another vehicle?

I remember writing after our first Andean crossing that going over the Andes was a great adventure that you do only once in a lifetime. Well I lied, because this journey with June was the fourth. On one prior crossing with our friend Mary Lou, there was some excitement as we headed towards Los  Caracoles, those switchbacks.  All of a sudden there was great hullabaloo as people on the right gesticulated and shouted ‘Esta Abierto’! ‘It’s open’ and we found out that as the bus took a turn, the compartment with the suitcases had opened and a suitcase had fallen out. We turned around and there was a battered and broken suitcase with contents spilling over the road.  The driver was relieved that it was one of theirs and not belonging to a passenger!

The scariest part?  Turning around on a postage stamp sized lay-by overlooking a fearsome gorge with a swift flowing river at the bottom.

The Meander: I have not crossed the Andes in Winter.  That will not happen. Yet travel allows you to dare.  To attempt the improbable. To face your fears.


Turtles are Moms too

Turtles are moms too – Costa Rica

It is as if a large tractor trailer has passed over the beach.  But no.  That cannot be.  Your guide points and you turn toward the sea to see a very large oval sprouting appendages climb laboriously from the water over the beach and upward above the high tide line into the soft sand.  A prehistoric creature, silent, quiet, its head slowly pivots from side to side in time with the huge flippers and legs and the stumpy tail. It looks awkward as it crawls aiming upward to choose a place. It is a slow process.

The creature, a leatherback turtle weighing upwards of 1000 pounds finds a spot and begins to dig.  It is the epitome of patience.  You want to help. But you have been warned, be as quiet as possible, observe but do not touch, absolutely no photographs, give them space and marvel at a wonder of nature.

One hundred or more eggs are laid in the large hole. She makes no sound. Just a slight movement as each egg is expelled into the large nest she has built. Her eyes leak tears which run in rivulets down her cheeks to fall in the sand.  Then tail twitching and flippers working the eggs are completely covered with the fine sand. The women hold hands, the mothers relate in an instinctive manner, bonding in the ritual of giving birth.

Job done, she turns and lumbers back to the sea.  There is a joyous flip, almost a jump as she reaches the surf and rides a wave back to the ocean. She rises and falls, now graceful and balletic in movement as the ocean welcomes her again.

We see eight more turtles come to lay their eggs on Tortuguero in Costa Rica.  We wait as we cross paths with one, yielding to her,  giving her space to make her journey above the tide line to build her nest, to lay her eggs, to do what nature says she must.

Her tears are natural.  The weeping is continuous to clear the sand from the turtle’s eyes as she digs and covers up the nest. To every woman they look like the tears, the pain of childbirth.

Moving, touching, incredible sight, UNFORGETTABLE.

The Meander:  When the eggs hatch only about ten percent make it to sea.  By law, indigenous populations are allowed to harvest a portion of the eggs and there are the poachers too. Then as the hatchlings try to get to the sea many are eaten by birds. It is just so.