PAPUA NEW GUINEA
PAPUA NEW GUINEA VISIT
As the island grew on the horizon the young man went out on to the bowsprit of the Troubadour and, as the boat dipped and rolled, he stood there clinging to a stay. The last grey squall had now quite gone, the sky was enormous, the sun dazzled in the hollows of the leaping hills of the sea that, he felt, must surely b the bluest water in all the world, the Coral Sea where it spreads in over the head of the Great Barrier Reef between the red tip of Australia and the dark low coast of New Guinea.
Not least of what the young man loved was the Troubadour's motion - the horizon soaring as the prow plunged down, then the going-up-to-heaven as the skyline fell. What he loved most, though, was the island ahead. It had, he knew, the native name of Mer; it was such a fine arched-back shape against the sky; and it was such a tropical green. He was in no condition to resist a gaudy image and he told himself that Mer was set in the sea like a green jewel. He was, after all, young and this was the first time in the tropics. The Sydney newspaper he worked for had let him talk it into giving him a roving commission to write about the islands of Torres Strait; and with a steamer ticket to Thursday Island, and hundred pounds in his pocket for expenses, he had felt like Marcus Polo. That would not have taken him very far, even though he had a special permit to visit the island reserves, but luck was with him. The fisheries company men who had the Troubadour were going out to the islands that lie right at the head of the Barrier Reef, the ones he most of all wanted to get to, the three Murray Islands of which the largest is Mer.
Soon after the Toubadour had left Thursday Island it had run into a succession of squalls. All the company men had been seasick - but not the skinny fellow whom Mr Shand, the promoter, had predicted would be first over the rail. He was always on deck as the eager observer of so much that was new to him: the surfacing turtle, the dugong, the coloured sea-snakes joined in copulation, the silver flights of flying-fish. He smoked when others dared not and he offered rum to Mr Shand, to whom Scotch was a drink and rum was an abomination at the best of times. There were times when the portly Mr Shand, who suffered severely on the voyage, must have fairly loathed him. However, I think the young man was entitled to a certain show of elation at the discovery that he had no stomach - or none that the motion of a ship could upset. This immunity has been a great boon to him in travelling, which is as well, for he has never been one for facing fearful odds, your real hero is the sea-sick Columbus.
The young man was, of course, myself. Since that first trip there have been seven others into the tropics and, always, to islands. To some I have gone more than once, especially to the big one, New Guinea. I have been back to Torres Strait, but not to my first love, Mer. It is still the loveliest island I have seen, easily the loveliest in Australian waters, and the coral reef that rings it is, such authorities as Yonge will tell you, unsurpassed in the world. Mer, though, is not what is properly called a coral island. Coral islands sound romantic, but the true coral island is flat, in accretion of sand on dead coral, and only what will grow in sandy soil grows there. That kind of island can look lovely from shiprail or from the airliner window, but actually it is rather dull. So are the tourist islands, even the hilly ones, of the Great Barrier Reef passages off the Queensland coast; they are only marooned hunks of the mainland. The western islands of Torres Strait fall into that "continental island" class, too.
Mer is quite different and so much better. Mer is an extinct volcano. The volcanic soil is the secret of its fertility that spreads a green mantle of luxuriance along its shores and up the slopes and into the old crater and out to the crater's southern rim that rises 750 feet above the brilliant coralled sea.
The Admirable Kaikai
The shoreline of Mer, on the nor'-west side where the Troubadour came in to drop anchor off the reef, was a strip of beach fronting a long grove of coconuts. Small native houses, walled with coconut-leaf and thatch3d with green, merged in under the palms. The Superintendent's house had a sheet-iron roof that must have glared when it was new, but years of salt and sun had dulled and bleached it and the bungalow did not really obtrude. What did stand out, breaking the green line of the palm with its walls of sunstruck white, was the church.
I said it was 25th July. It didn't mean anything to anybody
Murray Island Fisheries - a company which looked like succeeding, and deserved to, and didn't-had its set-up over on a smaller island a mile away, Douar. I was much more interested in native life than in experiments in canning the sardines that shoal in such abundance round these islands, so when the fisheries' head man, Neville Lyons, went ashore on Mer to see the Superintendent about getting native labour, I want along in the dinghy hoping that the superintendent would let me stay with him on Mer. he turned out to be a kindly man twice my age, his name was Gorge Agnew, and he was quite glad to have a guest.
I don't know just what I had expected. I hadn't expected the "natural" islander, or even that the girls would still be bare-breasted. I knew the old life would be gone-the ritual cannibalism, the head-hunting and the trading in skulls, and the death-dance of the captive warrior doing his ghastly prance like a decapitated rooster. But I had not expected such a transformation as I saw, the women in these terrible Mother Hubbard frocks and many of the men with shirts and singlets tucked aside their lava-lavas, and all this real about saints' days. I had not expected the Mission influence, the Christianity layer, to be so thick.
The cloud in my head soon lifted when I went up to the feast with Agnew. I met people, and almost at once the sun came shining through again: the Murray Islanders had not lost to piety their personality and spirit, they were going to be all right. They were a happy and vital people. They laughed so easily and so much. St James was good excuse for a feast, and the feast was what everyone was concerned with. The ground was a litter of the island's abundance-big bunches of bananas, stacks of sugarcane, palm baskets of yams and kumala and taro, piles of coconuts, pumpkins, beans, tomatoes. And fish, big ones fresh from the spear and little ones, the sardines, spitted on slivers and bamboo. And the pork of pigs that had already been killed and cut up for the cooking. The cooking was done kopamauri style in earth ovens, stones heated in a fire in a hole, then lifted out and the food put in and then the stones on top and covered over with leaves and earth. Before each bundle of food was put in, wrapped in banana leaves, it had been soaked in coconut milk. Cooked in that way even sweet-potato takes on a new flavour and is delicious.
The table was the ground, strew right down the middle with island flowers, and the plates were big green banana laves and forks were fingers. They brought me laves of this food and that, and it was all good: I needed no dinner at Baba's house that night. The superintendent was always called Baba, meaning father. The tall thin figure, very black, with a long head and piercing eyes was the Anglican Mission priest, Reverend Joseph Luie. The dignified old man with the greying hair, his fine chest not entirely concealed by a flannel singlet, was the Chief Councillor: these islands have had their Councils for almost as long as they have had Christianity.
Next morning I met Kaikai. Wherever pidgin English is spoken kai-kai means food, but on Mer when you spoke of Kaikai it was understood that you were speaking of the native sergeant of police. Sergeant Kaikai was deputed by the Superintendent - who had schoolteaching, storekeeping, doctoring and paperwork to attend to - to look after me during the day and take me about the island. Sergeant Kaikai had beetling brows and a great thick mouth and deep lines scored down either side of an upperlip that suggested bog-Irish under black-polish. His usual expression was heavily solemn and, such a furrowing of his forehead and hand of his jowls attended even the small matter of rolling a cigarette, it seemed that an idea would get through Kaikai's skull about as easily as a splinter would penetrate the horny soles of his enormous flat feet. Also, he had pronounced halitosis and terrific B.O. Yet Kaikai was one of the most lovable characters I have ever known.
He was, first of all, a policeman who hated arresting anyone and who loathed the idea of putting a man in jail. he knew that, to an islander who had never in his life been behind a door with a lock on it, incarceration was a fearful thing. When the island jail, a small corrugated-iron shed, was built and the then superintendent insisted that some miscreant be clapped into it, Kaikai demurred, "Baba, man he get lonely in dat place." Objection overruled, he then suggested that at least he should go out and arrest someone else, so that the prisoner would have company. "No!" said the Superintendent. So Kaikai had to put the man in the jail. But he spent the night with him. Kaikai received five pounds a year, tobacco, and a uniform the trousers of which he never wore. A lava-lava was much more sensible, and this he held up with a Boy Scout belt. The uniform's khaki shirt he liked, but he saw no point in being smartly uncomfortable, so he usually wore the shirt outside the lava-lava for coolness, tail floating in the breeze. sometimes he would turn up to take me out for the day wearing a holey cotton singlet, with his wide-brimmed felt hat, but no three-stripes, no badge of office. After all, as he said, "Everybody know I'm da Sergeant."
There were two other police constables in reserve somewhere in the background, but I never saw any sign of them or what they did. To a great extent the law's work was done, and done admirably, by Kaikai just being there and being Kaikai. he was the son of Aetmode, one of the old chief men of Mer who had been a kind of chief justice of the law of Malu, an ancestral superman, or god, from new guinea. Malu was the great law-giver. Aetmode had been born in cannibalism and had died "in Christ" two years before and had one of the biggest cement crosses in the cemetery. so kaikai was born into a position of some authority. In terms of island lineage, he was a cop who was a crown prince. Though the outward trappings of the law did not matter, to Kaikai the Law itself was enormously important: you could hear the capital when he spoke of it - "da Law". He could read and write only with difficulty. Yet, when I was leaving and asked what I could send him from Sydney when I got back, he answered, "Please, you send me hook "bout da Law." I thought of how the leathery creases of Kaikai's brow would fold in agonies of incomprehension over even the simplest of our police manuals, as I asked him what, in particular, he wanted to know.
"Me likekn ow how p'liceman bilong Sydney he can tell when man drunk."
Kaikai's concern was with the drinking of tuba, which is made by cutting a bearing stem of a coconut palm and collecting the sap. The native hooch is, on my own sampling of it, a not unpleasant and belly-warming drink, which, when it is a day or two old, has about the same alcoholic content as Australian beer. It gets stronger with fermentation, in a couple of weeks packs of kick like a cassowary, and at the end of a month turns into not bad vinegar. An form of intoxicating liquor is forbidden to the islanders, so making tuba and drinking tuba were clear-cut offences, but Kaikai was quite uncertain about when he should prefer against a tuba drinker an extra charge of being drunk. What did Sydney policeman do? There was no point in confusing him with the mechanics of blood-testing for alcohol content and, I decided on the strength of Kaikai's halitosis, breath-smelling was a dubious measure.
"There's one test you could use, Kaikai. You draw a chalk line or you just take a stick and draw a straight line on a clear bit of ground, and you tell the drinker to walk along it. If he walks straight, he's sober. If he wobbles off the line, he's drunk."
He was delighted with this information, he thought it was a wonderful idea. We were walking about up in the crater at the time, and as he bumbled on ahead of me through the high grass, he started to sing, he was so pleased. When I asked some questions about the native dancing, he whipped off his shirt, cut himself a palm-leaf girdle, stuck a frangipani blossom behind each ear and began to dance. I took some pictures of this, then we went on, and he began to talk again about the walking-the-line test. He could hardly wait to spring it on the next tuba drinker. also, I get the impression that great island interest was going to be created by it, and that Kaikai stocks would go up when he introduced this "new patent". Any innovation was always referred to is a "new patent". I hated the thing and used it badly, but it was widely admired round the island, and Kaikai always liked to carry it when we walked.
"There's another test they use," I said. "You ask a man who's been drinking to say - 'British Constitution'. If he can't say that, he's drunk."
Kaikai looked at me. His mouth hung open. His eyes narrowed a little as they asked me whether I was pulling his leg.
Then his great mouth split his face and he roared with laughter. He began to slap his thighs, he rocked and rolled, and I have never heard laughter on such a Homeric scale as came bellowing out of him. It echoed back from the crater rim. It could be heard, I felt sure, at Las at the other end of the island. Kaikai had seen at once that by the :say British Constitution" test everyone on the island was, demonstrably and hopelessly - drunk. The good Sergeant would call for me at the bungalow about half past eight in the morning. He had an alarm clock, a prized possession which stood in his house beside his father's war club. Within the first half-hour of our walk he would complete his main duty for the day. This consisted of "seeing to the prisoners". The so-called prisoners imposed by the Court, which consisted of the Superintendent and the Councillors. At no time were they in jail. They reported for "work on the roads" at (approximately) nine o'clock in the morning, except Sundays when everybody, prisoners included, went to church. It was up to the prisoners' relatives to bring them their midday meal, at wherever they were working on the road. At five o'clock (approximately) they went home.
"Work on the roads" meant work on the one road, which ran two-thirds of the way round the island, about a mile and a half. since there was no wheeled vehicle on Mer, and not even a horse or a cow to make a mark on it, and enough barefoot traffic to keep the grass down, the surface of the road needed little attention. And once a week there was village Day, when the place got cleaned up and building and mending jobs were done, so there was not much the prisoners could be put to work on. The road was bordered with stones. These were always whitewashed with coral lime, and this work was reserved for prisoners. However, there was a general understanding that the only part of the road border that really mattered was the short stretch between the two main villages, and that if the prisoners were put to work on the other side of the island a lot of useless and inconvenient walking would be involved foe them and for their relatives who had to bring their lunches, as well as for Kaikai and for the superintendent when he made his inspection of work done.
So when all the stones on the main stretch of road were so white that it was pointless to whitewash them further, they were taken up and moved one foot north. Not only did this fill the need for employment at the time, it provided for a future slack period, when the stones could be dug up again and shifted back to their original position. However, since it was also recognized that thee was no point in precipitating this kind of thing, the best way to minimize it was to allow the work to be done in a leisurely fashion. Some of the happiest photographs I took on Mer were of the prisoners. One shows a man with a mattock, which he used from time to time in digging up the stones that were being shifted one foot north. round his neck he is wearing a pretty daisy-chain of flowers and leaves which it had taken him a good part of the morning to make. Another prisoner, who had just had lunch and been visited by his children, is sitting cross-legged and playing on Pan-pipes, a syrinx of short lengths of bamboo. he also had made himself a necklet of flowers.