Monday, 19 September 2016

Ninigo Hospitality

We sat at a table in a kitchen hut with a sand floor, eating a bountiful lunch of freshly caught fish, chicken, rice, pumpkin with coconut milk, sago with banana, cassava and coconut patties, fresh lime and coconut juice, and cut up sweet, ripe paw-paw. As westerners and guests, we are offered spoons and shallow bowls, a dish useful for liquid or solid sustenance. Serving spoons are used to dole out foods, though most islanders use their hands to consume chicken, fish or pieces of pumpkin or cakes of cassava or sago. There seem to be no knives or forks, they simply don't have them, so we are challenged to eat some things politely. Mugs serve for drinking both cold and hot beverages. Most kitchens have large thermoses storing hot water for tea; instant (3 in 1) coffee is a rare and expensive treat which we would often bring or give as gifts. Before and after the meal, we share a bowl of slightly soapy water to wash our hands, a second bowl to rinse and a small cotton hand towel.

Denny and Caroline's kitchen sits in the shade behind their beachfront sleeping quarters; all structures are made of bamboo wood and woven sago palm leaves. Hinged windows also of sago leaves at elbow level were propped up by sticks and allowed a nice cross breeze to find us, blowing from dirt-grey clouds which zipped by above the velvety turquoise lagoon. A soft rain pattered on the deep reddish-brown leaf roof overhead while the remains of the wood fire on which our lunch was cooked, smoldered in the corner. Chickens strutted and scratched at the sand at our feet looking for some tasty morsel that might have escaped the table. Across the wooden table stained with a few streaks of paint, were Denny and Puka; Denny a grey haired man of few words whose substantial wife Caroline had served up the feast. Puka Morop is the head teacher at the local school, fine featured and fluent in English, he is not a local, but from Manus Island. His soft lilting questions in perfect English kept the conversation going. On the window shelf next to Philip's arm rested a calico puss that had jumped up to get out of the rain and who showed her pleasure at Philip's stroking by grinning and closing her eyes in pleasure. A baby, set down on the ground by Terry, his momma, quietly peed on the sand. Outside on a table set in a clearing, a bare-chested adolescent washed the pots in large stainless steel bowls, dispensing water from an aluminum tea kettle she'd filled in the shallow well nearby. In the center of the kitchen sat a jury of the rest of the family and some of the neighbors, watching us eat and listening to the stories being told.

The villagers seem intently interested in our lives and often ask questions that might be considered rude in other settings: why haven't you had children? what is your religion? what was your occupation? how much did your yacht cost?" Being able to afford to buy a yacht with all the associated goodies boggles their minds since most - except teachers and health care workers - have no income at all except what they might make by selling beche-de-mer, betel nut or coconut oil on rare trips to Manus Island 200 miles away.

Two days later, we enjoyed an equally-tasty and leisurely lunch served under the shade of an heirloom lemon tree, served by Solomon and his beautiful wife. Leiti is typical of a Ninigo native with her dramatic facial features, warm skin, shockingly blue almond-shaped eyes, and perfect salt and pepper kinky hair. Their grown son, Luni rested in a hammock at Philip's left side nursing a still-bleeding wound inflicted by a sierra mackerel, while Pansy their daughter sat nearby cradling her 13 day old infant son, Benjamin. The meal had been prepared the day before as Leiti, a follower of the SDA faith, was observing Sabbath. There is no refrigeration here but the SDA islanders have become skilled at keeping cooked foods edible for Saturday consumption, and our meal, including sautéed chicken, tasted freshly cooked.

It seems that the community of Longan Island had planned these lunches every other day or so that we are properly taken care of - the island way. There were two others hosted by Campbell & Nellie and also by Oscar & Keren. Lunch, the large meal of the day, is served promptly at noon, though the women and girls have been busy for hours. There are fish to be caught; chicken to be slaughtered, scalded and plucked; pumpkin to be gathered, sliced and baked with rice inside in a ground oven of volcanic stones gathered from Luf in the Hermit Islands; and cassava root to be harvested, cleaned and grated to make pudding. Many dishes involve coconut milk, freshly made by splitting the hard shell with the back side of a bush knife, grating the hard meat using a specially serrated and rounded knife mounted on a saddle-like stool, and wringing out in a towel. Magnificent! No cans here. The feast is always covered by a brightly colored cloth when we arrive and until we sit and, sometimes, someone offers a blessing.

Food here is abundant but such gifts come through the constant toil of the people who are hunter-gatherers with agrarian habits, too. Hunting consists of fishing by trolling from sailing canoes and by diving, often with handmade spear guns. The rare "speedy" - a skiff with an outboard engine - on a trip in the lagoon will always troll a line. In the past, a fishing company employed an armada of small canoes plus forty, forty-horse banana boats per day with teams of locals. This relationship fell apart when the fishery began to be depleted and the fishing company was unwilling to pay additional money per fish caught. The locals say it is better without income but with food to feed their large families.

In addition to protein from the sea and from free range chickens, the eggs of wild hens found buried on uninhabited lagoon islands, and the rare porker, every family has vegetables - and gorgeous watermelons! - grown in a one or more mixed-species gardens. These gardens are scattered around the islands in the large lagoon or on islands at the separate small adjacent atolls of Heina or Pelleluhn. Villages usually include banana and citrus trees, plus the ever-important and ubiquitous coconut palm. Usually when there's a family's garden on an island, there is also a house, since travel between islands by canoe may be hampered by adverse wind or no sailing wind at all and the villagers need some place to stay if they are stranded. Thus the typical Ninigo islander diet is a healthy mixture of low fat protein, mostly taken from the sea, plus fresh vegetables and fruit, though every meal seems to be served with a side of (purchased) white rice. Nothing is wasted, so when enjoying hearty island food we are careful at what we spoon out so we don't end up with something we might have trouble eating (such as a rooster head!) During the canoe races, we noticed for the first time island children stripping the peels off green coconuts with their teeth and gnawing on the fibrous sweet creamy white inner flesh. Alcohol is frowned upon, though there are reports of home brewing and we had at least one request to trade for whiskey which we declined out of respect for the wishes of the majority (though we had no remaining spirits to trade anyway!).

By contrast to the detached kitchens, many of the sleeping houses are built above the sand on poles with amazingly springy but strong and thin sago palm-wood floors. We visited Justin Kolpi - a bright, young and ambitious teacher with the neatest classroom we've seen in the whole of the Pacific - to see if we could solder the #8 back onto his dart board and were taken inside his home to get out of the wind so our butane soldering iron could be lit. At the top of the rough wooden stairs that brought us about a meter off the ground, we passed through an equally-rough wooden door into the main room, the sandy ground below showing through the gaps in the flooring. In the center was a fold-up table with a newish HP printer and a huge laptop, at work busily copying a stack of DVDs of school lesson plans. It was like walking into a cave and coming upon a shiny red Lamborghini.

Latrines are elevated huts far out over the water and accessed by long rickety single log board bridges, so there is no smell in these neatly swept flower-filled villages. In case you were wondering, toilet tissue consists of coconut fibers. Drinking water is caught on tin roofs with gutters feeding water into community-shared large green plastic water storage containers, most courtesy of AusAID. Shallow wells lined with large blue plastic 250 L drums yield slightly brackish wash water in a quantity that rises and falls with the tide.

There has been no boat servicing these islands for at least 8 years, maybe longer - depending on whom you ask. Politicians make promises but nothing seems to happen. Even the churches - Catholic and SDA - keep no clergy here. A scheduled visit by a priest resulted in a flurry of activity in preparation for weddings and christenings and then at the last moment, the official found another priority and gave the islands a pass.

Supplies come from Lorengau on Manus Island, about 200 nm away; from Vanimo, Wewak or the duty free border town of Batas near Jayapura Indonesia on the mainland; or from the occasional yacht or small cruise ship. Small open boats with no radios, safety equipment or buoyancy travel across the open ocean and we had the occasion to talk with at least three who had nearly perished from storms and overturned boats. Another distressing development are suspected pirate attacks on the skiffs on their way to and from Manus Island. We were told of two boats that left Wewak, arrived at Manus and then left but were never seen again, this "about a year ago". Yet these stoic people have no choice but to make these journeys. The True North, a small cruise ship, comes each November 17th from Australia, and its local liaison, Simon Tewson, brings whatever donations he can fit in his luggage. Otherwise, these few hundred people must fend for themselves. Clothing is especially hard to come by, so even after we gave away our dozens of plastic bags full of clothing donated in Palau, we still found ourselves digging down into our own limited clothing supplies and giving gifts to those who were so kind to us.

Since we are from the outside, we are often asked to help repair electrical things. In other places we have traveled, the classic offering was a cheap small portable DVD player, though even these are rare at Ninigo where many homes have no lighting but coconut oil lamps made from jars and cotton wicks. Still, we had many requests to fix things - light fixtures, electric drills, inverters, etc. and sometimes we succeeded and brought smiles to their faces and their faith in us verified. Other times we failed and had to tell the disappointed friend that there was nothing that could be done. Usually this is met with a resigned shrug as if to say, "No worries - there will be other yachts coming".

Oscar, the government designated tourist contact, told us that he and the other villagers look forward to December and January when the winds change direction and increase in intensity. The sea then brings gifts of exotic logs of wood, plastic bottles, electronic transponders which have drifted away from purse seiners, these usually complete with a much-coveted solar panel. Sometimes whole boats of various sizes drift up to the lagoons and are seized by the islanders. We saw one brightly colored, large Philippine fishing vessel high up on the beach in front of Silas's house, the name and the owner's name proudly emblazoned on the bow. We hope to post a photo on our website once we are back to internet coverage and to also do a Google search to see if we could get more information as to why it might have been abandoned or lost. The exotic wood that washes up is used mainly for building the island sailing canoes. When we examine the wood closely, we are convinced that some of it is old growth mahogany, probably emanating from the strip logging in Indonesia or Malaysia. Some of the logs are huge, measuring over three feet in diameter by thirty or more feet long. We shudder to think of these behemoths bobbing about in the open ocean while we are on passage.

But maybe we are getting ahead of ourselves. When we last wrote we were at Pihon Island and everyone was anticipating the fun of the second set of the annual canoe races. Competition is fierce and these men (and women too) are fantastic sailors. So maybe at this juncture we should end our story and begin our next dispatch with a story of the Ninigo canoes.

At 9/19/2016 and 6:49 UTC (GMT) our position was: 00°50.54'N / 146°56.21'E.

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