OMG I’m in PNG! Part One: Amazing Alotau

OMG I’m in PNG! Part One: Amazing Alotau

Papua New Guinea for me has always been a bucket list destination. It’s a total understatement to say that I am thrilled to be here! I have watched a lot of documentaries and read a lot of national geographic articles, and spent countless hours looking at maps, but never thought I would actually set foot in this amazing land, yet here I am!

It’s believed that humans arrived on Papua New Guinea around 60,000 years ago. Europeans sighted Papua New Guinea in the 16th Century, however they know little about the people untill the 1870, when a Russian anthropologist (Nicholai Miklukho-Maklai) made a number of expeditions, spent several years living with a tribe and documented their way of life. Papua New Guinea became an independent country in 1975, after having been ruled by two countries (Germany in the north and Britain in the south) from 1884 – 1914 followed by 60 years of Australian administration.

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A family compound near the ship.

I had never actually heard of our first port of call, Alotau until we started organising when I would come on the ship this time. It’s a small town (population of about 15,000) on the very south eastern tip of the island of New Guinea. Since 1969 Alotau has been the capital of the Milne Bay Province (There are 22 provinces in Papua New Guinea).

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We weren’t sure what to expect as we heard a lot of conflicting information as to the safety of walking around in PNG so we booked a tour to the cultural centre. At first glance in the bus, we were a little taken aback by the look of the people, and almost everyone seemed to have red mouths and teeth! I found out later that this was due to chewing betel nut (for a more detailed explanation of the process, see my post on Rabaul coming soon). The bus took us to the cultural centre on the other side of town, and from the bus we had a fabulous view of all the goings on on the street from one end to the other of Alotau.

Once at the cultural centre we got off the bus and were greeted by people in traditional clothing and stalls that sold local handicrafts. I was struck instantly by the friendliness of the people – everyone says hello! We walked around the main building and found there was a beach with a wonderful view of the ship on the other side of the bay and they had groups of men in traditional canoes! I had watched the port lecture earlier in the morning, and found out that every November, Alotau has a huge canoe festival, where all the different villages come together, race their canoes and dance for each other. Every time a ship comes in they recreate this at the cultural centre on a small scale, and each time they have a few different groups. If you go to Alotau, this is a must do!

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Men in traditional canoes. 

As we were walking around we saw some men dressed as native warriors, complete with spears and war paint. Frankly, they looked VERY scary, and this was midday in the sun (I wouldn’t like to come across one of these guys at night).

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Scary, aren’t they?

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Just to add to the over-all scariness, their mouths and teeth are bright red from the betel nut!

I wanted a photo with them but I was too chicken to ask, or even go close at this stage. After a few minutes, the all got together and moved toward the stage, and the show was about to begin. Camera in one hand, iPhone in the other I was not going to miss this – I wedged myself between the stage and a plant so I had a clear view. Rosario, being a bit taller than me (and as it turned out a little wiser in this situation) stood a few people behind. When I start photographing and videoing, I get totally lost in it. The jungle beat started and the Warriors came down the catwalk to the stage looking like they were ready to go to war. On the other side of the stage, part of their dance was to lunge at people and growl/hiss and just generally scare the pants off you. I was happily lost in photography, and got a huge fright when one came to me – this little chicken didn’t see it coming, and I was told later by someone who saw it from the other side that my feet didn’t touch the ground for about five meters (serves me right for squishing in at the front of the stage). I was now totally scared of these guys! For the rest of their dance I actually stood behind Rosario!

Next up was a women’s group (they were much gentler) and they sang a song about a bird of prey taking a possum (the possum was an adorable child, and the bird of prey was one of the women). By this stage the war dancers were mingling with the crowd, and I was keeping an eye on them at all times. However, I’m a total chicken, they must have picked up on it and got me again! As the women left the stage we walked around a little more (me constantly keeping an eye on the Warriors lest one sneak up on me) and took some photos with the women and some gorgeous little children.

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The women’s group.

Having photos with everyone except for the Warriors, it became a now or never situation. If I missed the opportunity I knew I would be really upset later.

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I was ready to run at any moment!

So, I smoothed down my chicken feathers and we walked up to them. Beneath that incredibly intimidating exterior they were really nice guys! They kept assuring me they wouldn’t spear me!

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I may look as cool as a cucumber, but I was ready to run at a moments’ notice!

So continuing around the main building, we came across a group dancing. I really enjoyed it – I had no idea that it was about (they were singing in Their dialect) but it was wonderful all the same. They also brought their pet piglet along for the day too!

Leaving the cultural centre behind, we took the bus back to the ship as we wanted to see the town, and what the locals were doing. We have travelled a lot, and the general feeling we had from Alotau was that as long as we keep with the crowd we will be ok. So we started heading back into town from the port. Having become more relaxed with the fact everyone is chewing, and spitting red we enjoyed the walk. Most people on the street say hello to you. Children come up to you and talk. The locals are as interested in us as we are in them. It was hot, the sun was strong and we could have got a taxi, but that’s not our style. Go for a walk with us and I can guarantee you you will come back with sore feet and possibly a bit sunburnt. We’ve found all over the world walking the streets gives you a real insight into the place. We passed the port area and arrived at one of the markets – one of those interesting places where you can go in naked, hungry and with an empty house and come out with everything you need.

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Bananas with a side order of spinach anyone?

We continued along to the next market – the food market. We continued along the street, through the bus station and into a hive of activity! There were many different types of fruit available, bananas and betel nuts every where you look and a section devoted to platted tobacco leaves.

Did I mention it was hot out in the sun? We were desperately seeking something cool to drink by this stage so we headed into the main street. I wanted to get some lollies also for the children, as I had totally forgotten to bring any with me. We ventured into the supermarket (it was just like any supermarket in the Pacific Islands – they have everything you might need) and came out with a bag of lollies and a drink each. we wandered around the main street and looked in the department store, watched the three security guards at the bank and had a browse through the hardware store.

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The main street in Alotau.

We decided to start on our way back to the ship, stopping every now and then to watch the locals, take some photos or talk to the children (when they realised I had lollies, there was no shortage of them!) We stopped in for a drink at the Alotau Waterfront Lodge (I highly recommend it – the view from the dining area is wonderful!) and headed back to the ship.

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I think all the locals were sitting under the trees waiting for the tide to rise.

Keel checking back as more of Papua New Guinea coming soon!

Until next time from another interesting port,

Marina 🙂

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