Sailing into the past

Seduced by Papua New Guinea's guileless charms

Even among veteran travellers, few ever will walk ashore at such remote island nations as Papua New Guinea or the Solomon Islands. But those who do, may well step off the gangway of a luxury cruise ship.

That’s how I got there in February, part of an 18-day Silversea voyage from Australia to Hong Kong. Every port offered something fresh and unexpected. Outside Madang, Papua New Guinea, I found the past in a hillside rainforest.

Those few hours at an isolated subsistence village rank among my most memorable travel experiences anywhere, after visiting five continents. Papua New Guinea, or PNG to locals, was unlike anything I’ve known. Without a cruise stop in the middle of the south Pacific, I almost certainly never would have made it.

The contrast between life there and my lifestyle aboard ship couldn’t have been more stark. My girlfriend, Gwendolyn, and I stayed in a 1,300-square-foot Royal Suite on the Silver Whisper, as indulgent as any five-star hotel suite. Everything on the voyage was included, from fine liquors to impeccable laundry service and gratuities. Even butler service was thrown in. Imagine — We left a pillow-top king size mattress and broadband Internet to visit villagers who sleep on palm-frond mats and communicate with drums.

Our day in Madang started with perhaps a dozen passengers packing into a modern van with us. We rumbled over gravel roads cut through dense vegetation, passing scattered bamboo huts until reaching the Balina village. The villagers welcomed us with heartfelt handshakes accompanied by flower petals tossed toward our heads. We couldn’t stop smiling and couldn’t quite believe this was real.

Our hosts seemed utterly guileless; a bit childlike in the best sense. English is PNG’s official language and many residents spoke it, though usually quite broken. I settled into a conversation with Mike, a young man who pointed to his tattered Bob Marley t-shirt. “I put on. For today, this shirt – my favorite,” he smiled, exposing the betel nut-stained red teeth common throughout PNG.

Mike also explained that his village was home to 53 family members known as the Hayun clan. Their houses were built from bamboo and sago palms, raised on stilts for air circulation.

Beyond the Hayuns’ light but modern clothes, I spotted other contemporary touches including metal kitchen pots. But the overall impression was of stepping back in time – a long step. The Hayun still beat out drum messages through the rainforest and believe in ‘spirits.’ The clan lived by gathering the abundant wild food and farming a small, hilly parcel planted with taro and other starchy vegetables that comprise the typical PNG diet.

Our rainforest walk to search for the native bird of paradise began just as the rain arrived so we retreated to an open building used for cooking. This seemed almost better than the hike, offering an opportunity for lengthy chats with villagers who pointed out the highly poisonous millipedes that seemed to be crawling everywhere. We also had time to explore the rustic kitchen, where coconut shells fueled the stove. I played the drums with a Hayun man and together we laughed and pounded out rhythms against the rain.

After the storm, we all took a muddy but leisurely amble around the village pausing for lunch in the small Hayun schoolhouse. I was utterly charmed by the place and the people alike and my fellow travelers seemed to feel much the same. I think everyone was saddened when it finally was time to leave Balina, as if departing from friends we likely would never see again. There was a long round of handshakes and I bid Mike an especially grateful goodbye.

To me, this was more proof that cruise ship tourism can offer meaningful cultural experiences. In fact, some of my best ‘people moments’ abroad came during cruises, whether downing vodka with locals in St. Petersburg, Russia, singing at a raucous Copenhagen bachelor party or sipping apple tea with Istanbul carpet merchants.

Without an adventurous cruise line, Papua New Guinea probably would have remained for me a curious-sounding destination visited mostly by scientists. Instead, my new friend, Mike, and his family have bestowed upon my memories of PNG a welcoming red smile.

Papua New Guinea tourism, the official tourist site:

Silversea Cruises:

Photo Credits: Robert Spencer Knotts

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