Trip Report - One Day in Alotau

Old Apr 19th, 2024, 12:20 PM
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Trip Report - One Day in Alotau

Since there are very few posts about PNG, I’ve provided a detailed report on my one day in Alotau, which was a port on a cruise. Weather was off & on sun/clouds; humid; mid-upper 80’s. I put on sunscreen and bug spray before I got off the ship and re-applied both during the day. It was a great day; I didn’t have any preset expectations other than PNG is still a bit of a frontier. My mind was open to learning and seeing different ways of living.

Since there are various levels of unrest in the country and state/foreign office warnings, I decided to book a third-party excursion instead of exploring on my own, which was a smart decision. The other passengers who walked around on their own were uniformly negative about the town and the people – that’s because they only saw a limited port area. Based on a recommendation from someone else on a cruise forum, I found the tour company and signed up – a four hour tour for US$100 which seemed like a fair deal to me (payment in cash upon arrival using AUD$). I booked with Ben who runs Alotau Tours; I researched tour companies on Facebook and TA and Ben’s positive reviews and photos convinced me. He offers several 2 hr tours that focus on one topic, such as WWII, Culture or general sightseeing and then does some 4 hr tours that combine topics, so I chose “Combo C tour: Milne Bay WWII History and Alotau Sightseeing”.

Ben provided detailed information about how to find his team once we got off the ship (basically, you walk out the port gate and look for the tent with his Alotau Tours banner). There were several employees all wearing blue shirts and it was very organized in terms of signing in, paying and being escorted to the air conditioned van for our tour. Our guide was Manuel and his younger sister (who was probably 18), plus the driver; there were 8 of us on the tour. Alotau itself is a small village at the center of the cove. PNG was a hub for the Japan’s South Pacific World War II operations which meant were also a lot of Australian and Allied activities here so all the tours involved a fair number WWII related stops.

We drove out of town and were quickly in rural areas – there’s minimal development. Everything is lush and green; with lots of foliage; they had just had 3 days of rain. The first stop was the site of a Japanese war memorial, which was erected maybe 20 years ago. Interestingly, PNG is a matrilinear society so the women own their land. The lady who owned the land allowed the Japanese to place their war memorial there and she and her family maintain the site (flowers and keeping it tidy). And of course, there was a old machine gun enplacement that was intertwined with flowers and vines – these are all over PNG. Whoever owns the land is the protector and caretaker and they have an obligation to tell the history. She was very proud that the Japanese wanted to place the memorial and apparently the Japanese ambassador came when it was launched; she expected him to stay for maybe 10 or 15 minutes with the other local officials, but he stayed for about 3 1/2 hours, just sitting at the memorial and looking out to sea. The Japanese lost 10,000s of people in PNG (in fact they may have surrendered on PNG – I don’t remember). She was very forthcoming about how they live, their houses, food, families, etc. and we asked lots of questions. In Alotau, most people live outside of the town center in family groups, where they own the land. They have individual dwellings which are to our eyes very rough; built on stilts to facilitate breezes; walls are rough cut palm trunks, and the roof is woven palm fronds; no indoor plumbing or electricity. They grow or collect their food from nature (coconut, taro, sweet potatoes and yams) and everyone has a few chickens. Various families own palm plantations as a collective and maintain them for palm oil, copra and other palm products that they sell to big cooperatives. They also fish and collect crabs for their own meals.

Japanese War Memorial which the Japanese ambassador visited.

View of Alotau from the water.

War relic located at the Japanese War Memorial

We went to a primary school - there are 7 for Alotau. We had driven past several other schools and they are all stucco buildings, painted neatly in bright colors, with grass areas for playing and staff huts next-door; all the students wear uniforms. We went to two classrooms, one where the students had just finished a lesson and we could look at their work. I wandered away from the group and asked a couple of the kids what is your favorite subject in school and other dumb adult questions. They all spoke excellent English and were very outgoing; it was clear that having guests was was a big deal for them (Alotau gets one cruise ship visit a month) – I guess the same as schools at home when a visitor comes! We went through an metal-roofed area in the center of the classroom buildings which is used for assemblies and into another classroom; in this one, the teacher led the students through a sample lesson for us. The topic was spelling and he had written a mini-crossword on the blackboard, the children were divided into groups and had to figure out what the word was using the clue and then how to spell it so it fit into the grid. It was only 4 words but they got them all right and the kids didn’t have any hesitation in raising their hand. Then we walked around because each table had been assigned a topic, such as careers, science, physical activity, home and had to cut out pictures from magazines depicting those topics and paste them on paper. So we wandered around admiring their efforts and talking with them. I asked the kids at the “sports” table what sport they liked – rugby won over soccer by a mile and nothing else was mentioned! There was also a table showing things they had made - palm baskets, woven grass purses, wind chime/mobiles made with yarn and soda cans they shredded into shapes. Then we went back into the assembly area, where a younger class sang the PNG national anthem, recited their pledge, and counted to 10. Lots of skin tones, similar variety of hair color, and a whole range of shoewear from barefoot to hightop sneakers, but most had flip-flops.

Welcome dance at the school

Young class waiting to sing the PNG national anthem

Using PVC pipes as drum

Students listening to their colleagues sing

Now, the piece de resistance - a traditional welcome dance performed by students and led by a teacher. The boys (I think dancing is reserved for men) came out and they were a uniform espresso brown color which I realized was charcoal that they smoothed all over themselves. They had bits of white paint decor, ceremonial straw necklaces and traditional headgear – wreaths made of leaves or feathers, adorned with flowers, or shells or leaves. A couple of older boys were drumming using PVC pipes as drums and the kids danced intently. Very intricate routines and precise foot motions linked to very specific gestures. There was a lot of chanting by the boys and they were dancing full out for probably 25 minutes. Talk about cardio!!! Oh yes, each of them had a spear that was decorated and was part of their individual steps; there were several moments where they charged the audience, spears ready to go and shouting a fearsome cry. Of course I’m sure the kids got a great kick out of it because we all jumped back.

Off to other sites – 2 more war memorials. A former airstrip where the Japanese landed multiple times and eventually the Australians landed and fought there; interestingly, one of the men on the tour was making a semi pilgrimage because his father had either fought or died at this airstrip as part of the 61st battalion/division of the Australian forces. This memorial was owned by another group of people and the caretakers gave us a little talk. (I was fascinated by the evidence of people chewing betel nut - lips, inner mouth and rotted stained teeth (apparently PNG has the highest incidence of oral cancer in the world). I f you remember in the musical South Pacific and the song bloody Mary, one of the lyrics is “ she’s always chewing betel nut”. Betel nut is a stimulant which I guess is why they chew it.). And I couldn’t take my eyes off of the caretaker’s teeth as he was talking to us.

Anyway, you might have thought this was just a spiel that he memorizes for dumb tourists but when this man started talking about his father and his battalion, the caretaker was able to talk very precisely about where the battalion was on what day, what other groups were there, and what happened. The man was so pleased to hear someone talk so intelligently about what his father had been involved in; I was impressed with his knowledge, desire to share and pride in PNG. It was an extremely well maintained memorial area. At all of these sites locals were there selling PNG souvenirs - key rings, woven bags, sarongs - and bunches of bananas, coconuts, yams. I asked our guide and she said they are always there because people come in from the country to buy items plus they have a steady flow of tourists (lots from Asia). Tourism is the number one source of jobs in Alotau. 90% of the businesses are owned by Asians.

The final stop of the day was back in the town of Alotau; in contrast to the countryside, which was nature, wild and lush or palm plantations with the palm homes in groups, the town was bustling with people. Men, women, kids – all ages, and seemingly all having a place to go, as they were walking to someplace not just standing around. Went to another war memorial and one or two little kids - maybe eight or nine years old - came up and asked me very politely if I could give them local currency for an Australian dollar. Apparently tourists had given the kids money but they can’t use Australian dollars in the shops so they were hoping we could give them local currency in exchange; if I had any local currency, I would definitely have helped them, but I didn’t. The kids were very polite, said thank you & walked away. This was not what you hear about in some locations of kids pestering tourists, begging for gum or money or anything; these kids were asking a question very politely and taking no very politely. I also found they do that kid thing where some young kids like to stand very close to grown-ups – I don’t know why they do it, but I noticed it when I used to do book distributions at local schools. They didn’t actually lean on you or touch you, they just would stand close, silently.

The village market was a very large open sided building – like an airplane hanger without sides. People who live outside of town come in with their items, whether produce they’ve grown or gathered, fish, tourist stuff; they sit on the floor with their goods spread out, using a leaf branch to brush the flies away. All have a sign handwritten on brown paper or cardboard with the price of the various items. Everyone we saw throughout PNG were very friendly, all saying good morning and smiling so I said a lot of good mornings too. Our guide took us through the market pointing out various items and I wanted to ask some of the women about what their produce was, but since I clearly wasn’t going to buy anything, I didn’t feel like I should take their time by asking. I was keeping an eye peeled for illicit behavior around the village center – like drugs, buying or selling or smoking, or drunkenness. Didn’t see anything which of course doesn’t mean it isn’t there but I’ve been to other so-called “poor” areas where these types of activities are right out in the open and there’s a sense of hostility & aggression toward visitors.

Then back to the ship. The tour was great. I really had a very positive attitude about this town and area. I was talking to some other passengers the next day and we agreed that it’s hard to set aside our Western perspectives when reacting to or thinking about areas like PNG. We felt that the people seemed proud of their country & of their lives; content with their lives, which are very family focused; it’s very religious (missionaries!) and the church life is also very important to them. So, why should the palm homes (which the grandmother matriarch said are much much cooler than metal or cement houses because the breeze goes through them) or bare feet make them to be pitied by us? And who are we to opine that our way is the best way and everybody in the world should emulate us? I was annoyed at the women passengers who said "oh, they're so poor - they didn't have shoes" ... sure, that's because it's a muddy mess and besides, who says that wearing shoes is the mark of the "better" people? And, there were plenty of people who were wearing shoes. I had dinner one night with a group of people who had not taken a tour and instead had walked into town on their own; they went into a local store and one women stayed outside where she said she felt unsafe and that the local men were staring at her and if her friend hadn't told her husband to come and rescue her, "who knows what would have happened". Eeeekkk - there were so many things wrong with this that I didn't even know where to start but how arrogant (and conceited) to think that the local men were talking about you lewdly? I'm all for having street smarts and being aware of your environment but please, don't put your biases on display.

Overall, I liked my day in Alatau a lot and respect them in terms of their culture, community etc. Shout out to Ben’s Alotau Tours for showing us their town, answering all our questions and demonstrating great self-confidence and pride in their town and country.
vickiebypass is offline  
Old Apr 20th, 2024, 08:54 AM
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Thank you again. This reminds me of a TR of sorts a friend did about Guadalcanal in the Solomon’s.
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