On a gray and calm morning, all I can hear is the sound of the rain dripping slowly from the sky onto the wood of the deck above me. Although lying in bed, I feel that I am in a tent in the middle of a tropical forest where the sky is providing the nearby trees with a drink of fresh water to start the day. Through the soft sound of the rain I can hear birds calling out their morning songs as if they are sitting on the mast above. “Hello” a voice calls out, followed by the familiar bump of a dugout canoe alongside of the boat. “Hello” I hear again as I make my way outside to see who is there.
Emerging from the bottom of the boat, I found a woman whose face is covered in traditional Papuan tattoos. Her name is Naomi and we met upon our arrival here the day before. Before we had even set the anchor, she had paddled out to the boat in her dugout canoe with several of her small children on board as well as her sister. Having never seen a sailboat before, they just wanted to come and have a look. As usual, she was followed by an army of canoes of all different varieties, some with outriggers, some with sails, all flooding in from the many different villages around the bay. After handing out lollies and pencils to all of the children, we had a wonderful afternoon talking with the local people of Forlock Bay about their lives, their villages and their schools along with the many different fruits and vegetables they were able to grow here.
Forlock Bay is situated at the base of one of the three enormous volcanoes, the tallest being about 12,000 feet. At the Northeast tip of Cape Nelson on the island of New Guinea, the bay is one of the many fijords that were formed during a past eruption of one of the three nearby volcanoes. Approaching from the sea, it is easy to see the paths of the many different lava flows that left these narrow bays winding back inland toward the base of each volcano. We are surrounded on all sides by steep hillsides mostly covered in grass, mangroves and bits of tropical forest. Where there is no vegetation, there are bulky expanses of black volcanic rock exposed everywhere. The water is calm enough that when down below, you forget that you are on the ocean. It is an incredible place to be, seeing the volcano looming high overhead and the hillsides almost surrounding us leaving only a small passage providing a view to the ocean.
Being as isolated as they are, it is sad to hear the difficulties of the people from Forlock Bay. After dark last night, a man came out apologizing for coming so late. He had his daughter with him and just wanted to say hello and welcome us to his village with a gift of ripe bananas. We gladly accepted and provided him with a bag of rice in return. Talking to him, he noticed several fires burning throughout the hillside. We asked what they were doing and he just replied “Burning the bush”. We asked why they were burning the bush, and he responded as if we weren’t very intelligent, “For light”. As isolated as they are here, it goes without saying that there is not electricity, but even in the villages without generators, most have access to kerosene for their lanterns. Here, it is very rare that a motorboat makes the journey to one of the nearby towns, both about forty miles away by sea. Kerosene and anything similar are very precious commodities and everyone has learned to deal with it in their own fashion. All of the canoes that arrived at the boat kept a bit of sand on board with a few burning husks of coconut. Some were using them to light there cigarettes made from fresh tobacco grown in their gardens while others just kept them to keep the fire going. That way, they did not have a hard time making some form of a torch whenever it became dark.
After one woman who was probably a lot younger than she looked provided us with some local vegetables, we asked her and her husband what they might need. They didn’t have anything in particular they wanted, but after I dug out some fishing hooks for them, the man asked me if I had a newspaper. Strangely enough, we had picked up a few newspapers while in Buka and I said that he could gladly have it. Assuming they wanted to catch up on what was going on in the outside world, I went below to get the newspaper while thinking that it had never occurred to me that these people here would have no way of knowing what was going on throughout the rest of their country much less the rest of the world. Upon bringing out the newspaper, the eyes of the men in the dugout canoes surrounding the boat lit up like I was carrying fifty dollar bills. All of them began waving their arms and pointing to their chests signaling that they wanted some newspaper as well. I couldn’t believe the excitement that news from the outside world was bringing to everyone. Realizing that something was a bit strange, I asked one man what they wanted the newspaper for, was it to read? He responded “Roll Cigarettes.” Ahh! Now it makes perfect sense. After equally distributing pages from the Buka News, everyone quickly pulled out a little pouch of tobacco and began rolling a cigarette. The newspaper must taste a lot better or burn a lot better than the dried leaves that they normally are forced to use here.
When Naomi knocked on the boat, she was on her way to the market that several villages have every Thursday on the point of a nearby Peninsula. She had been out fishing through most of last night and had a small bucket of squid along a few other reef fish that she wanted to offer us before heading to the market to sell the rest. Normally, we don’t eat the small reef fish, hoping to promote a healthier reef system here, but touched by the woman’s generosity and understanding the hardships that they face here, we gladly accepted all of the fish she had brought. While the rain still fell upon her face, the only thing she wanted to keep dry was some produce and other items she had stashed away beneath a small piece of plastic. We asked her what she would like in return for the fish. She responded with the standard generous answer we get here in Papua New Guinea “Whatever you think”. We offered money or clothes or rice, or whatever she might need. The thing that made her smile the biggest was the offering of clothes. She said it is difficult for everyone here to obtain any kind of clothing and would gladly accept anything that we had. After being at sea for the past week, we had stored away all of our trade goods beneath one of the bunks and told her that if she would stop by after her day at the market that we would dig out some clothes for her and her family that she could pick up on her way back home. With a beautiful smile, she thanked us and paddled off in the rain towards the market. Lying back down to read a few more pages in my book, it didn’t take long before I heard another familiar thump on the side of the boat followed by an always friendly “Hello.”