Boys in hand-crafted dugout canoes rowed beside our ship. Guests on the ship’s deck threw gifts – fruit, coins and other minor items, and the boys dove to retrieve them. It is was something I had seen before, perhaps in a movie from the 1930s or 1940s. But this time it was real. This was Madang, Papua New Guinea in 2011.
Our ship passed place-names saturated with bloody World War II history. We went through the China Straits from the Coral Sea to the Solomon Sea, sites of major sea battles. Men fought on land in Papua New Guinea, the southern half of the island of New Guinea. We passed New Britain and Bougainville. Guadalcanal was about ten degrees to our east. Coast-watchers hid in island jungles to report Japanese movements to Australian, British and American forces. Madang was almost completely destroyed during Japanese occupation and the fight to retake it in April 1944. So many young soldiers, sailors and airmen died on both sides.
But all that was during our parent’s generation. We are old now, and most people will soon forget.
Madang Province has many of the island’s highest peaks and active volcanoes. But it was raining and cloudy, so we did not see much of the mountains. As we approached the island, we were told 175 languages are spoken in Madang, some by tribes with fewer than a thousand people.
Australia has had a close connection to Madang since the First World War. Therefore, many people speak English or a form thereof, and Australian and U.S. dollars were accepted as well as the local “kira.”
The ship sailed through a long channel into the beautiful harbor just before noon. The rain let up, and crowds of people on shore followed from empty lot to empty lot.
The Amsterdam, at 778 feet, was short compared to many modern cruise ships. But it extended beyond Madang’s dock at both ends.
Alie and I were among the first to get off. A “bamboo band” played on the dock. In addition to stringed instruments, two men sat on what looked like a pile of bamboo organ pipes and slapped the ends with paddles. The size and length of the bamboo determined the sound.
A large crowd had gathered by the port’s gate. As we walked through it, people began to smile, wave and applaud. For a second, we felt like celebrities.
We walked along a muddy street beneath huge trees towards the Coast Watchers Memorial. We were asked by a local lady if we needed directions. We really didn’t, but “Maggie” stayed with us and chatted with Alie until we reached our goal. The memorial to World War II coast-watchers is a tall obelisk with a rotating navigation light at the top.
Maggie, who had declined several rides from friends, then left us. We saw her later, and it was clear she had gone out of her way just to talk to us.
Madang is poor, and every house and building was fenced, barred and had security warnings. A “Comfort Inn” motel with an armed guard at the gate sat across from the memorial. But there were no beggars.
Many faces looked like their fathers or surely their grandfathers had been head hunters. Teeth were often filed to points and stained by betel nut. But everyone was friendly and welcoming.
We bought a shell necklace, a wood pendant and a small inlaid wood bowl. Their carving is good. Other passengers were buying large carved masks and various stone and carved weapons as well as bows and arrows.
At one point, a girl told us something was twelve dollars. Alie asked how much money I had, just wondering what I was carrying. The girl immediately reduced her price, but we weren’t bargaining. We insisted on paying the full price. In some places, they feel bargaining is appropriate and might even look down on those who don’t bargain. But we, wealthy enough to be on a cruise ship even if in an inexpensive cabin, felt ashamed to bargain when they clearly needed the money.
Click on photos to enlarge.
When we left in the evening, people once again lined the dock and cheered and waved. As it got dark, cars blinked their lights on and off. As went down the channel again, they followed shouting “bye, bye, bye.”
It was like something out of a really old movie.
Date of our visit: 27 February 2011