Visiting a time warp: Madang, Papua New Guinea

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.

Papua New Guinea

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

About ralietravels

Ray and Alie (Ralie) are a retired couple who love to travel. Even during our working years, we squeezed a trip in whenever we could, often when we had to stretch the budget to do so. We have been fortunate to vacation in all 50 states, all the provinces of Canada and one territory and a little more than 50 countries. We like to drive, but we particularly love to travel back roads to find unusual sights, people, and experiences.
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12 Responses to Visiting a time warp: Madang, Papua New Guinea

  1. Great post really great read thanks for sharing

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Informative and exotic. I remember a young Prince Charles having to learn to speak Pidgin for one his first official solo visits abroad which I think was to Papua New Guinea. And yes, all those incredibly evocative location names – reads like a military history book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ralietravels says:

      Alie is well-read on the war in the south Pacific. We had lectures on the ship while at sea and happened to sit next to a veteran of a picket ship, a destroyer, who saw action there. He was impressed with how much she knew and gave us a DVD that had the remembrances, letters and diaries of his shipmates. That made the passage even more vivid to us.


  3. It seems like such a far off place, but actually it is not. I looked up Papua New Guinea once, hoping to be able to travel there, but it is not really advised it seems, because of the possibility of violent crime. But I guess if you came off a cruise ship, they must have researched Madang and known that it was safe.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ralietravels says:

      You may be right; it may have been because we were on a cruise ship. The authorities may have cracked down and had everyone on their best behavior. As I noted, all buildings seemed secured with bars and fences. But unlike visiting many places such as major cities like Barcelona and small towns in Cuba, we were not warned about petty or major crimes, no one seemed to have even had a problem with pickpockets, and there were no beggars.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. neelstoria says:

    This would have really been a stimulating and interesting journey. The thing about not bargaining is so thoughtful, not many people would think this way. The boys diving down to retrieve coins and gifts reminds me of a similar thing I had seen in the Indian Ocean at Kanyakumari, a town at the southern tip of Indian mainland.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This reminds me of Jared Diamond’s experiences on PNG. It has always struck me as a completely different world.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. JohnRH says:

    What must these people be doing now that tourism has, temporarily at least, dried up? Amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ralietravels says:

      At the time, at least, I didn’t think tourism was a major source of income. Our ship’s arrival seemed to be an unusual experience for them; they were not particularly well-equipped to handle an influx of people, we saw few places to stay, and I gathered their visitors were mostly from Australia. Cocoa, copra and cardamon are among their products.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I always like to read about an outsiders view on my country. Good read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ralietravels says:

      I am very glad you liked it. There is an old legend of blind men taken to “see” their first elephant. Depending on what part they touched, they described an elephant as a tree, a wall, a hose, a rope, a leaf, and polished wood. I know on our short visit, we saw only a tiny bit, but it is nice to think we didn’t get too much very wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

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