Traditionally, the islanders of the Louisiades are traders – in the early 1900’s the famous anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, studied the indigenous people of the Trobriand Islands just north of here and described a complex and sophisticated trading circle known as the “Kula Ring” between many of the PNG islands, including the Louisiades. Islanders would travel many miles in their traditional sailing canoes, exchanging the valued “Bagi” shell necklaces and shell armbands as part of a ceremonial system, but there was also a practical purpose, allowing the people to trade their own specialities for things they might lack such as pigs, yams or fruit.
While this more extensive inter-island trading seems to be a thing of the past, trading is still the established way to make contact with visitors, so thanks in part to the generous donations from our Sydney friends we’ve come loaded with clothes, caps, sunnies and reading glasses, sugar, rice, flour, fishing line and hooks, exercise books, pencils, batteries…the list goes on and Toucan is sitting much lower in the water than usual!
After a restful weekend hanging out at Kukaluba Island, doing very little except swimming and beach-walking it’s time to visit our first inhabited island. We choose Bagaman because we’ve heard they have a tradition of wood-carving and making the ‘bagi’ necklaces. It’s 20NM across the other side of the big lagoon, and it’s another fast trip in the strong SE trades.
The anchorage is on the north side of the island, quite sheltered from the wind but tricky because of all the coral bommies. We try and pick the largest patch of sand we can find, but our anchor chain inevitably gets wrapped around the coral heads as we change direction in the gusts. It takes several goes to free ourselves with me in the water directing Bruce, and finally we get settled in an adequate but not perfect position.
And then the canoes arrive….
First cab off the rank is Stephen who brings us a dozen eggs in exchange for some sugar and rice. He also wants some help fixing his portable DVD player so we tell him to bring it tomorrow.
Next comes Moses with Matmos, one of his 5 children. It’s school holidays so there’s many many children around. We’d heard of Moses from other cruisers’ accounts. He’s a lovely guy and brings aboard a selection of his carvings and also offers to make us a carved nameplate for the boat. We’d read that this isn’t a cash economy but Moses (and many others we subsequently meet) are keen to sell their work for Kina (the local currency) in order to pay for school fees and uniforms for the kids. We apologise that we didn’t think to bring enough Kina with us and then settle down to a discussion of what other items might be acceptable trade for the carved nameplate. Moses is keen for any tools for woodworking plus clothing, and invites us to his home tomorrow for “Kai Kai” (a meal), where presumably he can also show us an example of the nameplate. Moses generously leaves us with a present of a pretty shell and an ebony carving of a seahorse.
Next is Moses’ father and chief of the village, Gulo, with three of his grandchildren. The children are very shy but polite and enjoy the cordial and home-made Anzac biscuits we offer them. Chief Gulo has a bagi necklace to trade and also brings papayas, limes and pumpkin – we still have our trading training wheels on, but we know the Bagi is highly prized and only made on certain islands, so in return Chief Gulo gets an array of items including clothes for himself and the kids, dress material and sewing items for his wife, fishing line and hooks, sugar, rice and flour. He also has a visitors book that we sign, but it’s falling apart so we find him a new one.
Then there’s Waiyaki, Moses’ half-brother, with his stained betel-nut teeth and 3 kids in tow – we agree on a small carving in exchange for kids clothes, the usual rice, flour & sugar, but he also requests bandaids, antiseptic lotion and panadol for the sores on his hand.
Our most straightforward trade is with Simon, who presents us with a beautiful carved canoe, inlaid with nautilus shell. When we tell him we don’t have any Kina, he’s happy to trade for an old length of line for his sailing canoe. Deal done!
And still the armada of canoes come – it’s now late afternoon and we haven’t had a break for even 10 minutes. Everyone is unfailingly polite and welcoming, they wait their turn until the previous visitors have left, but it’s unrelenting and we’re starting to feel more than a bit overwhelmed. Finally the visits peter out around 5.30pm and we fall in a heap, too exhausted to cook more than eggs on toast for dinner.
The next day it’s more of the same, but this time we have more women and girls visiting – wanting fishing line and hooks, clothes, exercise books and biros. In return we’re given woven mats and baskets, armfuls of limes, coconuts and papayas. We can’t say no to their offerings because they have so little, and we must seem like millionaires in comparison. Around lunchtime we go into the village to meet with Moses and his wife, Leila. The houses are built on stilts with palm frond roofs and woven pandanus walls – there’s no furniture, just a wooden floor with a pandanus mat and a small sleeping annex off to one side. We sit on the floor and have “kai kai’ – grilled fish, tapioca pudding, yams in coconut milk and cups of very sweet tea. It’s all very nice and we chat about Moses’ intention to stand in the local upcoming elections and the challenges of island life. It seems there’s very little support or aid from the government for these islands – the nearest medical facility is in Misima, many miles away and the only way to get there is by sailing canoe. It’s hard to make a living now that the ‘ Beche de Mer’ fishing is restricted to only a few months of the year. There are no shops or supply boats, so this is subsistence living at its’ barest – the staples are fish, coconuts and yams, with occasionally some meat from chickens or pigs. There’s no freshwater except what they can collect in their communal rainwater tanks, no electricity, no internet or phone reception. This is truly life off the grid, probably more so than anywhere else we’ve visited in our previous travels.
Moses presents us with a beautiful nameplate for Toucan, complete with our bird motif, and is happy with the hand-drill, bits, sandpaper and sharpening stone we give him. I also give Leila soap, washing powder and clothes. Chief Gulo makes another appearance and we give him some reading glasses which he’s very happy with.
After only two days our trading supplies have taken a severe hit, so it’s time to move on before the boat’s stripped bare! We’re also groaning under the mountains of limes, papayas, coconuts and bananas. We say goodbye to Moses and wish him luck in the election. Next stop is Panasia island, which we’re hoping is a little quieter!