We return from Sorong after our latest visa extension run to find that Hans has started building a new house over the water. His parents are still away in Waisai trying to sort out the ownership dispute over the nearby small island (Pulau Dayan Kecil), so Hans has singlehandedly managed to build the foundation and frame and has already started on the roof in the one week we’ve been away.
Of course, there’s no modern building technology to assist here – all the materials are locally sourced from the nearby forest, including the particular type of vine suitable to make the lashings, and the different species of palm fronds to construct the roof and walls. No such thing as a pile driver either – so Hans’s solution is a heavy lump of wood fashioned with wooden handles that he uses to drive the supports into the sand, using just his body weight and momentum. It’s quite something.
We’re fascinated to learn more about this traditional Papuan building process, so we offer to help (although in truth I’m sure we’re more of a hindrance). After the basic framework and roof is complete, the next step is putting the floorboards in. These are cut using only a chainsaw but are remarkably straight and fine. Next, the frames go in for the walls and verandah – the horizontal wall frames are two pieces of split bamboo lashed together that will hold the palm leaves in place.
Bruce is put to work chopping the ends of the palm fronds to give them a nice straight edge, and then I learn how to slide the palm fronds in between the bamboo frames, overlapping each other and then working upwards to the top of the wall. It’s fiddly work, particularly for a beginner!
Here’s a little snippet of video to show you what I’m talking about…
With three or four people working on it ( who knew what they were doing!), a house could be finished in a week. Hans finishes his house in two weeks, which is mightily impressive. They’re very simple buildings, just one room for sleeping and a verandah. The furnishings are nothing more than a mattress on the floor and maybe a couple of plastic chairs for the verandah, although most people prefer to sit on the floor. Despite their simplicity, these buildings are remarkably weatherproof – we’ve witnessed some big storms come through here and they hold up well. Unfortunately, they’re just not that durable over time – five years is about their lifespan before needing major repairs to the roofs and walls.
I’m constantly struck by the contrast between this simple existence and our complicated ‘bule’ (foreigner) lifestyle with our need for so much ‘stuff’. Personal possessions and ownership as we know it are not part of the culture here. If visitors come to stay, they’re given the best house and the current occupant moves their mattress to another house. It’s that simple. But it’s not idyllic. They have an open, freshwater well for their water source but it’s easily contaminated by dead animals or, more recently, sea water that flooded in during a particularly bad storm. While they wait for the water to clarify, they have to collect drinking water from a source further down the bay, requiring regular boat trips to fill their water bottles. Power is from a petrol-driven generator, and when the petrol runs out, so does the power and the lights. And cooking is done over an open fire, so lots of wood chopping to be done. But ask them if they’d prefer to be living in the city and the answer’s an emphatic ‘No’! It’s hard to argue when you consider the paradise they’re living in.