Ask, listen, share, rinse, repeat.

We haven’t been in Papua New Guinea for two weeks yet, but I believe we have gotten to know more local people here than the rest of our Pacific island cruising.

It’s not spending time in one place. We’ve only spent a handful of days in each anchorage.  It could be related to being on our own, instead of in company with any other boat(s), although I don’t believe that’s it either. I think it’s just a higher level of mutual interest, on our part and that of the people we meet, feeding a desire to spend time talking and learning about each other.

Here’s a typical day to help illustrate.

Jamie and I tend to get up pretty early. I’ll peek out of the cockpit as dawn streaks cross the sky and breathe in the quiet moments of sunrise, then pop back below to make tea, fire up Airmail and the radio, think about breakfast and slide into the day. Jamie takes his coffee into the cockpit between 6 and 6:30. Somewhere in the interim, the first dugout has arrived. Almost every time, Jamie finds someone in a canoe waiting *extremely quietly* off the stern for us to be up and open for visitors or trading (no question, that takes a little getting used to!). Sometimes this is a quick hi-how-are-you, the transaction of some papayas and limes for rice. Sometimes it’s more involved- Jamie sat in the cockpit from 6 to 8 the other morning, working out a trade with a boat builder for a beautiful scale model of a sailing outrigger.

Filling out the morning, we’ll have breakfast when the kids are up. There might be some reading and learning on board, and we’ll usually have plans to dinghy in for one reason or another. It could be a school that we will visit to bring supplies and a soccer ball, or an event onshore (like yesterday’s church services in the village, or the youth rally on the island this week), or the promise to meet someone from a prior day.

Once on shore, having learned some words and phrases in the Misima dialect fast forwards the interaction. Our conversations are all in English, of course, and as one of the official languages many people speak it well; but there is nothing like basic greetings in the local language to crack a grin and open the door to interaction.

And then, there is the simple fact that we are interested in the people around us, and they are interested in us. Walking past a group of men building a new sailing canoe just behind the beach turns into an extended discussion of ‘waga’ types, building duration, and hand tools used…along with our own basic story shared in response to their questions- curious about the family traveling on their waga. Ask, listen, share, rinse, repeat.

In the afternoon, we’re usually back on board Totem. PNG primary school is a half day affair, so depending on our proximity to a village, this could mean nonstop visitors from the junior set. Our current anchorage is somewhat removed, but we have a steady flow of dugouts and paddlers/passengers of all ages stopping by.

We are happy to have visitors in groups, but there seems to be an unspoken rule that the dugouts arriving later stand off until the earlier boat(s) depart, unless we very actively encourage them over. Some are looking for a favor, such as sending an email on their behalf or copying a photograph. Most are eager to make some sort of trade. Some are there just for the conversation. All are interested in talking and sharing. We run through many liters of cold water or juice and plates of biscuits in the process.

To be sure, people are motivated to meet with us to acquire the things they cannot get without higher cost or difficulty. Subsistence living, little hard cash, and no stores on-island make basic needs for even simple lifestyles challenging to meet. It complicates acquiring the things we take for granted which pad our lives: a metal cooking pot, a bag of rice, some bedding. But it’s more than that, too. It’s human curiosity to understand each other’s similarities and differences.

In the late afternoons and evenings, a few of the “elder statesmen” have been on board to talk story. Over tea and cookies, the conversations stretch out: we share perceptions of current affairs. They have shared fascinating personal histories, from experiences as children here during WWII to juggling the transitions from Australian occupation / administration to independence, to the issues with their fisheries- from decimating beche de mer until it was closed from taking completely, to the current shark finning business. We’ve learned about the challenges for individuals to improve their situation, when the ‘onetok’ system obligates family members to give what they have if it is requested. We’ve learned their home island’s stories and history- of steamships overthrown and rogues vanquished.

It’s been a treat to find something special to leave behind with our new friends. On Brooker Island, Joseph Sum got a map of the Pacific that traced the route from our home to his. After a couple of nights talking to Joseph Betuel, we knew he’d love to have our copy of A People’s History of The United States. It fit perfectly with his interest in history from the point of view of the common person and not the elite. And it seemed he had a similar thought, as he presented us the next day with a beautiful book about Papua New Guinea’s marine life.

What surprises me is that most of our visitors tell us they have rarely, or never, been on a visiting cruising boat. I’m surprised, and saddened. Amazing people who have so much to offer, left on the sidelines. Yachties happy to trade at arms length for their lobster but never inviting the fishermen on board. Maybe this is what we missed: did we fail to make that extra effort to bring people into our lives before? Or were mutually busy and less curious lives making it simply less present as an open option?

Ask, listen, share, rinse, repeat. It seems always worthwhile to take the time.

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9 Responses to Ask, listen, share, rinse, repeat.

  1. Doug and Carla Scott October 16, 2012 at 2:30 pm #

    What a wonderful experience and reminder to all of us cruisers – open up our boats and our lives. We will all be richer for it.

  2. The Ceol Mors October 16, 2012 at 6:09 pm #

    Such a lovely post Behan. I always wonder why some choose to sail to foreign lands and then seem determined to keep the people there at arms length. I fail to see the point of traveling so far if that is their goal. Certainly new landscapes are beautiful to see but it is the people that really give a place its uniqueness.

  3. Dixon Grove October 16, 2012 at 8:04 pm #

    Our children have been learning about Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands as they’ve begun their study of the Eastern Hemisphere this year. We have gained a special appreciation for this people group and their culture and look forward to setting sail in the next couple of years and making our way to there too.

    I am so glad that you are enjoying your time with them and that you have shared it with us!

  4. rockfarmer October 16, 2012 at 11:03 pm #

    I loved reading this – Thank you so much for sharing these details and thoughts, it’s all very thought-provoking and illuminating.

  5. Brittany Meyers October 17, 2012 at 1:30 am #

    Beautiful post Behan, I’ll echo the sentiments above – what a great reminder to be open to the communities that we visit…it’s easy to get closed in with the cruiser set, but the best “gifts” and experiences are often those where we have some sort of cultural exchange that leads to understanding. So cool. Thanks.

  6. fredandrebecca October 20, 2012 at 6:05 pm #

    Hi there – we have just made it back to Australia (and internet) and picked up your message on our blog. So sorry we didn’t find each other in PNG. It sounds like you had a wonderful time there. We are feeling the culture shock of being back in Oz after leaving from Rossel. Hope we meet one day, but it looks like we are sailing in different directions at the moment. May see you in NZ one day?
    Rebecca, Yacht Tonga Moon

  7. Jennifer October 28, 2012 at 1:48 pm #

    Although I have never met you in person, I believe that these experiences are coming to you because you and your family go into the world with an openness and eagerness and with so much respect. You are an inspiration to me as we depart the U.S. (finally!) on Monday morning from San Diego.

  8. SV Estrellita 5.10b October 30, 2012 at 12:46 pm #

    “What surprises me is that most of our visitors tell us they have rarely, or never, been on a visiting cruising boat. I’m surprised, and saddened. Amazing people who have so much to offer, left on the sidelines. Yachties happy to trade at arms length for their lobster but never inviting the fishermen on board. Maybe this is what we missed: did we fail to make that extra effort to bring people into our lives before? Or were mutually busy and less curious lives making it simply less present as an open option?”

    Definitely this. We’re growing into our own hospitality and growing out of our automatic fear of strangers.

    • Behan Gifford November 2, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

      Livia, isn’t is amazing though, that when you just say “yes” to trust and assuming the best in everyone- that it generally just reflects right back?

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