Panasia Island: trading 101 in our gateway to the Louisiades

We extended our tiptoe into Papua New Guinea by sailing to Panasia island at the western end of the Louisiades. We were wary of crossing Jomard Entrance after the seas we experienced last week, but had no problem, and picked up three very nice pelagic fish on handlines for our trouble.

Panasia is where the people from neighboring Utian island keep the gardens that feed their families. Sweet potatoes, ibecca (a bitter green), bananas, watermelon and more for themselves; corn and cherry tomatoes are grown to trade with the yachties who stop in.

Here we begin to experience the rich Louisiades trading culture. Islands actively trade together, and visiting boats are of interest for the goods they bring from outside. Where islands specialize based on their available resources- clay pots made on Utian, canoes from the wood on Panaeti, lime for betel on Sabra, shells for bagi (for currency and ritual trade) on Nimoa and Rossel- cruisers offer staples otherwise sourced from distant trade stores for exchange.

Small villages, with a handful of families, live in homes of wood frame and coconut frond thatching. Footpaths connect one village with another. Sailing canoes traverse between islands, and here at Panasia, from one side to the other: the water route is easier to traverse than the paths through very steep limestone slopes. Unlike the rest of the coconut run we have sailed, these islands to not have a cash economy. There is no ubiquity to modern infrastructure or stores; trading goods is the primary method to satisfy needs for anything that cannot be grown or made from what is immediately at hand.

When we arrive, we make a gift of fish to the family on shore. We’re guests in their waters, and a “one for us, one for them” standard is used. Even though few families live here on Panasia, we have a stream of dugout canoes stopping by Totem. Seeing our sail as we progressed closer, they come in outriggers not just from the adjacent shore but around from the opposite side of the island, and an adjacent island where gardens are kept. Visitors bring what they have to offer: coconuts, papaya, sweet potatoes, eggs, cherry tomatoes, lobster. We’re asked for clothing (especially for children), rice, sugar, or batteries to power the lanterns and radios at home.

We’re learning from boats who have spent years here how this trading has changed as the number of visiting boats has increased. There is more of an expectation that cruisers will give without reciprocation from islanders- a break from their mutual trade tradition, “pem penpewa”. It’s easy to see how this happens. You may already have traded for more bananas than you can eat, but someone is offering more and they clearly seem to need the t-shirt being requested, why not?

Although we might think we’re a little shabby, our boat and basic gear represent immense wealth to an islander- from their point of view, why not ask for something you need? Although trading is a way of life, so is “hol hol”, the obligation between relatives to give what you have if it’s requested of you (not surprisingly, most trade stores are not run by locals, but by Chinese or other non-local ethnicities who do not have to submit to this).

One enterprising man comes with a prepared list of desired items. He seems a little surprised when we ask what he has for us in return, but laughs and jumps into trading mode when we use the Misima dialect terms for his tradition- “u pem, ya pewa” (you give, I give).

We have our trading training wheels on, but are getting into the rhythm. One trade at a time, we are finding out how to balance being fair with being generous, and be respectful guests in this beautiful place.

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One Response to Panasia Island: trading 101 in our gateway to the Louisiades

  1. The Ceol Mors October 11, 2012 at 12:29 am #

    Looking forward to hearing how steep your trading learning curve turns out to be. Its a fascinating topic- how DO you balance fairness with generosity? I wonder how much outside influence has on changing the expectations of the locals as well.

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