Idyllic week in Budi Budi atoll

Budi Budi was only going to be a short stopover, but when we finally had good weather to leave, our weeklong stay felt too short. With an excellent anchorage, beautiful reefs, and very friendly people—it should be on more “must-see” stops in Papua New Guinea.

This jewel of an atoll gets few visitors, lying just far enough from the Louisiades that most cruising boats doing a circuit of those islands from Australia may not bother with the overnight trip north. It is on a path back to Australia from the Solomons, or for boats like us, a stopover point heading north and west through Papua New Guinea. From a local perspective, it is the equivalent of the back of beyond- the most distant outpost of Milne Bay Province.

It’s small: only about three miles in diameter, two of the seven islands have residents- about 300 total. This must make their unique Budibud language make it one of the smallest living languages spoken. I thought there might be some similarities with the Misima dialect we had learned at islands just south of here, but so far have found only one word with any similarity- “waga,” a generic term for boat.

Both our new Navionics and old CMap charts were surprisingly accurate here. The atoll entrance at the north west side was wide, and while we had excellent conditions, would be quite straightforward to enter with poor light by splitting the difference between the sand cay and the northern most island. There are a few large reefs inside, but reasonably charted as well, and anchorage throughout most of the area inside is a matter of finding your depth and then dropping the anchor into sand.

When we first arrived, we went ashore to meet Chief William and bring him a few token gifts: some fabric for his wife. He wasn’t shy about asking for more things from us later, but I think we have become somewhat inured by the Louisiades. At the same time, he was very generous with us: he put on a big feed the third day we were there, and wanted to host another on our last night. Besides, we are the freaks showing up in our spaceships loaded with crazy abundance, but he is the one giving openly from the little that he has available. We try to find a balance.

Our feast on shore was complete with a chorus of singing by the village children “for our entertainment” while we ate. The food was simple but good: our first taste of sago (I thought it was a tough coconut bread until corrected), chicken and greens in coconut milk, a fish (brought in by another cruiser), boiled sweet potatoes, bananas, and papaya (yes, boiled papaya).

Most of the population is on the largest island to the south, but one extended family make up twenty odd residents on an eastern islet. Chief William’s brother (really, his cousin- they share a grandmother), Tau, and Tau’s family occupy the smaller island- they are respectively the senior members of the community, with William taking the title of chief. Tau stood in for the pastor, who was away in Woodlark, and just like Panapompom we were put into a receiving line afterwards. He and his wife Elsie and passed many hours on Totem: teaching to us about the islands and their community, and mastering Fruit Ninja on the iPad. I’m pretty sure that’s an unfair cultural exchange, but we had a lot of fun.

Our first clue to a temporary skew toward women and children came at church. The sand-floor open air chapel is a wood frame with open sides and a coconut frond roof. The children stayed with the island kids in “Sunday School”, under a tree outside, while the adults sat under the palm thatch: women on the right hand side, and men to the left (dimdims excepted; we were ushered uniformly to a pandanus mat brought for us at the very front). While the women’s side held a few dozen attendees, barely a half dozen men sat on the left. It turns out that they were all off at Woodlark Island- about 60 miles away- which is home to a number of Budi Budi families.

We learn that the families on Woodlark Island the community at home by facilitating trading, keeping gardens in the better soil, and housing the handful of children who continue schooling beyond year 6. They help bring fish, mats and pigs from the atoll to the market, and trade for items that can’t be sourced in the atoll: betel nut and lime, sago and yams, material to make clothes. Little of this involves cash transactions.

The only person growing copra is Chief William. The pastor tells me everyone else is using all their coconuts to meet their own needs. They are a staple food, a primary water source, and fodder for the pigs, chickens, and probably dogs we see. But copra doesn’t earn much: Budi Budi’s primary access to cash is from shark finning. It’s extremely sad, but who are we to lecture? It is the only meaningful way they have to earn currency. Shark lines are set up just outside the reef, and men were eager to trade with us for larger hooks to bait for it. This catch is brought to Alotau, although I’m not sure exactly how it makes financial sense. A community powerboat was purchased this year, the m/v Kali Katu- a play on kali katu’ai, “thank you” in Budibud, to ferry the fins. But it takes four barrels of fuel just to get to Alotau, and at PNG prices, that needs an awful lot of shark fins to be economical. As in other places, it is unlikely that any part of the shark is kept for use besides the fin, the waste adding to the tragedy.

We snorkeled over reefs in a few different parts of the island, and found stunning formations: trenches and hidden canyons of colorful corals, running with fingers full of brilliant fish. But we didn’t see a single shark, and there were only a few larger fish- nothing we could take. It’s not healthy. I don’t think locals draw the connection between finning and the decline of the reef. And even if it was clear, would the choices be any different? They have chickens and pigs, and don’t need fish for protein- but they do need cash to pay for their children to go to school, and to supply other needs.

There are 70 students in the island school. Two teachers were posted there by the government, but one of them never returned from a trip home during the term break so there is the lone headmaster to cover all six years of schooling. He was educated in Misima and Alotau, but doesn’t know Budibud, so instruction is in English. As elsewhere, school is from 8 to 12 with a recess halfway through. I cannot imagine how daunting this man’s task is.

One of the first people we meet is Dorcas; she and her husband Moses are pastors. Originally from Fergusson, she’s one of the handful here who aren’t from Budi Budi: her husband was born here and the United Church has posted them here for a few years. Dorcas’ good English and warm personality make her an ideal guide . Over two different days, she patiently spends hours teaching us how to weave mats. That lesson almost feels secondary to the unexpected benefit of time with her learning more about the place we find ourselves.

It’s Dorcas who unravels the stories of families split between the atoll and the Woodlark settlement, laughs with us about the girls who don’t want to learn how to weave, and tells us more about bagi- the shell necklaces used for currency.

Two of our compadres in the anchorage bought small drums from Tau’s family. As part of the transaction, the drums would be demonstrated and accompanied by traditional songs and dancing. Sign me up! After we arrived for the performance, I was ushered back where the women were getting ready: painting their faces with black streaks of soot dotted with a white paste from coconut meat, weaving flower garlands for their neck and hair, donning skirts from finely shredded palm fronds. Last of all, the shirts came off. Although topless living is traditional, it doesn’t mesh with the standards for modesty that missionaries have imposed. A young woman participating carefully arranges plumeria leis across her breasts, and Elsie has compromised by sewing palms onto her bra, but it’s all done with a lot of giggling and playing around. The drumming and singing are done entirely by men, who stand together while the women and girls shuffle step around them in a slow circle. The song is about black magic, an incantation to protect the newly deceased from being taken by evil spirits.

Sitting in the cockpit on our last evening, I talk to the girls- almost women- who have paddled out once more. We eat sweet little bananas from the ridiculously large stem hanging under Totem’s solar arch, while they tell me which of Budi Budi’s clans they come from. Flying fox, shark, crocodile, sea eagle- all four are represented. Their dugout has fragrant leis and a basket of fruit. We arrange a last trade, and it’s hard not to wonder. We idealize the simple life, and theirs is about as simple as it comes, but what would they choose?

Grateful for to have control over my live, to have options, and grateful to be here.

10 Responses

  1. Thank you Behan. Love the writing and obvious interest in the local peoples. It sounds like you got really close to this last group. Perhaps a bit choked up there while writing. Getting close to people is the only way to really understand them and their lifestyles. You seem to have found the secret of connecting with people on a personal level.

    BTW, you don’t know me. I follow you thru ‘Toast Floats’. She seems to have gone dormant on writing as she and family adjust to land-based life in NZ. We can only hope she starts again when things settle down a bit. Absolutely love her writing style. I started reading her blog thru personal friends ‘Tad-N-Tina’ when they were cruising Mexico. Those kids moved on to other things while you gals stayed the course. I’m sitting here in the PNW (Tacoma, for the moment) waiting for next summer to come so I can take my turn at making the Big Left Turn. That is, if life doesn’t keep getting in the way. In the meantime, I can console my longing-to-travel soul with your writings. Again, thank you so very much for sharing your experiences.

    1. Big Left Turn next year sounds pretty great Dale! Don’t let life get in the way…THIS is life. Send your blog address if you’ll start and we’ll follow your own adventures. I have given up hoping I can cultivate the awesome wry humor in writing that Toast lets flow.

    1. We survived ok. We were on the windy side of the storm so the flooding was not a concern. Our biggest worry was a tree falling on the house because we have huge oak trees on both sides of the house. There are great for shade in the summer but kind of scary in a windy storm. The boat is out of the water so no problem there. We lost power for 3 days but we were prepared for it, so no big deal. Almost all back to normal now. Still no land line phone, which is also a blessing with the election so close.
      NY and NJ got hammered. Poor guys are in it for the long run..
      Keep the blogs coming..

  2. Hi Behan!

    I really enjoyed reading your post. Your interest in the native culture and way of life is very apparent. Reminds me of my first trip to Fiji with my parents when I was 13 yrs old. The slower pace of life, unhurried daily rhythms inherent in island and South Pacific cultures, was very much imprinted on me. I would have dreams of living on those islands, enjoying a very authentic existence and freediving for my meals each day. Thank you so much for sharing your family’s experiences as it brings me pleasure to hear that you guys are truly living life on the high seas. Can’t wait for the next installment.

    By the way, I just received the application to sign-up for the Clipper Race (! I might actually go for it. Ever since I was a small boy, sailing with my parents on our Westsail 42, I was completely taken with the idea of solo circumnavigating the earth when I turned 16. Instead, I went to the Philippines as a Rotary Exchange student. Some dreams never die though… 😉


    1. Exchange year in the Philippines sounds pretty fantastic! thanks so much for the kind words, Dan. I am so grateful to be able to travel afloat as a family and enjoy sharing our experiences.

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