Trading in the Louisiades: what to bring

We knew trading would be part of the experience of cruising in Papua New Guinea, but failed to appreciate just how much. For trading in the Louisiades, here’s what I would like to have seen gathered in one place before we left. This is based on our admittedly limited experience, through the western islands in the Louisiades- from Panasia through the Deboyne group- and Budi Budi atoll.

Model outrigger
First, understand that trading is deeply ingrained as part of the culture: it is expected. Where there are no stores, and effectively no cash economy, trading is how many needs are satisfied. At the same time, there is a great deal of need. It’s tempting just to give a pair of shorts to the naked kid that paddles out to your boat. We think that even when we are basically giving charity here, the formality of making a trade is still important…so while we didn’t try to drive hard bargains, we did stick to trading. When a dugout with three children come out with a pretty shell, a few green cherry tomatoes, and big smiles- some might call me a sucker, but if they want clothes- they all get clothes. They want rice? They get rice. But when the young fellow with a mobile phone and a watch shows up and presents a list of the things he would like visiting boats to give him, we wonder about the precedents that have been set, and just ask what he has to offer in trade.

So, what do people ask for? What do they need? Here’s what we heard the most.

Food staples: flour, sugar, and rice are the most common requests; also, yeast, onions and powdered milk.

Clothing: smaller children’s clothing especially, but shirts (nothing sleeveless!) for all, longer shorts for boys, skirts to knee length for girls, and mid-calf for women. I did not consider or realize how conservative and modest the norm for dress would be, and many items in my stash to give or trade aren’t useful except for the cloth they are made from. We took donations from friends and our children’s classmates in Australia and have given away a large portion of our own wardrobes. For boats coming from Australia, ask at Salvos, Vinnies and Lifeline about bulk purchases. Many op-shops will sell clothing at a very low price-per-bag or price-per-kilo if you explain why you are collecting it.

Randles listCotton cloth, elastic bands, needles and thread (aka “cotton”): a great deal of clothing is made by hand. Yardage of cotton cloth would have been a really great thing to bring. A dozen meters of elastic- so cheap at Lincraft!- would be gold. Most skirts/shorts for children and women, and many tops, are made by hand with these basic materials. I really wish I had appreciated this before we left.

School supplies for schools– dictionaries and books were especially appreciated, and the supplies mentioned below were all gratefully received. Our early reader books were a bit hit, since most instruction puts the kids into a crash course in English: teachers are often from different islands and don’t teach in the local dialect. Schools are reasonably supplied with exercise books and writing instruments, all things considered, but still strikingly sparse compared to what we expect.

School supplies for everyone else- exercise books / workbooks, biros (pens), pencils and erasers were often requested in trade. The schools themselves are often reasonably supplied with these, but it is a limited part of the population that actually attends school. Many children drop out very young: schooling beyond year 2 in many islands often means living for the duration of the term on another island, and fees are hard to meet for people who don’t live in a cash economy- both hardships for a family. But the pastor may need a notebook to help plan their Sunday school program. A carver wants a notebook to use for basic correspondence and to keep a record of his work and sales. A child who isn’t able to attend school still wants to practice writing. None of these people have ready access to writing tools.

Fish hooks and fishing line. Different places sought different size hooks; hooks are asked for more than line.

Hand tools for woodworking: large planes, chisels, metal files, handsaws, drill bits, clamps, axes, adz… a hand drill would be invaluable. I keep thinking of the men I met selling old hand tools on the sidewalk south of Kangaroo Point for just a few dollars, and wish I’d picked up a boxful. These are high value trade items.

Batteries: primarily D-cells. Only a few people asked about any other size. D-cells are used to power radios for news, and lanterns for evening light. We brought too many AA and AAAs, which hardly anyone wants, and not enough Ds, which we are consistently asked about.

Solar or manually powered lights, radios, etc. Devices that can be powered by an integral solar panel or manual crank is highly valued. You can get cheap garden solar lights to bring, but many of them are pretty light duty for “outdoor” gear- try to get something that will last.

Magazines. Magazines offer a glimpse into the outside world for people without regular external media. I really wish I’d gotten that stack of cheap National Geographic magazines spotted in a thrift store before we left Australia; they would have been gold.

Flashlights and headlamps. After lollies and balloons, a torch is the first thing children ask for- coached by their parents on that count I’m pretty sure! In a place where darkness falls early, anything that helps extend usable hours of the day is valuable.

We were asked a couple of times for Bibles, especially the NIV (New International Version). Carrying Bibles isn’t really our gig, but that might be helpful for others to know.

Boat gear. The following may be particularly valued in Panapompom and Brooker, as canoes are made in the Deboyne group, but the waga / solaus are used all over. We were asked for:

  • Marine paint – not necessarily bottom paint; anything for the sailing canoes
  • Nails
  • Retired sails, or plastic tarp to use for outrigger sails and for shelters
  • Hand sewing needles for sails, and 1/2mm nylon or synthetic twine to use
  • We think a quality synthetic small diameter line (like Robline) would be very valuable for the lashing in outriggers
  • Silicone“- really, sikaflex 395, 3M 4200, or similar stuff for joined hulls. Many of the outriggers leak like sieves and there’s often at least one person on board who is continuously bailing
  • Line– this fisherman below on Brooker, Frank, was seriously jazzed to trade a couple of bagi for a strand of new polypro line. Rubin so happy to get one of our old halyards and immediately put it into service as a mainsheet on his family’s canoe (their old poly line was hardened and cut into the fishermen’s hands)

Frank and Jamie

Other things we’ve been asked for:

  • printing or copying photographs, sending email. It’s such an easy thing for us to do with what we have on board, but can be so helpful to someone without these capabilities
  • baby bottles. I am a deep believer in extended nursing, so I cringe to say suggest a bottle. But the practical reality is that sometimes it’s not possible, and mixed with the plump cherubs there are some very skinny babies here who might be helped by a bottle- they’re drinking water from coconuts. Another mother I spoke to tended her gardens on a very steep hillside, without any shelter; a bottle made it easier for her to leave baby with father/sibling/aunties for a few hours to work growing yams
  • bedding. Most bedding is just a pandanus mat to lie on. we were asked a couple of times for a sheet or a baby blanket

One thing we haven’t been asked for directly, but which would be a great aid, is mosquito netting. Treated nets can be readily acquired at low cost through charity organizations (skip the camping stores, they are outrageous!), and would be a great thing to have for gift/trade. On Budi Budi, malaria is endemic but there is no health facility and many people do not have mosquito nets. Getting medical care means going to Woodlark Island, which in their sailing canoes takes one full day/night IF you have the right wind…and several days if you don’t. This all means that people here, and children in particular, die unnecessarily from malaria for want of a cheap bit of netting.

Update, 2013: we’ve had a lot of questions about our source for malaria test kits and mozzie nets. We got ours in Australia from Buzz Off. Besides the fact they had great prices, I liked supporting an organization that is focused on aid work- that’s a nice place to know your dollars are going! If you’re not in Australia, Google for local suppliers. The Buzz Off test kits were actually made by a New Jersey based pharma company.

Next post… what you’ll be getting for your trades!

7 Responses

  1. Hi guys. What a great blog. We are getting ready to set off next year from Oz and planning to do many of the same islands as you guys have. But didn’t have any information other than my ex-pat friends who live in Alotau (?) who keep telling us it is great up there. Your list will be noted and loaded when we push off the mainland. Many thanks for this oh, so helpful list.

  2. Thanks for a helpful post.

    Would Panama or the States be a better place to stock up for this? We’re planning on heading down to Panama and through the canal into the South Pacific this coming season.

    1. HI Dana- you’re welcome! I wouldn’t stock up in either the US *or* Panama for PNG trading. You won’t get there in a season from those points of origin unless you’re on a super fast track (and if you’re on a super fast track, you’re probably not going to PNG!). Save your locker space for now, and wait until you’re closer… you can supply for these basics pretty easily in closer ports. We stocked up in Australia.

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