Madang is the capital of Madang Province, located on the north cost of Papua New Guinea. Russian Nicholai Miklukho-Maklai was the first real Western explorer to the area in 1871 introducing pineapples, mangoes, beans, pumpkins and other foods new to the natives. Soon thereafter the German New Guinea Kompagnie built tobacco, cotton and coffee plantation. In 1914 the Australian Navy captured Rabaul and took control of German New Guinea. Little development took place until the occupation of the region by the Japanese during WWII. Madang was destroyed in heavy fighting with much loss of life on both sides. Allied soldiers recaptured the area in 1944 and post war development was mainly restricted to the coastal areas. Madang has many of the country’s highest peaks, active volcanoes and it biggest mix of languages (127 of which 7 are wildly spoken). Offshore islands are, in some cases, volcanic, and in 2005 the population of Manam Island was evacuated due to an eruption of the volcano. This active volcanic region is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire and has created crater lakes, smoking volcanic cones and beautiful black sand beaches.
We approached the port of Madang through the Dallman Pass. It is just a beautiful route up the Schering Peninsula. What surprised us was the greeting we receiving coming through the Pass. Scores of children ran along the waters edge shouting “hello’s” to us and singing local songs. The area is green and rich with tropical foliage. Palm trees swayed gently in the drizzle which was warm and welcoming. As we approached the harbour we couldn’t believe our eyes, it appeared that the whole island had come out to greet us. Six or Seven musicians dressed in local costumes. The traditional costume include bamboo frames decorated with cockatoo and parrot feathers with some face painting. The rope guys are what we call them; the guys who catch the ropes and pull them to fix to the bollards were dancing to the music and these guys could really dance. It was just amazing to see all these people come and welcome us. We later found out that only 1 or 2 cruise ships a year come into the port and they love visitors to their island. It is a very pretty place, a few traditional homes remain on the island. In earlier times, men and women were housed separately. Homes with woven mat walls are till built on stilts in most places as a practical measure against drastic tides. As we arrive on Sunday, the big town markets are closed.
We are on a tour today “North Coast Scenery and Culture”. This tour bring us to the north coast of Madang where we see tropical forests, pineapples and coconuts. One of the developments in the area is the cross breeding of several different types of coconut, which when cultivated, reduced the maturity of the growth time from 7 to 3 years. The new coconut is slightly off white (more cream colour) than the typical coconut. Another of the manufacturers is the catching and cleaning of tuna. There’s a huge tuna plant close to the town where predominately women work. The tuna caught close to Papua New Guinea brought on shore where it is processed and also tinned here. The average wage of a woman working in the plant is $125 US per month!
One of the things we notice when we were out of the van; we were one of the two vans that had air conditioning (15 total) was that people had red mouth. Their teeth and gums were red – the people chew a fruit called “Beetle Nut” that turns red in the mouth. It’s a small green fruit, similar in size to a small lime. The interior of the fruit is a cream colour and once chewed in the mouth turns this gory red. It’s spat out after a time – but really looks gross. When we talked with one of the guides, he advised us it really is a problem – it’s like a drug to the people. Instead of making breakfast, lunch or dinner the people will start chewing upon waking up in the morning. Many times it would be days without eating proper food.
There is obviously a lot of poverty here. Many people live in traditional housing, the concept of contraception is unheard off, with many families having between 9-12 children. Before the missionaries arrived men and women slept in separate buildings, no doubt that was an effective birth control method; another example of westernization not necessarily being a good thing. Many young women, as young as 16 already have babies and live with the family. The traditional food consists of fish, which can be caught off the island, coconuts which grow plentiful around the island with the milk of the coconut being used in the rice dishes. Vegetables are grown in the areas surrounding the house – mainly sweet potato and what looks like spinach. Clothes appear to have been donated to the island. Many of the younger natives, those between 20-30 appeared dirty and had a strange vacant look on their faces. It was kind of frightening and I was uncomfortable going out again on our own after we got back to the ship.
However, back to the tour – the villagers gave us a demonstration of local medicine and performed a traditional dance. We were very fortunate to have an earlier performance at a local vocational school. Kids between 1-16 were boarded at the school, many not having homes to return to (in essence it was a sort of orphanage). The school itself consisted of a primary school, junior high and a trade school where youngsters were taught skills such as electrician and sewing. Each class room (14 x 20 feet) had 30 kids around a large table, that had obviously been used for many years. There was an additional teachers table, with another table containing all the school materials, if you could call them that. The school materials had been used for many many years and it was obvious they were being held together. It was really quite sad to see. The kids gave us a traditional dance and they looked very healthy, although that was where I saw the first of the red mouth in children as young as 11.
The children in the village were plentiful and friendly. They were quite shy and would smile at us – I don’t think they really understood what these white people, many of them overweight, were doing in their village.
Not once did the people try to sell us anything or beg for money, unlike other islands where we’re inundated with souvenir hawkers. They were friendly and so obviously delighted that we had visited their island. As I indicated earlier, we were perhaps one of 2 cruise ships who will visit this year, what money was spent by our passengers I truly believe benefited the community as a whole.
It was a thought provoking tour and one we won’t forget in a long time.