In the fjords
Tufi, Papua New Guinea
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Back from Tufi for less than a month, I find myself thinking I should cancel this article, keep the place a secret and let those who think Papua New Guinea is a dangerous place of dark spirits continue in their ignorance.
On the first morning of this most recent visit, I was looking out over the fjord from the terrace of the Tufi Dive Resort as the early sun struck the trees on the cliffs opposite, when the friend I was travelling with had the nightmare vision of water skiers roaring into view. “Could it happen?” Hilary asked, as we watched the canoes glide silently across the water. Could the trade store on the wharf turn into a bar with loud music? Could bird calls and the voices of children climbing the hill to school be drowned out by the noise of holiday-makers? What then would happen to this peaceful, largely contented community?
The manager of the resort, Matt Brugh, laughs at the notion of Tufi as a tourist haven. “It’ll be a while before any of that happens,” he says. “If ever.” The isolation of the fjords should keep this gem of a place safe.
Tufi, in the fjords of Cape Nelson, on the north-east coast of Papua, is an hour’s flight from Port Moresby. The plane crosses the Owen Stanley Range – the mountains of the Kokoda Track – to Popondetta on the northern plain. From there it’s a short flight eastwards along the coast, over the spreading oil palm plantations, back to the forest and the mountains, until the fjords come into view, separated by green peninsulas punching out into the blue of the Solomon Sea. The plane circles out over the reef and comes back in to land on the rising slope of the airstrip.
Tufi Dive Resort is on the site of an old government station, though little remains of the original buildings. Sleeping huts spread out under trees around a central building that has deep Somerset Maugham verandahs and wicker chairs. It’s an excellent place to write or to read, perfect if what you want is quiet and light. Most visitors to the resort – as the name suggests – come to dive. Not being a diver, all I see of that realm is when Evie, a young Korafe woman, takes me swimming along the edge of the fjord. We climb in at the wharf, swim past the broken coral and the Coca-Cola cans (yes, even here) and past the canoes tied up under the trees. Within minutes we’re round the corner and the reef is clean. Bleached but clean, with bright squadrons of tiny fish that somehow sort themselves by colour. Hilary, on her first visit, floats on her back and looks up at the mountains, purple against the afternoon sky, and asks how come she never knew it was so beautiful. “The mountains,” Evie says, “Komoya.” Then she dives down and comes up with a starfish or a large shell still with its creature inside. She tells us its name and then dives down and gently deposits it back on the reef.
Evie is from a village across the fjord. She has the direct gaze and wide smile of her people. But no facial tattoos. In the villages the women say it takes a strong girl to have the tattoos. It also takes a strong girl to move between her village and the resort, to live with a foot in both worlds, keep her balance and raise a child who’ll have English among his repertoire of languages. In a country where education is not free, she’s already saving for her son’s fees.
The face tattoos that mark a woman from the fjords can take several days to complete, and the swelling lasts a week. Girls still young enough to remember raise their hands to indicate the pain, and laugh, proud of their achievement, their skin glowing beneath the dark lines inscribed on them by the senior women, the aya, whose own tattoos have faded into the lines of their faces.
There are many villages in the fjords. Flying in, you see their clearings in the forest or thatched roofs spreading back from small sandy beaches. Orotoaba, a village east of Tufi, is at the top of a peninsula where the forest begins. It’s an hour’s walk up from the beach and, though there’s little shade on the path, every step is worth it when you arrive. The houses are set back around a central swathe of grass, which is intersected by an avenue of coconut palms. Each family group has a house that can be closed against inclement weather and a win haus, an elevated platform with a roof but no walls, where much of the life of the village takes place. On still nights people sleep there under mosquito nets.
Three hundred people live in the village, yet there’s never a sense of overcrowding. The houses are so well disposed that the village achieves a happy balance of distance and closeness. At night, the flicker of a fire or the occasional hurricane lamp can easily be seen from one win haus to another, but to be heard across the intervening space you must call out.
Jackson’s Guest House, where Hilary and I slept, is set to one side of the village overlooking the fjord. It has three rooms, each with a double sleeping platform equipped with a mattress and mosquito net. The woven windows prop open to a view of green and water. At night the rain falls softly on the sago-leaf thatch, which is held in place by meticulous stitching and binding.
As a frequent visitor to the village, women come and sit with me during the day. Young women I knew before they were tattooed tell me how their husbands are, and how well their new families have accepted them; over time I’ve seen the tears of their first married years when the aya make them work for their place in the family, and watched them move towards acceptance, even serenity, as they bed down into the soil of the new clan in preparation for when they will become aya themselves, mothers of the place and the clan. For now they are mothers to the small children who run and play or hang over the side of the win haus and watch the strange white women talk. The tiny babies let us take a turn holding them but the toddlers are not so sure. The men come and go; they take the babies, gentle fathers all of them, and wander off to visit another win haus. When they return, the talk changes to the Digicel towers that have gone up behind Tufi and the logging ship anchored out in Collingwood Bay to the east. They can see it from the path up to the gardens high above the village.
In the evenings, after a meal of garden vegetables and fish and cray from the reef, we sit in the light of the hurricane lamp with Joseph Daubi, the school teacher, and the other men who have been to school – year 10 is the highest reached by anyone in the village – and the talk turns to the task they see as theirs: to steer their community so that it remains rooted in the ground of their culture and yet part of the modern, postcolonial world. They talk of the books they have read, which they rely on visitors to bring; Obama’s memoir was a hit, so was The Kite Runner. Joseph goes into Popondetta on school business and to hear the news and bring back the papers. He and Jackson ask Hilary about the Middle East, where she has recently been. They want to know what’s happening in Egypt. Their faces are serious at news of a population ousting a corrupt leader. They know the extent of corruption in their own country. They know it from Popondetta, and from the long struggle of their neighbours to the east to save their forests from the loggers. They know it when government supplies and funds fail to reach their schools and hospitals. With corruption common at the highest levels, there’s little incentive to intervene as it trickles through the system. The cynical and all-too-common view is that everyone wants a cut.
But the cynical view is a limited view and that, when it comes down to it, is why I am writing about the fjords and their people. Orotoaba is an example – there are others across Papua – of a community proud that it is not corrupt. These are people who see themselves and their culture as the true ‘ground’ of Melanesia. They want their children to be educated not simply so that there will be village leaders to advocate for their people’s welfare but so that some can go on to work in the Papua New Guinea of the future. They know that mass protest, as in Egypt, is not the way for a country of small, isolated villages. They put great faith in education and the character of people raised in the village to curb and resist corruption. Despite the difficulty of raising the fees, the children go to school each day. From year 3, they canoe across the fjord and up the other side to the primary school that takes them to year 8. Beyond that, students must leave the fjords. How to raise the fees for the last, expensive years is a topic much discussed; no one from Orotoaba has reached year 12. And yet, despite the lack of cash that matters in this context, this is a community conscious of its worth. It knows the wealth of its gardens – fertile ground that feeds them all – and of the security of a village that lets them sleep in the open air. Here is a world in which material goods are sparse and, yet, with a community that negotiates disputes and governs itself by consensus, with the work of each contributing to the whole, with land and forests and clean water to sustain them, the people of Orotoaba know themselves to be rich. Viewed through this lens, Papua should not be too quickly dismissed as a failed state, dysfunctional though the state might be.
Matt Brugh says that, despite encouragement, only about a quarter of the visitors to the dive resort visit the locally run guesthouses. Jackson is doing well if he gets one or two groups per month. So if you are of a disposition to visit a place without water skis or noisy bars, if you are interested in a culture that moves with strength and intelligence between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ and if you would like your notions of wealth and poverty challenged, then you may well enjoy a few nights in a fjord village. Give it a try. A little money into these communities makes a large contribution.
And if, after a few days, you are hanging out for a shower and a glass of red wine, the Tufi Dive Resort is only half-an-hour away in a dinghy once you reach the beach at the bottom of the hill. You’ll appreciate those wicker chairs and Somerset Maugham verandahs, and you’ll also appreciate the work Matt Brugh and the staff do, keeping the resort in balance as a retreat with its own sense of safety and enclosure, yet open to the surrounding communities, contributing to the life of the fjords and attesting to the possibilities of the future.