Two months have passed since I left Papua New Guinea and somehow I thought I should “finish up” my blog in a better way than I have left it. I was quite surprised to hear from a number of people that they enjoyed my blog, so I thought I should write down the experiences of my last two weeks in PNG and my somewhat difficult re-entry into “regular” life back in New Zealand. Despite of all the assignment problems I had I had some great times with my co-volunteers.
Everything happened very quickly and it seemed my program manager couldn’t wait to get me out of the country quick enough. I suddenly I had only very few days left. Two weekends left for exploration. I was invited to go on a camping trip with Ian, Erin and a friend of theirs from Australia.
They booked a place on a small island about 45 min away by boat. It belonged to one of the australian expats living in Kavieng. They brought us over there in their banana boat and we were accompanied by two of the owners seemingly countless children.
We were very surprised when we reached the island. It was a lot more than just a camping spot. They just finished building several traditional houses. There were toilets, pump showers, chairs and paddle boards! It was a small tropical paradise. The local workers and caretakers of the island were incredibly friendly. I did not use the shower after hearing that one of the workers has to pump water while you are taking one. I found this too awkward and optioned to wash in the traditional style, splashing a few drops of water on my face from a sink.
We spent Saturday very relaxed with snorkeling, paddle boarding, reading and sleeping. One of the workers showed us how to climb a coconut palm tree and how to harvest the nuts. I don’t have the intention of ever making use of the learned knowledge. Coconut trees are really high. I love coconut water but I don’t think it is worth dying for. But I did start using a machete to open the nuts. It’s fun and a lot more effective than trying to open them with small knives, can opener or banging them against the head. I love drinking coconut water and NOTHING compares with a fresh one, just picked from the tree. It was good.
The following day one of Erin’s local friends wanted to pick us up by boat and take us on a fishing trip. However, it turned out to be a full day sightseeing trip. I lost count of how many islands we visited but it felt like we were visiting every single one almost halfway
to New Hanover. Most of them were very beautiful with friendly and welcoming villagers. One had two large shipwrecks lying half on the beach, half in the water. It offered a very atmospheric snorkeling experience. The last island we visited was the most remote and the smallest one. One could walk around it in 5 minutes. At the center it had some shrubs and exactly two coconut palms. It was like walking on a comic book version of a tropical island. It also happens to be the island the Hawksbill Turtles choose to lay their eggs. We did notice the large storm clouds building up in the distance for a while and asked repeatedly if we shouldn’t go back. Our guide said everything was fine. Now it started to look like the world is about to end and this display of approaching Armageddon finally triggered some worried looks on our guide’s face and he meant that maybe it would be a good idea to go back. We agreed instantly.
The wall of dark grey we approached seemed to swallow the world.The sea started so swell up and finally we were unable to see any land at all. There we go again, my second time in an open banana boat about to die in a tropical storm. Only this storm looked a lot bigger. Eventually torrential rain hailed down on us. We all hid under a plastic tarp. The world was a lot happier under the tarp. I wondered how our guide is going to navigate? How can he see where we are going? How does he manage to avoid the many reefs that pop up everywhere even quite far out at sea? I managed to unwrap myself enough so my left eye was peeking out of the tarp and all I saw was a very wet guy standing in what looked like the apocalypse playing out around him. I went back to my happy place made out of tarp plastic and pretended to be somewhere and someone else. Somehow we managed to come back alive. Cold and wet but alive. Yes, cold. I did not know one could feel cold at the equator and usually one doesn’t but it is possible, apparently.
The only victim not to survive this trip was my telephone which I pulled out from a puddle of sea water. It did hang on to life for a few more days behaving slightly erratic but it eventually went to HTC heaven.
The following week was full of fun having to deal with my assignment and return. There would be lots to report but most of it is annoying and left me with the trauma of getting instant migraine every time I think about it. It all started to become like a blur and despite my efforts to still safe the situation I was actually just glad to have it behind me soon. I had one fun afternoon with Janna when I wanted to do some test filming with the small GoPro camera down at the harbor. Janna is a diving instructor and more agile under water than me. I do have an advantage over her, though. I can appreciate my environment a lot more as Janna is pretty much blind and everything further than 15 cm from her face turns into a blurry color blob. I don’t have to dive so deep to appreciate the wonders of the underwater world. I see everything crystal clear while being able to stay very close to the surface with the security of having the planet’s atmosphere filled with beloved oxygen so close nearby.
My last weekend was a real highlight. Rob, Janna, Erin, Ian, Adrienne, Peter , Nora and me went down the Boluminski Highway to Madina to stay at one of Peter’s friends place for the weekend. The house was directly at the beach and it was very beautiful.
I rolled out my sleeping bag and my mosquito net out on the veranda which I shared with Janna and Rob. I did a bit of snorkeling, like most of the others. At some point I felt a bit of a rip tide and a current pulling me out so I stayed in the shallow water and actually walked back on the reef rather than swim. Only later did I hear that the riptide was a lot stronger a bit further out and Rob, Janna and Ian were sucked out of the reef and had real trouble coming back in. They all looked seriously distressed afterwards. All three of them a very fit and very good swimmers, I’m glad it did not get caught in it.
The next day we explored nearby caves. Apparently it was used by Japanese soldiers to execute people during World War II. The old roads leading there must have long grown over as it was a long walk through dense jungle to reach it. It was hot but exciting. At one point a massive spider with yellow joints ran over my foot. It was gone before my brain could trigger panic mode. We had a local guide and we would have been absolutely lost without one. This was serious jungle. After 2 hours or so we reached the cave. It was absolutely huge, like a cathedral with millions of bats living in it. The smell of the bat shit layer covering the ground was lovely. We went inside and it was a crazy with all these bats flying over our heads, chirping and whistling. I lost the others for a while and went deeper into the cave with our guide’s son who apparently knew his way around even though he didn’t speak much. It was more the confident walking pace which led me to the conclusion he knew where he was going. There was the chance he thought the same about me. In this case we would both walked confidently into the depths of the earth to never be seen again. It was good that there came a point where it looked like you could not go further without climbing equipment or wings. The only sign the others were there somewhere in the dark below came in form of echoing voices from the distance. The bat shit was ankle-deep at some points. After some exploration we all met back at the entrance. The guide told me and Ian the story of his grandfather who came to the cave during world war II and encountered two Japanese soldiers. Apparently they were a bit slack with looking after their weapons because our guide’s granddad stole the rifle from one of them and shot both dead on the spot. I have to admit this was one of the more unusual family stories I have heard from a tourist guide. He said it with so much pride that Ian and I reacted by just saying: “Oh wow, good on him! Well, done, Grandad!”. We did not say that because we were so impressed by his granddad’s action but our guide had a half meter long machete in his hands. I would have applauded to ANY story he told us.
After another two hours of walking or so we reached the beach, sweaty and tired. In the evening we sat around a campfire and watched the stars. It’s always good to have a bit of astronomical knowledge to impress people. I’m quite a geek when it comes to astronomy and I read more about this subject I dare to admit. I also own and have owned telescopes in my live.
My phone has an app which tells me when the International Space station flies overhead and I have a full blown star chart catalogue with me. It feels like your mind expands when contemplating the distances, numbers and the size of the universe. I thought how cool it would be to finish up this amazing star watching evening with a UFO sighting. And we did! I’m not saying we saw aliens or a spaceship but Janna and Rob discovered this odd, irregular flashing object moving across the sky. It was very cool and I have not seen anything like this before. I can rule out planes, satellites, the ISS, Chinese lanterns or reflecting swamp gas off the atmosphere. It looked like a “largish” grey object with fuzzy edges which emitted sort lightning bolts over its surface. I have no idea what it was. And it doesn’t matter, I like seeing things I cannot explain, it gives me confidence that there is more out there we can explain. Everyday life is always so predictable and boring. I like it how it is described in the book “Sophie’s World”, a book about the history of philosophy. It says as little children we do not know what the world can do or cannot do, and it’s all full of wonder. As we get older and start seeing things over and over again the world just becomes a “habit” and therefore quite boring. But it does make people uncomfortable not having an explanation of something so I think we agreed on Chinese lanterns or swamp gas. Well, they did, I like to keep my options open.
Everything turned stressful when I went back to Kavieng. When I asked Johannes, my program manager, for support during my battle with the College to make my assignment work he apparently misunderstood me and thought I need a babysitter to get out of Kavieng. It’s painful for me that VSA did not realize it was not PNG which made me resign but their lack of support to make this thing work. And so he came over from Kokopo and pretty much escorted me all the way to Port Moresby over the next few days. From then on I simply went into endurance mode. I thought I’d still have a few days left in Kavieng but suddenly I had to pack very quickly.I ended up in Kokopo for 4 days because there was apparently no connection flight for 4 days going out.
It didn’t matter anymore. I was very frustrated and slept through most of those days. I did experience my first earthquake however. Kokopo is very close to Mt. Tavurvur, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, sitting right on the pacific ring of fire. In 1994, a
massive eruption destroyed most of the town of Rabaul, located at the volcano’s foot and the settlement was moved to a new location, to a “safer” distance. Nevertheless, it’s still pretty close and I noticed that the earth was constantly moving. I could only feel it at night. The bed was constantly shaking, subtle, but noticeable. And then, one night, I suddenly woke up by a strange, low-frequency sound, a sound I was later told often appears just before an earthquake. Just when I was fully awake the building began to shake violently. I could not remember what to do in the case of an earthquake. Crawl under the bed? Stand in the door? Run outside? Before I could make up my mind it was over. I kept shaking inside, though. It was pretty scary. The next morning I found out that the locals are very used to earthquakes and this was just one of many. Nobody shared my excitement. I visited the Kokopo village market. It was so much bigger and cheaper than the market in Kavieng. Kokopo felt like New York with everything it has to offer in comparison. Even though I only spent 4 months in Kavieng, apparently 4 months were long enough to make Kokopo feel like a major city.
Finally I flew to Port Moresby and said goodbye to Johannes. I was relieved everything was over now. I was still very disappointed it did not work out. I had another “Twilight Zone” moment at the airport in Port Moresby. I just bought breakfast, thin, dishwater style coffee and a dry bagel for a crazy high price. I sat down at a table when I noticed that pretty much everybody around, people sitting at the tables and walking around with their baggage trolleys, suddenly stopped with whatever they were doing and started staring at me. It was so bizarre. I thought maybe I’m still dreaming and haven’t gotten up yet? I was about to take the plastic butter knife, jump on the table and threaten everybody not to come closer, making Bruce Lee style noises and movements, when I realized they were actually staring at a tv screen right above my head. The news channel was reporting the latest rugby results. I did not realize this. I’m glad I did not jump on the table. This would have given them a real reason to stare so weird, though!
The flight back home was quite long and I arrived at 1 am in Auckland. Thankfully Ian picked me up. I have no idea what I would have done without Ian and Bridget. They took me in and I helped them in the garden and with the construction of their new house for the following two weeks. I felt quite deflated with everything and did not know what to do and how to bridge the next 8 months before I could return to my job. I contemplated giving up on New Zealand and return to Germany. I may still do this. However, I wanted to make use of the time and decided I would move into my tent and travel around the North Island for a while.
My first stop was “Te Moata”, a private natural sanctuary of 450 hectares on the Coromandel Peninsula. They rent out little huts for people who want to withdraw from the world for a while for private solitary retreats. Exactly what I needed. I booked a hut for two weeks. It was the most remote hut they had available, 1 ½ hours of walking from the nearest road through dense and muddy bush.
“Far Hills Hut” was right on top of Coulters Hill and offered absolutely spectacular views all the way around. It wasn’t too much fun having to carry all my stuff in. Food and gear was quite extensive. I also wanted my solar generator with me. I built it for Kavieng and thought it was perfect for this adventure. The hut has no power. It weighs 15 kg and I had to do an extra trip just for this. It was worth it however. I had no issues with lighting or keeping my phones charged. This thing just works great.
I thought it would be hard not seeing anybody for two weeks but it wasn’t. I enjoyed the solitude a lot, no stupid discussions, no demands from other people, no redneck hillbilly macho jokes, just peace and quiet and an amazing scenery. The first week was like a dream, the weather was great and it was warm. The only shocking moment I had was this crazy scratching noise I heard one night and when it came too close for comfort I switched on the light, only to find a 14 cm long monster centipede just a few cm next to my head, crawling around on the wall. I almost had a heart attack. These things have a very nasty bite and had it bitten me in the face it would have been the end of my solitude cabin adventure. I jumped up, took a shovel and killed it. I’m not proud of killing it but I did not want to have an insect of that size with jaw stingers the size of a hornet stinger run freely in my tiny hut.
The second week the weather turned bad and it rained a lot. It also got cold for a short while and I spend a few uncomfortable hours outside to collect enough firewood to get the oven going. Fortunately there was enough dry wood inside the hut to get the fire started. When the fire was going it was quite cozy inside, I was reading while the wind and rain rattled at the hut. I couldn’t see a thing, everything was in the clouds. After three days it cleared up somewhat and I was able to see 6 waterfalls in the valley behind. I had no idea they were there before the rain. I spent many hours watching the valleys below and the birds and animals. A few birds flew into my hut out of curiosity and I had to rescue several of them. Eventually I had to pack up and leave.
The following weeks were quite pleasant, though. My next stop was Tauranga were I met with Adrienne from Kavieng. She has returned from her assignment after two years in PNG. It was great to catch up with her. Her mother invited me to camp in their garden. It was nice to have some chats after two weeks of solitude. I was given dozens of homemade jam and pickled fruit and chutney jars before leaving Tauranga. I was on my way to Wellington when I got a call from my boss who asked me if I wanted my job back 6 months earlier. What a relief to hear of the prospect of earning some money. I immediately said yes. I had already committed to do two weeks of volunteering at Tauhara Center in Taupo and I agreed to be back in Auckland right afterwards. I was faced with the difficulty to find a place to live in Auckland without actually being there. Rental prices are so crazy at the moment I wasn’t sure I would be able to afford anything.
Tauhara is a retreat and conference center in Accacia Bay, just outside of Taupo. It’s up in the hills with spectacular views over Taupo, the lake and Mt. Ruhapehu. It was a bit risky. I applied by chance and was not sure how the people are going to be. Since my volunteer assignment in PNG did not work out well I really questioned doing volunteer work in general. Fortunately Tauhara Center really was giving me hope that proper volunteering is still possible. I absolutely enjoyed my two weeks of being there. The rules were very clearly laid out and it was very much about the people and the experience, than just free work. I worked a lot and hard but I always felt valued. Every morning we sat down together and the manager Tristan gave us the tasks for the day. It was well-organized and everybody knew what everybody else was doing. This made for a smooth and relaxed working atmosphere. On my first weekend Tauhara had a wedding booked for almost 100 people. I am not a fan of hospitality work as it usually is very stressful, chaotic with loud and aggressive people and bosses. Here it was normal, balanced people trying to do a good job. It is soooooo rare to find this these days. The wedding worked out without any drama. A large kitchen, catering for 100 people, staffed by mostly by inexperienced volunteers, no dramas, where do you find that anymore? And it showed me it is possible to do. Most of the time while being at Tauhara I worked in the garden, chopping down trees and transport wood all over the extensive grounds. I drove this tiny Suzuki truck with off road tires down muddy, steep slopes and it was great to polish up my off-road driving skills again.
Occasionally staff and the volunteers went to the Thermal Spa Park in Taupo very early in the morning to soak in the hot thermal pools. Entry is free and it’s a great way to start the day. It was a bit too hot for me, and I did get quite dizzy. The afternoons I spent exploring Taupo and its surroundings. I like the area and would like to live here. I often explored the area with other volunteers and it’s great to meet all this really interesting travelers, like Kathy from New York, who just came back from a job at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. I would love to go to Antarctica so it was great to get some first hand impressions.
I was really sad to leave after two weeks but the “real world” was calling again. I went back to Auckland. I found a ridiculously over prized one room – shared bathroom/kitchen place for $260 a week. It is insanity. This is the most expensive place I have ever rented and it is by far the smallest. The good thing is I can walk to work. It is great to see my old colleagues and I am very thankful for Phil to have called me back earlier. Now I have to see what to do next with my life. I was hoping my VSA assignment would give me new perspectives and opportunities. I was really keen on going to schools and other places and give talks about the experience. New Zealand is so much following the “American” style of doing business now, which just puts “making money quickly” above everything else. I was hoping I could contribute by remembering people that there is more to life than career and making money. New Zealand seems to forget how socially minded it used to be and is turning into this “work more, faster, more, faster, more, more, more” madness the rest of the world seems to be in. I understand that the economy and making money is important, I don’t have any money anymore, I understand the importance of having it, but it drives me mad how blind most people are and act as if they are just working drones in a gigantic bee hive. And I find it sad that this attitude ruined my year of volunteering. I guess I have to keep looking. Somewhere there MUST be people who work AND can live at the same time. And by living I don’t mean drinking and partying all weekend and killing ones few remaining brain cells by over consumption of alcohol. I would like to work and live with people who have some curiosity left about things and not so many neurotic habits, I mean, I have them too but I don’t live them out on others. At least I try really hard not to.