There is an archipelago off the east cost of Papua New Guinea where the women have a reputation for sexual assertiveness and the local people play a game of cricket to resolve their differences. Welcome to the Trobriand Islands, where the notion of free love is held sacrosanct and the virtues of a straight-batted cover drive are acknowledged by both men and women alike.
On a recent trip to Papua New Guinea, escorting Steppes Travel’s exclusive charter aboard the True North, I was given the opportunity to take a helicopter excursion over the Trobriand archipelago and to land on the largest island, Kiriwina. We took off after breakfast at about nine o’clock. The air was still, the sky cloudless and the sea as flat as a giant blue blanket. As we climbed high above the watery expanse of the Solomon Sea, our pilot, Rob, confirmed what we were already thinking.
“These conditions couldn’t be any better for flying. It is the perfect day.”
Psychologists have long extolled the soothing properties of the colour blue. On that morning, the six of us flying high above the Solomon Sea were becalmed by a deep and vibrant blue, so pervasive that where the sky finished and the ocean began was at times, indistinguishable. The feeling of serenity was at odds with the frenetic activity of the rotor blades above our heads but overwhelmed by the magnitude and simple beauty of the ocean, this paradox was easy to ignore. The blue beneath us gave way to white coral ribbons that unravelled beneath the sea and in places, large coral spires broke the surface of the water, providing a landing spot for pelagic birds.
The island of Kiriwina emerged beneath us and within a minute of flying along its coastline a small village came into view. As the noise of the helicopter disturbed the peace, curious villagers left their houses and children ran around in circles, waving frantically in our direction. Rob circled the village and gently lowered the helicopter above a large clearing, landing it as smoothly as he had taken off.
In the common language of Papua New Guinea, Tok Pisin (or pidgin, as it is more often referred), a helicopter is known as magimiks bilong Jesus. As we dropped out of the sky and touched down in Kiriwina, the reaction of the villagers was as if something otherworldly had imposed itself on their uncomplicated lives. That is not to say that we were greeted with suspicion or uncertainty; far from it. The excitement and wonder displayed by the children bordered on hysteria as groups of toddlers with wild, tousled hair held each other up as they laughed uncontrollably, while the smiling faces of their parents conveyed an unequivocally warm welcome.
I tried to imagine how I would feel in their situation and felt a hot flush of shame. I could only think I would feel apprehension or even mistrust. I know I would not have welcomed these strangers, dropping uninvited out of the sky, with anything like the unaffected hospitality we were being shown. The experience was humbling and edifying.
Our pilot, Rob introduced me to the village’s school teacher. He was immaculately dressed, wearing a pressed, white shirt, untucked and very loose around his tall, slender frame. His heavy brow and well-kept goatee beard gave him the look of a serious man but his smile belied this appearance and exuded a generous spirit so typical of Papuans. He shook my hand and spoke softly.
“The children are practising for a dance competition against the other schools on the island – would you like to see them dance?”
The children were aged between five and ten years old, a mixture of boys and girls and dressed in traditional costumes of short, red grass skirts or loin cloths with matching head bands. Some wore hand-made necklaces and arm bands made from an assortment of shells, coloured seeds and flowers; others were sprinkled with glitter-like gold flecks that flickered in the sun while others had been adorned with Adam Ant-like white, face paint stripes.
They formed straight lines and danced with serious faces and like any young children in the limelight, there was an air of self-consciousness about their first dance. It was only when the teacher stood up and the tempo of the music increased, that the children began to relax. Their looks of earnest intent melted into spontaneous smiles as they watched with glee, as their teacher gambolled in front of them, throwing rambunctious moves on the grassy dance floor. All good parties have a moment when inhibitions are discarded and the real fun begins. This was their moment and the children followed their teacher’s lead with gusto and danced up a storm.
It was a wrench to leave the celebration. As we climbed into the helicopter to leave, our own smiling faces mirrored the hundreds of smiles that had gathered to wave us goodbye. We were silent as we lifted from the ground and each one of us craned our necks to maintain eye contact with the villagers for as long as we could. Before long though, the village was out of sight and once more, we were hostage to the big blue — a tiny, whirring speck in space, the magimiks returned to Jesus.