© Geoffrey Heard 2014
Here in paradise, we live life at a people level, a largely local level, a family and small community level. We live in, right inside, a real world, a world full of real people whom we know intimately. We do not ignore the great issues of the world -- we are very much alive to climate change, for example, and are doing what we can to ameliorate the impact of our rich neighbors' profligacy -- but what really exercises us and engages our attention is what is happening right here and right now among our nearest and dearest (or maybe not necessarily dearest -- a bit of juicy gossip goes a long way!).
And also what happened five years ago, ten years ago, fifty years ago and even hundreds of years ago.
We are demons for detail. Minutiae munchers of the first order. When we tell a story we go into detail in a way that should make the average westerner’s eyes glaze over and bring on galloping boredom.
But it is fun! What happens with the detail is that it feeds on and into a much bigger story than the one being told. It feeds into the whole story of the family, the clan, other families and clans, the whole story of living.
It is like the human brain -- it has millions of nerve endings (please forgive me, I am failing in my own message here, I can’t remember how many and I can’t be bothered looking it up!) but what matters even more is the connections, the multitude of links among the nodes.
Our story details provide new links to the nodes, sometimes important, sometimes not, but always contributing to the whole.
That’s why the details are interesting instead of boring as they would be in a western context.
If old Aunty Florence tripped over a root on the way to her garden and spilled her basket of goods, people want to hear about it and they want to hear the minutiae of the incident.
They will be ready to make their own contributions to the yarn with comments and observations: Is Aunty Flo a serial tripper? Remember when she was walking to school when she was eight and fell over a hole in the road and broke her finger and couldn’t write for a month? Does tripping or being a bit clumsy run in her line in the family? Why on earth was she carrying banana plants to that garden when there are lots of young bananas ready for transplanting there already? Oh -- they were banana mau (ripe bananas for eating as fresh fruit) as distinct from hard bananas (cooking bananas which taste and are eaten like potatoes). And so on and so forth.
A part of this is how we trace our familial relationships far and wide -- sometimes I get the impression that all Tolais (the people of the Gazelle Peninsula in which Rabaul/Kokopo is situated) are related to all other Tolais. All 500,000 (or whatever!) of them.
And then you move right along to people in other places altogether, which takes me back to the beginning of this story.
And we keep contact, however, if only sporadically, by messages (SMS these days), visits, phone, small gifts carried by relos or friends.
And so to what is exercising my mind at the moment -- the transport and preservation of daka, the peppery plant (in this case, in the form of a fruit) which is chewed with betel nut, the social drug of choice around here.
I am visited neighboring New Ireland (check my site newireland.info) as I write this, and as a result of mentioning to a Tolai, a village on New Ireland where a friend lives, I am now carrying a small bag of betel nut, daka, peanuts, and ginger to the Tolai's cousin several times removed, not met in ten years or more, but not forgotten.
My correspondent’s maternal great grandfather had two wives, one in Rabaul and the other in New Ireland. The children of the two marriages were in touch. But more than that, the children’s children retain the contact.
I haven't seen my first cousins in Australia for a decade or more, and lacking funeral of a common aunt or uncle (they are all dead already), might never see them again.
My correspondent is one of that third generation on the Tolai side and has spent time with the third generation on the New Ireland side.
Hence, the fact that I was going to the general area meant a gift had to go with me.
It is a symbolic gift -- the package is worth maybe ten kina (K10=$4) or so. It is not as though New Ireland is totally unequipped with betel nut, daka, peanuts, and ginger, it is just that betel nuts, the light social drug, are always offered along with daka as a gesture of goodwill (just as a beer might be offered in Western nations), and in a phone conversation to make the contact since I would be passing by the cousin’s village in the bus, the cousin mentioned peanuts and ginger.
“But I have a picture of a magnificent ginger flower in a neighboring village, it must have had a very edible ginger root underneath,” I protested, “surely your cousin can get ginger there!” I was silenced with a look which said, as clearly as you like, “don’t be an idiot”.
Because, of course, it is not about betel nuts, daka, peanuts, and ginger, it is about family contact, gifts and favors given, and gifts and favors received. Exchange. Keeping the network alive.
So I now have to make sure I contact the cousin when I am heading for her village (not necessarily simple; the mobile phone service in the area is chancy) and make sure she gets to the road in time for the bus. That is chancy too -- that particular village is spread out and does not have a clear roadside presence.
Will the bus stop? Yes it will. The bus services here are flexible; they are as people-based as the rest of our lives.
So there is an element of uncertainty there but that's all pretty normal. The big uncertainty is the daka. Can I deliver it fresh?
I am not going direct, I am here in New Ireland on business and I will be making several calls/stops over several days along New Ireland’s magnificent East Coast Road, the Boluminski Highway, before I get to the cousin’s village.
Like many tropical fruits (and stone fruits, never forget those delicious apricots and peaches), daka can over-mature very quickly; it needs to be fresh and young, not ripe. So the daka bought for the journey was selected for its immaturity and I have been instructed to open up the parcel, unpack the daka, and let it breathe every night in the hope that will delay ripening long enough for it still to be good when I finally hand it over to the cousin.
This is the first night; I have unpacked the daka as instructed. A thought intrudes: I am staying at Namatanai Lodge tonight and there is a little fridge in the room. Maybe I should put the daka in the fridge for the night. But what if refrigeration is not good for it (as it is not good for bananas, for instance)? The internet offers no information (clearly, I have a responsibility to fix this when I get back home -- Wikipedia calls!) so I will take the null option. Do nuffin!
And I will stop writing.
It is 10:08pm, I am getting tired after an eventful open boat trip from Kokopo to Namatanai today, and I have just had to resend a text message (it did not go the first time) to the person who involved me in this whole betel nut, daka, peanut, ginger carrying affair telling them how onerous it is keeping the daka fresh and how it is wearing me down already.
Now I am going to bed, wearing, as I have worn to bed every night for 50 years, a laplap (lavalava), just a length of cotton cloth wrapped around my waist and extending to my ankles (in the Tolai fashion -- others wear them shorter). The louvre windows are open, the fan is on low, the temperature is probably around 27C, and I have removed my hearing aids so the TV in the next room is just a low, unobtrusive sound in the background.
I will not mention how beneficial my deafness is in dulling the sound of the Lodge’s generator because that would lead into a whole new story about the power supply in Namatanai, with offshoots into the water supply, and …
I think that is enough detail for one night.
PS: The daka over-ripened and had to be thrown out. Then there was a communications breakdown so not delivery was possible! The contents were distributed to other friends! All that stress! LOL! ###