WE WALKED ALONG THE DUST ROAD as twilight hung in the air. The walk felt like a procession; as John and I passed the tin and weatherboard shopfronts where brightly dressed women sold betel nut, acquaintances stopped us to chat. We saw almost everyone we knew along the road that evening, which was strange, because we had only just decided to leave Bougainville. My two-month visa was set to expire in a week, and I had failed to acquire a new one. The courier company had simply forgotten to send my passport to Moresby the previous week.
A sweet-looking man with bovine eyelashes hovered nearby as we chatted with acquaintances. As we turned around to leave, he stepped in front of us and asked if we knew how to identify a diamond.
‘I can. I’d have to see it, though,’ John said. I rolled my eyes at his American self-belief. ‘How big is it?’
The man indicated with his fingers the size: around an inch in diameter.
‘How much, you think?’ he asked.
If it were a diamond, we told him, it’d be worth a lot of money. He hesitated and asked again how much. A lot, we confirmed. He settled on trusting us, and took us to a grassy patch behind a shop. Turning his back to us, the man rummaged through his canvas backpack searching for its secret place. He faced us and opened his palm. In it was a scratched, bubble-filled, glass marble. John and I paused for a thoughtful while. For a split second I wondered if it might be my ability to identify diamonds that was of ‘I can’t be sure,’ I said to him. ‘But I don’t think that’s a diamond.’
He didn’t seem to believe that it wasn’t a diamond, so we talked about it for another five minutes. As we stood there, passers-by gathered to watch our secretive exchange.
‘It probably wouldn’t have so many scratches if it were a diamond,’ John said. The man then pulled out a yellow marble from the same bag.
‘What about this one?’
I still don’t know if we were being had, or if that man really thought the marble was a diamond. John told me that during his previous trips to the island to collect linguistic data, he’d had similar encounters. I came to see that it summed up my time in Bougainville: being marked as an outsider and burdened with unwanted authority because of it. Yet also being trusted and indulged, charmed and then, possibly, laughed at.
Two months earlier John’s cheek pressed against mine, both of us peering out the plane window as we approached the island. Below us Buka Passage, the narrow strait separating Buka Island from Bougainville Island, sparkled sapphire. I scanned the surface of the water for sharks. The small aircraft bounced gently on the runway before coming to a halt and allowing us to descend a set of aluminium stairs onto a coconut-girt runway. The wet heat and the crowd enveloped us. There were many large men with red eyes and red-stained teeth in velvet-brown faces. I didn’t yet know what betel nut looked like. It is the mild natural drug widely used in Bougainville and the Solomons, which, chewed up with a nibble of mustard stick and limestone powder ground from coral, creates a frothy scarlet soup in your mouth, which must be spat out. It stains teeth red and dots the ground with splatters of what looks like fresh blood. Waiting at the airport, in my starchy purpose-bought cargo shorts and hiking boots, I felt like an idiot: an uncomfortable girl amid a crowd of rubberthonged comfort.
We hadn’t made plans, not really. We assumed that things would work themselves out, we’d just slip easily into life here. John had been in Buka on previous fieldwork trips over the years of his PhD, and he had made this seem like a reasonable expectation. He left me to mind our luggage while he searched the crowd for friends. As I stood there, I breathed through my mouth, hoping no-one would recognise that I was trying to block out the stench of Buka: a pungent blend of copra, river funk, fresh mud, and body odour. I watched dumbly as an Air Niugini employee threw my bike bag off the back of a ute onto the muddy ground; ‘Fragile’ stickers flashed as it hit.
A friend of John’s drove us into town. Buka is the capital city of Bougainville. The temporary capital, rather. The old capital city, Arawa, is on Bougainville’s main island, on the other side of the passage. It was captured by rebels during the conflict in the 1990s, and has not yet been restored to its status as capital. Before the conflict, Buka Town was just a small port with five or six buildings, but it has rapidly expanded; new buildings of varying structural integrity appear weekly. It houses a fluctuating population of three to five thousand, with many more passing through for trade and governance. On the south shore, directly across the passage from Buka, is Kokopo, another village whose population has exploded since the conflict. Refugees from the southern end of the island have taken up residence in order to escape the lingering dangers of weapons and militarisation.
The truck pulled over at Destiny, the guesthouse we were to stay at for a few nights. I jumped from the trailer into the squishy mud below, and looked at the guesthouse. It comprised a row of handsome wooden huts capped by an arching blue tin roof. The rooms sat on the edge of Buka Passage, their balconies overhanging the water. By most measures, Bougainville is a poor place. But these airless rooms cost A$180 a night.
While I was mesmerised by the beauty around me, I couldn’t remember what I was doing there, aside from pursuing this man I was with. The previous year I had received a cheque in the mail. It was small enough to be a regular Australian person’s weekly or fortnightly salary, but large enough for an underemployed, underpaid single woman like me to use as a down payment on my next trip. With the cheque I bought a one-way airfare to London from the kind of airline that makes you pay extra to use the toilet, and a pair of expensive sunglasses. I continued to buy my wine boxed, and ignored the sole missing from my right shoe. I had at least six months to generate the funds required to travel from London to Istanbul, after which I would make it up as I went.
But on the last night of a writers festival I met John. An American linguist, he had been presenting on his current research project: documenting a climate-endangered Melanesian language spoken on a Bougainvillean atoll. We met briefly while navigating the streets of Newcastle to a party, exchanged email addresses, and promptly lost one another in a fog of dubstep and cask wine. A few days later he emailed me from the States. A few emails after that, he recorded a song for me. By November he was in my home town, Melbourne. He spent Christmas with my family in Sydney, and we were becoming serious, I suppose, when it came time to book his ticket back to Bougainville and finish his fieldwork. Would I like to join him?
I sold my piano, my clothes, my books, everything, and bought a ticket to Bougainville. I threatened the original airline with litigation should they not refund my London ticket. They refunded my ticket. And so I found myself in Buka, a totally alien town in an unfamiliar country with a man I had only known for a few months.
We had arrived at Destiny guesthouse during a blackout, and with just one small window, our room was unbearably hot. So for a silent hour, we sat on the balcony overhanging the water, astonished at the beauty before us. I had read Bougainville described as one of the most beautiful islands in the world, and now I understood that impossible claim. Every tree dripped with flowers, lush fruit, or velvet greenery, a Florence Broadhurst wet dream. Zebra-striped reef fish swam against the passage’s current, their stripes disappearing in the black and white braids of the water’s glassy surface.
On the far side of the passage, the bush looked more like a colonist’s sketch of paradise than the real view from my room. Handmade canoes manned by tiny children hung at the shoreline, bouncing and swaying as the kids jumped off and climbed back on, throwing sea stars at one another like ninjas. The beauty was not pristine, though, not plastic. The white sea floor is made of abrasive coral and sharp rocks, scattered with sea urchins and deadly cone shells. The jungle is wild and dense.
A few days after we arrived, a friend of John’s joined me on the balcony as we drank cans of Coke. ‘Look over there, at that green house.’ He pointed at a house next to the mangroves. ‘Last year, that was where they found a crocodile victim.’
Crocodiles bury their victims in the mud, and wait for the flesh to disintegrate before feasting on them. As I searched the water for signs of crocodiles, a highway boat zoomed past, loaded with passengers on their way home to the nearby islands.
Most of the boats don’t have lighting, so if you sit by the shore after dark, you’ll hear the din of a distant lawnmower approaching and see the pale blue light of a phone skimming across the water, held by a young man on the bow of the boat, guiding the way. Life jackets are expensive and cumbersome, and many boats don’t have them. The vessels are often very small businesses, just a man and his boat taking passengers where they need to go for cash, even on five- or six-hour journeys to distant Pacific islands. There’s no central coordination.
In the first week in Buka, I followed a saga that was unravelling in the Post Courier. A dinghy ran out of fuel en route to a distant island, and began to drift. The skipper and first mate disembarked, attempting to swim to shore, presumably to seek help. While the boat, full of passengers, eventually floated to safety, the two men were still missing. Sightings of them were reported by passengers on other highway boats, saying they had refused to pick the two of them up, because they thought they had been pirates, or ghosts. These men had been made alien by their bizarre choice to leave the safety of the vessel.
As soon as John and I found ourselves out of range of the cool breeze off the passage, heat swelled thick against our skin. I thought I would acclimatise at some point, but I didn’t. It’s one of those myths of travel: you’ll just pick up the language! You just adapt to the climate! ‘Acclimatisation’, I discovered, is learning not to collapse from heatstroke, adopting tactics that minimise sun contact. And although still infatuated with one another, John and I began to minimise our physical contact. As the intimacy between us grew, we drifted apart from each other’s bodies.
We looked for long-term accommodation, or a home-stay, but it is hard as an outsider in Bougainville. Most Bougainvilleans observe traditional land rights, and are born owning a parcel of land on which to subsist. The cash economy means that those with native title in Buka now lease their land, housing workers in shipping containers with no sanitation. We were not workers, and our skin denoted an affluence we didn’t possess. There was nowhere for us to stay.
A friend, Sonia, offered her house for a couple of weeks while she visited her daughter in Brisbane. It was a beautiful house on the passage, with grass-mat floors and a dark verandah with thick ferns in pots. Each afternoon I spent hours sitting on a cement wall at the shoreline with John, reading. The water slapped against the stone steps, splashing our ankles. When the sun finally set, we cooked in a semi-outdoor kitchen by the verandah, and ate our made-up Bougainvillean vegetarian meals: rice, pumpkin tops, steamed eggplant with ginger, and sweet-potato chips—until the mosquitoes ravaged our ankles. There was a rhythm to our peace; it was a fortnight of a kind of life I felt I had some strange entitlement to.
Sonia’s house was being developed into a guesthouse while we stayed there. Her brothers, a few other men, as well as two women housekeepers, came to work there every day. One of the men, Simon, appeared also to live on the property, perhaps in one of the unfinished guestrooms outside. We never asked. He hung around at the back door while we cooked and ate, following us out when we went for walks, or when we took our bikes up to the basketball courts. He was kind to us, but there was something unnerving about him, something I couldn’t put my finger on. I began to feel there was something unnerving about the whole island that I couldn’t put my finger on.
Simon didn’t talk to me, only to John. But one day, John was out all afternoon collecting language data. I stopped by John’s session on the walk home from the markets, but continued home to put the vegetables away. As I walked down the driveway by the house, I saw Simon in the yard talking to another man. He stopped to watch me. He had a Coke bottle with home-brew in it: a potent spirit distilled from pawpaw or coconut or pineapple. The other man turned to me as well, and stared as I walked down the driveway and into the house. Simon followed me in and stood in the kitchen without saying anything. ‘Hi,’ I said. He said hello, and I smiled and made my way to my bedroom, locking the door behind me. I told John when he returned, but what was there to tell? Nothing had happened. We lay in bed together in silence, our door locked, as the sun set and the shrieking birds slipped into sleep.
One night Simon told John that all the workers’ last pay was withheld. He had no food to eat. I baked a pizza and gave him some. While eating my share I felt decadent and overfed.
Sonia was due back soon, but we still hadn’t found somewhere to live. One drunken night we met an Australian miner at the tin-shed club called Rendezvous. He lived in Bougainville with his wife—his third Bougainvillean wife—and their daughter. He told us to go and see Dan, another Australian living in Buka. The next day we found Dan’s place by walking around town, asking where ‘Dan the Australian’ lives. The kids who helped us find him kept asking, The Chinaman?’
He and his wife were building a hotel complex they hoped would house expats when the new mine opened up. It was a secure compound with wine and continental breakfast. Dan was a half-something, half-Chinese Sydney boy, who comfortably referred to himself as the Chinaman. He was bald, burly and smiley, a former ADF soldier, with his eyes on an affluent future. Between his gap teeth, he told us about fishing and the highway robbery the market women pulled on him when they realised he couldn’t speak pidgin.
Dan’s wife served us iced water, and he showed us the expat-deluxe rooms, which no-one without a mining company credit card could afford. We politely endured the tour, and then told him we were on a student budget. He took us back through the winding muddy pathways between shipping containers where his staff live. We arrived at a shed with plywood tacked over broken slat-windows, and he showed us in. The bottom level was a windowless cavern that smelled of bad breath. It had a sink, some bent steel shelves and a homemade cement bathroom. The peeling lino floors concealed layers of grey dust that, once we moved in, we learned to ignore. Upstairs was nicer, sunny with big slat windows, a high ceiling and two rooms: one with beds, the other with a lounge suite. When we moved in that day, we discovered it was a tin oven, the air conditioner a relic from the 1970s that ate up all our pre-paid electricity in the few minutes we tested it. We agreed to pay Dan 1000 kina per month, which was around A$560. ‘Okay,’ said Dan. ‘But if anyone asks, I’m charging you K3000. Can’t let it get around that the Chinaman’s doing charity.’
During the first month of our stay, Buka’s power was being fixed, or broken, or tampered with. We had blackouts every day. We plugged extension cords into the generator outlet downstairs. We didn’t have refrigeration, and the heat rotted everything we left out in less than ten hours (I thought about what an infection might look like in that climate). So each day we gathered ingredients from the markets, and ate them before they turned. I loved the markets: the irregular vegetables pulled out of the ground that very morning, bunches of peanuts still connected to their roots and covered in soil, bananas that tasted like mangoes and mangoes that tasted of pawpaw. We opened white coconuts and drank the juice from them.
One morning at the markets, I smiled at a baby sitting by a pile of coconuts. As he saw me, his body stiffened and his eyes filled with terror. He shrieked, and the women around him laughed and scooped him up. This became a regular occurrence. I was reminded of the time a friend in Melbourne took me to his family home in North Melbourne to meet his parents. I tried everything to befriend his baby sister, who insisted on ignoring me, hiding from me, and peeking at me from strange places around the house.
‘It’s not that she hates you, Ellie,’ he had told me. ‘She’s just afraid of white people.’
‘Fair enough,’ I had replied.
Out the window of our office-bedroom, through the pomelos that hung from the tree out the front, heavy in a way that reminded me that fruits are ovaries, we saw the tops of the shipping containers that Dan’s workers lived in. Men, women and children all lived in this makeshift village in someone’s back yard, cooking together in a barrel of coals, washing their clothes in buckets filled with water from the one tap they shared. Many people in Bougainville don’t have basic sanitation. When they need to use the toilet, they walk into the sea. I had the same conversation about the sanitation problem over and over—in the UN building, talking with friends at Rendezvous—the corruption, the misappropriated funds, the shoddy contractors who kept the dirt roads flooded and the blackouts frequent.
‘How can we expect to be fully engaged in politics if we don’t even have sanitation?’ one man I met shouted over the music as we talked about the upcoming PNG elections.
As in many places I find myself, I was an outsider in Bougainville, unable to explain myself. Amid a marketplace of dark-skinned women with tight black curls and kids whingeing in pidgin, I was tall, pink and fleshy. I walked, talked and dressed conspicuously, and noticed people notice me. It exacerbated how I’ve always felt: difficult, awkward and looked at. Isolated by my own inexplicable choices.
It was the same for John. I saw him struggle to build connections with people beyond friendly banter and his language work. He played basketball with Buka’s champion team, the Bombers, and had a lot of wonderful aunties at his back. But many of the friendships, the links we both tried to form in Bougainville, were tainted by a strange dynamic, a racial one, maybe, or a cultural one. We were rarely invited to friends’ homes. Were our friends ashamed to show their homes to us, white people? Or did we just have different ideas about hospitality?
One day I used the toilet at an old schoolmaster’s house during a community youth meeting I had been invited to; the women cooking in the kitchen there rushed before me to clean the toilet.
How unnecessary, I thought. These women would be rightfully appalled at the bathroom hygiene standard in Melbourne’s bars and many of my friends’ sharehouses, and yet they assumed that my presence demanded some kind of performance from them. It is an awful feeling: to have people think you expect theatre from them, and to be mildly resented because of it. My graciousness to these women felt more like guilt.
While we struggled to make close friends, there were many people in our life: the inspirational women who more or less run the island, my adopted Nehan mother Maggie, our friends Cornie and Douggie, and their sweet children. Then there was Gabriel, a gentle young musician who was too shy to enter a house or building on his own, who spent many valuable hours with John, contributing to the documentation of his language, chatting and making music. John lent his second laptop—the laptop his uni lent him, with good speakers—to Gabriel for him to edit music on. A week or two after the exchange, a woman asked us if it was true that Gabriel had taken John’s laptop to Tinputz (a town on the main island) to sell.
‘No,’ John said, as though this weren’t news to him. ‘He just took it there for work. He’s coming back soon.’
As we walked home that afternoon, neither of us was quite able to ask whether it might be true. A few minutes of walking passed, and John began. ‘It’s just gossip. People always accuse Gabriel of stealing things because they don’t like him. They don’t understand why I spend so much time with him. But he’s talented. And we’re friends. We’re friends.’
I quietly assumed the worst: not just that the laptop was gone, but that the friendship was less valuable to Gabriel than the computer. What could logistically stop him? Maybe he felt entitled to it. Maybe he was broke and hadn’t thought it through too carefully. Perhaps he just didn’t care about John. Over the ensuing fortnight, John called Gabriel’s phone again and again, but he didn’t answer. Then, late one night when John and I walked around town looking for chicken Twisties (our favourite Bougainville snack), we bumped into him.
‘So sorry, brother. I have to explain to you what happened,’ he said softly to John.
He apologised for not calling, he’d just returned the previous day. He said he’d bring the laptop over the following night to do some more language work.
‘The whole time,’ he said, ‘I just miss John.’
The following evening, he arrived at our house with the laptop under his arm.
Once upon a time, the Australians in Bougainville all worked at the Panguna mine or for Christian missionaries. Now most of them are with NG0s, or own small businesses on the island. So a lot of people didn’t really understand what I was doing there. I was uncertain myself. I told people I was a writer, but that no, I was not writing a book.
Many people I spoke with talked to me as though I was there to address their practical concerns. I never got used to the discomfort of my skin colour communicating something inaccurate; I couldn’t—or wouldn’t—bring sanitation, education, security, good health and self-determination (the basics that people need to reach their potential) to the island. The worse thought was that perhaps I could have done something more, but didn’t. The ridiculousness and the imperialist history of my dilemma did not escape me—why was I even there? It made me feel that I was balancing on a shoddy raft that other people saw as a solid vessel.
One man we met at a rugby team fundraiser asked John and me if we were `adventurers’, rolling his eyes as if to say he had us figured out. The implication was that we were crude orientalists, hiking through Bougainville to find black magic, bare-chested women and crocodile trophies. It made sense to look at us with our sunburned skin and practical footwear.
But we were not adventurers. I spent my days learning how to survive. Before the late afternoon grey sky was swallowed by the night, I walked around town, but wouldn’t stray too far for fear of crocodiles. To my embarrassment, I found myself feeling threatened each time I passed groups of young men who hung around on the shoulder of the road. They stood twirling their machetes, even as they held hands with each other. Machetes are an essential tool for keeping the jungle at bay, but I had only ever associated them with amputations, with the frenzy of civil war. ‘Good day,’ they sang out as I passed.
Every Bougainvillean is born with land rights. Land ownership is inextricably linked to all aspects of traditional Bougainvillean culture: language, diet, marriage and social structure. The emergence of a cash economy in the province is challenging many aspects of the traditional culture. People are moving away from their own land for cash jobs in towns and cities and climate change has rendered some of the outlying Bougainvillean islands and atolls more or less uninhabitable. These changes pose challenges to the very fabric of Bougainvillean society. Certain languages, and consequently their cultural lineage, are valued over others because they have become the languages of the cash economy. Pidgin has become the first language for many Bougainvilleans.
Bougainville is still recovering from the conflict that spanned the 1990s and decimated the population. For four years of the protracted conflict, Papua New Guinea imposed a blockade on Bougainville, preventing all access to services, including medical and educational ones. The blockade was intended to smoke out the rebels. It failed to do that and only impoverished the island. There were no imports at all: no fuel, no clothing, except that which the Red Cross and other activists smuggled in from the Solomon Islands. Along with the many thousands of deaths that resulted from direct conflict, many lives were lost to preventable conditions: urinary tract infections, malaria, open wounds, complications at child birth.
Terrifying human rights violations were committed by all armed players. The PNG Government is culpable for the gross consequences of the blockade, and Australia’s military backing of PNG, in its donation of vehicles, personnel and millions of dollars in aid, made it all possible. The more radical people I spoke with still harbour a distrust of the Australian Government, and for good reason.
Disaster can become an obsession. At night, after hunting down every mosquito in the house, and leaving urine in the toilet so that they would not breed there, I read for a few hours about the conflict. Historians’ accounts, advocacy journalism, firsthand testimony and scholarly papers. The local woman who collected hundreds of women’s personal accounts for the book As Mothers of the Land allowed me to read the stories that didn’t make it into the publication. Tale after tale of intense grief and trauma became my nightcap. John and I still found we could barely touch each other, not only for the heat and itchiness, but now for the sadness that lay between us.
One night I dreamed of the beach just north of Buka with its water sucked out past the horizon. The seabed was exposed: white coral and black rocks. People wandered out, curious and excited to look in the new rock pools, but I knew a tsunami was about to hit. I didn’t warn anyone, just ran towards the hill and climbed it as fast as I could, getting scratched and bruised by the dense vegetation as I went. Once I reached the summit, I turned around and saw the grey wall building at the horizon.
A woman I met at the UN office asked if I would be interested in interviewing a former Bougainville Revolutionary Army combatant. She introduced me to Gregory, and we all made a time to meet. She joined us in order to interpret his story from pidgin. Gregory was a softly spoken, charming man with a deep scar from the right corner of his mouth to the bottom of his chin, sectioning off his mouth on one side like a puppet. I winced when I thought about the injury that might have caused it, but he looked healthy and handsome nonetheless.
He began telling me his story. He was funny: candid and irreverent, but also overwhelmingly sad. He told me more than I knew what to do with, and with more honesty than I was prepared for. He had been a neglected and wayward youth, recruited by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (the main rebel group that fought for Panguna mine’s closure and Bougainville’s secession from PNG) while in prison for armed robbery. He got to the part of the story where, after his first battle, he and his platoon couldn’t get the boots off the enemy’s corpses, so they just chopped off their feet with machetes. I choked on my coffee. I asked him to repeat it. He laughed, excited but weary at the same time. ‘Yes! We chopped off their feet!’
We were all in tears by the end of the session. His story had begun with the exciting rush of military conquest, but quickly tapered out into years of gruelling conflict, the loss of all of his friends, his crippling moral awakening and subsequent alcoholism, and then the penance that has become the rest of his life. Recently Gregory collected data for the ex-serviceman’s league, where he interviewed his cousin who had been ten years old when she was gang-raped at gunpoint by soldiers who had been looking for him. He is now working with young people in his community, hoping one day to open a resource centre for troubled kids.
The evening after that interview, all I wanted was beer and mind-numbing entertainment. Thinking about Gregory meant thinking about the tens of thousands of stories like his, the shocking threads of memories that make up a big part of Bougainville’s fabric. Still crying—I hadn’t stopped since the two left my house—I stood by the window, looking across the street at the courthouse and the hospital, both of which had been built over unmarked mass graves of BRA soldiers. Most of them were teenaged bones.
I waited for John to come home from playing basketball and we drank South Pacific Green Can, which tastes just like VB. Later that night we went for a walk. Young men decked out in camo and bandanas slowly strode past us, their figures menacing in the stray light on the street. ‘Good night, two pela,’ we heard as they passed us, their pidgin drowsy and melodic. ‘Good night.’
It was a few weeks later that the courier forgot about my passport and I had to leave Bougainville. After making our last-minute plans, we headed to Kuri Island Village. It is Buka’s most famous resort, although to call it that seems a stretch of the imagination. It sits at the edge of the passage, a relic of faded glory. But you can tell that its glory isn’t actually faded; it never really was. It’s a tourist retreat that never took off because the tourist economy never took off because there was a mine that started a war. The beers are cold but overpriced, the thatch-roofed ‘exotic’ huts that charge $200 a night are dank mosquito dens, and the seven old turtles that circle the small pool in the centre of the resort are barnacled and smelly. But it is the best place to view the passage and to catch the cool wind off its surface, beer in hand.
With the knowledge that we would soon be in Tokyo, with refrigeration and air conditioning and clean sheets, and where we could, presumably, hold each other in comfort, I became aware of my petty needs. I became aware that my two months in Bougainville, racked with disquiet and alienation, had only taught me grudgingly to accept discomfort, never to overlook it. I remembered the skipper and first mate, drifting away into the Pacific, their bodies never seen again. They had been arrogant; they had jumped ship to save themselves, or because they had some misguided idea that they could be heroes. And they had been cast out because of it.