Budibudi evokes strong emotions for me. Lying smack in the middle of the Solomon Sea, remote and exposed to nature’s whims as it is, I can’t help but feel anxious for the beautiful and welcoming locals we have befriended here. It’s an atoll with 6 or 7 s coconut covered islands arranged in the shape of a D, each only a couple of meters above sea level. The protection offered by the reef does not seem adequate even if you discount the effects of climate change on this place. The sandy soil limits crops to mostly bananas, yams and pumpkin. The villages keep pigs and chickens, and thanks to the latter, we have over 50 eggs to get through from 5 days of trading. Pumpkin quiche anyone?
This atoll almost shot to international fame last year, when visitors showed up in the middle of the night and buried bags of cocaine on an uninhabited island lying on the outskirts of the lagoon. Whether they knew that the atoll was in fact inhabited is unclear but from what the locals told us, it was a shipwreck sort of situation. One of the local fishermen was however fishing on said island that night and hid quietly in the bush observing. The next day, he returned with friends, dug up the treasure and hid it somewhere else. Apparently they thought it was poison. A much bigger vessel showed up some time later to claim the bounty. Negotiations ensued, some trading was involved and the poison was returned to its owners. The story gets even more weird from here but from what they told us, a few bags were kept as ‘evidence’ for the police who flew in on a helicopter from Port Moresby. They must have some good negotiators here on Budibudi.
This visit was a slow burn, after the intensity of the Loiusiades we were feeling somewhat jaded by trading in addition to being tired after an overnight passage. On arrival, we spotted another yacht in the lagoon, an actual cruising boat! So exciting! We anchored nearby, just inside the lagoon but as far as possible from the ‘main island’ where most of the 700 or so locals live. Sadly the other boat was just leaving to take advantage of the favourable winds. Our interaction was limited to a brief chat on the radio and a hope of meeting up later due to similar itineraries.
Keen locals didn’t wait long to welcome us, sailing and paddling in outrigger canoes filled with kids, eggs, pumpkins and smiles. We traded, chatted, snacked on banana bread and signed guestbooks. It’s really sweet how they keep guest books, on this island there were two people with separate guest books. They are actually good sources of information (we found out there were 2 canons from an 18xx shipwreck to be snorkelled) but mainly it’s touching that they do it.
So what has kept us busy over the last 5 days? Every morning I wake up to a canoe or two holding on at the back, patiently waiting. As artificial light is at a premium here, I suspect everyone goes to sleep by 7pm, so night owls like us waking up around 8.30am (kids included) must seem positively alien. A baby’s cry or a bump against the boat would usually alert me to the fact someone is waiting to be served. Now I dont usually speak before my morning coffee but PNG demands flexibility. After a morning's trade, we spend a good couple of hours dealing with the proceeds and preparing stuff for the afternoon. It’s just as well we severely overpacked for this trip, most of the extra clothes are now gone. As is all of our rice, sugar, exercise books etc.
The biggest downer in PNG to date has been wanting to help everyone but knowing you cannot. We are starting to accept this fact, and finding it more enjoyable as a result. Here in Budibudi we have met such genuine and warm people, and probably for the first time broken through the many barriers by spending quality time together with a select few to find out more about how they live and what they hope for. Unsurprisingly, Budibudi people want the same things out of life as everyone else. Health and education for their children and basic needs of life to be met. Here however, meeting the basic needs is entirely up to the community with little or no help from the government, and intermittent support from charities and visiting yachts. One stark example of this is the outpost clinic built by the government in the main village. It sits empty with no medication and 0 staff.
The school (year 1-8) is basic, their library consisting of stacks of Australian workbooks for each year and hardly anything else. Our meagre donation of 3 books improves the book count, however slightly. We meet Bennet, a teacher originally from Woodlark (a neighbouring island and the big smoke to people here) who gives us a tour. His classroom is beautifully decorated with hanging pots of wild orchids sitting in coconut shells, a project the children did. This is Bennet’s first year teaching, I hope his obvious enthusiasm for the job lives on. Bennet pays us a visit on the boat that same afternoon, and over a beer we chat about the school, the island, PNG. It’s nice to meet someone so well spoken and upbeat. Just a few weeks ago he made the trip to the mainland to secure malaria medication from a government clinic for his year 8 students. Their final examinations were on the week before so he wanted to make sure they were available just in case anyone got sick during the exams. Only two boxes of medication remain, word got out in the village and people kept coming to ask for it as they got sick. Quite a few people die here from malaria every year, including of course children. Apparently they do have government supplied mosquito nets now, but things can get so bad in the wet season, some people sleep on the small sandbank near the entrance to the lagoon to get away from the mozzies on the islands.
Most kids never get past year 8 in PNG. The week-long examinations are designed to pass only the top percentile, unless of course parents can pay the way. Most kids from this village will not make it. From what I can tell, this is a funding issue, as only limited spaces can be funded for years 9-12, they design the exams accordingly.
Hans, a 31 year old local who sailed up to say hello within minutes of our arrival, tells us later he ‘failed’ his year 8. His English is great, his views relatively progressive for a place like this and he is clearly a future leader in the village. We share some banana cake with Hans when he comes back with his wife Karen and their little baby Elsie. The next day we share a beer and Hans confesses we are only the third boat ever to invite him onboard (second boat being the other Australian yacht we saw when we arrived). Some people just wave him off when he approaches with a ‘we’re busy, go away’ wave, others bring out the goods for trade while he sits in his canoe. He sounds so grateful while he describes how he went back to the village to tell everyone about sharing banana cake with us while we cringe at the thought of being only the third. It is hard to imagine how you can rock up to a place as isolated as this, literally parking in someones’s backyard and not engage in more than a rudimentary trade. Not that we have invited everyone who has come to the boat (impossible!), but you can generally tell if people are keen to come up or not. A lot of canoes are filled with kids with limited English clearly sent by the parents to trade - exchanging names, smiles and goods is all that’s possible or wanted. I have occasionally kidnapped said kids inviting them in to encourage some interaction with our own kids, with limited success. Their time will come.
We visit Hans on his small island where about 40 people live. This island has a chief, Tau, who is away on Woodlark where people go to garden and to sell the shark fins from fishing on the reef (this and seasonal sea cucumber harvesting is their only source of income). When we visit for the first time, they welcome us with frangipani necklaces and Elsie, Tau’s wife gives us a cooked chicken. Jake is ecstatic as he hasn’t had chicken tacos since we left Cairns. We give them some books and laplap (cotton cloth) and invite them to visit us back on the boat.
Barbara and Elsie visit that evening and as we chat over some tea, they try on reading glasses we brought from Aus. I ask them to have a look at Lara’s foot (some unidentified tropical malady) and they assure me it’s nothing serious, suggesting treatment they use on their kids (it works).
The next day I return to the village and the women teach me how to weave. As we sit on the balcony of Elsie’s hut weaving and chatting, kids mill around with knives and machetes hacking at young coconuts, chewing green coconut husks and drinking the milk. Mothers breastfeed babies and toddlers and all the kids look very happy and healthy. We watch them swimming in the lagoon, some floating on large styrofoam sheets left over from who knows what. It may not be an easy life, but they do seem content.
I return to the boat with a hat and a basket and while I can’t claim exclusive weaving credit for either, it sure felt good to be there. After 5 days in Budibudi, It’s time to leave the next morning. Bennet comes over to say goodbye, bringing us a freshly caught bird in a cage as a gift. To our kids’ loud disappointment, we politely decline and buckle in for a 3 day sail across the Solomon Sea to Rabaul on New Britain island. More on that adventure in the next instalment …