Rabaul Adventures

This blog entry about the events of Wednesday, July 17, 2013 was originally posted on July 29, 2013.

PART 10 (DAYS 20-24): “It’s five o’clock all the time here,” I said, noticing the wall clock stuck on 5 a.m. (or was it p.m.?) in the baggage claim area of Rabaul’s airport, when we touched down from our flight from Wewak around 11:30 a.m.

“It’s happy hour somewhere, and that somewhere is here!” Emily proclaimed.

The National Mask Festival may have been the main reason why we had journeyed to Rabaul for our third and final leg of our press trip, but the region had other things to offer us (and anyone else) when there’s not a festival going on. To Emily’s satisfaction (and the rest of ours), there was also happy drink-fueled debauchery to be had — before and after 5 o’clock — which kept our little American group going strong, much to the chagrin of our concerned matriarchal figure, Daphne.

“Thanks Daphne, for keeping us on schedule,” Ally said, expressing gratitude to her PNG co-host.

“Without Daphne,” I added, “we’d be dead.”

ALLY’S PAPUA NEW GUINEA ITINERARY listed our scheduled events in Rabaul simply as “Rabaul Adventures,” which was a nice generic phrase that she had cleverly conjured up to cover the fact that nothing had been 100% confirmed for our time there. Like with many things in PNG, things were figured out at the last minute, which isn’t aggravating at all if you’re a seat-of-your-pants Type B like me. (“I’m making this up as I go,” as my favorite Indiana Jones quote goes.)

“You’re such a seven,” Ally kept telling me, an optimistic, spontaneous seven herself. “You’re a textbook seven.” She had versed us on personality types based on the Enneagram system, which many screenwriters use to create characterss and their dynamics. When we finally got a consistent Internet connection, we all took an Enneagram test to confirm that Ally had pretty much pegged us on all accounts. However, it took a while to get test results; the Mask Festival seemed to have hoarded all Internet resources of the town from 9 a.m. to 6 a.m. (including our hotel). I assume there was only one satellite that provided Internet for the entire area, so take note if you’re planning on going next year and are obsessed with Instagram.

But I digress. Without a strict schedule, our group could be flexible to have “Rabaul Adventures” day by day — and without wake-up times before 5 a.m. anymore:

  • Under the Sea. Within an hour after settling into our individual bungalows at the Kokopo Beach Bungalows resort, certified divers Tina and I were whisked away to the nearby Rapopo Plantation Resort, home of Kabaira’s Dive Centre, which hosted a wreck dive for us — a pilot boat named the Simpleton, not too far from shore. We could have swam from the beach, but we took a boat out instead because, why not?
    “So this is a World War Two wreck?” I asked our divemaster Allie, from Scotland. “No, it was sunk in 1985 as an artificial reef,” she answered. “But you can tell everyone it’s from World War Two.” Obviously a boat from the awesome 80s isn’t in the majority of wreck dives sites in the area. The waters north of PNG’s New Britain Island were stage to many WWII battles back in the 1940s, and now it’s a cornucopia of wrecks for the scuba enthusiast, if you can excuse that clichéd travel language. We simply did the Simpleton for its easy accessibility, due to scheduling issues. (There was actual scheduling being figured out as soon as we arrived in Rabaul, but Ally and Daphne wanted to at least have us do one dive on the first day, because you can’t fly 24 hours after a dive — or you’ll die from the rapid change in pressure.) Exploring the Simpleton was exciting; my 44th dive was actually only my second wreck dive since the M.S. Paris (WWI) off the coast of Turkey, and I reconfirmed my love of exploring old sunken boats (video) in PNG. There were tropical fish to be seen as well — attracted by the world-class coral systems in the region — including this beautiful big puffer fish on the upper deck of the Simpleton that was unphased by my presence, and a lone cuttlefish that didn’t scurry away like they normally do, because it was actually busy laying eggs. “You could see the egg sack!” divemaster Allie told us excitedly back on shore. It was her first witnessing of such a rare moment, too. “You’re probably not going to see this again in your life.” Tina was happy to see it, but seemed more happy that she actually got her diving skills back. Although she was certified, she hadn’t gone in a while and was nervous she’d forgotten everything. “It all comes back to you when you’re underwater,” I told her. “Once I paid for a refresher dive and felt ripped off, because the actual dive you go on is the refresher dive.” Scuba dive tourism in the Bismarck Sea is one of the big draws of the region. However, book in advance if you want to go on a live-aboard trip; for now, there’s only one live-aboard dive boat in the area, the FeBrina. Coincidentally, Ally and I had run into FeBrina tour leader Nils at the Kinavai dawn ceremony, who invited us to come aboard for sunset cocktails (rum and fresh coconut juice) that afternoon. Meeting other divers on board — mostly Americans from Colorado and California to our surprise — the love of diving was a common theme of conversation. “All you have to do is put a tube in your mouth and breathe, and you can do anything!” I preached, trying to convince Ally to finally get certified. “Uh,” Emily uttered while pausing for thought and a comic beat. “I don’t think that’s actually true.”
  • Us Versus the Volcano. When you’re in Rabaul, there’s no mistaking that you’re in a volcanic region. While the town of Rabaul and its surrounding villages around Blanche Bay are actually situated on the rim of sunken caldera, the obvious evidence of geothermal presence is Tavurvur, the iconic and visibly active volcano seen from the beaches of Kokopo and Matupit, or the Palnaguria Observatory, which our local guide Gesly took us to. Huge bursts of smoke and ash form plumes throughout the day — preventing our proposed volcano hike (#anythingcanhappen) — and when the winds head in the direction of town, the sky goes grey and it actually starts drizzing ash. Light grey specks fell on my shirt one afternoon when we were at the Page Park Market, like snow flurries that didn’t melt. “Head and shoulders, people. Head and shoulders!” I said. Subterranean heat isn’t just concentrated under Tavurvur; just across the bay in Matupit are natural hot springs on the beach, which are perfect for a soothing warm-to-hot soak in the sea, when you figure out where the cold and hot water meet at a comfortable temperature. You can also cover yourself in mineral-rich volcanic sand (or have others do it for you) and have fun while doing it. “Wouldn’t it be funny if there were crocodiles here?” Tina wondered as we gallivanted in the natural hot tub. But later we learned that there were: the steam crocodile which thrives in hot water. And then it wasn’t so funny.
  • A Good Egg to Boil Hard. The boiling hot springs at Matupit can also serve another purpose: making hard-boiled eggs (which coincidentally have the same sulfuric smell as volcanic gas when they go bad). But I’m not talking about chicken eggs in this case; we had a local man cook us eggs of the megapode bird, which lays eggs in naturally-incubating volcanic soil, at the base of Tavurvur. On an boat excursion to Tavurvur, we met a couple of the megapode egg foragers who follow the birds’ tracks and then dig holes about three feet deep in the volcanic sand — sometimes within caves — where eggs are found twice daily. Megapodes lay two times a day so there’s a pretty good surplus of eggs, while still maintaining a healthy population. The bird colony lays about 200 eggs everyday, and each one sells for 2.50 kina each (about a dollar), so it’s quite a lucrative and sustainable business over time. The family of foragers in the area had been in the business for generations. In between the birds’ bi-daily egg-laying sessions, the foragers take a break from the hot sun — I noticed a few of them having a singalong in a boat nearby. When they come back and dig, eggs aren’t too hard to find; Tina and I had a go for it ourselves, and eggs were found within minutes, like an Easter egg hunt for dummies. “Did you put these here to make it easy?” I asked the man, my fingers touching shell within two minutes. Granted, he dug the first two and a half feet and I just dug up the rest. Looking at the pile of eggs and its natural surroundings, I quoted Jurassic Park: “Life finds a way.” “Are we quoting Jurassic Park now?” Tina asked. “Yeah, I’ve said it three times,” Ally replied. “Erik’s on two count.” “Clever birds,” Tina said in a British accent, adding to the tally.
    “HI, I’M ERIKA TRINIMOMMY,” Ally greeted in front of my iPhone camera in her American accent, a parody of my intro we’d shot earlier for the video I’d been working on about Baining fire dancing. “And we’re here to see if one man can make an egg boiled in a hot spring, and then tourists receive some sort of poison from eating it. Let’s see.” “What if you found out that the one thing you’re allergic to in life is this type of egg… today,” Tina wondered. “What a six,” Ally commented, calling Tina out on her Enneagram personality associated with suspicion and a need for security. The hard-boiled megapode egg took about ten minutes to cook, while we went on the dip between the hot springs and the cold seawater. Tina showed off her egg shell-peeling skills to reveal what was similar to a chicken egg, only slightly larger, with more white and yolk to cook through. She got ready to take the first bite — you know, to test for poison or allergic reactions. “This is an egg that was laid by a megapode bird, that lays its eggs in the ash of the Tavurvur volcano,” Erika Trinimommy continued for my iPhone camera. “It was then cooked in the hot springs of the volcano. Circle of Life. And now, Tina will complete the Circle of Life with one bite.” Tina took a bite. “Uh… it’s gooey. It’s kind of like a deviled egg.” “It’s delicious,” Emily added after her taste. The bites revealed that the center was still pretty soft, and Daphne was a little wary to try it. But she bit into it, as we all did — and thankfully without any trace of salmonella poisoning. “It needs a little salt,” I commented. “A little MSG. I would love MSG on this.” Daphne eventually realized that megapode eggs made perfect gifts for back home and bought a few. They were wrapped in leaves, packaged all cute-like. “Megapode eggs, aww,” Emily said.
  • Finding Yamamoto. Papua New Guinea was in the battlezone of the Pacific Theater of World War II, and there are remnants of its carnage scattered around, from the tanks and missiles at the East New Britain Historic and Culture Centre, to the wreckage of the Japanese Betty Bomber in Matupit, where its local guide’s boy hangs out and toots on a conch shell (picture above). The Kokoda Trail back in Port Moresby may have been one major site of WWII history, but near Rabaul on New Britain Island is the home of Admiral Yamamoto’s former bunker — you know, the commander-in-chief of the Japanese forces who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor, to lure the USA into the Pacific War. Yamamoto’s former quarters still exists today albeit dusty and juxtaposed to the former colonial New Guinea Club-turned-history and culture museum, which details PNG’s past from English, Dutch, and mostly German colonization, to its Japanese occupation, and ultimately to its independence. Former anti-aircraft artillery guns are near the entrance of Yamamoto’s bunker too, which now serve as a jungle gym for local children these days. Inside the bunker wasn’t as fun as a jungle gym; it was actually a little scary when we were wandering around in pitch-black darkness with only our iPhone flashlights to show the way. We explored the bunker like the Scooby-Doo gang with Tina leading the way. “G-g-g-ghosts?” Emily joked as either Shaggy or Scooby, I’m not sure which. A few times, Tina yelled out in surprise — but out of discovery not fright. “This is so cool,” she told us, coming up the dark stairwell. Her iPhone light revealed Yamamoto’s maps on the wall and on the ceiling, and it would have been a pretty historically intimate moment if only it wasn’t so hot in there, without proper ventilation. There were more “g-g-g-ghosts” to be afraid of when we explored the former Japanese hospital near the Chinese Memorial Cemetary (est. 2009) on a different excursion. The hospital was not a traditional building, but a multi-tiered network of caves that the Japanese built — or rather, enslaved the local Papua New Guineans to build for them. “We could get lost in here,” Tina told the gang, leading the way. Like Yamamoto’s bunker, it too was pitch-black and dusty, and even more creepy with the presence of bats. Also, it was a little freaky when realizing that, being a former WWII hospital, people most likely had died where we were walking. “There are Japanese ghosts in here,” I announced, ominously. “Don’t say that!” Tina yelled at me. As I was putting supernatural thoughts in her head, I felt something touch me on the back of my leg. “AHHHH!!!” “AHHHH!!!” The scream was contagious. And it wasn’t a prank. “Holy shit, it’s just a frog,” I realized, full of relief when I finally shined a light behind me. I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for that meddling frog! Making our way back outside, I was reminded not of the Scooby gang, but of another that solved mysteries: the kids of the old PBS show,  Ghostwriter. In the the introduction, character Jamal states the obvious: “He’s a ghost and he writes to us. Ghostwriter.” “He’s a frog, and he haunts us,” Emily said to me. “Ghost Frog.”
  • She Put the Lime in the Betel Nut. You can’t go anywhere in PNG without noticing that many people have red-stained teeth and lips. This comes from chewing the betel nut, which is a mild narcotic akin to tobacco. And of course our press group of Americans had to try it, all in the name of journalism, much to the chagrin of Daphne, a former betel nut consumer herself who quit like a former smoker and didn’t want others to become addicted — especially not the guests she was responsible for. She did however, realize the cultural signficance of betel nut, and didn’t mind that we bought a few with our local guide Gesly when we were at the Page Park Market. Gesly showed us the process, which is more than just chewing on the actual nut. First you peel away the rind, and then bite into the bitter-tasting nut. You chew until you get your mouth really salivated, and then take a green bean-like stick known as mustard, and bite the tip of it — but after dipping it in lime powder (lime like the mineral, not the citrus fruit). When all three are in your mouth, they magically turn bright red as you chew it. You salivate more than you need to in the process, which is why you see Papua New Guineans spitting up red everywhere in all parts of the country. The taste was rather unpleasant, or rather “an acquired taste” over time. Hell, as a newbie, it was pretty disgusting until… “Whoa,” I said, feeling the buzz. “There it is.” “Ah, you feel dizzy now!” exclaimed a local on-looker when were on the way back to the transport van. Not surprisingly, we’d garnered attention by the market with us four foreigners gathered around, spitting into a plastic bag instead of on the street. “Ooh, this is nice,” I said with the sudden high. Unfortunately it only lasted about fifteen minutes. Later on, I brushed that red right out of my teeth.
  • Australian Surprises. “Oh, they’re going to sit next to us,” Ally realized, seeing that her Australian colleague Stewart was bringing his group of Australian travel agents to our lunch area after a swim. They were already consolidating smaller tables to form a big, long one for a combined group of about a dozen people, so that we could all meet and eat. “Quick! When they come over, yell ‘Surprise!’” I instructed my American crew. “Okay, when all of them are sitting down,” Ally added. The Aussies couldn’t seem to settle in at once though, and when one sat down, another got up to take a photo or something, and about six minutes had gone by before all of them were in chairs. “We’re still sticking to the plan, okay guys?” Ally instructed us. Finally, Stewart, the last man standing, sat down. “Surprise!!!” The Aussies were confused; we were in plain sight the entire time, and it wasn’t anyone’s birthday. The tables had turned one evening, so to speak, when the Aussies were far more animated than we were. It had been decided that we would all regroup at the Rapopo Plantation Resort to watch the big Australian rugby match, the State of Origin: New South Wales vs. Queensland, a.k.a kind of a big deal. The Aussie group had fans from both sides, prepared to cheer on a television showing sports in another country, complete with flags and banners. That’s not to say local Papua New Guineans weren’t into it too; the bar was filled with all people glued to the TV and cheering their team on, while us Americans casually watched the game while eating lobsters, mornay (with melted cheese) and garlic style. “We’re off the fire dance tonight,” Stewart told us the following day as he and his group walked by when us Americans took over the pool to escape the hot mid-day sun. “Remember, if you meet a girl named Mavis, start meowing,” Ally instructed him. Meanwhile, Tina was telling some story about her encounters with big hairy wolf spiders, which suddenly, out of nowhere, spawned wolf howling amongst our crew. How meowing like cats segued so abruptly into wolf howls was beyond me, although in retrospect it might have been me who started it. “Wolf spider? Awoooooooo!” “Awoooooooo!” Howling like wolves soon became another one of our pastimes in PNG, although we exported it out of the country when we started howling at the airport (while trying not to make it look obvious). “Between the meowing and the wolf howls, Daphne must think we’ve lost it.”
  • A Bag Full of Memories. Meowing and howling only added to our on-going list of inside jokes that bonded our American group in PNG. Ultimately, they would all become a part of our past when we’d eventually leave the country and head back to our respective homes. “All these guys have masks,” I said to Emily in a Ron Burgundy-way, noticing people with packages of masks wrapped in newspaper. “But all I have is a bag full of memories. It may not weigh a lot…” “...but it’s heavy,” Emily completed my sentence(/sandwich). “Excuse me, what’s the tariff… on a bag full of memories?” Adding weight to the figurative bag in Rabaul were gems like parties on my bungalow’s deck, where we had more can standing challenges — double this time, à la MTV Jackass Then there was can dancing, a new “event” we had to “get ready” for, in which you spin a can on a book in a figure-8 motion with your arm and wrist without dropping it. We taught the night security guards how to do it, and they got better with each attempt — even when “Groove in the Heart” was playing on my iPhone for them. “I love that this song is on,” Emily commented, giggling. (It’s the slide whistles in the song that made it fun.)
    DISCUSSING ENNEAGRAM PERSONALITIES. Learning life hacks, like using bread tabs to fix Ally’s flip flops (if only we could find one). Singing riffs of popular karaoke standards in preparation of getting on a mic back in Australia. Snorkeling in shallow water by Pigeon Island. Cliff jumping from the rock formations known as the Beehives, only to land in water with stinging sea lice. (“Ow!”) Modeling with the local soft drinks. Learning how to abruptly end a conversation by simply saying, “We’re done here,” and walking away — like they do on Battlestar Galactica. All of these were added to the bag of memories, and it wasn’t just at the bungalow resort. Escaping Daphne’s concerned, motherly supervision one afternoon, we took to the streets of Rabaul to get a glimpse of life outside the “Western wall”, so to speak. People were just living life, running errands, and chewing betel nut. Fisherman came back to the shore of Kokopo Beach to relax after a day on the sea. “I don’t think you should take a picture of those guys,” Ally advised me as we strolled by a group of questionable-looking men cutting grass with big machetes. But they took notice of us and simply waved a friendly hello; people in this relaxed town were friendly. I mean, how could anyone be mean and commit crimes when there were rainbows everywhere? “What should I get to mix with the Jameson?” I asked Emily when we were at the supermarket, a place where apparently chum with chicken was on sale. “Should I mix it with Go Go?” It’s a PNG-made cola that had a lighter, airier carbonation. “It’ll be a Jamo Go,” she answered. “Jaygo.” “Jaygo Unchained,” I said, taking a can out of the fridge. “The D is silent.” For snacks at our impromptu Jaygo party in my bungalow, I got us some little bags of PNG-made Twisties, the quintessential snack food akin to cheese doodles that come in flavors of chicken, cheese, cheese and onion, barbecue, and pizza. I considered them to be little bags of flavor for the bigger bag of memories. #makingmemories
  • Singing and Riding in Trucks with Strangers. The Rabaul National Mask Festival and Tolai Warwagira music show weren’t the only things happening on the festival grounds that week. With many intermissions between acts, you had to occupy yourself with the humble food and vending stalls around. One tent was manned by the local radio station. “Can he be on the radio?” Ally was the first thing she asked when we ran over to the table. “He’s American. He can sing.” Then without thinking, I sang on cue, “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart… but the very next day, you gave it away…” She joined me for a duet. The people at the booth gave confused smiles either because A) they didn’t recognize the song, or B) it wasn’t anytime near Christmas. They laughed and blew us off, but not without some hope. “[Hahaha… He can’t. We are broadcasting the festival],” a woman said. “But maybe Friday.” (When we went back to the festival grounds Friday night, the radio booth was closed, with the equipment covered up.) No matter; we occupied our time with other to-dos on the festival grounds, like posing with Dr. Rabbit for Colgate toothpaste, and taste-testing two kinds of rice — Sample A vs. Sample B — for a focus marketing thing, which gave each of us a ticket to throw a rugby ball through a cardboard cutout of Matt Bowen, Australian rubgy star. (No one could do it.) “Oh! I thought you were supposed to put your head in there,” Tina said, wondering why the hole wasn’t cut through the face. She punched through Bowen’s stomach with her fist instead.
    “IT’S ALWAYS BEEN A DREAM OF MINE TO RIDE in the back of a pickup truck,” Tina admitted to us one day. “PNG, where dreams come true,” Ally told her. When we left the festival grounds the first day, she’d noticed a random pick-up truck driving away, and quickly grabbed Tina to jump in the back. (So seven of her.) “[Can we ride in the back?”] she asked the unfamiliar driver. “[Yes. I can take you to the countryside,]” he said. I didn’t hear any of this and didn’t know what was going on, and quickily ran and jumped in the back too. I assumed it was our ride out. Tina had the biggest smile on her face, unphased of the possibility of being kidnapped by a stranger. “Wooooooo!” Emily had been left behind with a sad, shocked face that grew smaller as we rode away down the dirt path. She looked like might not see us again. Thankfully, Daphne missed the entire spontaneous stunt — she would have had a conniption — and luckily the truck stopped before leaving the parking lot so we could quickly jump out. Later on that week, Daphne held Tina’s hand to cross the street in town. “Are you worried that I’m going to jump in another truck?” Tina joked, smiling with fulfillment. However, the four of us did jump in the back of another pick-up truck later that week — much to Tina’s delight — on the way to the festival grounds, this time not with a stranger, but with Ally’s “boss boss”: the commissioner of the tourism authority, who was in town for the festivities. He had arranged a special dinner for our last night in town with local dishes, including pit-pit, a mushy, starchy food derived from a local cane plant, steamed in a leaf with coconut milk. It was during that dinner we met other important Papua New Guinean official-types, some of which were curious of our can standing tricks.

OUR BAG OF MEMORIES FILLED WITH “RABAUL ADVENTURES” were joined by some last-minute Brisbane Adventures, made during one final night together as a group. Brisbane was our layover point, and without any immediate trans-Pacific flights back to the States, we spent the night in the Meriton Serviced Apartments to do laundry and pre-game drinks before going out to dinner at Public, a fancy restaurant where Ally had made reservations.

For me, it was a much less stressful time than my previous layover in the Australian city. In fact, it was quite the opposite with The World’s Best Group (#worldsbestgroup) to make it memorable, if only for One Night in Brisbane. After dinner and a bottle of wine (and more of my party tricks involving forks), we made our way to Casablanca, this lively bar/cafe/venue adjacent to a male stripclub. While drinking XXXX beers at the bar, we’d see men dressed as cops and firemen get ready, before going through the door to the other side. Not surprisingly, there were lots of bachelorette parties on both sides of the wall, which served as most of the audience when we took to what we had brought us there: a karaoke stage.

It was fitting that it was there — well, we sought it out — for we had been talking about doing karaoke for the past ten days. Much to Tina’s chagrin, it wasn’t a private room, but a stage out to the entire bar. However, she had enough alcohol in her to overcome her fear and do karaoke for her first time ever — in fact, she started out strong with Salt & Pepa’s “Shoop.” (I tried to do the guy’s part.)

Ally belted out Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” while I crooned out Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.”

We came together for a B-52’s “Love Shack” duet. Meanwhile, Emily, who refrained from singing, took it upon herself to handle another important task: hype up the crowd for each of us so everyone is having a good time. Apparently, that was so nine of her.

THE NEXT MORNING, WE PARTED WAYS. I saw the girls off as they departed the apartment building and hopped in a cab back to Brisbane Airport.

“Okay,” I said, iPhone pointed to them. “Parting words.”

“How can man cure disease but not a good ham?” Ally wondered.

“The only thing I have to declare,” Emily declared, “is this bag full of memories.”

“We’re done here,” fellow Battlestar Galactica fan Tina stated.

My friends of the World’s Best Group (#worldsbestgroup #exclamationpoint!) hopped on a plane bound for LAX, while I remained in Brisbane to meet an old friend. Papua New Guinea Adventures may have been over, but I wasn’t done traveling just yet…


Wandering around the grocery on afternoon in Rabaul, I was taking notice of different foods: Twisties, Gold Nuggets (another popular snack food), Beef Crackers, and corned tuna.

“This one is fabulous,” Emily pointed out. It was literally a can of fabulous tuna.

But the only thing locals found fabulous in the supermarket was Emily’s flowing hair; a few of them would just stroke her hair when her back was turned. No one believed her until Tina witnessed it herself.

Next entry: Race on the Brisbane River

Previous entry: Mask Tourism

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This blog post is one of fifteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Cowboys, Duk-Duks, and Kiwis," which chronicled a five-week trip through the Canadian Rockies, followed by Calgary's Stampede rodeo festival, an assignment through different regions of Papua New Guinea, and a wintery jaunt to New Zealand's South island.

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Mask Tourism


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