Friday, November 30, 2007

An Australian family visits remote Iruupi village, Western Province

Papua New Guinea today remains one of the most culturally-diverse and unexplored nations on the planet.

Scattered inland are many small villages, each group practicing their own native tongue and traditions, eking out a living from the surrounding land.

Travel to the remote village of Iruupi, Western Province, and you will have to be prepared to do lots of walking.

For Australian visitors Catherine and Peter Cavouras and their three children, a visit to Catherine’s mother’s village meant confronting many new and exciting experiences.

Picture shows Peter and Catherine Cavouras, their two sons, and a relative at Iruupi village, Western Province. Daughter Giwe is missing from this picture.
Catherine, born in Papua New Guinea, had last visited in 1985, some 20 years ago, so village life was a distant memory.

Having flown to Daru from Port Moresby on Wednesday, July 6, the family was met at the airstrip, walked a kilometre or so to the house of the principal of Daru High School, and then prepared to make a crossing back to the mainland on a 21-foot fiberglass dinghy.

Despite the short crossing, with a heavily-laden boat it can be quite treacherous during July when winds make for heavy seas.

Once across the strait, the dinghy sets a course adjacent to the mainland shore along the beach and an extensive coastal coconut grove comes into view, the subject of a fierce land dispute between Badu-suki tribe and others for centuries.

The dinghy gives the mouth of the Fly River a wide berth, paying respect to its strong currents before again trekking close to the shore, and to the mouth of the Kura River about 30 minutes later.

From here the 5 to 8km journey along the Kura is much slower, low tides necessitating care is exercised in negotiating fallen trees, sand banks, the occasional goanna and keeping an ever-present watch for a disgruntled crocodile.

Finally, it reached the landing point Lani, the mangroves and palms along the muddy riverbanks giving way to grassland and a few of the ubiquitous gardens that would later become evident.

A welcoming party was there to assist with all the luggage; bags, water bottles, provisions and the like, some 250kg worth all transported, you guessed it, by foot on the narrow marsh road to Iruupi village.

A short walk by village standards, some 5-6km, weaved through overgrown grasses, bamboo forests, swamps, marshes, and surprisingly, many eucalypts.

For the people of the village, every tree, every scratch in the dirt and ever tract of water is inextricably linked to some significant story or event.

Traversing a waist-deep small swamp revealed the first sighting of traditional Papua New Guinea houses – bamboo constructions on the outskirts of the village, supported by poles with an under storey platform where inhabitants can gather away from the heat of the day, each distinctively different in those erected in other provinces through Papua New Guinea.

Upstairs were verandahs, bedrooms and a traditional kitchen – the timber strutted floors covered with woven mats to maximise comfort (in Daru, many of the more ‘westernised’ pre-fabricated houses still have a traditional bamboo kitchen erected at the rear).

The visitors’ accommodation – a little removed from the village – overlooked an extensive lagoon that all but disappeared in the dry season.

Open and unshielded by large trees, it provided a cooler oasis-like setting, unlike the main village where the air was still.

In the main village, houses were erected around the periphery, enabling the central areas to be used as common meeting, play and performance areas.

It was hard to adapt to village life where family did all the hunting, cooking, washing and other chores, leaving the visitors idle to simply enjoy the surroundings.

Where villages tended to their gardens each day, rich with taro, bananas, greens, melons, pineapple and other fruits planted for harvesting in the dry season, the Cavouras family generally roamed the landscape.

Skilled hunters meant there was a ready supply of deer, wild pig and wallaby, cassowaries proving elusive during the visit.

These would be brought back to the village strung over bamboo poles, while hunting implements were carried in a free hand.

Exotic foods, such as scones or damper at breakfast and deer or wallaby soup with kaukau (sweet potato) or taro, made for a diverse and nutritious menu.

Fresh water was another issue, the local brew resembling oil or tea, so the Cavouras family had to persist with bottled spring water.

Another short walk – about an hour and a half – to Kupilute provided a source of cleaner water that could be drunk with some degree of confidence.

Kupilute is a large lagoon, believed to be sourced by a well of unknown depth in the middle, and linked to creation stories of the Bewani people.

It is believed the well forms the basis of a tunnel that goes all the way to the Australian mainland.

When diving for fish, prawns or lobster in the lagoon, locals skirted the edges, fearful of an encounter with Sapi-dade, a dreaming spirit.

Paying homage to the spirits in the appropriate way ensured there was a plentiful supply of seafood.

In an early visit as an 11-year-old, Peter Cavouras’ brother-in-law Samia, had a subsequent dream in which he envisioned having five “red skin” or albino children in the mould of the original Bewani.

He has since had two and expects three more, knowing full well their kin will in turn be ‘black’.

Yet another walk to a place called Imbade revealed a broad and pristine river that must be crossed in a dugout canoe or outrigger to reach the village of Masingara, home of warring tribes and family of the Badu-suki tribe of Iruupi village, some 2-3 hours away.

Most nights are filled with exotic and traditional dance in preparation for an upcoming event, and to mark the presence of family from distant shores – visitors adorned with handmade grass skirts, cassowary feathers and armed with bamboo clapsticks or bows, depending on the dance.

Back at the house, pointing the torch to the lagoon beyond the washhouse revealed the red eyes of a crocodile, each night keeping watch over the visitors.

For the people of the village, a simple taro or coconut is treated as a prize, yet readily shared among others, to ensure no one goes without.

Each and every person is proud of and well-schooled in their culture and identity, benefiting from an almost unspoiled existence with limited contact with the white people, in contrast to some of the major centres where the negative effects of colonization and decolonization, subsequent to Independence, can be observed.

In leaving the village for the long walk to Lani, through a procession of well-wishers and tearful souls, Iruupi shed its tears, the heavens opening up.

At Lani, it was last goodbyes, the sun poking through and the promise of a return in the future to renew special bonds, as the dinghy headed for the open sea, the family having been privy to a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Minji, Mamne, Ato!

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