© 2013 Erich Pacheco

Adventures by the Sea: Salamaua and the Coral Triangle

July 14th: I spent my first few days out of Lae after a month in country. I went to Salamaua, a village just an hour from Lae by banana boat (fiber glass boats with a small engine). Getting there took some time as expected. Despite waking up early to catch a boat I had to wait 6 hours before leaving. But, I did not really mind the wait as it gave me a genuine opportunity to interact with locals in a casual situation. Besides chatting with the boat captains (as they call themselves) and playing with some kids, I was shown the proper buai (betel nut) consumption routine. Everyone over 12 seems to have an addition to this nut. People peel the nuts with their teeth exposing a little round wet, almost translucent, nut. The disposed shells, which look almost like the outer skin of a coconut, but the size of a thumb, are seen everywhere on the ground. Once the nut has been chewed into a paste, people pull out their bags or tins of powdered limestone and strings of mustard seed. They dip the mustard seed in the lime powder and chew it along with the buai. These three elements together form a chemical reaction turning the concoction into a bright red mix, which has to be regularly spat out.


IMG_0559There were 14 people on the small boat: 2 women with their babies, a man with his son, a grandma with 3 granddaughters, 2 young men fishing out the back, the captain, and me. One of the women gregariously shared her buai with anyone who wanted some. Unfortunately, the combination of a fast moving boat and red spit is not great when you are wearing a white shirt. I ended up with red sprinkles all over me. Throughout the boat ride, we could see tuna jumping out of the water. After two brief stops at small villages to drop passengers off, we arrived to Salamaua. I was dropped off directly at the guest house, where a big, shirt-less, older man greeted me warmly. His name is Joe, and he co-manages the Salamaua Haus Kibuno (guest house). It only costs 44 kina ($22) per night per person for a bungalow. Promptly after checking in I was offered a beer by Napoleon, the other co-manager, also a shirt-less older man. Both men are retired civil servants and are clearly well educated and well spoken. We held some fascinating conversations about the challenges PNG faces today, and the importance of developing human capital. They gave mea history lesson about the role Salamaua held during WWII as it became a strategic Japanese stronghold, witnessing strong battles as Australian and American troops fought together to take over the small village. Old docks, bombs, and machine guns remain as a reminder. A young guy named Pet was kind enough to show me around the village. He is 17 and has to paddle on a canoe for an hour to reach his high school. But, since his canoe is broken at the moment he walks an hour and a half. That is commitment! For dinner the the two young ladies who work at the guest house prepared Chinese cabbage, taro, potatoes, plantains, and fish, which I bought an hour earlier from a fishermen (they were a dollar a piece). I had the opportunity to meet the local level government president, Joshua, who serves at the regional provincial government. He was there to campaign for the upcoming election.


IMG_0621In the morning I was awaken by the comforting sound of rain falling on straw roofs. I waited for the rain to stop before leaving bed (I always found it hard to get out of bed when it’s raining). Breakfast was prepared: a bowl of rice, noodles, greens, and sausages. It wasn’t so bad. I fetched my bathing suit and snorkeling gear and swam about 200 meters (600 feet) from the shore towards a large buoy, which marks a shallow sunken Japanese military boat from WWII. After nearly 70 years, the boat is now a vibrant reef with spectacular colored fish. I did a few free dives down to get closer to the boat and the life it holds. After swimming back to shore through beautiful seagrass, I walked a long the beach until it ended, and got into the water again to explore the local reef. I didn’t have to go far to encounter a shallow, but massive reef, teeming with life and diversity. Now I understand all the rave about the coral reef triangle. I swam for over two hours over and around this beautiful reef. I felt in paradise! I was alone no more than 100 meters from the lush forest of the coasts and as soon as I dunked my hear it was like entering a new world. This ecosystems are too beautiful to describe with words. Striking colors and shapes, massive formations that look like underwater sculptures. I felt fortunate to be undisturbed in complete silence aside from the sound of the waves, the singing of the birds, and the clicking sounds of the reef itself. Later that day Pet and Gilberta took me to the hill the Japanese held during WWII. Since it is located in a peninsula, it allows easy monitoring and controlling of maritime traffic from the north and the south. The hill allows climbers a spectacular view of the peninsula and the bays it crates on both sides, as only a thin strip no more than 200 feet   across connects it to the mainland.


IMG_0687The next day it was time to leave. Again we spotted yellow fin tuna jumping off the water, so our captain promptly directed the boat towards the fish, and quickly two fishing lines went out the back. Both lines pulled and there was excitement on the boat. One of the fishermen pulled a 7 to 8 pound tuna out of the water. As the second line came up, we could see the fish, but at last moment it freed itself. We continued out journey under cloudy skies, threatening to pour on us. The wind picked up slowly, the water got progressively choppier. We made a stop in Busamang, a small village not far from Salamaua, which had its weekly market. Some of the ladies on our boat bought a 25 kg bad of buai for 100 Kina ($50) and did not hesitate to tell me they will triple or quadruple their money by reselling it detailed. The market was packed and a man was heard addressing the crowd, campaigning for the election. I was told that village leaders decide which candidate they will support and every voter in the village provides unanimous support. At the market, I was gifted a wild turkey egg (which I ate in an omelet later that week). After leaving the market, rain started falling and we were quickly under a full storm. Our boat kept moving through the waves effortlessly. Although I felt no danger, I caught myself preparing a plan for the worst case scenario, which included my snorkeling gear and pieces of bamboo laying on the floor of the boat. The rain stopped shortly before reaching our destination, and a few minutes later we ran out of gas. Our captain refilled the canister from a cooking oil container. We reached the now muddy showers of Lae and hopped on the back of a small truck which took me home.


Since my coworker and housemate was not home last week, and I am not allowed to drive the program’s vehicle, I was forced to take the bus to work, a cultural experience of its own. It costs 0.50 Toya ($0.25) and it wasn’t as bad as I had expected. I managed to finished the field surveys and got more feedback from the local staff. Their input has been very valuable and has significantly improved the quality of the survey. Now that they are translating it to Tok Pissin (Pidgin English), I’ve begun the process of creating a smart database so that I can quickly analyze the field data. Since I will be collecting 252 surveys (14 a day with the help of two research assistants) I will have to begin the data entry process in the field. This is no easy task since there is no electricity, much less internet, in the areas where I will be working. I spent a few days doing research on how to use the most modern database tools while in rural areas. A few online tools exist for this, Qualtrics being the top of the line. But after a trial period they informed me their license would cost me $2,500, but by then had found an alternative: QuestionPro, which offers offline capabilities for survey and database management, in addition to tools for producing customizable reports. It’s been on a fantastic learning experience to combine my academic knowledge with field realities.

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