Papua New Guinea: Paradise Lost

"mangi" by Rachel Mowbray
I forgot.

How the benign breezes
 warm your skin;
like the hand of your mother,
a caress across your hair,
a warm breath,
familiar on your cheek.

I forgot.
The cacophony

of birds and the
crashing vibrancy
of the bush.  
The night music;
melanesian melodies.

I forgot. 
Soft, sweet, spoon scoops
of young coconut jelly,
straight from the shell.

And the rhythmic gift
of island dancers,

more one with the tempo than
my own hammering heart.  
More free,  joyful,
and fluid than
my stilted thoughts.

I forgot.
The quiet hush of sea

over sand, ringed by reef,
blessed with peace.

I forgot the way

fold to sleep at sunset
and open again at dawn.  

the way of laughter;

the easy island way,
somnolence and
slow starts.

I forgot.
Platform living,
fly screens and louvres,
trade stores, stray dogs,
and roadside stalls.  

I forgot the sound
of the gecko,
lying in wait on the flyscreen.

I forgot the sudden setting
of an equatorial sun
and the heavy,
scented velvet black

of a tropical night.

I forgot the children,
freely roaming,
hands held loosely,

fingertip twining.
The slow rhythmic slap of

The ready smiles.
The sea, the sand, the breeze,
how that feels: like home.  


I forgot that feeling of my
Island Home.

 My early childhood memories of the tropics were all these things. 

So why have I remembered instead; the fear of the later years, the unrest, the palpable tension in the pulsing crowd?  Why am I transported to being thirteen, that awful time in the car park outside Anderson’s Supermarket, alone in the car, waiting for mum to pick up the groceries? One menacing face at a time, then more than a hundred, in a rush. Pressing in against the windows, blocking the light.  Rocking the car and laughing at my fear.

What could she do, browsing in the cooler room, walls away?  The angry faces, betel red mouths, shouting and obscene gesturing hammered against the quiet space in the car.  My cheeks burned with the memory of my last molestation. I knew what they wanted. I knew the only thing between my violent end and that present moment was just one key person’s intent.  A small thing.  A degree more of anger, or boredom, desire or greed. Just one spark of it and the mob fire would rage.  The prank taken over the edge of no return. My mind ran at high speed along the tales I knew so well.  The stories of friends and friends’ daughters.

The white girl stories.

A window broken, the white girl dragged, kicked, maimed, cigarette burned and tortured; violent urges and noise and anger imploding in the volatile tropic air. Her screaming voice silenced by the dust her face is ground into. The crack of bones, the heat of pain, the blows. The rapes. One angry young man after another.  Until her soul is balled up into a tiny white nothingness and thrown free, disappearing into forever, gone the way of so many voiceless white girls; the cost of white money domination exacted on their fathers.

Their stories choked me with fear while the faces pressed in on me.  And then, there was my mother, shouting at them to go away. They listened to her.  She jumped in the car and threw it into reverse. The crowd dispersed.  I pushed my shaking hands between my knees and apologised to her, squeezing my eyes shut against the images in my head. My torturous list of Things I Must Not Do gained another item.


And here I am back in paradise.  Another country’s paradise, not the one of my childhood. I knew it was different as we walked into the airport.  It was a low, crowded, breezy structure, just like the airports in Papua New Guinea.  But the guards here in Tonga were sleepy, not menacing.  I was not afraid. My children smiled at immigration officers, they smiled back.  A refrigerator truck with the sides cut free for ventilation rumbled past.  Smiles. Fat, benevolent people with honeyed skin and oiled hair. Distant singing. The subverbal conversations of eyebrow lifting and chins raised. I felt my eyes, hungrily consuming all of it.  And oh, I remembered!  Bittersweet the flood of remembrances.

Me, riding shotgun on the tray of a ute beside my brother, pot-holed-punctuation for my wind-stolen words. The fetid smell of rotting jungle undergrowth and sweet bite of rambutan. Salty plums and sunburn and the harmonies of strong, nasal voices lifting up on the breeze from the church.  Sugar-cane-sack seating, leaf fanning.  Markets and body odours, slick skins and springy coconut-oiled hair.  Sweat. Tank water.  Mosquito larvae, centipedes, cane toads …and spiders so large they couldn’t be described with a handspan.  I remember the baby fruit bat my brother rescued, the possum in a cage behind the pilot’s house. Our dog’s wet black nose and floppy ears. Wild white-water rides down swollen rivers, clinging to the inner tube of a truck tyre.  Mud baths and tapeworms. And all, in the thick soupy shimmer of tropic air.  Sheets of rain. Floods and heat.  Razor wire fences and 24 hour security guards. Satellite dishes. Brash branding and bilas. The strange combinations of clothing when cultures collide.  Men with tea cosies for hats and bras for belts.  Women with no tops, scars for decoration, bubbled home tattoos.  A little boy in a red negligee.  

This rainy season of remembrances inundates me and I throw my head back to catch the drops.

Today I will focus on the best of my childhood paradise.  The beauty I had forgotten.  I will drink guava juice and scoop the soft white jelly from the coconut shell. I will swim in the calm ocean. Lying on my back, buoyed up by the water.   I will close my eyes under the dome of deep blue sky and drift on the current. I will smile in the presence of a benevolent paradise not torn apart by violence.  I will think about what is possible.  I will wish that for the homeland of my heart and  float my old fears away on the outgoing tide.  I do not need them anymore.

And I will begin to take things off my list of Things I Must Not Do.  A new list is forming in my head.  A list of dreams, of Things I Must Do.

Papua New Guinea.  Here in your brotherland, I can close the chapter of you. I have loved you, feared you, held you and rejected you. I have taken you as my own and carried your name in my every story. I have thanked you.

And I wish you peace.  I wish you an end to corruption and a cultural shift away from violence.  I wish your women a voice. I wish your children, education. I wish your men a way to channel the anger into something worthwhile. I wish you warmth and ease and an end to the trouble in your paradise.  

Stap isi pren bilong mi.

The sketches in this post were done by me when I was a kid living in Papua New Guinea.  Some time in the eighties 😉

15 thoughts on “Papua New Guinea: Paradise Lost”

  1. Rachel, there are no words to describe how your words move me. So vivid, so thick with imagery, so engrossing and encapsulating. You really should write a book.

    Thank you for your words, that touch the soul and transport us with you, right next to you.

    Love Sarah x

    1. Thanks Sarah! I would love to write a book one day, I just have to get serious about some of the ideas swimming around up there in the murky skies of my mind!

  2. Wow Rachel, your poem is lovely, I have enjoyed so many of those feelings myself & you took me their again! Your story is heart breaking! I am aware of the corruption in Papua New Guinea, but you always shared such positive memories, t never thought, I never asked!!! So sorry Rachel, it must be so difficult to live with those memories! It’s good to hear you are letting go! Please post some FB pics of your beautiful family holiday sounds like you had a wonderful time! Take care my friend, miss you and our catch ups xxxxx

  3. Beautifully written Rachel. Ive just been thinking of you wondering how your family trip went. I’ve never been to the islands and your descriptions are so vivid and ‘real’ and very educational. It’s good to hear the realness of the places (good and bad) rather than the painted pictures of pure paradise. Thanks for sharing. I would put your words up there with the realness of the movie The Orator 🙂

    1. Thanks Karen! I need to edit it but I was too tired yesterday. I am learning to let the imperfections just be until I can get to them, rather than letting editing rule my life. Sometimes it is too hard! I’d rather hit publish and fix the errors afterwards (more motivated to do it once it is live!) but this time haven’t got there yet. So thanks for reading in spite of the length and lack of polish. 🙂

  4. I would love to visit Papua New Guinea based on the Shangrila-esque photos I have seen. I wondered what your childhood could have been like growing up there-what jarring contrasts. The only thing I can relate your beautiful poem and writing to is Jamaica-where many people used to go who grew up in Chicago. It was paradise but with an under tone of inequality that eventually turned the paradise into a killing field for tourists. Understandable but horrifying. I love the feel of the air in the tropics and I am so happy you have a chance to remember!

      1. Hi Rach-I’m reading the follow-up comments and realize that your gorgeous drawing did not come up on my screen on the first reading. Oh-I love it! I get the feeling that you’re not drawing anymore and I hope my instincts are wrong. I forgot to tell you that I freaked out a little while you were on “sabbatical”. I forgot and got scared something had happened to you when I didn’t see your posts. Whew-then I remembered. Funny that people don’t have to meet in person to feel such connection. Keep drawing please.

        1. Hi Barb, you are right, I am not drawing, but I doodle sometimes! I’m definitely not painting. In fact, it is a while since I did anything visually creative, maybe I need to do something about that. Thanks for the encouragement! And I am sorry that you freaked! We were completely off the grid. My first time in at least five years (probably more like seven) without the internet. It was actually, surprisingly wonderful being disconnected, but I know I wouldn’t have felt that way if it had been permanent. A week is long enough. 🙂 Glad to ‘see’ you again Barb!

  5. wow – what you are describing has really happened. Even still happens. Deeply moving.
    I share the same feelings. The people there are so special.
    However it’s not the world we grew up in anymore. I went back, lived there, had guns at my head and jumped into my car at the supermarket – in the end I carried a gun myself. It is a different world now.
    Keep praying for Niugini! It is such a great place!

    1. Thanks for reading Tobias, I am sorry your return was so awful. It’s not the same. I feel so lucky to have had a week of pseudo PNG, in Tonga. Like the good ol’ days!

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