Yams Under the Frangipani Tree



Published: January 4, 2004

THE anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski defined the exotic 80 years ago when he wrote about his days in the Trobriand Islands, a place of perfumed trees, untouched villages and free love.

This September, I went to see if paradise still existed.

From what I knew, the Trobriands, part of Papua New Guinea, were still pretty far out there, little coral specks in the South Pacific with limited air service and little tourism.

And there wasn't much written about the place, except Malinowski's handful of books.

The juiciest is ''The Sexual Life of Savages'' an account of Trobriand mating rituals. Villagers believed there was no connection between sex and pregnancy, and behaved accordingly. Children as young as 8, he recounted, frolicked in the bushes. Star-crossed lovers ended it all by scaling the tallest palm tree they could find and flinging themselves to the jungle floor.

Because of Malinowski's groundbreaking work, the Trobriands became known as the Islands of Love.

But getting there was no romance. From the various ways to mix and match 747's and puddle jumpers, my girlfriend, Courtenay, and I decided to fly via Australia. We timed our trip to catch the annual Goroka sing-sing, a tribal show held every September to celebrate the country's independence.

As we learned at the sing-sing, Papua New Guinea is wild, but it's not too wild. It's a place where you can watch hundreds of former headhunters wale on drums, dripping in war paint, and then retreat to a nearby air-conditioned hotel for cold beer and pizza.

The country consists of about 1,400 islands and a rugged ''mainland'': half the island of New Guinea. (The other half belongs to Indonesia.) An Australian colony until 1975, Papua New Guinea remains close to Australia in many ways, among them daily flights from Cairns and Sydney. Many people speak English or an imaginative but decipherable pidgin, with expressions like ''mouth grass'' (mustache) and ''look-im you behind'' (see you later).

We flew Qantas from Los Angeles to Sydney and Air Niugini for the three-hour flight from Sydney to Port Moresby, the capital. Then it was another half-hour, in a small jet, over the mountains to Goroka.

When we arrived, Goroka was in full sing-sing. Tribes from across the country flowed into a field outside town to sing and dance and spin around in grass skirts and chase each other with spears. The ground shook with the beat of lizard skin drums. The stars of the three-day show were the women from nearby Mount Hagen, who smeared their bodies with pig fat and painted beautiful swirls on their faces, laying the colors over each other in the same sequence -- white, then blue, then an arterial red. One morning, they invited us to watch them apply their makeup and told us next time we come, we should dress up, too.

In Goroka, we stayed at the Bird of Paradise hotel, a slab of luxury at the foot of the muddy highlands, with a swimming pool, a garden, three restaurants and Indonesian MTV. The Bird, as Gorokans call it, was home to most of the 300 foreign tourists who attended the sing-sing, along with thousands of locals.

After the show, we returned to Port Moresby to catch a puddle-jumper to the Trobriands. Moresby is notorious for ''rascals,'' or thugs. We didn't have any problems, though, and found the city sleepy, with an almost Caribbean quality. We stayed at an island resort called Loloata, which had excellent meals, great snorkeling and a bougainvillea tree that bloomed in two colors, white and purple. There were only a few guests each night we were there. Tourism, we were told, is a little slow right now in Papua New Guinea.

When we flew to Kiriwina, the main island in the Trobes, the only other tourist on board the 12-seater plane was a burly Californian named Doug.

Minutes after landing, a boy shouted spotted Doug lumbering off the plane and shouted ''Dim-dim! Dim-dim!'' I've been called many things in many places. But dim-dim? The word means ''foreigner'' in the Trobriand language.

The three of us, apparently the only dim-dims in weeks, climbed aboard a minivan that took us to the Kiriwina Lodge. The lodge is built in an L-shape overlooking a lagoon, its rooms connected by a narrow gangway that gives the place the feel of a 19th-century steamship. There is no pool, and the lagoon is filled with killer rockfish, not exactly a prime swimming spot. The owner, Dennis Young, is British, a fading Colonel Kurtz type who came to New Guinea 45 years ago. Locals call him Sir Dennis.

''A week is a long time in the Trobes,'' Sir Dennis told us.

I mentioned I had studied Malinowski.

Bad move.

''You know,'' he grumbled, ''I can't tell you how many tourists come here expecting to be pulled into the bush by some pretty native girl.''

Sir Dennis did say, though, that a tourist had been pulled into the bush by some feisty local women years ago during a yam festival, but things had quieted down since.

The lodge's rooms were simple and clean. At night, we dined on crab claws, tropical fruit and respectably cold South Pacific beer (the local brew) on a veranda perched above the water. Sometimes, boys would slip past in dugout canoes.

It was all pretty enough. But something was missing. I wanted to taste what was left of the culture Malinowski studied. I wanted to eat yams and sleep in a hut.

''Let us float over in spirit to the shores of a Trobriand lagoon,'' Malinowski wrote in 1926, ''and penetrate into the life of the natives -- see them at work, see them at play and listen to their stories.''

We needed a guide.

Enter Tovesei, Sir Dennis's cultural attaché.

TOVESEI is the nephew of the paramount chief of the Trobriands and next in line to take the throne. But he says he doesn't want it because the chief has to support up to 15 wives and Tovesei is a modern man, a Christian and against polygamy.

''Sometimes,'' Tovesei said, his eyes drifting up into the palms, ''I wish I could run away.''

We tried to cheer him up, and Tovesei, who works informally with Dennis and speaks fluent English, expertly using the word ''yep,'' took us on some great tours across 20-mile-long Kiriwina, in a little white truck that bounced and shuddered over the crushed coral roads.

One afternoon, we visited the village where Malinowski lived from 1915 to 1918. It was late in the day. The thatched huts were crispy with light. We met Tovesei's uncle, the paramount chief, and sat on a mat at his feet as he puffed cigarettes and shared his vision of one day building a Holiday Inn. On the very same patch of dirt where Malinowski used to sit in his hut and scribble notes about the island of love, two pigs were nuzzling.

Some of the traditions Malinowski wrote about faded away after the missionaries arrived, Tovesei said, about 50 years ago, but the outer islands were still pretty untouched.

So, the next day we drilled across the sea in a little speedboat pointed toward Kitava, a green smudge on the horizon.

Kitava was gorgeous. It was the Trobriands we had traveled thousands of miles to see -- white sand beaches, lagoons the color of Windex, thatched-roof villages and blooming frangipani trees that left little drops of perfume wherever their flowers fell.

We got our hut and we got our yams.

Sir Dennis had lined up a host for us, a frail, wild-haired old man named Nebet, who managed to convey great pathos in the two words he knew in English, ''Everything nothing.'' It seemed exactly the right thing to say when gazing across a dried-up yam field or shaking an empty sugar jar, which Nebet did every morning.

Nebet found us a tidy hut, much more comfortable than the moist little cell back at the lodge. It was a bukumatula, one of the teenage bachelor pads that Malinowski wrote about that are still part of coming-of-age rituals in the Trobriands. When boys hit 13, they move out of the parents' hut and build their own, smaller hut to entertain admirers.

Nebet also helped us with our meals, usually a pinch of fish and a pound of yams that Nebet's lady friend roasted for us over an open fire.

In the mornings, as we nibbled yams, little girls padded down the path that cut between the huts, carrying empty pots to the beach and returning with gallons of fresh spring water sloshing on their heads. Women with babies at their feet swept up frangipani blossoms. Pigs squealed. At one end of the village of about 300 there was a church, at the other a dirt-floor school. There was no electricity, no newspapers, no television. It was perfect.

We spent four days hiking around Kitava, which at about five miles long is much smaller than Kiriwina island, and exploring the yam gardens. Here the yam is worshiped like something that fell from the sky, not yanked from the earth. The ungainly vegetables are stored in beautifully painted houses with pointy roofs. People whisper yam magic spells. There is a clear and unbending hierarchy when planting yams, with women carrying the seedlings to the field, boys digging the holes and older men burying them.

''The yam,'' explained one farmer named Patti, ''is our source of life.''

So are the seas. One afternoon, Patti took us in a canoe to another little island trimmed in coral, where we went spearfishing with little boys who hunted palm-size fish.

That evening at sunset, Patti laid down elephant-ear leaves for us to sit on, and his wife served us yams in coconut milk. As the sky began to blush, we talked about life back home.

''Are there villages in America?'' Patti asked. ''Is there really a man named Osama?''

A few days later we headed back to Kiriwina. The Trobrianders call it the ''mainland.'' To them, even after all the years since Malinowski put them on the map, the world is still just a big pond full of mainlands.


Copyright © 2004 Embassy of Papua New Guinea to the Americas and Globescope, Inc.
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