Yams Under the Frangipani
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
''You know,'' he grumbled, ''I can't tell
you how many tourists come here expecting
to be pulled into the bush by some pretty
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
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
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
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.