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February 25, 2013

Bougainville Interlude III


With kind permission by Dermott Ryder

 

For the previous instalment of Dermott's story, click here.

 

There is, however, another side to the working life in a remote location. Off the job the feeling of social isolation that exists in these places is often disturbing. The ability to cope with this sort of negative sensation is essential. Many on Bougainville relied heavily on memories to protect against the more dysfunctional effects of the place. Does constantly looking back help? Not constantly but from time to time perhaps.

It doesn't take long to realise that nostalgia is an ever-present danger because living too much in the past can drive strong men to drink and lesser men mad. The dedicated survivor, or compulsive hedonist, will find more effective diversions of various sorts, some wholesome, others less so.

Entertainment for many on Bougainville was, in the main, grog, grog and more grog. Drinking, a before and after dinner social activity for most, was a dusk until dawn pastime for more than a few. There was no lack of opportunity and supply was a wide and rushing river. Beers of many lands, whiskey, rum, gin, vodka, bourbon and all sorts of fancy liqueurs were readily available. The thing that surprised me a little was the absence of a local bootlegger. There may have been an illicit still, somewhere, but I never found it. Nor did I hear so much as a whisper of its existence. Perhaps the workforce lacked an industrial chemist with time on his hands and a desire to produce a potable toxin.

Drinkers worldwide often seek new experiences when off the shelf concoctions fail to excite or no longer please. Bougainville drinkers also shared this sense of adventure. Curiosity, human ingenuity and the creative use of available ingredients can bear intriguing alcoholic fruit. Aside from the usual mixing of soft drinks, cordials and fruit juices with spirits the most memorable Bougainville experiment that I recall was the great coconut project.

The initiator of this ground breaking and liver demolishing initiative was one of the contract foremen, Bent by name and bent by nature. He had a double donga set up as living quarters, work office and grog distribution centre. Three large fridges, a glass double fronted cold cabinet and an enormous freezer chest served his beer, sea turtle meat and seafood interests. He had an indigenous labour force of about thirty to do his bidding. Twenty or so highland boys and five ghosts did official contract company work. The remainder, coastal boys, worked on his various off-the-book enterprises. Naturally the company picked up the wage bill for the lot.

The great coconut project was simple and lucrative. The coastal boys selectively harvested the coconuts by shinning up the trees and sending down the nuts at the desired stage of development for husking and transport to a makeshift workshop. There, a highly trained technocrat with a Black and Decker drilled two half-inch holes in one end and drained the fluid remaining in the core, which was then filled with vodka or gin and, according to legend, a secret ingredient. The next stage was to plug the holes with sharpened pegs and stack the prepared coconuts on a purpose build wall rack for several days.

The theory being that the spirit, the secret ingredient and the heat of the day would break down the coconut flesh into alcoholic slurry. This process seemed to work more often than not. The suspension, when extracted from the coconut, formed the base for a mind-numbing beverage usually mixed half and half with tonic or soda water and served in a five-ounce glass. I tried the concoction once. After that I merely observed the results of imbibing. One glass produced good humour and a desire to tell terrible jokes. Two glasses created a powerful sensation of euphoria. Three glasses generated a feeling of omnipotence. Four glasses brought on an out of body experience. No one, as far as I know, ever reached a fifth glass.

Most campers, however, found other forms of entertainment more to their taste. We were, after all, living on a sun-blessed tropical island with wonderful black sand beaches. An ocean filled with exquisitely eatable creatures surrounded us. There were a few creatures that would prefer to eat us, should they get the chance but we weren�t unduly worried. We were alert but not alarmed. Life on the ocean wave had its pleasures.

From Kieta to Buka and back can be a very pleasant sheltered-water ocean journey in a half-cabin boat. A steady hand at the wheel, an esky of grog, an esky of fresh seafood, and a fishing rod to make the fish laugh, will also add to the simple joy of the expedition. A big hat and plenty of zinc ointment on the nose and ears will provide some protection from the sun and wind. The size of the boat will often discourage the smaller sharks but getting into shallow water quite quickly is prudent when the larger sharks are about.

If there is some way to go to reach shallow water the simple expedient of tying a large raw beefsteak to a small unsuspecting passenger and then throwing him overboard may gain those few precious moments required to reach safety.

There are also dangers lurking ashore. For sea-going pilgrims requiring occasional and casual female company the legendary and exclusive place known affectionately as the baby farm became a popular call. There, even an impecunious visitor could purchase an evening of tourist class hetero hedonism plus a souvenir, usually a native bow with arrows, at five dollars for a short time. The business class evening at ten dollars for a longer time and with better quality bow and arrows also came with shower facilities and, courtesy of a back door delivery from Burns Philp, heavily scented soap.

Unfortunately, for those wishing discretion, its powerful, lingering odour was an instantly recognisable giveaway and always generated an excess of lewd humour. It also introduced a new word into the Pigeon English lexicon. The makers and marketers of this powerfully aromatic soap, the choice of film stars, claimed it was worth nine guineas an ounce. The satirists of this demographic gave it an appellation not commonly used in polite society.

Former visitors, in remarking upon this entertaining establishment, may smile and show you a native bow and arrow and then tell you, rather ruefully, of all the rewards that can come with a five or ten dollar package deal.

Commercial fraternisation, of course, did not please everybody. The Christian missionary churchmen, none of them qualified to cast the first stone, were characteristically hostile to the activity. They much preferred their own insidious forms of exploitation. The local lads didn't like it either. They got very miffed when their girls got up to no good with cashed up expatriates when they should have been getting up to no good with the local lads. They weren't being mean. They were just protecting the gene pool. Feelings, at times though, ran very high.

A dapper Buka with a permanent smile and the vocabulary of a Chicago wise guy ran the baby farm operation as a sideline to what he called Mary Jane enterprises. He seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of spectacular grass that he packed into brown paper tea bags that held at least 400 grams and sold for fifteen dollars a bag. The Arawa camp "Old Dope Peddler", named after Tom Lehrer's song of the same name, was his main competition. Sadly, a few months later, the surf and turf war that ensued took them both out of the game.

The darker side of the Arawa camp was, strangely enough, the best lit and was often the noisiest. On busy nights the blasts of high-powered stereo systems added industrial deafness to the list of sexually transmitted diseases available for the asking. The epicentre of this tropical island decadence, known as Faggot Alley, was a row of dongas gaily bedecked in fairy lights and featuring in each cubicle a competitively priced pillow biter stripped down and ready for action.

A vicious old queen called Paul the pimpernel was president of this chamber of commerce. The Old Dope Peddler also had a place of business there. The illustrious Harry Bent, of toxic coconut fame, had the sly grog shop concession. Otto the Pig, an ex Melbourne kneecapper, a bulldozer operator in daylight hours, and his hairy knuckle deputy pigs took care of security and warned off unwelcome visitors. Bougainville being Bougainville neither camp nor company management interfered and I suspect that the invisible local police, well served in their Kieta sly grog shop, were happy to have such a lucrative commercial enterprises on their manor.

For the next instalment of Dermott's story, click here.