Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Life in Volcano Town

So, yesterday I reached the halfway point for my time here in Rabaul - three weeks down, three weeks to go. It seemed as good a reason as any to reflect on my time here so far.

I currently live down the road from an active volcano - Mt Tarvurvur.

My time is spent mostly either in my room or in the office at the Rabaul Hotel - situated in what the owner Susie jokingly refers to as “the Paris end” of Mango Avenue. Once the bustling main street of Rabaul, the hotel - formerly called the Hamamas Hotel - is the only building at this end of the street. The locals still call it the Hamamas Hotel, and I can’t help but feel a sense of irony (Hamamas is Tok Pisin for "Happy"), as it stoicly stands tall amongst growing mounds of volcanic ash and overgrowth.

Hamamas tru!
The first thing I notice when I step outside is the misty mountains that surround the former town of Rabaul - reminding me of my previous months living in Alotau. And then the dragon deep without the mountains lets out an intermittent roar - not unlike a jetplane circling above - and I remember that it isn’t mist, but volcanic ash. If the wind is unkind, which I’m told it is at this time of the year, the whole area is veiled in a grey cloud of ash, which inevitably gets into everything. Not that there's much to see - most of the buildings have been torn down, and all that remain are vacant lots, piled high with ash and overgrown with greenery. My eyes sting, my nose clogs up, and I can feel the silty grit between my fingers and toes, in my ears - even between my teeth. That’s just part of the experience, I keep telling myself - but I can't help but feel like Mother Nature is telling me something else.

Of course, there is a lot of history - and emotion - tied to this town. Established by the Germans in 1884, taken by the Australians in 1914, then later taken by the Japanese in 1942, and then taken again by the Australians in 1945, and eventually returned to the local people in 1975, the town was once known as the Pearl of the Pacific. And although there has always been a volcano nearby, it only caused serious problems every 50 years or so. However, in 1994, the volcano on the other side of the harbour (aptly named Mt Vulcan) joined in on the eruptions, and everybody packed up and moved to Kokopo. Well, most people. A stoic few are working hard to keep both the history - and the future - alive in this place. There's the hotel here, and down the road there's the Rabaul Yacht Club and the Travelodge Hotel. Further away, on the other side of the harbour is "new" Rabaul, where the shipping industry, soft drink production, and half a dozen supermarkets (no, really!) keep many of the local village residents employed.

Meanwhile, the daily life has definitely been a challenge for me - moreso than my time in Alotau, where I had a regular social life and reliable communications access. I’ve come to appreciate how much I rely on social interaction to maintain my sanity, and I worry that my desperation to connect with people is coming off a little creepy. Like when I was recently in a supermarket in Kokopo, and I saw a couple of young kiwis, and waited for the opportune moment to jump behind them and say “Oh, hey! You’re volunteers from New Zealand, right? I saw your photos on the VSA Facebook Page!”

Nope, not at all stalkerish, right?

Still, as the philosopher Bon Jovi once said, “Woah, we’re halfway there.” I’ve come this far, and I’m slowly but surely getting some good work done. And despite the challenges, I’ve also had some amazing experiences. Last week, the National Mask Festival was in Kokopo, which I used as an excuse to get out of Rabaul for a couple of half-days. And with only three weeks remaining, I’m definitely feeling the pressure to explore some of the other attractions of the region before my time is up. Maybe some exploring of the Duke of York Islands, or a weekend over in New Ireland and Kavieng. Papua New Guinea is such a beautiful and diverse place that I still feel lucky to be here, and whilst Rabaul hasn’t been the easiest of places to live, there are certainly far worse places I could be.