You've been on a cruise, and you've been in a tour group, and you have the pictures and souvenirs to prove it, and yet you still feel that something is missing.
The ship was beautiful - almost like being in a super mall with sleeping quarters. The shore trips were efficiently run, and provided fodder for discussion in the ships lounge late that night. But, there is the catch; you are still with familiar faces in a protected environment and the only danger or challenge you will face is the fear of missing the launch returning you to the cruise ship at the end of your visit.
On my last trip to the Pacific Islands, I decided to try to travel on my own, much as I did for business trips before I retired. I booked flights with the cheapest fares, and made no firm reservations ahead for lodging. I was bound for a town on the north shore of Papua New Guinea which was near the area where I had served during World War II.
We changed planes at the International airport in the capital city of Port Moresby and after customs, went to the domestic terminal for my flight to Madang. I, and my 16-yr-old grandson were the only non-native passengers waiting to board. We landed briefly at Nadzab, a former WWII military airbase, and then took off again in the dwindling daylight for our final destination.
We arrived in darkness, and retrieved our luggage from a pile outside the terminal and looked around for transport to the town about five miles away. When we arrived we checked in to the commercial hotel for the next two weeks. Our room was on the ground floor, and had a patio from which the sound of the surf pounding on the nearby sea wall could plainly be heard.
After a stroll down a thatch-covered walkway to the dining room we had a good dinner and then back to the room to unpack, settle in, and then to bed. We turned off the noisy airconditioner and opened the sliding glass doors to the patio to let in the cool breezes and the sound of palm trees rustling overhead.
The next morning, after a buffet breakfast we caught a ride to the center of town to find a bank where we could exchange our dollars for Kina, which was the local currency. Next stop was the market where vendors from miles around displayed their wares much like our flea markets. Everything from local produce to pearls was displayed by women seated on the ground in the midst of her wares, usually with an infant in a string bag on her back.
Outside the area of the market was a large store labelled Cash and Carry Steamship Store where we bought some snacks to bring back to our room. It was an odd experience being the only white face in a sea of people who seemed intent to show their friendliness by greeting us with a cheerful smile and a "Hello Sir" at every opportunity. We were shy at first about taking pictures, but soon became aware that this was quite allright with the townspeople.
Back at the hotel, we ordered hamburgers to be served at a table by the side of the pool. Under a thatched umbrella with an elaborately hand-carved center pole, we ate our hamburger, which turned out to be a complete meal. Meat, cheese, and onion were supplemented by a fried egg on top, potato chips and slices of fresh pineapple and orange on the side, and a cup of fresh roasted locally grown coffee to wash it down.
As dusk gathered, we went back to our room and sat on the patio to watch the flight of the bats from their nesting place in town to the outlying gardens where the six-foot wingspread flying foxes fed all night long in the fruit trees. We watched as first a few dozen, then hundreds, then thousands of the creatures wheeled and squealed in the darkening sky on the way to the feeding grounds. It was a sight unique to this area, and breathtaking to see.
After my grandson went to bed, I went over to the bar to have a nightcap before turning in, and soon met some interesting people. This hotel, unlike the Resort Hotels, allowed natives to come in and buy drinks each night. Those who only drank beer were served from a window at the side of the bar, and those who wanted liquor came inside. A fierce looking man dressed in a native lap-lap skirt, barefoot, and with facial tatoos, approached me and in perfect english, rather than the native pidgin, asked me about juvenile crime in the United States.
He explained that he was a social worker assigned to help the young men in the area. His technique to reduce bloody confrontations with rival groups, was to form sports teams to settle their differences in a more civilized way on the soccer field. After we ended our conversation he invited us to join him the next day on a trip to one of the villages where he was working.
For the next two weeks my grandson and I ranged far and wide, with a new volunteer tour guide almost every day. We became totally immersed in the culture of the area and saw many things that ordinary tourists were not even aware of. We found out that the natives were indeed friendly, and that going off the beaten track can sometimes lead to pleasant surprises.
When we finished out two-week stay, we left with parting gifts exchanged on both sides, and a warm feeling about the new friends we left behind. When we arrived at Honolulu for a two-day stopover, we experienced a great culture shock as we rejoined the civilized world. Tour busses seemed to be everywhere, and native culture could only be found on the Post Cards displayed in every shop along the way.
We shipped home our dirty laundry by parcel post, cashed in our remaining travelers checks, and by the time we boarded our flight back to the Mainland looked as anonymous as any of the other passengers. The stewardess, who knew from our tickets that we had just been in New Guinea, placed us in vacant seats in business class.
Handling our own baggage, and making our own arrangements for lodging and meals was a pleasure, and not the task that travel agencies warned about. It made for a unique adventure that I would reccommend most heartily!
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