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Tuesday
Jul112017

VII. Expats

Theresa + Cricket 


“How many new ways can I find to bleed?” says Pete. 

It’s his day off, a dry day, and he just stepped on a palm frond that managed to slide the flip-flop off his foot, injecting him with splinters as he dug for traction, scrambling not to slip. At home, I pluck tiny needles from his heel and ankle with a pair of tweezers sterilized over the open gas-stove flame, then dab the wounds with triple antibacterial cream. 

The action is familiar. 

Several dry days earlier, the length of his right forearm, wrist to elbow, gets patched after a vicious cricket game. At least, Pete’s injuries look vicious. The nail on the ring finger of that hand falls mostly off—just a few intrepid shreds remain, left clinging desperately to skin. He’s hurt almost immediately, legs tangling beneath him as he runs, and somehow when he falls he doesn’t stop but rather keeps skidding, carried forward by momentum or maybe joy, so excited is he to again be playing the game he first learned as a boy in his mother’s English garden. Tina, his student, captures it on her iPhone. She has the video loaded, ready to roll whenever anyone says “cricket” or “Pete” or “wipeout” or “Walindi.” There’s talk of posting it on YouTube. 

Going to watch a cricket match is one of the few times we leave the Mahonia-Walindi compound. All of us pile into a van: a stone-cold pack of weirdo expats. Like Ema said, “I think you have to be a little crazy to want to live in PNG.” Our childhoods were different, but I’m learning that we have at least some qualities in common. The immediate ability to read a situation and adapt by shifting skins—not necessarily a great thing, as it’s been noted that chameleons don’t always have backbones. A tendency to laugh it off, regardless of how bad or gross or scary “it” may be (then indulge a hearty private cry, if it was truly bad or gross or scary). A ferocious, inherent need for solitude—I walk alone, through the jungle, every day, and I feel happy. A love of gin that borders on obsessive. 

Cheyne drives: left side of the road, behind the wheel in shotgun’s usual seat. Cecilie, his “mum,” sits up front beside him. I bounce over every pothole on the first bench, next to Pete and Ema. Behind us: JCU’s Chancey and Kara, with Theresa. Then Lao and Keat, who met in Australia and have worked for twelve years at Walindi. She heads the kitchen; he runs the maintenance crew. Which means his is the Sisyphian task of dousing daily fires to prevent the resort’s breaking into pieces and drifting off to sea. Nothing follows expectation. No day is ever easy. This might grate others’ spirits, after a year or two or twelve, turning humor into bitterness. Keat is one of the funniest men I’ve met. 

We arrive at San Remo Club, the hottest hotspot in Kimbe Town. It was once a golf course that no one could or would maintain. The mounds grew wild and sprouted weeds. Then squatters came, impoverished New Guineans without homes, to sleep in the tall grass. The grass was softer than a dirt patch, and sometimes it was sweetly wet with dew. Who knows what happened to the golf balls. Who knows what happened to the owners of this club, and then who knows what happened to the squatters. Now it’s a place where expats mix with prosperous locals, drinking beer in view of Mt. Garbuna, a hothead volcano. On Wednesday nights, teams play cricket on a converted tennis court. The pitch is small—outdoor cricket is meant to be played on sprawling greens—but this is what they have, so they play indoor cricket regulations, outside. We sit at a picnic table, and Pete whispers the rules in my left ear. I alone don’t know them, but I tell him I am not ashamed.  

“What are we, colonialists from 1900!” I say. “Who still watches cricket anyway?”
“Oh, people all over South Africa,” he says. “Pretty much everyone in the West Indies. The entirety of Pakistan and India, so add that one billion humans to your tally.” 

I drink my beer, properly shamed. 

Pete resumes whispering. He explains the complicated scoring system. Notes the stance of every player, predicting the course of ball trajectories based on hand grip and angle of toe-turn. I expect him to lick a finger and point it to the sky, checking wind speed. Each rule seems to have a sub-rule, with tertiary clauses and amendments. Then you delve into the subset of exceptions. At the end, I understand one thing: such diversion could only be the product of tortured English minds. Then the guy holding the ball winds up his arm and throws it, and the guy he aimed it to swings his wooden stick, and when he hits the ball goes flying, then he runs. 

“So it’s baseball,” I say to Pete. “With a lot of paperwork.”

He shakes his head, and I can see the small crack I’ve made in his heart. Then he gets up to buy us cheeseburgers. From a picnic table near the bar, Keat encourages our team with one shout, heckling opponents in the next. “Come on, mates, well done, that’s how it’s done, another one like that, just like that. You’ve got ‘em scared as shitting dogs! Dogs shitting razors.” The day’s heat has burned off without scorching its edges: un-ruined, the night licks cool tracks on my skin. In the sky, an unfamiliar set of stars—the Southern Cross instead of the Big Dipper. My cheeseburger tastes faintly of cinnamon. It’s not unpleasant. It’s all new. All except Pete, and the known weight of his hand on mine.  

The only game more serious than cricket is rugby. Even expats who didn’t field-trip to San Remo turn up for what’s called the Origin Game, which we watch on TV in the Walindi library. It pits one Australian team against another homegrown hero. Queensland, in maroon, is the Walindi favorite. Many from our group sport burgundy or crimson shirts in solidarity. Keat and Lao are resplendent in real jerseys. Blue uniforms belong to New South Wales, the band to beat. They’re flashy and fast and cocky and boring. I’m already cheering for Queensland, and it’s my first rugby. Has anyone ever not fallen for the underdog?

As far as I make out, rugby is American football crossed with European soccer combined with Greco-Roman wrestling plus boxing jabs tossed in at whim for extra pain. I’m glad this isn’t the sport Pete was playing. Cricket took one layer of arm-skin. The rugby would have claimed one life. 

This time we eat meat pies with peas and mash, which I know as mashed potatoes. The beef comes from Numundo Plantation, a few kilometers up the road. They process two things: palm oil and cows. The cows roam all day among the trees, breathing sea air and grazing rich grass. These cows have good lives. Their lives are short, but free from suffering. We eat and talk and on TV, twenty-first-century gladiators in tiny shorts and tight cropped tops show off their thick thighs and bellies that bulge with muscle. They run and leap, landing on each other’s backs. They pummel and knock down and even bite. I see one player bite another’s year—not off, but hard. This wins him cheers instead of penalties. None have helmets, except a Queensland rookie wearing a padded shell as thick as a banana leaf, tied in a flourish under his chin. I understand that he will be pummeled to death post-game for this blatant flaunt of pussyness. 

Queensland gets control of the ball. Two players run down the field, eyes locked, weaving wide then angling back together in a loving, almost sensual dance. Around them, a choking ring of enemies.

“Come on it, kick it outta there,” shouts Keat. “Straight past ‘em boys, straight past ‘em; that’s the way. Put ‘em on their arse, come on. Coooommme on, kill ‘em! Turn it into a homicide investigation.” 

Monday
Jul032017

VI. Aliens and Beetles

One night while brushing her teeth, Theresa calls me, Pete, and Tina into the bathroom to see a fat gecko. He’s the length of a regular gecko, the size of my hand from wrist to tip of middle finger, but his body looks like it was inflated with a tire pump. He freezes on the wall above the sink, looking at us looking at him. His feet are so fat, I can see each toe: sticky and green and clearly defined. We’re delighted. We can’t get enough. I tell Pete we’re keeping him forever. Tina runs to get her camera. She takes a few mood shots—Gecko Atop Toilet, Gecko Illuminated in Fluorescent Bathroom Light—then moves in for a closeup, then moves closer. Then, still looking through the viewfinder, she reaches out one hand, the motion almost involuntary, to pet his back or maybe catch him. He’s gone in a flash of emerald, escaping through a hole between the floorboards. 

“For a big boy, he sure moves fast,” says Tina. She sighs, and puts away her camera.

At night, I listen to the many resonations of the noise machine. It turns on by itself, alternating sound in varied combinations. Dogs whine and howl and fight in packs. An overeager rooster crows at 4:00 a.m., two hours before dawn, and doesn’t quit until noon. Theresa sniffles, and Tina turns over in bed; you can hear every rustle through the bamboo bedroom walls that aren’t walls but screens. They reach halfway to the ceiling, open at top to let the heat escape. And sometimes, geckos make a sucking noise that sounds like they are laughing. 

“I didn’t tell you we had laughing geckos because then you might have envisioned something else, like more of a guffaw or maybe giggles, and I didn’t want you to arrive and be disappointed,” Pete says.

“There are lizards. Outside. Laughing. Making jokes and cracking up. How could that possibly disappoint anyone?” I say. I occasionally still forget about his British gift of managing expectations. 

Most geckos are half the weight of the one in our bathroom, but generally, things here grow big and fast. Throw a handful of seeds in the direction of a dirt pile, and in a week you’ll have Cinderella pumpkins. Turnips that mimic hubcaps. When flora flowers small, I think it’s because it instead focused efforts on intensifying flavor. I eat a banana no bigger than a pickle, but it’s as though it’s my first time. I’ve never before had this fruit; all others were banana imitations. Its aroma hits in layers: spicy, like it’s studded with tiny chili seeds; tart, like it lay down with a lemon; so sweet it rolled in honey. In the end I can’t unbraid them. 

Fat gecko is not my only Jurassic Park-sized fauna sighting. Cheyne and Ema invite us for Sundowners: cocktails you drink while watching the sun sink into the sea. Their home, near the Walindi main house, is beautiful and new. Corner windows in the bedrooms stir cool tempests, like natural air conditioning. We sit on a wide deck built over a piece of land they claimed back from the ocean. Gin and tonics, cold white wine, salami smuggled in suitcases from Australia. The content hum of our voices. 

The chop, chop, chop of an approaching helicopter. 

Ema jumps from her seat. “Oh no,” she says. “It’s one of those big ones.” She runs inside and turns off the exterior lights. 

A second later, it lands. 

The rhinoceros beetle is larger than my fist. It touches down at the base of the sliding screen door and retracts its landing gear: giant wings fold back into a hard brown shell. It looks around, gets its bearings, and that’s when I decide that it’s a she. Her face so big I can distinguish eyes, and they are lovely, black and curious. I swear I make out lashes. She extends one elegant leg and starts a slow trek up the net, attracted by lights inside the living room. Conversation resumes, but I’m no longer listening. She has all of my attention. In that moment I am certain I’ve never seen anything so beautiful as the lady beetle and her slow, focused ascent. 

She doesn’t look organic. She looks like the Mondoshawans, massive insect-like aliens with mahogany-colored casings that land in the desert at the start of The Fifth Element, a movie I used to watch with my mother. My mother loved science-fiction films and books set post any apocalypse. She was a Trekkie, smitten with Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his voyages aboard the starship, Enterprise. The Fifth Element was among our favorites. It begins with Mondoshawans  traveling to Egypt circa 1914 to retrieve a weapon they fear might otherwise be damaged in the forthcoming Great War. This weapon, plus four stones, are the only elements that can in the future save mankind, when the universe’s greatest evil turns its black eye to Earth. The Mondoshawans promise their terrestrial contact, a priest, that they will return the weapon before evil next returns. In the meantime, he’s to guard their secret and share it with another priest before he dies, and on and on until centuries pass and the year is 2263 and cities soar skyward and a flying taxi, driven by Bruce Willis, weaves between buildings, dipping out of clouds. But from the start, mankind proves that perhaps it’s not worth saving. One Mondoshawan scout gets trapped inside a pyramid after archaeologist Luke Perry sees the alien but can’t see past its alien countenance. He thinks anything so other must be enemy, so he fires his pistol, and the reverberation causes excavated walls to tremble. Rocks fall as the earth quakes.

“Hurry,” says the anguished priest to his Mondoshawan friend, urging him forward, faster, out of the collapsing room. “There’s still time.”

The Mondoshawan tries. He lumbers onward, but he moves slowly, because that’s the way the Mondoshawans move. “Time doesn’t matter,” he says calmly as the walls close, forever entrapping him alone in a dark tomb. “Only life matters.” 

Lady beetle is halfway up the screen. She moves slowly too, every step deliberate. To her, the rise is the scaling of a sheer-faced cliff, but she’s not overwhelmed. She never looks down. One long leg follows another. Her eyes stay focused on the net’s tiny loops. Perhaps she counts them. Pete asks a question, maybe if I want more wine, but I squeeze his hand without looking away or answering. She’s almost at the top now, where a metal rail secures the screen door in its sliding track. What will she do when there’s no mesh left to climb? She reaches the bottom of the bar. Pauses. Considers. Then extends her thin right upper leg and taps the metal once, twice, three times. She knocks on the door! Requesting entry after her long journey. She’s a very polite beetle. 

The last sci-fi book my mother read was The Martian, about an agriculturalist who gets stranded on the red planet after an accident forces his crew to emergency evacuate. The other astronauts think he’s dead, so they rocket away, leaving him behind. He’s injured, as it turns out, but only superficially, not fatally. He wakes up alone—and that’s when his story begins. When there’s no one left, you turn to yourself. You look inside, and what you find there describes the human that you are. 

For many months, more than a year, I thought my mother would recover. The chemotherapy that pumped poisons in her blood ravaged her body, but doctors hoped those hurts would heal. That word is called remission

One day my mother said, “I am like that little guy, alone on Mars, fighting to get home.”

It upset me when she said that. It offended. Hadn’t I run the New York City marathon to raise seed money for ovarian cancer research? Hadn’t I sacrificed five months to train, eating eggs and cottage cheese and never drinking and hardly seeing friends and for five months doing little more than working running working running, to show my mother that she wasn’t alone? I was there, suffering beside her. After all, hadn’t I shaved my head when she lost all her hair?Except now I understand what my mother understood before me: Each of us leaves here alone. Even when we have a daughter sitting beside us, in the final moment, holding one hand. 

Time doesn’t matter. Only life matters. In the end, what would have been enough time? Not the seventeen days we had together after I moved home. Not seventeen-thousand extra years. 

 

Tuesday
Jun272017

V. Toastie-Press

Kimbe Town market, where locals sell fruit and vegetables from their gardens.

 

The main grocery store in town, called Anderson’s, will close at the end of June, making it harder to find food in a country where it can already be hard to find food. Kimbe expats were excited when Anderson’s opened nearly a year ago, as it imports familiar Western items not much carried by the other Chinese-run markets. The shop seemed to thrive, so no one quite knows why it’s going dark. Maybe because the expatriate community is small. Or maybe—more simply yet ever so complexly—because wrong is how things go in PNG. The country’s own tourist board calls it “land of the unexpected.” Here, more than any other place, the law of entropy seems to function with one full magnitude of greater force. It’s like a terra-based Bermuda Triangle, but instead of disappearing, possessions and structures and even humans get destroyed. Trucks and boats are forever breaking down, often with Pete, Tina or Theresa in or on them, and then their research stops while a new part is located or an engine banged on. One day their captain, Blaise, a man born and bred in PNG, steps on a stingray—because, of course, underfoot on a clean patch of sand there suddenly appeared a stingray. Pete and crew eventually get him to the hospital, after first scavenging to find a working van. If degradation feels inevitable, after time it can be tough to keep caring.

I haven’t yet been to Anderson’s, but when I go, on the next town run, I’m buying all the cheese. It comes in two flavors, cheddar or colby, both the color of butter and molded into massive blocks that we stack in our fridge like bricks. We’re down to a brick-and-a-half, and with Anderson’s closing and end of days upon us, I’d like enough to build a fallout shelter. Anderson’s also has a gourmet-cheese cabinet apparently kept locked, as its varietals are well out of the common woman’s means. I’d think this were a myth, except one night I ate a wedge of brie that Ema said came from “the special box.” Just how costly is this cheese? No one will give me a straight answer.

“It’s expensive,” says Theresa.

“Yes, I know, but how expensive? What kinds of figures are we talking?”

“It’s very expensive,” she says, looking away from me, toward the ocean. 

We keep bread in the freezer, butter in tupperware, tomatoes in the crisper. These, along with cheese, are the four ingredients needed for a Toastie. The fifth and arguably most important element is the sandwich-maker, an ancient box-shaped appliance that opens like a clamshell. A metal lid comes down over a hot-plate base, melting to perfection two slices of bread stuffed with maker’s choice of toppings. Toastie-Press originally lived at JCU house, the cabin a five-minute walk from ours rented at various times by researchers from James Cook University in Queensland, Australia. Theresa did her PhD at JCU. On previous trips to PNG, she stayed in that house. She knows where they hide the spare key when the place is vacant. One afternoon, Toastie-Press takes a trip next door. 

When lunch consists of ramen noodles, hardboiled eggs, or a packet of dry beef-flavored crackers, a local specialty, the joy felt at first bite of a gooey grilled-cheese sandwich is hard to overstate. Some evenings, if writing has gone well and I feel tired and satisfied and I know it’s time to stop because there’s still a small bit left in me and that’s the thread I’ll pick up in the morning, I make Toasties for the divers who have just returned. The water takes away your heat. It pulls it from your body, when you’re under it for hours at sixty feet. Pete comes home, and his hands are cold on my hot face. I give him a Toastie, and when Tina or Theresa get out of the shower I hand them each a plate and a mug of gin and tonic, and they sit and eat, for the moment too tired to talk, and it’s not wrong to say the molten sandwiches heat up their chilled cores, and that’s also where our hearts are. 

JCU returns on a Tuesday. This time, they’re a crew of three: Chancey, a PhD student from New Zealand. Petite Kara, the only adult female I’ve met with feet smaller than my own (size five to my five-and-a-half). She’s completing her Master’s. And Gus, an Australian undergrad with blonde hair to his shoulders who studies coral bleaching. It takes Chancey a day to notice something missing. “What happened to our sandwich maker?” he asks Tina and Theresa over drinks at the Walindi bar.

The girls are masters. They put him off for a week. 

“I was on my way to your place, but then I saw the most beautiful orb-weaver spider, she was the size of a small dog, and I had to stop and watch her eat the moth she’d mummified in her web, you understand,” says Theresa. 

“I just want to give it one more scrub,” says Tina. “Cleaner than new, that’s how you deserve to get it back.”

Finally, evasions exhausted, Toastie-Press gets unplugged. Pete puts it in a market bag, big and sturdy, near the front door, to be delivered, no excuses, the next night. But when they return from diving, bag and contents are missing.  

The JCU boys don’t believe we don’t still have it. They’ve heard every line. Pete asks Peter, the Australian director of Mahonia, if someone could have come to borrow it while none of us were home, but Peter says that isn’t likely. “It’s just taking a little journey,” he tells Pete, as though that’s what electric sandwich-makers do. “It’ll turn back up.” 

Toastie-Press, it seems, has gone walkabout.

Three days of cold cheese sandwiches. I top mine with thin cucumber slices, I lay the cheese atop a ketchup blanket, I grate instead of slicing and sprinkle it with chili sauce. I feel unsatisfied; I remember that all things are fleeting. I thank Toastie-Press, wherever it may be, for the reminder. 

On the fourth day, I’m writing alone at the kitchen table. The screen door opens and a New Guinean I haven’t met but will soon know as Lydia, the shy woman who cleans our cabin, comes in carrying an object, big and sturdy, under one skinny arm. A flash of tarnished metal. She puts it on the counter and rushes back outside. She doesn’t say anything. The experience has the surreal quality of a dream. I’m almost sure I manufactured a hallucination—early onset Toastie Mania, perhaps—until I get up and walk to the counter and open the bag. Toastie-Press feels warm, and I identify several new scratches. Wherever it’s been, the journey home was not without peril. 

JCU crew flies out two weeks later. Some field-stint stories are short stories. The night before they leave, we throw a goodbye party. We play Texas Hold ‘Em and take turns plugging phones into Gus’s speaker, listening to songs from home. Pete buys a bottle of Bombay Sapphire and a case of SP Lager. And he and I stand in the kitchen, drinking our first of the night’s many gin and tonics, grilling Toasties to order, round after round, to make up for lost time. 

Friday
Jun232017

IV. Sound Machine 

A path through the noisy jungle. 

 

On my first night in PNG, I wake up at 4:00 a.m.—to my body, still on Boston time, 2:00 in the afternoon—and listen to the sounds. The world is a loud noise machine. 

The ocean plays a base beat, waves smacking sand then sucking back, back, back to Kimbe Bay and past that, into the Bismarck Sea. Layered over the steady lapping are animals that talk like other animals. There is a frog that croaks woodpecker taps. A bird that shrieks like a cheetah, and one that crows in snooty rooster imitation: cawww, caaawwww, caaauuuggghhh. Then I hear a bird that’s evolved past the call of fauna; it whistles like a school bell. Biologists think there’s lots of birds because, in part, there are no big cats. The scariest, called a Guinea quoll, is chocolate brown with white fawn spots, kitten-sized. 

In the darkness of night’s middle, an insect, maybe a fly, sounds loud as a drone. I lie under the mosquito veil that canopies the bed, listening to its whir of metal wings. During the day I sit alone at the table in the kitchen where we cook and eat our meals, while Pete and the students he’s advising, Tina and Theresa, take turns diving twelve reefs, recording clownfish habits. The front door stays open to let in the lazy breeze, and the windows are mosquito screens without glass panes, and I write while listening to the cicadas. They launch without warning into the susurrus of their song, which sometimes ends like clacking castanets and sometimes like the deadly shimmy of a rattlesnake. What prompts them to start, and how do they decide it’s time to stop? Do they sing because the wind changed? Because the temperature dropped one-tenth of a degree? Because a lady cricket just flew by? If there’s a pattern I’ve not yet discerned it, but I’m learning from Pete. I input data in my notebook: 

1:14p.m., 57 secs. >> 1:52p.m., 29 secs. >> 2:06p.m., 1 min: 14 secs >> 2:09p.m., 3 secs

Conclusion: Further observation required. 

Kids sound the same everywhere. I hear wails and sometimes shrieks, but, mostly, kids rhyming songs, teasing, laughing. The kids I’ve seen look happy, even though life is hard for them, and for their mothers. Women here are still the property of men. One of the ways in which a boy becomes a man is by drumming up enough bride-price to buy a wife. Bride-price might include kina, the official currency, or more ancient types of payment like shell money or leaf money—dried banana leaves etched with repeating linear patterns—or it might come in the form of pigs, symbols of wealth and status, or SP Lager, the local beer. Once bought, women do the lion’s share of work. They carry food home from the market, sometimes in huge baskets on their heads, while the men walk ahead, unburdened. In the 1980s, a University of Toronto anthropologist with the somewhat unlikely name of Gillian Gillison spent months living in Ubagubi, a remote Highlands town. She wrote of husbands forcing wives to sleep with pigs, so as to ensure the safety of this precious livestock. And pigpens were for the lucky ladies. Others slept in female communes on villages’ peripheries, where warring tribes were likely to strike first when attacking. Those women’s screams served as alarm, waking the men tucked safe within the inner sanctums, allowing them extra seconds to grab spears. These days, still, a woman is considered dangerous when she has her period, and dangerous women are often condemned as witches. The lynchings and torture-murders of those accused of sorcery are not rare. Rape is also common. Human Rights Watch and UNICEF offer these horrifying statistics: approximately seventy percent of New Guinean women experience sexual assault, with nearly half of rape victims under age fifteen, and thirteen percent younger than seven years old.

The feminist—and human—in me revolts, though I’ll likely never witness this violence or abuse, sheltered as I am within the Mahonia-Walindi compound. But Cecilie Benjamin must have seen at least some inequality when she arrived from Australia in the ‘70s. Her son, Cheyne, who now runs the resort, tells me about his fierce mother. She used to go alone into the villages to introduce herself and establish relationships. In many cases, her arrival was first contact—the natives had never before seen a white woman. Ema, Cheyne’s wife, a lovely Italian whose nomadic childhood rivals my own, tells me that even today, in the Kimbe town market of 2017, some children cry when they see her. Others, awed, try to touch her face, her hair. I think about Cecilie slashing her own path through the jungle forty years ago whenever I get upset because there’s a spider in the shower or my phone’s taking too long to send a text.  

Tuesday
Jun202017

III. Home

Pete on the deck of the Mahonia house, organizing tripods for underwater filming.

 

I’m not new to island-living. For sixteen years I lived or worked on the island of Manhattan, which spans a modest twenty-three square miles yet offers inexhaustible opportunity for distraction. Now home is a massive fourteen-thousand-square-foot floating land mass named New Britain, and my world has shrunk. 

There are two parts to New Britain, PNG’s largest island. They’re called, perhaps less than ingeniously, East New Britain Province and West New Britain Province. Of the two, the eastern side is more advantaged. Its residents count among the country’s richest and best educated. Here, the city of Rabaul once flourished. It was known as “the jewel of the Pacific.” Mangrove trees lined both sides of the main boulevard, creating a canopy of shade. Frangipani made the air soft with their sweet perfume. The harbor bustled. Then, in 1994, Mount Tavurvur woke up, belching ash that fell for days as unending black rain. The volcano didn’t spew lava, but its embers piled on rooftops, heavy as concrete, until buildings groaned and strained and finally collapsed. Rabaul never recovered; these days it’s post-apocalyptic. Not far away, a town called Kokopo rose in its place, phoenix-like from the cooled cinders. 

The western side is sparsely inhabited. Dense rainforest carpets the interior, its terrain further challenged by gorges, rivers, and volcanoes—five active, sixteen dormant. Instead of flowers, the air sometimes smells like sulphur. West New Britain Province is remote. Natives in this jungle had no real contact with Europeans until the 1960s. 

I am on this side. I live among a small community of scientists and expats. Most are Australian, some English, a few come from the States or other parts of Europe, and all—with the exception of me and a woman named Jane—are avid, obsessed scuba divers. I am here for Pete, but they are here for Kimbe Bay. 

Kimbe Bay seems to have missed the planet’s memo about threatened oceans and endangered animals. It bursts unabashedly with life, home to nearly nine-hundred (known) fish species and over four-hundred kinds of coral. Divers photograph everything from adorable pygmy seahorses to crap-your-wetsuit saltwater crocodiles. Pete routinely swims with dolphins. 

The anchor in this bay is Walindi Plantation Resort, which started and evolved in that order: first as an eight-hundred-acre plantation purchased in 1969 by an Australian couple named Max and Cecilie Benjamin. Their plan was to harvest and export palm oil, but they also happened to be divers who now had sudden access to kaleidoscopic cities beneath the sea. Friends and family visited. Max and Cecilie built a thatch-roof cabin on stilts to accommodate guests. More arrived. Years passed, and they put up bungalows, and now there are clusters of them in the rainforest, and people come from all around the world to stay. 

Next to Walindi is a research station called Mahonia Na Dari, which means “guardian of the sea” in Bakovi, one of the eight-hundred-odd local languages. Like clownfish and their anemones, resort and research station are connected in symbiotic relationship—Cecilie helped found Mahonia as her passion conservation project, and Mahonia scientists-in-residence pull double duty as on-staff Walindi experts, always available to answer divers’ questions, deliver talks, or lead dissection demos for school outreach programs—but Walindi, sleek and chic, is clearly for the short-term guests, while those of us with stays ranging from two months to forever find small ways to turn Mahonia’s bamboo bungalows to homes. 


Postscript:

 The rodents in our cabin aren’t mice, as Pete, bless him, lovingly duped me to believe. They’re rats. They have bald tails and complex facial structures. They’re big. There’s nothing chipmunk-cute about them. In this world, I fear three things: tsunamis, cockroaches, and rats. I’ve come to the right place for the first one, while the latter two terrorized me over the course of sixteen New York City years. A rat once chased me out of a Brooklyn subway station. I was descending the stairs as he was coming up. We met halfway and made eye contact, then he flattened his ears, pushed off with his back legs, and charged. I screamed, ran back the way I’d come, and found a different route home. Pete knows my stories, so I don’t blame him for trying to shield. In fact, I admire his tenacity. He is the living British incarnation of the old adage, “Anything worth doing, is worth doing right.” As per his instruction, Tina and Theresa had likewise been calling our housemates “mice” while in my company, until last night, when Theresa finally slipped. Now rat’s out of the bag, but here is Pete: We wake up in the morning, and he walks first into the still-dark kitchen. I follow behind, gripping his pinky. He turns on all the lights while I wait, face buried in his shoulders, until the coast is clear. “Good morning, little field mice,” he says. “Thank you for letting us share your nice field home.”