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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.” 

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