Drifters, dreamers and beachcombers
26 November 2020
Brown Girl by the Shore
Dirty old hulk caught in the tide
Sun beating down on her battered side
Remember the days when she ran free
Out through the reef and into the sea
I’ve been up and I’ve been down
Round and round the village and town
Rum in my coffee and sugar in my tea
Or cool, cool water from the coconut tree
Under a wide and green clad bough
Soft deep shade for then and now
Whispering waves lapping the sand
And sleek red fish so easy to hand
Brown girl lazing by the shore
Go to the reef and catch me a fish
A dollar or two, whatever you wish
And we’ll be one for ever more.
TUMBY BAY - The years between the two world wars was their heyday, but it was still possible in the 1960s and 70s to come across people who could be loosely defined as drifters, dreamers and beachcombers in Papua New Guinea.
Of late they are harder to find but their children and grandchildren still pop up in unexpected and out of the way places.
As a sub-class of western society the drifters have always been difficult to define.
The allure of a life in the sun, away from the stresses and strains of modern life matched a disdain for money.
These were distinguishing features but not the whole story.
In most cases, however, the romanticised version of them as heedless sojourners on picturesque South Sea islands very seldom applied.
Anthropologists, in their cumbersome way, refer to them as ‘transculturites’.
Transculturites - people who have largely abandoned their original culture to enter the network of roles in another culture, adopting its customs, behaviour, ideas and values.
What interests anthropologists is the impact and influence these people have on their adopted cultures.
In most cases what they find is that the impact is largely positive.
My interest in the subject was piqued when I read about the death of an old Englishman called Rodney who had been living in a village near Port Moresby and whose funeral and burial was organised by the Korobosea Seventh Day Adventist Church.
I know very little about Rodney beyond the fact that he had once been a public servant and that his wife and children had been killed in a car accident.
However his death reminded me of a bloke I knew in Balimo.
He came from New Zealand and was a sometime crocodile hunter.
He came into the sub-district office one day and asked me to help him write his will.
As far as I could work out he owned nothing more than a very small and leaky boat and a shotgun.
Occasionally I dropped by to have a yarn with him and he’d offer me a jam jar of cheap claret.
When I asked about next of kin he referred to an aunt living ‘somewhere’ around Rotorua.
As for what he wanted done if he died, he said he should be buried on the nearest patch of dry ground to Balimo.
The last I heard of him he was living at Wawoi Falls much further up the Middle Fly teaching the locals how to play soccer.
In a strange way I think I envied him.
Since then I’ve come across a few more South Sea sojourners, most notably in the Cook Islands and the remoter islands of Vanuatu. They are invariably men.
They range from lazy literary types to others running useful but shoestring public services like medical clinics. Most of them have happily married into local families.
I’ve got friends who chide me about my occasional anti-materialistic rhetoric and explain that it is impossible to live in the modern world disconnected from capitalism and all it involves.
My retort is a kind of agreement but with the caveat that, be that as it may, one doesn’t have to like it.
I suspect I’m not alone in that regard.
Unfortunately I haven’t got the courage to be a beachcomber but, then again, I wouldn’t really object to being buried on the nearest patch of dry ground.
There used to be a few beachcombers in the Trobriand Islands when I was Assistant District Commissioner there.
They were a likeable bunch of no-hopers lured to the Islands by the moonlight and the palm trees and the blue lagoons, and the beautiful Trobriand Island girls.
They had one endearing feature though, and that was that they were skilled fixit men. They could fix anything from a dripping tap to a diesel engine and in their isolated locations they had to be because there was no one else there to fix it.
For this reason when they did do any work it was to fix things for the local administration or the local missions. But generally they spent their time drinking beer. They not only lived on beer, they thrived on it, and I suppose they did eat, but I never saw any of them eating, only drinking.
They spent their days sitting in their trade stores waiting for girls to visit them. Being free with their favours, the girls could always rely on generous hand-outs from the trade stores, and in this context the beachcombers supplied a useful community function by supplying goods in return for service. No money needed.
The beachcombers loved the Trobriand Islands, which were for them an island paradise.
Posted by: Chips Mackellar | 26 November 2020 at 11:34 PM
Oh joy, oh happiness, oh Phil!
Finally an ASOPA Typepad entry, or at the least, a poem, with Papua as its focus.,
Yes, I know the Highlands are mighty population centres but I spent my 13 years in PNG somewhere along the Papuan coast.
Including right down east in Amazon Bay. And yes I have visited those Highlands on work assignments running Dept. of Labour five-day training courses for aspiring PNG foremen and lower end management people.
I've also paid many visits to Rabaul --- one of my favourite towns in the entire Pacific region, or at least those nations I've visited -- and even two or three to New Ireland, as well.
Bit of a sleepy backwater was Kavieng in the 70s, but pleasant enough.
But Papua. Now you're talking, Phil. Beautiful, balmy seaside vistas as evoked in your poem.
What memories those words bring back.
Posted by: Richard Jones | 26 November 2020 at 07:22 PM