Desert Traditions
…where new journeys into life, tradition & culture begin

A Chair for all Occasions

I did not leave for Ahmedabad at 8am today as planned, instead I am languishing, drinking thyme tea - as Liane recommends - and generally giving myself the ‘thumbs up’ because I usually travel in the belief that a sniffle will pass, a headache disappear and a surface scratch heal before the flight has landed. This time was somehow different. The broom of lingering winter caught me in its bristles late last week, swept me along wet pavements and left me stranded on an exposed corner at a busy intersection where the pedestrian lights had failed.  I did not have a coat or umbrella – they were hanging on their hallway hooks along with my invincible self. Over the weekend the sniffle morphed into the flu, the headache into a persistent throb and a minor leg wound into a major infection requiring medical intervention. So while waiting the required 30 minutes after the prescribed tablet to eat my soup I sneaked into my office to check mail. Amidst get well messages from Gujarat a Facebook friend request from Papua New Guinea leapt out at me. It came from Vincent and from a time of treasured friendship and travel into rare territories. Time and space collapsed in a rush of memories – not of deserts but of steamy places, incarcerated mercenaries (we arrived one day before the Sandline affair errupted), small islands, vote-seeking politicians, the drama of a rubbish dump that I was sent to investigate and of my tall, pale skinned, red haired husband diving into the waves at Wom beach amidst the quasi-afraid and delighted shrieks of small Papuan children and their onlooking families.

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Cruising with Vincent, East Sepik. Photo Mike Sloane 1996

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I learned to love Pidgin. Petrol pump sign Wewak.
Photo C Douglas 1996

Vincent Sale came into our lives during a crystal clear star-studded night at the Hawkesbury campus of the University of Western Sydney. He was then an agricultural extension student and I was enmeshed in Social Ecology. It was 1994 and we were set to change the world. The Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro was over by two years; I was completing my Masters degree to carry the new paradigm forward and Vincent planned to revolutionise land management in the country of 'wantok' and the hidden implications of a system of kinship and not too different from our own of mateship. Vincent appeared before me during a social occasion, a small dark man with a huge smile and offered me his outstretched hand.  ‘Hello – I be Vincent – from Wewak in Papua New Guinea.’ I responded in like manner and in that instant a friendship was formed, unbreakable, heartbreaking and breaking the grounds of anything I have known before or since. That is also 'wantok'. From then on Vincent was our friend, our loyal supporter and mentor. He was a regular visitor to Manly, brought his family down to stay more than once and came in splendid gift bearing style to our wedding where, in full voice, he orated the occasion of our first meeting in Manly. Mike and I went to Wewak once and once only and the memories of forays into places of total otherness linger indelibly. I remember markets and 'meres', sweeping bays and bush food, kids and laughter, billums and storyboards, listening to PNG Parliamentary debates spoken in colourful Pidgin, driving over boulder strewn river beds jam packed amonsgt twenty or so others perched on the Landrover's tray and smoking 'brus' rolled into the carefully torn pages of the Sydney Morning Herald (best quality for a smoke). But what remains in uppermost layers of memory are the interpretations of everyday life as magical events - woven and rewoven until they are embedded into local lore. Such is the story of Matiu's chair.

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Island village - Kairiru. Photo C Douglas 1996.

Matiu’s Chair
Vincent insisted we visit his family home so early one afternoon we set off in a ‘banana boat’ - an open aluminium 18 footer laden with petrol, food and drink – for the island of Kairiru off the East Sepik coast and two hours across the Bismark Sea - when conditions are right! Matiu with his betel stained gums took the helm with Vincent, Mike, Aaron - Vincent’s youngest boy, baby Alice and myself tucked strategically throughout the craft to maintain some kind of balance. We were late in leaving Wewak and the men were anxious about the turn of tide and wind that could render our journey dangerous in a wave beat. Our personal bodyguard, reformed ‘rascal’, Gary had kept us waiting. He did not make the journey - urgent family matters took precedence. It was a long tough ride across waters that turned against us before we reached the half way point. The island was elusive, its dormant volcanic cone surrounded by jungle and wave-lapped rocky shores hovered just out of reach. We did not land at Victoria Bay and instead went to the lee of the island and beached ingloriously just in front of Matiu’s small village.

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So close yet so far the sea pushed us backwards. Photo C Douglas 1996.

A dozen or so family homes lined the grassy knoll above the bay.  Each one stood on coconut trunk piles a metre or so off the ground and each one had a wide veranda, sloping thatched roof, overhanging eaves and the air slipped its cooling way through the lashed coconut slats used for floors and walls. There was not a sign of a nail, pane of glass, or metal roofing in any construction. At the edges of the settlement several houses lay in variously collapsed piles and slowly disintegrating into the land from which they came – sustainability in action. Kids squealed and chickens ran under houses at the sight of these pale strangers disturbing the tranquility. White nappies flapped in the sea breeze and a group of women were already in the cookhouse preparing our food. The only anomaly in this bucolic scene was an oversized, overstuffed, triangular plastic chair with a scalloped back and covered in royal blue and floral patterned vinyl complete with gold piping. This ‘throne’ took up the corner of the veranda just before entering Matiu's house itself. Our host insisted that we take turns in sitting on it and asked if we 'felt' anything before he told us how such an unlikely object came to be in his possession.

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Matiu's outrigger. Photo C Douglas 1996.

One morning Matiu was fishing in his small outrigger canoe, several hours off shore and well out of sight of land. The fish were biting and he was just about to turn for home with his catch when he spotted a dark object bobbing on the horizon. It took some time to reach and when he did he discovered a large amorphously shaped package tied up in heavy plastic. He had no idea of the contents but lashed it to his canoe and began the labourious task of towing it home. The sun was slipping from the sky when he finally arrived to an anxious group waiting on the shore. It took several men to heave the heavy mystery package onto land and carry it up on to the grassy knoll where it was solemnly unpacked in view of the entire population of fifty or so. I try to imagine that moment as people, who live without chairs, were confronted with a grand item obviously designed to be sat upon. It finally came to rest on Matiu’s veranda where it became an object of awe, speculation, gossip and imbued with the magic powers of the spirit world as, over the next few months, everybody on the island came to view this gift from the sea and offer their version of how it came to be there.

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Matiu's chair - a gift from the sea.
Photo C Douglas 1996.

‘It is a gift from your parents (deceased)’ said one old aunty ‘They have sent to you so you can sit and watch the sun go down and think of them.’
‘It is a bribe from the government’ a jealous local official informed him – and spread the rumour around the tiny island.
'It is a gift from God for being a good Christian' his god faring neighbour told him with a certain amount of unChristian envy!
‘It belongs to a king of a faraway land’ a bright-eyed schoolboy who attended the local mission stated ‘I have seen such things in books.’
“The pirates stole it and now they will come here to find it’ offered a young man ‘we will have to fight.’
‘The spirits sent it and they will take it away again if you misbehave’ his brother in law told him in jest.
‘If you sit on it you will become rich’ and this version gathered many dimensions from miracle cures, to longevity, to sudden death!

In the end the chair will outlast Matiu and his house and nobody will ever know its true origins and how it came to be bobbing about on the Bismark Sea. We certainly did not 'feel' while anything sitting on it except minor discomfort at its slippery surface. I’d like to return one day to the island - there were many stories yet to hear - but our visit was cut short by Mike’s sudden onset of malaria. We were gone the next day leaving the chair to its new place on a tiny island with its coastline of less than less than 40 km and where people interpret their world through the interchangeable lenses of natural and supernatural realms. Today you can find Kairiru on WWW. and via Google - not via some Unix code which was about the time I first met Vincent. Now it is Facebook that brings friends back to me - another circle closes and a new one opens.

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'Puk puk' carved from single log, Wewak. Photo C Douglas 1996.

The postponed India trip is now three weeks away. I hear from good sources that it is raining on the desert, green grass grows before one's eyes, the reservoirs are filled with sweet water and baby crocodiles have appeared in great numbers. Maybe I’ll get to one see a live one yet!