New Britain behind us, we sailed into New Guinea for short visits to two ports: the area’s most important town, Lae, and the smaller Madang. The guidebook was not at all friendly about the former and expansive about the latter. Strange, when they aren’t really that far the one from the other. But the guidebook is utterly and absolutely right. It is difficult to believe that the hideous and filthy town of Lae, physically on a level of Honiara and with a crime-rate to match (the second mate on the previous Banks Line ship was mugged), and the truly beautiful Madang have anything in common. Yet the people are of the same race (note: see comment below), the traditions and history are more or less the same … but Lae is to Madang as I think Purgatory must be to Heaven.
I shall pass Lae over simply by saying that, being warned about its lawlessness and ugliness, we decided to take a 2 ½ hour minibus tour. Vastly overpriced, it consisted of a lengthy stay in stores selling reproduction tribal art, a teeth-rattling ride over ‘roads’ worse than the worst in Santo, and a brief visit to the Rainforest Habitat, a pretty little zoo in the grounds of the University of Technology. After which I was extremely happy to depart. My only kind memory of Lae is of our gentle minibus driver, and my own private zoo guide. Boys, I’m sorry you have to live in such a godforsaken place.
Perhaps the contrast helped me fall in love with Madang. It has been called the prettiest town in the Pacific and I reckon that epithet may very well be true. We sailed in through palm-dressed islands, past the memorial to the second-world war Coastwatchers, and the tactfully modern-island-style Madang Resort and its adjoining hotels, chalets and restaurants, past the modern Yacht Club, to the cluster of buildings that are the active town of Madang, and into its empty dock.
I hurtled off the ship as soon as I could and set forth down the main road. So far, not exceptional. A lake covered in water lilies, the old German shipyard, cylinders holding .. what? Fuel, palm oil? And ahead the long road to the airport.
Down a side road I could see the sea glistening on the other side of the peninsula. That looked more promising. Go for the side road.
The promise was amply fulfilled. In a few minutes I was beside the true blue Pacific, amongst waving palms, wide green spaces, rock pools and pinnacles, and all the other things (give or take a sandy Caribbean beach) one could hope for in a tropical island.
For more than an hour I simply strode happily up one street and down another, past cheerful houses set in richly floral gardens and immaculate lawns. The houses are built on the same principle as those everywhere else in New Guinea, but so much more substantial and solid, the gardens no larger than elsewhere, but somehow gloriously richer. The people evidently have a pride. I passed one smiling woman picking up the leaves that had fallen onto her road-front. One by one, by hand. And a pickup truck passed me with a megaphone-man crying out messages of Keep-Tidy civic pride. Nowhere was there the garlands of filth lying along the roads, sticking in the puddles, nowhere the abandoned plastic bags, the heaps of rotting rubbish that one cannot avoid elsewhere. If cleanliness is next to godliness, Madang is the most Christian town in New Guinea.
In such a town, one expects to find happy people. And I did. I could have worn my camera out snapping the multitude of pikaninies (sic) and little boys who wanted to be photographed. I could have spent the afternoon laughing and larking about with them.
I think I had covered most of the streets of maintown Madang by the time my water-bottle started to run low and the back of my sweat-soaked shirt to send cold sticky signs up my spine. I pulled out the map, and decided to return by the touristic route – past the hotels, the memorial, through the Saturday market .. who will buy all those root vegetables, those coconuts, and those other unfamiliar vegetables? Who those violently coloured Mother Hubbards? Who all those eternal bits of ‘native art’? … past the town’s few street of modern shops and amenities ..
I stopped by an inlet near the hotel to look at the Sunday picnic which is evidently a local tradition. Rows of folk, under brightly coloured umbrellas, cooking all sorts of fruit and vegetables over stone fireplaces. A wonderful picture. Seurat’s La Grande-Jatte flashed half ironically through my mind, and I took a photo to ponder the strange thought.
Alas, earlier on, amidst all that beauty, one of our passengers had almost become the victim of an unsuccessful pickpocket. A serpent in Paradise. The incident over, he was approached by a local woman who apologised and begged him not to think that her town was like that.
I’m sure it isn’t, but it takes a little thing like that sadly to remind you that nothing in this world is perfect. That and this omnipresence of signs that this property is patrolled by such and such a firm. Its true. One grinning patroller, spotting me striding where tourists seldom go, offered me a lift!
I like to think Madang, of its kind, almost is perfect. Its certainly as perfect as you are going to get in this part of the world.
I look forward to coming again.