Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Rabaul by night

So here I am back in Papua New Guinea, for a swift run through five ports. Last year, I found Madang beautiful, Kimbe charming, Rabaul interesting and Lae unspeakably foul (we didn’t go to Bialla) and, as I’ve enjoyed myself ever so much more in each revisited port on this year’s trip, I’d unconsciously expected that trend to continue.
Wrong.
Rabaul was the big sleeper of last year. I didn’t expect to like it, and I had a fascinating time. But last year I went out in the daytime and in sunshine, there was no wind, the ash from the volcano was unintrusive and Suzie from the Hamamas Hotel arranged us a fine tour. This year …
As we sailed in, half the horizon was blanked out by a dirty beige blur. Turvurvur was spewing up its usual quota of smoke and ash which, caught by the prevailing wind, whirled and hung in a scratchy beige-out cloud for miles around. Standing on deck, you could fancy your face was undergoing a surgical sandpapering.
Once we got docked, behind the wind, a sort of atmospheric normality returned, and an evening out sampling the well-reputed Chinese food at the Hamamas seemed like the thing to do. And thus, all eleven of us stepped ashore under darkening skies, perforated by a first few drops of rain, to head for the dock gate, and our hotel transport ‘into town’. The rain got heavier, the night got blacker, the underfoot ash turned to black glue, the transport turned out to be a vastly beat-up four seater with jammed-half-open smoked windows, and the road a nightmare of slalomed potholes. The Hamamas, which I remembered as bright and lively, didn’t look so much like an oasis in this glabrous gloom as an air-raid bunker. I clocked the louche lads and the amazingly ugly whores lolling in the slithy shadows and scuttled behind big John into the foyer.
The hotel was unchanged, except in that it seemed to have lost its spirit. Even the friendly barman in the empty bar (where someone nevertheless managed to nick of Chief Engineer’s wallet) couldn’t quite revive it. We shared the eight-table restaurant with two groups of Taiwanese and a single, vastly stressed-out and obviously wholly inexperienced serving lady of uncertain age and gait. The kitchen was clearly equally understaffed. It was nearly two hours from setting out before I got to taste food. It was splendid food (apart from soggy rice) when it did come, three nice cold SP beers later, most particularly the honey chili chicken and the crispy chow mein, but the long wait, scrambled for me into an aural miasma by echoing Taiwanese chat and ceaseless muzak, had taken the joy off it.
Truthfully, I was glad finally to escape from the frightful, deeply undermanned foyer with its looming lowlife, to crawl into the old four-seater and bump my way back through the sinister, vaguely-peopled blackness to the cheerful comfort of the Gazellebank.
Where has the soul of this historic hotel gone? No Bruce nor Suzie in sight, no brightness (and I don’t just mean the erratic electricity supply) and no enthusiasm. Just that dark, wet flavour of uncaring loucheness and the ugliest whore I’ve seen in years.

And now it’s the morning. The rain has gone and so has the wind, the sky is blueing, Turvurvur has put on its most alluring of dramatic displays, the cocoa is loading, the huge moths are swooping and the fish making white holes in the sea, and Rabaul looks much more like the town that I recalled with such interest from my last visit.

Well, I’ll know what to do next year. This places has two faces, and Rabaul by day is a vastly preferable place to Rabaul by night.

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