I’m sitting on the porch of a guest house. It has a corregated tin roof and a floor made from lengths of bamboo split in half. In one or two places, your foot goes right through the floor. Inside are several bedrooms but a gigantic wolf spider- something like a less hairy tarantula in one of the bedrooms (“they are territorial”) makes the porch my perch of choice. I’m drinking Nescafe surrounded by duffel bags. The porch is surrounded by mud. (Thank you for the wellies LLBean.) The mud is surrounded by water. Yesterday we hiked from the beach of this island to this camp in knee, sometimes waist-deep water. I took a wrong step and fell in the flooded river. I hauled myself out with some help from the local man carrying my duffel bag. That incident, plus a very small speedboat ride in giant swells that mostly landed in my lap have instilled in me a new, almost reverent appreciation for dry pants. Also it rains here like nothing I’ve ever seen. You can strip down and shower in it. Last night it rained so hard our sound guy Aaron woke up in the middle of the night shouting “Are we going to survive!?”
There are about a dozen members of a family here, sitting hanging around the open fire (keeping the water hot for the Nescafe) and watching our preparations for filming birds. We are on Fergusson Island, Papua New Guinea. We are definitely the main event. The people are friendly and helpful – they own this land and are paid for having us here. They all chew betel nuts – bright green things, pointed on both ends that turn their teeth red. Some kind of lime dust activates them into a weak narcotic. The effects seem to include incredibly fast speed walking through mud and carrying heaving objects as if they weighed nothing. Yesterday, scouting in the swamped jungle, I turned around and the twelve-year-old boy behind me gave me a wide smile. If I didn’t already know about the betel nuts, his red mouth, the giant machete he was holding and PNG’s history of cannibalism would have really freaked me out. The women in the camp offered me some betel nut – they called it “lipstick”. I think chewing betel nuts must be a national part-time job.
There is something incongruent about bringing 450 kg and six people into the remote jungle of PNG, 6 hours boat ride from the nearest airport during a period of torrential rain and flooding to photograph two colorful male birds dancing on a branch. Or maybe worse, to make a film about two guys photographing two male birds dancing on a branch. I guess that’s why no one else is going. Anyway, the second half of our gear finally arrived at camp, much of it carried on the heads of elderly looking women. I’m watching a giant black butterfly with two lemon yellow patches on it’s bottom feeding from red flowers in a tree next to my hut. Like all things (spider) it’s as big as my fist. (Did I mention the millipedes that spit red cyanide? Don’t worry – the cure is rotten coconut.)
Coconut is actually sounding pretty good – meals here consist either of Andre the Giant’s saltines – tooth-breaker “Navy Biskets” eaten with peanut butter. Disconcertingly they come in meat flavors. Extra disconcertingly, the chicken flavored ones are the best. They taste just like those crackers “Chicken n’ Biscuits” that were shaped like little chicken legs. For dinner it’s ramen noodles with tinned fish (do not look at the picture on the can) white rice (a-plenty) and boiled root veggies – taro, white sweet potatoes and something called pumpkin that was more like a yam. On top of whatever diabetic unfriendly combination you choose, it’s best to dump a lot of red duck sauce. There is also a confusing array of drink packets – something that turns into milk, something that turns into cocoa and of course Nescafe.
I just found a Quantas Airlines cappuccino short bread cookie in my pack, I didn’t deign to eat it when I was still in civilization, but here it is amazing.