Day 1,015: A Day Off School

12.10.11: Jimmy met me in the morning to take me across the bay to the local school. We knew it was going to be closed today as one of the regional governors died last weekend and the kids were given the day off as a mark of respect. But I still wanted to have a go at paddling around in a dugout canoe, so we went anyway.

The canoes in PNG are, quick frankly, cruel and unusual punishment. They’re so narrow you can’t sit in them, you have to sit on top with your legs stuffed inside, one in front of the other. The rim of the carved-out interior digs into your arse and your feet soon get pins and needles. To make matters worse, as there is only one stabiliser, if you lean to the left you run a good chance of tipping the boat over. It’s the nautical equivalent of a pair of stilettos.

I’m actually writing this entry two days after the event and my legs are still aching like I’ve been climbing pyramids. Jimmy showed me up the local mangrove-lined river which leads to the swamp, but after being told it would take an hour to get there in the canoe of uncomfortable doom, I suggested we turned around and pressed on to the school instead.

Jimmy and I drew up to the far shore of the bay. A group of little kids were playing rugby on the school field. As we walked over to one of the school buildings, Jimmy shouted out to his friend Mr. Phillips, who is a teacher at the school. Mr. Phillips shook my hand and offered to show me around the little school which teaches 800 children from the local region, some of whom have to walk for a couple of hours to get there.

Mr. Phillips and I had a good chat about the challenges of teaching in PNG: the literacy rate here is abysmal, as are the numbers of children finishing secondary education. It doesn’t take too much of a stretch of the imagination to suss out exactly why Papua New Guinea (a country that should, by rights, be swimming with money) is dirt poor. This is what you get when tax-dodging cretins like Bono get their own way: no free education. And from that unhappy situation spawns that fact that 90% of PNGers are unemployed and a crime rate that makes Johannesburg seem like Trumpton.

The good news is that the new Prime Minister of PNG has pledged to bring in free education from next year. From that one long-overdue act, good things will flow.

After a quick paddle back across the bay to Salamaua, Jimmy and I headed back to the house just in time to meet up with Alex who had come over in the speedboat to collect me and the seafood delights that the villagers were more than keen to sell him. I said my fond farewells to Jimmy and his family as well as the tranquil little village of Salamaua. I just hope it’s still here when I return to PNG.

That night, Alex and I cooked up a seafood feast (yum!) before he took me over to the Golf Club to meet with Stan, my original CouchSurf host who was away last week, but has now returned to Lae to take me under his wing. Stan and his mates were tucking into a meal at the Chinese restaurant next door to the clubhouse. Alex left me to it (I owe that man a bottle of scotch!) and within a couple of hours I was hanging out in Stan’s swanky new apartment overlooking the local football stadium and the deep blue sea.

Graham Hughes

Graham Hughes is a British adventurer, presenter, filmmaker and author. He is the only person to have travelled to every country in the world without flying. From 2014 to 2017 he lived off-grid on a private island that he won in a game show, before returning to the UK to campaign for a better future for the generations to come.

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