A year overseas in Papua New Guinea (Stuff Nation)
When I started preparations for a year-long stay in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, I had a recurring thought – this would be the first time I would be "travelling" by living in just one town for a whole year.
It made me wonder if I would get the same travel buzz staying in a fixed location, as I do from my normal approach to travel, where I'm always on the move from one place to the next.
Now, having just passed the four-month mark on my time here in Bougainville, I've been thinking recently about what the answer to this question is turning out to be.
I'm living in the recovering town of Arawa – at one time, the provincial capital and largest town in Bougainville, until a civil war took its toll.
My partner is volunteering through New Zealand's Volunteer Service Abroad programme, supporting a project that's helping farmers to bring their income from cocoa back to pre-civil war levels.
I am what's officially called her "accompanying partner", and I spend my time writing, photographing and filming everything the island has to offer.
After the first two weeks here, it became clear that the lack of infrastructure, low levels of tourism and restricted land access, would make travelling beyond Arawa a little challenging – albeit not impossible.
I couldn't trek into a forest or to a beach whenever I felt like it. It takes planning – and I have to be granted permission from the land owners. In some cases, I need a guide too. And have to pay. I initially had reservations about this more constrained and less spontaneous form of travel and wasn't confident it would live up to my expectations.
However, as I hooked into connections through other volunteers who've been here longer, my concerns lessoned. I swiftly went about arranging a short walk to a nearby village, with a neighbour as my guide, and the promise of a swim in a cold river and vine bridges of intertwined tree roots, vines and entrails, which stretch across the rivers.
It was a start and provided me with an insight into the surroundings of Arawa.
Over the following weeks and months, I continued to build upon relationships and before too long, had a variety of local outdoor options available to me. I can run, cycle or catch a lift to a pristine, white sand beach on the outskirts of town – where I swim, snorkel and chat with locals over a coconut.
I can visit the same nearby village from the first walk on a regular basis, and swim in their cold, clear river. And there are a handful of other nearby places accessible by bicycle, or car when friendly neighbours offer a lift, including Premier Hill, which provides a panoramic view of Arawa, surrounding volcanoes and the ocean.
In addition, we arrived just before Christmas holidays, so other volunteers and expats on the island already had plans, and they invited us to join.
We spent New Year's with a group on Pokpok Island near Arawa. We stayed in a simple bungalow set back from the beach and listened to the waves at night.
A coral reef, home to a number of giant clams, and only feet from the shore, kept us occupied during the day, as did a steep walk through rain forest to a highpoint that offered views over the Solomon Sea. And the standout highlight of the trip was snorkeling the clear outer reefs with shoals of bright fish numbering in their thousands. I had the travel buzz – it felt like I was travelling, even though I was still spending the majority of my time in Arawa.
Keen to make the most of the early momentum, my partner and I were soon packing our rucksacks to visit the mountainous region of Rotokas. Organised through one of the few tourism outfits on the island, we hiked for three days through rivers, clambered around in caves, spotted waterfalls and stayed in a banana leaf roofed hut.
It was one of those places, where the walk was the drawcard rather than the end point. We navigated our way through dense rainforest, following the twisting, shallow streams flowing over smooth volcanic rock – with the sounds of birds and crickets in the background.
But at the end of the day, I spend most of my days sat at the kitchen table in our house in Arawa (aka my office). I write, edit photographs and produce videos about my experience in Bougainville. This was the element I struggled to visualise before arriving. What would my day look like? Would I get out enough to have things to write about? It turns out I do.
When I'm not working on a project, I exercise, watch TV series and movies, read, catch-up with other volunteers and expats, shop for second hand clothes, and check out what groceries are available at the various stores in town – all whilst battling with the high temperatures, even higher levels of humidity and sporadic downpours.
While these might sound like they're just little day-to-day things, they still give me that feeling I seek too, heading to the fruit and vegetable market or the local kai bar, have yet to cease to offer plenty of unique, new experiences. However, the Autonomous Region of Bougainville certainly keeps me on my toes – just when I think I understand the environment, it throws out something that makes me wonder otherwise.
So it's fair to say I'm not still worried about whether or not my time here is giving me the travel buzz. I know the answer – yes. Don't get me wrong, it's different from the way I've travelled in the past. I still miss being on the road, moving from place to place, staying in hostels and guesthouse and mingling with like-minded people. But this more sedentary form of travel has proven to be more than satisfying, with its own set of virtues and challenges. Of course, whether I will feel the same after 6 months or a year, remains to be seen…
Adam Constanza is a freelance travel writer from Wellington, New Zealand and is spending 2017 in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. You can read more from on his blog, Instagram and Facebook.