National Geographic : 1992 Jul
..- ... .... ....~ HERE were stars everywhere, above us and reflected in the sea, along with the sparkle of phospho- rescence streaming from the wake of the bow wave. We sped onward, heading for Kiriwina, one of the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea. There were no lights on shore . It was as though we were in an old rickety rocket ship, an image that often came to me when I was in the Pacific, that this ocean was as vast as outer space, and being on this boat with new friends from the islands was like shooting through vitreous night from one star to another. We had been spearfishing on an outlying island at the edge of the Trobriand chain. In the fail- ing light our engine had conked out, and for an hour we had drifted toward the reef-five of us on board, John, Samuel, Stephen, the boy William-all Trobrianders-and me. With the engine restarted at last, we re- sumed our journey. In the almost complete darkness of a moonless night, only I had expressed con- cern . The water was full of haz- ards, and where was land? "We can smell the islands," they told me. Stephen had steered confi- dently through the darkness, avoiding shoals and rocks and the mud flats of Losuia harbor on Kiriwina Island. The Trobri- ands were like another world, but it was a world these men knew well, even in the dark. William's mother was worried PAUL THEROUX, a regular contrib- utor to NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, is the best-selling author of more than 30 books, including his latest travel volume, The Happy Isles of Oceania, published this month. PETER ESSICK, who photographed "Retracing the First Crusade" for the September 1989 issue, recently completed coverage for a forth- coming article about corn. 118 by his lateness. She was calling his name from the beach. We promised to meet again. "I will take you to Tuma, way off, where the spirits are," Ste- phen said. He meant another island, but it was as though he were referring to a distant, haunted planet. The Trobriands, a sprinkling of flat coral islands shimmering under an enormous sky, seemed like a galaxy apart when I first ventured there in 1990. Years ago I had read about the gentle people who lived there, who carved elaborate seagoing canoes from tropical trees, who went on lengthy sailing journeys just to exchange armbands and other shell ornaments, who grew yams in abundance and stored the sur- plus in elegant wooden houses, each towering like a cathedral at the center of the village . Setting out with my folding kayak and some notes from old books about these islands, I won- dered whether the Trobriand culture of magic and self-reliance had survived the destructive effects of our century. After weeks of exploring, paddling on my own or with the Trobrianders in their boats, I was pleased to find that the islands were little changed. The islanders gave me a warm welcome, even though I was a dim-dim, their word for an out- sider, someone of little conse- quence. Their skepticism, if not total lack of interest in outsiders , is one reason the Trobrianders value their culture and preserve it. They come close to seeing out- siders as lower forms of life. But eventually I made friends among the Trobrianders. We fished together, we went for walks, we sailed, and often in the evening we ate together, sit- ting cross-legged in the bwayma, an open hut on stilts by the sea. Eating freshly cooked fish and vegetables in that breezy pavil- ion, I was very happy-perfect Crowned with hibiscus, necklaced with shell beads and wild banana seeds, a boy from Kitava Island wraps himselfin a sarong. At puberty, when he leaves home to share a bukumatula - bachelor house- with other teenage boys, such ornaments will help him attract girls. ((Chastity is an unknown vir- tue among these natives, JJ wrote anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski ofthis society that indulges sex before marriage. Western fascination with his 1929 book, The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia, turned the Trobri- ands into the ((islands oflove, JJ a reverie for romantics everywhere.