Canoe Racing in the Mortlocks

This was no casual canoe race. This was the big leagues. The men of the village paddled from the beach in front of their own huts and slid their sailing canoes up onto the main shore. Like infantry soldiers lined up in a vibrant row of color against the light blue sky of the dawn. They were serious, quiet, determined.

It was a national holiday, Remembrance Day. The holiday honored Papua New Guineans who lost lives during WWII. The date, July 23, was the same date when the first fighting between the Papuan Infantry Battalion soldiers and invading Japanese troops in 1942. Each year, the people of these islands organize a canoe race as part of their festivities. At least 20 men were participating in the race, readying their sails and making any last minute adjustments.

Meanwhile, the children and older men milled around on the beach or sat under the palm trees waiting for the race to start. I noticed some ladies sitting on an upside-down canoe near shore, but where were all the other women? I ventured over to them and asked. They guided me over to a sheltered area where twenty or thirty women sat in a circle, so busy with a task that they barely noticed me arrive. As I sat down and watched from nearby, I slowly realized their purpose - to compile prizes for the winners and all of the participants. The members of the village had donated cloth, fishing line, hooks, dried tobacco, soap, shampoo, etc. and now the women were carefully distributing it all into neatly organized piles. Over and over they would count, reshuffle items, count again, squabble about which place winner should get this or that, and finally agree on the appropriate order. I wondered silently how many times these yards of fabric had been rotated through the families this way - win it in one race, then donate it in the next!

The women invited me to help out and then informed me that I had been volunteered to hand out the 
prizes to the winners and participants! I leaned over the woman seated next to me and asked, “How do you say ‘good job’ in your local language?” She smiled and rattled off a phrase. Since this island community is of Polynesian descent, the language sounds much the same as other places we visited in French Polynesia. In my head I repeated the phrase again and again, afraid that if I got distracted it would escape me for good. Papua New Guinea is known for its numerous languages, and this would be my first “tok place” (local language) lesson. Care to try a few phrases in the Mortlock Language?

Tap taio toko reka (tahp ty-oh toh-koh ray-kah) - Good Morning

La suru toko reka (lah sue-rue toh-koh ray-kah) - Good Afternoon

Takui noa Sarah. Kwai toi noa? (tah-kue-ee noh-ah Sarah. Kwy toi noh-ah) My name is Sarah. What is your name?

Once all the prizes were ready, the ladies and I watched the race from the shoreline. The extra binoculars that I’d thrown in my backpack that morning were a big hit! Each woman wanted a turn peering through them to get a closer look at her husband. As one woman watched, she would give a play-by-play to the women gathered around her and it was easy to tell when one woman got news that her husband was in the lead! A huge grin spread across her face and she insisted for a turn with the binoculars, just to see for herself.

Mark had packed the drone in his backpack that morning, which was a huge hit with all the guys who weren’t racing. They were amazed at the birds eye view that the drone offered. Soon there was a crowd of awestruck men and children around Mark looking from the screen in his hands way up into the clouds to try to find the buzzing drone above. On this day, the drone made a safe landing back on shore, but about a week later when the men organized another canoe race for the sole purpose of getting more drone footage, a light rain came out of nowhere and PLOP! Down into the water the drone went!! Ouch. It was retrievable, but not unfortunately not revivable. This sure would be Remembrance Day for Mark! The day when his second drone drowned for the cause!

Within an hour or so the race was over. One by one the canoes returned to the beach and all the men gathered in another sheltered area. This year’s race organizer made a short speech and then began calling the men up to receive their prizes. One woman wrapped a sarong around his waist while another doused him with perfume and baby powder as a way to honor his efforts. Somewhere amid the clouds of powder and perfume, I shook hands and offered my bit of local language congratulations, then handed him his pile of goodies. This happened over and over twenty-something times, until everyone had received a prize and an anointing. In the end, the ladies also wrapped a sarong around our waists as honored guests, and, of course, we couldn’t get away without the full fragrant treatment!


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