Sunkiin Village - Boang, Tanga Islands

The people of the Sunkiin Village were a lively bunch. It was obvious from their jubilant welcome that few boats anchor in their bay. These are the spots we love to find!

Within moments of dropping the hook, we were greeted by young men and boys in dugout canoes, inviting us to come visit. There was an unmarked channel through the reef, so we asked one of the guys to hop in our dinghy and guide us in.

On shore, Chief Linus (pronounced Lee-noos) greeted us with a warm smile while a small crowd surrounded us - curious and shy. One woman, Agnes, however, was not shy at all, and rather gave us all a good laugh when she would boldly speak to us in her broken English and then step back and cover her mouth with her hands, embarrassed. She was quite the personality, at one point nonchalantly walking around with a parrot perched on top of her head!

Very few others were brave enough to speak to us, so it was a bit awkward to walk around surrounded by a giggling gaggle of people watching our every move. Gradually, though, the excitement settled down and we enjoyed many afternoons learning about life in Sunkiin. After our initial arrival, someone sent for Humphrey and his wife, Gervena, who could speak English. I suppose the villagers had felt the awkward silence, too, and wanted to be able to communicate with us and learn about their new visitors. Humphrey worked at the Catholic mission and Gervena was a teacher in the primary school.

One of my favorite moments during our time here was when Gervena and a few others were sitting with me in the dusty yard of a house, teaching me their language. I would draw pictures of animals, plants, foods, and objects in my notebook, and they would name them. Also, since Gervena’s English was very good, I was able to ask her to translate a few phrases for me that I’d been desperate to be able to use. It was a touching moment of sharing that made each of us feel a sense of purpose and connection.

Later in the week was market day. Since we didn’t have any PNG money still, I asked Gervena if we could bring things to trade. She kindly offered to buy some of the items I had to trade so that I could use the kina and toea (local currency) in the market. We met them on shore in the morning and walked along the waterfront road all the way to the marketplace, singing local songs that Gervena had taught the kids in her class.

Walls and walls of people crowded around to gawk at us. Only then did I really comprehend how few foreigners come to this part of PNG. Michael didn’t seem too phased by it, as he and his friends from SV Perry simply continued their game in spite of the enraptured audience. Elizabeth, however, was mortified at the sheer amount of eyeballs that were glued onto her, and she quickly fell in step with me, almost using me as a shield from all the stares. Gervena had warned us about this, saying that they’d stare so hard that our sorongs would fall off! Funnily enough, her prediction came true as we were walking among the vendors and Elizabeth’s sorong came untied and nearly fell to the ground before she caught it! Luckily, she always wore shorts underneath!

We managed to get through the crowds and buy a few fruits and vegetables, along with a few skewers of some local nuts we’ve come to love. Humphrey and Germina were wonderful guides, helping us navigate through the throngs of friendly people and find the things that we needed. Given the number of people feeding into this market, it was surprising to see such limited variety of goods. Beetelnut seemed to be the hot commodity, taking up nearly three-fourths of the market space, and some people were selling coconut crabs. Otherwise it was a few papaya vendors, two banana vendors, taro root, and lots of dried coconut.

Smoked fish - YUM!
During our last day with the people of Sunkiin Village, Chief Linus organized a farewell potluck dinner. We brought our usual American fare (pizza), while the people of Sunkiin shared their traditional foods with us. Agnes showed us her fish smoker in which she prepared dried fish that could be sold elsewhere, and the Chief talked with us about his concerns for their village. Since the decline in the copra market (dried coconut), they have struggled to find ways to earn a living. The burden of his family’s well-being was weighing heavily on him. I could sense the depth of his worry, and racked my brain to come up with some way for the people to earn money. Most people have their own gardens, which explains the sparce marketplace, so selling produce is not beneficial. It is a tough scenario, and one for which I still haven’t come up with a solution. The remote location presented challenges in transport, and limited resources leave few options.

Socializing and singing songs after a great dinner
The chief and his family after the great potluck dinner!
The children of this village suffered from a chronic fungal skin infection, causing flaky rings to grow in concentric circles all over the skin. I had never seen anything like it before. When I quietly asked one of the ladies about it, she told me they called it “Grille” and that it comes from the well water that they drink. All of the children had at least a small case of it, but some were completely covered. My heart went out to the mothers who didn’t have the money for, or access to, the medicines to help their children. I gave them all of the fungal ointments I had on board, knowing, though, that it would barely make a dent in the problem. A few days later when Michael showed me a strange discoloration on his hand, I knew exactly what it was and was thankful we were now in a town with a pharmacy where I could get the treatment he needed.

Kids playing volleyball with their new friends
The obstacles and challenges these people face are numerous and ongoing. Yet, in the midst of it all, they are able to exude exuberant joy.

I will never forget their jovial welcome nor the fun we had with a few of the women sitting in the cockpit, strumming my ukelele and singing silly songs together. Our experience here showed us the harsh realities and inspiring resilience of life in a small, remote community.

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