Papua, New Guinea is the last coffee frontier. After being Head Judge at the New Zealand national coffee awards, I headed straight from the coffee festival in Taupo New Zealand (after getting in a few days late season snow-boarding) on my way towards New Guinea. I say towards New Guinea because it seems nothing seems to flow rapidly or decisively when it comes to things New Guinea.
After helping to taste and judge the best coffees for the New Zealand coffee awards I drove to Auckland as soon as the final evening ceremonies were over and eventually got to my airport hotel bed well after midnight. My 5am wake-up call got me on a 7am flight direct from Auckland to Brisbane where I was to catch a connecting flight to Port Moresby and then another connector to get me to Goroka in the New Guinea highlands by 5pm the same day.
All went well until Brisbane Australia. NZ airlines faithfully and promptly got me there, but from then on I spent almost two full days stuck in the airport as one plane broke down and another was delayed overnight, until I finally got on my way again. I felt like a Tom Hanks character in a movie. But in the process two things happened: I met a Papua New Guinea citizen by the name of Brendan, whose coffee by pure coincidence it turned out, I had selected earlier in the year in a blind coffee tasting for an espresso blend I had put together for the World No. 2 ranked Canadian Barista Champion Sammy Piccolo, of Caffe Artigiano in Vancouver.
The other thing that happened was that by this stage I had slipped into the easy come easy go, New Guinea state of mind. If it happens it happens, if it doesn't happen - no worries! At long last, though I finally made it to New Guinea.
Landing in Goroka was a memorable experience. It is a very small up-country airport where I was warmly greeted by a few friendly smiling locals and ceremoniously presented with a little hand knitted carry bag. As I walked out towards the car that was going to take me to my hotel, I heard a group of people who were milling, and wailing around an airport gate. When I asked what it was about I was casually and matter of factly told it was probably the body of someone who had died.
I am not sure why a dead body was at the airport or what was going to be done with it there, but nevertheless the wailing continued as I drove off to our hotel. This I think in retrospect, served as a notice that I had shifted closer to the raw elements of the reality of life and death that is New Guinea.
The clean and well maintained Bird of Paradise hotel in Goroka is quite striking in its contrast with the third world conditions outside and the next morning I set off to begin a coffee tasting where I was to taste about sixty coffees from different native growers from all over the country.
| With the locals |
With the tribal elders.
| All involved! |
The dance was amazing, and everyone was involved!
After the first 'series' of ten coffees I went outside to an open air hut to discuss my results with all my fellow coffee tasters from around the world when we were entertained with the first of our 'sing-sings'. This is a dance performed by a tribe that uniquely represents their tribe. They dress up in traditional clothes and chant and shuffle and turn around in differing patterns. This first one was a marriage sing-sing with one little guy out in front supporting a huge prosthetic (penis) appendage. He kept rubbing it continually as a part of the show with complete unabashed rhythm. There performers were of all ages and it was definitely an arresting performance between drinks.
That night we were transported to a village with no running water or electricity. There were about 150 community or co-op leaders all squatting around discussing the arrangements surrounding the coffees they had submitted to the coffee tasting competition. They broke up into five different huts and the international panel including tasters from Italy, Holland, Australia, New Zealand and the USA, divided up to talk with them in their various huts.
There was only a smoldering fire for light and it was nearing dusk outside so it was almost impossible to see anything or anyone. This close personal contact helps you to experience the warmth of these people who have coffee gardens not plantations. They grow coffee in their backyards as a part of their subsistence farming and coffee is one of the few crops they can get hard cash for, rather than merely growing something to eat. Coffee plants are pretty hardy particularly in this fertile environment and it suits the New Guinea lifestyle very well.
We were treated to a Mu-mu dinner which is kind of like a Maori 'hungi' where the meat is steamed under heated earth. In this case it was chickens which for these indigenous people must have been a huge feast and sacrifice to offer us. It was served in a hand made bamboo circular hut with banana leaves for a tablecloth. All very simple and very tasty.
| Stir it up! |
The next day we tasted another thirty or so coffees and enjoyed another 'sing-sing' from yet another tribe and in the evening we were taken in a mini-bus to another remote village where we when we stepped out of the van we were surrounded by more than two and a half thousand New Guinean tribesmen. The inertia I experienced in Brisbane, was reinforced in such a large crowd. Nothing seemed to happen quickly.
After about ten minutes standing around outside the van, someone motioned that we should walk in a particular direction that lead us through the crowd to a flat top truck which had a flickering neon light and a spotlight and a half a dozen plastic chairs on it. This was luxury in comparison to the village of the previous night. This was a special night where some of the people present I was told, had walked for days to attend this meeting. There were kids and families everywhere.
Then a high pitched hollering, reminiscent of a native American Indian, pierced the night air. The same scream-yell was repeated over and over again. Then a small topless woman who looked like a grand-mother appeared and danced and shuffled and hollered around a clearing made in the middle of the two and half thousand strong crowd.
Next, an old guy smeared with mud from head to toe appeared and started blowing a long wooden tuba kind of instrument that bellowed deeply as if it was calling jungle animals from the other side of the earth. A real live 'mudman'. These two entertainers shuffled and danced, bellowed and hollered intermittently together for about a half hour or so.
Then the speeches began. Talk-talk is almost as an important past-time in Papua New Guinea as 'sing-sing'. And long talk-talk times seem to prevail, relentlessly. In the middle of this talk though, a man walked into the clearing with what at first I thought was a great big tree stump held high over his head. Except that his hands were glistening and there were stains all over his shirt. And then he very solemnly presented it to some seemingly lucky man who with a huge grin on his face as if he had just won the world's biggest lottery, disappeared with his prized award. I later found out that it was a cooked pig's backbone with most of the meat still on it.
The events continued: next, a group of marching women made their way through the dense crowd and into the opening. There was about sixteen of them dressed like girl guides with a uniform of long royal blue skirts and white short sleeved shirts. They had the same kind of bags draped over their shoulders that I had been presented at Goroka airport and which are sold beside the streets near the Bird of Paradise hotel every day.
They proceeded to march in unison around the clearing for about a half an hour, very seriously, and then finally presented all the international visitors with another new hand-knitted shoulder bag. This was very touching as it no doubt takes a lot of effort to hand knit and sow these bags. Every so often the topless grannie would holler at the top of her lungs and the old mudman would blow his ancient wooden horn, the crowd would laugh and happy anarchy seemed to reign.
Visiting a farm
The following morning Brendan, the guy I had met while holed up in Brisbane airport picked my up from the hotel at 6am to take me to the farm whose coffee I had purchased for the Canadian Barista Champion. We drove for a couple of hours along increasingly rutted and eroded tracks, with washed out bridges into the deep New Guinea highlands.
| David and Instuarator |
David is the head of his tribe and runs a PNG farm
Finally we arrived at the coffee plantation near an idyllic river and we were greeted by David the leader of the tribe. His warm and generous smile reminded me of his coffee. A full bodied, yet soft and sweet "semi-washed" gem. In fact his coffee is unique in the whole of PNG as it is the only one that is processed using what is known in coffee circles as the semi-washed or pulped natural process.
This process preserves the delicate sugars that are normally washed down the river by other producers and results in a naturally far sweeter and more full-bodied coffee, particularly for espresso. And it is even more intense in a traditional, strictly high grown (SHG) coffee. A very, very rare gem indeed!
And I guess this sums up my New Guinea coffee experience: a taste of what life used to be like before it became too over-sanitized. And once your body clock adjusts to the inertia, it is indeed happy anarchy along with some of the world's most elusive, yet greatest tasting coffees.