Carteret Islands: Welcome Ceremonies

We've been on the climate change awareness tour for four days. The group usually wakes around 5:30AM – when the roosters warm their vocal chords – and bathes in the nearest river or in the sea. Breakfast or kai kai in pidgin, the common language spoken on tour, is usually a plate of rice, soupy noodles with tin fish, and kaukau or sweet potato.

(On tour the Carteret Islanders are eating three meals a day, which is rare on the islands these days. The government sends an emergency shipment of rice to the islands two to four times a year, but when the supply runs low most families survive on one meal a day.)

After breakfast the group piles into the back of a flatbed pickup truck. The ride is thrilling. The truck thunders down the road like a roller coaster cart on rickety tracks stirring a cloud of dust in its wake.

Children scream at us when we pass. It's hot and humid; the dust irritates our eyes; the tires look like they might burst under the pressure, and we hold each other so no one bounces out the back. There are no seat belts, traffic lights, or billboards. If there's room, I lean back to watch the palm trees, bright blue sky, and white clouds pass quickly overhead.

As part of Tinputz tradition, each new village commemorates our arrival with a welcome ceremony. Today's ceremony was the most memorable. At the entrance to the village, a huge man with bright red teeth blew into a conch shell; a sound similar to a foghorn echoed through the village. The group gathered around him as he held out a plate of buai or betelnut.

(In Bougainville Betelnut is chewed with lime powder and a mustard stick, a mixture that turns teeth red and produces a mild buzz and a surplus of saliva. Red splotches from Betelnut spit stain the ground throughout the villages. )

Older women – adorned with leaves – sang in high-pitched voices and danced in revelry, adding to the excitement in the air. They washed our feet with a water and herb mixture poured from bamboo stalks, and we passed though a line of villagers who greeted us by placing flower necklaces over our heads. I think it's safe to say we all felt welcome.

Originally, our plan was to return to the main town on Bougainville, Buka, after spending three days on tour, but we've decided to continue until the end. It seems we've found the heart of the story: the story is about how climate change is impacting the Carteret Islanders, but from the perspective of the younger generation now.

Though this is a very specific story, the plight of the Carteret Islanders mirrors what low-lying communities around the globe face. The younger generation of Carteret Islanders is sandwiched between two generations and bears responsibility for both. They must establish relationships in their new community, help the older generation relocate, and build a future for their children.

Speaking of children – there's a four-year-old girl on tour with us. Cornelia is from the Carteret Islands. She has short dark curly hair, a sweet musical voice, and she wields a machete with the skill of a butcher, cracking small nuts and fruit with ease. She's also mischievous; I've spotted her pouring water on a small pig, and when we were on the Carteret Islands, she told her older sister to go eat pekpek – pidgin for excrement.

Her mother, Kathleen, is one of the stronger speakers (and one of the main characters we've been following) on the tour, perhaps because she is speaking about food security, an issue with immediate consequences for her two daughters and son.