Black Sand and Betel Nut: Childhood Memories of Papua New Guinea

Black Sand and Betel Nut: Childhood Memories of Papua New Guinea

by Suellen Holland


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A quirk of fate had bought author Suellen Holland to Papua New Guinea. It was the second in five years she had moved from one country to another. In 1956 she and her parents left India to start a new life in Australia and 1960 they packed up again and went to live to Papua New Guinea.

Little did Suellen know this land and its people would change her life dramatically, mold and shape her character and bring her once-in-a-lifetime adventures and experiences beyond belief.

As a European child in pre-independent Papua New Guinea, Suellens experiences hold a unique place in history. From the black volcanic sand her dusted from her feet, to the virgin coral reef she snorkeled over, to the plantations she visited, the World War 11 tunnels she explored and the haus bois and meris who shared her life.

Black Sand and Betel Nut is a frank and moving account of Suellens extraordinary childhood. Her collection of stories recall the halcyon days of her childhood and pays tribute to a place she will always call home.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504307031
Publisher: Balboa Press Australia
Publication date: 03/23/2017
Pages: 358
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.74(d)

Read an Excerpt


Here We Are

I remember the sky as a majestic sapphire that day: deep deep blue and endless. The arching vault cradled the sun as the golden ball spread her elongated fingers and radiated her splendour over the shimmering land.

It was January, and the monsoon was upon us. The air hung thick with humidity; perspiration poured from every pore. The wetness soaked our dresses, our T-shirts, and our shorts, leaving a salty residue that chaffed and stung the unfortunate who suffered from prickly heat rash. As the day wore on and the temperature soared, the heat drove the population indoors. Metal ceiling fans groaned in protest, cranked to full speed by those seeking solace from the furnace outside.

Earlier that week, Mum had enrolled me in my new school: Court Street Primary "A" School. After a few small hiccups, I had settled in quite well. At 2:30 p.m., the bell rang. School had finished for the day and Mrs. Ross, my second class teacher, dismissed the class. I ran out the door and did not break my stride until I mounted our front veranda steps a few minutes later.

After I had changed out of my new school uniform, Mum and I walked across Queen Elizabeth Oval to Dad's office, borrowed the office car, and drove to Collier Watson's store. Mum bought me a new pair of red swimmers, a red-and-white-striped beach towel, and a red plastic beach bag.

I loved my new swimmers the best of all. This was my very first pair of grown-up swimmers. Not the saggy, baggy, too-big-in-the-bottom type of swimmers that mothers buy for their children to "grow into," but smooth, shiny swimmers that fit me all over.

Later that afternoon, I heard the office car pull into our driveway. Dad was home. I ran outside just as Dad alighted from the car. I was so excited he was home. At breakfast that morning, Dad had promised that, when he had finished at the office for the day, he would drive the family to Pila Pila for a swim.

The "swim" was my first in the ocean. Mum had taught me to swim at the local pool and said that only when I could swim properly, could I swim in the ocean. Now, that day had arrived. I couldn't wait — especially now that I had new swimmers to wear.

"Hello pet," Dad said when he saw me. "How was school?"

Dad strode up the veranda steps followed closely by a rotund bald-headed man. The man, like Dad, was dressed in tropical whites: long socks, knee-length shorts, and an open-necked shirt.

"This is Mr. Weiss," Dad said. "Mr. Weiss is the assistant manager from the office, and he has just come home with me this afternoon on office business. This is our big daughter Susie," Dad added.

"Hello Susie," Mr. Weiss said. "Do you like your new home? Settled in, have you?"

My heart sank. "Yes, thank you," I replied politely. "I think so." I hoped Mr. Weiss wouldn't stay too long on "office business."

Mum walked onto the veranda, kissed Dad and Mr. Weiss on the cheek, and said, "Hello Father, hello Frank. I'll make you both a cup of tea."

Dad and Mr. Weiss settled themselves into the cane chairs on the front veranda. Mum emerged from the kitchen a few minutes later with the tea tray, set the tray down on a nearby table, and sat next to Dad. When Dad and Mr. Weiss had finished their tea, Dad rose from his chair and said, "If you are ready, Frank, I'll show you the trees."

After a few minutes, I followed Dad and Mr. Weiss outside. I knew better than to interrupt them, so I squatted on our back veranda steps, where Dad could see me. Earlier on, I had changed into my new swimmers. I was so very desperate to try my new swimmers in the water; as I ran my hands over the silky material, my skin tingled with excitement and anticipation. I sighed, stretched my legs, drew them back underneath me, and rested my hands on my chin.

It was late in the afternoon, and the sun had mellowed. The high-stilted house water tank cast long dark shadows that ran along the short fat grass and up the wall of the boi haus. Dappled light f licked across Dad and the office man as they talked business.

Storm clouds gathered on the horizon, and the temperature had dropped somewhat. I knew a deluge was on its way. The rain settled the fine pumice dust and filled the storm drains until they raged with power, but that was ages away, and I cared little whether it rained or not.

I had grown impatient, and in my opinion, Dad and Mr. Weiss had talked business for long enough. I struggled to understand why the topic of conversation was so important. However, I still remember their discussion — in fact my memory so clear, I remember it as if it was yesterday.

"Frank, these are teak trees," Dad said as he reached above his head and plucked a large shiny leaf. "I've seen hundreds of teak trees in India, and I know this is a leaf from a teak tree." Dad rubbed the leaf between his thumb and forefinger. "Most definitely teak," he nodded.

"No, Cyril, I beg to differ," Mr. Weiss stated. "These trees are not teak, they are avocado. I know that for sure. They are most definitely avocado." Mr. Weiss slapped the leaf against his palm to emphasize his point. "I have lived in Rabaul for years," he continued, "and I know: these are avocado trees. You see them all over the place, Cyril, everywhere. They are like a damn weed."

Dad scoffed and raised his eyebrows. "Well," he said "I lived in India for years, and you are wrong, Frank. These trees are teak. Teak. Not, as you say, avocado. I know they are teak. I've walked through hundreds of teak forests — hundreds — and these are teak trees. I know that for sure."

As Dad and Mr. Weiss debated the question of the trees, Mr. Weiss became increasingly frustrated. His face turned red, and as he became more and more agitated, the tip of his nose took on a purple hue. The humidity was crushing, and the office man was uncomfortable.

At a pause in the conversation, the office man grappled in his shorts pocket and took out a light blue handkerchief. He took off his glasses, glanced over at me, and mopped his red face with his still folded hanky. He gave a long quiet sigh, shook his hanky vigorously, and blew on the lens of his glasses. In quiet resignation, the office man wiped his lens furiously.

I didn't care that the office man was uncomfortable. I was glad.

Maybe he would leave soon.

Alas, my dad, however, relished a good debate, and I could tell he was eager to continue their discussion.

Dad wasn't hot or uncomfortable, but I was. The back steps were hard, and my new swimmers, now moist with perspiration, stuck to my bottom. I was tired of sitting and waiting, tired of hearing about Dad's silly Indian trees, and even more tired of the office man's even sillier arvacar-something (whatever they were) trees. I just wanted to go swimming, that's all. I just wanted to go swimming, and I wished and wished the office man would believe my dad about our backyard trees and go home.

I stared hard at my father and willed him with all my might to look up and see me sitting there waiting so patiently. Please, Daddy, I thought to myself, please, please hurry up and stop talking about those trees.

Dad glanced in my direction. His deep cornflower-blue eyes lit up as he smiled at me.

"What's the matter, pet?" he called out. "Are you getting impatient?"

I shook my head. I did not want to appear rude.

"Come," he said and beckoned me over.

I jumped off the steps, skipped over the shadow lines, and landed at Dads feet.

"What kind of trees are they, Daddy?" I asked as I stretched out my hand. "Are these trees the same trees we used to get in India?" I didn't really care what sort of trees they were. I just thought if Dad noticed I was wearing my new red swimmers, he might see it was already late and remember his promise to take the family for a swim.

"Yes, pet," Dad nodded and dropped the leaf into my palm, "these trees are the same trees we used to get in India. They are called teak trees, and they are growing right here in our new backyard. Aren't we lucky? Teak trees, just like we used to get in India."

The office man glared at Dad and looked down at me. He shook his head in resignation and blew his nose loudly. I smiled weakly at the office man and edged closer to Dad. Dad put his arm around me and patted me on the shoulder.

"When are we going swimming, Daddy?" I asked. "You promised, and soon it will be too late."

Before Dad could answer, Mum appeared at the back door. She had changed into her swimmers and had a black-and-white beach towel tied around her waist.

"Gentlemen," Mum called loudly, "would you care for a drink before we take Suellen for a swim?"

Mum's voice carried a tone of annoyance. She too had heard the conversation. Her tone meant the subject of trees was now closed, and we had been summoned.

I dropped the leaf, and we walked quickly towards the house.

Incidentally, in the years that followed, Frank Weiss, his wife Louisa, and their daughter Orana became family friends. In fact, on my birthday that year, Uncle Frank gave me a multicoloured plastic woven Chinese dragon. The dragon, Uncle Frank told me, was an Imperial Dragon, with five toes on each foot. The Imperial Dragon is owned by royalty and is considered very lucky. For many years, the Imperial Dragon hung on my bedroom wall, and when I came to live in Australia, the Imperial Dragon came with me. In fact, the Imperial Dragon still holds pride of place on my bedroom wall today.

The vision of my dad as he stood under his teak trees was my very first memory of Rabaul, a quaint little town in a strange new land — a land that was to leave its mark on me forever. My family and I had lived in Rabaul but a few short weeks, and little did I know how this town, this land, and its people would change our lives dramatically, mould and shape my character, and bring my family once-in-a-lifetime adventures and experiences beyond belief. My beloved childhood home would leave me with a cavernous hole of homesickness and deprivation when I left.

A quirk of fate had brought my family to Rabaul. It was the second time in five years my parents and I had moved from one country to another. In 1956, we left India to start a new life in Australia, and in 1960, we packed up again and came to live in Papua New Guinea.


The Big Grey Painted House with the Outside Staircase

The big grey house with the outside staircase was our first home in Rabaul. The house sat on large corner block, which was surrounded by gardens and fronted on a dusty half-tarred street lined with dense casuarina trees.

Our home was situated within walking distance of Dad's office, Queen Elizabeth Oval, and the primary school I attended. Like all of the dwellings in Rabaul at that time, our house was constructed from wood and had a tin roof. However, unlike many of the other houses around, our home was double-story and was therefore considered by many of the town folk to be "nice."

Interestingly enough, an Australian architect had designed our home. It had many redeeming features: two bedrooms, a bathroom, sundeck on the top level, a very large lounge-dining area, a kitchen, and a two-car garage on the ground level. However, the fact that we had a "nice" house did not impress my mother. Mum had lived in "nice" houses all her life and thus expected nothing less. She disliked this house immensely; actually, quite simply, Mum detested the house.

A week or so after we had arrived in Rabaul, Mum decided the house was unsuitable for her family and informed Dad that she wished to move to a better house. Mum vividly remembers her horror and subsequent anger when she discovered that her new home lacked many of the household items and appliances she deemed necessary for everyday living.

"There was no stove in the kitchen," Mum stated upon ref lection, "only this gaping hole that I assumed was for a stove. On a whim," Mum added, "I stuffed a large electric frypan into my suitcase before we left Sydney, and just as well," she laughed, "because that frypan saved us all from starvation. When my new stove arrived, I was so sick to death of cooking in that damn frypan, I gave the bloody thing to Phyllis Skinner."

Mum continued, "Apart from the stove business, there was no washing machine. Instead, there was this dirty-looking copper in a humpy in the back garden. I assumed the humpy was the laundry, but it had a dirt floor. There was a concrete tub in there, however, so the haus boi could at least hand wash the clothes. The copper was filthy; it was filled with rubbish, old tennis shoes, and suchlike. When I instructed the haus boi to clear the rubbish, I found, if you please, that the copper had a bloody great hole in the bottom of it, so it was useless."

Mum also discovered, to her annoyance, that many of the rooms in the house had only one power point in them, and that the only telephone was situated stupidly, in of all places, the garage.

I suppose my Dad was somewhat oblivious to the lack of household appliances and the needs and wants of a family, and he thought the house "marvellous." Dad also thought Mum had a "most unreasonable attitude" in her desire to move. Consequently, each time Mum broached the subject of moving, Dad evaded the issue.

"What have you been cooking on?" Mum asked Dad the day we arrived in Rabaul. "There is no stove in this kitchen."

"Oh ... I've been eating at the New Guinea Club," Dad replied. "It's good food there, too."

"I see," replied Mum, "and do you expect to eat at the New Guinea Club for the rest of your life?" she asked with sarcasm.

"Oh no, darling," smiled Dad, "not now that you are finally here.

I have missed your cooking — and you and Susie too," he added. "Ah ha, and might I ask," stated Mum, "do you expect me to cook in the bloody backyard over an open fire, like a villager or something?"

"Absolutely not, darling," Dad exclaimed. "I wouldn't expect anything of the sort. I'll see about a stove as soon as I have time ..."

"Well," Mum replied angrily, "if you expect to be fed, one requires a stove to cook on. I have a family to feed every day, and I want a stove now — today. And while we are on the subject, I want power points in every room. I am sick of tripping over those extension cords. And I want a washing machine, a very large washing machine, so the haus boi can wash our clothes. Today, understand? Today. Otherwise, Suellen and I will be returning to Australia tomorrow on the morning aircraft. I left a fully equipped house in Sydney to come here, and I am not compromising."

Mum glared at Dad and reached for a cigarette. She lit her cigarette, drew back deeply, and stormed off.

Dad was in big trouble and he knew it. Bachelorhood loomed just around the corner.

Dad wrung his hands and ran after her. "Please, darling," he begged, "please try to be reasonable. You and Susie have only just arrived. You know there are no stoves here in Rabaul. You know that anything like that has to be ordered from Australia and it takes six weeks on the ship, even after it's ordered, before anything gets here." Mum was unmoved by Dad's pleading. She stood her ground, and with arms crossed, declared that she would deal with the situation herself.

"How could you bring us here," Mum stated angrily, "when this house is so ill-equipped for my family?"

My mother certainly dealt with the situation herself. That day, she placed an international telephone call to the head office of Nelson and Robertson.

Mum politely informed the general manager that the new Rabaul manager's wife required these items. She read from the list in her hand: a stove, a washing machine, and a vacuum cleaner. She also required more power points in all the rooms and the telephone moved into the house.

In a clipped voice, Mum informed the general manager that if confirmation of these goods was not received via telex by five p.m. that afternoon, the new manager's wife and daughter would be leaving Rabaul. She added that the company — having contributed to the breakdown of her marriage — would pay for her divorce.

Later that day, Dad received a telex from the company head office. The telex advised him that all the household goods requested by Mrs. Holland that morning had been purchased. The goods were to be conveyed to Rabaul on the next available ship.

Mum said she also found the big grey house rather uncomfortable. She maintained that the bedrooms were hot, cramped, and pokey. The bedroom windows were fitted with louvers that Mum said seemed to trap rather than expel the hot air.

Mum also loathed the fact that the house only had one bathroom. The bathroom was small and was fitted with a toilet, hand basin, and a shower over the bathtub.


Excerpted from "Black Sand and Betel Nut"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Suellen Holland.
Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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