We were traveling in the southern coast of Papua New Guinea with a group of illegal buyers from Indonesia. As the buyers were fearing the assault from local criminals or being caught by PNG police patrol, we decided to stay overnight in the wilderness. The most sensible place for tonight was Marukara, an empty small island across the village of Mabudauan. But unfortunately, when we arrived in the darkness of night, we found that the island was anything but empty. There were many boats parked on the shore. Men were shouting at us.
We recognized that they were shouting in Kiwai language, which nobody in our group understood. Sisi shout back in English, “We are not enemy, we are from Tais. Are you guys from Mabudauan? In the past, our ancestors also caught fish in this area. Our ancestors also worked together with your ancestors.”
The men shouted back. “Yes! We are from Mabudauan. Welcome!”
Suddenly from the island came out a dozen of young men, directing our boats to avoid the rocks surrounding the island. There were about 40 men, young and old. They were all from Mabadauan and came to this island just to catch fish.
“Don’t worry,” said Sisi, “They are friends. They even will prepare place for us to sleep.”
Some men made a fire special for us to dry ourselves. Some other prepared tents for us. They were delighted that we visited, and were excited to show us their catch for tonight. We could not stop adoring the super huge lobsters they have caught. Hundreds of them. The Indonesian illegal buyers were extremely thrilled to see the lobsters. The Indonesians said that these were king lobsters of Grade A Super, which would be priced around Rp 150.000 (US$ 13) per ounce. If this “crab fish” (as they are called in local Tok Pisin) were to be served in a restaurant in Jakarta, it would cost you around US$ 100.
“I have never seen such high quality of lobsters in my life. In Indonesia, we commoners won’t be able to afford eating this lobster,” say Abdul, one of the Indonesian illegal buyers. “But you see how abundant they have this here.”
Marukara is blessed with lobsters because of the stony nature of its water, and that’s the favorite habitat for the lobsters. The Mabadauan fishermen would bring the lobsters to sell to Daru for 30 kina (US$ 12) each, or to Australia (just a few kilometers away from here), at A$ 30 each.
As the night came, it turned to more resemble a midnight beach party. And it was getting merrier and merrier. The Mabudauan boys made a huge fire. They grilled fish and lobsters for us. And as token of gratitude, the Indonesian buyers also showered them with Indonesian products they brought with them: betel nut (this is compulsory!), Indonesian military’s condensed biscuits (it is said that one biscuit is powerful enough as one day meal), instant noodles, rice. We cooked together, we shared laughter together. They were very happy with the Indonesian food, as it was considered luxurious here. Except Marcella, a woman in our group, who sipped the Indonesian coffee mix and commented, “Why everything from your country is too sweet? The military drink is too sweet. The biscuit is too sweet, no can eat. Noodle is too sweet. Even cigarette is sweet!”
Faisal were satisfied that we ended up on this island, instead of staying in a village that we proposed before. “This is much better. Much, much better!” said him repeatedly. Not only it was a safe and fun sanctuary, Faisal also made a good business deal here. He saw some of the Mabadauan fishermen had fish maws with them, and he started bargaining hard. He got a huge jewfish maw for 100 kina (US$ 40) from the fishermen, and he was extremely happy with it.
What is a fish maw? The Indonesians called it as “gelembung ikan”. They used the Malay words, as they didn’t speak any English including when communicating with the Papua New Guineans on what they were looking for. But the Papua New Guineans totally understood what they meant. It’s because they also learned anything about the fish maw (which they called as “fish balloon”) only from the Indonesians.
The Indonesian illegal traders normally don’t buy the fish, they just buy the balloon (maw) inside the fish. I was surprised to learn that the price of a fish’s balloon is much more expensive than the fish itself. The jewfish itself only cost 30 kina, but its balloon may be valued 50 kina for small ones up to 100 kina for the huge ones.
It is because it’s much more difficult to get the maw than the fish. Fish maw (or “swim bladder”) is the air bladder of a fish, which is covering the fish’s inner organs. The maw has to be taken out of the fish when the fish was still alive, or just freshly died. It needed a kind of special operation technique, which have to be handled very carefully. The Indonesian buyers had taught the PNG villagers how to do it properly. The maw then had to be dried properly under the sun, and it became a strong balloon, or a sheet of cow-skin-like material.
Few years back, the PNG fishermen whom I asked were as confused as I was, when they first heard the Indonesians were interested in buying the fish balloon. Though, they never asked much on what the buyers were going to do with the balloons, and was happy enough to get a new (and very good) source of income. They only sold fish balloons to Indonesians, as no Papua New Guineans would bother with that thing, and neither did the Australians.
The Indonesians also didn’t consume the fish balloons themselves. In fact, they were just part of the bigger food chain. The Indonesian buyers would then export the fish balloons they got from PNG (which produces supersized fish with good quality balloons) to Singapore and China, where the real consumers located. The fish balloon can be made into a strong, water-resistant glue, and used in surgery. In ancient time, it was used as condoms. But especially for the Chinese, the balloon of certain large fishes are considered a food delicacy. The Chinese are ready to pay a lot for the balloon of good and rare large fishes like barramundi or jewfish, as they believe this is an unrivaled medicine.
Abdul told me that a barramundi balloon which they got for 100 kina here, can be sold to Singapore for US$ 800 per kilogram. One jewfish maw is approximately 100 gram, the buyers were very talented that they immediately know the weight of a balloon just by looking at it. Abdul had once tasted the soup made of the balloon, which he described as “gelatinous”. Until today he could not understand why people are ready to pay such money for such a food. But he kept doing the business, as it was profitable.
That’s globalization. The producer don’t know what are they actually producing. The middle men don’t know either what the use of the things they are buying and selling. The final consumers, thousands of kilometers away, never know the origin of what they are consuming. Thus, this kind of chains of unknowns is the main engine of our economy nowadays.
The same goes to deer horns, sea cucumbers, fragrant wood, and all other natural resources the Indonesians buy from Papua New Guinean citizens (mostly illegally). The illegal buyers here were all middlemen, who would export the products they purchased painfully (and dangerously) to the faraway Chinese consumers.
Thus, the business was not as extremely profitable as many locals thought. Faisal explained to me that to do this trip of two weeks, they had to invest a lot as well. They had to bring at least 1 ton of fuel, 10 sacks of rice, some boxes of instant noodles, one generator. The other compulsory things: betel nut, lime, mustard, and cigarettes—all these are important bribes or icebreakers with the locals. All these basic needs already cost at least US$ 3,000. Then he had to pay the villages and the workers they were dealing with, pay for the wood to make fire, pay daily wages to the local workers, and many others. You also have to calculate as well the possibility of total loss if you encountered police or rascals. Faisal brought with him cash of 50,000 kina (around US$ 20,000), and he would see how much profit he could make with this trip.
For Abdul, this first trip abroad of his was nothing but frightening. The fact that he was illegal trespasser in someone else’s country haunted him a lot. Papua New Guinea at a glance looked like a natural paradise, and the people were cheerful and happy. But things could be nasty. He told me the story about an Indonesian buyer who was killed mysteriously by raskol (criminals) in Bula, the closest village from the Indonesian border.
“That’s the worst you can get,” said Abdul. “If I would have to choose, it’s better to get caught by the Australian police. They are very kind. They will politely ask you to board off your boat. They will send you by plane to put you in jail, usually in Cairns or Thursday Island. The jail there is good—polite police, good food, clean environment. You need to be in jail for three months only. After that, you will be freed, and they give you 3-month Australian salary for your 3-month jail term. That’s very good money, much than what we make in Indonesia. Moreover, they will deport you to Jakarta, by taking an Australian commercial plane economy class. Is there anything better than that?”
“That’s the best deal a criminal can get!” I commented.
“Indeed. Especially if you compare with getting caught by PNG police. It’s as bad if you bump into the raskol. The PNG police will beat you for sure. They don’t ask you anything, the first thing they do is just beat you with their wooden stick, no matter who you are and what you have done. They will burn your dinghy as well, and rob your money. They will put you in jail in Daru, where you will get beaten again and again.” Abdul was shivering himself when explaining this.
This was Abdul’s first long haul journey ever in his life. And he was already an international law violator.
There were five people in this group of Indonesian buyers. None of them spoke English. They even did not know how to say “How much?” in English. That’s why they felt very happy to meet me, as I also acted as their “temporary” translator.
Faisal was the leader of the group, the only one among them who had passport and visa (which he got legally from the PNG Consulate in Jayapura). The visa had no stamp, as they entered through illegal border. This visa, Faisal hoped, at least would tame the PNG police if they ever got caught. While Abdul, Faisal’s cousin, was Faisal’s second man.
Both of them came from the Spice Islands of Maluku. They were both Melanesians, the same race as the Papuans, with dark skin and curly hair. Though, the people of Maluku have lighter skins, and it made a different layer in the social status. They were comers in Papua, and the bitter fact is, most businesses in Indonesian Papua are owned by outsiders like them, while the local Papuans only worked as workers. In this boat, they came with three local Papuans—Marind people of Merauke—who did all the hard job: pushing the boat, operating the machine, carrying the load, dealing with the locals, and will be the first shield if they ever to have problems. While Faisal was the boss, who kept the cash beneath his jacket, and gave order to all other men.
Bogi, one of the Indonesian Papuan workers from Merauke that Faisal brought along with, was a veteran in this kind of illegal business. He had been travelling in and out Papua New Guinea illegally in the last five years, once in every two weeks or one month. Last month was the scariest journey he ever had. He was almost get caught by PNG police. The PNG police boat chased his boat since from Mabadauan all the way until Jarai, just 50 kilometers away from the Indonesian border. Luckily that the current worked in favor to his, and he managed to avoid all the rocks. His boat with two engine also traveled faster than the boat of the PNG police, which only used one engine.
The PNG police identify the Indonesian illegal boats easily: the Indonesians always travel with two engines on one boat, as they had to carry 1 ton of fuel and lots of load so the boats would not move with only one engine. Once they saw with their binoculars a boat with two engines, they would chase immediately as it certainly belongs to the Indonesians from Merauke. As what Bogi aware, currently there were 40 boats operating from Merauke in Papua New Guinea, and all were illegal.
Suddenly, Sisi and my travel companion Marcella shouted in Indonesian language, “Police! Police! Hide quick!”
Abdul suddenly jumped from his sitting, and ran away towards the interior of the island, as if he was chased by ghosts. Sisi and all other Papua New Guineans burst into laughter. “I have never seen such a cowardice buyer!” said them. “Abdul! Come back! We were just joking!”
We were sleeping together on the white sand of Marukara. Night breeze swap my face. Insects were singing a lullabying melody. The encounter with these Indonesians, my fellow countrymen, in such wild part of Papua New Guinea, was indeed a bliss. Quietly, I heard one of the Mabudauan boys whispered a folksong of their ancestors.
Our canoe crosses the strait // When nice breach came we travel by wind // You see the sail of our canoe // we are sailing down to the Mabudauan village
His voice was like a powerful mantra amidst the serenity of dawn.