06.10.2017 - By Ann Green

Volunteer Ann Green looks at life on assignment in Bougainville, via the most useful thing she packed.

Having been selected for a VSA assignment in Arawa, Bougainville, there came the difficult task of packing, earlier this year. What would I need? What would be useful?

I thought I may need something to protect me from the rain – I had read that Arawa “enjoys” about 3.5 metres of rain a year. Reasoning that a rain jacket may be a bit hot in Arawa, which lies 6 degrees south of the equator, I packed my little-used telescopic umbrella. It had been languishing on the floor of my car since I bought it over a year ago.

This was an inspired decision.

Ann umbrellas on the bridge

Arawa locals in Bougainville are well aware how valuable an umbrella is.

Ann smiling out from under her umbrella

Ann with her trusty umbrella in Arawa, Bougainville.

I walk to my assignment and at 8.00am it is already sunny and hot. I tried a sunhat but phew did my head get hot! Observing the locals (a sensible thing to do) I saw the choice of accessory that the women, some men and many children carry is – you guessed it – an umbrella so that they can make their way to work always in the shade, and be protected from the rain in the afternoon.

Arawa is truly a town of umbrellas. The illusion of hundreds of floating brightly painted mushrooms drifting around the streets may seem a little surreal but it is exactly what Arawa looks like, whether it is raining or bright sunshine – the illusion is the same.

My umbrella is silver on the top and has a stylized night sky in black and silver on the underside. I like it, but it pales beside the vivid reds, blues, oranges, bright pinks and purples of the local’s umbrellas. Theirs are truly dazzling. Bougainville flowers are vivid, and the vibrant colours of the local umbrellas reflect the colours of nature that are typical of Bougainville. No delicate pastels here. The umbrellas are striped, segmented colours, gaily patterned, flowery, some feature the strongly coloured PNG flag and some of the umbrellas feature cat’s ears – most favoured by the children. There is a veritable palette of vibrant colours walking the streets of Arawa. 

However this can cause problems and one has to be very mindful of another umbrella approaching head on. Will there be room for two umbrellas on this particular path? Which way to tilt the umbrella, maintaining the shelter from sun or rain, but not entangling spokes. Whether to stop and let the other umbrella pass by – all very tricky!

And there is the juggling act at the market.

In the afternoons I pass the wonderful Arawa market and usually call in to get some fresh produce. The market is undercover so down comes my umbrella. So now I have my umbrella, my work bag which is quite heavy, a plastic bag to put the produce in and my market purse all to manipulate and juggle while I find the right change, do the transaction and put the pineapple or pawpaw or bunch of bananas and maybe some kaukau (sweet potato) into the plastic bag. The market ladies look on bemused. How do the locals do it? With far more aplomb than me!

Leaving the market with my fresh produce, I now have two heavy bags and I have to juggle again. Eventually, without any aplomb at all, I manage to unfurl my umbrella, regain my dignity and join the umbrella procession on my way home.

So reader if you are planning to become a VSA volunteer, or just planning a trip to the tropics, remember to pack your umbrella – a telescopic one is good and choose one as brightly coloured as you dare.

We asked volunteers what the most useful thing they packed was:

  • A bread-making recipe book
  • A good quality, medium sized, stainless steel cooking pot
  • Sheets
  • Electric frying pan
  • Teva sports sandals
  • Solar lamp
  • Hot glue gun
  • USB sticks
  • Deodorant
  • A good knife
  • Sunglasses
  • Smartphone
  • Tool chest
  • Skipping rope

And what they wish they’d packed:

  • A head torch
  • UV filtered water bottle
  • A decent coffee plunger
  • More external hard drives loaded with movies
  • A crochet hook




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