Kids and coffee. It sounds like a disastrous combination, but I’m not talking about trading their morning Milo for a double macchiato. Rather, life as a mum changed for me when I taught my oldest daughter how to make my daily stovetop espresso. A proud 10-year-old gingerly conveying a steaming mug of coffee to her sleepily beaming mother, still curled up in the doona – heaven.
When I arrived in Limol, Papua New Guinea, for two months of fieldwork in 2017, I had already accepted the doona, the stovetop espresso maker and the coffee-making daughter had to stay at home. I was armed with a cheap plunger (the glass of which promptly broke, necessitating the purchase of a beer glass in Daru that roughly fit the plunger mechanism), four bricks of ground arabica (ironically, perhaps, fair trade from Papua New Guinea), and my very best fire-making skills.
I can make fires, but I’m used to an Australian lushness of piles of dry gum leaves, old Canberra Chronicles, and even the odd Firelighter or two. In Limol, things were different. There were no roads. There were no shops. There were spongy, fleshy bits of palm tree, coconut husks, sago leaves, and one – ONE – dangerously damp box of matches.
The first few days of trying to boil water, I struggled. I would kneel on the black palm wooden floor and blow, blow, blow on the sputtering embers, to no avail. I scrounged about the garden near the house, gathering dry grass, wary of slumbering Papuan Black Snakes. All the pieces of wood in the woodshed were huge, and I knew that if I even glanced at the hand axe, one of my limbs would spontaneously fall off in apprehension of my klutziness.
One day I found a wonderful bundle of sticks under a tree. Perfect! I thought, scurried up the ladder to our house, and proceeded to break up the sticks. I started the fire with dry grass and gaily tossed the little sticks into it, watching with delight as it caught and burned effortlessly.
“Whatever tree those sticks come from,” I thought, “I need more”. After that bundle ran out, I went in search of another. They were the perfect kindling. I found another one lying in the woodshed. My coffees for the next week were effortless.
One day I was working with Wagiba, our host mother in Limol. “I am going to get a broom,” she said. She came back with – one of the stick bundles. That I had been finding. And breaking. And burning.
I had burned all of Wagiba’s brooms.
I fessed up, and was extremely apologetic. Wagiba, of course, took this in stride with a big laugh. She brought an enormous pile of wood in her spalek basket and effortlessly cut it up into perfect kindling specimens.
Someone else heard the story and brought me bundles and bundles of pin to – strips of bark perfect for firestarting. My friend Wendy sat with me and taught me how to make a fire “the Limol way”, starting the fire with scrunched-up pin in the middle of three big logs, adding small pieces of wood, and gradually inching the big logs closer until they caught.
I’m now an expert southern New Guinean firebug. But next fieldtrip – I’m still totally bringing a Trangia.