Having a man-basket back in Papua New Guinea has grown on me. At first, I felt stupid. Now I feel silly without it, carrying around all my stuff in my hands and pockets?! What was I thinking? The woven basket, called a “tapa” in Tigak is a main accessory for people in our area of PNG, mainly men, and is used to carry around items when venturing out beyond one’s home. Women have baskets as well, but they usually use a “bilum,” which is more of a cloth bag with a strap as opposed to a thin, woven basket made from leaves. The younger generation of guys seems to be switching to bilums as well.
I remember when a friend gave me my first basket as a gift. I was grateful, but also I felt like it was a little large, especially for someone as inexperienced as me at carrying around a basket. (That was, until a friend of mine walked by one day carrying a HUGE basket that was probably two and a half feet wide and three feet long!) I knew I needed a basket, and knew it would be handy, especially since getting out to learn language and culture required me to carry extra stuff around like a pen, notepad, digital recorder and a camera. Thats a lot to carry around and no one has that much pocket real estate. So, I was thankful to get my very own tapa.
I wasn’t sure how to carry it at first. I observed guys for a while and found that there were essentially two ways for men to carry it, both under the arm. One way, was just sticking it under your arm and letting your arm secure it to your abdomen. This can be a bit challenging at first and a bit uncomfortable. The other way was to use a string and hang it over your shoulder. You still carry it under your arm, but instead of your arm securing it to your abdomen, you can let the string do all the work in keeping it on you. While the latter sounds more comfortable, I actually went for the former no-string option over the string option for two reasons, one of which should be obvious. The obvious being: if I put a string on my basket, even though some guys do that, it would definitely be more like a purse and less like a man-basket. (Actually, I like to think of it as an underarm briefcase) The second reason I went for no string was because it seemed to be the more common way to carry it and I wanted to fit in.
But what do guys actually carry around in their baskets? It varies, but common items include the following:
- Parts needed for chewing betel nut (See our bog “A Guide to Buai” for more info)
- A small amount of money
- Tobacco leaves
- Pieces of Newspaper (i.e. rolling paper for tobacco)
- A lighter
- A small knife
- Maybe a cell phone
Other notable items I have seen being carried around in baskets include a metal file for sharpening your machete, radios, condoms, replacement parts for a speargun, screwdriver, etc. One time, a friend even offered me a boiled sea turtle egg from his basket as a snack. I declined.
The most important reason for carrying around your basket is for the aforementioned parts needed to chew betel nut. In fact, it is because of this that for the first month (but even to the day before we left to come home) people always made jokes asking me for betel nut to share. Even though I don’t chew betel nut, I would joke back and say I had chewed all of mine already and didn’t have any to share. I made this joke almost every single day for about a year and a half and it still got a good laugh. (Another thing that gets a good laugh is wearing your basket like a hat)
But, this begs the question: if I don’t personally chew betel nut, than what do I actually carry around in my basket on any given day? The contents of my basket normally include the following items:
- A pen
- A packet of crackers
- A digital recorder
- A small camera
- A clipboard with day’s plan on it
- Some picture books
- A bag of pain medicine and bandaids
My basket has stood the test of time pretty well. Even though it started out green, it is now a nice shade of brown. It also holds up well to mistreatment. Setting it down on the sand while sitting at the beach with a friend always requires me to empty it of its contents and shake all the sand out. On one occasion, while sitting at a friend’s house their child came over and urinated on it. Turns out it holds up really well to bleach. Another time, I left an open packet of crackers in it and found it the next day infested with ants. Yes, my basket has been a faithful companion even though it has been through a lot.
Do I use a basket in the States while we are home? Uh, no way. But it sure is pretty handy over in Papua New Guinea!