Siobhain Cole is the Ground Operations Manager for Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) in Mount Hagen, a Highland Province in the heart of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Born in Lincoln, East Midlands, Siobhain joined the Royal Air Force in 2007, overseeing logistics and operations in London, Scotland and the Falkland Islands before enrolling with MAF in 2014.

Siobhain and Ryan (Credit: MAF)

Siobhain and Ryan (Credit: MAF)

MAF is the world’s largest humanitarian airline, operating a fleet of small aircraft in 26 countries across the developing world, to provide relief to some of the world’s poorest and most isolated people. 

Siobhain’s husband, Ryan, is an MAF Pilot from Alberta, Canada. They were married in London in July 2017, and will return to work in PNG in January 2018 after spending time with their families and fundraising in the UK and Canada to support their vital relief work. 

“When you move halfway around the world to a developing country you’ve never heard of romance is the last thing on your mind!”

Doomed to singleness

As a single girl, in her early thirties, moving to Papua New Guinea (PNG) for six years – or possibly forever – to work for an NGO in a country where very few international charities operate, I thought I was dooming myself to eternal singleness. The likelihood of meeting an “eligible bachelor” working for an aid agency is fairly low anywhere, as there are so many single girls in this sector. But in PNG – the chances are practically zero! 

When I left the UK in 2014 for my jungle adventure, I must admit I was a little sad about this state of affairs. But my new job would put me in charge of a team of 40 staff across 9 different locations around PNG, so I dismissed dating as something I wouldn’t have time for anyway. Plus, as it turned out, there was such a wonderful community amongst my expats colleagues that I was never allowed to feel lonely for long. Perhaps singleness wouldn’t be so bad after all.

But then, in early 2016, the rumours started.  A single, male pilot was expected to join our team, and everyone started teasing me that he would be “the one”.  I dismissed them quickly – he was younger than me, plus there were other single girls on our team. Being on the Leadership Team, I thought most men would shy away from a woman with authority.  But as it turns out, he wasn’t most men!

By the time Ryan arrived, there was a small crowd of singles comprising both short and long-term staff. We all socialised together along with a few young MAF couples, taking trips out of town occasionally, which could only be done safely in groups. With no shopping, cinemas or activities outside of PNG’s capital Port Morseby – which is an hour’s flight away – we enjoyed film nights or games at each other’s houses. Mount Hagen’s few local restaurants are either too pricey for charity workers, or a bit suspect for Western digestion, so we settled for the safety of home cooking to celebrate birthdays or a welcomed Friday night with friends.

A whirlwind romance

After a few months of being part of the group, to my surprise and delight, Ryan invited me to his place for dinner. There he confessed, through an amazing love letter, that he wanted to start a relationship. 

This was great in theory – boy meets girl, girl bakes boy an aeroplane-shaped birthday cake to meet his aviation obsession, boy tells girl he likes her, girl is flattered – the rest is history, right? Not quite so straight forward when you live in ethnic culture a million miles from your own! 

Just sharing a meal together at Ryan’s that night was quite an ordeal. First, I had to tell his neighbour when I arrived and departed. Second – and this one really did it for me – we had to spend the entire evening with the front door and all the curtains open. We were alone, but it was hardly private, intimate or romantic. The security guard or any neighbour could walk past and have a good-old nosy, and word could spread! 

After that first meal, we had to make a serious decision about our future together, as it would be a difficult road ahead for us if we wanted to carry on getting to know each other. Terrifyingly, I had to almost decide on the spot whether Ryan was in fact “the one”. Taking it slow just wasn’t going to be an option, so I needed to know early on if this was going to be serious – if not, it would have to end before it started.  

Following my heart rather than my head, I decided to embrace a whirlwind romance with Pilot Ryan Cole. A lot of our “dates” – particularly in the first couple of months – took place in a group setting. I know right, “a date with all your mates”, quite literally. This approach to falling in love sounded crazy to my friends back home, but it was a necessary measure to protect the reputation of both ourselves and MAF. 

Keeping up appearances

The people of PNG have no concept of “dating”, and there is virtually no public display of affection. You will often see men holding hands in the street, purely as a sign of friendship and respect. But if you ever see a man and a woman hand-in-hand, you can assume she is a prostitute.

To form a partnership in PNG, you have two options. A: you organise an arranged marriage with a semi-stranger. B: you “go down the garden” (a euphemism for having sex) and return declaring yourself husband and wife. The practicalities of marriage will be sorted out later, often after the first child is born. If a couple decide they no longer want to be married (rare, and usually decided by the man because no children have been produced to carry his name), then the separation must be decided by the village court, regardless of how the relationship started. 

Oh, and there is a third option for men – they can always obtain another wife. PNG has been described as one of the most dangerous places to be a woman, with many women facing systematic discrimination and abuse, which sadly is culturally acceptable[1]. I was treading on dangerous ground.

So, we were falling in love, but Ryan and I couldn’t be alone together. We couldn’t hold hands or show affection in public. We couldn’t go the cinema or the supermarket, grab a glass of wine, share a candlelit dinner or even have a friendly coffee. If we did show affection, our Papua New Guinean neighbours could think I was a prostitute. The charity could get a completely unfounded reputation, and everyone might think MAF expats were earning money on the side by selling their bodies. This may sound extreme, but it was a genuine concern for us as we tried to get-to-know one another in a cross-cultural setting, a million miles from Tinder, Valentine’s Day or even Starbucks!

It was the most bizarre form of dating I have ever experienced. Even compared to the custom and formalities of the British Military, this was discipline to a whole new level.

Becoming an item

Early in our relationship, to try and avoid some of these cultural misconceptions, I decided to speak to the Papua New Guinean staff members, neighbours and expats on our compounds. But I could hardly believe my own words as I said, not “I’ve got a boyfriend!”, but “Ryan and I are considering marriage”. To use the ‘M’ word when you’ve only been seeing someone for a few weeks – and when I hadn’t even told my Mum – was totally and utterly terrifying. 

But despite our dating challenges and the lack of privacy, Ryan and I still managed to have those important conversations about our hopes, dreams, family and aspirations. Then, just over a year after we met, Ryan proposed on a tropical island off the coast of PNG, where we had gone for a special trip with both sets of our parents in February 2017. He wrote our initials in lights in the sand and had our favourite song playing in the background. He got down on one knee and presented me with a beautiful ring he’d made himself out of leather, with our initials inscribed into it. It was so magical and memorable, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It was the perfect crescendo to a whirlwind, island romance – and having our parents there to celebrate with us made it even more special.

Happily ever after

Our wedding day was an eclectic and colourful celebration of our unlikely cross-cultural relationship. With two very different backgrounds, and such a bizarre, yet poetic love story, Ryan and I celebrated with our MAF colleagues and friends in PNG via Facebook Live, and welcomed family and friends from across the globe to join in one big party.

Now, having spent a few months meeting a whole array of new Canadian relatives and grappling my transition from “doomed single missionary” to becoming Mrs Ryan Cole, I’m preparing to return to the island where love may not be seen in a physical embrace but is certainly felt in the humid, Highland air.

To follow Siobhain and Ryan’s story, visit their blog at www.RyanAndShiv.net, and for more information about the couple, visit www.maf-uk.org/Cole

[1] Human Rights Watch 2016 (https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2017/country-chapters/papua-new-guinea )