Archive for September, 2008

Dogs, guards, crowds, flags.

September 16 is Independence Day in PNG. I spoke to a guy in Boroko the day before and he wasn’t too fussed on the celebrations. What was there to celebrate? was his general opinion. The country hadn’t achieved much and its’ leaders were self-serving and selling the country short – especially to Asians apparently. It reminded me perversely of the unease in Australia when the Japanese were buying up big on the Gold Coast years ago. Here however the people have more to complain about. The guy I was talking to said technically overseas companies were obliged to train and employ locals. Then he kind of shrugged and made a handing-out gesture with both hands. I asked him what he thought of Somare. “Not the man he used to be” he replied.

Some of our volunteering colleagues had made a song and dance the day before about being “cooped up” in a motel for a fortnight and as a result we were chauffered in a couple of four wheel drives to the Sir John Guise stadium to see the Independence Day cultural celebrations. Two Gulf Province men – Greg and Loka – were our minders. It was fairly easy to pick our way through the throngs and the constant excange of “apinun, how are you?” quickly became habitual. Up front we found it a little harder to gain a vantage point, until a disturbance involving a cop and a dog and a supposedly drunk guy exposed some tensions in the crowd. The enforcers quickly decided that we were special – Greg threw the word “volunteer” around a lot but I think simply “white” would have sufficed – so we got prime concrete-slab seating on the stage side of the rope barrier. The distinct unease I felt at this special privelige dissipated as the crowd decided over the next half hour or so to come and join us, sneaking over in twos and threes to gather around the barrier and the group of whiteys. The proximity made me feel better. The reactions of the enforcers didn’t. For all the interest I had in the cultural show going on – traditional cosumes, dances, all that – I found the seething tension between the crowds and the guys with dogs and sticks far more gripping. Loka had told me earlier that the cops in Moresby weren’t too bad but when situations escalated they had a reputation for outright ferocity. I thought of this as I observed a situation that was slowly but definitely escalating. The cops would periodically uproot people, clear walkways, and every so often let a dog have a metre or so of leash and send a dozen people surging backwards, leaning on each other in the ever-tightening press of bodies. Right in font of the stage the crowd got dirty and tossed a few betel-nut shells at the cops, provoking a response that cleared a few metres for a while. The cops seemed to use whatever was at hand for batons – sticks, bent metal broom handles, tonfa-style riot sticks. I thought this was pretty shabby even for PNG cops, until I realised these guys weren’t cops at all but private security guards. I was told later they got paid roughly K1.50 an hour – hardly an incentive to show discipline and restraint. The real police were definitely there – they looked a lot sharper and a couple of them carried machineguns. I wasn’t unhappy that they kept their distance.

We roasted under the sun for an hour and bit before Greg decided the situation was on the brink of rapid deterioration. The flare-ups had indeed become more frequent and the wall of bodies behind us more impenetrable. Given that his boss would probably not be happy if the ‘packed-in-cotton-wool’ Aussie volunteers got involved in an incident then I can’t blame Greg for being responsible, but I was left vaguely dissatisfied at not seeing the culmination of the contest between the mob and the goons. Then again I’m sure riots are more to the taste of a particular type, and no doubt that type aint me.

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Into Moresby.

Underneath the clouds was the gulf. Before too long I saw some islands and a brown coastal flat. Underneath us was a city and a port jutting into a harbour, and only a few moments later we could discern palm trees and bouganvilleas and razor wire fences, then a flat abandoned space that was the end of the runway, inhabited only by an old (presumed WWII relic) plane. Nothing horrible happened subsequently. Disembarkation, immigration, customs, no worries. Another one of those bureaucratic yet way-too-real thresholds crossed and a bit of nervousness eased. Outside it was overcast and trying to rain. The heat dragged at us but I wasn’t too bothered to learn it was actually a cool day. A small fleet of decrepit taxis awaited us. We had a ride waiting to the motel so I was able to shake my head at the drivers who gesticulated, relieved. The blue taxis had a slogan painted on them: reliability and comfort. Thus one of my first reactions to Port Moresby was one of scepticism.

Soon a minibus arrived and the two obliging locals who came with it helped load our stuff while the nine white Australian volunteers seemed mostly happy to bask in the achievement of eventually getting to where we were. The ride in to Boroko revealed the most striking visual features of Moresby that still dominate a few days later. Lots of stark brown hills around and amidst the city. Rubbish and a few small fires and a few stray dogs. Ambling people, possibly aimless, probably dirt-poor (it may have been too early on my way from the airport for this observation to be nothing but an uneducated assumption – but I doubt it was wrong). Dirt, dust, dirt, dust, dirt. People riding in the back of utes. Tall fences, razor wire, everywhere.

Before we had the chance to be perturbed by the not-so picturesque reality of the place we were driven though the gate of the Comfort Inn and assigned rooms. There was a pool and the garden was lush and although the room wasn’t the least bit ritzy it would suit us fine. From our window you could see the motel’s exterior fence and the street beyond. We didn’t leave the curtains open. The next few hours was dominated by a cacophony from outside. A horde of people whose yells rose and fell in unison, a gutsy red-blooded harmony. Although the roars took us by surprise we weren’t worried. We’d already seen the crowd and been told they were gathering at the nearby sports ground to see the SP Lager Rugby League grand final. The national anthem wafted into our safe seclusion in the Comfort Inn’s gardens, and we were all pretty amused to hear John Farnham belting out “You’re The Voice” immediately thereafter. I watched TV later and amidst the interminable ads (“Em Nau! Coca Cola!” and “Trukai! Rais bilong yumi PNG!”) I saw some of the footage. I didn’t figure out who won until the next day – the Mendi Muruks beat the Hagen Eagles convincingly. Buggered if I remembered the score.

Bye and all.

Goodbyes were dispensed with in various denominations, a gradual culling from sixteen to thirteen to nine to five. A final eat-out in Marrickville (hail and farewell, o food of Marrickville), a final redistribution of weight and baggage, ticking off items on the very last checklist. The sun outside was hot and there was a feeling of unreality. We’re going, sure, but not right now. We’ve got literally hours before we go – or minutes, seconds, instants glary with spring afternoon sun… Five bags and two imminent departees were escorted to the airport for the flight to Cairns. The roads and traffic were awful and the same as always, the airport shops reeked of plastic excess the way they always have, the security checks kept us lingering as one would expect of course. Goodbye and all that – we blubbered and laughed at ourselves walking down the ramp to the plane, making the most of every possible last glimpse and wave. How many farewells are played out just like this? Tears and ultimate parting and a banal threshold that once crossed scarcely seemed to do the moment any justice. A raw-throated rheumy-eyed living cliche. We found our seats, shoved our baggage wherever it went, and thought of things pertinent to the flight ahead – a book, a water bottle, the window seat. The plane took off and we flew directly over our old homes in Marrickville and Richmond. I think there was a game on at Henson Park. The last thing I wanted to think about was how long it would be before any of that would be familiar again. Three hours to Cairns. Finally there were only two.

In the interim.

I suppose a brief explanation of what’s happened in the last couple of months might be of vague interest. Not that there’s too much to report. We moved into a smaller room. Larry and Deni became our new housemates. I worked for a significantly wealthy aid and development organisation for a few weeks, was the ‘principle author’ of a report, and got used to wearing sensible clothes five days a week. I drank beer, salivated over Leroy’s blog, and in turn did my best to eat as much good stuff before the dreaded Age of Kaukau begins. Indulged in a great deal of a certain illicit enjoyment that I won’t name seeing as my history with said stuff actually threatened my visa application at one stage – no details forthcoming, if you don’t know already you won’t know. I bought some more books, including a compendium of original Conan the Barbarian stories. In short I almost forgot I was leaving the country…

Three more sleeps.

Yes – three short nights and then we’re outta Sydney. One night in Cairns, then into Port Moresby.

Hole-ee sheeeeeet.

Astute readers will note the significant time lag between now and the last post. The delay in getting our visas has been significant to say the least. The best reason we have been given is really a layered effect – incompetence stacked upon lax ethics with a steamy heap of poor timing for the heck of it. Here’s a summary of the causes of delay:

1. The PNG immigration department in Port Moresby must process the visas, but they don’t have the best reputation for efficiency and diligence.

2. Said inefficient work practices are severely tested when a few hundred (thousand? million?) pilgrims stroll out of the steamy PNG jungles looking for tickets to Sydney for World Youth Day in July. They want to get on planes. Many don’t have passports. Many don’t have birth certificates. Many don’t have anything except faith – handy for a pilgrim I guess. It’s a great time to be a bureaucrat.

3. Finally the pilgrims are dispatched and the immigration depatment confronts the backlog of other work. Many are waiting for visas. Some are volunteers, like us. Some are from gigantic mining corporations oozing with money who have invested way too much to quibble about ethics. A number of men in dark shades and open-necked safari shirts step out of their Range Rovers outside the immigration department in Moresby. They hand over bulging envelopes and brown paper bags. The mining company employees miraculously get their visas confirmed in minimum time with due diligence and professionalism. I’m happy for them.

4. We wait, and wonder, and wait. Just over two months in fact.

5. The gravy train finally pulls to a halt and it’s the turn of organisations that cling to their ethics as tenaciously as their frayed patience. But it all happens in the end…

…and we discover late last week that it could be a next weekend departure. This is confirmed Monday. Passports arrive with shiny new permits stuck inside. Mmmmmmm. Perrrrmmiiiitts.

Three more sleeps!