Archive for October, 2008

A Waste of a Day.

It was a waste of a day. Aside from running into Peter the moustachio’d Sepik man and wondering when the rubbish would be collected (it’s been a week) there wasn’t much to it. Stayed inside away from the heat. Close to zero output, even though there’s a bit to do and heaps on my mind. Started a letter – for the third time. That was it.

At about three our guest from Melbourne came home and we went to the market for dinner supplies. I only went to clear my head and also to fulfil the vague kind of responsibility one has to one’s friends, ie watch their back. A pumpkin, some carrots and some greens later we’re ready to go. There is a commotion. A guy is greeting us at close proximity, with about eight or ten other young guys behind him watching with keen amused interest. He introduces himself as Jason No Violence, he wanted to know where we were – I wasn’t sure if he was being cryptic or if his English was messed up. The question is repeated. Where are you people. I’m doing volunteer work, I offered, and my friend is working for a university in Melbourne. The usual outwardly confident, inwardly shitscared mode of behaviour kicks in. University? he exclaims. I have attended the University of PNG for twenty years! I notice the older women waving us on, urging us to disengage from this guy’s insistent conversation. He’s not wearing a shirt but wears pristine clean white tracksuit pants and a hat of the same colour. I smoke MARIJUANA, Pee-En-Gee WEED he says proudly. It’s busy at the market, kids and dogs are everywhere, and our exchange is still the object of intense curiosity. Time to go. Of course Mister No Violence wants my phone number. Conveniently I have left my phone at home and I don’t remember the number itself – mainly so I don’t have to lie to people’s faces in situations such as these. He’s only slightly fazed. You know they say sharing is caring, he says, so have you got some coins for me for a drink? This time I’m pleased to lie. No, my missus keeps all my money. He persists, insisting he asks my companion. We leave. You ask the lady! Mr No Violence shouts after us. No was the best I could come up with. People seemed to laugh, at what I wasn’t sure. I didn’t care. Mister No Violence didn’t follow us. That’s what I cared about.

Our bemusement kicked in once we were up the street a bit and we reflected how funny it was that even the most eventless day can be turned on its head just by a random encounter. PNG! Land of the unexpected. All those cliches. We were happy enough to be crossing Waigani Drive, finally out of reach of the eyes of the young guys at the market. We were stepping onto the dusty median strip when two packs of school kids started to riot directly in front of us. Sticks and a few rocks were flying and the women selling the buai started scurrying. I had seen the kids fighting from the balcony at about the same time the day before – surprisingly (or in hindsight, predictably?), they were at it again. Yesterday the cops had broken the mob of kids up after a few minutes – for some reason the youngsters chose the PMV stop just outside the Waigani police station to rumble at. Although the finer points of the event were not evident the day before thanks to a couple of trees the general narrative wasn’t hard to discern – the kids fight, the cops come, the kids run away. Where are the cops? I wondered as we stood amidst four lanes of slowing traffic and a scattered crowd of stick-wielding youngsters in school uniforms.

Dumb question. They were right behind us. A siren. We spun around. A big fella in blue had emerged from his four wheel drive with a shotgun, a few metres away. Bang-bang, in the air, and the collective taste for violence dissipated rapidly with the crowd. I recalled a story a friend told me when he was at the footy and had heard gunfire. He’d suggested aloud that it was rubber bullets but a guy next to him had corrected him quickly: make no mistake, the guy had said to my friend, we do not have rubber bullets in PNG. This anecdote seemed prescient as we crossed the road, now unhindered by the pugnacious kids that had stalled us only twenty seconds or so before.

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Technical realities.

A post like this was bound to come sooner or later, and seeing as I have only a few minutes left I’ll get it out of my system and keep it brief.

The world of hyperglobaltelecommunicationnets is a pretty non existent one here. I use internet cafes, it’s slow, and for some reason this particular one I’m in now smells funny. I tried explaining email to Pokaro the other day, the analogy I tried was ‘klostu leta tasol long komputa’ – like a letter but on a computer. The utter conceptual gulf between us at that moment devastated a small part of me for some reason. But I had a strange day so whatever, and I guess the boring middle-class guilt may be setting in.

Anyway, that was the whinge – internet cafes. Bo-ring.

The Wantoks from klostu Goroka.

A helicopter goes overhead and the air shudders between the walls inside. The kids downstairs cease their racket, but only for a moment as the aircraft rumbles its way through the sky. When it is gone from earshot the children resume their bickering and moaning from where they had left off, interminable and frustrating. Otherwise the only close noise is the prattle of my fingers on the keyboad and the short, pointless bark of some dog on the road. There is always the rush of automobile traffic downhill and the rustle of leaves and plastic bags in the breeze, but they form a mere backdrop of noise. An audible wallpaper, curtain, or woven grass mat.

Outside the gardener is making his rounds, as he does every few hours. This is mostly what he does: makes the rounds. Also he sleeps but this takes up only a few of his working hours on the most lugubrious of afternoons. His work from time to time also involves swinging at protruding blades of grass, twigs or weeds with his short, crude bush knife. I do not see him do this often but I hear it if I am home. When he hacks at the grass or weeds sticking from the earth the resulting noise is like a scattering of hailstones on concrete and tin roofs – except they are not chunks of ice but actual rocks that he sends through the air with the sharp blows he delivers to the errant vegetation. Later I pick these stones up and take them in my pocket when I walk down the road, as my status in relation to the antisocial dog named Sexi has not been fully resolved.

The gardener has a fantastic habit of wearing a once-colourful sarong instead of trousers or shorts on the hot afternoons. This garment, along with a floppy fishing hat and a stained old t shirt, comprises his work uniform. It is not unfair to say his appearance is cartoonish as a result – although the extent of his actual sense of humour or actual comical nature will probably never be known to me. The gardener is mostly deaf and I believe mostly speechless also. He nods, waves and usully smiles when I greet him, but that is all. Sometimes when I venture onto our balcony during the day I see him sitting by himself in the shade looking downhill at the busy road and the PMV stop, the purest image of stillness. At these times I try to fathom the thoughts that nestle in his brain, and sometimes I find myself almost crushed by loneliness for his sake.

The other Papua New Guineans (ie ‘nationals’ or as I would prefer to say ‘locals’) who work here are the guard squad who man the huge swinging steel-bar gate at the entrance to the compound. During the day there is usually only one or two on duty, I guess two or three at night. By day they avoid the sun’s ferocity by keeping watch from their guardhouse next to the steep driveway. This structure is simple, made of large undecorated concrete bricks, and it is furnished with a refridgerator, one or two chairs, and a bench that they doze on. There is an antechamber with a shower, and behind the guardhouse is a clothes line and a few other oddments the they deploy in an effort to make their work less difficult. I do not envy the tedium of their work but I am thankful. After all they are the men who remain awake at night so we may sleep unmolested.

I haven’t etched all their names into my memory but the eldest is named Pokaro, the youngest-looking is called Nasun, some of the others are called Fal, Tylan and Keko. All speak little or no English, and as my Tok Pisin is also limited we communicate only the briefest and most basic phrases: “Apinun Nasun, yu olrait?” or “Mi amamas tru long lukim yu”. I frequently make reference to the “bigpela sun” by way of chit chat. The talk typically tapers out before too long but old Pokaro never seems bothered, be repeatedly asks “nem blong yu?” and grasps my arm or hand without any of the shyness his younger colleagues. His expressions are great to behold – at once as kindly as a generous and benevolent grandfather but sometimes as savage as an old Highlands fighter. His speech is often open-mouthed, and always stained a virulent red from chewing buai. His teeth are in a dreadful state, but his craggy old smile is reassuring.

For old Pokaro’s sake alone I hope to grasp Tok Pisin more competently, but until I get some regularity in my speech – with someone equally adept at English to shunt my learning along – I doubt this will happen. The other day my conversation with Nasun and Pokaro was enough to glean that all the guards, the gardener and many others besides were all wantoks, from the same village ‘klostu Goroka’. I haven’t been able to find out how many of Pokaro’s wantoks work here – ‘planti planti’ was the best answer so far.

It’s easy to regard the security arrangements sceptically. The boys aren’t too vigilant when it comes to visitors during the day, having no interest in interrogating anyone walking through the gate. I asked myself what exactly they would repel intruders with if it came to it? Silly question. Three bows and a collection of arrows nestle in racks in the guardhouse, and Pokaro was more than pleased to demonstrate his technique with the bush knife. ‘Sapos raskol cam’ he said, ‘mi katim!’ This was accompanied by a few mock blows against forearms and legs. Like many other places PNG grants the bush knife a special place in the pantheon of useful items. They are readily available and a sharp one is great for hacking back vegetation, harvesting certain crops, opening boxes, splitting coconuts, removing human limbs – and probably opening bottles of SP too. I’m happy with my bottle-opener though, thanks.

Beardy Dave introduces: ‘My First Gunfire’.

From the balcony here the sounds from the intersection and markets downhill drift up to us, the noise does not stop at night. On Fridays and Saturdays especially we always marvel at the throngs beneath us. When dark encroaches they show no signs of dispersing, instead an overhead street lamp gets switched on and someone somewhere invariably starts a fire. We’ll probably never see much of Moresby’s night life, but from up on the balcony we can hear it. People milling around and yelling, the engines and horns, animals fighting on the streets, sudden and unexplainable sounds of things smashing or shattering.

Last night at about eight a sound came up to us that was a kind of part popping, part cracking sound.

‘Hear that?’ Beardy Dave from Cape York broke off his story – I think it was something about a meal of crayfish in coconut cream he’d had cooked for him by a nun somewhere near Popondetta. He’d come up from his shack downhill at our invitation, no doubt happy enough to accept company over another Saturday night in self-imposed hiding. For our part we also craved some company and I knew for a fact that Dave was not only keen enough on the SP brownies but a talented and clownish raconteur.

‘The popping noise?’ I replied, thinking of an aerosol can bursting in a fire or an inflated milk carton being stomped on.

‘That was a pistol ay’ Dave informed me in an unflappable tone. Like many up here he’s got all sorts of good information and advice for us, but unlike some others he seems confident we’ll survive relatively unscathed. He always delivers his advice punctuated by a clipped ‘ay’. 

‘Yeah. That’s the police ay. They fire a few shots early on in the night, just to remind people they’ve got the guns. Most of the time they just fire pistols but you hear a shotgun or an SLR every now and then. Remind everyone who’se boss ay.’

As if on cue an identical popping-cracking noise was heard. It seemed to be distant but I knew the gun couldn’t be fired very far away: we can see the police station in the daylight on the other side of Waigani Drive. I said it sounded like a can bursting under heat.

‘You can tell when it’s gunfire, there’s a sharp sound in the report ay, nothing like a can in a fire or anything like that. The bigger guns are a bit deeper, the shotguns and that.’

‘Why would they bother with that?’ I asked. ‘I mean everyone here knows the cops have guns, everyone knows they’re mean bastards too. What would firing a round for the heck of it achieve?’

I didn’t really get an answer, but I found myself thinking what it would be like at the cop station below, with the crowds churning in the night and with most people out there regarding the cops with suspicion and contempt. I remembered what our minder Greg had said of the people at independence day – when crowds get together it’s the police who are enemy number one.

Dave returned to his stories. 186 days with only cows, chooks and a three-legged dog for company somewhere a long way north of Cooktown. Rice cooked in coconuts on open fires. The ghastly atmosphere of Moresby Town after dark when the prostitutes young and old come onto the streets. I was by then only half listening. The SP’s were stilling my brain a bit and I was contemplaing what Dave had told me earlier. He’d heard all about Kate and I every day. The locals who work with him update him on our movements on a daily basis – why they told him was beyond him – but thanks to a small network of eyes and ears he knew when we walked to the PMV stop, when Kate got her bus to work, what days I stayed a few minutes and crouched to talk with someone I recognised next to a buai stand and when I just trundled home. It was both reassuring and unnerving to think of. A small network of people, most of whom I had never met, not only knew who we were and where we lived but kept watch for our comings and goings and dutifully reported back to Dave.

Despite the Queenslander’s story I wondered if he had a hand in it. He’s a lot older than most of the locals who he works with and he’s spent a lot of time in PNG, both recently and before independence. The nationals who he works with seem to be unworried about him, but he couldn’t live the way he does without commanding respect. His wisdom is the kind of unsanitised stuff that could only come from a guy used to so-called ‘improvised’ living, with the concomitatant levels of ‘improvised’ management of human relations. He told us, unworried, about the guy whose wrist he broke last year when he tried something stroppy, or the good amount of corporal punishment he dished out when he managed an island plantation in 1973.

Today over lunch Kate and I mused on Dave’s up-front admissions. We weren’t bothered, but I guess we shared a curiosity about the outlook of a guy who lives proverbially both with and above the people here. In the end we shrugged – his methods were probably effective enough in Port Moresby. Which left the unspoken thought, that is how ineffective our friendly, open and sometimes clumsy attitude could prove to be.

Dok bilong Moresby.

I saw on the SMH site the other day that a dead dog was found hanging from a tree somewhere in Sydney. I didn’t get to read the article as it tried to send me to a porn site instead, but I got the gist – Dog. Dead. Tree. Suspended. If that’s the kind of tale that brings on the waterworks then for the love of God (Dog?) stay away from Port Moresby. Here in Waigani Heights there are a few (honestly one or two, maybe three) well-cared for dogs, but mostly the canines in Moresby belong to one of three broad categories – street mongrels, guard dogs, and dead.

The street dogs are pitiful but you don’t touch them. Mange, ribs and weeping sores are the only common trait, otherwise they don’t look much like any canine genus I know of. They’re everywhere, even here in sleepy Waigani Heights. We hear them fighting every evening, and the same dog yelps pitifully after each bout. I would advise a change in career for that particular dog but I guess there aren’t too many options for the ignoble hounds of Waigani Heights besides scavenging and fighting (and preying on newcomers… read on).

The guard dogs tend to be better catered for however they’re often gaunt – keep ’em lean, keep ’em mean. They’re mostly German Shephards but there’s a stocky mongrel outside a chemist in Boroko that I can’t pick the breed of. Yes, guard dogs outside chemists – once I thought Marrickville was a bit rough with a bouncer outside the pharmacy, but here in Moresby you always have them, and they often have dogs. Mostly the animals seem thoroughly disinterested in chewing on raskols, sleep being the preferred pastime during scorching business hours. I’ll leave it to someone else to see what they’re like when roused – although from what I saw on Independence Day they can get excitable. One weekend outside the big supermarket in Gordons a security truck drove by with about twenty dogs in the back. The brutes gnashed and barked at the Sunday shoppers, making their presence well known as the truck did a lap through the carpark. I couldn’t figure out why there was a need to take the dogs on a tour of Gordon’s Foodworld. Maybe the security personnel were out trying to impress the locals: Hey everyone – look at these fucking DOGS!

As for the dead type – do I need to explain? Common trait is bloatage, common habitat is beside the road. I’ve actually only seen two. The first was decapitated. The second was being closely examined by some people for reasons I don’t need to know.

I really haven’t had personal problems with the latter varieties – guard and dead. The same can’t be said for the street mongrels. Yesterday just outside our compound I saw one of the usual dogs uphill from me, which is nothing out of the ordinary as they tend to sniff around and shit wherever they want – as dogs do. A few moments later I turned around to find the same dog coming at me. Friendly fellow, I thought. Wrong! For some reason this fella didn’t like me and wasn’t shy about getting close and personal to make the point. Of course as soon as one starts something the others join in – so within moments I was keeping four of the filthy beasts at bay with my cumbersome sandals and a few (panicky) yells. Someone inside one of the houses on the road was shouting at the dogs but it’s safe to say they aren’t the most obedient or disciplined creatures. They kept a distance of a metre or so when I faced them but as soon as I stopped looking at them one or two would dart in and snap at my legs, and because of my clumsy footwear walking backwards wasn’t as easy as you’d think. Thus the hounds and I had reached an impasse, broken only when a fifth dog bolted out of a yard – a black one who wasn’t as reluctant to get stuck in as the rest. He got a bit too close and I really definitely was worried. Then inexplicably one or two paid attention to the unseen person yelling out and within moments they had dispersed. I was left alone on the dusty road muttering ‘dogs! fucking dogs!” to myself incredulously.

I went about my business and on my way back called in on the Anglicare workshop down the hill, where beardy Dave from Cape York supplied me with some dog repellent – ie a spare bit of thick poly pipe that made a nice whoosh sound as I swung it a few times. I was on guard on my way home but nonetheless the only warning I had was the scratch of claws on the bitumen – and behind me were another three or four of them about to snap at me! Thankfully the dog repellent worked. It worked again this morning – on the same pack that had a go at me the first time! The boys who mind the gate at the compound weren’t far away and with a few of us around the pack scarpered behind a fence. The  boys seemed more amused than concerned when I explained that asde dispela dok olgeta laik paitim mi, not maliciously I am sure but I’m certain I look pretty foolish with my dog repellant. I was told that they didn’t like my stick. “They didn’t like me yesterday without the fucking stick!” was all I could reply.

I’m not sure how this is going to work out in the long term but the situation is already a bit tiresome. I’ve been told that payback compensation will be offered if I get bitten – if an owner steps forward to claim responsibility that is. Just because you see them in someone’s yard doesn’t mean the residents own the dog! Someone mentioned that a while ago the dogs were out of control, prompting some Highlanders to take matters into their own hands. As a result I’m having fantasies about upgrading my dog repellent to a bush knife or a slingshot of some kind but I’m not sure how much I’m up for an all-out bloodbath on my own street. I doubt I’d impress my new neighbours when they see me holding a dog’s head in one hand and a bloody bush knife in the other screaming dispela longlong dok bilong husait motherfuckers!!!!???

Nah. Probably not a good look.