Archive for November, 2008

Working on it.

Hi, I’m working on ‘it’, whatever that is, a new post and such as well as a plan for my actual ‘work’ (which seems horrifyingly imminent, at least PNG-imminent, ie a couple of months away), as well as a plan for Christmas and New Years (we can only pray Air Niugini doesn’t double-book our seats… yes, they do that) and a plan for whatever else. Plans are big here. Action isn’t. So I’ll hope to buck the trend with some new posts soon. Sorry all.

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It came down.

Sunday night the rain came. Only the second big rain since we’ve been here, and the first we’ve been able to appreciate. The first big rain was when we were still in the Comfort Inn in Boroko, and the experience was intimate but hurried. We saw close-up the muddied streets as we bustled to the supermarket and back, saw the litter gushing with the water through the gutters, the cars and people struggling around new lakes forming on the roads, and the fantastic sight of a geyser-like spray from a burst pipe near the buai market. Like everywhere the people responded in a variety of ways – some trudged through the downpour and grinned, others grizzled and tried to swat away the pools from their tabletops and esky lids. Meanwhile I was glad I wasn’t wearing my nerdy Birkenstocks, which we were warned do not react well to large doses of moisture.

Yesterday the rain was different. It was heavier I suspect, but that’s not what I mean by different. It was the first we could observe from the gifted vantage point of our balcony, to confront with both disbelief and relief after the hideously hot afternoon, and watch as the wet swept across and obliterated the vista before us. It was a tropical storm, and it was terrific but terrifying. The whole world shuddered as lightning pounded the city, not once or twice but constantly for about half an hour. Some of the strikes were close, so that the subsequent peal of thunder sounded like Thor was riding directly above us somewhere and having traded in his hammer was instead cracking the biggest fucking stock-whip ever made. Yee-har. A quick look at the roofs of our place and the other units in the compound confirmed my suspicion – none of those big metal rods that attract and earth lightning could be seen. I hoped the hill behind us would provide a more attractive prospect for any errant bolts that strayed close.

After all the typical cloudy afternoons in Moresby – when the clouds approach from the northeast with the teasing promise of a deluge, but get stuck on the Owen Stanleys and refuse to come closer – it was incredible and incredulous that this downpour was even happening. The volume of water that was dumped on Moresby was enough to draw a grey veil across our entire view. After ten minutes we could not see Parliament Haus opposite us, and the Australian high commission and the pineapple building were outlines, nothing more. Five minutes after that and these were also utterly indiscernible. The supermarket and the cars on Waigani Drive were wraiths in a dream. We were quarantined from the whole city by a watery sheeting, there was nothing in our world for about twenty metres beyond the street just below. We let the breeze blow the rain in onto us as we watched, happy to feel the blessed crystalline droplets on forearms and faces. Beneath us one of our neighbours – a stocky young guy from Rabaul named Abel – determinedly continued his exercise of kicking the soccerball into the air and keeping it aloft, his shirt utterly sodden and clinging to his body.

The rain made it good to be shut in for the evening. Although the downpour lasted only forty minutes the angry heat of the earth was placated, giving way to a beautiful cool evening. I imagine in hot places the rain signals a kind of end – it says go home, there is nothing for you out here, and to make the point it will hammer at you and drive you undercover so you know better next time. There isn’t any sensible reason why anyone would be out while it pours, only bad timing or duress. The only place to be is the bubble that the rain forces on you, to wonder at the hidden outside world from a sheltered spot and marvel quietly at the microcosm that is you, yours and everything you know.

Random observations.

Funniest image so far – just outside the supermarket in Waigani (aka the ‘Stop’n’Shop on the highway), two grown men in security guard uniforms scurrying across the street as the traffic zoomed closer, giggling like school kids and holding hands as they ran. Yes, men hold hands here all the time. Sometimes it’s like a handshake, except there’s not too much shake and you don’t let go. You see friends reaching for each other’s hand’s instinctively in crowds, at PMV stops, on the busy streets of Boroko and Town. What you don’t see much at all is men and women holding hands. Cross-gender touching isn’t well regarded in public here.

Another great image – on one of dozens of posters and banners at big intersections, the portly but stern visage of the governor, Powes Parkop, frowning at bystanders and waggling his finger remonstratively. The posters and banners also bear the slogan ‘MASKI HALF SENSE NA LONG LONG – YU NO KEN SPETIM BUAI LONG ROT NA SPREDIM SIK TB’ (Don’t be half-sensed or crazy – you can’t spit betel nut along the road and spread tuberculosis). And of course the best of these banners and posters feature the unmistakable lurid red splash of buai expectorant all over the governor’s face. TB is a big deal here in PNG and the governor is at the forefront of what needs to be a huge campaign to reduce it. But the idea of getting people over here to quit their betel nut or be more responsible spitters is much like the the proverbial attempt at sweeping shit uphill with a feather duster (or whatever the anology is).

Yet another – the first day we were here, on being driven to the now-familiar but then-zany Gordons Foodworld (it’s actually still a zany place but for utterly different reasons), beholding a short caricature of a man with a fisherman’s cap and a wispy beard proffering a small wallaby to to exiting traffic. The man wore a huge encouraging grin, the wallaby looked anything but encouraged. When we drove out the man and the wallaby were gone. I feared the worst for the marsupial’s welfare.

Still another – at the Renbo markets in the fish section (ie right next to the road), a big awkward jelly-like blob amidst the colourful coral trout and red emperors. The stout woman tending the fish and swatting away flies with a leafy twig notices my interest and says, in the high-pitched lazy PNG meri style: “sqquuuiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiidd.” I guess you had to be there. At the same market, half a dozen or so whole fire-charred wallabies, little forepaws sticking in the air in a macabre pose, their teeth locked into horrible grins. Fine dining, settlement style – think of the last time you were starving and in desperate need of protein before you make any judgements.

Last one – images in the Post Courier, ie Murdoch’s very own PNG daily newspaper, of the PNG national rugby league team cavorting like school kids at Wet’n’Wild waterslide park on the Gold Coast. The national team, called the Kumuls, are in the paper every day nowadays thanks to the League world cup, and they are gods over here – if I was confronted with one close-up I would of course assert without hesitation their Herculean status. But the image of the big men reclining butt-to-butt on an inflatable tube, giddy ecitement writ large on their expressions, was simply beautiful.

Familiar foreigns.

Familiarity can be shocking. Sounds strange, and admittedly it’s not always true – familiarity is obviously often a relief, a comfort. The dependable idea is that familiarity is a rare thing, an oasis, a refuge in a mealstrom of the strange and new. But sometimes there’s an inversion that goes on when you see something from your homeplace ripped from its context. Something well-known but not necessarily loved, something at once everyday but undeserving of contemplation, thrust from its usual habitat and put on a wierd pedestal of dissonance. Dissonant to who? To me of course – to other people it’s just another thing, an artefact of the everyday, regardless of origin or cultural context. The thought that it’s essentially a foreign thing may not be significant – after all, this is a place where technically all trappings of modern life have been imported or imposed within the last century or so. Are objects foreign when just about everything IS foreign?

Clothing for instance. The bulk of clothes worn over here are second-hand, and most of them get shipped over from Australia. North Queensland Cowboys and other rugby league paraphernalia are common. Tacky souvenier garments, many depicting the Aussie flag, are also frequently spotted. One of the young guards at the compound wears a red Liquorland shirt – there’s a former employee’s name stitched on it, I think it says ‘Michael’, but the guard’s name is Paul. He seemed pleased when I explained Liquorland was a ‘stoa blong SP na wiski’. Another guard wears an Electrical Trades Union shirt. A motley of fashion observed at one PMV stop alone last week included a shirt commemorating the Ipswich City Council Nevil Bonner Golf Day, a schoolgirl’s bag asserting that Port Stephens Council was “Always One Step Ahead”, and a guy with a Belmore Hercules Soccer Club 1971 top. The other day in Tabari Place (ie Boroko Market or Boroko Square as I have been erroneously calling it) I spotted a wiry old woman squatting in the dirt at the market, her hair unkempt and her skin weathered by merely living, wearing a black t-shirt bearing a bold slogan in large print: MODELS SUCK. 

Seeing people who are familiar is just as wierd. By ‘people who are familiar’ I simply mean white people who I assume are Australian. Unless they have been introduced (and often even if they have) the question ‘what the hell is your story?’ always jumps to the foremost parts of your thoughts. White people stand out, even in expat havens like Gordons Foodworld and Ela Beach Markets, and the notion that they are intruders of some kind is prevalent in my assessments – despite my own newness here, and despite my own obvious imported self. The thought of seeing a white person in Australia registers no second thought or questioning, even though they all without exception have an ancestry of immigrants and invaders. Over here the sight of a whitey piques curiosity, immediate judgement, and often suspicion. Kit is often bemused and confounded by the sight of AusAid advisers and staff wearing perfectly ironed long-sleeve public servant shirts – how can they be so resolutely the same over here? Yet behaviours of expats is often not the same, despite appearances. The familiarity of whiteness jostles with the hilltop compound living, the ubiquitous cars for transport, the enclaves of shopping and entertainment and socialising that set the expats apart. People who in a sense belong to a similar place as you nonetheless lead lives that would never be entertained back home. Are you elite, or just shitscared?

Dust, marsupials, cassowaries, scrappy vegetation, tropical greens, gleaming waters. Sometimes the landscape around here makes me think that this is just a part of North Queensland gone wierd. It’s as if the very dirt here is the same. Maybe a geologist would affirm or deny that. The senses can be hoodwinked by the landscape around here, for it affirms the fact that the northernmost tip of home is so tantalisingly close, that the land masses were once joined an eon ago – the sense arises that something can’t be that different if it is that close. But there is water between us, there are passports to stamp, letters go in Air Mail envelopes. Even the ABC radio reminds you that you’re elsewhere while dangling morsels of familiarity before you – an hour of test cricket followed by Pacific current affairs broadcast nonetheless from Melbourne, or Radio National news preceded by locally broadcast news read in Tok Pisin (“Prime Minister bilong Australia i tok olsem i gat planti bigpela wari blong world financial crisis”). Yes, North Queensland all askew – then again, who is to say that North Queensland isn’t the place that warps the original intent? I have also felt like an alien there.