Archive for May, 2009

The concept of ordering.

One of Moresby’s unexpected blessings is the food. If you’re of the income-bracket where eating out is affordable then you won’t be too unhappy – provided you like Chinese, which is the dominant cuisine. There’s a Japanese restaurant or two of pretty high standard – the sashimi is always fresh and the teppanyaki is cooked with all the necessary flourishes. There’s an above-par Korean joint and two Indian places, one of which is exceptional despite the strange setting. And of course there’s the pizza-pasta restaurant, the star attraction being the ever-present guy on the electronic keyboard. He plays Abba and The Beatles and apparently sings on request although I confess I lack the courage to ask.

The caveat of course is the service. It’s not bad or inattentive. Often it’s too attentive as we discovered at the Ela Beach Hotel last night, where the waiter even bequeathed a quick mately rub of my upper arms after sensing my growing disapproval at being asked for the fourth time in three minutes if we needed another drink.

On the other hand there is the pervading and seemingly inescapable confusion that afflicts waiters and waitresses here. This is not an across-the-board thing, and many service staff up here are utter professionals. But as Alan said while he was up here, some waiters and waitresses seem quite unfamiliar with concepts such as “ordering”. Often with a beer in hand and a light heart the experience can be comical and almost beautiful in its innocence – as patronising as it sounds it can be nice to witness the workings of people who are so utterly unfamiliar with the demands and expectations of what white people expect as a rigorous, unexceptional standards. However if the mood is wrong (on my part that is) the inexplicable and endearing becomes unbearable. Take the following exchange, made between us and the staff members at the sandwich and coffee bar at the back of the supermarket:

Hello. We’d like two BLT’s please.

OK… two bacon, lettuce, egg tomato sandwiches.

Oh. No egg. Bacon, lettuce, tomato.

No… egg… (you can see the tiny sparks flitting in her eyes as something short circuits inside).

That’s right, no egg.

OK… bacon, egg, lett…

No egg please. BLT. Bacon. Lettuce. Tomato. No egg please. (There is an audible snap, my own mind this time).

OK. Bacon, lettuce, tomato sandwich.

YES!

Victory was short lived. The price on the menu, you see, must exist as indication only – a bit like the ‘serving suggestions’ on cereal boxes. This MAY be what it will be under IDEAL circumstances but chances are the real thing will be different and somewhat less pleasing. This was also the stage when I had to confine my interventions to one brief and muted outburst and let Kit do the talking – a talking that involved complete surrender to senselessness. I’ve heard that consumer protection laws are weak or non-existent here, so the notion of a listed price probably wouldn’t stack up in a court anyway. And, of course, the sandwiches came with egg in the end. It was a confusing meal, but not upsetting once inside.

At times the befuddlement causes panic. Once I ordered a dish with the typical bistro options – veggies and mash potato, or chips and salad. I opted for the the former option, only to be asked if I wanted rice. A giddy panic swept over me. Rice? RICE? It says veggies and mash or chips and salad. Where does the rice come into it? No thank you, no rice, just to be safe. But the fear had me in its cold clutches by then. I cancelled the order and got fettucini carbonara instead. Sometimes I just can’t risk it for curiosity’s sake. You learn to live like that up here, forever pestered by the fear of bent cops, murderous raskols, and glitch-riddled restaurant meals.

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The GeeGee, the Gee and me.

I shook hands with the Governor General and instantly began thinking of corny ‘I’ll never wash my hands again’ jokes. He had approached me on his final round of greetings as the various guests scoffed themselves on celebratory cake. “I haven’t said hello to you yet” he said. We pressed palms, and he was gone: back behind the curtain that had been parted with great ceremony and reverence about half an hour before to reveal the kindly-looking old critter who happened to be 2IC to the Queen herself.

The event of his arrival is worth recounting. All had been assembled, empty seats had been occupied at the direction of the people who are paid to make sure the GeeGee doesn’t have to look at empty seats, the media entourage were ready, everyone had shut their chattering holes and there was bugger all else I could do about anything. “Ladies and Gentlemen, please be upstanding”: and to my amusement we all upstood. An invisible hand parted a curtain and lo! He was there. The wizard! The wise leprechaun of the Pacific! The little man (or should that be big little man?)! The GeeGee of PeeEnGee!

A couple of speeches and a cake-cutting photo-op later and I was admiring the scene: the residence PNG’s vice-regent overlooking the hubbub of PNG’s harbour from the vantage of a broad old colonial verandah, a tacky outdoor-friendly red carpet running up the wide stairs (I suspect the same stuff that old fake pool grass was made of), solemn dignitaries and chairmen and VIP’s and a scrawny old dog snooping around for crumbs. We saw the dog later as we drove off near the guardhouse at the gate. ‘The GeeGee’s dog!’ people joked. We drove off pleased with the way things had gone, and to celebrate my colleagues held up some traffic as they stopped to buy some buai through the window of the van.

One week later it so happened that I was seated between A Chairman and a Gee, not the GeeGee – just a Gee. By virtue as being the helper-boy for said Chairman (and probably by virtue of being a little, um, white) my presence at the VIP table was not questioned. I ate the Chinese food, trying desperately not to be flatulent or to drop oily pork over my shirt. Some barely-clad Motuan dancers screeched and beat their kundus as they swayed in a circle around our table. Their cultural display made the luncheon more challenging than it needed to be – their proximity, although intended to be an honour, was unnerving, and their singing was shrill and harpy-like.

The Gee had not warmed to me initially but I dropped a guy’s name and it brought a smile to his face. The Gee had a jolly smile, and he reminded me of Santa – that is if Santa ever took to the habit if remonstrating citizens for their filthy habits via posters depicting his finger-wagging visage on major intersections thoughout the city. I had to admit I didn’t know the guy whose name was dropped, but the missus did. Near enough. The Gee was happy to receive an invitation to our event, and my work was done.