Archive for September, 2009

Shituation 3 – car i bagarup

There’s nothing much you can say in favour of having a car break down on you twice in one week. Conversely you can confidently say it’s a bit shithouse. It’s satisfying, however, to be able to say that having a car break down on you twice in one week in Port Moresby was no more or less shithouse than were it to have happened in Sydney. Or at least to say our car broke down on us twice in a week in Port Moresby, and guess what? We lived.

Now, a qualification – said breakdowns did not happen at night. They did not happen in the midst of a settlement teeming with raskols (probably because we tend to avoid those places, like most folks who have both the sense and the luxury of doing so – and of course there’s plenty around without much of the latter, never mind the former). The breakdowns have, I might add, been resolved to 95 percent satisfaction – once we could be bothered hauling the vehicle to our mechanically-minded man in Six Mile with the heavy equipment hire business and the defunct WW2 browning machinegun in his living room, I’ll be 100 percent satisfied.

Initially we suspected the incompetence of the petrol station attendant (a small but significant boon of Moresby life is that people fill your vehicle for you!). As our humble brown auto choked and shuddered it’s way towards home we reasoned that maybe the guy had put diesel instead of petrol in the fragile engine. We’d already recruited three strangers (one actually turned out to be our neighbour!) to help push-start it at the servo, and the effort was more painful than usual. Splutter, cough, gasp, and ppppffftttpppffff… we rolled to a halt at the lights closest to home, conveniently blocking the turning lane.

I got out and again ‘recruited’ some more help. One need not be proactive when seeking help in pushing a vehicle out of harm’s way in Moresby. You need only make vague pushing motions at the rear of a vehicle and maybe summon a few glistening droplets to adorn one’s brown and abracadabra! Three or four helpful types will materialise and get your car out of the way. If you’re lucky the same ‘new’ neighbour will appear again (as he of course did, a few kilometres from where we’d first met him), helpful and red mouthed and wild-eyed with a pot belly full of boisterousness. ‘We are used to this!’ he exclaimed, meaning his countryfolk’s frequent vehicle-pushing. ‘This is real PNG driving’. When I mentioned the diesel in the petrol tank theory he offered the services of his son to take a whiff and figure out what was in our car’s gizzards. When I said that was a bit too dangerous he told me not to worry. ‘We’re not like the Abos!’ he assured me, jokingly. I was too stupefied to respond.

A small crowd of mechanical know-it-a-bits gathered and peered at the unfathomable engine region of the car, but meanwhile we had called the helpful chap we shall call, for the purposes of this narrative, Mr Tech. Mr Tech is our property manager and his job description apparently extends to ‘helping clueless dimdims when their car’s stuffed’, among other useful activities. It was Sunday but Tech was around, so I took a short walk up to his office (an air conditioned shipping container) to borrow some jumper leads. Of course there was no question that the exercise in getting the jumper leads was simply another chance to remind him that I had no idea what to do with such things, so he said he’d be down – after some paperwork. He was rolling a cigarette as he told me this but I dare not presume what kind of paperwork would keep a man busy on a Sunday.

Tech came of course, but the jumper leads did little to reinvigorate our vehicle. In my ignorance I entertained the notion that flogging the car with them to encourage onward movement may help but I did not voice this, as even I know a car is not the same as a horse. Mr Tech retreated with the useless jumper leads. We lingered in the sun and the dust congealed between my toes. Kit got a sunburnt right arm from hanging out of the driver’s seat window. After a while the sunlight makes everything go a bit bleached-looking, a slow surreal scalding of the retinae that comes from long exposure to the garish light. The bare hills, the ubiquitous red dust, the palls of smoke, the people trudging and wilting under the bare sky. I went and bought two cans of Solo and came back just as Tech arrived again with a tow rope. As we attached it his wife sat dutifully in the front seat of their ramshackle Land Cruiser and assured us warmly that it was not a bother to help, even on a Sunday. Actual charitable Christians! I thought.

That was the first breakdown. We got the car back within a day or two after Tech’s offsider had examined it, and were told the issue was simply a flat battery, and maybe the oil (which of course had been disgracefully low). All seemed well and I was collected from work in Town a couple of afternoons later. It may have been the proximity of the same service station where the trouble had started that prompted the shudders and jolts, but again we were sitting in a car with a near-fatal case of the hiccups. Traffic was slow and inevitably we stalled. As I got out to push I could only give a helpless shrug to the driver of the ramshackle taxi now stuck behind us, who if it were not for the surprise of seeing a dimdim get out to push could have been thinking ‘there but for the grace of God…’ Or, just maybe, he was thinking we were deadshits who should be in a better car – as we were thinking.

This of course was a conspicuous situation. Two whiteys stuck by the side of a busy road, close to a kai bar and a bus stop, leaning nonchalantly on the car as if it were just the kind of thing we’d normally do in our spare time. Plenty of greetings and smiles and waves and entertained locals eyed us up as they went past. We had decided to try and get help from different quarters seeing as Mr Tech had helped us so readily the previous Sunday, but none of our calls got through. As we were contemplating the dilemma of calling on the same guy for a favour, the situation resolved itself for us – for who else what creaking his way up the bumper-to-bumper traffic than Tech himself. He spotted us, clearly puzzled, and again I shrugged. He promised to return soon with tow ropes – just first he’d have to get home and throw the two tuna fish in the back of his vehicle in the fridge. I saw these fish, they were massive, and it would have been a damn shame to leave them in the heat too long. So we waited.

Now when waiting idly by the roadside one gets less relaxed as the light dwindles. This is a fair fact. The traffic dissipated, the crowds thin and vanish. I watched as the old women packed up their cheap sunglasses and buai after a long day squatting in the dirt under the beating sun. Somewhere some people at home were probably bracing themselves for the Channel 9 news theme that preceded the EMTV news. Meanwhile I briefly got to know one of the guys who had helped us push the car, a shifty looking bloke with a ludicrously colourful shirt named Charleston. ‘I’m always around here’, he informed me, indicating the grubby steps and benches in front of the kai bar, before expectorating a mouthful of red gob proficiently into the gutter. It settled with the bountiful refuse and kindred buai stains that filled the overbrimming storm drain.

The lack of light eventually became disconcerting, but not for long – Mr Tech’s Land Cruiser was spotted rumbling in our direction, his great grey afro luminous in the cabin of the vehicle. He had brought his son, who was promptly put to work. As he bent over his son and informed him of his uselessness in the arts of the tow-rope I could not help notice Tech’s gnarled, talon-like toenails, and the wafer-thin surface of his thongs that separated his feet from the bitumen – they were so clearly part of his person that they almost looked like they would have to be peeled off his feet later after a long soak.

One final mishap awaited us, but not an unexpected one. The rope came undone as we were hauled up the wide expanse of road approaching our place, past the leering face of the Happy Gardener on the billboard out the front of his nursery, but before the Country Club and the dilapidated playing field. It was fully dark by now and cars, though fewer, were careening past at reckless speeds. Our own lights were utterly functionless and so we were were praying oncoming traffic in our lane saw us with enough time to not smash us to smithereens as we retied the rope – or as Tech’s son tied it, before his dad finally intervened to do it the grown up’s way. As they tied and untied and objected to each others’ interference I noted grimly the portions of the roadside railings that had been wiped out by speed-crazed suicide drivers in recent times. It isn’t an exagguration to say that new evidence of high-speed carnage can be seen on this road every week. We would have looked like sitting ducks in the oncoming headlights – assuming we were spotted.

A few dithering minutes later and we were moving again, all of us in one piece, as was our car. The same could not be said for Tech’s Cruiser, although this was no fault of some wild driver on Waigani Drive. Earlier I had noticed the steering column held together by layers of electrical tape, and the missing window-winder handle that had been replaced by a pair of multi-grip pliers. I commented to Tech’s son that multi-grips were probably put to better use than as makeshift window winders but he just said they always knew where to find them. Fair enough. The engine obviously worked OK though, and that was clearly the most necessary bit (along with the rope). Neither failed us for the rest of the short voyage back to Tech’s compound.

The epilogue goes something like this – the car is now fixed, although like I said I’d like our man in Six Mile to give it a once over. Some clever device called an alternator needed replacing, and the process of getting Tech’s right hand man to fix it involved two weekends of waiting – being fiscally challenged the mechanic couldn’t just buy the parts and get us to reimburse him, we had to fork out up front for everything. In addition the process of figuring out what ws actually broken seemed a bit trial and error, as in ‘stretim displa, see if it works, nogat, traim displa samting, whoops em bagarap yet, wokim nupela alternator then…’. But when you can’t fix it yourself one learns to accept these things, hop on the buses in the meantime, and wonder why on earth people don’t just ride bikes.

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