Archive for October, 2009

Sanap lo bridge!

I liked this joke when I first heard it at work, my boss told it to the rest of us and I was chuffed that I got it. The punchline involves some rudimentary knowledge of tok pisin – ‘sanap’ meaning to stand, ‘lo’ being ‘on’ and bridge meaning, well, bridge. Here’s the joke:

An American was cruising through the Ramu Valley in his 4WD, admiring the vast expanse of sugar cane and oil palm and dodging the potholes. Inevitably he came to one of the many one-lane bridges that provide the rickety-looking passage over the wide-banked rivers of the valley. To his surprise a ramshackle, sack-laden ute of uncertain age drove onto the other side of the bridge when he was about half way across. He figured he had the right of way and pressed on, but the other car kept coming. The two vehicles stopped inches apart, blocked by the other.

The American got out and made what he thought was a friendly overture and a reasonable request for the other driver to reverse off the bridge – after all, the American HAD been half way across when the other vehicle arrived on the scene. The other driver, a short weather-beaten old local man with a straggly beard and a wide red mouth, didn’t seem to understand. He replied in tok pisin – which of course the American, new to PNG, didn’t understand either. The exchange was persistent but pointless, and neither the American or the old man seemed willing to do the obvious and reverse their vehicles.

This continued for nearly ten minutes, with the only development of note being the old man’s move to retrieve his buai, dakka and lime pot from the colourful bilum hung around his neck. A car or two were now waiting at one end of the bridge and honking irately for the issue to be resolved. The American tried his best pleading tone, his best blustering tone, his best threat-of-bombardment tone, his best offer of compensation money tone. No result.

Eventually, inevitably, the American lost it and growled at the stubborn old man: “You sonnova bitch!”

To which the old man enthusiastically replied: “Yu tu yu sanap lo bridge!”

Ahem… well I guess you had to be there…


It was a bad night for sleep.

It’s good to get out of Port Moronsby to refresh your memory of the PNG outside of the gritty shitty mini-metropolis. Goroka is a great place for revitalising whatever one loves about PNG. Cool, green, whiskey-drinking weather rather than gin-soaked baking heat. Bananas grow alongside conifers and eucalypts, it is like some melange of Australian high country and European lower alps with a generous dose of the tropics. The sun still burns but the shade is cool and even cold – bring your hoodie. Also, pigs frolic in the park and snuffle around in the grass looking for worms. The last time I was here I got a photo of one specimen heaving its way though a mound of garbage (sadly Goroka does not escape this ubiquitous PNG landscape feature), but I didn’t take many as I was getting looks from people that seemed a tad displeased – like what the HELL are you doing taking pictures of OUR RUBBISH HEAP?

Anyway, Goroka. The big disadvantage I have with travelling is sleep. I usually take one or two nights to learn how to sleep properly in a new place. Last night’s efforts were not assisted by the two security men who kept their conversations going all night, and the other guest who somewhere had the TV going until well past 2 am. And of course there was a bloody dog, the kind who routinely starts up some outraged carry-on at the hint of anyone walking around during suspicious hours. Wuff wuff wuff, good dog – but did anyone tell this canine crusader that this in PNG and that there’s ALWAYS going to be people strolling around without purpose at any god forsaken hour? Save your noise for when there’s some serious mauling to be done, please, like when a raskol tries to steal the pig or something.

Sleep came eventually in dribbles, and you take what you can get because its still better than nothing. The intermittent disturbances kept me fitful and edgy, but there was nothing to be done about it outside of a ludicrous bosman hissy fit, which is never a good look at 3 am, especially as this is a good time to forget one sleeps with nothing on.

At one stage I had managed to coax a nice stint of sleep from the reluctant night, only to be shaken awake. Strangely there was nobody in the room to shake me. The room itself was shaking – short rapid one-two-one-twos, as if the building was sitting on a big sieve and some godly hand was trying to shake the smaller particles down – particles like me. A generator, I thought. Some useless goon is starting the biggest generator in the world under my room, the bastard. We had been witness to a blackout in town earlier, which had been amusing – the tinny music from the shops had stopped, the noise of power tools was abruptly stilled, the lights had just died. I figured the same had happened in the middle of the night and the generator was bucking and kicking into life. Pretty quiet for a generator though. Indeed the only noise was the room itself, rattling like a wooden box full of bones. It only went on for ten seconds or so and then it was over. Mercifully sleep came again, swiftly and without argument.

So that was how I lost my seismic virginity, and didn’t even know it at the time. First time for everything, and now thanks to PNG I have enjoyed my first volcanic belching and been wobbled through my first earthquake. I know there’s plenty of disastrous stories involving these strange events but I’m happy enough keeping mine in the dumb and harmless category. Not so hard core but hey, its GOOD to have a guest house to go back to this evening. Can’t imagine my sleep this evening would be too great curled up on top of a pile of splinters and rubble after all.

Shituation 2: livin’ next door to Engans…

I’m not sure what made me peer over the edge of our balcony from my reclining position. A general listlessness, the kind that makes you have a look around just in case something epiphanic (is that a word?) is waiting there to be captured in a one-in-a-million glance. Whatever the reason, I lifted my head and looked out and down.

Our neighbour was there, holding something fist-sized and partly golden up in my direction. It was the elder of the two women who lived downstairs, the one we label the ‘aunty’: thin, weathered and prone to corporal solutions to child-related issues. The thing she was holding up in my direction was a mango.

It is mango season again, and that fact is nothing but good. Yesterday I betrayed our fondness for the fruit when the kids downstairs observed me clamber up the tree to try and shake some down. I failed, only because their more nimble efforts had already dislodged the best and ripest of them. My persistence was banished by about two dozen ants which, although of the more benign type, were starting to use me less as a fleshy thoroughfare and more as a food source.

I got down and the kids helped me pick the ants from my legs and back. Then the eldest gave me a mango anyway. It seemed a bit too soft. Em mau tumas? I asked. He shook his head. Would you eat this? He nodded. In hindsight I wonder why I was so suspicious. It probably has a lot to do with the way I imagine the people downstairs see us – goofy, clueless, insular outsiders with peculiar ways and a fondness for loud music and the other strange expensive habits of white people. I thought the kid was playing a trick, giving me the squishy mango that was too pummelled to be worthy of eating. I was wrong. He gave me another one. Instead if the usual reserved, dour expression his face bore a nervous smile. For the first time I noticed how his eyes were so like his younger brothers’ – deep and brown, full of consideration, cute as hell for a kid too. The mango was stringy and I got a lot in my teeth. Otherwise, perfect.

Regardless of their real opinions of us, we are obviously the topic of at least some of their discussions – I assume so as the aunty was obviously acting on the news that tupela an tap em laik mango or however they say it in their own language. The people downstairs are Engans, which to be frank is a term I have not got into the habit of using in a complimentary sense. Bloody Engans, I say when the rolling murmur of their speech gets overly boisterous and loud at awkward hours. Bloody Engans I say when the water isn’t running in our kitchen but the hose is running downstairs. Bastard Engan Devil Child I say when the second-eldest son, a four year old spawn of Lucifer’s indiscretions in PNG, erupts into yet another violent bout of demonic glossolalia (otherwise known as a tantrum, the ace card held by all genuine little shits worldwide). Get behind me, Satan! I hiss under my breath when I walk past.

So the mangos were a surprise, not so much because I doubted any capacity for generosity in our neighbours – they’re different but they’re still undoubtedly human, a family of human beings – but because of the interaction. Usually when we go by there is silence, a pleasant wave and a smile but not much else. The kids fall silent and avert their gazes if they are older, or stare wide eyes and incredulous if they are younger. It is strange to have almost nothing to do with people whose lives and ours overlap so often but the evidence of whose presence is constant.

So aunty held the mango up and I was keen to accept. She made motions of lifting and offering but I stood and said to throw it up. She looked a bit incredulous but I gestured at her to give it a try. AAAiiiyyooOOO!! she exclaimed and tossed it up. Defying my own awkwardness at such things I caught it.

Other neighbourly moments have not been so great, the most notable being when, on the eve of a young relative’s flight back to Wabag, the men had a bit of a party. It started inncuously, and the infrequent starts as we were woken were forgivable. But at three in the morning the revellers decided their taste for music could not be suppressed any longger, and the stereo was cranked loudly and started belting out the greatest hits of… Toto. Yes, Toto. This was accompanied by some bottle smashing and some general drunken sentiment expressed loudly at the neighbourhood at large – Ay! AY! AAIIIIieeeEEEIIEE! Huuuyaaa! Uuuyya. IIiiiiiEEEE! YyyiiiaaaAA! AY AY AY! Then some more Toto. My first attempt to alert them to our displeasure was probably not even heard, the second, although more concilaitory in tone, was ignored. The last I witnessed of the party before giving up was one of the young men, beer in one hand and a packet of uncooked Maggi noodles in the other, sloshing his way awkwardly down the driveway.

The family setup is what I would call ‘extended’. Quite extended. There’s mum and dad, although dad works for a civil engineering company and if often out in the provinces building roads. The aunty’s role is to help with the kids, especially the newborn – there was a different aunty when we first arrived to the one living downstairs now. There’s one or two younger guys at any given time, one who has a job with the same civil engineering company, the other with no discernible pastimes or gainful employment. There’s an intermittent parade of other family members related by all sorts of tenuous but nonetheless meaningful connections, who come and go for an unpredictable variety of purposes. And of course there are the kids.

The eldest, Devadanura, the mango-giver, has a complicated name derived from his grandfather’s experience at university in Canberra – DEVelopment ADministration at the ANU in CanberRA – DEVADANURA. Everyone calls him Dink. The next, younger by about six years, is the Devil Child, who has never forgiven me for the time I yelled at him to shut up in the midst of one of his Oscar-winning performances. I have no regrets, as I know the entire compound and probably his own family were pleased with the sudden, if sulky, silence that followed. His dark gaze that he levels at me all the time is no reason to deter me from doing it again either – there is no need for a remake of The Exorcist and hence no need to endure his crazed squawkings any more.

The youngest is simply the Lump, as he does little besides act flabby and infantile – hardly surprising, given he’s less than six months old. And finally, between Lumpy and the Devil, is He Who Can Do No Wrong, the most perfect flabby-bottomed brown eyed stocky Highlander child in existence. He is known for waddling awkwardly, hitting things (rubbish bins, poles, his uncle) with other things (broom, leafy branch, bush knife), and breaking into impromptu warbling or very Highlander-style exclamations such as AAAAYYYYY OdiOdiOdiOdiOdiOdi! He is the kind of kid who makes you wish you could remember what the hell was ging through your own head when you were three years old, when shaking a small tree or tossing a rock clumsily skyward was enough to keep you going throughout the day. HWCDNW is clearly everyone’s favourite and will probably remain so until the Lump learns how to use his legs.

As for placing this post under the “shituation” banner, it’s probably unfair. I guess objectively speaking there’s nothing more or less shitty about our neighbours than the white trash of Marrickville, who were equally as noisy and who also had small aggravating dogs as well. Nonetheless, the Toto-fuelled party was very shit (and was until the mango incident the impetus for writing this in the first place), and the Devil Child’s antics are often intolerable. But for the few parties we have the mangoes to make up for it, and for the Devil Child we have Dink the mango-boy and He Who Can Do No Wrong… Maybe I’m just a misanthrope with a sentimental streak that cannot be helped.

Afternote, the next morning – loud and ongoing sound of hammering at ten to six. Bloooooody Engaaaaaans.

Twenty point seven

Here’s a statistic – 20.7.

It’s a percentage, from the UN. It represents the probability of Papua New Guineans not surviving until the age of forty. For me, that’s just over eleven years off, and frankly if I was going to be told I had a one in five chance of not making it through the next eleven years I’d feel a bit bummed.

Two of these one-in-fivers have just ducked out to kaikai buai na stori liklik during lunch hour. One looks cross at having endured yet another morning of intensive introductory job training from a rambling white man. One has just shared a moment of satisfaction with me that a project budget is not going bananas on him. Another is chortling at something dumb on the internet. Another says luluai! in reaction to the demands of an insurance form. One walks past with a box of Big Rooster swaying in a bag hung from her slim brown wrist. Two are having a minor squabble over what instructions were given regarding a plane fare (Mi bin salim email lo yu! Nogat mi no kisim na yu bin tok nating!). Another is off to deliver some things to Ela Beach and the office of the Chairman in the fancy tower on top of the hill. One came to work with a stain on his shirt. Another was the butt of everyone’s jokes as unfortunately her hammock had collapsed under her the night before. One was woken up early in the morning when his infant son pinched him savagely on the bum. One has a job application they are trying to keep hidden from the boss, while another may be having regrets ever setting foot in this place.

Granted these are people with relatively higher incomes than their countryfolk, with typically cleaner and safer living conditions, and more robust diets. Still…

20.7 percent.