Archive for November, 2010

Halle-freaking-loo-yah!

The kid came into the supermarket as I did. She wore a burgundy uniform and her hair was cut short , she also had big eyes that lolled back too far when she looked up at me. She walked with exaggerated stride and a dramatic swinging of her arms.

I found myself in the aisle where certain cereals were kept. I was looking for rolled oats, but they only had the usual selection of sugar-coated stuff. I was about to leave when the kid came up the aisle. She offered her hand to shake, and we swapped names. As she spoke I saw almost all of her teeth were rotted down nearly to the gums. Each was a hideous decayed hunk. I was revolted.

It was hard to hear what she was saying, so I asked her to speak again. When I go to my house, I will pray for you she said. I felt disconcerted, but also touched. You are a good kid I said, hoping that would be the end of things. I believe in the Lord Jesus and I believe he made me the way I am. She spoke with innocent conviction, the kind that would be frightening if expressed by an adult but was perfectly normal for a kid. I said that was nice and that it was nice to meet her, then I walked off. I could not banish the image of the wrecked carnage of her teeth. The persistent image made me queasy until I got outside.

*

I came to the office and shook hands with the security guard like I always did. He was a large, bellicose man with a habit of yelling and following people around when they don’t want to be followed, making small talk and unfunny jokes. He usually wore loud tropical shirts and a hat that said I LOVE JESUS on it. During the day he would often come inside to find the owners of particular cars that needed to be moved out of the way. His voice would reverberate up the stairwell into the office, booming and incongruous and unwelcome.

This particular morning (a Monday) he was telling me about his weekend. He had gone to Church on Sunday, and worked Saturday. Every week, he said, he worked Monday to Saturday (although from his frequent absences one could surmise his definition of attending to duty was somewhat looser than usual). On Sunday he always went to church. I was pushing at the door, about the get inside to avoid the inevitable question – but not fast enough.

“Do you go to church?” he asked expectantly. I have fended off these questions before. The usual trick is to say one’s church – say, the Evangelical Apostle’s Church of the Redeeming Son of the Spirit of the Revelation of Man in the Promise of the Holy Scripture and Word of the Good Saviour – can only be found in Australia, and that our strict preference is to not risk deviating from the teachings of this church by attending another. But I was not in the mood this morning.

“No. I don’t” I replied bluntly, edging open the door. I felt the thick meaty hand against my arm.

“But – you must. You must.”

“No, I must not.”

“Can I tell you something?”

“I have the feeling I would prefer not.”

“It is important. Can I say it to you?”

Sigh. “Alright.”

“He gave you your wisdom, your mind and your health, he…”

“OK, stop, I knew I did not want to hear this.”

“He died for you, to save you.”

“I am sorry, but that is only what you believe. I believe people can only save themselves. I don’t believe anyone but humanity can do anything to help us. I am walking away now.” Which I did.

We did not speak much after that, except he did offer a “God bless you” when we said goodbye a few weeks later. But I cursed his very silhouette, and fumed at the sound of his voice whenever it roared in the stairwell. I became twisted with contempt.

Not long afterwards I discovered that the same man had fought with his colleagues over who deserved the best slices of meat – at a staff Christmas function.

*

We were more or less expected to attend, because our neighbour was involved and his excitement and eagerness for us to be there was palpable. So we went. The church was just at the end of the road anyway, so not far to drive. How long could a church play go for? Even with a hefty dollop of moralising, surely no more than an hour, or ninety minutes at the most.

For starters, this is PNG, and when something is supposed to start at 7pm it means it won’t start until 8. We sat threw a few singing groups and youth bands, presided over by a chubby young Australian minister. I went outside in the break to see if any more popcorn was for sale. There wasn’t. The drama started almost an hour and a half late.

The play was long and indeed pointed in its message. Young men dedicated to crime threw off their evil-looking wrap-around sunglasses and proclaimed they had seen a new truth. Families on the verge of collapse came together over prayer and renewal of faith. And a young man, killed in a car accident with his friends, realises too late that while his friends (bathed in sweet white light) have made the right choice in life, he had failed to do so. He suffered – for a good thirty minutes, live on stage – in the raging hellfires. The dark interior of the large church was wracked with the wails and squeals of his infernal punishment. Huge flames were projected onto the backdrop, and red lights circled the stage. Perhaps some felt fear and awe at this spectacle, but I felt outrage and something bordering on hate. The acted-out ordeal playing out before me was a real one for me. I squirmed as the brutal message of fear and retribution bludgeoned the people assembled.

Excluding the half-time intermission between the two acts, the drama went for more than two hours, followed by a fifteen minute sermon by another local pastor. Apparently our neighbour sought us out after the show to see if we had enjoyed the performance, but I had rushed to the car as soon as the moment permitted when the sermon was done. I was glad I had not seen him. He is a good man, a decent neighbour and a friend. But I could not have looked him in the eyes that night for fear of the disgust in my own.

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Odd things happen at supermarkets too.

Every weekend the ritual is much the same: drive (partially or fully) hung over through the aggravated heat to the bizarre oasis called Boroko Foodworld at Gordons, buy a newspaper and an orchy, read as much of Messrs. Kelly, Shanahan, Pearson and Adams before getting more woozy, and try not to think about mushrooms. Mushrooms are uncommon – in Kokopo we saw a strange but tasty type of local fungus that is apparently harvested from trees, otherwise they come cheaply in cans (not good) or in brown paper bags from the imported food aisle at Foodworld at a ridiculous cost. So we make do with baked beans, just as we make do with The Weekend Australian in the absence of much else. Yes, life is extraordinarily hard.

Being the haven of expatriates city-wide (more so on Saturday with its influx of Weekend newspapers from the south), Foodworld is a strange simulacrum of a place – a real simulation of a real supermarket from more indulgent, opulent places, shelves gleaming with imported items like olives and quality brooms and twenty types of bloody tinned corn. Meanwhile most people outside earn in a week what we pay for a bottle of olive oil, and the cost of the special newspapers we need to survive would be an outlandish sum for most. Yet like many of Port Moresby’s simulacrums it has an atmosphere redolent of the past forgotten by most, when socks were always pulled up high and a white ham and cheese sandwich with a milkshake was the best you could expect for lunch and cars did not clog the streets let alone the entrance to the supermarket (and as for the colour of the people who drive them, well…).

Inside is cool and different to the dusty hardship of the world outside, even though the regular absentees on the shelves (no Vita Weets? Check in six weeks) allow the psychological distance between here and outside to leak though the gaps on shelves – before the gaps are in turn plugged up by the latest in stupid and unnecessary canned American surplus items… what the hell is hominy, anyone?!?)

When you drive in you traverse a gauntlet of local people selling stuff. For the sellers it’s a case of going where the money is. Tables fashioned as crocodiles and statues of men with masks and spears. If you are seen giving a passing glance to something the seller will start his pitch – boss, fifty kina – and you have to retreat behind a layer of indifference and wait for the traffic to inch onward. A regular group set up under the shade of the tree to sell flowers and plants, and often men from Central Province have crabs for sale, their claws bound and squirming uncomfortably on a sheet of cardboard, every so often being squirted with water to prevent them being cooked alive under the sun. When you drive past they proclaim their wares, except their accent warps the word so they sustain a funny chant of “crebs crebs crebs crebs” as you ease past. I would buy some, but I honestly have no idea what to do with a live crab. One day I saw men selling gigantic lobsters and on one of our first days here over two years ago a grinning man was offering a baby wallaby to passers-by (again in both cases I would no idea what to do with these creatures). The other day a man was selling a baby crocodile. “Nice crocodile” he said as we drove past. “I can see it’s a nice crocodile” I snapped as we went past, “and you shouldn’t be selling that shit.” I was scolded for my outburst and was told it was indeed time for me to get outta Moresby.

Once a man saw we were admiring an item of his – I can’t even recall what it was, which makes the episode even more tragic, was it a table or an ebony bowl or a carved mask? – and tried the usual pitch. It was a big thing, whatever it was, and I think he wanted about five hundred kina. The usual “no thanks” and air of disinterest was met with an offer for about fifty kina discount. We continued driving – but as we were getting out the car the man was there, offering us another fifty kina off. Again the attempt at politely declining before heading inside. The newspaper, the orchy, the muttering at Christopher Pearson, the shopping, and about an hour later we return to the car with a full trolley – to find the man waiting for us again, this time armed with an offer of three hundred kina. Uncomfortable at having to decline again and again, we loaded the car. Two hundred and fifty as we shut the boot. By then we had given up saying no thanks, we don’t really need it. Missus, two hundred as the doors shut. One hundred and fifty as the engine started. Then the last attempt as we drove off – Boss, fifty kina! One tenth of the original price. Our car was moving as he made this final offer, and he was trotting along beside the car, leaning down to address me.

As we drove home I felt perturbed, guilty – and annoyed at feeling guilty. I wondered at the man’s desperation to sell, thinking of what kind of circumstances he faced, how much trouble he was in, or who he had stolen it off (a cruel thought but not an impossible scenario). But there’s always that odd and slightly shamed feeling when faced by the desperate – I merely gave the object a passing glance, I did not say I wanted it or ask how much it was, I did not want to be followed and would rather be left alone, it would be easier for me if you were not here right now, if you and your desperation just went away. Wonderful, wealthy white guilt. At least if you don’t give a fuck you’re not a hypocrite.

Get some mango!

The kid downstairs warbled his little song as he went over to the tree and assessed his best chances of success: Get some mangooo. Get some mangooo. Then, grasping a long stick, he started bashing some of the low-hanging clusters. He was a small kid and the stick was cumbersome and long, so the work was hard (for him) but comical (for an observer, like me). Eventually his efforts were rewarded. Two or three of the plump green fruits plopped to the ground heavily.

That was just over a year ago. The kid’s family have gone back to Wapenamanda and have been replaced by another from Ialibu (say it quickly: Yal-ee-boo). The mango tree is still there, next to the back fence, and is in fruit again. There are two literal mango seasons in Moresby, while a third is deployed by conversationalists to describe a different kind of seasonal occurrence. The first season happens around September or October, but it is just a tease, a week or two of mangoes found at the market but that’s it. The trees save their best until the second season, which we are in the midst of now, where for many weeks leading up to Christmas the fruit is plentiful. The streets are littered by half-ripe, partially-eaten mangoes. Many streets have mango trees by the roadside, belonging to nobody in particular, the fruit waiting for a hungry passer-by. They are often plucked when only partially ripe and eaten that way, firm and tart, or carried home to slowly sweeten and soften. Being a wild strain quite different to the Woolworths or Coles varieties, they are usually green even when ripe, and a bit stringy. A favourite sight is of little kids, barely stable on their own feet, grasping a mango half the size of their own head and shoving the half-peeled fruit messily into their mouths, sucking away as best as they can with their toothless gobs, bare chins and chests slippery with sticky juice and bits of yellow flesh.

The third mango season coincides with the second, and describes the heightened state of “fruitiness” that pervades Port Moresby leading up to Christmas. More money floating around (for air fares home, gifts, Christmas indulgences) means a rise in robberies, car-jackings, and hold-ups. I am told that the more nefarious inhabitants of Six Mile stick nails in mangoes and leave them on the road out to Loloata, to rupture tyres and force vehicles to stop in the settlement, easy prey. The whole town gets a bit more feral and febrile than usual. Mid-December is a good time to get out.

The local mangoes tend to be smaller, and are cheaply bought at markets. There is another strain, far more expensive, but worth the extra kina. These are the long, fat, almost-bean-like mangoes that people call “Rabaul Mangoes” (I don’t think they grow exclusively in East New Britain, perhaps they did originally). While about five times more expensive they render mountains of extra flesh. They are sweet and smooth in the mouth. They are perfect.

You may question why, with a mango tree only a few metres from our door, we bother with mangoes from the market. For one, they are not Rabaul Mangoes. Second, the families downstairs (the current Southern Highlanders and the previous Engans) tend to monopolise the harvest, along with the other kids in the compound. We have become accustomed to seeing barely-chewed mangoes strewn about the place, denied their chance to ripen (and our chance to eat them) by kids using them as balls or missiles in their raucous late afternoon games. When their mothers put them to work they get hold of sticks and bash at the lower-hanging fruit, while the bigger kids clamber up the trunk and shake branches, instigating small heavy showers. The little kids look up at the branches expectantly, trying to pick the fruit that will weaken and fall first, then dart without fear of the plummetting objects to claim them with yells of triumph and excitement.

At times we grumble at the lack of sharing, but the fact is that if we don’t go and claim them the mangoes won’t climb the stairs to us. The Engan kids, however, did work out we liked them and sometimes spared us a few from time to time. They worked out our taste for mangoes because one day I decided to climb the tree and get some of my own. The cleft in the trunk is low and it was easy to scramble up. Once up, I started peering through branches to spot the ripest fruits to clamber up for. My studies of the branches distracted me from what was around my feet – that is, a few dozen big red ants. Bracing myself with one hand I lifted a leg to brush them off, only to have another dozen or so ants crawl over my hand and up my arms. I realised I had ants inside my shirt and in my hair. And they were biting. Although these big red ants are not as aggressive as their smaller cousins, they nonetheless had no love for me invading their tree. I tried steeling myself and making a swift climb to grab a fruit or two, but every foothold and branch had more ants waiting to jump on board. Defeated, I climbed down. The three Engan kids were waiting at the bottom of the tree, the two youngest silent with their massive brown eyes, puzzled at this rare sight. The eldest brushed the ants off my arms, legs and back, then helped me pick the ants from my beard, hair and eyebrows, with the youngsters observing from a small distance, quiet and transfixed. Afterwards it just seemed a lot less bother for everyone for them to bring me a mango every now and then.

Rubbish trees

The rubbish trees usually start blossoming twice a week: on Monday and Thursday evenings. This is when the five or so wheelie bins get dragged down to the road to wait for the antiquated Japanese garbage truck to clatter along the road and empty their contents. While waiting – in theory until the next morning, in reality until the next afternoon, or the afternoon after that – the scraps, shards and discards of our compound’s lives and diets rots away under the sun. Rubbish bags split and erupt squirming things that infest the insides of the bins and writhe their way to peer at the outside world, wriggling through the lids held ajar by bloated rubbish bags that threaten to flop out like a lump of blubber onto the road at the merest bump or jolt.

Meanwhile, as the bins wait for the rubbish truck and its dishevelled crew, the trees start flowering garbage. People don’t walk down to the bins on the roads below. Instead their small bags of refuse – the kind of little partly-clear white bags that supermarkets up here are absolutely intent on dispersing into the world in huge numbers – sprout like polyps in the branches of the trees lining the driveway. They pile up where branches meet. Stacked upon each other, like swiftly reproducing blobs, cells that split and grow until excised. When the trees are full the bushes start blossoming, the garbage bags resting on the thicker bits of foliage.

They get put in the trees to keep them out of reach of the dog. The dog isn’t owned by anyone in the compound, but it sneaks in when the guard at the gate naps (which happens often). The dog avoids the open and prefers to linger out of sight behind cars and bushes, or dart about in the shadow of the fence or the buildings. I see the dog and have come to accept it not as a resident but as a permanent visitor. I catch it at times at the top of our stairs when we have left rubbish there to be carried down later. “You bloody dog” I say, and the dog darts away – like a kid caught stealing chocolate biscuits who looks outwardly remorseful but is already plotting the next attempt as he is shooed away. “You bloody dog” I say as I get out of the car in the early evening and spot it slinking about behind some scrappy shrubbery. “Get outta here, bloody dog” as I lean on the balcony rail and spot it darting across an open patch of driveway. It never gets outta here and indeed it will be here longer than I will.

The dog is of course lean and hungry. The odour of wasted leftovers, scraps left in tinpis cans, eggshells, bacon rinds and half-eaten bits of bread: the dog lives for these things, lives because of these things left in the weird plastic bulges left precariously in branches and on top of the shrubbery. In the evening the dog clambers and claws at the bags left on the bushes, lean neck stretched out, whole body focused and taut with anticipation. Like the tomb robber about to snatch a golden idol, mindful of some menace that could interrupt the moment, but nonetheless too close to its goal to consider giving up. Sometimes a cat gets in the trees on its own scavenging mission and knocks a rubbish bag down. Then the dog darts in, disperses the small crowd of felines beginning to gather, and seizes the easy prey. Victory! The dog trots swiftly but jauntily away to some less exposed place to sniff and claw at her prize, licking tenderly inside cans and savouring the most meagre scrap of nourishment. Unless you happen to be on the balcony at that time you will not see this moment of triumph. But if you have your TV or radio turned off, and if the neighbours are not home, you will catch the scrappy rustle of a plastic bag being torn apart and its contents being nuzzled by a keen snout. The next morning, the groundsman scrapes together the scattered detritus with his wiry old rake and removes the evidence of the night time feast.

One thing puzzles me. How is it that this lone dog, of all the hungry mongrels on our street, has honed in on the discarded bounty offered by our compound? Does it conceal its movements from other hounds? Does it have a secret hole in the fence? Or does it even leave the compound, spending the hottest parts of the day nestled privately in a forgotten patch of shade? If it is not a resident, then maybe it is an accepted presence, a family ghost or a weird mascot tolerated despite it reminding us of the desperate life of animals on the street.

Sometimes the banged-up old Japanese rubbish truck does not come for a day, or two, or even seven or ten. The bins cannot accommodate any more as they are already spewing their fecund, maggot-riddled contents onto the road. The rubbish trees and garbage bushes undergo their most grotesque period of fertility. Bulging masses accumulate, teetering precariously, the stench brewing and wafting. The dog has a good time then as the rest of us hold our breath and wait for the garbage crews to remember our street exists. The nightly ritual of stealing and tearing into rubbish bags becomes an orgy of scavenging, and the dog feasts. The morning after the groundsman does his best with his old rake and the bins that are already too full with maggots and filth, working against the odds to erase the physical memory of the gleeful fiesta from the night before, the scraps strewn around like old confetti and tickertape.

Thoughts during a half-drunk drive home

We finish our beers on the way down. The road clings to the edge of the sheer hillside. On some stretches decades-old guard rails line some strips of road: rickety and feeble-looking barriers that no doubt failed to prevent many vehicles from lurching too far over the edge. However in most places there is nothing between a vehicle and a twenty- or thirty- metre drop onto the road below as it snakes back upon itself: nothing except luck, wits, sobriety. We are perhaps too reliant on the first of these factors.

Signs advise drivers to sound their horn before surging around the blind corners. Our driver does so obligingly: not only at the blind corners, but to the young boys pointing at the holes in the road that they have filled with dirt in the hope of some small cash; to the cars overtaken on the short straight stretches; to the frequent clusters of women, children and dogs selling vegetables by the roadside.

The road seems improbable in the way it has been carved out of the hillside, and although I never feel worried I make sure I look forward, not down. Everything is steep and wild, and our driver demands much of second gear as he navigates hairpin bends while making the most of his dregs of beer. As we descend into the valley the panorama opens itself to us, the dust and haze of the coast manifests in the dusky light. Escarpments line the other sheer wall of the valley, crowning the wildness of the jungle on the slopes, the bare rocky outcroppings and the river surging far, far below.

I am making the most out of being passive in the back seat, enjoying (maybe for the last time in the foreseeable future) travelling this decrepit, reckless road and the rough country it traverses. Our driver and the passenger in front dominate the conversation, and aside from a few interjections (voice raised over the hefty rumble of the diesel engine) I am content to let them natter. Frankly I am buggered. The day began early, the five hours’ hiking took us up and down some brutally steep terrain, and the couple of beers over lunch became something more like six or seven. Again Kit and had I found ourselves at the welcome mercy of generous hosts. Another entry in the karmic ledger to be reckoned up later on: but for now food and company during our last weeks in this place are what matter.

There is a lot to remember: not just for the purpose of repaying unlooked-for hospitality, but simply for its own sake. How many times has this place stunned us with its beauty, its folly, its cruelty and its generosity? I wish I knew that every scrap of sound, sensation, light and colour will be with me forever, but it obviously can’t be that way. Already I feel the images shifting and slipping in my head. Some will stay, many will go. Recollections float up like flotsam as the Hilux thunders down and down. The furious orange of the carrots dangling from the shacks of roadside vendors in the drab marshes of Kandep. The tartness fresh kalamansi juice mixed with gin and tonic, the slight orange tincture of the drink the perfect accompaniment for a vivid sunset, a sky laced with fire. Rough drinking in Six Mile: strange characters and unlooked for friends getting more and more shitfaced under the hopeful eye of the dog locked outside and the half-snarling visage of the Outlaw Josey Wales (to say nothing of the relic machine gun directly under Clint’s watchful eye). The simultaneous grip of pity and hardness in the gut as I see the albino street boy, huddled in a service driveway downtown away from the eyes of his numerous peers, gulping food down like a desperate scavenger, a grip on life so tenuous yet so tenacious at the same time. Among many other things, all these memories lingering restlessly until their time to be summoned again, like kelp waiting to be spewed onto the beach by a roiling, unpredictable sea – or maybe like the bubbles in a nice beer, floating up and forming a satisfying, frothy head on a perfect amber beer.

Now on the verge of leaving I am trying to start this in-turned process, navigating the twists of remembering and forgetting, pulling up dregs and shedding dead weight, almost done with one thing but now starting to move through the mass of what it has imparted. Snaking through old image and noise and feelings like the wild road coming down from the plateau. A nice clear stretch: visions run rapidly and smoothly and there is a strict sense of direction and narrative to what’s come up. A hairpin bend: a memory turns around and devours its own tail and I confront something new, contorted, unexpected. A sheer drop: a lost moment where you are eclipsed by reverie, rumination and a weird yawning sense of imminent loss.