Archive for the 'culture shock' Category

Brave old world.

Things certainly work differently down here. Propriety is different, not so much snobby but more stylish. The classic Yacht Club outfit sported by Moresby upper crust will not do in Sydney. Where are the floral shirts? The stripes and saggy breast pockets? At least sandals and thongs are still OK, if somewhat less ragged and dusty. I find myself slipping into the old uniforms with surprising ease – new Bonds t-shirts are a comfort after not being able to wear them much, thanks to that swift Moresby slickness that comes up every time you step into the heat.

An iPhone in Sydney is part of the kit. Requisite. An iPhone in Moresby is a fatuous gesture, a joke, a trinket good for being thieved and not much else. Selecting a good kalamata olive leaves one boggled for choice. In Moresby, it is one kind or maybe the other and by God you’re happy to have it despite the clearly indulgent price. Bicycles and after-hours strolls. The ability to get snobbish over instant coffee and wallow in internet that loads like a breeze. Drinking beer with names like “Fat Yak” and in styles like “amber ale”, with the words “south” and “pacific” nowhere to be seen on the label.

On beer – a reunion BBQ in Brisbane by the river sees a pair of mates show up with the cheapest beer they could find in the bottle-o: a six pack of nothing less than the mighty SP brown. I made eyes at the free bottle opener that came with it, and am thankful for their generous gesture – nowhere in Moresby did I see one for sale. The memorabilia and the memories keep coming, like little shockwaves one month on, elegiac ripples of sorts (for isn’t nostalgia a kind of mourning in its own way?). I hope they keep coming, I really do.

Memory is tricky and motivation is fickle. I am no longer in PNG but Kit and I have aspirations to return – just not quite yet. In the meantime I hope to use this nether-space as a repository for the moments, images and stories that the last two-and-a-bit years have given me. Subject of course to the two factors mentioned above. There’s enough to keep this thing going a little while longer in any case. Until then – Manda. Apa kanda. Catch. Luuukkiiiiiiimm yuuuu.

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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.

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.

Crorect sellping is vitla

My interest in PNG’s newspapers ebbs and flows, depending on how one feels on any given day about reading yet another litany of bad governance, disasters, dodgy dealings and lofty moralising (not to mention garbled sentences, clause overloads and misplaced vocabulary).

Nonetheless, some days bring bright little gems. Like a small headline in today’s National, down the bottom of page 7:

“Communication vitla for growth”.

This was enough for me. To paraphrase Bill Hicks – it’s base irony but I like it. It’s a hoooot.

But if one dares read on:

“…to ensure that the service delivery mechanism was effective and result-oriented, the system to be used must be transparent where information and communication services should be strategically planned and the mass media fully used to enhance better public participation and consumption.”

This is enough to make a piece of my brain go *TILT!* like an old pinball machine, and this is far from the worst example I’ve seen. I feel like I’m in one of Don Watson’s more febrile nightmares when I read this. Later the Professor (does that answer some questions?) quoted also is on the record as saying “Reviewing social and cultural mileu, he said a strategy had to be planned to set the tone for a new role of communication to society.”

This is in a newspaper people. Not that this kind of stuff should be excused in the lofty world of academia, but for everyday readership? Uhhh… last time I looked copy/paste is not journalism. And there’s bigger issues at play, mired in this kind of cumbersome dreck – but maybe the phrase colonisation of the mind doesn’t necessarily cross everyone’s thoughts at these moments.

Moving on from deep issues – on another page in the same paper there’s an ad for some competition being run to promote a brand of tinned meat. It’s one of my favourites right now:

“WIN A LIVE PIG or K800 CASH! You choose!”

So the answer to today’s big question is…?

PS (a couple of days later): The National Broadcasting Service (NBC) has a new-ish TV station, a commendable effort with some commendable shows. Not enough to sate our forlorn longing for Kerry at 7.30, but laudable nonetheless.

For example, there’s a regular show called ‘Talk Balk’, the premise being that people call up and ask questions of public service chiefs and government ministers (that’s the ‘talk’ bit), who then proceed to either answer the questions live or ‘balk’ at them, like a horse jumping at a sudden movement in the shrubbery or my daily reaction to the idea of hard work. ‘Talk Balk’ should not be confused with the popular mass media concept of ‘talk back’, even though the concepts might be uncannily similar… (I’m sorry olgeta, they say sarcasm is the lowest form of humour, an adage I’m happy to disregard when it suits me).

PPS: I have also sadly noted that the menu at the local Korean restaurant has been revised, and my favourite dishes of ‘fried lice’ and ‘cream crap corn soup’ have been removed… Chingrish humour in Port Moresby. Who woulda thunk it?

Back to it

I got one foot on the tarmac
The other’s on the plane
I’m goin’ back to Port Moresby
To wear that ball and chain

No, it wasn’t a marriage reference (although…?) and no I didn’t sing it. Kitty spouted the inglorious number as our plane eased its way to the disembarkation point. Inside it was all Pacific Blue – enamel-clad pleasantries, tinny top of the pops and brand-enforced pleasantry. Nonetheless it was Port Moresby outside the windows.

A greener city to be fair – and believe me a verdant Moresby is miraculously easier on the eye. I was reminded of this en route to my first day back at work. My colleague decided to take the feared back road through Tokorara into Hohola, a road that might as well be in another city as it winds its way through the hills adorned with newly-dug food gardens. Rickety junk fences and tyre repair shops with the obligatory pool tables. Residents sitting behind their little tables made from crates or old cardboard boxes, selling newspapers, cigarettes and buai, sharing stories with neighbours and pedestrians as they come to buy. Neat little yards with short grass, banana trees and bougainvillea. The bowed backs of the elderly as they sweep and rake at the ground, clearing their patches of gravelly dirt with short straw brooms or wiry rakes with no handles, clearing and piling the detritus with the kind of determination and focused energy one notices when bush turkeys go about building their nests.

Then again, it’s still Moresby. We have been inundated thanks to the (former) tropical cyclone Neville off North Queensland. The freeway near Hohola is a big puddle, with no sign of the soupy lake (chunks and all) diminising after three days. Over the years the dirt and rubbish of Moresby has accumulated in the storm drains, rendering them useless. The result is a city that, although tropical, cannot handle the rain. The rain that brings out the flush of greenery also encourages a blooming of a less pleasant kind – potholes. The lurch and swerve of cars as they avoid water and newly-formed craters is a well-known roadway dance. An automotive tropical tango. A Moresby motoring macarena. Something like that.

Anyway. We’re back, and I believe suitably recovered from the stunned confusion that results when plucked from one world and shunted back into another. Apologies for the absence dear readers but this isn’t supposed to be a record of my adventures on holidays in Australia, so our time there, although pleasant and indeed greatly significant (yes the ring is still on the finger), is hardly relevant to this little project. Although one of two New Years resolutions may encourage more frequent updates, the commitment being to write more (flowing on hopefully to more blog action). Then again my other resolution was the floss my teeth every night and I think I’ve done that once since January 1st. Oh well, 2010 is yet young and the next nine months or so still lie before me, like fresh mumu pig on a platter. Oily and meaty and full of both tasty and slightly unpleasant morsels. Yum yum.

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…

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.