Archive for the 'edibles' Category

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.

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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.

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.

Random observations.

Funniest image so far – just outside the supermarket in Waigani (aka the ‘Stop’n’Shop on the highway), two grown men in security guard uniforms scurrying across the street as the traffic zoomed closer, giggling like school kids and holding hands as they ran. Yes, men hold hands here all the time. Sometimes it’s like a handshake, except there’s not too much shake and you don’t let go. You see friends reaching for each other’s hand’s instinctively in crowds, at PMV stops, on the busy streets of Boroko and Town. What you don’t see much at all is men and women holding hands. Cross-gender touching isn’t well regarded in public here.

Another great image – on one of dozens of posters and banners at big intersections, the portly but stern visage of the governor, Powes Parkop, frowning at bystanders and waggling his finger remonstratively. The posters and banners also bear the slogan ‘MASKI HALF SENSE NA LONG LONG – YU NO KEN SPETIM BUAI LONG ROT NA SPREDIM SIK TB’ (Don’t be half-sensed or crazy – you can’t spit betel nut along the road and spread tuberculosis). And of course the best of these banners and posters feature the unmistakable lurid red splash of buai expectorant all over the governor’s face. TB is a big deal here in PNG and the governor is at the forefront of what needs to be a huge campaign to reduce it. But the idea of getting people over here to quit their betel nut or be more responsible spitters is much like the the proverbial attempt at sweeping shit uphill with a feather duster (or whatever the anology is).

Yet another – the first day we were here, on being driven to the now-familiar but then-zany Gordons Foodworld (it’s actually still a zany place but for utterly different reasons), beholding a short caricature of a man with a fisherman’s cap and a wispy beard proffering a small wallaby to to exiting traffic. The man wore a huge encouraging grin, the wallaby looked anything but encouraged. When we drove out the man and the wallaby were gone. I feared the worst for the marsupial’s welfare.

Still another – at the Renbo markets in the fish section (ie right next to the road), a big awkward jelly-like blob amidst the colourful coral trout and red emperors. The stout woman tending the fish and swatting away flies with a leafy twig notices my interest and says, in the high-pitched lazy PNG meri style: “sqquuuiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiidd.” I guess you had to be there. At the same market, half a dozen or so whole fire-charred wallabies, little forepaws sticking in the air in a macabre pose, their teeth locked into horrible grins. Fine dining, settlement style – think of the last time you were starving and in desperate need of protein before you make any judgements.

Last one – images in the Post Courier, ie Murdoch’s very own PNG daily newspaper, of the PNG national rugby league team cavorting like school kids at Wet’n’Wild waterslide park on the Gold Coast. The national team, called the Kumuls, are in the paper every day nowadays thanks to the League world cup, and they are gods over here – if I was confronted with one close-up I would of course assert without hesitation their Herculean status. But the image of the big men reclining butt-to-butt on an inflatable tube, giddy ecitement writ large on their expressions, was simply beautiful.

‘Kaukau’ and beyond…

Kaukau is the Tok Pisin word for sweet potato. No doubt it will be a useful word seeing as I’m led to believe they eat a lot of it over there. I have however been assured that the plethora of sweet potato varieties available in PNG will astound the typical Australian diner accustomed to the standard variety available from Woolworths. Nonetheless I must admit that as a staple kaukau does not excite me too much. Bring on the condiments.