Archive for the 'expats' 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.

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.

More farewells.

The attrition continues!

Ev and Joanna – one adventure down, another to embark on. Good luck with the kid, I’m sure you’ll thrive in the role even if kids are a total pain as a rule. Yours no doubt won’t be as much of a headache as Newman and Clinton (or whatever the screaming terrors’ names are), although I sincerely hope that it has the chance to run around uninhibited with willy flying freely – if there’s anything PNG has taught me it’s that kids should be starkers for as much of their childhood as possible. Then again, New Zealand is cold. Good luck with the big questions in life, heck knows – there may even be answers! Meanwhile the compound is minus two good folk. Don’t miss Waigani Heights too much, ha!

As for the erstwhile Country Manager… I know a few country managers thanks to my line of work, they tend to wear ties and sit in offices and control small fiefdoms in the worlds of insurance brokerage, development contracts, and deep-sea mineral exploration. So what the hell makes you think you can get away with traipsing around Port Moresby (indeed also the rest of PNG) with one of a dozen multicoloured bilums slung over a shoulder, tropical shirt untucked, wearing shorts and sandals? There are many country managers who are probably pleased at your departure, relieved that they can get to work restoring their collective image as serious pastel shirts, pressed trousers covered-shoe types. Meanwhile while they restore their tattered prestige denigrated by your contempt for the uniform of high office a few hardbitten volunteers look forward to seeing you in a few months as one of their own – again. Good one Rick, thanks for the lot.

And lo!

And lo! the Good Prophet came down from the mountain.

And the people rejoiced and greeted the Good Prophet with upraised arms.

Actually that’s just the GeeGee busting a move during the warm-up session at the Sir Anthony Siaguru Walk Against Corruption, which a silly dimdim familiar to some of you was heavily (too heavily) involved in organising.

The picture and link are on Ilya’s blog. Ilya is the AAP man in PNG and probably responsible for many of the ghastly stories you read about PNG in the Australian media, but the Walk Against Corruption DID make it into the Sydney Morning Herald so in true communications hack style I must hail him as a gentleman and true professional for getting my issue in press. Also, seeing as he did me the courtesy of announcing the presence of my blog on his own I felt I must return the favour – even though he DID out my secret identity and place of employment. Oh well. Bruce Wayne I aint…