Archive for the 'locals' 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.

Domesticity.

Domesticity – strange sounds filter in from outside. A man with a megaphone is reciting the names of the Highlands provinces – Enga, Simbu, Eastern Highlands, Western Highlands, Southern Highlands… there is some kind of meeting on tomorrow but the wind warps the sound so I cannot make out what it’s all about. I go out too look but can see nothing from the balcony, just the shuddering leaves, the curved rooftop of the new market being built, and the endless parade of traffic on Waigani Drive. Inside, more water is boiling. It boils for thirteen to fifteen minutes. I keep a lid on it so it doesn’t all evaporate away. The city has cholera these days, apparently more than 450 cases have been reported around town but it seems like not many people have died. I remember that the lettuce I bought at the market probably needs a wash in sterilised water. Aside from the tedious inconvenience life goes on. Television in the evening still broadcasts news services and cooking shows. One such show was on the day while I was telling a story. Mid-sentence I find my words cut off by the volume. Somewhat piqued I turn the TV off at the wall. How dare you! I was trying not to laugh, because I could see what had been on – some luscious looking dessert is being made on the screen. Kit looks at me, disgruntled. But that was FUDGE!. Other domestic scenarios surrender their momentoes to the curious bank of memory. At the supermarket – not the supermarket for expats and ‘aspirationals’, but the local one visible from the balcony – the woman at the checkout was happy to see me, possibly not for any reason besides the fact that any evidence that other people could come here and go to the ‘normal’ supermarkets was welcome. I was happy to humour the woman, although I did not spare the time to explain our usual shopping tendencies. The woman commented that the city had a bad name thanks to the exaggerations of the media, both local and foreign. Not for the first time did I find myself agreeing with such sentiments – but only half agreeing. The half that disagreed was bemused, yet again, by the propensity of many PNGeans to blame their country’s ills on the hype of the media, as if this were some great sweaty dusty simulacrum where the reality of crime and poverty was a problem borne purely from the illusory powers of the powerful ideas-manipulating forces of the media. Never mind that media access is hugely limited countrywide, never mind the gross and obvious disparities in wealth (not just between expat and national but elite PNG and poor PNG), never mind the shitty roads and the shitty services and the shitty state of health and education… never mind that in the next sentence after decrying the media most PNGeans will agree vehemently that things are indeed no good. I bought my mi goreng noodles and the tin of bamboo shoots I found, waved goodbye to the two women sitting in the shade nearby, and went back home just in time for the power to black out.

Tavurvur and the dead town

You go to visit the wasteland because that’s just what you do when in East New Britain. It’s a beautiful part of the world. The bay arcs inward like an undulating blue plate, with sunlight glistening on top as if the sea is crested with flecks of silver or tin. The jungle creeps down and meets the sea, in many places foliage dripping over the spots where the water kisses the sand and rock. Dripping. Of course it’s a hot place. When you step outside the air conditioning you almost immediately find yourself in the clammy grip of sweat. The perspiration mingles with the dust from the gravel roads, and soon you are ragged and gritty.

You drive to the other side of the bay, where your objective waits like a mostly-dead limb just waiting for the final rot and wilt befor utter abandonment, amputation from the world. Rabaul is the place, and it is an unlucky place, having been smashed by eruptions in 1937, then reduced to rubble by the vengeful bombs and strafes of allied war planes in World War 2. Two volcanoes trashed the place in 1994, belching black ash and rubble across the town, pressing the buildings into the ground like a great sooty thumb would slowly, cruelly crush a bug. Vulcan sits languidly across the bay from Rabaul, again covered by tree, vine and grass. It’s gone undercover until people let their guard down once more. Tavurvur meanwhile still snarls with life. Vapours seethe from cracks in the grey flanks. Its exterior looks dead, but inside the roar of the eath’s fires are very much alive. Ancient, vital, ruinous. Its language is sulphurous and its grim dominance of the western side of the bay shows contempt for both the town that once was and the meagre concerns of the people who have scrambled about in its shadows for so long. Vulcan is deceitful, disguised by jungle, preparing for the next assault. Tavurvur meanwhile gloats. One day, says the mountain, I will crush everything here. If you are here, I will destroy you. If not, your descendents. If your town remains, I will consume it. If it has rotted away then so be it, I will have the jungle. This place is mine.

The streets of Rabaul, and the road leading to the town, are in poor shape. While the basic activities of life and commerce are evident, it does not seem anyone is willing to do more than the bare minimum to keep things in order. Wide streets are half closed, and you often have to avoid mounds of ash and dust that pile onto the cracked bitumen. On either side of the road the evidence of 1994 can be seen – piles of volcano dust, in some places as high as the car, in other places higher. The market has been rebuilt and is active, and green has started to reassert itself in many places. There are some buildings that remain only because their owners were intrepid or foolish enough to stay in town while the fury of Vulcan and Tavurvur was at its strongest. These stubborn folk had realised what those who fled would not discover until afterwards – that only ash and dust fell on the town. All it took to save the buildings was stout-heartedness, a strong broom, a daily climb onto the roof, and a few lungfuls of the earth’s disgorged detritus. Once Rabaul was the Pacific’s jewel. Then under the Japanese it became a bristling steel crown, a hub of conquest frequented by submarines, ships and soldiers en route to meet death at places like Milne Bay, Buna-Gona, Salamaua, Kokoda. Now, Rabaul is barely there at all.

Nonetheless there is a still a hotel, complete with a retaining wall facing the street. “The street is now higher than my carpark” explains the owner with an exuberance that seems very much out of place. The wall is needed to keep the front door and carpark from being consumed by the same dead blanket that took most of the town. Driving in and out of the carpark involved negotiating a ramp of ash and dirt. We eat at the restaurant, enjoy the boisterous and ebullient greetings from the proprietor, and wonder if it’s real. Inside, a restaurant with complete Chinese-Western menu (burgers or chow mein, your choice) has a handful of customers, including the owner and three friends celebrating a birthday. Outside it’s Mordor by the beach.

The proprietor was exceptionally eager to recommend some places, and we followed her directions to a place where volcanic gas reputedly fizzed up in the water. Turn left just before the yacht club (apparently still open for business, we didn’t check), a right soon after, and you arrive at the original objective. Wasteland, desolation, blasted nothing-place ornamented only by stark rows of denuded coconut palms, dead sentinels keeping watch in a bright tropical Tartarus.

Soon enough we have company. Eight girls from the nearby Matupit Island hail us down and correctly guess our destination. The two youngest clamber inside the back of our cabin, uninvited and unabashed. They are all covered in grit but are not bowed or dour. They shriek and giggle and deliver quick directions in pisin. Go an tap likilik. We come to a path marked by a few hundred metres of upright sticks rammed into the dust, eerie markers that looked like they should be topped with skulls and other grisly trophies. The girls in the back blather away some more but I glean the word ‘namel‘, ‘middle’, and I remember the hotel owner mentioning that at one stage we’d have to follow the road marked by the sticks. Aside from the sticks however only bare remnants of tyre marks indicate any kind of beaten route in the grey ash. A few hundred metres later and we are halted before a makeshift gate (preventing access how exactly to anywhere was beyond me). A man slumbered, not bothered by the dust that whipped at his flimsy garment, enjoying the single patch of shade he could scrounge underneath a simple humpy of dried palm leaves. The girls woke him and he opened the gate for the usual visitors’ fee, telling us we were most welcome. His hair was like wire and his eyes were the kind that belong to the perpetually allergic – or the forever grieving. We waved to the man and then, again, onward.

Soon after we disembarked and walked the last few metres to the spring, where the sea water was hot to touch and the air was sulphuric. The girls wanted to sell us necklaces. When we didn’t seem too interested one started talking in quiet tones about the life they all led on Matupit. Insufficient soil for good gardens. A trek to Rabaul town for water. Most trees denuded by the volcanoes in 1994, with any later attempts at growth smothered by more ashfall. She told me this as we approached the bay, and I could see her home across a few hundred metres of water. It looked like one or two hundred small homes still stood, in spite of the dead world around them. Their presence did not seem like act of defiance, just existence. The people who could go had already left years ago. The people remained ate, drank and washed in dust every day. Soon enough they would choke on it. There was no way these girls could live beyond forty or fifty if they stayed there. Nothing but the forlorn. I bought a shell off the girl, dazed by the dead spectacle, and amazed that the young women before me were anything more than zombies.

We drove back and dropped them where we found them with a spare bottle of water. A sad awe filled me as we traversed the desolation again, driving over the empty expanse where the old airstrip was and glimpsing more and more wrecked buildings as we neared town. Some remained in Rabaul because of some kind of stubborn insistence, but others stayed because their lives were this place and could not be any other. Young and slender things destined for gauntness and a final splutter, to be given back prematurely to the mad angry god that owned the place. Sadness and doom, nostalgia and gloom. We endured the road back east, and for all the stark splendour of the volcano’s domain I was glad to be among green once more.

Shituation 2: livin’ next door to Engans…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twenty point seven

Here’s a statistic – 20.7.

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

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

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

20.7 percent.

Shituation 3 – car i bagarup

There’s nothing much you can say in favour of having a car break down on you twice in one week. Conversely you can confidently say it’s a bit shithouse. It’s satisfying, however, to be able to say that having a car break down on you twice in one week in Port Moresby was no more or less shithouse than were it to have happened in Sydney. Or at least to say our car broke down on us twice in a week in Port Moresby, and guess what? We lived.

Now, a qualification – said breakdowns did not happen at night. They did not happen in the midst of a settlement teeming with raskols (probably because we tend to avoid those places, like most folks who have both the sense and the luxury of doing so – and of course there’s plenty around without much of the latter, never mind the former). The breakdowns have, I might add, been resolved to 95 percent satisfaction – once we could be bothered hauling the vehicle to our mechanically-minded man in Six Mile with the heavy equipment hire business and the defunct WW2 browning machinegun in his living room, I’ll be 100 percent satisfied.

Initially we suspected the incompetence of the petrol station attendant (a small but significant boon of Moresby life is that people fill your vehicle for you!). As our humble brown auto choked and shuddered it’s way towards home we reasoned that maybe the guy had put diesel instead of petrol in the fragile engine. We’d already recruited three strangers (one actually turned out to be our neighbour!) to help push-start it at the servo, and the effort was more painful than usual. Splutter, cough, gasp, and ppppffftttpppffff… we rolled to a halt at the lights closest to home, conveniently blocking the turning lane.

I got out and again ‘recruited’ some more help. One need not be proactive when seeking help in pushing a vehicle out of harm’s way in Moresby. You need only make vague pushing motions at the rear of a vehicle and maybe summon a few glistening droplets to adorn one’s brown and abracadabra! Three or four helpful types will materialise and get your car out of the way. If you’re lucky the same ‘new’ neighbour will appear again (as he of course did, a few kilometres from where we’d first met him), helpful and red mouthed and wild-eyed with a pot belly full of boisterousness. ‘We are used to this!’ he exclaimed, meaning his countryfolk’s frequent vehicle-pushing. ‘This is real PNG driving’. When I mentioned the diesel in the petrol tank theory he offered the services of his son to take a whiff and figure out what was in our car’s gizzards. When I said that was a bit too dangerous he told me not to worry. ‘We’re not like the Abos!’ he assured me, jokingly. I was too stupefied to respond.

A small crowd of mechanical know-it-a-bits gathered and peered at the unfathomable engine region of the car, but meanwhile we had called the helpful chap we shall call, for the purposes of this narrative, Mr Tech. Mr Tech is our property manager and his job description apparently extends to ‘helping clueless dimdims when their car’s stuffed’, among other useful activities. It was Sunday but Tech was around, so I took a short walk up to his office (an air conditioned shipping container) to borrow some jumper leads. Of course there was no question that the exercise in getting the jumper leads was simply another chance to remind him that I had no idea what to do with such things, so he said he’d be down – after some paperwork. He was rolling a cigarette as he told me this but I dare not presume what kind of paperwork would keep a man busy on a Sunday.

Tech came of course, but the jumper leads did little to reinvigorate our vehicle. In my ignorance I entertained the notion that flogging the car with them to encourage onward movement may help but I did not voice this, as even I know a car is not the same as a horse. Mr Tech retreated with the useless jumper leads. We lingered in the sun and the dust congealed between my toes. Kit got a sunburnt right arm from hanging out of the driver’s seat window. After a while the sunlight makes everything go a bit bleached-looking, a slow surreal scalding of the retinae that comes from long exposure to the garish light. The bare hills, the ubiquitous red dust, the palls of smoke, the people trudging and wilting under the bare sky. I went and bought two cans of Solo and came back just as Tech arrived again with a tow rope. As we attached it his wife sat dutifully in the front seat of their ramshackle Land Cruiser and assured us warmly that it was not a bother to help, even on a Sunday. Actual charitable Christians! I thought.

That was the first breakdown. We got the car back within a day or two after Tech’s offsider had examined it, and were told the issue was simply a flat battery, and maybe the oil (which of course had been disgracefully low). All seemed well and I was collected from work in Town a couple of afternoons later. It may have been the proximity of the same service station where the trouble had started that prompted the shudders and jolts, but again we were sitting in a car with a near-fatal case of the hiccups. Traffic was slow and inevitably we stalled. As I got out to push I could only give a helpless shrug to the driver of the ramshackle taxi now stuck behind us, who if it were not for the surprise of seeing a dimdim get out to push could have been thinking ‘there but for the grace of God…’ Or, just maybe, he was thinking we were deadshits who should be in a better car – as we were thinking.

This of course was a conspicuous situation. Two whiteys stuck by the side of a busy road, close to a kai bar and a bus stop, leaning nonchalantly on the car as if it were just the kind of thing we’d normally do in our spare time. Plenty of greetings and smiles and waves and entertained locals eyed us up as they went past. We had decided to try and get help from different quarters seeing as Mr Tech had helped us so readily the previous Sunday, but none of our calls got through. As we were contemplating the dilemma of calling on the same guy for a favour, the situation resolved itself for us – for who else what creaking his way up the bumper-to-bumper traffic than Tech himself. He spotted us, clearly puzzled, and again I shrugged. He promised to return soon with tow ropes – just first he’d have to get home and throw the two tuna fish in the back of his vehicle in the fridge. I saw these fish, they were massive, and it would have been a damn shame to leave them in the heat too long. So we waited.

Now when waiting idly by the roadside one gets less relaxed as the light dwindles. This is a fair fact. The traffic dissipated, the crowds thin and vanish. I watched as the old women packed up their cheap sunglasses and buai after a long day squatting in the dirt under the beating sun. Somewhere some people at home were probably bracing themselves for the Channel 9 news theme that preceded the EMTV news. Meanwhile I briefly got to know one of the guys who had helped us push the car, a shifty looking bloke with a ludicrously colourful shirt named Charleston. ‘I’m always around here’, he informed me, indicating the grubby steps and benches in front of the kai bar, before expectorating a mouthful of red gob proficiently into the gutter. It settled with the bountiful refuse and kindred buai stains that filled the overbrimming storm drain.

The lack of light eventually became disconcerting, but not for long – Mr Tech’s Land Cruiser was spotted rumbling in our direction, his great grey afro luminous in the cabin of the vehicle. He had brought his son, who was promptly put to work. As he bent over his son and informed him of his uselessness in the arts of the tow-rope I could not help notice Tech’s gnarled, talon-like toenails, and the wafer-thin surface of his thongs that separated his feet from the bitumen – they were so clearly part of his person that they almost looked like they would have to be peeled off his feet later after a long soak.

One final mishap awaited us, but not an unexpected one. The rope came undone as we were hauled up the wide expanse of road approaching our place, past the leering face of the Happy Gardener on the billboard out the front of his nursery, but before the Country Club and the dilapidated playing field. It was fully dark by now and cars, though fewer, were careening past at reckless speeds. Our own lights were utterly functionless and so we were were praying oncoming traffic in our lane saw us with enough time to not smash us to smithereens as we retied the rope – or as Tech’s son tied it, before his dad finally intervened to do it the grown up’s way. As they tied and untied and objected to each others’ interference I noted grimly the portions of the roadside railings that had been wiped out by speed-crazed suicide drivers in recent times. It isn’t an exagguration to say that new evidence of high-speed carnage can be seen on this road every week. We would have looked like sitting ducks in the oncoming headlights – assuming we were spotted.

A few dithering minutes later and we were moving again, all of us in one piece, as was our car. The same could not be said for Tech’s Cruiser, although this was no fault of some wild driver on Waigani Drive. Earlier I had noticed the steering column held together by layers of electrical tape, and the missing window-winder handle that had been replaced by a pair of multi-grip pliers. I commented to Tech’s son that multi-grips were probably put to better use than as makeshift window winders but he just said they always knew where to find them. Fair enough. The engine obviously worked OK though, and that was clearly the most necessary bit (along with the rope). Neither failed us for the rest of the short voyage back to Tech’s compound.

The epilogue goes something like this – the car is now fixed, although like I said I’d like our man in Six Mile to give it a once over. Some clever device called an alternator needed replacing, and the process of getting Tech’s right hand man to fix it involved two weekends of waiting – being fiscally challenged the mechanic couldn’t just buy the parts and get us to reimburse him, we had to fork out up front for everything. In addition the process of figuring out what ws actually broken seemed a bit trial and error, as in ‘stretim displa, see if it works, nogat, traim displa samting, whoops em bagarap yet, wokim nupela alternator then…’. But when you can’t fix it yourself one learns to accept these things, hop on the buses in the meantime, and wonder why on earth people don’t just ride bikes.