Archive Page 2

Rubbish trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts during a half-drunk drive home

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

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

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

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

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

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

One for Don Watson

And I quote (from the back label of a bottle of freaking spring water for crap’s sake):

“It is the co-operation and strength of human character that has inspired us to develop KOKODA KANTEEN Legendary Water.”

So legendary indeed that “Legendary Water” mysteriously became a proper noun, never mind the fact that I’ve been misspelling “kanteen” my entire life.

Is this what the Aussie genuflection to the Kokoda myth has been dragged down to? We have arrived at the logical nadir of it all: just shy of seventy years after the desperate blood-and-muck drenched events of the Kokoda Track campaign we have, finally, the mass-produced bottle of water we all desperately needed to truly and spiritually round out our reverie.

I feel like yelling a pretty harsh expletive at whoever came up with that crap on the bottle – you know the word, four letters, definitely NOT starting with “k”…

Air conditioned comfort.

Air conditioned comfort – which is of course a bad sign, because if you are in air conditioning you are probably in an office, and often offices are places where things take longer than they should. For example: an hour to change the details on a plane ticket, with various calculations, recalculations and apologies necessitating additional taps on the keyboard and calls through to supervisors, inaudible from where I sit despite the woman only sitting on the other side of the desk. The women are all dressed like the hostesses on the planes, all emerald green and blue and lilac, they were fussing over some shoes when I arrived. One of their relatives sells them for her children’s school fees. The archaic creak of a dot matrix printer banishes whatever made you thought this was any time after the 1980’s. Another example: the long line to replace a licence, only to be given a pink form to take to a court house for the signature to be witnessed. Despite my protestations of gross inefficiency I am compelled to go. The next day, a longer line. The stainless steel barriers gleam strangely under the flouro lights, they could belong in any of those forbiddingly familiar and banal foyers. The staffing arrangements could also be anywhere, with the usual story of less than one third of the available windows occupied by the customer service people (and by standards up here that is in fact a good ratio of windows to staff!). A newspaper is all that staves off a frothing expatriate tantrum during the half hour wait. At the window the man takes a split-second look at my signed pink form and tells me to go straight to the next window (with a nice, fat, fresh looking queue) to pay. In other words, I had no need to negotiate the first line. At the next stage there are indeed two lines – licences and registrations, but with little to indicate which line is which. In a moment of camaraderie some customers figure out the situation and advise the rest, which causes groans as people shuffle obediently from the line they had waited patiently in to the line they were supposed to be in. I think idly that this kind of experience would be the kind one would have in a Cuban immigration office, but I would expect much better music there.

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.

Breezy afternoon.

Breezy afternoon – a woman snips at the hair of a young man, who sits with head down obsequiously but with frequent, sullen glances up. He looks like the energetic hound being given a bath, pride stung and enthusiasm stifled. They are seated on a balcony, on the same level as the palm leaves rustling in the wind. As she snips, the wind picks up severed clumps of thick, curled hair. It is carried aloft for metres before settling on the dry grass like a strange hirsute black snow, except that days later it has yet to melt. It merely sits like the other odd organic and inorganic detritus. It is rubbish day, the bins await their moment of purging by the ragtag collection of workers who rattle through the streets in their old green garbage truck adorned with Japanese writing. I fancy sometimes it says something like ‘A Gift From Osaka to Port Moresby!’, and think that’s funny because after all nobody would have a clue what it said. Meanwhile, as the bins languish on the roadside for two days, the bags of rubbish pile up on top of bushes. They are torn own every night by the desperate scavenging animals, who scatter the pungent contents all over the place in search of whatever sustenance they can glean – a scrap at the bottom of a can of tuna, the bloody ant-covered smear on a piece of dish-shaped styrofoam, a piece of bread mostly eaten. The next day it is collected and disposed of by the groundskeeper, but small bits remain, settling comfortably into the grotty cityscape, to be kicked aside later or ground into the road by the passage of vehicles, or swept into the drains with the next deluge.

Too busy / wasman.

I recall that Hunter S Thompson dedicated his book Hell’s Angels to the many friends who had mercifully kept him free of employment for much of his life. It’s a nice notion, especially when you find yourself in a constant state of work-induced turmoil – constantly bucketing and rowing towards a horizon that never stops receding. If I may put it that way.

Without divulging too much, I will say only two things – one, it should go on for only a fortnight longer, and two, it seems frightfully easy to change this country’s Constitution. Additional details are not interesting. They have taken over my life of course, much like Jonah’s life was taken over by a whale for a short time. There are already too many Moresby-based colleagues who have endured my profanity-riddled reflections on these matters and to them I apologise – sorry to everyone except my wonderful darling Kitty who, in the midst of this ridiculous period in my world, has managed to evacuate herself to the beautiful and lugubrious town of Madang, where she has even managed to get some scuba diving in. The fish are big over there apparently.

An anecdote for those good enough to keep coming back to this page – thank you dear readers. On the way to work I see a shirt with a slogan. It says – Jesus em wasman bilong mi! Pisin is a funny language in case you haven’t heard me say that before. The verb ‘wasim’ means ‘to wash’, while if you go for a swim or a bath you ‘go waswas’. I was puzzled then whether or not this man’s shirt was subversive or even deliberately absurd – Jesus is the man who washes/bathes me! What?!?! Even your bum?!?! Maybe it was a reference to baptism? Anyway I was disabused of my folly soon after, with my colleague telling me that ‘wasman’ simply means ‘watchman’. So Jesus is this guy’s guardian. Of course. That’s all.