Posts Tagged 'bad'

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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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”…

Shituation 3: Red and blue by night

Believe it or not, roadblocks are not fun. Which is a shame, because they’re a pretty regular feature of life in Moresby. Most are set up by the local equivalent of New South Wales’ RTA. They look at your safety sticker and wave you through. Even if your tyres are bald, your exhaust is belching and your rear windscreen has been replaced by a sheet of black plastic, you will most likely be waved through – provided you gave the right person the extra gratuity fee to get the safety sticker.

Every now and then however you encounter the cops. Most of the time they just check licences and don’t pay too much attention, especially by day. By night, it’s a tad different – especially later at night, as was the case in this scenario, and especially when the driver (me) has by some dumb lapse of judgement left his licence at home. Stupid, stupid, STUPID.

You see, there are some quaint customs from the big place just to the south that are not so trendy up here. For example, in the big place down south, if you cannot produce your licence when asked to by a cop, they will typically give you the option of going to the local cop shop within a day or two to show it. Seems reasonable and maybe even efficient – gets traffic moving again, gets the cop onto the next car. Seemingly not. In Moresby, there are three options only – you have your licence, you pay a sum (not strictly speaking a ‘fine’ as we discovered), or you have a nice kip in the slammer and hope for the best.

Once we had established that producing the licence later was not an option, and insisted strongly that a night in the cell was equally as repugnant, we were left with the second option only – the ‘sum’. Apparently I was guilty of two evils – driving without a licence, and being unable to produce a licence when asked to by a law enforcement agent. This sounded fine to a point. The fee seemed hefty enough but not too out of line to my inexperienced mind – being one hundred clams per offence. The trickiness of the situation was twofold. First, the officer peering through our window was quite resolute in his insistence that any kind of documentation was not only unnecessary but thoroughly unconventional. It was a simple matter of paying one’s dues, accepting that one had done wrong, and trusting that the two hundred kina would be safely deposited in the relevant government account and not at the closest roadside beer shack. But that wouldn’t happen, surely.

Which brings us to the second issue – we had no cash. We also do not have the gift of pulling money from thin air, as much as the worthy officer seemed to think we might. After some time the officer became more accommodating – literally at first, as he repeated the offer of a free night in the Hohola cells, then figuratively as he said that possibly we could get a ride in a police vehicle to the closest ATM. Being slightly unwilling to leave our car we asked if it were possible to pay the fine at a police station or court house the following day, and maybe even get a receipt.

This concerned the officer, but of course he was worried on our behalf. In asking such a silly question I had betrayed by ignorance yet again. The officer explained, seemingly a little uncomfortably (but who am I to judge? I was myself also a tad uncomfortable) that payment at a court house or police station at a later date would be more expensive. Exactly twice the amount in fact. I ask you all not to leap to any unfair conclusions regarding the integrity of the officer at this stage. Red tape, paperwork and so on are major inhibitors to the efficiency of a modern economy after all, and seeing as PNG has plenty of things it needs to prioritise I would suggest that a situation like mine would merely be a strain on the progress of the nation. Bloody bureaucracy never helped anyone get anything done after all, here or anywhere else.

So we had a stalemate. We babbled a bit about calling our security escorts, we said we were sorry, we felt as helpless as we did angry. Eventually we hit upon a proposal that worked – call over the boss to sort something out.

The boss came. The boss certainly looked like the boss – protruding gut, fine moustache, nice blue beret and a button-up shirt. And, a machine gun.

The boss, however, was also our boon (yes! he looked a bit like a Papua New Guinean Boonie too) – he took one look at our humble car and decided he wasn’t interested. We offered again to report to a police station the next day. He said yes, and asked my name, which of course I offered freely and incorrectly. Then we were allowed to go. For two seconds. Then another cop pointed out our rear lights needed fixing. Of course of course we’ll fix it this week. Outta there!

Again, in hindsight, this wasn’t the worst of our road block experiences, but we were not to know that at the time. Certain expressions of relief and outrage were shared as we drove home, and that was that. Although I am sure the cops at Hohola would have been waiting around despondently for ‘Geoff’ to show up the next morning. For hours on end. Maybe they too were outraged. After all they wouldn’t be used to scandalous lies or anything like that, the poor guys.

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.

Bosman hissy fit

Some astute readers may have noted the nice tree in the banner pic above with the long seed pods. During the rainy season it was even nicer – lots of lush leafiness and good shade for the hot days. Green is good in Port Moresby, it’s a visual relief. The wet-season vegetation is one of the saner, less depressing aspects of Moronsby.

Well no longer. Some chop-happy tree surgeon has clambered up the tree and crudely hacked off all the frond-bearing branches. The once-beautiful plant is now a desperate skeleton. Frankly, they stuffed it for no apparent reason. Why the wasteland aesthetic is so eagerly embraced in these parts I do not know. Maybe it’s cultural, or a result of embedded values, or lack thereof of something comparable to my own. Well, bugger culture, and values can piss off. I can acknowledge these things, accept that they are different from my own, and use them to explain why some things are blah and other things are whoop-de-do – but that doesn’t mean I have to like them. Indeed, in this case it’s shit. There was no need.

Bring back the tree you rabid bush-knife wielding philistine bastard!!!!

EMERGENCY

People – the situation is really dire over here now.

It’s not the kind of situation you’ll read about in the papers but nonetheless it’s a predicament that’s deeply worrying. One pivotal moment and suddenly one’s very existence in this place goes from quaint and odd to outlandish, frightening, and terrible. One small event, and life is awful. I’m not sure how to say it otherwise – except to say I don’t know how to express the grip of fear that is squeezing me as I type.

WE’VE RUN OUT OF GIN. The last drop has been squeezed, and trust me when you try you CAN squeeze a glass bottle. If ever there was a time when we needed a friend (and their two litre duty free booze allowance) now is the time.