Posts Tagged 'Waigani Heights'

Too-rah!

At about twenty past four in the morning I had what is called a “blowout”. As far as I know a blowout is when an item of footwear – usually a thong, but sometimes a shoe or in this case a sandal – suffers fatal damage to a strap or some other bit that is essential if you need the piece of footwear to remain on one’s feet. The timing was almost perfect. The sandals had been loyal and enduring for two years, three months and the woozy small hours of one day. If they had lasted another eight hours they would have got me all the way home.

It was December 15th 2010 and we had just finished loading our neighbour’s car for the final run to Jackson’s. We’d made the dead man’s watch trip to the airport a few times to help out needy mates and fellow volunteers. We’d be back in bed by five thirty or so – just enough time to lie awake and ponder the futility of getting back to sleep before the neighbours starting clanging and bellowing. But this time it was our turn to be deposited for the check-in queue and the discombobulated wait for boarding. We were pretty much gone.

Five minutes before the fateful blowout I fulfilled a small promise I had made to myself. I stepped out onto the balcony and took in the view for a final few moments. I recall that the streets were quiet, the stillness exerting a sense of calm and order that was incongruous with the day-to-day reality of the city we were about to leave. The Mobil service station had its big street light on (the letter ‘o’ still suffering from its own blowout suffered months before), the light on our own street illuminated the big pile of dirt scraped off the hillside where the new neighbours had carved out a driveway to their home, but otherwise the darkness of a city with few street lights dominated. The garish daylight that was a constant factor to be endured, avoided and overcome was not present. Nor were the crowds, the hurtling fish-like schools of PMV buses, the insidious dust, or the haphazard hubbub of a city replete with rules rarely obeyed.

I had expected a swelling of confusion or nostalgia or giddy trepidation. Some kind of emotion worthy of the occasion – my final view of the place that had been home, from the balcony we loved, in the humble home that had kept us insulated from the worst and cocooned us inside with the best, the home where (among other things) we decided to get married for God’s sake!

What I actually felt at the time was my belly feels funny. Not because I was nervous or overwhelmed, but because my belly always feels funny when I get up too early. That’s all. Maybe I should have saved one last SP for the moment. I took it all in for a minute or so, then stepped inside and locked the door to the balcony for what I guess will be the last time.

Minutes later I suffered the blowout. I tossed the sandals into the bin like the newest piece of junk they were and got in the waiting car. The security guard did not take too long to wake up and open the gate. The deluge the previous afternoon had created a wild new mound of soil to traverse halfway up the road. Otherwise nothing was unusual. Goodbye Waigani Heights. Dare I say it? Until next time.

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Get some mango!

The kid downstairs warbled his little song as he went over to the tree and assessed his best chances of success: Get some mangooo. Get some mangooo. Then, grasping a long stick, he started bashing some of the low-hanging clusters. He was a small kid and the stick was cumbersome and long, so the work was hard (for him) but comical (for an observer, like me). Eventually his efforts were rewarded. Two or three of the plump green fruits plopped to the ground heavily.

That was just over a year ago. The kid’s family have gone back to Wapenamanda and have been replaced by another from Ialibu (say it quickly: Yal-ee-boo). The mango tree is still there, next to the back fence, and is in fruit again. There are two literal mango seasons in Moresby, while a third is deployed by conversationalists to describe a different kind of seasonal occurrence. The first season happens around September or October, but it is just a tease, a week or two of mangoes found at the market but that’s it. The trees save their best until the second season, which we are in the midst of now, where for many weeks leading up to Christmas the fruit is plentiful. The streets are littered by half-ripe, partially-eaten mangoes. Many streets have mango trees by the roadside, belonging to nobody in particular, the fruit waiting for a hungry passer-by. They are often plucked when only partially ripe and eaten that way, firm and tart, or carried home to slowly sweeten and soften. Being a wild strain quite different to the Woolworths or Coles varieties, they are usually green even when ripe, and a bit stringy. A favourite sight is of little kids, barely stable on their own feet, grasping a mango half the size of their own head and shoving the half-peeled fruit messily into their mouths, sucking away as best as they can with their toothless gobs, bare chins and chests slippery with sticky juice and bits of yellow flesh.

The third mango season coincides with the second, and describes the heightened state of “fruitiness” that pervades Port Moresby leading up to Christmas. More money floating around (for air fares home, gifts, Christmas indulgences) means a rise in robberies, car-jackings, and hold-ups. I am told that the more nefarious inhabitants of Six Mile stick nails in mangoes and leave them on the road out to Loloata, to rupture tyres and force vehicles to stop in the settlement, easy prey. The whole town gets a bit more feral and febrile than usual. Mid-December is a good time to get out.

The local mangoes tend to be smaller, and are cheaply bought at markets. There is another strain, far more expensive, but worth the extra kina. These are the long, fat, almost-bean-like mangoes that people call “Rabaul Mangoes” (I don’t think they grow exclusively in East New Britain, perhaps they did originally). While about five times more expensive they render mountains of extra flesh. They are sweet and smooth in the mouth. They are perfect.

You may question why, with a mango tree only a few metres from our door, we bother with mangoes from the market. For one, they are not Rabaul Mangoes. Second, the families downstairs (the current Southern Highlanders and the previous Engans) tend to monopolise the harvest, along with the other kids in the compound. We have become accustomed to seeing barely-chewed mangoes strewn about the place, denied their chance to ripen (and our chance to eat them) by kids using them as balls or missiles in their raucous late afternoon games. When their mothers put them to work they get hold of sticks and bash at the lower-hanging fruit, while the bigger kids clamber up the trunk and shake branches, instigating small heavy showers. The little kids look up at the branches expectantly, trying to pick the fruit that will weaken and fall first, then dart without fear of the plummetting objects to claim them with yells of triumph and excitement.

At times we grumble at the lack of sharing, but the fact is that if we don’t go and claim them the mangoes won’t climb the stairs to us. The Engan kids, however, did work out we liked them and sometimes spared us a few from time to time. They worked out our taste for mangoes because one day I decided to climb the tree and get some of my own. The cleft in the trunk is low and it was easy to scramble up. Once up, I started peering through branches to spot the ripest fruits to clamber up for. My studies of the branches distracted me from what was around my feet – that is, a few dozen big red ants. Bracing myself with one hand I lifted a leg to brush them off, only to have another dozen or so ants crawl over my hand and up my arms. I realised I had ants inside my shirt and in my hair. And they were biting. Although these big red ants are not as aggressive as their smaller cousins, they nonetheless had no love for me invading their tree. I tried steeling myself and making a swift climb to grab a fruit or two, but every foothold and branch had more ants waiting to jump on board. Defeated, I climbed down. The three Engan kids were waiting at the bottom of the tree, the two youngest silent with their massive brown eyes, puzzled at this rare sight. The eldest brushed the ants off my arms, legs and back, then helped me pick the ants from my beard, hair and eyebrows, with the youngsters observing from a small distance, quiet and transfixed. Afterwards it just seemed a lot less bother for everyone for them to bring me a mango every now and then.

Rubbish trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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!!!!