Thursday, April 23, 2009

Williams, Ellwell and Pockley

This is the ANZAC Day Post that I started last year… but never finished. It’s been tweaked a little to account for geography (I’m no longer in PNG), certain temporal events (the completion of a roundabout being one) and – importantly – a few changes in attitude afforded through a years more experience; but by-and-large it is as it was when first drafted.

Read on.

ANZAC Day is a special day. In a calendar now saturated with Specialty-Cause Days (World Town Planning Day is November Eighth every year… mark it in your diaries) our collective attention is generally stimulated only by those marked with public holidays (which lamentably, in 2009, ANZAC Day is not); and even then, I suspect, only a few hold any real meaning. Australia Day perhaps rates a controversial mention; but for me the ‘love Australia or fuck off’ sentiment that has enjoyed an unfortunate resurgence in the last few years is hardly cause for national joy. ANZAC Day stands alone as our true national day.

I’ve long had split feelings about ANZAC Day. I’ll always acknowledge the legitimacy in paying tribute to those who’ve fought in war, no matter what the circumstances (even in a conflict as morally ambiguous as the current cock-up in Iraq, the efforts of the service men and women should not go unrecognised; they are there in service to their government and therefore – by degrees – in service to the people of Australia… it’s not their fault we voted with surprisingly little common sense), but I can’t support the use of ANZAC Day to create a fast food version of Australian Spirit that gets consumed in a one day binge than shelved again till April 25 next. The attempt to marry the experience of the Somme with ads for beer or takeaway food chains somehow bleaches ANZAC Day of its meaning… and it’s not worth your while (or mine) to have me unleash my polemic on the ‘ANZAC Day at Gallipoli’ experience now offered to every Antipodean backpacker. ANZAC Day falls just on the right side of a very fine line between commemoration and glorification, a line which gets closer to being crossed each year as the less talented commentators, bereft of original material, resort to bragging about the exploits of ‘our’ diggers.

Last year I - along with a whopping contingent of about nine Australians, a Scot and a Kiwi – commemorated ANZAC Day at the Bitapaka War Cemetery, in the hills to the east of Kokopo (East New Britain, Papua New Guinea). It is a fact, unfortunate in that it is virtually unknown, that the first Australian casualties of World War One fell at Bitapaka. In the early stages of the conflict, before more familiar slaughter of our troops farther from home, a force of Australian soldiers landed in (what was then) German New Guinea to neutralise a radio base that was probably of limited strategic importance. A skirmish ensued, and the lives of a number Australian Service Men were lost. Williams, Ellwell and Pockley are (supposedly; it’s hard to find corroborating evidence) the names of the first Australian casualties of the conflict; they are remembered in the street names in the yet-to-be-completed commercial centre of Kokopo. (It is a disservice to the memories of Pockley and Williams that the intersection of the streets which bear their names is now home to a roundabout that is would go a long way towards winning the ‘worst piece of civil engineering in history’ award at whichever ceremony is held to celebrate such things).

When compared with the background of the war proper, the story of the first Australian casualties appears largely unremarkable; by the time the whole sordid affair was over there were far greater stories of suffering and heroism to linger in our collective minds. But while Gallipoli and the Western Front may be more firmly cemented in Australian lore as our birthplace of nationhood (a marketable notion, but perhaps a little naive), it could easily be argued that the action that claimed the lives of Williams et al had a far more significant bearing on Australian history, as it went a long way towards establishing Australia’s first – and only – colony (which itself was to become more ingrained in Australian wartime legend in the sequel to the war). The mandated territories that are now the independent nation of Papua New Guinea hold a special place in the hearts of many Australians. Many fortunes were made and lost here and many legends were born. Most of you (both of you?) reading will probably never set foot in Rabaul Town, but ask around your circle of friends and family and I’d be surprised if you didn’t find at least one who used to work or holiday there.

None of this would have mattered to Williams, Ellwell and Pockley of course, they were destined not see the fruits of their labours. They fought (the manner in which they fought we’ll never know, so we’ll assume it was with courage) and ultimately they gave their lives for a cause that – particularly at that early stage of the war – they most likely never fully understood. My guess is that they were probably just young blokes out for a bit of adventure when they first set off. What happened after their efforts would be a story that forever belonged to someone else.

Australia will long struggle with identity issues; in less than 110 years of nationhood, we haven’t really had time to work out exactly who we are. We cope with this in part by creating a collage of favoured historical snippets and presenting this as our national character. These snippets – in spite of the peaceful manner in which Nationhood was established – tend to disproportionately favour events of war. Gallipoli is one… so is Kokoda. Bitapaka isn’t, and never will be; which is probably disfavour to the memories of those that fell in the first skirmish… but the business of legend making has no need for pragmatic truths.

And this is not to say the efforts of Williams and company aren’t remembered. The site of that original battle is now the site of the Bitapaka War Cemetery, which is a beautifully designed and maintained monument to Australians that died in East New Britain in both the World Wars (the province also saw some Australia’s most tragic losses of World War Two). And each year a small but dedicated band of Australians will gather there to pay tribute, thus making sure the memories of those who made the first sacrifices are not forgotten.

Maybe next ANZAC Day you’ll pause to reflect a little on them yourself.

And thus ends my ANZAC Day missive. Like most things I produce, it’s long, late, a little disjointed, and not particularly relevant, but it meant something to me at the time of writing. You can probably guess through what’s written above that I’m not easily moved these days by the schmaltz that gets shovelled into the national psyche through TV… but I was moved by ANZAC Day at Bitapaka. I don’t expect any tears to be shed for a handful of men who died nearly a hundred years ago, but it’s nice to think that at least a few more people are now aware of who they were and what they achieved.

Hope you are well wherever you are,


Sunday, April 6, 2008


Sorry I’ve been out of communication for such a long while (no doubt you are used to it by now…). For the best part of the last month I’ve been tied up trying to produce a ‘Subdivision and Stormwater Management Policy’ (it really is as boring as it sounds) for the Physical Planning Board. I actually started to write a post about it, but – try as I might – I just couldn’t make it sound interesting. Maybe I’ll write about it some stage in the future – after all I think its reasonably good work (its not easy simultaneously managing the quality of storm water runoff and eliminating breeding grounds for those bastard malarial mosquitoes) – but for the time being I’m happy just to let it rest.

So a great deal of the last month has seen me (both literally and metaphorically) up to my knees in a quagmire of sorts, trying to work out some drainage and septic standards for the area, leaving not a great deal of room for any other interesting things (or for writing) to happen. One of the few interesting things that did happen was, of course, my thirty-first birthday. This year, in contrast to the dismal effort that was my thirtieth (at which time I had absolutely no friends and thought I had dysentery) I actually celebrated the event.

It wasn’t wholly my idea. I’ve rarely promoted the news of my birthdays as I’ve never seen them as much more than a cause to drag a few good folk out to the pub after work. I’m not much into the ‘big deal’ birthday because I’m no real fan of being the centre of attention when it’s not on my terms. I’d be happy to have to world sing my praises for (say) winning the Nobel Peace Prize (which is unlikely) or captaining the Wallabies to a World Cup Final (even less likely… for a number of reasons), but birthday plaudits come with no more effort than simply being born… it feels like celebrating a bye as a win.

Not that the celebrations were in anyway a bad thing. As much as I love life up here – and I really do, it’s the absolute last frontier of adventure – it is still a frustrating environment where things rarely happen with ease, and – as all small(ish) communities of expatriates have always done in harsh foreign climes, people tend to survive by either being highly social or by embracing solitude; I tried the former last year and found it not to my liking. So this time around, for something different, we decided to go for champagne and nibbles at the foot of the volcano followed by dinner poolside at the Rabaul hotel (where Bruce and Suzie were, as always, marvellous hosts… but for a quick travel tip, a poolside dinner at the Rabaul Hotel is always a better option than a poolside lunch; all water is essentially colourless in darkness… not so in daylight).

The pre-dinner drinks were amazing. Tavurvur is live in-so-much as it spits out voluminous clouds of gas and dust at fairly regular intervals. You can actually drive reasonably close to the volcano and (being in PNG where they haven’t fenced off every bit of fun left in the world) once you’ve parked the car you can walk as close to it as you like. By day the plumes of dust are spectacular enough, but by night – with no harsh tropical sun to distract you – you can see the red of the heat simmering in the crater, and it spits glowing red missiles of rock hundreds of metres into the air. It’s pretty spectacular.

Of course, ‘champagne and nibbles’ was always going to be a problem for me, and I got carried away with the moment; consuming far too much of the former and not nearly enough of the latter. I think I used the (lame) excuse that it was hot and dusty at the volcano, so the champers had to be finished quickly lest it taint. Then again, it was my birthday, I’m sure no-one was looking for excuses. Needless to say that by the time we arrived at the hotel (after a slight ‘punctured tyre’ delay and a slightly longer ‘and the spare is flat too’ delay) I was… chirpy.

Dinner was great, and even though some of the finer details of what actually happened seem to elude me, I do remember reflecting at some stage that:

1) chilli mud crab is impossible to eat in polite company after you’ve drunk too much; and
2) what a thoroughly amazing place this was to be having a birthday dinner.

The Rabaul Hotel (formerly the Hamamas) is one of only a handful of buildings that were left standing in the eastern end of town after a particularly petulant outburst from Tavurvur in September 1994 (the story of the eruption is a story for another time). There is virtually nothing around it except metre thick carpets of solidified ash and the carcasses of some former trade stores and government buildings, long since expired. So at night it stands out like an illuminated beacon an in otherwise essentially desolate landscape, sort of like the restaurant at the end of the universe. I love it.

The dust (obviously particularly problematic on September 19 1994) continues to be a problem for Rabaul to this day. On a bad day it falls on the town like a fine mist that you can’t quite see, but you can feel pricking into your face and ears. And it’s relentless; it builds up on any exposed surfaces and forms small piles and rivulets, it sneaks up under louver windows and (I’m pretty sure this was happening) works its way through air-conditioners. In places where it isn’t allowed to settle, like roads, it becomes a brownish grey fug, spray painting everything around.

The dominant winds mainly spare Rabaul Town at this time of year, instead throwing the dust in a wide arc that reaches from Ralauna Village to the airport, frequently hitting us in Kokopo Town. The staff at my apartment compound beat at it with Papua New Guinean brooms (an essentially pointless cleaning devise made out of metre long strands of straw tied at one end; to use one you have to bend your back knees and swing it in a low, wide arc… like you’re cutting cane) but all that really does is stir it into the air for a short while before it settles back down in exactly the same place it was, or (more likely) finds it’s way into my flat. People pray for rain (which we haven’t had all that much of), but all rain seems to do is make it set. Its horrible and persistent stuff and I’ve pretty much had enough of it for this year.

Anyway, that’s the elongated story of my breakfast dinner at the Rabaul Hotel, with a lengthy aside to discuss dust. So I’m thirty-one now… old enough to know better (but not sure yet what it is I’m meant to know), yet young enough to still have a good time; and a good time I’m continuing to have. And that’s pretty much all I have to write about just at the moment; so I’ll cut my losses and leave it there.

Hope you are well wherever you are,


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Febrile Technology

Our work computer picked up a virus the other day. There are about eight computers for the entire office (our section has one to share between four of us), and it seems to me they all get used as much for playing Pac Man and (worse still) playing music as they do for work. The games and music are shared around by USB Thumb Drives which, of course, are perfect incubators for viruses. So the office is electronically pestilent, a bit like a PC ward riddled with golden staf.

A computer virus – for those who don’t know – is a small and self-replicating program designed by semi-intelligent fuckwits with no other purpose on this planet than to make life difficult for people they are never likely to meet. They infest bits of your computer you didn’t know you had and destroy bits of it you thought were superfluous… until they’re gone. A friend who was somewhat into computers once told me that computer aficionados often aspire to create successful viruses (i.e. the ones that do a lot of damage to a lot of computers) because it would give them ‘intellectual’ kudos, presumably among other computer aficionados. Personally I don’t think these people are any more intellectual than myself, they just spend what limited intellect they do have (and 18 hours a day) sitting in dark rooms surrounded by empty pizza boxes and diet soft drinks putting their superior knowledge about one subject (i.e. computers) to extremely poor use. Why would someone get kudos for that? The international town planning fraternity would scorn me if used the same logic to maliciously inconvenience strangers with deliberately poor development.

Anyway, I’m sure the kudos seekers would get a real kick out of knowing they managed to bugger the boot-up system on one of only eight computers dedicated land use and planning for over 300 000 people in a Province where every resource needs to be dedicated to improving lives and livelihoods. And I’m sure the kudos seekers would be even more pleased to know that it cost just over half the annual maintenance budget (money is tight here) to fix the problem. That’s not ‘half the annual computer maintenance budget’… its ‘half the annual maintenance budget’, full-stop. So let’s hope we don’t blow too many light bulbs this year eh?

I’m annoyed (can you tell?) for a number of reasons. Firstly, as I’ve pretty much gone into already, this whole thing to me is pointlessly inconveniencing. As least ‘spyware’ has a financial incentive (albeit a nefarious one). But this is just a schoolboy prank with a keyboard; and wouldn’t I like to take the schoolboy responsible to the back of the sheds and punch some commonsense into him?

Secondly, the whole infection thing came about through what I consider to be a thorough misuse of work computers. I’m not being a nark. I can live my trainees spending a bit of down time playing computer snooker (so long as they get their work done), and I don’t even mind some music being played on work computers. But I personally think that island reggae sounds like cats fighting to a backbeat, and the office workers (several of them, simultaneously playing different songs), like it loud and distorted. It’s a real headache generator – and certainly a big distraction from actual work.

But most of all I’m annoyed because it was me (trying to eliminate the virus) that managed to delete all the important files… apparently. Somewhere, in between realising we had an infestation and the whole system going tits-up, I managed to bungle healing process by pressing the ‘delete’ button rather than the ‘move to vault’ button. It’s all gobbledegook to me, and I’d simply (and wrongly) assumed that the ‘virus checker’ software knew its purpose in life just as much as the virus did, and would make my computer better, rather than fucking it up completely. It didn’t.

I lost a bit of credibility on that one. I lost even more credibility shortly thereafter – right about the moment the computer first failed to fire – when asked by one of my trainees ‘at least you backed everything up first… right?’. I think from memory I responded with some sort of muffled grunting/gurgling sound that should have told anyone within earshot the answer was ‘no’, but he asked again for good measure.

So its become clear that I’m going to be one of those ‘do as I say, not as I do’ type managers, the sort that go to the trouble of making deliberate and costly mistakes for the educational benefit of their subordinates. I’m sure the whole team, me included, have learned some valuable computing lessons from the episode.

The good news is that the virus didn’t do any permanent damage. All the important stuff is still safely stored on the hard drive; we just couldn’t get at it for a few days. When I say ‘all the important stuff’, I’m no longer referring to games and music; they are unfortunate victims of the new ‘Physical Planning IT Policy’, which put simply, is ‘Just Don’t’. I can’t say I’m missing the music yet… mainly because it’s still beaming at me from the remnant seven computers.

And so that’s the latest story from ‘James’ Adventures in Computerland’. Even blogging is a technological stretch for me, so it stands to reason that a ‘Trojan Horse’ in one of my ‘Win32 Files’ is going to cause me a bit of grief. At least I’ve made the virus-writing-kudos-seeking dickheads happy for a while.

But if you are one of those virus-writing-kudos-seeking dickheads, consider this: The average wage in this Province is around K270 per month (around about $115 Australian). The majority of people here will never even use a computer, let alone own one. And of those who are earning next to nothing and will never use a computer, about forty-thousand or so are living in reasonably imminent danger, and, its assumed, will one day need relocation from their homes because a volcano swallowed their land. The Division of Lands consists of about twenty people who are working very hard (in between game of Pac Man and a bit of dreadful music) to find a suitable place for them to go if and when the time comes. You may well scoff at the work that’s being done – that’s easy enough – but these people are, in their own important way, saving lives. And so, Mr. virus-writing-kudos-seeking dickhead… what did you do today?

Hope you are well wherever you are,


Monday, January 21, 2008

'Twas the Summer of Force Majeure

‘Twas the Summer of Force Majeure

So this is my first entry for 2008 and – as it turns out – my first entry in a little over six months. I’m sorry (and frankly a little embarrassed) for having dropped off the radar for such a long time. Although I hate excuses, I’ll offer these in my favour;

1) with national elections being held in both Australia and Papua New Guinea in the latter half of 2007, to continue blogging would have put me at risk of biting one of, if not both of, the hands that fed – and it was therefore better to avoid all risk and stay offline;
2) after six months living in Papua New Guinea, those things that I used to find side-splittingly amusing became routine, and therefore not worth writing about;
3) after six months living in Papua New Guinea I finally found a social life, and therefore had less time to write about things;
4) my (long awaited) self-contained accommodation came with satellite TV… therefore robbing me of about 20 hours of my life per week; and
5) I’d challenge Life-be-in-it’s Norm for title of laziest living Australian.

Of all points above, number five probably carries the most weight.

However… I return to PNG in 2008 a new (slightly fatter, thanks to Christmas indulgence) man, determined to once more be the blogger I could have been.

And so we begin for 2008…

After a particularly wet Christmas/New Years break – thanks largely to a ‘tropical low’ (read unnamed cyclone) that chose to holiday in Ballina at the same time I did – I flew out for Port Moresby on the morning of January 8th feeling as though I’d somehow wasted an opportunity for a month-long holiday. Whilst I’ve long said you can’t let the forces of nature stop you from having a good time, this is precisely what I managed to do.

Undeterred however, I vowed to return to PNG – surfboard and diving equipment in hand – ready to make the most of a year of fun and adventure. My new philosophy is to dedicate as much time as needed to working through the week, but to take each and every weekend as my own… we’ll see how it goes. Little did I know whilst boarding the plane that the tropical storm was only the beginning of nature’s buggering up of my travel plans.

The flight to Moresby was late departing… and therefore late arriving, and by the time I’d argued with Customs that my baggage had been checked right through to Rabaul… and then found out that I was wrong and it hadn’t, I was left with exactly four minutes to check in for my domestic leg. Thankfully air travel in PNG is not the anally retentive circus that it is in Australia, and they are happy to hold the plane over on the tarmac until all prospective passengers have boarded. Drenched in sweat from the 300m run from the international to domestic terminals, I finally bumbled onto the F100, happy to have made my flight and finally being on the way home. Exhausted and not particularly talkative, I put my ipod on and caught up with some much needed sleep.

The sleep was rudely interrupted about fifty minutes later when the plane began jolting and weaving in some sort of airborne interpretive dance on the entry into Hoskins airport (a brief stopover in West New Britain to disgorge about five passengers before the final leg to Rabaul). The First Officer informed us over the intercom that the 50 knot (it might have been kilometre-per-hour) tailwinds wouldn’t allow us to land from the preferred end of the runway, and that the other end was shrouded in a rain squall anyway, so we were just sort of killing time and waiting for the weather to break (much like I’d spent my summer holidays). After about twenty minutes of Fokker aerobatics they managed to land the plane in a terrifying, yet perfectly executed, manner and disgorge the five grateful passengers. Then they informed us that due to ‘severe volcanic activity’ in Rabaul we wouldn’t be continuing on to our second leg and would, in fact, be returning to Port Moresby. The audible groan from me alone would have drowned out the noise of the engines.

As a quick explanatory note before proceeding, ‘severe volcanic activity’ isn’t quite as bad as it sounds. Our volcano is a little bit like a moody friend; it’s slightly unpredictable and you don’t really know how it’s going to act on any given day, but it’s rarely murderous. On the odd day it throws out thick plumes of dust that are, granted, a pain in the arse, but pose no threat to life or property… unless of course that property is a five million dollar jet engine (NB: this is a guess, I’ve never been in the market for a jet engine, so I don’t know how much they cost. Sorry if I’m way off and have offended any aviation enthusiasts reading). So occasionally during the wet season, the wind and volcanic conditions combine and conspire to close the airport for a couple of days at a time. If it was happening to anyone else but me, I’d say it was no big deal.


Philosophers and mariners alike will tell you that any port is a fair destination in a storm. I figured that a volcano would probably justify a similar course of action and sort harbourage in the company of a couple of expatriate mine workers who were on my plane and en route to various sites in the New Guinea Islands when their plans were also disrupted.

The benefit of this was that they were fundamentally decent blokes who – like me – didn’t mind a beer. The detriment in this was that they, unlike me, actually could drink… and drink they did. For four straight days the volcano did its thing and we that were left did ours. For four straight days we played out our charade of splitting our time between the airport and the hotel bar… for four straight days we drank.

It had been six long years since I’d left university, and in that time I’d forgotten what a proper bender actually felt like. After the first day time and place began to lose or meaning as 3am trips to the airport morphed into 9am trips to the bar, and morphed again into 2pm trips back to the airport. Standard meal and sleep times were forgotten as bar pizzas were consumed whenever hunger struck and sleep was grabbed in short intervals when needed. Sleep, when it did happen, was disrupted by fear of early morning starts and fear of later morning resumption of drinking. On the second day I awoke in terror, thinking that I was malarial, before realising I’d set the air conditioner to 14 degrees the night before and was lying spread-eagled on top of the bedclothes, more hypothermic than anything else. On the third day I was still unable to board a flight, but my bags somehow managed to find their way aboard a plane going who-knows-where; the ground staff had to radio the taxiing pilot and bring him back from the end of the runway so that I could have them back. On the fourth day, on the verge of mental and physical shutdown, I began to believe that the airport at Rabaul would never open again, and I began to panic. Somewhere in my beer fuelled lack of reason, it seemed entirely possible that I’d be left in Port Moresby forever and that this bender would consume the rest of my short life. It sounds like fun, but both the liver and wallet agreed that it was entirely unfeasible – so I began to explore alternative options, of which there are few.

And then… like a miracle straight from the Old Testament, my phone rang at about 9pm Friday night with news, through someone who new someone, that there was a top secret escape being planned by a few well connected people and that I, and my mine working / drinking companions could be part of the action. Sure… it would involve a 2am trip to the airport to catch a plane to an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (yet still within the territorial boundary of Papua New Guinea… a distinction that needs to be made in a story like this), and from there a charter flight back to Rabaul, but I was willing and able to make the journey. Well, willing certainly, but perhaps no so much able. Whether it was the four days of solid beer consumption, or something I’d eaten (my guess is the former), by the time the 2am wake-up call came I’d been up for an hour already and had read most of December’s Australian Planner in the bathroom, and was beginning to have some serious doubts about my ability to spend half of the next day travelling. These doubts however, were trumped by even more serious doubts about my ability to survive any more days in Port Moresby, so I rummaged through my luggage until I found a couple of Loperamide which didn’t look too out of date, swallowed them with a silent prayer, and made my way downstairs to catch a lift to the airport with Hotel Security.

The rest of the story is routine, and therefore doesn’t make for particularly interesting reading unfortunately; all the flights worked out as planned and I was back in my flat by 10am that morning. I spent the rest of the day lying on the floor watching TV and, you’ll no doubt be pleased to know, suffered no further health problems.

And so here I am back in Kokopo and back at work. As with all good holidays, I return from this one to a mountain of problems that I should have addressed before I left (hoping without much conviction that someone else would deal with them while I was away… they didn’t). And as with all good holidays, my first week back at work was spent in holiday mode and I wouldn’t have been much less productive if I was still back at the hotel bar in Moresby. This week I’m sure I’ll be back in serious Town Planner mode… lets see how long it lasts.

To all those I didn’t get a chance (or more accurately ‘bother’) to catch up with when I was back in Australia, I’m truly sorry. Despite using the weather as an excuse, it was inexcusable on my behalf (the phones were still working at least). I can’t offer much more than to say I promise that next time – whenever that may be – I’ll make a much more concerted effort.

Happy 2008 everyone.

Hope you are well wherever you are,


Monday, July 2, 2007

Language Barriers

Australians seem to spread like fungus. In even the most distant pockets of the planet, places so remote that they are seemingly immune to tourism, you’re as likely as not to be resting idly in your own headspace when you hear that melodious nasal drawl drifting through the hum of background noise, signalling the presence of a compatriot. I’ve always found it reassuring for some reason. That common bond ensures at least a temporary conversation which invokes the comforts of home; a lot of ground can be broken with the salutary ‘whereabouts in Oz are you from, mate?’.

I’ve read plenty of theories about the ‘Australian Diaspora’, but I’m not going to go into any detail on them here (almost as much of my family lives overseas than does in Australia). Similarly, I have my own view on the cost/benefits of travel and tourism, but that too can wait for another time. In this post it’s sufficient to say that – in a world where Australia seems to be slipping in so many benchmark measurements – it’s good to know we are still competitive with the leaders in something. Aside from the Kiwi’s (bless them), the Japanese, the Swedes and (perhaps) the British, I can’t think of any nationality that could hold a candle to Australian’s for the International Travellers mantle.

PNG, of course, is a special example. By virtue of geography and historic ties, the locals here are more than familiar with the Australian expatriate; at the latest count I think there were an estimated 8, 000 Australian citizens in the country. By further virtue of the saturation of Australian TV they are subjected to (poor bastards), they should also be familiar with the Australian dialect, but most are still baffled by the occasional colloquialisms I drop into conversation.

The other day when we came across a ute fully laden with 20kg packs of rice (about ten of them), I remarked innocently that there was ‘more rice than you could poke a stick at’. Clearly all I meant was that there was a ‘lot of rice’; and clearly (from the look on the face of my colleague) it had been interpreted as ‘I would like to get out and prod all that rice, but there is just too much of it’. Sensing his confusion, I tried to explain that it was something that is said in Australia to express wonder at an amount; to which he graciously nodded in faux-understanding before pointing out another unremarkable local landmark in order to change the topic. I get the feeling that neither the local language nor the universal Pidgin have equivalent pointless sayings, and that my colleague – taking a literal interpretation of the saying – still thinks that Australians measure the quantity of rice by some bizarre equation involving a stick, which he has no desire to learn more about.

Whilst spoken English is generally pretty good here (considering it is at best a third language), there are some subtle throw backs from Pidgin that still cause confusion. For example, questions are never asked in the negative in Pidgin – so if I were to ask (in English) ‘you haven’t seen the movie?’ the answer I’ll get is ‘yes, I haven’t seen the movie’. This isn’t too hard when the answer is provided in extended form, but can be confusing when it isn’t. Consider the following conversation I had with Tim (my former chef) when I was still living in the lodge (see postscript):

JB: ‘so, you haven’t got any pork then?’
TIM: ‘yeah’
JB: ‘oh, well… I’ll have the sweat and sour pork in that case.’
TIM: ‘ah, sorry? You want sweet and sour sauce with vegetables?’
JB: ‘just the standard sweet and sour pork thanks mate’
TIM: ‘oh, sorry, no gat’
JB: ‘oh, so you don’t have any pork then?’
TIM: ‘yeah’
JB: ‘yeah, you have no pork?’
TIM: ‘yeah’
JB: ‘got it, I’ll have the steak in that case’.

(Hmmm…. that seems to lose quite a bit in the retelling, but it’s the best example I can think of).

Anyway, my Pidgin is coming along reasonably well; I can usually understand words that are spoken around me, and can even hold a basic conversation if forced to. It really is – as I’ve been told by the locals several times – just broken English. But it’s badly broken, mixed up, then thrown at you like a handful of sand… it’s not as easy to pick up as it sounds.

I’m also working a little on my Kaunua… and that’s a whole different kettle of fish. Kaunua is the local dialect (there are 800 odd of them in PNG) and is one of those languages that contain subtle noises not normally found in English enunciation. Sounds that can only be produced by contorting and rolling the tongue – something that doesn’t come naturally to me – but are apparently essential to give inflection to what you are trying to say. Occasionally, when I attempt the local ‘goodbye’ of ‘yohrah’ I can pick up the giggles as I’m walking away and the locals repeat ‘yooorarr’ – which I guess is their equivalent of Australians making fun of the Japanese not being able to pronounce ‘L’ sounds (‘Harro’). I don’t take any great offence at it.

Language is a bit of a funny thing here in PNG at this point in their history. Most people still speak their local dialect as a first language – a tradition I hope they manage to retain – and the lingua franca of Pidgin is pretty much universally spoken, allowing people from different areas to communicate. And then English is spoken as a kind of language of business (as well as being the language of the national press and broadcast media). So depending on the situation they find themselves in, the Papua New Guineans need to be proficient in at least three different languages. But while most people are conversational in English, a lot don’t possess the higher proficiency needed for activities such as report writing… which can lead to some hilarious – yet tragic – typos; an officially gazetted planning document I was referencing the other day had PNG being ‘prawn’ (as opposed to ‘prone’) to natural disaster, and this is – sadly – only one of many, many examples.

It shouldn’t be this way. Having to conduct official business in your third language is always going to be hard, and only the most skilled linguists are going to be able to do it without error. So the poor Papua New Guineans are forced into a situation where the work that goes out in their names contains the sorts of glaring errors that draw derision from the uninformed reader, and draw attention from the true quality of the content. In short, to the biased observer, the written work makes the locals look a lot less intelligent than they actually are, which is nothing short of a tragedy in a nation trying to assert itself in the global economy. As a parallel, if I were to write a report in my third language, I guess it would have to be in Japanese (which I did for one year in high school); it would have to consist entirely of the fourteen words I can remember (ten of them being numerals). So the locals are actually doing remarkably well.

Anyway (as is rapidly becoming my catchphrase)… it’s not my problem. My first few months were defined by me listing all the problems I could see and compiling mental solutions. Then exhaustion forced me to stop. There are a lot of problems. And there are a lot very smart and very dedicated people (both local and expatriate) working to fix them. I’m a Town Planner (and not even a particularly dedicated one), I’m here to work on town planning issues; the linguists can ponder language.

But as a word of advice… when you are next at a BBQ with a loud and opinionated person (you know the sort I’m talking about… me, essentially) who is full of knowledge they’re willing to share about how to fix the problems of the world; tell them in your best Strine to ‘shut the f*ck up, mate’. The real people who know how to fix the problems of the world are out there doing it – despite the language barriers – everyday, without their help.

Hope you are well wherever you are.


Postscript: and yes… after very nearly six months of frustration, I’m now resident in my very own self-contained unit. I could go on forever about the simple joys of being able to cook my own food (bangers and mash has never tasted so good), or cable TV, but I’ve rabbited on for long enough already in this post.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Lassul Government Station

The word came round last Thursday that the following day (they’re not big on giving you a lot of forewarning here in PNG) there’d be a team going by boat down to the Lassul Government Station to decide on the site of a new health centre, and they’d like my input. ‘Location of a new health centre? Sounds like the sort of thing I could help with’, bullshitted Burford, whilst furiously trying to work out where he could lay his hands on some snorkelling equipment and a fishing rod on such short notice.

I fronted at the dock at the allotted time, and was seconds away from buying a hand line and lure, before being told the ‘fast’ boat was broken down, and we’d be going by ‘slower’ boat… but to get to the ‘slower’ boat, we’d have to take a short drive to Vunamarita first. I could see my travelling companions doing a bit of mental arithmetic – clearly trying to figure out if they’d get to spend any of the Queens Birthday long weekend with their families – and decided that the recreation time looked like it was going to be fairly limited on this trip after all. I – wisely as it turned out – decided against the purchase of the fishing equipment.

Sure enough, we left Kokopo by 4wd at around nine in the morning (after god-only-knows how much farting about trying to get diesel and radioing ahead to ensure the boat would be there… which it wasn’t), and arrived at the departure point a mere two-hours later. It’s testimony to the local road conditions and geography that in those two-hours, we travelled (by my estimate) a straight line distance of about 50km. This is made more amazing by the fact that Simon (our surveyor/driver) was driving – where possible – at speeds that made the PMV drivers we passed (see posting of 28 May) look on in awe… he’s obviously a graduate of the Searles School of Survey Vehicle Skippering. Its even further testimony to the local road conditions and geography that that our (supposed) departure point, after that kidney rattling ride from hell, was (by accurate measurement) exactly 8km in a straight line from where we wanted to be, but there was no safe road by which to get there.

The lack of road infrastructure would prove to be a slight problem, as pretty much the only way of accessing the site was by boat, and ours wasn’t there to meet us. There was a boat available, and we were told we could use it… if we only could locate some petrol. Unsurprisingly, someone knew someone who had some petrol they might be willing to sell us, and after we found this person, stole him away from whatever it was he was doing (which was nothing, so far as I could tell) and negotiated a price with him (approximately the deposit on a house for a tank) we were away.

By this stage it was already on the lee side of 1pm, which – if the estimates of a 10 minute boat trip were to prove correct – would still give us plenty of time to survey the site and get back in time for dinner (which was important to me as I, in what is pretty much a first for 2007, actually had plans for a Friday night). I was still cautiously optimistic. And the estimates of a 10 minute boat trip were almost correct (it was about 15 minutes from when we hit open water), but they failed to account for the 45 minute African Queen style trip down stream before we could get out into the bay.

So by around 2:30pm we disembarked at the site of the existing health centre – which is apparently sinking, although I could see no signs of it – and took a quick trip around the bay to the preferred site for the new health centre. I use the term ‘preferred site’ loosely, as ‘selected site’ would have been have been a far more accurate description. As the locals proudly led me to the exact location of their new hospital, I became aware that my input into the site selection process was likely to be zero… this was a decision made long before I came on the scene. Technically I could have protested that my expertise in health centre relocations was being wasted and that if they were going to make decisions without consulting me then I might as well go home. Technically I could have said all that and more, but it looked like they’d selected a reasonably good site, and the hour long trip in the un-sanded fibreglass hull of the boat had left me feeling like I’d run naked through a grove of Prickly Pears, I was tired and sunburnt and just wanted to get home. So I congratulated them on their natural site selection skills, let Simon take a few measurements with the GPS (presumably so he could prove that there actually is a middle to nowhere), and urged the crew back onto the boat so we could make our painful way home.

The trip back across the bay was rougher, and I’d begun wondering just how much fibreglass could be left in the hull – as most of it seemed to be firmly stuck in me – when we crossed the bar and headed back up stream. This time the 45 minute African Queen style trip was this time supplemented with a 45 minute stop so the locals could pick water hyacinth for dinner. I have no idea what time it was when we finally got back in the car, but it was verging on dusk, so the trip home (on the same roads and at the same speed as the trip out) was mostly in the dark. Every now and again I could make out the whites of my eyes in the side mirror, but this was rare as they were firmly shut for fear of them bouncing out of my head (or just for fear in general) for most of the trip.

I finally presented myself at dinner a mere 1.5 hours late, but no-one seemed to mind too much… this is, after all, PNG. And if nothing else, I learnt that overexposure to unfinished fibreglass makes me go red and blotchy. With the added effect of the sunburn, I looked like a bowl of glazed cherries, which seemed to cause amusement amongst my newly made friends.

And that’s the story of my work trip to Lassul Government Station. Admittedly it could be interpreted as 1, 031 words of complaint, but nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is I’m used to my input in all manner of working matters being nothing more than token, and after nearly six years in Town Planning, I’ve learnt to not take any great offence at this. And as for the trip… well, on any given Friday this time last year I probably would have been busy ferreting away on another Statement of Environmental Effects for another uninteresting two-lot boundary adjustment that, try as a might, I could not feign interest in (my apologies to the folk back at work). Given the choice between the two, I’ll take the splinters in my arse any day. I’ve decided to take the road less travelled… it just so happens that it’s less travelled because it’s in a frightful state and the drivers are suicidal.

Hope you are well wherever you are,


Postscript: The news of Steph’s passing came to me like a kick in the ribs, not least of all because I thought she was on the mend. Her optimism through the initial treatment made it seem – to me at least – like she was being treated for something more like a broken bone than a terminal illness. I’d honestly never entertained the thought of anything less than full a recovery.

Right now I can’t find the words to say what I want to say. This postscript is on its fifth draft, and still it isn’t there (I’ve danced with the idea of saying nothing at all, but that wouldn’t seem right either). Suffice to say, Tickner and Steph feature prominently in some of my best memories of London (my favourite being Tickner singing Total Eclipse of the Heart to her in G.A.Y nightclub… it’s a long story), and there’ll now be a hole in patchwork that can’t be filled. My deepest sympathies are extended to Tickner, my life is the better for having known you both.

Vale Steph, you will be missed.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Back to Where it all Began (sort of)

I could probably subtitle this post ‘be careful what you wish for’, because it’s about blessings and curses, or perhaps more aptly about (with deference to Kipling) meeting the impostors of triumph and disaster and treating them as one. Although – to be fair – the ‘disasters’ in this case are pretty insignificant.

If you’ve read between the lines for the past five months, you could probably pick up a hint of frustration at my lack of workplace direction. You would think that as a person with a distinct lack of personal direction, I’d fit comfortably into having a ‘lack of workplace direction’, but I’ve found myself craving an authority figure to order me to ‘do this now’. Self-motivation and I seem share a tenuous relationship, and when my only deadlines are self imposed, I know I’m only letting myself down when I miss them. And as a self-supervisor I’m pretty forgiving (‘I was like that when I was his age’), so there isn’t a great deal of incentive for me to get anything done.

So when – a mere three months ago – an SOS call came from the Provincial Headquarters for a Town Planner, I pretty-much dislocated my shoulder enthusiastically putting my hand up for the task (metaphorically… of course). The Provincial Office (sort of a over-arching body in the way a State Department would be to Local Government in Australia) had lost it’s Physical Planner and its Assistant Physical Planner in quick succession, and needed someone urgently to deal with the ever-growing mountain of development applications. I would be assisted by the Physical Planner from the Regional Office (another tier of authority for which there is no real equivalent in Australia – never let it be said the Papua New Guineans are under-regulated) and would get my own trainee Planner to mould into a model of mediocrity in my own image. And I would still get to work on the Kerevat Plan (my main focus), but could draft others in the office to help me on it. Things were looking up.

About three weeks ago I started working with the Provincial Office (I just showed up one morning) and can now safely say that I have plenty of ‘workplace direction’. Unfortunately that direction is in Development Control, which is a direction I’d rather not be heading (D.C is a branch of my profession I enjoy about as much as in-grown toenails). Although I’m still technically blessed with self-supervision, I’ve found myself at the beck-and-call of every landowner/developer in the Province; and in a startling example of how we now live in a Global Village, the incessant complaints of the public here are exactly the same as they were in Australia (which were exactly the same as they were in London). I’ve already had the ‘why can’t I do it, my neighbour did?’ complaint (twice) and the ‘why are you taking so long to deal with my application’ complaint (numerous times – perhaps justified given that the decision making Board didn’t sit for five months before I arrived). I’m still waiting for the ‘my neighbours extension is too close to my bathroom window’ and the ‘what are you going to do about the illegal satellite dishes’ complaints, which I’m sure are on the way. At least we don't have mini-roundabouts.

This should in no way be taken as diminishing the excellent work done by Development Control Planners – who make up the bulk of the profession – those who are at the forefront urban policy every day of their lives. For those non-planners reading (both of you), while you may not know it, your life is undoubtedly better for decisions made by these folk on a daily basis. It’s just not my cup of tea. I tired long ago of trying to describe the bigger picture to a public looking through the wrong end of the binoculars.

And I guess it’s no big deal. Despite having to put up with the crap I swore I’d never put up with again, I’m still enjoying my time here the big office a lot more that I was out in the District. Hopefully when I get my trainee I’ll be able to palm-off some of the workload, as well as instilling a bitter dislike of humankind into a new and optimistic young thing, thus preparing him for a long and distinguished public service career.

The biggest upside of being in the Provincial Capital, however, has been the opportunity to meet others in a similar position to myself – and therefore enjoy the embryonic stages of a social life. On Friday night I had drinks – with other people – for essentially the first time in 2007, and then backed this up on Saturday with a hike – with other people – up one of the extinct volcanoes (perhaps not the smartest way to spend the first day after your first decent drinking session in a while, but I made the summit… others didn’t). And then on Sunday, I went diving at Sub-base and some wreck whose name I’ve now forgotten. This is a clear winner in the ‘best weekend’ category so far this year, the previous leader probably having something to do with doing Suduko and watching the Sunday Footy Show.

Anyway… all-in-all I think I can safely say things are looking up. Casting aside for a moment the unfortunate regression in my working life, there is a positive aura around the future. And while I might spend much of the next nineteen months cursing the attitudes of the public and the apparent pointlessness of it all, at least I’ll have my sanity. So if you know of anyone out there looking to do a two-bedroom extension here in Kokopo, feel free to give them my number… I’m here to help.

Hope you are well wherever you are,