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,


Sunday, May 27, 2007

Papua New Guinea’s public transport system doesn’t enjoy the reputation of being amongst the best in the world (and don’t get too cocky, we’re not so much better off in Australia. Well… no, actually we run rings around them… but we could still do with a lot of improvement), but at least up here in East New Britain it is passable.

The ‘system’ (a generous description) involves a fleet of publicly licensed (privately owned) mini-vans tearing all over the peninsular on fairly loosely defined routes. These are known as PMVs (short for Public Motor Vehicle). There are route numbers (No. 4 route, for example, runs between Kokopo and Kerevat… most of the time), but the designated routes are often ancillary to the whims of the drivers. It’s not unusual to find your bus diverting from the familiar track to pick-up a relative or to drop some beer of at one of the trade stores that are off the main road. It’s no big deal.

In addition to the fleet of mini-vans, there are also ‘local’ buses that do a set route from certain villages to town. These are generally big open bed trucks with makeshift wooden bench seats across the back with a capacity of somewhere between 20 and about a million (depending on time of day). These ‘local’ buses are dear to me, as they are easily recognised (they are all named – my two favourites being Pearls and the Silom Queen) and once you’ve travelled with them a few times the drivers recognise you and stop at your door. This is particularly important on the busy days, as it’s near impossible to signal your attention to dismount from the middle of about thirty people on a ‘rush hour’ bus… in the early days I regularly had to walk a couple of hundred metres back down the road after the bus had trundled past the lodge without looking like stopping.

Up until recently I was catching the No.4 buses to and from work. In theory I had an allocated daily lift to pick me up and drop me off, and therefore could avoid the pain of public transport, but when I put this theory to the rigorous scientific test of waiting for my lift to arrive, it was generally found wanting. It shouldn’t have been too much of an issue, after all, over 90% of the population (a Burford estimate – I’m having trouble proving this at the moment, the most recent reliable data being from 1991), relies on the PMV network and have no complaints, and it is cost effective (a four Kina round trip), but it would be a stretch to say I ever really enjoyed the travel. I don’t enjoy standing out in the crowd too much, and it’s hard to be anonymous when you are the only white person fumbling his way to the back of a packed capsule not much bigger than an average double-bed. And (without being too disparaging) the locals really don’t make things easy on themselves – or me - either. There seems to be an unspoken rule that the seat you first occupy is the one you stay in for the trip. As such, a bus will pull up, half passengers will disembark so I can get to the vacant seat in the middle (normally bumping a small child in the head with my laptop bag on the way through), those passengers will then re-board, and away we go… until 500 metres up the road someone sitting behind me reaches their stop, then half the passengers, plus me, plus the guy behind me, disembark, then re-board (minus the dislodged passenger), move off, until the next person wishes to leave, etc, etc, etc. I would’ve thought a bit of prudent reshuffling could make the trip far more efficient, but it never happens, and who am I to suggest it to people who’ve used this system their whole lives?

They’ve also recently filled the numerous potholes in the road that runs past the lodge (coincidentally enough only five weeks out from the election), which has turned out to be a curse in disguise. Whereas previously the drivers were restricted weaving in and out of canyons of varying depths for pretty much the whole trip, now they can indulge their Cool Runnings fantasies and pilot these minibuses at experimental speeds as if they were on a bobsleigh (bobsled? Have I Americanised there?) track. At first I found it terrifying, but I’ve since learned to vest my trust in the drivers, figuring that they do this all day every day, so they’re probably better judges of their abilities than I am. The exception to this rule coming the other day when I happened to look up to the cockpit – the view out the side windows of a blurred green of miscellaneous vegetation passing by at the speed of sound was making me feel sick – to see the driver and his co-driver passing a 375ml bottle of rum back and forward to one another. On this occasion I assessed the possible scenarios, and all of them ended with me getting a closer look at the windscreen than I’d really like… I decided it wasn’t such a bad day to be taking a walk for the remaining two kilometres to the lodge.

Anyway, it’s academic, as I’ve been transferred to the main office in Kokopo (meaning I can catch the friendly lumbering giants of Pearls and Silom Queen), and have been assured that I’ll soon be moving to that same town (meaning I’ll be able to walk to work… and, with any luck, have a social life). Hopefully the PMVs will be removed from my life altogether – or at least relegated to the optional category of Adventure Sports for when I’m in the need of a dose of adrenalin.

Now… here’s the part of the post where I relate the observations back to the theory of town planning (possibly the part where everyone else stops reading), lending some legitimacy to the hours of work time that I spend writing the blog in the first place.

For all my complaining about the PMVs, I have to acknowledge that they are nothing less than an essential public service. Not so much in the way that State Rail or the London Underground (that is, public transport as we would normally think of it) are essential services, but in more in the way that (say) reticulated sewerage is an essential service (a bad comparison because we don’t have reticulated sewerage here… but I’m sure you get the point).

Private car ownership here is virtually non-existent, or at least extremely rare compared with industrialised nations. And the few private cars that are on the road are normally:

1) nowhere near roadworthy; and/or
2) overflowing with passengers.

Add to this the fact that PNG is one of the least urbanised nations on earth, and you start to build a picture of how important mass transit is. For anybody other than the fourteen per cent of the population that live in the urban centres or the ten per cent of those that don’t but have access to private transport, almost any access to the formal economy has to be through the PMV system. So if, hypothetically speaking, all PMVs were withdrawn from service tomorrow, the Province would grind to a halt.

Of course, the PMVs won’t stop running tomorrow… the market won’t let them. Public Transport in Australia (in comparison) is so heavily reliant on subsidy that it (sadly) falls more into the category of ‘welfare’ than that it does ‘infrastructure’. Back home, basically, people are given a choice between their private cars and public transport (unless you live in regional Australia, where the latter is fictional), and – lets face it – public transport can be a f*cking horrible experience. If you’ve ever stood in the middle of a sea of civilization that smells of wet animal and is lubricated by human grease on a peak hour train, you’ll know what I mean. Engwicht urges us to use our encounters on public transport as in inspiration in our own lives – observe the struggle of the elderly to come to terms with your own inevitable aging etc – but my experiences usually led to me developing a wholly negative view of humanity. I still use public transport wherever possible (and practical) out of moral obligation, but there’s no way on earth I’m going to enjoy the experience. Most other people simply exercise choice and avoid it all together. Not so here. Here, there is no choice; you either travel by PMV (with all its failings) or you don’t travel at all , there is a clear winner.

But there is a change in the air. As economic development progresses (often seemingly with the expedience of plate tectonics), private car ownership is just as surely on the rise (although, admittedly, at about the same sluggish rate). But slowly and surely, with every additional new car on the road, the wholly unsubsidised (and largely unregulated) PMV network is just that little bit less sustainable. I guess there will come a day when there aren’t enough readily available passengers to maintain the PMV network as it stands… and then the drivers will have to make business choices about either putting their prices up, or shutting down their operations. Either way, the non-car owning population are the ones who will lose out.

And I guess if you follow this through to its natural conclusion, as PMVs become less frequent and more expensive, the cycle lends itself to private car ownership becoming a more attractive option for more and more people, further marginalising those who are at the bottom of the economic pile. And as traditional thinking will have it, no good can come of this at all… the inevitable results are congestion, pollution and alienation. It’s all obvious in theory, but you try telling any local that they shouldn’t aspire to private car ownership, and see how far it gets you.

While I for one won’t miss bumping along ill-maintained roads in a seat that long ago lost its cushioning ability, I still think it’s a terrific shame that this model system for mass transit is doomed to extinction. With my work here, I’ll do what I can to soften the blow when the inevitable happens, but I realise that both planning and politics are impotent against the change. Kinda pisses me off.

Hope you are well wherever you are.


Thursday, May 3, 2007

u noken kaikaim bui tudae?

The local culture here is an inclusive one and – essentially – people will not deal with you until they feel congenial towards you. I’m at ease with this, as its how I like to do business anyway. I’ve never felt comfortable with the Australian/Western contemporary business model of completely fucking people over with a smile and the throwaway ‘nothing personal, just business’ line. Here, business is personal, consensus is paramount, and people aren’t inclined to tread on their associates as they are likely to be part of their own wider social network. I’m not saying this is by any means perfect, but I’ll leave the criticisms for another time. Right now it’s sufficient to say that I’m enjoying building trust and networks.

In this inclusive spirit, I’ve spent a lot of time standing idly around chatting with the staff and community members. And there’s a lot of standing and chatting to be done, the concept of standardised working hours or set break times seems to have not reached Kerevat yet. More often than not the conversation passes me by as it’s conducted in Pidgin or Kuanua and flies back and forth between people with the rapidity of machinegun fire - my Pidgin is far from conversational level yet and my Kuanua nonexistent – but I’m slowly getting accepted as more than just someone to be babysat.

The biggest ice-breaker has been accepting betel nut. For those that don’t know, betel nut (bui in the local tongue) is a ‘mild accelerant’ that is chewed (and spat) by pretty much everyone in PNG. It’s described as kopi belong PNG (Papua New Guinean Coffee).

The nut itself is fairly innocuous, but it is traditionally mixed with lime (the chemical kind, not the citrus fruit) to produce a chemical reaction that turns the juice bright red and induces the ‘rush’.

On my first two occasions chewing, on advisement, I choose a mild nut with very little lime. Rather then blood red, I was spitting pink saliva and the ‘mild accelerant’ manifest only as a slight tingling of the lips, a little like chewing on a battery.

On the third (most recent and very well likely last) occasion I was given a stronger nut by a local Ward Councillor and mixed it with a standard dose of lime. It would have been rude to refuse the offer and – besides – I thought I knew what I was doing. One of the few givens in my life is that I will automatically assume myself an expert on any subject based on limited experience, only to be bought thumpingly back to reality when more if it comes my way.

On this occasion, the ‘mild accelerant’ effect was like having a triple espresso delivered directly to the brain via hypodermic between the eyes. It really didn't right, but I couldn’t question the sensation as my body had reacted by producing saliva by the litre. I looked like I was haemorrhaging from the tongue, and for all I knew I might have been, because I couldn’t feel my mouth to check. It soon became apparent to my co-workers that I was not at all enjoying myself and they responded – as I would have had I been in their position – by pissing themselves with laughter.

Unpleasant as it was, it was certainly a watershed moment in my being accepted by the team. Now hardly a day passes when I’m not asked ‘James, you noken kaikaim bui tudae?’ (which translates with a little liberal interpretation to ‘still not chewing then sissy?’. It’s a running joke, and it’s at my expense, but it’s well intentioned and is helping greatly in getting to know people better. And although they can stick their ‘bui’ up their arse as far as I’m concerned (I can only guess what sort of effect that would produce), it’s nice to be part of the group.

Hope you are well wherever you are,


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Late again… sorry. This time I can blame the weather. I left home (the lodge) on a fine and sunny Saturday morning to travel to Kokopo and run some errands, one of which included updating the blog. By the time I arrived on the outskirts of town it was overcast and by the time I’d arrived at the internet shop it was stormy… which meant the phone lines were down, which meant no internet. Never-mind, I could still go shopping and use the bank, or so I thought. It had started raining not long before I walked into the internet shop and over the short period I was inside had intensified to the point that precipitation wouldn’t have been falling from the sky any harder from a water-bomber. Stupidly I’d forgotten an umbrella and even more stupidly I thought I could race against the rain to find a shop selling one. After about two steps I realised that this was a mistake and after about six steps I was pretty much soaked through. After about two-hundred steps I arrived at the door to a shop, but by this stage I looked like I’d fallen into a river and buying an umbrella would only be window dressing. Nevertheless I persisted and picked out what I thought looked like a nice little blue and white number, which turned out – in this rugby league mad nation – to be a Bulldogs supporters umbrella. Now, to put this in perspective… if I was allergic to water, standing in the middle of an open field with no other shelter available, it was raining, and my only protection against certain death was to put up my brand new Bulldogs umbrella… I’d still have to think long and hard about which course of action to take. In this situation it seemed like a no-brainer, and with the lightening crashing around, I theorised that if I were God, then I know which umbrella I’d be trying to hit… it was staying down. Now almost thoroughly beaten by the day I visited the ANZ bank, knowing full well that my luck was insufficient to see me through. True to form the storm had also knocked out banking communications and I couldn’t make a cash withdrawal. Although I technically had enough money left to go shopping, I figured that – with my run of luck so far that day – the store was likely to be taken over by insurgents if I was in it, so I spared all the other shoppers and headed for home with nothing to show for my efforts but an umbrella… which was given, more or less unopened, to my chef upon returning to the lodge. That night I watched the Waratahs lose (again) in the Super 14s on TV. All in all a truly shitfull day.

Anyway… that is my excuse for not having the blog updated on Saturday as per the timetable. What follows is what was written and ready to go before Saturday… it is still more or less current, so I didn’t bother changing any of it.

Three Months and Counting

As milestones go it was a relatively minor one, but the three month mark of the stay has now come and gone, taking with it one-eighth of the total time I am to spend here in the PNG Islands. With its passing has come the realisation that (funnily enough) two years is actually a fair slab of time, and it won’t pass by as quickly or as easily as other periods of my life have. My penchant for not taking things too seriously in the past has led to me treating life as more-or-less a thirty year holiday to-date, but the recent marriage of work responsibility and forced self-reliance has pretty much put an end to that. Now there is a weight expectation on my abilities which means any failure to take things seriously will have consequences reaching well beyond those affecting my own future. Conversely, the absence of an instantly accessible social life means I have to find new ways of entertaining myself, otherwise I’d be putting myself at risk of taking things too seriously. Crossing such a wide chasm in life-outlook in one leap could be fatal; my new approach will have to come in incremental steps.

So… aside from suffering the occasional minor crisis of confidence, I’m reasonably happy with the way things are coming along so far. At this stage I still believe in my ability to get this right, and self-confidence is a very important commodity when you’re essentially flying solo.

If I had to sum up the experience so far in a single word, however, I think I’d have to choose ‘frustration’. The laid back attitude of the Pacific Islands no doubt makes it a perfect place to holiday (and if you are into scuba diving or volcano watching, please feel free to come on up… I could do with the company) but it makes it a difficult place to get things done. A total lack of workplace communications systems and a culturally scant regard for timetabling means I never know what is happening or when it is meant to happen. I couldn’t count the hours I’ve wasted so far waiting for a lift that will never arrive, or sitting alone in a meeting that clearly isn’t happening.

But, frustration aside, there are plenty little things that happen that make it all worthwhile. Visually, the place is awe-inspiring. Every morning on the trip from the lodge to work (either in my allotted lift, or – more likely – in a PMV bus) I’m afforded some vistas across the valley and over the bay that I never tire of. The endless coconut palms portray an inherent tropical feel that I still find novel. I’ve also been scuba diving now, and it’s easily the best diving I’ve ever come across. So I’m toying with the idea of doing a Dive Masters course to help pass the time; it would lend legitimacy to me spending the amount of time and money I intend on spending on the hobby.

The people are incredibly friendly and I’ve witnessed essentially nothing of the discord that supposedly plagues PNG. That isn’t to say that the packs of young men lingering in the streets aren’t intimidating – the mix of youth and unemployment can be a volatile one – but I haven’t had any trouble as yet, and I’m really not expecting any.

And whilst the ‘Food Lover’s Guide to Papua New Guinea’ would be a pretty thin pamphlet, I’m actually enjoying the local coconut laden meals of greens and rice (although, the local food is more of a novelty than anything else as my menu at the lodge is pretty much the same as you’d find in any Australian pub).

So, in summary… at the three month mark I think I’m going through a bit of a long overdue self-awakening. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve found my calling in life – the thought of being a Town Planner for life is about as comforting as the thought of herpes– but I’ve at least found something worthwhile to be doing. And while it would be going too far to say I’m actually enjoying myself (I have the social life of kelp) I’m contended enough in discovering new things and taking small joys out of the local lifestyle. All in all, there’s enough here to keep me going, and that’s all I can ask for at this stage.

Hope you are well wherever you are,


Postscript (1): In what is perhaps a small move forward, I’ve been told I’ll soon be moving into the Kerevat Women’s Centre Residence (temporarily). Yeah, I can see the funny side of this too… but it’s not exactly as it sounds. The Women’s Centre was officially opened earlier this month, but it true public service style, was completed before they had the staff/resources to occupy it. So it’s essentially a vacant building. It will be good for me because it is close to work and closer to town (not that anything of real interest happens in Kerevat). It’s not permanent, but (I think) it’s a step up in the world. Of course, the downside of the move will be that I’ll be in Kerevat all day every day. Which means I’ll never get mobile phone reception… which means I won’t be able to take advantage of the new innovation here in PNG allowing me to send text messages to Australia. Two steps forward, one step back.

Postscript (2): In a saving grace, EM TV (our only free-to-air station) is now showing The Simpsons at 9 O’clock on a Thursday night. Unfortunately, far from being the latest series, they are showing an earlier series – so early, in fact, that it is the first series (I’ll have to wait 15 more years to see the current episodes). The up-side of this is that I’ve now watched the second ever episode of The Simpsons, surprisingly (given Channel Tens 'high rotation' policy) for the first time. I had no idea that Smithers started out as a black character… when did they change him?

Postscript (3): And while on Australian TV content… in the morning editorial on (I think) Wednesday, I had to put up with yet another ridiculous theory about engineering solutions to the water crisis in Australia. Please ensure me that if this move to resurrect a sixty-year-old plan to dam the Clarence and pump the water to Queensland (surely I must have misheard…?) gains any momentum, you will rally and expose it for the idiotic environmental genocide it would be. You will no doubt be shouted down by that familiar pack of right-wing journalists (and I use the term loosely) who decry anyone who’d question such a scheme as a naysayer (it’s a sad abuse of editorial power to abuse legitimate scientists – like Tim Flannery – of ‘naysayery’ simply for pointing out inevitable consequences. Fortunately for all of us, there is still life in Australian democracy for the ‘nays’ to hold the house and hopefully save us from catastrophe) but it would be a small price to pay. It irks me that in Australia a microphone and a recognisable name qualifies you for expert comment on everything. Lucky for me that same freedom allows me to add my own ill-conceived ramblings, eh?

Friday, April 6, 2007

The Sort of Dilemma not worth Losing Sleep Over

I have my own chef. More specifically, the Lodge that has been my home for the last three months has its own chef, but seeing as I’m the only guest on any given night … I have my own chef. Almost every night we play out our routine skit whereby I examine the menu and decide on one of the twenty different options (in reality nineteen as I don’t eat the prawns anymore), so Tim can move off to the kitchen and bang about for about an hour, then return with a semi-decent meal, and stand in the corner watching me eat. After dinner he’ll quickly gather the dishes to wash-up, and then return to the dining hall to sit and ‘tell stories’ (chat) with the guests (me). But his English isn’t brilliant, neither is my pidgin, and I’ve the suspicion that even if there were no language barriers the conversation would still be prosaic as we really don’t have much in common, so most nights we sit in silence – absorbing whatever shit happens to be showing on EM TV. I’d rather escape to go and read or write, but I feel somewhat obliged to stay and ‘tell stories’ (i.e. sit in silent sufferance through horribly out of date re-runs of ICC Cricket World ‘… and coming up next, Pakistan Cricket Coach Bob Woolmer supports his team following the dramatic forfeit of the first test at Lords…’), as Tim is bound by the lack of transport to also have to stay at the lodge overnight. So if I leave for my room, poor Tim is stuck down there alone, probably understanding neither the content nor the irony in what he is watching (see postscript).

Truth-be-told, I’d much rather be cooking for myself, if for no other reason than to lower the calorie count of my evening meal below the low ten-thousands it currently sits at. But as Tim is on a ‘no work no pay’ type deal, without me he’d be pretty much unemployed. I’d feel awful about cutting off his income. So, as I watch my waste slowly expanding – now resembling more of a proper middle-aged gut than the bulbous manifestation of beer that was my university fat – I’m taking small satisfaction out of being a ‘good person’, which is something I’ve always aspired to.

I find it hard to grasp the concept that my evening meals alone (costing around $12 - $17 Australian a night) are enough to pay the salary of one whole person, especially when (I assume), the price of the nightly meal must cover foodstuffs and utilities as well. It’s one of those bizarre quirks of the international market… my volunteer allowance – wholly insufficient to sustain even the most basic life in Australia – can be worth so much here. The truly sad part of the equation is that things like electrical goods, travel and petrol, cost as much here as they do in back home, so most of the local workforce (and these are the ones lucky enough to have work – there are plenty who don’t) are more or less trapped in cyclical poverty.

This isn’t to say they are ‘poor’ as such. There is an abundance of food and water, and – from what I’ve observed – medical supplies are affordable. And there is a social richness in extended family support that far exceeds anything we have at home. But it’s hard to see where the next generation of technological innovators is going to come from when things we’d take for granted, like TVs, are so completely unaffordable… let alone personal computers.

Where this leaves me I’m unsure. I’ll keep doing my Town Planning job to the best of my abilities and hope that some good can come out of it, and I’ll keep on playing my part in the nightly meal routine (until my permanent accommodation is finished, whenever that may be) in order to provide Tim a stable income. But the longer I’m here, the more I realise how far away true advancement really is. Strangely though, I’m really not losing any sleep over it. The problems of PNG belong no more to me than they do anyone else, and I don’t see the population of the western world rushing over to sort things out. And besides this, the people themselves don’t seem too concerned, so why should I be? At the end of the day I’ll do the job I’ve come over here to do and will hopefully be satisfied with the result.

And if I’m not satisfied with the result… then I’ll look down at the protrusion that used to be my rippling six pack (ha!) as a reminder that, if nothing else, I created a job for one whole person for three whole months. There’s some satisfaction in that, after all.

Hope you are well wherever you are,


(Postscript: I’m probably being a little harsh on poor Tim here. He is actually a decent bloke and a decent chef, and without him I’d have even less conversation in my life than I currently do. But... well, you know when you’re flatting how you go through the Flatmate Cycle? When the initial honeymoon ends and you start to get irritated at your flatmates character traits, then you start projecting the negative shit happening to you onto your flatmates because they are the nearest permanent marker in your life? Well, although my chef isn’t my flatmate in a traditional sense, he’s still suffering through my ‘negative projection’ phase. The good news for both of us is that I generally grow out of this phase and into the ‘acceptance of situation for what it is’ phase relatively quickly (it’s a lot like the adaptation ‘U Curve’, which will make sense only to my volunteering compatriots reading), so he shouldn’t suffer my angst for too much longer. I know it probably sounds all a little bit childish, but what can you do? I’ve got a lot of time on my hands to be thinking about this sort of thing at the moment).

Monday, April 2, 2007

Technology Blues

Things move pretty slowly here in PNG. Evolution happens faster than most bureaucratic functions, and ‘some time next week’ usually refers an undeterminable period which begins ‘next week’ and has no end. It’s frustrating, but you learn to live with it.

However, as slowly events are occurring, they usually manage to outpace my blogging (on what is arguably the most poorly administered blog in cyberspace). Hence, I spend countless hours writing journal entries – designed to inform and entertain – with intentions of updating fortnightly (by cut’n’paste), only to have the content become redundant because:

1) something actually happens in my life; and/or
2) yet another f*cking technical glitch means I can’t update the site.

I’m hoping to beat the typecast this time by writing a short and uninformative entry that will be updated tomorrow (Tuesday) one way or the other.

Communications technology seems to have almost completely passed PNG by, and the internet is more or less unheard of. There are two internet cafes in town (one of which is horribly slow and the other has some bizarre trait whereby I can type words into ‘Blogger’, but not save/publish them) and one or two people have private internet setups at home. And that’s it. No businesses or government departments are web-enabled, there’s no such thing as online banking, ebay or you-tube, and twice now I’ve had to explain the difference between an email and a fax (giving up on one person who really just didn’t get it). My theory is that, in a country where nothing happens in a hurry, there’s no demand for instantaneous communications… you might as well deliver the news face to face, no action is going to be taken until they’re good and ready anyway.

So I’m afraid that until I work things out, you might have to get used to infrequent and out of date blogs (assuming I can overcome the technical glitches with Blogger).

In a brief synopsis of events since my last entry:

1) My house (in Kerevat) still isn’t finished, but there is now talk of me being moved to Kokopo instead. This is a far better result for me because Kokopo is where the action happens and Kerevat is… in need of improvement (I’m working on it). I have no idea when this move will take place (‘some time next week’), but it will bring with it certain responsibilities, as they want me to sit on the Provincial Planning Board and basically decide on every physical development occurring on the island. Once again those of you who’ve worked with me in development control will be able to see the (extremely) funny side of this;

2) I’ve met a couple of other Australians and we’ve committed to all meeting up some time for a drink. That was about three weeks ago now and still hasn’t happened (‘sometime next week’), hopefully Easter will see some activity;

3) I’m now 30 (thank you for the birthday greetings on the blog and by email). In what turned out to be the Standard Bearer in a list of recent uninteresting birthdays, I did nothing of note to mark the day. In fact, I didn’t even have a beer, though this was more on account of the fact that I woke up the night before with stomach cramps that would have killed a lesser man, and was worried that I’d contracted dysentery. Turned out to be a false alarm – but I still had a sober birthday.

4) The volcano has been playing up somewhat terribly lately. When I first arrived it used to just steam all the time. Now it showers the town in dust from time to time and rumbles loudly enough to be heard here at the lodge (about 15kms). Occasionally it explodes, sounding like a depth charge going off in the distance, and when this happens the windows here rattle and the bed shakes. The locals continue to ignore it with amazing stoicism… I can’t. Everything feels somehow temporary to me – like sooner or later it’ll go up again and then people will finally move away for good. I’ll write more on this in another entry, because I find it fascinating;

5) As I’m typing this (9pm Monday night), estimates of casualties on the Solomon’s tsunami are low, but predicted to rise. I hope it isn’t too bad over there, but the reports I’ve heard so far (on A Current Affair… being physically closer to the action doesn’t mean I get more accurate news sorry) indicate it was a pretty serious wave. The quake was pretty strong here, but not strong enough to cause any damage to property (that I can see). It was my first ever significant earthquake (putting aside the tiny tremor that rattled the windows in Launceston in 2002). It’s a strange sensation, I always expected the room to just ‘shake’ a lot, but it’s more of a twisting sensation (hold on to diagonally opposite corners of a shoe-box and move your hands back and forward alternatively and you might understand what I mean). It was enough to move things around on my bedside table, but not enough to bump them off. Anyway… nothing too serious, and it sounds like there are people a lot worse off from it.

And that will do for this post. Sorry to end on a bit of a downer, it’s just the way things have worked out chronologically this time.

I promise to keep working on the communication situation and sincerely hope to have things sorted soon.

Hope you are well wherever you are,


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Position

Sorry this post is a touch late – not a good sign for things to come, I know. I had the best intensions of getting into to town to get it updated at the end of last week, but I was held up by my first ‘health issue’ of the stay so far. It was nothing too serious; it came and went within 24 hours. But as a word of advice, when the Travel Medical booklet says ‘don’t eat the prawns’ – don’t eat the prawns. Yet another lesson that could have easily been learned through listening to good (and in this case professionally issued) advice but was instead learned the hard way. At least this time the benefit of hindsight was available in a matter of hours, rather than the years it usually takes for the supposedly obvious to hit home to me.

Anyway, picking up where I left off last time…

I’ve been with the Gazelle (no one can tell me where the name comes from, there are no Gazelles around and never were) District Administration for a little over a month now. I’m settling in nicely and generally enjoying the work, but have unfortunately been given ‘self-supervision’ privileges and as such, my supervisor sees fit to let me play a lot of Microsoft Solitaire. It’s addictive. So much so that I contemplated deleting it altogether the other day until I realised that Minesweeper had gone the same way during my unsuccessful Post Graduate Certificate attempt late last year and that if kept deleting games in my moments of weakness, soon enough I’d have none left. This, of course, would solve the problem of being addicted to computer games (a forced abstinence), but would be admitting that I have a problem – which I’m not willing to do. So it’s status quo with computer Solitaire at the moment – I’m playing a lot and hating myself for it.

But in-between Solitaire marathons I am managing to get a lot of work done on my main project, which is pretty satisfying.

The project is (and I’ll try and balance this so as to appeal to the town planners and not bore the non-planners) to create the Urban Development Plan for the Kerevat Growth Centre. Kerevat is, for want of a better word, the Capital of the Gazelle District.

In essence… Papua New Guinea is divided into a number of Provinces (like Australian States), which are in turn divided into Districts (which are in turn divided into Local Level Governments, which are in turn divided into Wards – but forget about them for the time being, they’ll just confuse you). East New Britain Province has adopted a comprehensive Growth Centres Strategy, which identifies a number of different Growth Centres – of which Kerevat is one.

The layout of the Growth Centre (think ‘New Town’ – they’re looking at increasing the population at least three-fold) has already been designed and surveyed (thankfully, when I first arrived I thought I was actually going to have to plan a town) so what I’ll be doing is preparing a development control document that is roughly like a Local Environmental Plan / Unitary Development Plan.

Hopefully the planners out there will be following this so far (if not, consider a career change). For the non-planners, I’ll explain it this way:

Imagine an example from your town where:

1) a hideously inappropriate building is approved and built, thus destroying the character and amenity of an area; or
2) a seemingly innocuous development – like a car-port that a friend wants to build – is refused for what seems to be no other reason than some bureaucratic nonsense.

Both of the above would not be possible if it weren’t for Planning Instruments (Development Control Documents… call them what you will) and their use/misuse. These are the rules that apply to development of any kind, and are generally administered by the local Council. Town Planning is a pretty complicated business and the issues involved are rarely clear cut. Development Controls are a guide to what can and can’t (or should and shouldn’t) happen; they can’t dictate the outcome of development, but at least establish a set of rules that all parties must play by. Like the laws of rugby however, they can be confusing to both participates and spectators and – as any planner driven to alcoholism by the stress of the work will tell you – can be frustratingly difficult to interpret (yet still the game is still beautiful). I’ll be writing the rules.

So I have the power to allow stamp my own unique brand of Burfordness on a whole new town. Whether or not the future residents of Kerevat are living in the chaos of an under-regulated town or conversely bogged down in excessive bureaucracy rests largely on my capability of putting together a decent plan. Poor buggers.

Daunting as it is – I’ve never put together anything like this before – I’m pretty happy with my methodology so far. There is also plenty of help here if I need it, but I have to go looking for it. I’ll keep you posted on the progress.

Otherwise, things are going pretty well. A mere five weeks after purchase my mobile phone is now working properly, I’ll email the number through for those who may one day wish to call (I’d suggest March 20 would be a good day). It doesn’t seem to support text messaging, so don’t bother with that.

The weather has been pretty much what you’d expect – it’s hot, humid and rains a lot – but I’ve almost acclimatised now, so I don’t notice it much. I can keep up-to-date with the Australian weather (and all other aspects of Australian life) as the one TV channel we get here gets most of its material from Channel Nine – so I watch the Today Show every morning. I even managed to catch the interview with the bogie border attacked off Ballina a few weeks ago. Australian current affairs shows love a good shark survivor story. They also love a good insurance-not-paying story, a good shonky builder story and a good teenage fashion story. I’m worried that in a prolonged separation from my beloved ABC I might actually start believing in the importance of this stuff and lose focus on the things I feel actually matter. I’ve been assured this won’t happen, but I’m already finding myself interested in the latest weight loss techniques that will inevitably be on next weeks show, or taking sides in the council -v- pensioner debates (always coming down on the side of the battler). Its sort of a pantomime I guess – and its easier to enjoy the show and yell at the characters when I’m supposed to than let it offend my sensibilities too much.

Maybe I’m a sucker for the simple stuff – after all, Solitaire doesn’t enjoy the intellectual reputation of (say) chess – or maybe I’m easily addicted to things. Either way, these things are no more than a diversion. The main focus remains the Urban Plan, and I’m sure when the trivial distractions loss their allure, my task will still be there like an Everest to be climbed. And long after I’m gone, the results will still be there – good or bad – as a legacy of my efforts. Hope I don’t fuck it up.

Hope you are well wherever you are.


Friday, February 2, 2007

Just Passing Through

So, this is the first posting of my new Blog. It was supposed to be a lengthy missive about my strained attachment to my home town, how the notion of home is never easily defined and how – as a conclusion – I felt I was simply passing through last time I lived in Ballina (hence the title).

However, in typical Burford fashion I left everything to the last minute – apparently it’s because I’m a Pisces - and several things (the blog included) till after the final bell. So instead of a touching story about how I’m struggling to find my place in the world and will be leaving my home town once more, this time for a spot of volunteer work in the PNG islands, you’re actually getting a post from beautiful Kokopo in the country’s north.

I arrived in Port Moresby just after lunch on Monday (January 8th) and spent a couple of days there sorting out minor administrative details in my ‘in-country induction’. First impressions? Well… it’s poor, but not so much as you might expect. A clear division of wealth is evident, the modern high rise (well, mid rise) business buildings on the harbour wouldn’t be out of place in any Australian city (certainly bigger and shinier than anything we have in Ballina), are in direct contradiction to the settlements pretty much right next door. The city is pretty informally planned. There seem to be no clear distinctions between commercial, industrial and residential areas. As a result, I never really knew where I was.

Port Moresby has taken to the ‘compound living’ lifestyle with aplomb. Almost every shop, house, hotel and well… just about everything is behind a fence and gate. The streets actually feel pretty safe (during the day at least) and are cleaner than I’ve seen in other countries. The walls are simply a fact of life and you get used to them quickly – although I’m sure a good urban designer could integrate them into the streetscape more comprehensively.

On Wednesday Jan 10 I hopped a flight to Rabaul (Tokua) Airport – via Bougainville – and drove to my current accommodation at the Kokopo Lodge (which is actually in a village about 15 minutes outside of Kokopo). This is temporary accommodation, as my actual lodgings are yet to be built. So, its temporary, but I’m settling in all the same.

Kokopo is beautiful, relaxed and pretty much the perfect tropical resort town. Again, its pretty informal and unplanned, but the views over the harbour to the live volcano (it just sort of steams all the time) alone are worth the trip. Pretty sure I’m going to be comfortable spending two years here.

The people are remarkably friendly. On my sem-regular jogs (a moral/physical imperative after the mountains of food I’ve eaten since arrival – its not at all easy in 30 degree heat with 100% humidity), Most of the village comes out to wave as cuss and sweat my way uphill. Maybe they are just taking the piss, but they seem friendly enough.

My work is in Kerevat - about 40 minutes from Kokopo in the rural hinterland - where I'll be assisting in writing the Kerevat Urban Plan. The full details of this will have to wait till another time, but in essence, Kerevat has been designated to be a growth area and they've taken this to mean building a New Town. I'll be writing the development control documents that go with it. For those who've worked with me in development control (how do you spell liasse faire??) in the past, you'll know how laughable this actually is

That’s about all for the time being. The plan is to update the blog on a fortnightly basis, giving me enough time to find something interesting to write about and actually putting in down on paper (so to speak). But at this stage, it’s only a plan, and as I’ve already found out here in PNG, they don’t really count for much. Its all about obervations etc, so I'll make no apologies if I get things wrong while I'm coming to grips with the place.

Hope you are well wherever you are.