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,