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,