Sunday, April 6, 2008


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope you are well wherever you are,


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Febrile Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope you are well wherever you are,


Monday, January 21, 2008

'Twas the Summer of Force Majeure

‘Twas the Summer of Force Majeure

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

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

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

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

And so we begin for 2008…

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy 2008 everyone.

Hope you are well wherever you are,