(First shared 22nd January 2008)
Madang, Papua New Guinea
So I moved house today. Rather, I left the hotel I was staying in and moved into Mike’s place. Mike isn’t here, so I hope he doesn’t mind that I moved in. I have mixed feelings about the move. On the one hand, I no longer have the hassle of wondering which cable TV channel to watch from my hotel bed. I can’t watch anything at all. The TV was stolen ten days ago. It doesn’t bother me too much at the moment though, because there’s a power blackout, so if there was a TV I’d just be staring at a blank screen, frustrated about the lack of power. Instead I am staring at a lovely empty wooden TV cabinet.
I’d quite like to make myself dinner. I’m out of cash at the moment. The office hasn’t managed to organize my cash advance, and I now have precisely 30 toya to my name. That’s about fifteen cents. Luckily, I have some snacks with me which I brought from the hotel room. Half a bag of chicken-flavoured potato chips. One chicken-flavoured ‘biscuit’- a large slab of sodium and wheat-flour that substitutes for a meal here- left over from lunch. One custard-cream cookie. And, far more importantly, my last bag of instant noodles. I wouldn’t have the noodles at all, except I accidentally took the biscuits to work today instead of the noodles. The packets look the same.
Unfortunately, the thieves stole the kettle from the house kitchen ten days ago. Fortunately, there was a spare kettle at the office. It took ten minutes to find the power-lead tucked away in another part of the office, but in the end I got it home. Ah yes, but sadly, we return to the blackout. Luckily, there’s a gas stove in the kitchen. But then, the spark needs electricity to fire up. Never mind. Surely there are some matches somewhere in the house.
I go look.
Maybe the thieves took them too.
I check my first-aid kit for matches. I always used to carry them. Until airlines got really paranoid about carrying boxes of matches. Apparently they could spontaneously ignite or something. I’m sure you’ve all struggled with boxes of safety matches suddenly bursting into flames in the kitchen drawer.
Not to worry. I decide to head out to buy some from the store. Buuuut… I still have no money. I rumage around. Find an old 20-pound note from a previous work trip. Recall that the nearby hotel changes money. I hop in the Hilux and drive on down. At the hotel desk I am told that money-changing is for hotel guests only. I inform the duty manager that I’d been a guest that morning, and after a bit of sweet-talking, he changes my note. He gives me 93 Kina in K5 and K2 notes. But it’s still cash.
I drive to the shops. By now it’s after 6. Everything shuttered up. Madang looks like a ghost-town.
Never mind. I have snacks at home. At least I won’t starve. I come home. The house itself is quite nice. Raised on stilts. Wooden floors. The garden is attractive in a tropical wilderness sort of way. It clearly hasn’t been tended to in a while. Dr. Livingstone could have hung out for quite some time in there. There’s a particularly vindictive strain of wild grass here, little seeds on the end of a tiny thread of natural wire that hooks into pant legs. I walk inside with seeds sticking out from my shins looking like I’ve just been assaulted by a mob of pygmy porcupines.
I go to the fridge where I left the cookie. It’s gone. Gerry, the guy who’s been house-sitting for Mike and who’d left that afternoon, had clearly helped himself to it, despite watching me put it carefully into the fridge that afternoon. His tip, perhaps? With some animosity I devour the chicken-flavoured biscuit. A soundly unsatisfying culinary experience. I turn my attention to the potato chips. Dinner of champions. The bag is crawling with termites.
I’ve discovered there is a law when it comes to food and insects. Two laws actually. The first law states that when an item of food is of a particular order of magnitude larger than the size of the insect upon it, it is okay to eat that food. So for the layperson, a termite on a potato chip is acceptable to eat. A cockroach on a potato chip is not. The second law states that the order of magnitude referred to in law 1 is inversely proportional to the scarcity of food and/or the level of hunger. So a cockroach on a lamb roast is really just a matter of judgement, desperation, and personal taste.
At the end of the day though, it’s all just academics. Just don’t look too closely. Quite frankly I’m just hankering for the nutrients.
The salt makes me thirsty. I would boil some tapwater to drink, but there’s no power for the kettle and no matches for the gas stove. So I’m drinking straight tap-water. To make myself feel better I’ve put it into plastic bottles and stuck it in the fridge. I haven’t decided whether this works yet. I did think about putting it into the kettle and letting it sit for a while first, before pouring it into the bottles, but that struck me as just plain silly.
Don’t tell mum.
When I fill up the first bottle, I notice that a whole load of gunk has come out of the tap into the bottle. I look closer. Not gunk. It’s a knot of about twenty ants which had crawled up inside the tap and are now bobbing in the top of my drinking water. I empty the bottle. Most of the ants flush out. I rinse it. Can’t lodge the last few stubborn clingers-on. So they’re still in there.
See law 2.
It’s humid and airless. Outside, the entire neighbourhood is pitch black, and the only light is from a silent electrical storm miles away, flashes lighting up distant clouds. I’m lying here with my top off, sweating like an elephant’s crotch. Clearly the fans don’t work, and nor does the air-conditioner in my room. There’s still some residual coolness in the freezer. Earlier I stood in front of it and swung the door open and shut a bunch of times. Felt pretty good. And pretty stupid.
There’s a machete in my room. I also have mixed feelings about this. I’m very aware that this house has been broken into twice in the last month. This isn’t a hard feat. It involves crawling under the gate, peeling back the mosquito netting over the windows, and sliding out the little wooden slats in the wall of the living-room. That was what they did ten days ago. I don’t particularly want to come face-to-face with a gang of raskols in my living-room with a machete in my hand. Truth be told, if there’s a gang of raskols in my living-room I’d rather have a .357 Magnum, but the license is hard to come by. However, I feel somewhat happier with a machete under the mattress in my bedroom, than a machete in the front hallway, which was where it was when I walked in this evening.
Other than that, of course, the house is a veritable Fort Knox. Well, except for Mike’s room. Mike’s room has little internal slat-windows that open into the hallway, so you can reach into his room from outside and unlock the door. Which is precisely what the raskols did ten days ago. Oh, and my room has no key for the door at all. So you can lock it if you want to, but you can’t unlock it again.
But security is the name of the game here. Example. There’s a little old highlander who’s been haunting my waking hours, trying to sell me woven knick-knacks from his village. His village is a long way away from Madang, he routinely informs me, and he comes all that distance just to sell me things. He shows up in the hotel restaurant, gives me puppy-dog eyes and holds out his wares for me to admire. I politely tell him that I’m not interested in buying anything. He clearly assumes that this means I’m not interested in buying anything that he’s holding out to me at this precise moment of time, but if only I could see his Milan Couture collection, I’d be ripping the things out of his hands, and so he spends the next ten minutes producing row after row of inane handicrafts which I continue to knock back. The fact is, if I bought a woven table-mat from every third-world salesman who’s ever tried to guilt me into a purchase, I’d have three 40-foot shipping containers stacked floor to ceiling with woven table-mats.
I was sitting in my office this afternoon, at the other end of town. Past reception, down a long corridor, and behind a closed door, working from the spare desk in the area manager’s office. Sitting there at my laptop, when the door clicks open. I turn around. And there is that same wizened old man, giving me puppy-dog eyes, holding out his wretched woven knick-knacks and informing me he’s come all the way from his far-away village just to sell them to me.
I sat there for a few moments, and waited to see whether Ashton Kutcher was going to leap out from behind the printer and yell “Punk’d!”. To be honest, I very nearly burst out laughing in his face. If somebody had been deliberately trying to wind me up, they couldn’t have found a better way of doing it. It was that surreal. The fact that he’d walked into the building, and another staff-member had clearly told him where to find me without challenging the fact that he was some street salesman trying to hit up the only white man in the building for some cash, was a conversation for another day. I didn’t laugh at him. I did, however, march him smartly out of the building. And no, despite his efforts, he did not make a sale.
For all its foibles, Madang is a picturesque and laid-back little place. The town itself is spread out among an array of inlets, headlands and lagoons on the northern coast of Papua New Guinea. There aren’t beaches in town, just a jagged coral shelf that drops straight into the ocean, but slender palm-trees lean out over the water and sway in the sea breezes. The one highlight of an otherwise unremarkable office is the ability to step out of the front door, walk ten metres, and stand at the ocean’s edge watching the swell lap up against the raised beach. This morning I could see electric-blue parrot-fish and distinctive yellow, black and white angel-fish darting between lumps of coral.
The foliage is beautiful. It is lush and green and sodden with moisture. As well as the palm trees, there are thick bursting mango trees, stands of banana groves, and we even have a paw-paw tree in our garden. The Flamboyant Trees with bright red flowers are dotted here and there, adding some contrast against the green. Spectacular Banyans stand like fortresses, multiple trunks knotted together to form great twisted towers. Probably my favourite of all are the Rain Trees, with enourmous umbrella-like canopies unfurling from a single thick trunk, very distinctive.
The skyscapes are dramatic here. It is not the cloudless blue skies associated with a tropical paradise, so dispell images of crystal-clear waters and aqua beachscapes. But the moody, troubled storm clouds that linger close overhead make for spectacular dusks and make me wish I had my camera with me. Last night I sat out at the little open-air restaurant at the Coastwatcher’s hotel and watched a thunderstorm far out to sea, each flash silently illuminating giant bulbous thunderheads, flashes striking two and three times a second, and fingers of forked lightning creeping out across the sky like some terrible airborne creature trying to escape into the night.
Flying in from Port Moresby was perhaps the most dramatic of all. The flight takes about an hour, and almost immediately the scenery opens up beneath with the jagged, forested mountains of the Owen Stanley Range that conceal the renowned Kokoda Track, and civilization dissapearing beneath you faster than you can say “impenetrable wilderness in the order of Joseph Conrad”. As you clear the northern edge of the mainland, the Finnesterre Range plummets vertically more than two thousand metres to the ocean on the far side, and already on its descent towards Madang, the Fokker F100 jetliner seems to plunge straight down its sheer faces, draped in misty clouds and just out of reach beyond the wingtips. Breathtakingly steep yet carpetted with masses of thick virgin forest, the mountains here make Jurassic Park look like a walk in the Botanical Gardens.
There’s not much to do here. But it sure looks pretty.
If the contrast between beauty and untamed wildness is striking in Madang, it’s even moreso in Port Moresby, in a thoroughly different context. Set on a series of bays and steep headlands, it’s a delightful vantage point, with a line of steep hills backing onto it, lush with tropical vegetation and lined with steamy clouds. At dusk the sun casts silvery light onto the harbour, making the port shine, and tankers out on the bay become black silhouettes on a molten sea. The tropical cloudscapes are perfect for catching colour as the sun slips below the horizon, and from my hotel room I could stand on the balcony and watch children playing in the gentle waves lapping up on the sandy beach beneath lines of palm trees.
The fairy-tale ends here. Port Moresby is one of the most violent, oppressive and frightening cities around, and is currently vying for the number one spot among the nastiest places I’ve ever visited. This is a pretty tall order for me. Some of you might recall that a few months back in Darfur, I came just three inches and an empty firing chamber away from losing my life to several 7.62mm full metal jackets, and still have the shrapnel in my arm to prove it. The fact that I’d put Port Moresby in the same league of unpleasantness should tell you a little something about the place.
Robbery and rape are a part of every day life. A couple of days before I arrived our expat Finance Manager, who has been living in PNG for almost fifteen years, was robbed at knife-point in the parking lot at her house. Three days after I got to Moresby, another of our expat program managers was driving in broad daylight in the centre of town when five men with Armalite assault rifles jumped out, smashed the windows, dragged him from the car, beat him, robbed him at gunpoint, then took the vehicle. It was the second time in four months he’d been dragged from his car and beaten. This time he had been on his way to the supermarket to buy a sandwich for dinner.
It’s a tragic situation. The country is stunningly beautiful, a true untamed wilderness, and one of the last great frontiers on earth- in more ways than one. The lawlessness and impunity is reminiscent of the old Wild West, complete with gold-miners, bandits and corrupt sherrifs. The people themselves, one-on-one, are reserved, polite and seemingly gentle. And yet as a culture (or more appropriately, as many cultures), the most horrific things are allowed to happen, and society seems to be unravelling.
I have yet to decide whether or not I’m happy to be here. This is probably the first posting I’ve ever been on that was accompanied neither by a sense of excitement, nor a rush of adrenaline upon arriving at a new destination. I’m responsible for our emergency relief work in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu- effectively, our entire Pacific area of operation. It’s a big task, and promises to be interesting- if not a little challenging. Still, the culture here is so negative, and the atmosphere so oppressive, it’s a pretty depressing place to be sitting.
In fact my first reaction was initially one of anger, especially after Marlon got hijacked. I’d be naïve to think that wasn’t partly a hangover from my Darfur trip. But it’s also more than that.
There’s a mountain parrot in New Zealand called the Kea. It’s a beautiful green-feathered creature with a long hooked beak, and is the bain of campers and hikers across the South Island. It is renowned for shredding camping gear- tents, supplies, even the rubber lining on car windows and windshield wipers. Naturalists suggest that the bird is in fact highly intelligent and investigative, but that anything it can’t get its head around it simply tears to pieces in frustration.
I think I am having similar issues with the culture here. The dichotomy of a seemingly benign culture being capable of terrible acts is nothing new to me, but I am finding the Melanesians particularly hard to fathom, and I wonder how I’m ever going to make headway here. Not the most uplifting start to a two-year posting.
The highlight of my evening though is that the power has just come back on, after a good twelve hours of nothing. This is probably a good thing. I wasn’t really looking forward to sitting alone in the dark for my first night in a new house, waiting for the raskols to come get me. Now I get to sit here with the lights on, waiting for the raskols… But I was assured by my colleague Joe when I asked him if home invasions are ever accompanied by violence. “Sometimes,” he said with a careless shrug. At least I know he’s honest.
Well, I’d best go boil some noodles now. The termites are really into my bowl of remaining potato chips. Frenzied, you might say. I think I’ll save the rest of them for dessert. (The chips or the termites, I hear you ask… I’ll leave it open…). I hope you are all well and enjoying your adventures, wherever you might be and whatever you happen to be doing. And if any of you are planning to swing past Port Moresby to pay me a visit… give it a miss. Drop me a line and I’ll arrange to meet you in Cairns instead.