An Australian volunteer who was doing whatever volunteers do in PNG.
I was there for 2 years until Dec 2005 .. I hope I made the most of it.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Land of the Unexpected

Some news that I only found out about since arriving. My new hometown of Lae actually sits astride of one the most seismically active faults in the world. It floats on the edge of the great Indo-Australian plate, which is steadily marching northward and the comparatively tiny Bismarck plate (more of a saucer). This in turn is sandwiched up against the massive Pacific plate which is slowly heading east. You do the maths! At some point no doubt I am going to feel a bit of a shiver as the two big fellas, work out their differences and play piggy in the middle. So far so good, with not much activity, and apparently there hasn't been much for decades. Lets hope though that when the bigfella's are dancing the tango, they don't end up shaking their booty.

You learn to live with some unexpected occurrences up here, but even so it is hard not to feel sorry at the moment for 200,000 people that live to the south, across the main river in the area, the Markham. Three weeks ago the only bridge over the Markham, linking the communities of Bulolo and Wau to the rest of the country, was closed to all traffic, and only foot traffic was allowed. One of the piers, due a big rise in water level, started to float, and so that section now has a noticeable sag. People got on though and hand carted goods over the bridge between unloading trucks and the waiting ones on the other side. That was until a week ago, when the water, which is still quite high, washed away the abutment on the Lae side, leaving a 5m gap between the bridge and the bank. So in effect that has now severed all cargo access to 200,000 in southern Morobe. And this will probably remain so, until the experts stop scratching their heads, and work out how to build a new bridge, which is not as simple as it sounds as the Markham valley is basically all gravel without any bedrock, for a long way down.

It is not just civil infrastructure that suffers either. All of last week a major microwave link that Telikom owns failed between here and the capital Port Moresby, which completely halted the mobile network and data lines for this part of the country. That meant the Uni's Internet connection was offline for all of last week.

Transport is not exactly something that runs to a timetable or is diverse in it's options. Public Motor Vehicles (PMVs) are the only way to get around all the cities and towns apart from Port Moresby, which is lucky enough to have Taxis. PMVs are an experience just in themselves with most of them second-hand Japanese mini-buses with 25 seats that have not been maintained for god knows how long. I must have by now been on the full range of quality available, from the newer ones, that still have the stuffing in the seats to the, lets just say barely held together ones, where stuffing in the seats is considered a luxury and air-conditioning comes not only from the glassless window but through holes in the floor. One that I went on yesterday, seemed to give discounts if you helped push-start when the engine stalls.

With almost daily reports in the newspapers, of another PMV crash, X number dead, it is better to grab a lift with someone you know who's going to town. Though the good thing is that because there is no timetable to worry about, you just rock up to a bus stop, and jump on a waiting bus. When it fills up, which doesn?t take long, off it goes. This only really works though in non peak times. If you try on a Saturday morning there will be a massive crush to get on any PMV that shows up. This is mainly due to the PMV operators looking for the easy money and not doing the longer routes, like out to the uni, so you have the compounding problem of more people wanting to use the buses and less of them available. The other issue, that I discovered first hand on Sunday, is like a lot of other places in the world when you get the crowds you get the pickpockters. Though maybe it is my now ingrained wariness in those situations, or perhaps that the kid was an amateur, but I easily caught him trying to dip his sticky little fingers into my empty pocket. I have seen the art performed enough to know the modus operandi and therefore the respective counter-measures.

Well apart from all that gloom, the best thing this country offers, has to be the food. Being a tropical country, food is literally everywhere, and it does not take too much to grow anything. I thought of myself as a gangrene thumb, but as I discovered anyone can grow things here. For example I have thrown herb and spice seeds out the back and without any help, they are now shooting up. At the markets it is a veritable cornucopia, which the produce ranging from the ubiquitous Kau Kau (Sweet Potato - I didn't realise there were so many varieties) and Bananas (again many varieties - don't get your cooking vs ripe mixed up) through to the tropical fruits, Paw Paw, Guava, Mango, Pineapple, and then onto the more normal western veggies, like Carrot, Beans and Onions. If you are concerned by Genetically Modified crops and only buy Organic, well you don't have to worry here as they have not even heard of the term GM. Everything is way it was intended. And with my liklik (little) market being only a 5 minute walk, there is no excuse not to eat healthily.

Don?t get confused by the term Market, and think of check-out chicks and shopping trolleys. Over here it is slightly different. It is more of a take your own bag, wander around a bit looking for the best stuff, ask "hamas" to get a price for that nice looking pineapple, fill up your bag making sure not to step on the sellers mat and then wander around for a bit further passing an eye over all the produce, type of market. You may also chat to someone who knows your name and you may have met once before but have forgotten, buy some roasted peanuts as a snack and then head home saying ?apinun!? (evening) to the giggling kids on the way. It is a lot of fun and can turn into a small social event (see attached pic for an idea of what part of it looks like).

Apart from that the best part for me at least, has to be the community life that I now have, living on the campus. I know all my neighbours, and will always bump into someone that I know if I go for a walk. Also being someone who is different and without an established family network, I have the benefit that everyone wants to help me out, so that means that I have got offers to stay in almost all parts of the country and visit a brother or sister of so-and-so or if they are going that way, I should go along so they can show me that part of the country. Because aside from all of the problems it does have it really is a fairly spectacular country, with everything from massive mountains to crystal clear beaches (palm trees overhanging - think of those travel brochures you have seen) and from smoking volcano's to mighty rivers.

OK, I thought I would give some tips in case one day you head off to the airport, jump on a plane, it gets hi-jacked and you land in a foreign city but am not sure where. If you see some or all of the following things from the window, you just may be in Papau New Guinea.

  • The security guards are using a bow and arrows, instead of a gun.

  • About ten guys with push lawnmowers are tackling the grass between the runways.

  • A DC10 is burnt out, sitting beside a hanger with most of its parts stripped.

  • The locals are more interested in trying to sell you something than save you.

  • The hostage negotiation team doesn?t show for two days, as they were on strike.

  • The sign above the terminal building says PORT MORESBY INTERNATIONAL AIR ORT.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Telikom, Rain and Kava

Well it is now over 4 weeks since I lodged a form for a phone at home. My hopes were raised on Friday morning, by a call from Telikom, saying that they tried to connect my phone a couple of times the week before, but nobody was home when they came. Funny that, perhaps it is because I work and live alone? I told them to come around to the dept and collect me and I will let them in so they can connect the phone. But of course nobody came. Joy in the office seems to think it was probably because it was a payday. Every second Friday every one who earns a salary gets paid. Obviously as you can imagine it is also the day that most of the problems and no work happens. I rang them this morning and they were going to get back to me. I am sure it will happen at some point soon.

Well the weekend, was pretty good. Friday night was an experience, though because of the weather. Martin (next-door neighbour) and then David (British volunteer here at the Uni) came around and we had some drinks, and then David left at about 7.20 to walk home so he could collect his car to pick me up so we could go into a club. 10 minutes after he left it started raining, really heavily! Martin rushed round to his place, getting wet on the way at about 7.50 and then David showed up at about 8. David was saying something about the water in the my street, being really high, and if I could tell him he was not dreaming it. Yeah whatever I thought. Well for about 50m along the street the water was coming over the headlights of David's Land Cruiser, making amongst other things a bow wave and it extremely hard to drive. And this had all happened in just 30 minutes. I was impressed. When we got back at 1 the water was completely gone.

Saturday night was a Kava night. Kava if you don't know is the drink of choice in Vanuatu and Fiji, and is made from the Kava root. They grow it over here too, but it is not really used a lot. PNG of course is the land of the betel nut. Anyway basically it makes you pretty calm and mellow, but unfortunately first you have to turn it from root form into liquid which is a bit of a mission, cutting up and then grinding etc. Secondly you have to get past the taste, which is not unlike drinking muddy water. If you don?t baulk at a couple of coconut shells worth, you will be pretty mellow after about 30 minutes. I think you can buy it from health food shops in tablet form, as a anti-stress medication.