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, November 24, 2004

So Long Old Salty

Because I cannot think of anything decent to type about at the moment I thought I would share some observations from another AVIer, Geoff, who has been stranded out on the Duke of York islands in East New Britain.

He has sent us vols some fantastic e-mails through the year of his experiences and last night I got his final one as he is now packing up and heading back to SE Queensland to go and live on his property. The assignment was particularly tough for him, with the place he was living in more like a cell than a house. With no fridge, no stove, no running water and no fan, it became a tad too much to handle. So he is pulling up stumps and fulfilling one year out of the two.

The job he was working at was as a teacher at a high school/technical college on one of the islands. He was supposedly trying to teach the kids boat building. From his e-mails more often than not he was parting with knowledge on other marine topics, such as engine maintenance and the like. Seeing he has lived for a good proportion of his life on the sea I am sure he has lots to impart. Whether that was soaked up by the students is another question though.

He has a very observant eye and a great ability to share this in words, so I thought I would pass some of his better stories onto a wider audience. I am sure he wont mind other people reading them.
The following recounts a typical Development Day: We kicked off with an assembly, which was about twenty minutes late, as there were not enough students. At about ten minutes past the time at which we should have started, the manager said to me, "We will just wait until some more students come." We eventually managed to drum a few more out of their hiding places, and they listlessly formed into lines on the parade ground, girls to the left boys to the right, and as far apart as possible regardless of teachers' urgings to fill the centre lines. (There is no visible interaction between the sexes, and that, goes for the adult community as well. Men are frequently seen holding hands with each other, but never with a meri. It seems that romance does not exist, and women are used for cooking, carrying and copulation.) I counted twenty one boys, and about the same number of girls. When I asked a boy who cooked breakfast, and I was told Hoseah, I asked him, how many plates he had put out for breakfast. He said thirty-six. Hmmm, thirteen absconders between breakfast and work parade. Nobody else seemed concerned, though.

The manager told them, in Tok Pisin, "Yumi olgeta go wok long gaden". Now, I'm not sure why, but any address given in Tok Pisin goes on, and on and on. It's a bit like listening to the World Tomorrow with Garner Ted Armstrong in Lithuanian. He, the manager, not Garner Ted, explained 'why' go wok long gaden, 'how' go wok long gaden, when, where and what go wok long gaden. He explained the roles of the meri (girls) and the mange (boys), what is expected of the tisas (teachers), their mission is to capture escapees, metre punishment, prevent, which really means monitor, theft, and smoke and chew in the shade. He also set few other parameters, gave those who had not yet paid their fees a rev, and I think he might have elucidated on the Old Testament, but I wasn't paying much attention by this time.

Then, weapons of mass agriculture were issued, most of which were bush knives. A bush knife is really a machete, but much longer and much more lethal. Most PNG people, even from an extraordinarily young age, have their own, perhaps they're given as prizes in school; I've never seen anybody with a book. I was also pleased to see a wheelbarrow and several hoes' er, that means 'hoes', as in garden implement, of the 'row to hoe' variety, has nothing to do with rappers' girlfriends, and is not a reference to the girl students who seem very nice. Finally, at about ten, we straggled off across the ten acre, mown patch to the garden at just under a slow dawdle, but by lining some of them up with coconut trees, I could see that they were at least still moving. As they went, I counted again this time there were just seventeen boys; it seems we had (or didn't have) four more defaulters. When we eventually arrived at the kaukau patch, some of the boys set-to with a will, heaping up soil into 'mountains' with their hoes (snigger), while others, those without wills probably, followed the teachers' example and got busy sitting down in the shade.

When I'm the garden, it's as though I'm transported back in time. The image the boys present (although most of them are young men) as they toil and sweat in the sun, with primitive hand tools, ragged clothes and black sweaty skins, while teachers strut around, for all the world like plantation overseers, reminds me of the slave labour I see in the Hollywood blockbusters. I actually found myself humming Bringing in the Sheaves, one day. I might try fixing a beady glare and intone: "What we have here, is a failure to commuunykate!" (Cool Hand Luke) The girls began 'thrashing' what was left of our rice crop. They'd pull up a rice bunch, straggle across to the wheelbarrow, and stand there picking off the grains, then after a few minutes, they'd throw that bunch on the heap to be burnt, and straggle back for another bunch. I showed them how to push the barrow close to the rice, which would reduce the straggling time, and how to thrash the bunches against the sides of the barrow making all the grains fall off at once. I was pleased to see that they followed my example, but intrigued that when I left them to it, they soon went back to their original method.

Time means nothing in the islands, imagine what it would be like if there was no need for money, and there were no jobs. Very few people, probably less than one percent, own watches, and many can't tell the time anyway. When we leave Kokopo in the boats, the operators often ask me the time, and rather than try to make myself heard over the sound of the motor, I show them my watch, but invariably they look at it blankly, and flick their eyebrows at me. Time means nothing when there's nowhere to go, and nothing to do when you get there. We (white men) see work efficiency as a good thing, but they, the islanders, could well see hurrying as wasting their life. If a job is finished in one day instead of two, might death be one day closer. Is our allotted span decreed by time, or what we do in it. Without time, punctuality is also an abstract concept. Meetings start when everybody gets there, school bells ring at any old time, and if there are not enough students for assembly, we wait, some might come. When the lunch bell goes, for example, it's often impossible to tell whether it's the bell to end smoko, or begin lunch. They seem to think that if the bell hasn't been rung for a while, they might as well do it now; it's better to ring it than not ring it, right! I might add that the two time keepers appointed at the beginning of the year, did not possess a watch between them, and recently the girls who have been paitim belo (fight, or hit, him lunch bell) have been instructed to do so, by the Home Ec teacher whose watch is twenty minutes fast, and she doesn't know how to re-set it. She knows it's fast, but still tells them to paitim the damn belo.

Development Day dragged by under the hot tropical sun. I busied myself by heaping the rice trash up to be burnt, but another teacher told me that they usually leave it laying about to protect the soil. I was a bit piqued that they hadn't told me sooner, as I'd already made some pretty big piles and I didn't feel like spreading it all out again. I left it, and I'm glad I did because later, the Manager had the boys pile it all up and burn it anyway. If the left hand doesn't know what the right's doing, sticks and stones won't hurt if it leads a horse to water? you know what I mean. It's Papua New Guinea, and this level of relaxed, confident confusion, goes all the way up to the House of Parliament.

There is a sound, that probably pervades all tropical areas, that can strike instant fear into the hearts of anyone who hears it. It's the sound of coconuts hurtling through the canopy, and, if you're lucky, thudding to earth. If you hear that sound directly above you, it's too late to do anything, the deadly green missile is already speeding on its way and before you have time to react, it ploughs into the ground alongside you, hopefully, and you won't have to worry about lunch, that day. If you don't hear it hit the ground, you're already dead, and you won't have to worry about anything else ever again! People do not sit or loiter under coconut trees around here. The morning wore on, the hot sun burning the ground. Then, thud, thud, thud! Thud! When you hear multiple thuds, it means that one of the kids has gone aloft to get lunch, and sure enough one of the Pomio boys was high in a tree, raining down kulau. This was the signal for the work to fall into total and utter disarray, and at about eleven, with full bellies after a feed of kulau, we broke for lunch, but everybody seemed satisfied with their efforts and there's always another day here on Duke of York.
And some more:
The Sunday arvo soccer game took a new twist today; it was lady's day. The girls took the field, and during the next hour or so, absolute mayhem ruled. My manager's wife, who, I might add has a very large bosom, played centre forward for a while, and I didn't like to watch, and Mrs Levai was a picture of inelegance, in a gaping singlet. Two of the ladies appeared to be sharing one set of soccer boots, probably borrowed from hubby because the field was wet, and several continued to play in ankle-length laplaps. But for sheer good natured fun it was unbeatable. A young woman standing near me, laughed, hooted, giggled, barracked, snorted and cheered. She went through every possible human emotion, and she was just one of about a hundred. Great fun. The game finished at nil all. A lapun said, when I asked him what the score was, said sagely, "No score; they can play, but they can't score." I thought that was particularly observant. Sexist, but observant.

A lapun is an "elder". I am lapun. The average life span for men here, is fifty four; I'm fifty-nine (and looking good, I might add.). I might be the oldest man in the Bismark Archipelago.
And with homage to Banjo Paterson, here is my personal favourite.
An Aussie Vollie at Kokopo, caught the cycling craze,
And bought the latest Chinese model. It cost him six full pays.
He saddled up, peddled off, the locals stood and gaped,
But when he tried to reign it in; the damn thing had no brakes.

He bought a spanner, fixed 'em up, and started off again,
"This here's the go! Look at me, sailing 'round the bend!
A breeze in my face; it's all downhill; this is the way to travel."
He could not know, the wretched wheels, had started to unravel.

The spokes were loose, he heard them rattle, they made the bike feel floppy,
"Hmm." He muttered beneath his breath, "A vollie could get stroppy."
He stopped again, in blazing heat, and watched by local blokes,
He turned that cycle on its head, and tuned up all the spokes.

He leapt aboard his two wheeled beast, the locals stood in awe,
A white man, on a bicycle had never been seen before.
Hellooo, hellooo, and apinun, the chorus cheers him on,
A wave of sound, hot on his heels, like running the marathon.

But soon his way leads up a rise; the world's not all down-hill.
His breath proves short, his legs too long, the seat seems made of steel.
He changes gear, the chain comes off, and makes a graunching sound,
And long before he tops that hill, he stops to look around.

A grassy verge- he takes a rest- considering his plight.
It's not as though he needs to, though, he's really quite alright.
It's not that he's old- just a little less bold; the sweat drips off his chin.
Although he's not a teenager; he never could give in.

With greasy, blackened fingers now, grinding up the hill,
His breath! It roars! there is no air! The crowd, staring still.
He'll not yield to that mighty peak, the summit is the prize
Which, if you're paying attention, has grown from just a rise.

Colour drains from his immediate world, there is no life but pain,
And then he makes a solemn pledge: Don't come this way again.
At a weary wobbly walking pace, his legs both turn to water,
A tiny voice says take a rest; he thinks he bloody-well oughter.

But no! he peddles on, and on, the summit is his for the taking,
And finally in victory, he stands there, legs a-shaking.
His arse on fire, his heart as though, pummelled by native beaters,
He slowly turns and looks back down that dreadful hundred metres.

"What's that!" I'm sure you cry, dismayed, "Are you for bloody real?"
He turns and kicks that Asian junk, a beauty in the wheel.
"A hundred bloody metres! All this for bloody that!"
He turns and boots the bike again, in tit for bloody tat!
It will be sad to miss out on more of these humorous PNG anecdotes, coupled with reworkings of famous poems. Things always move on though.

Have a safe trip back and all the best for the future mate.