Sunday, September 30, 2007

Papua New Guinea: Another Beginning: Two Weeks in Port Moresby

With my five weeks of vacation sadly at an end, Mom and I drove to the airport in Nashville. My sister, Maria, who was home from college for the weekend, had insisted that she would come along for the drop-off. When we roused her at 5:00 in the morning, though, she decided to bid me farewell at the house and go back to bed. Also opting to sleep-in were my high school and middle school-aged brothers, Patrick and John.

Knowing that they weren't morning people, most especially not John, I wasn't too surprised. It was a Friday, in any case, and they had school at 8:00.

Mom and I encountered a light drizzle and some commuter congestion, but we got to the airport pretty much on schedule.

Our good-bye was a bit emotional, and Mom's voice cracked and faded away as we hugged for the last time. I too was feeling the weight of the moment, and, truth be told, I had a few tears standing at the ready. Then I looked up and noticed some punk teenager staring right at me. Having no intention of putting on a show for this girl, I ordered my tears to stand down and went about my business.

As I checked-in for my flight, my bags registered on the scale at the maximum allowable weight. It was all good in the neighborhood. The desk attendant checked the bags all the way to Port Moresby, and I was curious to see if they would actually make it.

After a few hours, my puddle-jumper from Nashville landed at Dulles Airport outside DC. As I checked-in for my connecting flight to Tokyo, the man at the desk invited me to wait for boarding in the business class lounge since I was in fact flying business class. Waiting in the lounge is always better than waiting at the gate, so I moseyed on in.

It was only about 11:00 AM at the time, but I proceeded to order myself a beer, mainly because free beer is one of the business-lounge perks. Unfortunately, someone forgot to mention this to United Airlines. My beer appeared, along with a bill for $4.50. This was an unexpected turn of events for sure, but I paid just to save face.

I've been in a number of airport lounges around the world, and I don't recall seeing penny-pinching like this anywhere else (although I'm sure there are plenty of similar examples that I haven't witnessed). Some lounges just don't serve alcohol, but having a cash bar is new to me. Even the business lounge in Rangoon, Burma, serves free beer.

Anyhow, I'm finished beating that dead horse now.

When we eventually boarded, I was in the middle block of seats, on the aisle. In the row of seats to my left, there was a woman who caught my eye. She was considerably older than me, but there was something magnetic about her. She looked like she would be fun to converse with.

It wasn't meant to be, though, and I was seated next to a burly Russian-looking guy who went to sleep straight away. This was also good, though. I like silence on a plane more than talking.

The flight to Tokyo was a quick 14 hours, during which I slept a few hours, ate a few meals, listened to the radio, and watched movies. I caught such classics as Fracture (lame ending), The Ex (low on laughs), Silver Surfer (too much human drama mixed in with superheroism), Georgia Rule (yawn...), and Spider-Man 3, which was pretty good.

And throughout it all, except for the sleeping, I took the time to enjoy a beverage or two. My waiter was good and prompt with my Jack Daniels, but after about the third one, he decided to give me his two cents on the subject.

“If I may suggest, whisky is such a harsh drink. Bourbon is better for drinking straight. Much smoother.”

Although I don't find it superior to Tennessee whisky, I do enjoy bourbon in its own right. I switched over. If it made the waiter feel better, why the heck not.

My acceptance of the bourbon was a bonding moment for us, and the waiter kept checking on me to see how I liked it. Then when I deplaned in Tokyo, he brought it up again.

In Tokyo, I settled in for a long five and a half hour wait, which later stretched out to six when Air Niugini arrived late.

I briefly browsed the shops and then hunkered down in the business class lounge. Air Niugini had a lounge-sharing agreement with some Japanese airline.

This lounge served free beer, wine, and spirits, as all good lounges should. They also provided free wireless internet access, so I surfed the net for a long time.

At its peak, there were maybe a dozen people in the lounge. Eventually, the number dwindled to three, and we were all going to Port Moresby.

When it finally came time for boarding, the three of us from the lounge got on the plane, and we were in fact the only three passengers in the business class section, which held maybe thirty people. The economy section had a slightly more profitable population density, but it was by no means full.

As I would later learn, Air Niugini had leased the plane on this run from Viva Macau Airlines because the plane they had been using previously had also been leased, and the lease had expired.

No matter who owned the plane, it was nothing to write home about. The seats in business class offered little recline, and the radio had only three fuzzy stations. The business class menu listed three dishes, but only the beef was available. The meal looked awful, even in print, and since I wasn't hungry, I skipped it and drank some champagne. I stared out the window and waited for a movie to start. I had assumed that there would be a movie because there was a movie screen at the front of the section and because the flight was eight and a half hours long. I assumed wrong.

Since I wasn't eating, listening to music, or watching movies, I was left with little else to do but sleep once I finished reading the inflight magazine.

And so I slept, although the quality of the sleep was not good. For nearly the entire journey, the plane was bouncing around. I can sleep through mild turbulence, the kind that is maybe akin to driving over a pot-holed road, but not much more than that. On this flight, we kept hitting turbulence that was a bit more intense. This was of the variety where the aircraft would seem to suddenly plunge a meter or two for no apparent reason.

When we finally broke through the clouds over the heart of Papua New Guinea, I felt like we were approaching Skull Island, the fictional home of King Kong.

As we taxied up to the terminal, my long trip came to a close. It had taken 32 hours, door-to-door, and 24 hours 30 minutes of that had been in the air. Plus, I lost a day crossing the International Date Line.

Thankfully, all my luggage did arrive with me. I would later learn that this was perhaps more the exception than the rule. Flights traversing Australia had the worst reputation for lost luggage.

After I cleared customs and passport control, I was met by my sponsor from the Embassy, Irene, and Sam, one of the Embassy drivers. As we drove to my new house, Irene gave me a mini tour of town.

I had actually arrived during Papua New Guinean independence weekend, and there was supposed to be a big celebration in Port Moresby on the day I arrived. As Irene informed me, however, it had suddenly been switched to the day before, so I missed it.

After our quick drive through town, we arrived at my house. It's nice.

It is a townhouse of six split levels (basement floor, ground floor, and four upper floors). There is plenty of storage, and the kitchen is nicely laid out. There is a patio off the master bedroom, and it has a partial view of Koki Bay.

The problem with having so many levels is, of course, the stairs. From my room to the front door, there are 22 steps; from my room to the laundry room, 31 steps. After a while, they add up, and my knees complain from time to time.

My house is on a compound with five other houses and a pool. There are coconut, papaya, and mango trees on the property. Because of the high crime rate, the whole thing is also surrounded by a big fence topped with razor wire. Access is controlled by guards 24 hours a day, and at night a Rottweiler stands watch. I've been told by one guard that the dog’s name is Hottspa and by another that it’s Lucas. Sometimes there is also a German Sheppard, I think.

The humidity is high here, so dehumidifiers are provided in the residences. They pull gallons of water out of the air each day, and I hope my carpets and other belongings will fare well when they arrive in November.

Anyway, getting back to the story, Irene left me at my house for a few hours so that I could unpack and shower. Then she and Sam returned to take me grocery shopping.

The grocery stores here are good, with plenty of familiar products. This is largely due to the fact that Australians started most of the major ones. The nicest things about the grocery stores, in my opinion, are the meat counters. They have a wide variety of meats, poultry, fish, and seafood. Everything looks fresh, and the prices aren't bad. Other things are less economical, however. Fresh milk comes to mind. It costs about 5 bucks for a liter. I have now switched to UHT (ultra high temperature) milk, which does not need to be refrigerated until it is opened. I used to drink this in Pakistan, and I think it tastes pretty much the same as the milk in the dairy case. In Port Moresby, it is considerably cheaper than fresh milk.

On my first shopping trip, I selected a lot of basics - fruit, laundry detergent, rice, and so forth - and then I went over to the meat case with Irene. I ordered some ground lamb, some chicken breasts, and a beef roast, and the butchers served it all up. Then one of the ladies in back handed me a bag of steak. Since I hadn't ordered these, I asked the lady what she was giving me. She unfortunately had to answer me several times because I was fresh off the boat and couldn't understand her accent at first.

The woman told me that they were porterhouse steaks, “like madam always orders”. She didn't appear to be referring to Irene, so I wasn't really sure who “madam” was. In any case, the price wasn't bad so I took the meat from her with no further discussion.

After the grocery shopping, I was delivered back to my house for a few more hours. During this time, my neighbors two houses over, the Nixons, allowed me to call home on their Skype.

Then it was time for dinner.

My first meal in Port Moresby was at the Royal Papua Yacht Club. This is a private, members-only club that has a restaurant, bar, marina, gym, and video slot machines (which are called pokies here). One thing about the Yacht Club was immediately apparent: for being one of the premier spots in Port Moresby, it had more problems with service than one might expect.

At this dinner, there were maybe five or six Embassy (or “Ambassy” as the reservation sign on our table read) employees. We all ordered drinks, received the drinks, and paid for the drinks. After the drinks, we moved on to food. As explained to me, you could save the settling-up until the end of the meal, but the bill was almost guaranteed to be messed up. The pay-as-you-go method was a necessary simplification.

I drank the local beer, South Pacific (SP), for the first time that night. It's a good brew.

At the Yacht Club, there are special theme nights six days a week - things like pasta night, burger bar, roast night, and so forth. On this particular night, it was barbeque night. The set-up was simple. There was a big cooler on the deck stocked with various cuts of meat and seafood. A diner would pick a piece and a chief would cook it up on a restaurant-grade barbeque grill. Eight or ten side dishes, served buffet style, were also included.

Several of us ordered the barbeque special that night, and a few ordered off the menu. This provided a good illustration of another Yacht Club reality: If you order off the menu, you have a very long wait ahead.

My steak was OK, but Irene and her husband, Tom (the Embassy’s second-in-command) were powerfully disappointed with the pizza they ordered.

After dinner, I called it a night.

The next day was a Monday holiday, and I did little else than eat two more times at the Yacht Club.

Nearly all the Americans at the Embassy are members of the Yachtie, and there was a certain assumption that I would also join. I wasn't sold just yet, though. I liked the beer and the sunsets, but the food never really impressed me. The service was certainly not a selling point.

Bright and early the next morning, I went to work for the first time. I met the Ambassador as well as the rest of the American and local employees. Everyone is very nice.

Here, casual Friday seems to start on Monday for many people, so my decision to continue wearing shirt and tie to the office seemed to be cause for concern for nearly all of the Americans below the rank of Ambassador. Now they have come to terms with it, I think.

The Embassy itself is in a building leased from a bank, and it is probably the nicest that I've seen. The art is particularly well done.

Anyhow, the remainder of my first week passed quickly. There were several more trips to the Yacht Club, a reception at the Ambassador's house (a great view she has!), a lunch at a nice Chinese restaurant, and work. The guys also took me to a bar called Ozzie's where there is a live band on certain nights.

Then my first weekend arrived.

Irene met me in the morning on Saturday to show me a few more things around town. We started by driving past Parliament and the National Museum. Both were closed for the weekend, though. Then she took me to the Port Moresby Art Theater, or something like that. Apparently, this place used to support a small community of painters and potters, and that is what Irene wanted to show me.

When we started walking around the grounds, the place looked deserted. Then we came across a janitor, and Irene asked him where the artists were. His English wasn't good, though, and a moment of confusion followed. Sam, the driver, stepped in with some Pidgin, but before he could get any answers, the caretaker of the place appeared. He was a Papua New Guinean named Kelly. As both a painter and a potter, he was the last artist left. Unfortunately, his art was also on its last leg. He had several clay pots made, but he couldn't fire them because he couldn't afford to pay for the gas that the kiln required.

Kelly was an accomplished artist. He and his friend from the Highlands had produced a large mural made of a few hundred ceramic plates for the international airport in Port Moresby.

When Irene and I visited him, the only finished pieces that he had were five or six paintings, a ceramic jar, a few small ceramic tiles, and a small ceramic mural that was made of eight tile panels.

We talked with Kelly for a long time, and we each made a purchase. Irene bought a ceramic piece or two, and I got a painting. The painting featured four giant skeletons that were as tall as the trees around them. Kelly explained that these were the spirits of ancestors and that they continued to interact with the living. Irene correctly pointed out that it was a nice piece for Halloween.

Before we left, Kelly offered us some betel nut. Betel nut comes from a palm tree, and it's a mild stimulant. It is very popular here (for both men and women), and there are betel nut stands everywhere.

To chew fresh betel nut, you must first bite through the green husk and extract the kernel from the center. Here it is usually chewed with mustard and lime (calcium oxide, not citrus fruit), although it is also chewed plain. While you chew, the stimulants seep into your system. There is a geographical divide on what becomes of the spittle. People from the highlands generally spit out their saliva (as is done with chewing tobacco), and those from coastal regions generally swallow it. It's either that way, or vice versa.

The nut itself is brownish or whitish, and it produces colorless saliva. When mixed with the mustard and lime, though, it becomes bright red. Because of this, habitual betel nut users usually have orange-stained teeth and lips. The streets and sidewalks and everything else in spitting range are also usually splashed with red in betel nut areas. Betel nut makes such a mess that many places have “no betel nut” signs right next to their “no smoking” signs. Smoking, by the way, is also quite popular here.

Speaking of smoking, I am reminded of a good story Sam told me. During the Bougainville conflict, Sam was deployed with the PNG military. One night, a fellow soldier was smoking, and Sam repeatedly told him to extinguish his cigarette or to at least get out of open view. His friend did not heed his warnings, and coincidentally was shot by a sniper right through the mouth. The light from the cigarette had indeed given him away. It was at this point, Sam told me, that he realized the true danger of smoking. (Cancer schmancer; it's the snipers you have to worry about.) That night Sam (along with several other long-time smokers in his unit) gave up smoking for good.

Anyhow, getting back to the story, Kelly offered us some betel nut. Irene and Sam declined, but I took one. I chewed the husk off and ate the seed, which was about the size of an acorn. We were eating these straight, with no lime or mustard, and they were very bitter.

Sam, sensing that I might have a problem, told me to just hold it in my mouth and to spit it out at the car. Then we bid farewell to Kelly and headed on our way.

By the time we got to the car, I had swallowed not only all of my betel saliva, but also most of the nut. I had tried to spit it out, but there were so many pieces hiding around my mouth, I felt like a dog eating a scoop of peanut butter. It was just easier to swallow it.

I didn't think there was much to betel nut, but I quickly learned otherwise. As we pulled away from the art center, I started feeling nauseous and a headache was brewing. Irene looked over and was like, "Wow! You're sweaty!" And I was. I was sweating bullets.

Sam looked back from the driver's seat and verified what I had already figured out. “If you swallow the betel nut, it can make you sick.”

I felt generally unwell, but I figured that the feeling would pass soon enough. I wasn't overly concerned.

Irene, on the other hand, was very worried. Half-jokingly, she lamented, “If you get sick, the Ambassador's going to kill me.”

I didn't really understand why the Ambassador would hold her responsible if I got sick, but I was new, so what did I know.

I was a bit surprised by my reaction to the betel nut because I used to take it in Pakistan on occasion, and I never had such a result.

Anyway, Irene had Sam stop at the grocery store. A few minutes later, she returned with some waters, Cokes, and chocolate bars. I took a swig of Coke, and I couldn't taste anything. The bitter betel nut taste trumped it completely. The chocolate bar was a little better, although the taste was still off.

Soon enough the worst was over, and we continued on our tour. We went to a handicraft warehouse and to a stationery store.

Then Irene left for another appointment, and Sam dropped me off at the grocery store. While I was in the store, the betel nut made its last stand. I had a sudden need for the toilet that was not to be denied. Luckily the grocery store had a bathroom.

Clearly, the betel nut won this round. It hasn't seen the last of me, though.

From the store, Sam and I went on another mission: finding a gym. There are only a few options in town, so picking a place wasn't so difficult. The main options were the Holiday Inn, the Yacht Club, and the Aviat Club, another members-only social club. I checked them out, and they were basically about the same. They all looked like prison gyms - a bunch of old, scruffy free weights and virtually no machines. The Yacht Club gym was slightly nicer than the other two, but the Aviat Club had a pool, which was important as well. Not wanting to join both social clubs, I eventually decided to go with the Yacht Club since it had a better gym, restaurant, and bar than Aviat. I would look elsewhere for a pool.

Sam and I finished our outing with a trip to a market.

There are several daily open air food markets here, and I like them even better than the grocery stores. At these markets, you can find fruits, vegetables, fish, and seafood. The seafood that I've seen available in the markets includes shrimp, crabs, mollusks, and the very un-eco-friendly sea turtle. On the produce side of the house, there are plenty of familiar items available as well as more exotic things like sago, taro, tapioca root, and a variety of greens you won't see in most western grocery stores. The open markets are much cheaper than the proper grocery stores. As I found out with Sam, you can also find chili peppers in the markets. We found fresh jalapeƱos and some small red peppers about half an inch long with a nice kick.

The next day, I went on a hike with the local bush-walking group. This particular walk was on Mt. Diamond, and we hired some boys from the Adventist school there to lead us. The lead boy was named Jimmy, and six of his friends came along. We didn't need this many guides, but there was no harm in them joining us.

Of the seven guides, I talked with Jimmy, Chris, and Jonathan, but didn’t really meet the other four. Jimmy was studying business; Chris, biology and chemistry; and Jonathan, physics and biology. They all plan to go to college next year.

We also had a two-man armed security escort.

The walk wasn't overly strenuous, and we passed through some nice landscapes. The turn-around point was a picturesque series of waterfalls, and along the way, we saw an abandoned diamond mine.

We also forded the river five or six times. At the first river crossing, many hikers removed their socks and shoes before entering the water. The next time, less people took off their shoes, and by the last crossing, nearly everyone just walked through wearing shoes. It was much less of a hassle this way. There were a few hold-outs until the end, though, including the security guards.

At the last crossing, one of the guards who didn't want to get his boots wet also didn't want to remove them. He found a log in the woods and built himself a bridge to a sand bar in the middle of the river. Once it reached the middle, he was stuck. He either had to get his boots wet or take them off. We were all joking with him as he stood in the middle considering his options, but then an unexpected escape presented itself. Jimmy and the boys carried the guard across the water. It was a funny moment.

On the hike, I spent a lot of time near the front of the pack with Jimmy, Chris, and Jonathan, and one thing that struck me was their feet. Most of the guides were either barefoot or in sandals, so noticing feet was nothing difficult. Jimmy, in particular, had short, very wide feet. They reminded me of duck's feet or small dive fins. At first I thought that this must be the result of twenty years of hard walking, but on second thought, I think it is probably mostly due to genetics.

After the hike, I had a nice treat when I returned to the housing compound and the Nixons invited me for poolside fajitas.

The following week was similar to the first. Work, Yacht Club, reception at the Ambassador's, and a few miscellaneous outings. One such outing was to the ice cream shop near the Embassy. This place had maybe six flavors, and they all looked weird. The pineapple was neon orange, the strawberry, neon pink, and the blueberry, purple. I ended up picking blueberry, and, while it tasted OK (though nothing like blueberry, mind you), it had an unsettling gritty texture. The thing that I liked best about the ice cream store, though, was a sign that the manager had posted, scolding his employees for being too generous with their scooping and costing the store profits. There were even drawings of a bad cone (which had a nice big scoop) and a good cone (which had such a small scoop there was no ice cream overhanging the cone whatsoever). The best part was that the admonishment was posted in public view. In any case, the notice seemed to have fallen on deaf ears because the cone I received looked very much like the drawing of the overloaded “bad cone”.

At the end of my second week, the Australians hosted a happy hour at the bar at their High Commission. This was good fun, and I met a lively group of Aussies. When the bar closed around 7:30, we all went to a Japanese restaurant where we washed down some teppanyaki with a few bottles of champagne.

We had a long night, but I was up bright and early the next day for the monthly seaside craft market. Papua New Guinean arts and crafts are spectacular, and I think that I will be dropping a fair bit of kina into the economy during my time here.

After the craft market, I went back to the food market. This time I went with the driver Ephraim. I took 15 or 20 minutes to make my purchases, and then we headed back to the car. Along the way, Ephraim picked some small, gummy fruit off a tree, and it made a mess on his hands. Before we got in the car, he scraped the fruit off his hand onto a fence.

With that, five angry men immediately materialized. They broke into Pidgin, and several minutes of lecturing and gesturing ensued. The self-appointed market patrol was demanding 30 kina (~$10.70) from Ephraim for littering. After losing the war of words, Ephraim got out of the car and removed the notorious fruit goo from the fence using a piece of paper. The patrol was still not satisfied, but Ephraim managed to bargain the fine down to 4 kina (~$1.40). Then we drove on home.

And so, to make a short story long, that was my first two weeks in PNG. The weather is nice; the people are friendly; the shopping is good; and I expect that two years will fly by.


Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoy your writing And explanations of life in PNG. As a long time resident of Port Moresby, and although left PNG a while ago, it brought back memories and good on you for having a bright attitude and fun of life. Your writing on the barber shop I and II were hilarous, my husband used to be a barber in PNG and taughted a barber to take over his business when we left. Keep up the good work

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this one! quite a lot can happen in just two weeks. Your story was pretty long but entertaining. Oh and i read the superman one and thought it totally hilarious!!

Anonymous said...

Please keep writing abaut Papua New Guinea and tell others who are interested in comming to PNG, Its a preety place with lot of excitement.

Many thanks

Jimmy Wanpis