Sunday, October 28, 2007

Papua New Guinea: It's All Part of the Show in Lae

My arrival to Papua New Guinea in mid-September put me at a distinct disadvantage for catching a cultural show, the majority of which occur between July and September. There were a few stragglers, however, and so the last weekend in October, I headed north to Lae to catch the last big show of the year – the Morobe Show of Morobe Province.

On this trip to Lae I was only going to see the show, so I booked an early flight on Saturday morning and a return on Sunday afternoon.

The night before my trip turned out to be a late one at the Gold Club, and when I got home, I just didn't feel like packing. I decided to put it off. So, my flight was scheduled for 6:00 AM; I had booked a car and driver for 4:30; and the alarm was set for 3:30. This early wake-up should have given me plenty of time to pack, and there was sufficient cushion for me to hit the snooze several times if needed.

I am positive that I would have woken up if the alarm had gone off, but, alas, it did not. The alarm I was using was the one in my cell phone, and I normally had it set to ring Monday through Friday. I failed to inform it that I needed the alarm to sound on a Saturday, and so it didn't.

In any case, I woke up at 4:30 when the driver called me. He correctly guessed that I was still asleep because he couldn't see any lights on in my house.

Since I was only going to be spending one night in Lae, I didn't need to do a whole lot of packing. I got dressed, packed some things, and was out the door in 10 minutes.

One of the last things I normally do before I take a trip is to jettison everything that I won't need and that I don't want to get stolen. For example, instead of taking my whole key ring, I will remove only the house key and hide it in a pocket. I also go through my wallet and remove everything except for a small bit of cash. Then I stash the rest of the cash that I plan to carry in other pockets. I also generally bring an ID and sometimes a credit card, and these things also go in separate pockets. I normally wear cargo pants with a lot of pockets, with something different in each pocket, so that a thief isn't likely to get everything should I happen to get robbed.

In my haste, however, I did not go through my usual routine. I wasn't even wearing the correct pants. Doh!

Of course with all of this build-up, I'm sure you can see where this is going. Try to act surprised when it happens, though.

Anyhow, the airport is only 15 minutes from my house, so I reached it in plenty of time, even with oversleeping.

The flight was on time, and by 7:00 we landed at the Lae airport which was an hour by bus from the city.

I rode on the standard airport bus, but there was also a fortified option run by Guard Dog Security. The Guard Dog bus had grills over all the windows and several well-armed guards. Its seats were also twice the price of the standard bus. As far as crime goes, most people consider it a toss-up between Port Moresby and Lae for the distinction of being the worst of the worst in PNG. Because of this, Guard Dog didn't seem to be having any problem filling its seats.

Both bus lines offered door-to-door service, and after dropping off several other people, my bus kicked me out at my hotel.

It was only 8:30 when I tried to check-in, so it was no shock that my room was not yet ready.
While housekeeping finished up, I had a leisurely breakfast at the hotel's small restaurant.

Mostly because the service was so slow, I didn't leave the cafe until 10:15. While I was sitting around drinking tea and waiting for my food, a movie called Kung Fu Hustle came on. It was quite entertaining, and once I finished eating I almost stayed to see the ending. I didn't, though. I hadn't gone to Lae to watch TV.

After breakfast, my room was ready. I put my things inside and slathered up with sunscreen. Then the manager of the hotel, a man named Newman, gave me a lift in his van down to the show grounds.

Newman gave me his business card and told me to call him when I was ready to return to the hotel. Then he pointed me toward the entrance to the fairgrounds, which was down a road that was closed to traffic, and left me to my own devices.

As I walked down the street toward the ticket booth, it was clear that I wasn't in Madang anymore (or Kansas either). I started greeting everyone that I passed on the street as had been the practice in Madang, and in response, I received a lot of thousand-yard stares. Tough crowd...

Soon enough, though, I came to the ticket building. There were two or three sales windows and a huge disorderly mob out front. The chaos of the scene reminded me of buying my first train ticket in India.

I entered the fray and tried to work my way up to the front of the jumble of bodies. I didn't accomplish this without a measure of trouble, though, for as soon as I entered the mosh pit, every rascal in the vicinity was on me like whipped cream on a sundae.

I was a piece of bread that was thrown into a fish pond, and these jackass rascals were the fish who were nibbling on me from every direction.

I was pinned tightly in the crowd so that there were bodies against mine on all sides. Everyone was purposely pushing and shoving to add to the distraction, and there was literally a hand in every one of my pockets. At the hotel, I had redistributed my valuables so as not to have all my eggs in one basket, but I still had a lot of things on me that I wished I had left home. I had considered leaving these things at the hotel, but it didn't seem all that secure to me either.

The mob of rascals was initially manageable. Without making a big deal about it, I removed the hands from my pockets as I discovered them. I paid extra attention to the two front pockets that held my money.

When I was one person back from the ticket window, a man made a move for my wallet. I had been constantly touching my wallet pocket to make sure the wallet was still there, and just as the rascal reached down, so did I. Both of our hands locked on the wallet at the same time, and the rascal tried to wrench it from me. I held fast. Then I looked at him and told him, “Get your f**king hand off my wallet.” (I do apologize for my language, but this was one of those rare occasions where, in my estimation, the gravity of the f-word was necessary.)

Both of our hands were still in my pocket when the rascal aborted his grab, so in order to disengage from the pocket, he started flailing around something fierce. It was like I was holding a snake by the head. Then he broke free and ran off through the crowd.

While I had been fooling around with him, the other jackals had taken the opportunity to rummage around for themselves. I wheeled around, and the men behind me were all holding things from my pockets. One was pondering my boarding pass; another was reading Newman's business card; another was inspecting my receipt from breakfast; and yet another had my ink pen. It was ridiculous. This was no Indian train station, for damn sure.

I was like, “give me that...give me that...give me that” as I went from man to man grabbing my pocket litter back.

Then I shoved up to the front and bought my ticket – my five-kina ticket. Yes, all this hassle was for a ticket that cost less than two dollars.

With my ticket in hand, I bulldozed my way out of the crowd of hooligans.

When I was safely out, several people ran up to warn me that the ticket line wasn't safe for me. You think?

I was feeling pretty good about things at this point, though, because I thought that I had successfully thwarted all of the rascals. I thanked the helpful people who were a day late and a dollar short with their advice.

Then I entered the fair.

Once I was inside, I had time to take a more thorough inventory.

The rascals, as it turned out, had not gone away empty-handed. I was missing my cell phone and my tourist passport.

At this point, many people feel inclined to ask, “Why did you have your passport?”

Well, while a passport isn't generally required for domestic travel, it is a travel document nonetheless. And I was traveling. Obviously, though, carrying my passport wasn't a good move in hind sight.

Throughout the whole ticket fiasco, I had been wearing a backpack with my camera in it. The rascals had opened the small pocket on the front of the backpack. It held my guidebook, which had apparently been deemed not worth stealing. Luckily, the zipper pulls for the main compartment were broken, so no one was able to easily open it, and my camera was safe and sound.

Knowing that I would need a police report in order to apply for a new passport (along with 100 smackaroos) I sought out the long arm of the law. With the help of a few officers who were patrolling the grounds, I found the police command building at the fair and filed my case. When I told them my story, the police were all very sympathetic, and they lamented the sad state of affairs in their scofflaw city. Some of them seemed to be taking the whole thing much harder than I was.

Since they were operating out of a temporary command post, I was told that the report would be issued the following week once they returned to their offices. They assured me that they would fax me a copy as soon as the report was ready. In the end, though, it took them nearly two weeks to send me anything, and that was with me calling them almost daily.

So there you have it – two trips in PNG and two police reports. What a sorry record!

Anyhow, when I finished with the police, I went out to see the goings-on at the fair.

The two-day Morobe Show is primarily an agricultural show, so the first day and a half are dedicated to agricultural things – cowboy races, fruit and vegetable judging, livestock competitions, and so forth. The main attraction, however, is on the afternoon of the second day. This is when the sing-sing takes place. At a sing-sing, representatives from different tribes dress in their traditional costumes and perform their traditional songs and dances.

As I poked around that first morning, cowboy races were taking place in the center ring. In one race, competitors on horseback had to use long sticks to collect rings from the tops of barrels. In another race, teams of riders had to go through a silly obstacle course. The obstacles included one where a rider would have to dismount and walk a balance beam and one where a rider would have to pin a t-shirt onto a clothes line and one where a rider would have to scoop a bucket of water out of a barrel and transport it down the course.

Another one of the obstacles on the course was a log that the horsemen had to jump over. This one caused a lot of problems for a lot of riders. Many of the horses refused to jump over. The riders would get a running start, and at the last minute, the horses would either stop or divert. The crowd loved it, but some of the riders were really getting hot under the collar at their not-so-trusty steeds. I don't know anything about horses, but I wondered why so many people seemed to not know the abilities of their animals.

All the while, the organizers of the fair were busy in the announcer's tower and scurrying around the center ring. They all seemed to be Aussies and Kiwis.

Besides the activities in the center ring, there was a variety of other attractions. There were many corporate booths selling promotional items like t-shirts and hats as well as useful merchandise like soup mix. There were agricultural pavilions where the produce judging was going on. There were numerous booths showcasing agricultural processes, like rice milling and pig farming. There was a test garden. There was a Ferris wheel and some kiddie rides. There were a few stages with different local bands performing. There was an area set up by the main sponsor, Trukai Rice, that featured a men's body-building exposition. There were corrals and pins with horses, cows, goats, pigs, chickens, and sheep. There was an arts and crafts pavilion. There were pavilions showcasing schools and other organizations. There were numerous food and drink vendors. There were medical and police buildings. There was a crocodile tank with nothing very exciting inside.

In short, they had all the typical stuff you would expect to see at a county fair in the States, minus the corn dogs and funnel cakes.

That morning, I watched some of the cowboy races and then left to look at the stalls. At the produce pavilion, I started chatting with Maria, one of the competitors. She showed me her melons and whatnot, and I told her that she was a shoe-in for first place. Then we talked about other things.

I relayed the story of my trouble at the ticket “queue” and then Maria posed a very good question.

“Did you buy two tickets?” she asked, because in order to enter the fair on both Saturday and Sunday, I would need two tickets.

Foolishly, I had not bought two tickets. I told her that I would give someone else my money and ask them to get me another ticket because I had no intention of ever getting back in a mob like the one at the ticket booth.

Maria had an even better idea, though. She pulled out a big string of tickets from her bag and ripped one off for me. I offered to pay for it knowing that she wouldn't accept my money, and she didn't.

And with Maria's small gesture, balance was restored in my universe. The morning's fiasco at the ticket booth had been neutralized.

When I left Maria, I puttered around some more. As I walked along, people periodically came up to warn me about my backpack. Wearing it on my back was too risky, they told me. I should instead wear it on my chest, as many of them were doing.

The advice was nice, but it fell on deaf ears, I'm afraid.

Wear my backpack on the front? Yeah, right. I just don't roll like that. Frankly, I would rather take my chances with it on my back. Next they will be suggesting that I wear a fanny pack.

As I walked along, I noticed a girl wearing an Opryland t-shirt. Opryland was an amusement park, an hour from my hometown, that was affiliated with the famous Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. Opryland went belly-up years ago and was turned into an outlet mall called Opry Mills. Before it closed, though, I went to Opryland many times with my family.

Anyhow, I couldn't pass up the chance to talk to the girl wearing the Opryland t-shirt. I approached her and explained that she was wearing a t-shirt from a place from my childhood. Putting it in her terms, I told her that the shirt was from my home province.

Well, not only did she not share my enthusiasm at this discovery, she seemed to not even understand English. All she did was glare at me, so I moved on.

There were bleachers all around the center ring, but the nicest were the grandstands under the announcer's booth. It cost extra money to use these, which meant that most people wouldn't use them. This meant that, in addition to providing better views, they were less crowded and less dangerous.

The tickets weren't overly expensive, so I upgraded myself to the grandstands.

As I took my seat, a session of cowboy races was ending.

Next up was an escape artist from a circus in Australia. For his act, he escaped from a straight-jacket while hanging upside-down from a crane 20 feet in the air. The “rope” that supported him was also on fire for the stunt. I say “rope” because it was clearly a cable covered in some sort of oil which was set on fire.

I was sitting near some boys who were hoping that the stunt would go terribly wrong. It didn't.

I acknowledge that the escape artist had some talent, but personally, I found the whole stunt to be quite boring. Most of the time in his act was devoted to pumping up the crowd (which seemed indifferent to the whole thing), and the actual trick was over in one minute. Plus it didn't seem that dangerous to me. They should have spiced it up by slipping a few kina in his straight-jacket and suspending him over the mob of rascals at the ticket office.

After the dare devil, it was time to select the show queen and her court. A few dozen young ladies in traditional regalia marched onto the field, and a queen and a first and second runner-up were crowned. One young lady was also chosen to receive the “encouragement award” whatever that is.

The ladies of the royal court were nice enough, but the young lady that I was pulling for didn't place. My pick looked like she had an attitude problem, and I can respect that. Her costume was also pretty slick.

The queens took a spin around the ring and waved to their legions of fans. Then it was time for more cowboy fun. This time, a calf was released onto the field and a horseman had to corner it as quickly as possible.

This event was so exciting that I fell asleep half an hour after it started. Actually my exhaustion was mostly a combination of not getting any sleep the night before, waking up early, and sitting in the warm sun. The event was also a bit boring, though.

When I fell asleep, I was holding my camera in my hands. Later, after I had woken up, a British guy told me that he and his friends had been taking bets as to whether or not I would drop it. Of course I didn't.

More amazing than me not dropping the camera was the fact that no one decided to steal it when my guard was down. Behold the power of the grandstands.

I hadn't been so surprised about not being robbed since the time I fell asleep on the subway in New York City, at night, a bit drunk, with my wallet on my lap.

Anyhow, I decided to head back to the hotel around 4:30. There were still several events scheduled for that evening, culminating with fireworks at 8 or so, but I wanted to make sure that I was home well before it got dark – when the really bad dudes came out to play. Werewolves and vampires, I mean.

Since I no longer had a phone with which to call Newman for a ride, I decided that I would just walk back to the hotel. It was only a few kilometers away, and I was pretty sure that I remembered the route.

When I reached the gate, I noticed a policeman scuffling with some boys. I could also hear a bunch of shouting coming from behind a corrugated metal wall. There was a problem brewing, and just as I arrived, things boiled over.

All of the sudden, a barrage of glass bottles, coconuts, and rocks came flying over the wall.

“Run for cover!” someone shouted, and we all covered our heads and ran for safety.

“A riot... isn't this dandy?” I thought to myself.

Still interested in leaving the fair, I walked over to the other exit gate. Before I reached it, though, a policeman informed me that it was also closed due to rioting. With no other exits, I had no choice but to wait until the police got the problem under control.

Not wanting to go far to wait, I moseyed over to a booth that was near the exit. The booth belonged to a forestry technology school, and there were several students on hand who were more than happy to explain the process to me of turning a tree into, say, a patio table. They had a lot of diagrams and charts as well as several pieces of finished furniture on display.

Most of the students were talking on their mobile phones at one point or another, so I asked them if I could use one to call Newman. What with the civil unrest outside the gate, I started thinking that maybe walking home wasn't the best plan.

I first tried calling Newman on his cell phone, and he didn't answer. Then I tried the landline listed on his card, which connected me to the hotel receptionist. She informed me that Newman had already gone home for the day and that if he wasn't answering his mobile, then he was unreachable.

At that moment, I felt like saying “Newman!” with a sneer, like Jerry Seinfeld does on his show. There wouldn't have been any point in it, though, since none of my companions would have picked up on the reference.

I was back to plan B – walking.

As it turned out, though, my friends from forestry school were ready to go home before I was, and the best part was that they had wheels. This was important because there was no angry mob at the exit to the carpark, which meant that we could leave without any hassle.

They offered me a lift, and I naturally accepted. We all loaded up in the back of the truck, and ten minutes later, I was back at the hotel.

When I arrived back at the hotel, it was a bit too early for dinner so I went to my room and watched some TV. Yes, my room had a TV in it. It also had A/C. It wasn't as basic as I would have liked, but I couldn't find anything cheaper because the Morobe Show had driven up the occupancy rates all over town.

Anyhow, I started watching a bad 80s movie about a woman who picks up a hitch-hiker in the desert and has a fling. There's a twist, though: the mysterious stranger from the side of the road turns out to be psycho. (You didn't see that one coming, did you?) The hitch-hiker goes on to cause all sorts of problems for his new friend, and her life is ruined.

Unlike Kung Fu Hustle, though, I had no qualms about walking away from this cinematic masterpiece. I went to dinner halfway through.

I was the first customer of the night, but the chicken curry that I ordered still took about six months to come out of the kitchen.

When I was nearly done eating, a Papua New Guinean guy entered the restaurant. I recognized him as one of the people who had been in the restaurant having breakfast that morning.

He asked if he could join me, and I didn't mind.

When he sat down, the first thing that he asked me was, “You're alone, aren't you?”

I admitted to the fact, and the guy immediately started apologizing. At breakfast, he had been sitting with two other guys. They had apparently been having a debate about whether I was alone or not and whether they should talk to me. I would have thought that it was pretty obvious that I was alone, seeing as how I had in fact been sitting by myself when they saw me, but who knows...

In any case, when he confirmed that I was traveling alone, he became very remorseful that he hadn't taken the opportunity in the morning to welcome me into his group. To ease his conscience, I immediately told him how I had been robbed only minutes after he had chosen not to talk to me.

He was understandably concerned about the robbery, but living in PNG, he had been there, done that.

He told me the tale of the last time his cell phone had been pinched. He called the phone, and the thief answered. He told the thief that he needed the phone back because it had important numbers programmed into it. The thief was not without compassion, and it was decided that they would meet and my new friend would pay a ransom for the phone's return. When they met, he took the phone from the thief and instead of paying him, backhanded him across the face and said something smart like, “Didn't your mother teach you any manners?”

And he wasn't knifed or shot or anything.

He thought this technique might work with my rascal, so we called my phone. Unfortunately, no one answered.

This guy's name was Taylor, and he worked for InterOil, the main petroleum company in PNG. He was at the Morobe Show to work in the InterOil booth.

He ordered fried chicken for dinner and we had several hours of conversation while we waited for it to arrive. In the meantime, he treated me to some banana fritters and ice cream.

Before we left the café that night, Taylor told me that he could give me a ride to the fair in the morning and suggested that we meet for breakfast. We agreed on a time, and then we went our separate ways.

Still tired, I started getting ready for bed. I had a shower, and as I was brushing my teeth in the shared bathroom, a short, dark-skinned man started shaving his head smooth with a razor at the sink next to the one I was using.

He wasted no time in introducing himself. His name was Cornelius, and I couldn't believe the coincidence. I had just finished talking to Taylor, and now I was talking with Cornelius. Planet of the Apes, baby! I half-expected Dr. Zaius to flush the toilet and come out of a stall.

As Cornelius shaved his head, he asked me what my plans were for the night. When I told him that I didn't have any plans, he asked if I would like some. He was a businessman who frequently passed through Lae, and he knew all the best places to go.

I told him that I was game for going out, but that I didn't have any clothes nicer than the shorts, sandals, and t-shirt I was wearing.

He looked at my clothes and kind of nodded in agreement that they were no good.

I assumed that the matter was dead at that point, but it wasn't long before Cornelius looked over at me and tried again.

“Are you sure you don't want to come? It's gonna be fun.”

And so I reminded him about my clothes again. And again he agreed that they weren't acceptable.

Things got quiet again, and then he brought it up again.

We went through this cycle like four times in two minutes. Cornelius was starting to get on my nerves.

I don't know if he thought that I was trying to make excuses or what, but I wasn't. If the nightclub would let me in as I was dressed, then I would go along. Otherwise, there was no point in me going. It wasn't a question of how much fun it would be. I didn't need to be convinced.

I suppose that if I hadn't finished brushing my teeth and left the bathroom, Cornelius would still be trying to coax me out to a club.

A few days before I had left for Lae, our security officer at the embassy had given me a little security briefing about Lae, complete with some unsavory worst-case scenarios. One thing he mentioned was the possibility of rascals kicking in the door of my hotel room in the middle of the night. As I switched out the light, this thought briefly danced through my mind before I went to sleep.

That night, rascals kicked in my door. Just kidding. I slept like a log and woke up completely refreshed.

Then, right on schedule, Taylor and I met for breakfast.

Once we finished eating, we went to the office so that I could check out and so that I could book a ride to the airport for later in the afternoon.

Newman was behind the desk, and Taylor mentioned my robbery from the day before.

Newman was like, “I was afraid something like that would happen.”

My flight that afternoon was at 4:45, so Newman booked me on the airport bus with a 2:00 pick-up from the hotel. This was too early, but the bus offered no flexibility. Two o'clock would have to do.

Once everything was squared away, Taylor and I went outside to wait for a ride. One of his InterOil colleagues had taken their truck to get gas. We waited for at least an hour for his colleague to return. He must have been getting the gas from the next town over or something.

When Taylor's colleague did return, we drove the few minutes down to the show grounds. Taylor had to take the truck and attend to other business, but he hooked me up with some of his other colleagues before he left. I guess he felt that I needed supervision.

Taylor was going to take me back to the hotel at 1:45 so that I could make my 2:00 bus pick-up, so rather than have his colleague escort me around, I told him that I would just meet him back at the InterOil booth when it was time for me to go.

Then I set out on my own.

The atmosphere at the fair was a bit different than the day before. There seemed to be a lot more people milling around. There were also small troupes of drummers scattered around laying down some beats.

About an hour after I arrived, something caught my eye in a crowd of people. A young PNGean lady had an Israeli flag painted on her cheek.

Keen on hearing the story behind this, I caught up to her. Then I noticed that she was also wearing an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) t-shirt.

“I see you are very supportive of Israel” I remarked.

And she replied, “It's my adopted country. I'm Jewish.”

In order to give myself some quick credibility, I told her that I had just moved from Israel, and I filled her head with amazing tales of Jerusalem and Haifa and Tzfat.

Her name was Naomi; this was the name she took when she converted.

Naomi introduced me to her family members who were with her. Besides Naomi, there were three ladies, a man, and two children. The guy was named Sam and two of the ladies were named Gila and Petra. The rest I forget.

By their own estimation, they comprised pretty much the entire Jewish community in PNG.

They were representin', though. In this group of seven people, there were eight Israeli cheek paintings, three Jerusalem t-shirts, two IDF t-shirts, one somebody-in-Israel-loves-me t-shirt, and two Jerusalem bags.

I asked them why they had decided to become Jews, and they said that Judaism just spoke to them.

They told me that the Jewish community in Papua New Guinea was too small to support a synagogue, and I can believe it. The Muslims are a little better off, with one mosque serving the whole country.

For Naomi and her crew, however, not having a synagogue is not a problem. They study their texts; they keep the Jewish holidays; they observe Shabbat; and they keep kosher. Israeli backpackers occasionally visit PNG, and Naomi's family hosts many of them. These backpackers are the family's main source for Israeli souvenirs.

We chatted for a while, and before I left them, Naomi and I exchanged contact information.

Then I made my way to the grandstands and found a seat in time for the main events.

Things kicked off with a marching contest that pitted several schools and other organizations against each other. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts participated. In the end, I think the kids from the Salvation Army School took the trophy.

After the kids, a unit of PNG soldiers marched out to the sounds of a drum and bagpipe band.

Then the Minister of Agriculture gave some long-winded remarks, and it was finally time for the sing-sing.

In the grandstands, I had been talking with a photographer from Wyoming. She had purchased the rights to go out on the field, though, so she took off when the dancing started.

The sing-sing began with the presentation of the show queens. Then the dance troupes filed by one-by-one. There were more than 50 groups in the show this year, which was a huge turn-out.

The sing-sing was totally cool. The costumes, the drumming, the singing, the dancing, the energy. It was all spectacular.

I really liked the photos that I took at the sing-sing and not because of any great camerawork on my part. Confronted with so much pageantry, it's hard not to get good pictures.

As I watched the show, I lost track of the time. It was already after 2:00 by the time Taylor found me and rushed me back to his truck. By the time he retrieved me, though, the show had finished. I had gotten to see everything, and if it meant that I was going to miss the bus, it would have been worth it. I figured that I could get to the airport by some other means if necessary.

When we got back to the hotel, Newman was also concerned that I was behind schedule.

It didn't really matter, though, because the bus was also late. It arrived about five minutes after I did.

With my time in Lae drawing to a close, Taylor and I exchanged contact information. Then I rode off into the sunset.

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