Saturday, November 10, 2007

Papua New Guinea: Superman's Long Walk

It was Saturday morning, and, like many other Saturdays, I called the Embassy's duty driver to see about getting a lift into town. Sam was on duty, and when he picked me up at around 10:00 AM, he told me that he had other runs scheduled, starting at 11:30. I told him that I understood this limitation, and we drove off to the few places on my list.

We started by going to the local post office where I mailed some letters and bought some stamps. Then we went to a stationery store, where I picked up exciting things like packing tape and a sketch pad.

By the time we got to my final stop, the Holiday Inn, it was 11:10. The 11:30 run involved taking the Embassy's shipping assistant to the airport to get something that the Embassy was importing cleared through customs. Sam didn't have time to wait for me at the Holiday Inn, so he dropped me off and left for his run.

I understood that this might happen, and I was fine with it. He told me that he would call me when he was available again.

My reason for going to the Holiday Inn was to see the “All Nations Christmas Bazaar” (or “Bizarre” as the sign on the ballroom doors read).

I paid the few kinas entrance fee and had a quick look. By quick, I mean that I was finished looking by 11:20. This was mostly on account of the overall crappiness of the bazaar.

Beforehand, I hadn't thought about what the “all nations” part of the bazaar was referring to. Well, it meant that the bazaar had craftsmen from different countries – about three by my count. I saw some Chinese, some Indians, and some PNGeans.

The Chinese people were selling ceramics that didn't interest me; the Indians were selling sewn items that didn't interest me; and the Papua New Guineans were selling a variety of things that didn't interest me. The Papua New Guinean component included a basket seller, a few jewelry sellers, a live plants seller, a few bilum (crocheted bag) sellers, and a few assorted artifact dealers. It was as if the bazaar's organizers had gone to the monthly craft market and selected all of the vendors that I normally bypass.

In my spin around the ballroom, I did buy a table mat that was woven from palm fronds for about $3.

As I left, I knew that Sam would be busy with his run. I called him anyway to tell him that I was ready to go whenever he was free. I also told him that I was leaving the Holiday Inn and that he should call me for my new location whenever he was ready to get me.

Just down the block from the Holiday Inn, I stopped at a Big Rooster restaurant. (“What is the time? What is the time? It's Big Rooster time!!”)

There are no international fast food chains in PNG. There are no Micky D's, no Subways, no Pizza Huts, and not even any KFCs which have pretty broad international coverage. There are no Aussie fast food joints that I know of, and while there was once a Jollibee (Filipino McDonald's) in Port Moresby, it went belly-up years ago.

There are a handful of local fast food chains here, and Big Rooster, well, rules the roost so to speak. There are probably 6 or 8 Big Roosters around Port Moresby alone, and being a Big Rooster virgin, I decided it was time to give it a try.

The menu at Big Rooster included a lot of fried chicken (no surprise there) and several fish dishes. All the usual sides were there as well - coleslaw, fries, potato wedges, corn on the cob, baked beans, and mashed potatoes. No biscuits, though.

I wanted chicken without bones, and as the menu was devoid of chicken nuggets or tenders, I was left with only one choice. I ordered the bacon and cheese chicken sandwich, along with some spicy potato wedges and a coke.

My order was up in a few minutes, and soon enough, it was time for my first bite. To say that the sandwich was OK might be a bit strong. Instead of a patty or a fillet inside the bun, there was a clump of chicken pieces smothered in a gooey white cheese sauce with a fatty slab of bacon blanketing the whole mess. I was losing interest in it before I was even halfway through, which tells you something.

That was possibly my first and last trip to Big Rooster, but the spicy potato wedges, which I enjoyed, may lure me back.

After Big Rooster, I called Sam again. He was still busy.

Realizing that it could be a very long wait, I decided that I would walk home.

Before I started walking, though, I popped into a pharmacy across from Big Rooster to look for my holy grail, contact lens solution.

I have checked for contact solution in numerous supermarkets and pharmacies here, and it is elusive to say the least. Apparently contact lenses are too new-fangled for PNG. For that matter, most vision problems here are probably not corrected by any means.

In my search, I have found only one store that carries solution, which it imports from Thailand. It costs over $25 a bottle. I wish that I had thought to bring some solution in my shipment of household effects, but it's too late for that now.

Anyhow, the pharmacy next to Big Rooster was another disappointment.

Striking out there, I started my walk.

It was around noon, and the sun was burning bright as it's wont to do.

The heat was a real deterrent to walking, and I didn't encounter many other walkers, local or otherwise.

I did, however, pass many people who were sitting by the road chewing and selling betel nut.
That morning I happened to have worn my Superman t-shirt (a blue t-shirt with the red and yellow symbol on the chest), and this did not go unnoticed.

As I walked along, everyone shouted out to me as they always did, but instead of “white boy” or “white man”, they were all shouting, “Hey, Superman!”

To get from the Holiday Inn in the Gordons district of town back to my house, I walked along the Poreporena Highway. This involved crossing a massive hill.

As I trudged up the mountain, everyone was keen on Superman. Drivers were honking and giving thumbs-up; people in truck beds and buses and along the side of the road were waving and shouting; people were running up to shake my hand. Some of the more ridiculous people were the drivers who would slow down and lower their windows to greet Superman. It was all a bit silly, but harmless at the same time.

The whole situation was funny because no one in the States (or most other places for that matter) would bat an eye if he saw someone wearing a Superman shirt. The Moresby reaction was totally unexpected for me. The way they were acting, you'd think I was wearing a full costume – tights, cape, and the rest.

At first, I thought that people were just playing around. Well, the adults clearly were, but a few incidents made me wonder about the children.

A group of kids who looked to be around 7 or 8 years old ran up and asked me, “Is your name really Superman?”

They asked me in fine English, but I responded in Pidgin just for kicks.

“Yes, nem bilong mi Superman,” I told them.

And they believed it. The kids were like, “Whoaaa!! Cooool!”

We had a few rounds of hand-shaking and high-fiving, and then they followed me down the sidewalk like I was the pied piper before I convinced them to go away.

Another time, as I was walking up a different hill closer to my house, a little boy of about 3 or 4 years saw me coming and freaked out.

“Superman kamap! Superman kamap! [Superman's coming!]” he screamed, as he ran up the hill in terror. Maybe he thought I was going to melt him with my laser vision.

His mother, meanwhile, was cracking up.

I never thought about it before, but Superman must fall in the category with Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy, in that children believe that all of these characters are real until they reach a certain age.

Getting back to the story, though, I crested the big hill and came down the other side. At the bottom, I stopped at the Yacht Club for a pitcher of water and a pint of beer.

A Papua New Guinean man was entering the club at the same time I was, and he commented that I must be hot because he had seen me walking over the hill. Other than to have something to say to me, acknowledging that he had seen me walking served no purpose whatsoever.

Just inside the bar, an Australian woman did a double-take when she saw me, and then yelled out, “Hey, Superman!” The Superman fascination wasn't limited to Papua New Guineans after all.

I nursed my beer for a while and watched part of a cricket match between Australia and Sri Lanka.

Then I hit the road again.

Just outside the Yacht Club, there were several people chewing betel nut by the side of the road.
I greeted them, and they asked me to stick around for a chat.

When I agreed to stay for a minute, the first thing they wanted to know was if I was a tourist.
I told them that I was not a tourist, but was working at the American Embassy.

At the Embassy, there is an American named Andy who was hired locally in Port Moresby. He has lived in Papua New Guinea for several years and has a Papua New Guinean wife. It turned out that the people I was talking with were Andy's in-laws. I met his mother-, father-, and brothers-in-law.

After this connection was made, they told me to call on them if I ever needed help in Port Moresby, and then our chat was over.

From here, I was maybe half an hour from home, and it was all uphill.

I walked on and chatted with many more Superman admirers. I also ran into several more people who could either be considered curious or nosey depending on your perspective.

Seeing my table mat poking out, they would ask me, “What's in the bag?”

I showed them all, and they acted duly impressed.

When I was about 15 minutes from home, Sam called to tell me that he was ready for me and was waiting outside the Holiday Inn. It was about 3 hours since he had dropped me off.

Since he had acknowledged my phone call earlier when I told him that I was leaving the hotel, I was unclear as to why he was waiting for me there.

In any case, I was close enough to home by then that his services were no longer required. I asked him just to bring my bag from the stationery store when he had a chance.

He came straight away, and he reached me when I was two minutes from the housing compound. I waved him by, though. There is no sense in walking 99% of the way home and riding the last 50 meters in a car.

When I walked through the gate, Sam met me and started in with his apologies and explanations. With my beer threatening to come up on me, I cut Sam off and told him that everything was cool. And it was. A good walk now and again is a treat.


As a post-script of sorts, a few days later, I saw the Ambassador's driver, Jimmy, and he told me that he had seen me walking on the hill that day. When I mentioned the Superman aspect of the story, he told me that he understood because he also thought that I looked like Superman even without the shirt. Or maybe he was trying to say that all white guys look alike...


Anonymous said... do infact look like superman!...(not). This is a hilarious account i thoroughly enjoyed it!

Steve Bennett said...

Oh Superman, I'm so disappointed that I didn't drive up the Poreporena that day and seen ya. A cracker of a story!

RecK said...

Hey where is Sam from? Anyways great story