Friday, December 07, 2007

Papua New Guinea: Tales from the Bar: Ozzie's

When Friday rolled around, Stewart called to make sure I was still interested in drinking steam at Ozzie's. I was, so Stewart proposed that we meet at 7:00. This seemed way too early to me, so I countered with 9 o'clock.

Stewart stuck to 7:00, however, insisting that 9:00 was too late.

I didn't much care either way, so I agreed on 7.

In the past, I had shown up at the agreed upon time, only to find that everyone else was late. They were running on island time. Assuming that everyone would be late again, I showed up to Ozzie's at 7:30. And darned if I still wasn't the first one there!

The place was about half full at the time, so I took a seat at an empty table and ordered a drink. The band was rocking out, as usual, playing music that was entirely too loud for the size of the room.

Not two minutes after I settled into my bourbon, some guys at the next table got my attention.

“Are you alone?” one asked me.

“Yes,” I told him, “but my friends are on the way.”

“Why don't you join us while you wait?” he asked.

I had nothing better to do, so I accepted his invitation and moved to his table.

The three guys at my new table were named Frank, Manny, and Mac, and they were reporters for major newspapers in PNG. When I told them that I was working at the Embassy, they assured me that our conversation was off the record, in case I was worried.

We went through all the normal pleasantries and talked about all the normal things, and things were going fine. I finished my drink, and Frank shouted the next round.

He asked what I was drinking, and I told him bourbon on the rocks.

And – like always seems to happen – he returned from the bar with a bourbon and coke for me. This is also what he happened to be drinking. I thanked him for the drink, while, at the same time, pointing out the mistake. I was trying to prevent the same thing from happening again in future rounds.

We continued talking and drinking, and before long the conversation was only between Frank and me. Mac was preoccupied with some phone calls, and Manny was now too drunk to discuss anything. He was staring off into space with a big smile on his face, rolling his head from side to side like Stevie Wonder. He was off in his happy place.

Eventually, there came to be a lull in the conversation, and Frank and I just sat in silence for a few moments.

Then Frank laughed.

The laugh was completely contrived, and I knew that Frank wanted me to ask him what he was laughing about. I wasn't going to play that game, though, so I ignored it.

Then he laughed again, and it was just as forced and phony as the first time.

Again I ignored him.

Frank could tell that I wasn't going to take the bait, and he couldn't stand it. “You know why I'm laughing?” he asked.

“No,” I told him.

“I was just thinking about how different our lives are,” he explained. “You spend your whole salary on yourself; I'm supporting 8 people with mine.”

I didn't see anything particularly funny about this, and I was glad that I hadn't responded to his stupid laughing.

I wasn't interested in exploring this line of conversation any further, so I freely admitted that my life was frivolous. Frank couldn't do much with this, and the conversation fell silent once more.

When Frank had told me that he was supporting 8 people, I wondered to myself how many of those eight people could have been supporting themselves. Some of his dependents were probably legitimate (his children, for example), but there were surely at least a few who were beneficiaries of the wantok system.

In PNG, a clan is called a wantok (“one talk”) because everyone in the clan speaks the same language. There are over 800 wantoks here, each with a unique language.

Wantoks take care of their own, and the haves are obligated to give to the have-nots. This has its obvious advantages, especially if you are a have-not. The wantok system builds community bonds, and it gives everyone a safety net. It also encourages laziness, though, for what motivation is there for someone to work when he can sponge off his relatives instead?

Living here, you hear numerous stories of the wantok system run amuck. In one of these stories, of which I've heard a few variations, a person excels at work, gets promoted, and moves into a nice home. Almost instantly he finds his new yard is filled with squatters from the wantok, and there is a line of people a mile long waiting for hand-outs. The story often ends with the breadwinner quitting his job in order to terminate his golden goose status.

Like I said before, I was sure that Frank's story fit into this framework somehow. I chose not to go into it, though, in large part to deflate him. I could tell that he was already feeling superior, and I didn't want to encourage that.

The next stop for our conversation was the cost of fuel, which was climbing in PNG like it was all around the world.

Frank asked me what I thought about this, and I told him that I thought it was a bad situation. This did not sit well for some reason. Apparently I hadn't shown enough outrage.

“A bad situation? This is a huge problem!” he ranted. “The fuel prices are driving up transportation costs, and the prices of goods are increasing! Rice costs so much now, it's hard to afford it!”

“Then again,” he continued, “what do you care? You're just passing through. You don't know anything about a hard life.”

What do you do with that? I admitted that my life was both frivolous and comfortable, and the conversation died again.

Even as I was killing the conversation, I thought about how ridiculous Frank was. He was sitting in a nightclub downing bourbons and coke, a few meters away from a band butchering Steppenwolf's Magic Carpet Ride, and he's carrying on like he's one step from the poor house. If he was in such dire straights, it would seem to me that he might want to cut out the partying.

Maybe I'm not one to talk and maybe Frank did live a “hard life” but I've seen plenty of other people around the world who would trade places with him in a minute.

As our conversation limped along, something else started rubbing Frank the wrong way. I was making what I consider to be a normal amount of eye contact, but it was too much for Frank.

He was originally from the Highlands, and he considered my eye contact to be very aggressive. I was challenging him with my gaze.

As he was explaining all this to me, it appeared to my untrained eye that he was also making eye contact with me. Well, I was wrong.

He was like, “Do you think I'm looking in your eyes now?”

It did, so I said yes.

“Well,” he proudly announced, “I'm not. I'm actually looking right at the corner of your eyebrow.”

Another time he was looking at the top of my nose, so it also appeared that he was looking at my eyes but he really wasn't. How clever.

This all seemed very silly to me. If you think eye contact is aggressive, then why pretend to make eye contact? It would seem to me that the Japanese style of looking at the ground is a better strategy for avoiding eye contact.

After the whole eye-contact sidebar, I amused myself by looking Frank in the eye at every possible opportunity.

He would repeatedly correct me.

“See what you're doing right now?” he would ask me.


“That's very aggressive.”

“Oh, right.”

So I would look away briefly and then resume.

Around this point, the band started into a PNG song, after a long string of American covers.

Frank enjoyed the song they were playing, and it naturally led him to another question.

“Do you like PNG music?” he asked.

I told him that I did, so he pressed me further.

“Oh, yeah? Who do you like?”

So I named a few singers.

Then Frank wanted to know what songs I liked by these singers.

I'm not well versed in Pacific music, by any stretch, but I still managed to list several songs and several artists. My knowledge was soon exhausted, though, and Frank was still going at me like a bulldog. “Who else do you like? Who else?”

So I looked him right in the eye. And I told him, “You're right. I'm just a poser; I don't really like PNG music. Also I live a frivolous life.”

“The way you are looking at me is very aggressive,” he responded.

Thank goodness for the eye contact. That was my ace in the hole.

Around this time, Stewart and his entourage finally showed up. It was well after 8:00.

They parked themselves at a pair of tables by the door, and I excused myself from the table of reporters. Frank was a bit miffed that I was leaving, but I bought a round of drinks which helped to soften the blow. Before I left, all three of the reporters gave me their business cards so that we could hang out again.

Frank was like, “It was really great to talk with you. Give me a call sometime so we can continue the conversation.” And he seemed earnest about it, like he had enjoyed the conversation.

We clearly had different ideas on what constituted a good conversation. I felt under attack for much of the discussion and was just waiting for it to end. I go to a bar to have fun, not to discuss issues and certainly not to get lectured.

Anyhow, Frank was happy, and I was happy to be leaving.

Back at Stewart's table, the guys were all happy to see me again. It had been 2 days since we had last been drinking together.

As planned, they had brought along a bottle of homebrew. Back at the Beehive, they had told me that they knew the manager at Ozzie's and that he wouldn't mind if they brought homebrew inside.

Well, that wasn't completely accurate. My first clue was the fact that the bottle of steam was conveniently stashed inside a potted plant on the floor. Basically the manager, whose name was Graham, didn't mind because he didn't know.

The guys ordered a pitcher of beer, a pitcher of ice, and a few cans of coke for mixing, and then we got started.

Naga was sitting near the plant, so he became the bartender by default. He gave us all a shot (or a nip as they say here) of the A-grade. Everyone else started adding coke to theirs, but I didn't want any mixer in mine. The guys were all shocked, but I generally like my spirits straight.

After my first sip, I was a fan.

No offense to the peeps back home, but the PNG homebrew was better than the Tennessee moonshine I've tasted. Tennessee moonshine tastes like sour mash, but PNG homebrew is finished with coconut, mango, or banana, and the end result is potent, smooth, and slightly sweet. It was a real treat going down, and as I would discover the next morning, the hang-over was nonexistent.

Over the course of the night, we put a good dent in the bottle of steam. With all that drinking, I worked up an appetite, and I ordered a pizza for the table. In PNG, following the Australian example, many pizzas are made with barbeque sauce instead of regular pizza sauce.

I don't like this, so I purposely ordered a pizza with regular sauce on it. When it arrived, I was surprised to see the guys requesting a side order of barbeque. People like what they grow up with, I suppose.

When the pizza was gone, our evening likewise finished.

It had been an interesting night, and I was ready for some shut-eye.

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