Friday, August 29, 2008

Papua New Guinea: A Damn-Near Tragedy

Around 9:45 last Friday night, I was driving home from the gym. The drive takes about 15 minutes, and, as is typical at that time of night, the road was practically empty.

The middle portion of the trip covers Port Moresby's only highway, the Poreporena, which stretches a few kilometers through town. From the direction that I entered the highway, it runs with a slight incline for a bit. I hit this portion and accelerated up to 80 kilometers per hour (50 miles per hour).

Not long after the gradual incline, the highway crosses a steep hill, and at that point the incline becomes much more severe. It was just as I started climbing the hill that I noticed a man standing directly in front of my car. The poor lighting of the street in conjunction with his dark skin and clothing left him totally shielded from my view until the last second. Of course, there was also the element of surprise since I did not expect to see a man standing on the highway. In a year of driving the same route almost daily, I had never seen that before.

I was so close to this guy that the beams coming from my headlights made small, concentrated circles of light on his lower body. There wasn't enough distance between us for the light to spread. Like a tree rooted to the earth, the man remained perfectly still as I approached him, and the patch of highway where he stood was wet. I couldn't identify the nature of the wetness in the dark, but I suspect it was vomit. Maybe it was urine or blood or alcohol, though. I couldn't tell.

By the time I jerked the wheel and shot my car across three lanes of highway, I thought that it was too late. There was no sound, though, nor any other indication of contact.

I corrected my course and continued up the hill, and in my rear view mirror, I could see that the man was still standing in the road where I had encountered him.

Many Papua New Guineans, young men in particular, like to walk across the highway at a leisurely pace, daring cars to hit them, to show machismo. Initially I thought that the guy I had encountered must have been someone who had taken this dangerous game too far, or else someone who was not very good at it.

When I noticed that he still hadn't moved after I had narrowly missed him, however, I decided that this wasn't the case and that he must be drunk.

As I said, I left the man standing. In my mind, though, I could see him collapsing on the hood and crashing through my windshield. I could see the blood and hear the screams.

There was a truck a short distance behind me, and the driver saw everything that had happened. When I managed to miss the drunk man, this driver flashed his brights a few times at me. I don't know exactly what he was trying to signal, but I think it must have been along the lines of, “Good f**kin' save, mate.”

I drove the remaining 5 minutes or so to my house, and by the time I got there, my legs were a bit shaky; I was chilled, and I felt something akin to being very hungry. This was the result of the adrenaline and whatnot that my body had drummed up for the occasion.

As I was walking to my front door, I saw my good friend Rophie, one of our Papua New Guinean guards. He was patrolling the housing compound with our Rottweiler, Casper.

Feeling the need to talk, I told Rophie about the incident on the highway. He, however, thought it was funny, which was not the reaction I was expecting.

“It is the fortnight, after all,” he told me.

In other words, it was payday, which meant that many people were very drunk by now. Some people supposedly start drinking as early as 8:00 AM on payday, and from what I had seen on this night and others, I don't doubt it.

I didn't share Rophie's lighthearted view of the incident, so I went to my good friend Kim's house and told her the story. Thankfully, she did not find it amusing.

If I had run over this man, he would have probably been dead. It wouldn’t have been so great for me either. Besides the psychological impact, there is also the possibility that I could have lost control and killed myself. Here, there are other considerations as well.

In Papua New Guinea, running over a pig or a dog is a big deal. The owner (or in the case of a stray animal, the first person who claims ownership) sometimes threatens violence and always demands compensation. If I had killed a man, there would have been hell to pay. If there had been enough people around to form an angry mob, they likely would have tried to seize and kill me on the spot. Since no one was around, though, retaliation would have come in the following days. I would probably have had to leave the country. Never mind that the would-be victim was drunk out of his mind and standing in the middle of a five-lane highway in the dark of night.

Anyhow, I called it a night after that and went to bed.

Then the next day, I was out and about again.

As I approached an intersection, I noticed a dog that was on the move and seemingly not paying much attention. When I was just short of the dog, I slowed from a crawl to a complete stop, and the stupid thing walked headlong into my car.

All I have to say is that it’s time for all you fools to get back on the sidewalk.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Papua New Guinea: Scuba Class, Part 2: Graduation Day

The Saturday after our first two open water dives, Bill and I reported back to Irene's house for the conclusion of our training. We watched a few more diving videos and did a few more exercises in the pool. Then we each had a final exam. The test, which was mostly multiple choice, was a real cake walk.

Our colleague Andrea – based in Canberra, but in Moresby for about a month to cover a staffing gap – also joined us for the pool portions of class. She had earned her dive certification years before but had only gone diving infrequently since then. She was refamiliarizing herself with everything, and the following day she would accompany Bill and me on our final two open water dives.

Bright and early the next morning, I was preparing my gear when Bill called. He had managed to catch a cold during the night and was not going to be able to dive. He had already phoned Irene with the news, and it was decided that the rest of us would go ahead and that Bill would finish the course later.

Besides Irene, Andrea, Bill, and me, our group also included Tom (Irene's husband) and another Chris from the embassy.

With Bill sidelined, the rest of us drove out to Loloata, signed our releases, and headed out to sea. We were joined by a few other miscellaneous divers, Franco, the dive master, and the crew of the dive boat.

We reached our first dive site – a place called Di's Delight – at around 10:00. Irene, Andrea, and I were going to buddy-up, so we all suited up and descended together.

The week before, Bill and I had spent the bulk of our time in the sea practicing specific techniques. This time, Irene didn't have me practice any isolated movements. Instead, she allowed me to swim around like a normal diver, which was much more enjoyable.

We went down to a depth of about 24 meters (about 80 feet), and the water was a perfect 83 degrees. There was plenty of sea life, and my small pack prowled around, taking in everything. Initially we were keeping together very well. Then I noticed that the more comfortable Andrea got, the farther she started wandering from Irene and me. On more than one occasion, Irene had to flag Andrea down and reel her in.

Di's Delight is a cool dive spot in general, but its coolest single feature is a narrow canyon populated with giant sea fans. These fans, which spring forth from both rock faces, are easily large enough to fully block the passage. The result is a sea fan maze of sorts. To get through the canyon, you have to swim over and under the fans, through a natural little passageway.

One of the basic skills of diving is controlling buoyancy, and this is mostly done by controlling one's breathing. Experienced divers control their buoyancy perfectly without even thinking about it, but I was not at that stage yet.

We had to traverse the sea fan gauntlet one-by-one, and as I watched the others go through, I started to have some doubts. Specifically, I was envisioning myself losing control of my buoyancy, crashing into a sea fan, and breaking it off the wall. If that were to happen, I was sure that everyone would be royally pissed off at me.

Soon enough, though, it was my turn to swim through, and I had to stop thinking about bad outcomes for a moment. As I negotiated the passage, I monitored my body position and my flipper kicks like a hawk. And when I came out the other side, all of the sea fans were still in tact. What a relief!

After about 40 minutes, I was running low on air, so my pod had to surface. The other, more experienced groups stayed down about 10 minutes longer.

Since we had a few minutes to spare, Andrea and I shed our dive gear on the boat and went snorkeling on a nearby reef.

When everyone was eventually assembled back on the boat, we sped off for the next dive site – a wreck called Pai 2. As we skimmed across the water, we lounged around on the deck, eating fruit and ginger cookies and drinking sodas and tea.

When we reached the site, we continued to lounge around so as to allow for a proper surface interval between dives.

When it was nearly time for us to dive again, Franco gave us a briefing for Pai 2, which had been a 25-meter shrimp boat in it's former life. Using a map of the site, he showed us the general course we should follow for the dive and pointed out areas of special interest.

When he had finished his briefing, Irene popped up with a question.

“We have a new diver with us today who is diving his first wreck,” she said. “Can you give him some advice on wreck diving?”

Franco was happy to help. He turned to me and said, “When you get close to the deck, watch your fins. There is a lot of sediment, and if you stir it up, you will ruin the visibility.”

And that was all Franco had to say. I thought that Irene had been prompting him to give me safety advice – warning me not to go into enclosed spaces and to avoid overhead obstructions – since the training manual harped on this quite a bit. Apparently, though, I was wrong.

When Franco finished his nugget of advice, Irene was like, “Right! Watch the sediment!”

Then we suited up and hopped in the sea.

This time we went down about 23 meters (about 75 feet), and the conditions were perfect again. Much of the Pai 2 was covered with coral, and among the coral, there were many sea creatures. My favorites were the lion fish on the deck and the school of barracuda just off the stern.

As we were floating around taking it all in, Irene got my attention and motioned for me to follow her. I did as instructed, and she led me into the ship's wheel house. The wheel house was a fully enclosed little room, and I was slowly bobbing from the ceiling to the floor (cause, once again, my buoyancy control kinda sucked). I was stirring up the sediment a bit as well, but thankfully Franco wasn't around to see.

I thought back to the diving manual and its warning about going into enclosed spaces. “Oh, well – safety, shmafety,” I told myself.

While we were in the wheel house, Irene fished around in her vest pocket and pulled out a PADI Open Water Diver patch. Then with the grand gesturing that is required when talking is not possible, she presented it to me. Likewise, I grandly gestured a thank-you. Thanks to Irene, I had not only graduated, I had graduated in style.

After the ceremony, I celebrated by bobbing up and down and stirring up more sediment. Then we swam out of the wheel house. Andrea was just outside the door and she gave me a congratulatory thumbs-up.

We all looked around for a bit longer, and then we headed for the surface – a trio of certified divers.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Papua New Guinea: Scuba Class at Loloata

After a day of watching instructional diving DVDs and practicing skills in a swimming pool, my colleague Bill and I set out with our instructor Irene (another colleague of ours) for our first open water dive.

When diving magazines publish their “best of” lists, Papua New Guinea frequently comes out on top in a number of categories (best underwater photography, healthiest reefs, and so forth). PNG is also said to have the best diving in the world close to a major city because there are many prime sites just outside Port Moresby.

One of the most popular spots for diving in the Moresby area is Bootless Bay, 20 kilometers southeast of the city, and this is where Bill, Irene, and I were headed. We had hired a banana boat with a skipper through the Loloata Island Resort which is located on Loloata Island in Bootless Bay.

When we arrived at the dock, our boat was nowhere to be seen. After a few phone calls, though, our ride turned up with a guy named Yamu at the helm.

For our first real dive, Irene took Bill and me to a spot just off Lion Island. If we had gone on one of the bigger boats that was loaded with other divers, we would have been forced to move quickly so as not to delay the rest of the group. As it was, though, we had booked the private banana boat, and we could take our sweet time getting ready. And we did.

As we were suiting up, Bill found himself in a battle royale with his wetsuit. After much yanking and squirming, he was nearly in the thing. Then he asked Irene to help him zip up the back.

With one look, she could see that his suit wasn't going to work. She was like, “Oh my God! That's way too tight. Can you even breathe?”

And truth be told, he couldn't breathe all that well. The whole thing was very amusing – to me anyway.

A wetsuit is a close-fitting garment, so manufacturers generally construct them based on several different body measurements (height, weight, waist size, chest size, and so on). When Bill had purchased his suit, he had only matched up the height, thinking that this was the most important thing. The waist and chest on his suit, however, were not even close to being right.

Before we had gone diving, Bill and I had each tried on our gear at home, and Bill had told me how much of a struggle it had been getting in his wetsuit. When I heard that, I was afraid that mine was too loose because it hadn't been such an ordeal for me to get into mine. Turns out that mine fit properly. This shouldn't have come as any surprise, though, because I had matched up all the body measurements when I had ordered mine.

Anyhow, Bill's suit was entirely too small.

Breathing is an important part of diving, so Irene suggested that he leave his suit open in the back for the rest of the day, and then purchase a proper-fitting suit for next time.

When we were all ready to go, we stepped off the side of the boat into a seaweedy patch of sea and descended.

In the interval between the surface and the seafloor, there wasn't much to see - just large expanses of empty, blue water. Then when we reached the bottom, there still wasn't much to see. Irene had selected a patch of seafloor that was obviously used as a training ground for new divers with some regularity. The sandy bottom was littered with broken pieces of coral, and there didn't appear to be much life except for an anemone and a few anemone fish.

Irene motioned for Bill and me to look at the anemone, so we followed her example and floated upside-down for a look. Our control wasn't so great, and the anemone got sloshed around a bit by some of our flipper kicks.

After we finished disturbing the anemone, we moved on to our diving exercises. We practiced removing our masks, putting them back on, and clearing them. Then we practiced buddy-breathing. Then we did things like removing our air tanks and putting them back on. Then we practiced controlling our buoyancy.

We were about 14 meters (45 feet) down, and at that depth the water was a very comfortable 84 degrees.

When we finished practicing specific diving skills, we swam around and tried to find things to examine. When we were about to ascend, Irene motioned for us to look at something. When I looked in the direction in which she was gesturing, I saw a few unremarkable small fish. Irene motioned for me to look again, which I did. Again, I couldn't see anything other than the few small fish. I could sense that I was missing something, though.

About 45 minutes into the dive, our tanks started running low, and we surfaced.

Once we had flopped back into the boat, Irene asked me if I had seen the school of squid that she had tried to point out toward the end of the dive. Unfortunately, they were nearly transparent, and I had totally missed them. Bill saw them, though.

We were all hungry, so we used our interval on the surface for lunch break. Bill brought some meatloaf, and Irene brought carrot cake. I was responsible for the no-effort items: a loaf of bread, ketchup, and drinks.

As you could probably tell, meatloaf sandwiches were on the menu.

Bill, Irene, and I were no strangers to meatloaf, but it was new to Yamu.

As Irene made him a sandwich, she explained the concept of meatloaf. It was a perfect way, she told Yamu, to stretch a quantity of meat by mixing it with bread. The more frugal a person wanted to be, the more bread he would add.

Her explanation reminded me of the Simpsons episode where Larry Burns meets his super rich father Montgomery Burns for the first time. “Whoa, this guy's got more bread than a prison meatloaf!” Larry remarks about his father. I quoted this line to my companions, but they didn't much appreciate it.

We all ate our sandwiches, and some of us went for seconds. Yamu, however, was nursing his sandwich like a kid eating Brussels sprouts, and he claimed that he was too full to have a second. If a Papua New Guinean says he's too full for seconds when there is still a table full of food, that basically means that he hated the food. So, Yamu was not a fan of meatloaf.

After lunch, we chilled out a bit on the boat, and then we prepared for our second dive. Irene decided that Bill and I weren't ready to dive on a real reef, so we were relegated to the training zone again.

For the second dive, we pretty much followed the exact same routine as we had for the first one. We had improved over our first effort, though, so Irene told us that we would definitely be diving a real site the following weekend when we returned to finish our training. The battered anemone down in the training zone couldn't have been happier for us!