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December 28, 2008

So many pictures - Papua New Guinea revisited

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I've awoken from another Doxycycline fuelled Armageddon dream to the sound of a frantic tapping.
I lift my mosquito net and tip toe across the buckled lino to the window.
The sound stops.
It sounded exactly like a man with a computer keyboard just banging on it at random. What the hell could it be?
Just outside my window at 3am?
I tell myself to relax and not let my all too vivid imagination come up with threatening concepts. So I fall back asleep.
I awake again at 6am to the sound of construction, metal being cut, blades spinning, pipes banging. It's boxing day in Papua New Guinea.
Significance factor, zero.

I've spent the lead up to Christmas here with virtual strangers, mostly in the back of a four wheel drive over potholed roads, going here, going there, getting into the spirit of 'waiting' more so than Christmas.
People will wait for hours and not complain. In one of many waiting episodes I asked where all the other people on the streets were walking.
"No where." a lady said.
"They don't have any jobs, so they just walk around."
And I finally GOT the notion of truly having nothing to do, and it explained the blank faces, the meandering walks, the rows of people just sitting with their bilum bags chewing betel nuts.

"There's No Place Like PNG" is the headline on the newspaper clipping on Florence's wall. Well, I think I agree. She is the head of many things, firstly the bilum fashion project, where she has initiated the transformation of the ubiquitous (and entirely gorgeous) bilum bags into fashion items.

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The fully weaved dressed is Florence's initiative and has proved popular amongst PNG locals, even sported by Commonwealth game athletes. Now I'm here to mentor the weavers to create fashion products that will appeal globally. We're going to experiment for the next few weeks with hats and belts and eco-shopping bags to see what works. Then we'll develop a brand and package it up for marketing to the world.

All this will be intercepted by much much waiting.

Last night we waiting for a lift for 5 hours. It was suppose to be 2. Luckily she had the third series of Prison Break. We watched every one and laughed about how addictive it is. Her children laughed hardest at the man describing the Panama people as "banana benders".
I'm not sure on what level...

Florence, beyond her bilum fashion project is many things, and this year she organised the pre christmas celebrations. Carols by candlelight (a first in Goroka), SingSing dances, floats on trucks, santa at the hospital and so on.
I got to catch some of the festivities in the breaks I had between exhausted collapse in my little compound.

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The highlight was the trip to the hospital with black santa and little santa with a white facemask on, which felt entirely creepy and emotionless. I thought it would surely make the children cry. We drove over thousands of potholes, a fire engine at the head with balloons attached in a volleyball net. With santa ringing his bell and the sound of the reversing truck beep...

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And the second vehicle was a ute with a ten piece brass section playing christmas tunes. How they balanced on their plastic chairs over the bumps whilst keeping their lips on the mouthpieces I really don't know.
And then was us, in the fourwheeler, following the parade of two, to the hospital. Our car held the toilet paper and soap, a gift for all the really sick children, and the sack of second-hand stuffed toys and lollies to be dispersed as well (thank god, sweetens the toilet paper gift somewhat).

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People stood by the side of the road and their faces lit up. Really. With the backdrop of fertile soil sprouting palms and fruit and dirty shacks and dirtier children, I could understand the impact of seeing this bright red fire truck with a man from the snow. I even met a mother picking up a flat red balloon from the dirt and trying to undo the knot in order to blow it up again for her baby.

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I smiled from my window but didn't want to appear like I had anything to do with it.
I didn't feel I deserved to even be on board, to be seen as special in any way. I love that the whole convoy was generating by locals, for locals. No white person hand out. So I shied away from even waving, wanting to not show any responsibility for the beauty.

But then I felt rude, so I gave little smiles and waves.
It began to rain and the horns I imagined were filling up, and the drops splashed off their metallic red top hats but they played on with faces unchanged.

At the hospital the black and little santa handed out their sack of toys. I couldn't watch the kids with tubes in their noses with mothers on their bedside. I then entered another ward with men in skeletal form, doubled over their beds with a smell that I couldn't inhale, so I scuttled off into other parts of the hospital to take photos.

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On the way home in the fourwheel with the santas, Florence would pull over dramatically to anyone with a baby and santa would hand them a toy. I would hear her ask "pikininni?" and only to the liklik ones would she hand over a toy and maybe a sweet. It was the oddest Christmas handout I'd ever experienced (okay, the only one) but the devilish way she drove, almost running the babies over, and pushing the toy out the window and speeding off, it was of stark contrast to the spirit of the thing. But the mothers with their pikininnis were calmly delighted.

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Some other things I have experienced since I've been here:
I saw a group of people running down the street, they had all been involved in a clever shoe-stealing incident. Each passing the pair of shoes on to the next, until it reached the outside of the shop and then they split. The locals around me laughed at it, like comrades of the shoplifters. I laughed at the effort required to steal one pair of shoes. Who is going to wear this pair of shoes?
I've also had my bottom squeezed by a very old woman with no teeth because I didn't give her any of my change. Fair enough, and really not the worst response I could have imagined.
I've eaten 3 types of sausages, beef stirfry and old dry deep fried chicken, all in the one meal. And it is rude not to finish your plate isn't it.
I've bought that high quality Goroka coffee grind to make myself an almost latte. But discovered that it required a stove top or plunger of which I haven't found in any shop in Goroka yet. So instead I sifted it through a tea towel and added some (not properly sealed) vanilla soy milk. It has been the highlight of my days.

Everything here contains preservative. You can't get the basics of milk and bread because there really isn't any wheat or cows to milk. So instead you have to work with the climate, not eat like it's your own. Instead I am now eating boiled up kaokao (sweet potato), greens, like pumpkin leaves and rice. White rice.
All my purist, organic desires have been forcibly left on the shores of Australia, and in cultural sensitivity I must consume more chemicals, chipped Teflon and starchy food groups than ever before.
But the trick I've discovered is to avoid the supermarket and instead go to the markets or your new friend's gardens and find those PNG fresh things, like peanuts, pineapples, green leaves - any kind, raspberries, passionfruits, avocados. All free from the garden or ranging from 10cents to $1. Just pick and eat.

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And soon I will venture into the betelnut (buoay) territory, the warming, high-giving nut that when mixed with lime powder (ducka) and a mustard stick (cumbun) turns a shocking red. The teeth of people everywhere are stained red or filled with chewed up pieces of betelnut. It's the most acceptable look here besides meri dresses (aka mumu) even though both are decidedly unattractive. And beware the flying red spit whose projectile-ability is perfected by age 6. I have seen it. They spit sideways with such precision. I'm sure they could aim for an ant 3 metres away and kill it with the impact.

These PNGers they can weave incredible patterns using a bit of broken umbrella, they can wait for hours and not utter a word, nor a word of complaint, they can not eat and not go to the toilet for hours and hours, although I assume it is the lack of eating and drinking which leads to the lack of toileting. And foremost the PNGers are sweet. They are truly sweet. They will wave and smile and shake hands with each other every day. What is it? Culture? Having nothing? Having each other?
Whatever it is, the people's sweetness courses through my veins.

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ps: I am going to blog a lot more from now on.


[current mood] Passionfruit & Andrew Bird

Posted by natalija at December 28, 2008 9:02 AM

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