Sunday, November 14, 2010

Someone to watch over me

by Geoffrey Heard

Let's be quite clear -- Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea's capital, is a tough town. In fact, it's a hot, dirty, tough town.

HOT: most of the time it is pretty hot and dry, and right now it is particularly hot and humid -- this being the doldrums, the few weeks between the dry season with its cooling laurabada (south-east trade wind) and the lahara (the north-west monsoon) with its cooling rains. Particularly hot, by the way, means only a couple of degrees more than its usual 30 celsius -- that couple of degrees really makes a difference.

I can remember decades ago when I was about to make perhaps the silliest decision of a life liberally sprinkled with silly decisions, looking out the window as the sun rose on yet another Port Moresby doldrums morning and saying out loud (with expletives deleted): "One more sunny day and I am going to go crazy!"

Then I took off for Australia. Just plain silly. It took decades for me to get back.

DIRTY: the rubbish in the streets is amazing. No busy street sweeping machines here, although now and again, you see men and women equipped with spades, shovels, brooms, and wheelbarrows cleaning up a length of street or drain or whatever and doing a darned good job. There's also the "voluntary" rubbish collection -- people collecting bottles of various descriptions for private recycling, for example.

But every day there seems to be a new accumulation of plastic bags, bits of cardboard, paper, drink bottles, cans, mango skins and stones, betelnut husks, and whatever rubbish, casually discarded to clutter the footpaths, roads, shoulders and gutters, and float around in the wind along with the dust, and petrol and diesel fumes from the racing minibuses, trucks, and ubiquitous SUVs (of the better off travelling in airconditioned comfort with the doors locked -- see "Tough" below).

And then there's the red splash of betelnut juice spat everywhere, defacing walls, paths, roads, everything up to a height of a metre or so. Everyone, it seems, is chewing betelnut and spitting the crimson liquid, it is even served after lunch in some pretty classy restaurants. Of course, no-one spits in the restaurants (they swallow), but nearly everyone feels free to spit outside.

It makes the few attempts at what one might call "proper graffiti" appear pathetically ineffectual in terms of defacing anything.

At times, Port Moresby looks like one mighty midden. It would surprise most visitors and even many foreign residents of this town to see that the same people who litter in the streets generally live in neat and tidy villages. In the village, they still litter, but they sweep around their houses first thing in the morning and often again in the afternoon. That's even true of squatter settlements (generally hidden from the eyes of the better fixed) within Moresby itself.

TOUGH: I've talked about this before. There's lots of street crime in Port Moresby, simple theft like pocket picking or purse snatching, but also armed hold-ups, and violence. There is invasive crime -- armed hold-ups (characterised locally as "a hands-up") of businesses, householders, and car drivers (hence the closed windows and locked doors of the SUVs), and the like. Every business house and home of any consequence has its security grilles, secure entrance, and fence, a barred or mesh construction a couple of metres high, often topped with razor wire. Attack dogs snarl behind the fences; uniformed security guards are ubiquitous ("security" might be Port Moresby's biggest industry).

You don't need to look twice to see where this crime comes from. Everywhere is the evidence of people struggling to make a tiny living. While most of Papua New Guinea is not in what you might call "starvation poverty" because people still own their own land traditionally, in Port Moresby people really do struggle to eat because it is hard, dry and they are a long way from home. They are selling pretty much anything on the streets to put a feed in their belly. Or committing crimes. Or both.

And that brings us to the title of this piece. Most days, Port Moresby is pretty busy, but on Saturdays, when most working people have the day off and do their shopping and socializing, it is a seething mass of humanity, no more so that in the retail area known as Boroko which is five minutes walk from where I am staying.

So last Saturday morning, having put in several solid hours writing, I strolled down to Boroko in mid-morning to visit the bank for a withdrawal and to do a little shopping.

I was stripped to the essentials for a tough town; no bag to be snatched, shorts with pockets fastened by velcro, a nearly empty wallet with just one credit card in it, and the awareness that as a white guy I am a target for street crime -- I am automatically labelled "rich" even though this label is laughably distant from reality. But when you have nothing.... Besides, all those Papua New Guineans who are far richer than me are in SUVs with the windows up and the doors locked.

Jenny, the housekeeper where I am staying, was concerned but was tied up with her work or she would have accompanied me. She uttered a warning to be careful because it was Saturday. My first watcher.

The second appeared as I stepped off the pedestrian overpass that took me across the main road into Boroko proper. I had noticed a youth peel off from a group at the other side of the overpass and follow me across; I had varied my pace, shifted from side to side to put others between us, and used the excuse of people coming the other way to walk somewhat crabwise so I could keep an eye on him. Now a biggish, oldish bloke hove to beside me. "Better watch your back, my friend," he said. "That young fellow looked as though he was up to something, so I kept just behind him ready to give him one if he made a move." My second watcher. I thanked him sincerely.

I made a couple of purchases with a credit card at a jewellers, then headed off down the street for the bank. I should have had a small bag with a strap over my shoulder and held under my arm. As it was, I had a couple of valuable small items stuffed into what had become a rather over-full pocket. Not the best way.

At the bank, a couple of the ATMs weren't working, so the security guard looked pretty busy managing a fair sized queue. Not too busy, it turned out. When I finally got to make my transaction 15 minutes later, the guard stepped in front of me as I left. "Better take a taxi, sir. Four men followed you here and they are waiting outside ." My third watcher. I marvelled that he had been able to keep an eye on the street while he was managing the queue and entry to the ATM booth. More thanks -- I walked straight out and jumped into a passing taxi.

Later that day, as I was extracting 50 toea (20 cents) from my pocket to pay the fare for a minibus ride to a hotel where I could access the internet, I dropped 10 toea on the seat. A fellow passenger, obviously of humble means, noticed my loss, picked up the coin and handed it to me. My fourth watcher.

Nasty things happen in this town, really nasty things, but when you get perfect strangers helping you in the street, it feels pretty nice.


O. Henry, famous for the kickers he dreamed up for his short stories, would have loved this.

When I was in the jewellery store, a little old lady, very poorly dressed, slapped down about K1500 ($600) to buy a lovely little gold mask ornament. When I got to the bank, she was already there, a couple ahead of me in the queue, wearing the mask on a gold chain around her neck. She withdrew several hundred kina then walked away through the crowd unremarked and unnoticed by the thieves watching me.

The damned ATM rejected my card so I actually left the bank with just enough cash in my pocket to pay the taxi driver -- not even enough to tip the eagle-eyed security guard.

Someone should have told those thieves the first rule of life: don't judge a book by its cover! ###


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.

The opinions and comments in this article are his own.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Why would you come to Rabaul and isolate yourself from this wonderful place?

by Geoffrey Heard

What does "international" mean in the name of a hotel? In the case of the new Gazelle International hotel in Kokopo (the new Rabaul) it seems to mean a commonplace box surrounded by a pretty much totally unnecessary security fence cunningly designed to negate the obvious advantages of a scenic and historic site.

There is some ugly stuff in Kokopo, a combination of leftovers of an era when Kokopo was a mere sub-district headquarters, and the pellmell development of the town when its new role as provincial capital was forced upon it in the wake of the volcanoes erupting and destroying Rabaul proper in 1994.

The Gazelle International hotel is the new ugly, possibly the most inappropriate development on a wonderful site that Rabaul/Kokopo -- in fact Papua New Guinea generally -- has ever seen.

Did the architect ever visit the lovely, clifftop site adjoining the airy, relaxed old Ralum Club? Was he familiar with Rabaul/Kokopo?

If he did visit, either he or his investors must have been remarkably insensitive to ethos and environment.
The hotel is built on the site where the fabled Queen Emma had her mansion in the 1880s. That was a spacious, airy place built to present to its residents one of the most beautiful views in the world -- a panorama of sea, land and sky, St George's Channel, the Duke of York Islands, New Ireland.

There are pictures extant of Queen Emma's mansion. Indeed if the architect had visited the site, he could have seen some of them on the wall of the Ralum Club next door. After inspecting the old pictures, he might have relaxed with a cooling gin and tonic on the Ralum Club's wide verandah (it is almost all verandah), looked out at the vista, and conjured up visions of how he could go about creating a truly outstanding building that would enhance an historic site.

Instead we have ugly box, surrounded by ugly, sun-blasted car park, with the wonderful vista screened off from the the hotel's public areas by a two metre steel picket fence to be topped by razor wire! Yes, you can see the view through the fence. Well, almost. No, it doesn't look at all attractive viewed that way. I was told with a straight face that the hotel couldn't consider itself truly international without that fence.

The dopey thing is that that level of security is unnecessary in Rabaul. If you were building the hotel in Port Moresby, where the raskols roam free and carjackings, armed hold-ups, and break-ins are daily occurrences, then, yes, you would need that fence. But in Kokopo you simply don't. It's a town where residents and tourists alike are the ones roaming free and are plenty safe. Oh, and that raises another point -- no convenient entrance arrangements exist for those who would arrive at the hotel on foot after roaming free.

As for those public areas... Let's just say that even without you having to peer through the pickets to see the view they make no significant contribution to the claim that the Gazelle International is in anyway of superior quality. I have to admit that the kitchen's is good, though.

I escaped from the Gazelle International's cramped, over-airconditioned dining room to the wide open spaces of the good old Ralum Club -- but even that is only a partial escape today. The busy hum of the hotel's airconditioning system invades that once peaceful space. An architect sensitive to the site might have situated the airconditioning at the back of the hotel facing into the car park and added some sort of noise screening to protect the neighbours. Given the other design atrocities, though, that would probably be too much to expect.

My advice for what it is worth: if you're visited Rabaul, the best accommodation is Kokopo Beach Bungalows, right in the middle of town, built to take full advantage of the views and the environment. Rapopo Plantation Resort is another good choice; it's in the spirit of its name and site and the kitchen there is pretty good. Takubar Beach Resort has been recommended to me, the Kokopo Village Resort has its points, and I'm always open to the suggestion that for a relaxing holiday, Kulau Lodge, on the north coast an hour or so from Kokopo, is a great place to be.

And if you want to stay in the old Rabaul close to the volcanoes, then the Hamamas Hotel is the place to go.

Of course, the Gazelle International is ideal if you want an airconditioned box that insulates you from the tropics and a fence that isolates you from Kokopo/Rabaul and the Gazelle Peninsula.

But if you go that route, you'll be looking AT this tropical paradise -- you won't be IN it. And you'll be missing a truly memorable experience. ###


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010. The opinions and comments in this article are his own.

Monday, October 25, 2010

What does “standard of living” mean in paradise?

by Geoffrey Heard

Today we took a break from Paradise 1 (Vunakabi in the Rabaul heights, Papua New Guinea) and visited what turned out to be Paradise 3, Karavia village on the nambis (shore) at Blue Lagoon just outside Rabaul’s glorious harbour. (You’ll remember we’ve already identified another seaside location, Takubar, as Paradise 2.)

The tide was well on towards high but still coming in, which promised cooling dips on a hot sunny morning, when our little party comprising my putative grand-daughter, her husband, their two kids, a toddler and a babe in arms, and me hopped off the bus at about 11 o’clock.

Karavia is the grandson-in-law’s home village; we went visiting to show off the babe to various relatives, acquaint the toddler with the sea, and generally to flop around in the salt water and have a good old chin-wag during the preparations for and subsequent demolition of a picnic lunch on the foreshore.

The food we had was pretty standard -- singapo (dryland taro) roasted on the fire (a touch of butter and pepper and salt, it’s just delicious), and a chicken and greens stew with rice, sweet potatoes and plantains (extendable food is the go; by the time we left, about a dozen people had turned up to eat). But this picnic was not about special food, it was about people and place.

And what a place! A bunch of children gambol in the sea against the backdrop of Rabaul’s volcanoes reaching towards a handful of fluffy white clouds which, in turn, give way to a mighty arch of blue sky. Coconut palms lean gracefully seawards as though tutored on picturesque poses from first sprouting. A mango tree promises sweet dessert. I splash into the sea and dive into sun-warmed water leavened by surprise runnels of coolness raised from the depths by the incoming tide.

Introducing the toddler to the sea is a delight. This child who daily objects to being bathed can’t get enough of it. He grins and shouts as the wavelets splash into his little body. He staggers and wobbles forward for more. Rescuing him is a full time job. Half an hour later, as we rinse him (and ourselves) with fresh water dipped from a little well (fresh floats on salt, so don’t dip too deeply), a woman appears with a bundle of washing.

I’ve missed the fact that this is also the village clothes washing facility with a galvanised iron-covered bench of good working height, the well with its long-handled dipper, and a rescued small fibreglass tank our host has just added to it so whoever is doing their washing can dip up however much water they want for the whole job before they start. Handy. There’s a long line between two trees for drying.

We head for lunch leaving the lady to do her laundry with a bit of bar soap and lots of vigour.

After lunch, we’re lounging about chewing betelnut and smoking, and the grandson-in-law asks the big question he’s been pondering, he says, for some time; he has read that Papua New Guinea rates low on standard of living compared with Australia and other places -- what does that really mean?

I open my mouth and that is about as far as I get. If I chewed betelnut myself this would be the time to clear my mouth, call for a new nut, dig deeply into my basket for the accoutrements, fail to find my knife to open the nut and set up a search for that….

In the absence of the habit as a procrastination tool, and having quit smoking a quarter of a century ago, after a longish pause (people here are happy to allow you to think) I have to say that the question has a lot more to it than appears on the surface.

On the face of it, the standard of living of Papua New Guinean villagers is so far behind that of your average Australian, even your poor Australian, that they’re hardly within sight of each other. That’s looking at the matter the easy way -- using developed nations’ measures which have a lot to do with money and goods, and things you can buy and count.

It’s a standard, but is it living?

Here I am sitting in the shade of a mango tree (yes, we finished lunch with a taste of its bounty) on a tropical beach with my belly full, the afternoon sun slanting down, cooled by a bosky breeze, looking out at one of the most beautiful scenes in the world (a couple of fishing boats heading out of the harbour now add an accent to the volcanoes, sea and sky) in congenial company enjoying diverting conversation. The lady’s washing is flapping gaily in the breeze.

This is the stuff of legend -- the dream of a generation of Australian superannuants, most of whom (like their fellows in other industrialized societies) will never see anything like it. After 40 years on the treadmill they’ll find they’re in some sort of financial trap that leaves them struggling in the end to do much more than pay for their own funeral. And while they are myopically searching for pounds (as the currency was when they started saving) and picking up pennies with their arthritic fingers, they’re being demonized as a burden on the community who should keep pounding away on the treadmill until they drop.

Here in paradise, millions of Papua New Guineans live in this dream. They don’t need so-called “labour saving” devices like a washing machine and a drier -- they can wash in the shade and dry in the sun and tropical breeze. They don’t need a range of designer suits and a flash car to go to work -- in fact, generally speaking, going to work in the regular corporate job sense, is a choice rather than an obligation. They eat pretty well from their gardens supplemented by a little hunting or fishing and trading of surplus produce, they can house themselves using bush materials (most people do), and they can lounge around on the beach with family and friends when they feel like it.

True, I know it is really more complex than this, but I would argue that it is not nearly as complex as the big end of town (local or foreign) likes to make out, especially when they are working up some specious argument to defraud the Paradiseans of their birthright -- the land they own by tradition.

Our host family lives in a couple of rooms in a bush materials hut, they cook in three battered pots over a fire in a little lean-to, own half a dozen simple garments each, wash themselves and their clothes on the foreshore, and if they want to go to town, pay K1.50 (about 60¢) for a seat on the local mini-bus. And they garden and fish. They live in and are of the land. They are subsistence farmers who earn a little cash by providing childcare daily for a neighbour who is a doctor (but still lives in a pretty humble dwelling in the village -- who wants more?), and selling a few coconuts and betelnuts, and a little excess garden produce.

They are largely independent of the world’s economy and that drives the world’s financial elite to distraction. The rich make money by manipulating “investment”, by moving money from place to place to exploit the poorest in each land and the world, by looting every corner of the globe for its riches, by sinking the poor into unnecessary debt.

One of their big lies is to pretend that subsistence farming is worthless, that it holds back individuals from personal progress, and makes no contribution to a nation’s well-being. Another is to pretend that the only way a nation can “develop” is to commodify land so it can be bought and sold. The third is a big one -- that national development must be carried out with international “investment” and loans.

All three are the exact opposite of the truth, of course.

About 90 percent of Papua New Guineans are subsistence farmers and feed and house themselves from their land. Hence while this lovely country is high on the list of “poor” nations the vast majority can eat pretty adequately. They aren’t starving. The country’s so-called poverty level is a failure of the measure -- the industrialized nations’ Gross Domestic Product, which measures only cash flows, not work and production.

Commodify land? Why? Buying and selling land doesn’t create wealth it just creates money movement and allows land to become the plaything of the rich. It is productive use of the land that is important. Like sustainably growing the food you eat. You want to build a factory? Okay, lease land. And limit silly and unproductive trading games with the lease.

As for foreign investment -- again, this is largely unnecessary provided local funds are appropriately invested and spent. And most of all, "development" is appropriate. Is a mine that employs no local people, provides virtually no benefits for the host nation, and will be exhausted in 20 years leaving behind massive land damage and water pollution really development? Nope, not for the people of Papua New Guinea.

The strength of subsistence farming in paradise as a way of living in the modern world has been tested and shown to be the best. Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, these people I am living among, the Tolais, were awash with cash, making big money producing the best cocoa in the world. Then disease swept through the cacao trees; in a few years, the halcyon days of the cocoa industry were a memory.

Just about everybody lost something, those who had invested heavily in cocoa suffered serious losses, but ... nobody starved, nobody went on welfare (there isn't any anyway, doesn't need to be), and most importantly of all, nobody thought for even a moment that a short walk off a high cliff was the way go.

Why not? Because underneath it all, they had the super safety net of their traditionally owned lands, subsistence farming, and a mindset. In reality, the cocoa, for all its financial glamour, was just an extra they had grafted on to their traditional life. When it collapsed, they were able to lower their sights, clear away the (literally) fruitless cacao trees, plant more food crops, singapo (dryland taro -- 'bun bilong Tolai'), sweet potatoes, corn, and greens, and by and large return to the relaxed life of their ancestors while preparing for the next opportunity.

That’s quality of life, I reckon. That’s what living in paradise is really about.

In Australia, as drought-driven debt piled up in recent years, farmers began suiciding at an alarming rate. They have no comparable safety net in land, alternative lifestyle and mindset.

Yes, there are couple of the standard of living indicators which ought to be improved in Papua New Guinea, education and health are two which could be improved dramatically at very low cost.

However, the solutions the west and Pacific powers such as China offer (apart from publicly slamming corruption which they assiduously feed) involve the total destruction of the Paradisean way of life and the transformation of these hard working, energetic, enterprising people into land-less low-wage slaves and poverty stricken peons working for the (rich and often foreign) man.

That, it seems, is the cost of a high standard of … what? Existence?

Honestly, how does 40 years on a production line or staring at a blank office wall, driven to work overtime by the "lifestyle" demands of your society (you really must have a giant gas BBQ), stack up as “living” compared with the Karavia nambis?

Am I getting a bit radical in my old age or is this wisdom? ###


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010. The opinions and comments in this article are his own.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

When there’s food, we eat

by Geoffrey Heard

Here in paradise, aka Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, we have scheduled meals just like anyone else anywhere else -- but we also have a lot of what can only be called opportunistic eating.

It’s not like snacking in Australia where you decide to buy something more or less labelled “snack” and then eat it, often at a designated time (e.g. morning tea or, as Queenslanders call it, little lunch or smoko). Here in paradise the process is product driven, we eat stuff when it falls to hand -- literally.

A ripe mango falls -- and they’re falling all the time right now in the middle of the mango season -- we eat it. Right away, regardless of the time of day or night and whether or not a scheduled meal is in prospect or has just been eaten.

Someone picks a bunch of ripe bananas, they despatch the kids with a hand here and a hand there. Invariably at least one and probably more will be consumed by the recipient on the spot.

A pineapple is in the offing -- the ubiquitous bush knife goes into action, and in no time, slices of the luscious fruit are being passed around, hands dripping with sweet juice.

Fruits here are consumed in season and on the spot with no preparation except slicing them or ripping off the skin where appropriate.

You don’t need to do a lot of preparation in paradise -- the fruit straight off the tree is just so delicious that anything more elaborate than a squeeze of lime and a few grains of sugar on your slice of pawpaw (papaya), a particular weakness of mine, is likely to spoil the taste sensation. Or should that read: “sensational taste”?

In general in Papua New Guinea, every tree and every fruit is owned by someone. While most land is clan owned, usage rights are very clear and woe betide a clan member who pillages another’s tree. And as for a non-clan member who is caught thieving ...

Some trees are in the public domain, however. One of our mango trees has branches in a neighbour’s air space -- the mangoes on those branches belong to the neighbour. Other branches reach over the public road and it is open slather on the fruit for personal consumption.

The level of complexity of it all is illustrated by a soursop tree growing on the roadside verge opposite us. While cassava planted on the verge by our neighbour clearly belongs to the neighbour (in fact, they are harvesting some of it as I write), the soursop tree and its fruit are in the commons.

The other morning -- too early for our eagle-eyed team of juvenile fruit fall spotters -- a ripe soursop fell to the ground. A woman walking down the road later saw it in the grass, inquired of one of our household whether it was available, and on receiving clearance, broke off a handy snack for herself and her child, leaving the remainder with us. Needless to say, despite the fact that most of us had just breakfasted, we honoured her gift by doing the right thing by it, with enough left over for a couple of solid snacks for passersby.

At another level, we ate a mid-morning meal the other day. One of the couples in our house had returned from their garden early with sweet potatoes and greens. My expectation was that I was looking at ingredients for lunch or dinner. Nope. They just cooked up the food (with coconut cream sauce) right then, dished up plates for everyone present, and we ate -- because they felt like it.

Uh oh -- here we go again. My hostess with mini-water melons in hand is heading towards my possy in the shade of the mango tree. What can I say? Thank you, they’re excellent! ###


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.

The opinions and comments in this article are his own.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Games children play

by Geoffrey Heard

Here in paradise, Vunakabi Village near Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, there is a plethora of kids and a plethora of games.

Right at the moment -- it's the afternoon and the kids are home from school -- two teams of five are playing a game called “tin”. Like the best children’s games, this involves a lot of noise, running around, maniacal activity, and loud disputation about the actual rules and their application.

The total equipment comprises a bunch of empty fish and meat tins (cans) collected from the rubbish heaps of village houses and a ball -- a store-bought rubber one in this case but a missile of banana leaves does as well. They have 15 cans, enough to make a stack five rows high with rows of five, four, three, two, one cans. The venue is a grassed area about the size of a good backyard plus its surrounds -- which include a couple of roughs with long grass and the road and its verge. We have two teams of five, mixed girls and boys in the age bracket 8 to 14.

The game starts with lots of loud disputation about the rules. First, that the teams will be mixed, which team will start the game as the quarry (we’ll called them Team 1) and which as the chasers (Team 2), then the limits of play (no running on the road or into the roughs by Team 1, no running to tag by Team 2 -- which gives the smaller Team 1 players a chance), and finally, when that is decided, the dismissal of a patently self-interested attempt by Team 2 to add more tins to the stack.

Right, we’re ready to play!

Team 1 builds the stack towards one end of the field, then one of them takes the ball and from a much discussed distance finally marked by a heap of discarded thongs/flip flops, throws at the stack to break it. Failure to break the stack in three throws means the ball and ownership of the stack, is turned over. They succeed on the second throw, a kick from a Team 2 member demolishes it completely without scattering the tins too widely, and it is game on!

Team 1 must now rebuild the stack before Team 2 can tag them all with the ball. Rebuilding the stack can be in one go or progressive. Sounds easy enough, but this lot are deadly throwers, even gaining a high percentage of hits when they have to lay-off for a target moving across them, so the rate of tagging can be pretty high.

Amidst much shouting of instructions and encouragement, Team 1 scatters to the boundaries and Team 2 mans up (keeping one player within reach of the tins), passing the ball around, trying to put pressure on. The movement of ball and child is fast, furious and noisy.

Team 1 gradually gets the upper hand, moving play upfield away from the tins. Then one of them lures his opponent into a wild throw. A miss! The ball is in the long grass! In a flash, Team 1’s little Roselynne strikes! All of 8 years of age, she has an uncanny ability to make herself invisible. She initially set herself up on the boundary well away from the tins and made some noisy short forays upfield, but as play moved away, she quietly drifted back and in. The moment she sees the miss she is sprinting, diving, madly rebuilding the stack. Her older sister, Rachel, runs in to help.

They’re nearly finished, but the ball is in the air, coming back hard and flat to a Team 2-er standing over the them. Roselynne is off and away, twisting and turning. Rachel is a little slower, but in sacrificing herself to tagging, gets another tin in place and helps keep Roselynne safe.

Team 1 scatters to the boundaries again. Team 2 mans up but keeps two players near the tins. They know they are in trouble, too much of the stack has been rebuilt, only three more tins need to be put into place to give Team 1 victory. They try to keep play close to the tins, but they can only win by tagging, so they must follow Team 1-ers offering tagging opportunities.

Finally, a Team 2-er tags with an easy short throw up the field. Roselynne is darting in again before the ball has left the hand. Two more tins are stacked; she dashes to safety.

It’s all over bar the shouting now. Team 2 drops a catch, all eyes turn to Roselynne as she darts in, but while they aren’t looking, Dulcie has slipped in from the other side, and the final tin is in place.

And the shouting! Oh my gosh, the shouting! The Collingwood army (notorious followers of Australia’s most loved and hated football team) could take lessons from this lot. Team 1 is not only vociferous in victory, but merciless, chanting glorification of their victory to the skies, recounting how they did it, advising Team 2 of their errors and telling them that they’re about to go down again!

Team 1 wins a string of six games before Team 2 beats them with a cunning set play, a feint then the tagging of Roselynne early in the game. Team 2 gives Team 1 a pounding in the vociferous self-glorification stakes! The two teams swap roles. Team 2 is looking good with a couple of victories before more children arrive.

Too crowded. The tagging team floods the stackers and the game peters out.

But boy, it was fun while it lasted!


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.

The opinions and comments in this article are his own.

They’re making money in Rabaul -- literally!

by Geoffrey Heard

If you made your own money in Australia then used it for a large public exchange, you could expect the Feds to come thundering through your door in pretty short order and a judge to give you a substantial thick ear for your temerity in threatening the financial security of the realm.

Not so here in paradise, aka Rabaul, Papua New Guinea. Here, you make your own money and you are applauded as a person of substance and worth. Always provided that the money you make is the traditional shell money, tambu, of the Tolai people -- tiny cowrie shells perhaps 5 mm long threaded on param (fathom, about 1.8 metres) length strips of cane.

Shells on cane? You make your own? How can it be worth anything? Anyone could whip up a bunch of the stuff, you might think, and devalue tambu overnight. It’s not that simple nor that easy, of course. If it were, the canny Tolai people -- as lively a bunch of traders and entrepreneurs as you’ll find in any day’s march -- would have rendered tambu valueless long ago.

The shells themselves are pretty common but you need hundreds for each param of tambu and when you look at the production process, you quickly realize there are easier ways to make your fortune.
Tambu has survived 150 years of European contact, the exploitation of cheap shell supplies, and a total reconstruction of the local economy which has seen Tolais climb to the top of the cash and consumer tree in PNG. Today, tambu holds firm with a cash equivalent value of perhaps K100 (about $40) per fathom and if you don’t see it used as often in daily market trading as it once was, this is more a recognition of its worth than any loss of value.

Here in my patch of paradise, Vunakabi, a new bride is being welcomed to the family. That means the traditional marriage settlement is in train and that, in turn, means tambu. Production is in full swing and everyone puts in -- men, women and children, including the bride and groom.

The tambu cowrie has long been fished out in the Tolai area so people as far afield as the northern Solomon Islands can make a useful dollar collecting the tiny molluscs as they roam the sea floor, or harvesting them from coconut shells distributed in favoured spots -- the little creatures cluster in the shells. The next step is spreading them out to die and dry in the sun -- an olfactorily disturbing process. At this point, prospective users buy the shells in stubby beer bottle or rice bag lots (a stubbie bottle full of quality shells from the Solomons currently commands a price of about K25 ($10).

In addition to new shells, old ones are constantly recycled. Our household went into the market with “brus” (home grown and cured tobacco) and “buai” (betelnut), accepting only tambu as currency. This resulted in mostly short lengths of tambu which they’re stripping off the cane, inspecting for quality, and threading on to new, longer lengths.

Stripping down the cane and threading the shells is a family operation. First, every single new shell must be carefully gripped in a pair of pliers to crack the back out of it leaving the rim to be threaded on to the cane. In our house, two pairs of pliers are in action, another person is stripping the cane down and smoothing it at what looks like terrible risk to the skin of her arm, and two others are threading -- no easy job, the canes are sized so that the shells grip. A full day and half a night of intensive work produced about five param of tambu and there is no question that this was pretty good going.

The full settlement seems a long way off but no-one is fazed; contributions are filtering through from the farthest reaches of the extended family network to make up the total.
Still and all, there will be lots more days and nights of intense work for everyone here.

The marriage settlement or bride price is often disparaged by Australians as degrading the woman to the status of work unit or chattel. Sure you can see elements of that in it, but there is much, much more -- including providing the children with the priceless benefit of access to the bride’s clan land (this is a matrilineal society) and a lot of fun and bonding for all generations on both sides of the exchange.

It is one of the more visible parts of a whole bunch of very important, formalized, and inclusive stuff that has developed over millennia to support a marriage and the children.

It all makes an Australian “traditional wedding”, bride looking like an over-inflated meringue, groom doing his stunned penguin impersonation, merely a remnant of England’s Victorian era, look like very thin stuff indeed. ###


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.

The opinions and comments in this article are his own.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Pick your preferred paradise

By Geoffrey Heard

It is difficult to understand the concept of choices between two varieties of paradise. Paradise is perfect, right? So it can’t come in two varieties by definition.

Well, here in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea -- here in paradise -- your nitpicking rules simply don’t hold up. There ARE two kinds of paradise and that’s that!

Right now, I am living in paradise: the village of Vunakabi, inland from Kokopo -- the new Rabaul since the volcanoes devastated the township in 1994. But I’ve just spent the night at a friend’s house at Takubar, just along the beach from Kokopo. I am torn -- Takubar is paradise too. There are two paradises, which is the real paradise?

In the wet tropics, it gets pretty warm and not a little humid during the day. We’re talking 30-32 degrees celsius. Day after day. It can be tiring. Cooling during the night can be limited at near sea level. This makes the Vunakabi area, about 20 kilometres inland and a couple of hundred metres above sea level, a great contender for the title of true paradise.

That distance from the coast and the bit of height mean that while you can revel in the tropical warmth during the day, the humidity is not so aggressive, and at night it cools nicely to a very friendly “light blanket” temperature.
No need for noisy, energy-hungry air conditioners. I’m sleeping like a babe. (There is plenty of airconditioning available for those who prefer it, of course.) Further, the views, particularly the afternoon views, over the great valley to the Bainings mountains are spectacular.

Paradise. Let’s call it Paradise 1.

But last night’s visit to Takubar on the beach near Kokopo has left me rent. The night was warm, so it was a case of no bed coverings at all until about three in the morning when a cooling breeze invaded my dreams enough to encourage me to pull a sheet over myself. I slept well nonetheless.

The big reward came with the dawn. That cooling breeze had dropped to nothing, the sun was rising and already delivering heat where it hit. I pulled on my swimming shorts, slipped out the back door, and in 30 steps was sinking into the warm, gentle embrace of the tropical sea.

The sky was blue, the Rabaul volcanoes on the horizon were enhanced by a few fleecy clouds seemingly tethered above them, and a small cargo ship was making into port cutting a white wake across the horizon. Someone nearby was strumming a guitar and quietly singing to himself.
Further along the beach, villagers were enjoying their morning wash, happily tossing a wave and friendly “boina malana” (good morning) to me.

It was lowish tide, the sea was almost dead flat. The only word to describe the water was pellucid. Looking down, I could see every feature and creature of the bottom, including my rather odd looking, very white feet, rippling in a constantly breaking and reforming pattern of light and shade as the sun glanced off the tiny wavelets heading into shore. I launched out feeling as though I could swim forever, and although a dozen strokes were enough to disabuse me of that ridiculous notion, I nevertheless felt at once super-energised and languorous.

Paradise 2.

And I suddenly realized (in a relaxed kind of way) that while I had not enjoyed such an early morning swim in this tropical paradise for decades and thus had substantially wasted my life, there are actually millions of people as near as Australia who have never had this sublime experience at all.

Friends, you haven’t lived. Book now! Your destination is Rabaul (Kokopo in reality today), Papua New Guinea. The time to visit is right away, and if you can’t make that, book now for any time (particularly winter for those poor people who, like me, have been suckered into living somewhere that has such a nasty season).

Accept no substitutes -- particularly no pale imitations with a “North Queensland” brand. Remember the box jelly fish -- the one with a sting so painful that even if it doesn't kill you, you actually wish you were dead.

We don’t have them in Rabaul. As I said, paradise. ###


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.

The opinions and comments in this article are his own.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

It’s mango season in Rabaul

by Geoffrey Heard

Is there any more superbly luscious fruit than the mango? Any fruit that gives rise to such extravagant passion? I know, I know -- a freshly picked snow apple can bring tears to the eyes, the old fashioned pears we had in their short season when I was a child ran with sweet juice, fresh grapes off the vine positively sparkle on the tongue as the sun reaches out its first warm fingers on a brisk Mildura (north-western Victoria) morning.

That’s all fine and good, but really, everything considered, there is nothing like a ripe mango straight off the tree, and right now, it is mango season in paradise, aka Rabaul, Papua New Guinea.

You won’t find it in standard dictionaries but you need to realize that “Rabaul” is a short form of “Cornucopia”. About three degrees south of the equator with a moist climate and rich volcanic soil, Rabaul has more food and more variety than you could possibly poke a stick at in a month of Sundays. All that food is as fresh as the day and so often of unmatched flavour. I’ve eaten pineapples here that in the instant of consumption were peerless, and pawpaws galore that (with a little lime juice and sprinkling of sugar) could be considered a solid form of the nectar of the gods.

But a fresh ripe mango...

The mango season is special this year because it is coming at the end of a most unusual drought. Rabaul has just had its first decent downpour in six months. Due to this drought, the mangoes are a little thin in the ground.

At Vunakabi village where I am staying, on the ground is where the mangoes are. Like so many other things in paradise, mangoes simply fall to hand. Sure, if you want to supply a market stall or cater for a gathering, you can despatch kids with sticks to encourage the mangoes to come within reach or send someone up the tree to shake branches, but for personal consumption, mostly you just sit there and wait for ripe mangoes to fall off the tree so you can pick them up at your convenience and revel in their lushness.

This year, though, there is no question of “your convenience”. With mangoes in shorter than normal supply because of the drought, competition for the falling fruit is hot to say the least. The thump of a mango hitting the ground is surprisingly loud (Rabaul’s volcanic soil is full of tiny air spaces and booms like a drum) but it’s best when a mango from a big tree hits a tin roof in the afternoon when all the children are home from school.

CRASH!!! It sounds like a bomb going off.

“Mango!!!” The cry explodes from a score throats. Games, playthings, brooms, vegetable peeling knives, and (almost) baby siblings go flying as every child within earshot hurtles out of the blocks determined to collar the precious fruit.

The race might end with a small outbreak of high pitched disputation to do with the smaller children telling the bigger ones how they should share -- of perhaps claiming unfair use of superior weight and muscle. Whatever, while the winner takes all, there is lots of sharing around -- children here are brought up to live in a community.

Furthermore ...


Excuse me -- I’ve got to run! ###


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.

The opinions and comments in this article are his own.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Real community living in a living community

by Geoffrey Heard

I’m walking up the road to take a picture of the sunset. A hundred metres along, I’m greeted by a couple of women sitting at the roadside gossiping. “Boina ravien, Geoffrey, yu go we?” (Good afternoon, Geoffrey, where are you going?) they say, the greeting in the Tolai language and the remainder of the sentence in Tok Pisin -- the lingua franca of Papua New Guinea. Everyone here knows I speak only a few words of Tolai beyond the usual greetings, so apart from when they're pulling my leg, they speak to me in Tok Pisin or English.

I explain that I am going up to the church to take pictures of the sunset. Which church, they ask? The Catholic church, I reply. There’s a good view from our United Church, says one. There certainly is, I agree, but there’s a strategically placed coconut palm that’s part of the view from the Catholic church which will enhance the picture. Oh, that’s important, they agree. And what are they doing? I ask. We chat back and forth for a few minutes, then: “Io rou!” (You go!), they say.

And off I go ... for another 100 metres where I repeat the process at a cluster of roadside stalls. The dozen or so people there include a couple of strangers, so explanations about me and my presence in the village are added on.

This is life in paradise, aka Vunakabi Village, Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, where I am holidaying. This is life in paradise, aka Vunakabi Village, Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, where I am holidaying. Having spent the Australian winter working on a way back to Papua New Guinea with some sort of employment attached, I’ve decided on a holiday. I need a change of scenery from Melbourne and a warm temperature top-up!

I’m staying with my adopted son, Bale (pron. Barlay), and his wife, Roselynne, and immediate and extended family (Gilbert and Sullivan’s Sir Joseph had nothing on Bale et al -- I share paternity with the other Dad, ToPiamia, now in his 80s and a good friend, and have children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren here, to say nothing of sisters, brothers, and cousins you can reckon up by dozens and dozens), and slowly, slowly, I am learning to live in an open way in a close knit community again.

It’s not as easy as you might think.

I’ve spent far too long in Australia and in crime-ridden Port Moresby -- I’ve gone private. In Australia, we know little or nothing about our neighbours and reveal correspondingly little of ourselves; in Port Moresby you keep private so the rascals don’t find out what’s behind the fence (Going up the hill to take some pictures of the sunset, eh? That means the house will be unoccupied for at least 40 minutes ...).

Here in Vunakabi, I am reminded daily of the way you need to be open in a village where everyone lives cheek by jowl, everyone knows everyone else’s business (most house walls are literally sieves), everyone works their small subsistence holdings close together, and everyone relies on everyone else. I’m relearning how positive and facilitating that can be.

People still have secrets, of course, but the greater part of their lives is an open book to their neighbours, relatives and goodness knows who! The linkages among the Tolai people stretch across their territory, the Gazelle Peninsula, home to about 200,000 people, across Papua New Guinea, and around the world -- wherever Tolais live.

Ordinary privacy is by consensus -- manners, if you like; people are aware of stuff but they don’t talk about it and they don’t throw it in others’ faces.

My family’s house happens to be on the main road and since it includes a little store, it is something of a focus. In the morning, we sit out in the sun for a little while until the old joints get mobile, then move into the shade (it’s heating up to 30-32 celsius), munch our breakfast, drink our tea, and exchange greetings -- and information -- with everyone who comes within range.

“Boina malana!” (Good morning!) we call. Then a bit of back and forth, and finally: “Where are you going?” Now -- it is pretty obvious where they are going. We are talking to a woman carrying a bag on her back with half-a-dozen young banana plants sticking out of it, on her head she is balancing a garden spade, by her side is her child with a little bag, a banana plant and a bottle of water, and they are walking down the hill in the direction of the family garden.

But we do not presume, she can tell us if she wishes: “We’re going to the garden to plant bananas”. We inquire about her family’s corn, sweet potato, beans, betel nut, and a number of other crops, and exchange a remark or two about the prospects of rain -- we’re having a drought in green Rabaul. “Io rou!”, and with an answering “Io!” off they go.

But this information extends far beyond the commonplace, the here and now, and the immediate environs.

I wanted to meet a man whose acquaintance I had made in an Australian/western environment. So I was thinking about it in Australian mode -- it was my private business. BUT after a couple of failed appointments, my family gently prompted me and I talked to them about it. Immediately “my” business became “their” business and they brought to bear their vast web of information and linkages (there was even a family connection -- slight by western standards, practically immediate by Tolai standards), and the young woman across the road worked at a place where this bloke often called. Difficulties explained, problem solved.

Stuff can be simple when you know what is actually going on.

The advent of mobile (cell) phones has added to the information flow. I was heading off to a distant part of the district, the Gelegele area, to visit a couple -- former colleagues. I was to catch the bus to Kokopo, no sweat, I did that all the time, then wait at the Gelegele bus stop -- no signposting, simply a mango tree outside a vacant lot adjacent to a certain store in Kokopo.

Next day, I was waiting at the Gelegele bus stop in Kokopo with a bunch of green bananas in hand and a bagful of other gifts from the market over my shouder. I was obliged to introduce myself and my mission to several kind strangers concerned about my welfare. Not a lot of white-haired white men are found at the Gelegele bus stop (I had become a familiar sight at the Vunadidir/Kerevat stop outside the Echo store), much less with a bunch of green bananas. Then a PMV (Passebger Motor Vehicle -- in this case, a ute with seats in the back) pulled up. “Hello Geoffrey,” said the driver, a total stranger, “jump in front.” Turns out someone from Vunakabi had seen me, phoned home to ask what on earth I was doing at the Gelegele bus stop with a hand of green bananas, they in turn had then phoned their son’s future father-in-law who lived at Gelegele, and he had called the bus driver. Tolai express all the way.

You can look at all this in different ways. Many westerners would consider the level of questioning and the calm expectation of answers intrusive, an invasion of privacy, but here in Rabaul/Kokopo, you learn to expect such questions and you know you are actually participating in an exchange of information with people who are interested and expect you to reciprocate.

In addition, it seems to me that there is a different understanding of what is public and what is private. Sitting in a “haus win” (open shelter) at the market, I’ve been involved in a number of conversations and discussions with strangers in the past few days. Some of the talk is jsut chat and gossip, some is deeper -- land ownership, climate change, and cultural preservation and adaptation have all come up.

In Australia, two people sitting among strangers in such a place will discuss quite personal matters and be deeply offended if someone contributes to the discussion. “Mind your own business!” they are likely to snap with adjectival reinforcement. But in Rabaul, any discussion in public is pretty much open slather, nobody would think of discussing in public anything which is really, seriously private.

At the same time, there are matters people know about which are not discussed or even hinted at in the normal course of events -- an absolute necessity in villages where houses with plaited bamboo walls are built cheek by jowl. A hilarious example of this breaking down occurred many years ago when school students in their middle teens (14-16) were given an essay to write for an external examination. ‘A night to remember’ was the topic. Students told startled examiners more than they really wanted to know about sex in the village! Maybe the fact that the essay was assessed externally had something to do with their openness.

Peyton Place, eat your heart out.

And mention of Peyton Place (a best selling ‘tell all’ novel about the scandals in small town America published in the 1950s) brings up the negative side this. I’ve talked about the Tolai people here, because I am living among them and experiencing the benefits of that. But a similar situation exists to a greater or lesser extent in most other communities throughout Papua New Guinea -- it’s just not generally as extensive as it is among the Tolai because they are such a big, single group.

I say I am living in paradise in Rabaul, but yes, the Tolai community has its quota of criminals, charlatans, confidence tricksters, thieves, thugs, murderers, and corrupt individuals. It is not without corruption in its politics and administration -- a corruption that often relies on this web of linkages, information, and knowledge, loosely known as the wantok system. But even as the corrupt exploit the system, others monitor what’s going on through the same connections.

On balance, I suspect the good is winning over the bad in respect of political corruption. It might well be that the Tolai people, so long leaders in so much of Papua New Guinea’s development, will lead a swing of the pendulum against corruption throughout this nation. It would be fitting. ###


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.

The opinions and comments in this article are his own.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

OMG! It’s so c-o-l-d...

by Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard

Written: 1st June, 2010

NOTE: I wrote this at the time, but did not post it. I should have done so. Here it is now.

Well, I’m out. Professional differences, let’s call it, have slingshotted me out of Papua New Guinea and back into Australia. Not the happiest outcome, but there was really no alternative after Australian volunteers International failed to support me when I told the boss that I was old enough and ugly enough not to want to put up with bullshit and game playing, so let’s cut the crap and get on with the job, or alternatively, he could ring up AVI and have me hurled hence back to the place of wintry darkness and gnashing of teeth -- viz Melbourne.

The AVI Country Manager had more than once expressed her disapproval of my frankness and refusal to accept childish rules from her side of the fence (see “I break out” and similar stuff posted earlier) so I suspect she was not unhappy to be shot of me. She certainly gave no indication to me of support.

And I am sitting here shivering (it was 30 celsius when I flew out of Port Moresby and 5 celsius when I landed at Tullamarine that night), wondering what on earth possesses anyone to live in this cold hole -- Melbourne, Australia -- where the news is a litany of violence and brutality, where smugness and denial of reality reign, where the media are complicit in the subversion of people-centred, democratic values and action.

And where corruption is perfectly obvious to anyone who is willing to do that first essential of criminal investigation -- follow the money trail.

I raise this because it is so often one of the first things mentioned when I speak to Australians of Papua New Guinea. First thing after the heat. Yes, it is warm, on the coast is it 30-32 celsius every day. And yes, Papua New Guinea has its share of corruption -- quite a big share.

But corruption in PNG has one saving grace -- it is kind of overt. Papua New Guinea’s population is five million, but its power elite is quite small and its principal mode of operation -- the “wantok system” -- is well known and easily identified. Tens of thousands of Papua New Guineans pay for the privilege to march against corruption and it is acknowledged in official documents. These things suggest the possibility of change.

Victorians, particularly, and many other Australians, on the other hand, deny that corruption exists here or at best are doubtful about it -- even when the evidence if obvious. Others are apathetic or don’t take it seriously. They dismiss talk of corruption as “conspiracy theory” -- as though this is some kind of irrefutable rebuttal of the allegation. Conspiracy? Of course conspiracy. Corruption inevitably involves conspiracy!

Maybe there are “a few bad apples in the barrel” but corruption, real corruption, they say, tends to happen “over there”, in those other places. Mostly those places where people aren’t white. It’s a kind of racism.

The most outstanding example I’ve seen of this kind of barefaced lie was when the former Premier of Victoria, Steve Bracks, went to Timor-Leste (formerly East Timor) to report on corruption and recommended they set up an anti-corruption commission. Asked on his return whether we should have such a body in Victoria, Australia, he replied, with a perfectly straight face, that no, we didn’t need one because corruption wasn't a problem here.

Where in PNG you have a Chinese Government owned copper mine that appears to be not about to return one kina to Papua New Guinea while leaving a legacy of terrible pollution of the sea, here in Victoria you have a huge desalination plant being built which will put the people of this state into debt for 30 years and leave a legacy of terrible pollution of the sea.

On our behalf, the ALP State Government which many people voted for because it campaigned against a desalination plant, signed up for a huge plant with an establishment cost clearly out of scale with what we are getting, along with a guarantee that we will buy every drop of water it produces for the next 30 years ... regardless of whether we need it or not.

A public/private partnership, they called it, and as such, the details of the contract are commercial-in-confidence, so we the taxpayers and electors -- the mutts paying for this fraudulent scheme -- are barred from seeing them!

Is this corrupt? Did money or other benefits change hands? I don’t know -- I cannot follow the money trail because it is so tightly locked away. But I do know that there are billions of dollars involved and the only publicly acknowledged beneficiaries are the private owners of the plant. A bunch of workers who build it and a handful who run it will get wages.

Certainly the people of Victoria are not beneficiaries. The downsides for them are many. Here are some key ones:

• VICTORIANS LOSE OWNERSHIP OF WATER -- this is a backdoor privatisation after governments of both hues (alleged left and right, but in reality, both right wing tending towards national socialism) perceived it would be very unpopular to privatise existing water supplies outright.
• Victorians have been CONDEMNED TO PAY FOR DECADES for the most expensive water in the world. They could have had sufficient water by other means much more economically, without nearly as much pollution, and without the cataclysmic on-costs in both financial and environmental terms.
• The State’s GREEN ELECTRICITY TARGETS HAVE BEEN SUBVERTED -- the desalination plant demands a huge amount of electricity to run, which seriously undermines any attempt to cut Victoria’s electricity generation using its dirty brown coal technology. That’s a huge benefit for the private owners of the brown coal fired electricity generators (originally state-owned, but sold off 20 years ago in another deal that put the future of Victorians into the uncaring hands of private interests).

Consider this alternative. For less than the cost of the desalination plant, the State Government could have installed and plumbed in 22,000 litre (8,000 gallon) water tanks on every residence in Melbourne to capture and use roof run-off which is currently drained off to rivers and Port Phillip Bay at considerable expense. There would be no on-costs (the annual cost of the desalination plant is $560 million whether it is producing water or not) and the tanks could be made a requirement under the building code so that all new homes had them -- at no further cost to the government.

Of course, such a solution would aid small business, not big business and finance, and it would make ordinary people freer by making them largely independent of the centralized water system. It would be pro-democratic.

Instead, we get the grossly over-priced desalination plant, enormous debt, 30 years of payments, and skewing of the water supply system.

If deals like this, involving stupefying sums of money, do not benefit the people the politicians are supposed to represent and whose interestes they were elected to safeguard, then why would the pollies sign up for them?

The politicians betrayed their trust, broke their promises, kept secret public information, and signed contracts providing huge financial benefits to a small group of individuals. In short, they corrupted the democratic process; they are complicity with the big end of town in attempting to destroy democracy.

What induced them to do so? I can see only one realistic answer.

Now let me turn my back on this cesspool and its slimy creatures and get busy working out how to return to Papua New Guinea where at least I don’t have to pay to keep warm! ###


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.

The opinions and comments in this article are his own.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Hot prices

by Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard

Just before I left Australia, I dashed around in search of a couple of polo shirts. I wanted good quality cotton ones that would hold their shape, with a breast pocket (I need somewhere to put my 11 year old phone so I can entertain myself when I bend over by seeing it slide out and bounce on concrete).

Prices were in the $20-$50 range but there wasn’t a decent polo shirt to be had in my XXL size.

Pottering around a store in Port Moresby the other day I also failed to find a polo shirt I liked. I did notice, though, that the stock looked very similar to what I has been looking at in Australia. Both came from the same place, China.

I also noticed the pricing. The figures looked much like the Australian figures, 20-45, but the prices were in kina, the Papua New Guinea dollar, so they were K20-K45.

Now let me translate that into Australian dollars for you. The current rate of exchange is about K2.50 = $1.00, so K20 is the same as $8 and K45 is the same as $18.

If the Papua New Guinea prices can be taken as a guide to what the prices of these goods in Australia could be, then someone is making a killing between the Chinese factory and the Australian consumer.

Looks like Australian consumers are being ripped off, doesn’t it?

Let’s also look at products locally grown in both places.

The excellent rump steak I bought in a Port Moresby supermarket the other day was K25/kg, that’s $10/kg, a price you haven’t seen in Australia for a long time. The top Continental Hot Dogs were K11.55/kg, $4.62/kg.

Bear in mind that these are premium products. Also bear in mind that the rump steak is not from some old cow grazing in a Port Moresby backyard. It comes from distant parts of Papua New Guinea so there are serious costs involved, including transport, before it hits Port Moresby’s cool counters.

Why is meat so much more expensive in Australia? One reason is that it is feedlot -- fed on grain -- an inherently expensive process. It is also poked full of hormones and antibiotics (which ought to be banned) at great expense. The Papua New Guinea cattle are grass-fed, which is inherently cheaper if you have lots of grass. Who wants grain-fed beef anyway? I repeat -- this beef beats anything I have had in Australia for tenderness and flavour for as long as I can remember.

I was asking my local butcher about grass-fed beef just before I left Australia. He told me he simply couldn’t get it -- there was a demand for it but little of it about. As a result, it had become a premium item with the concomitant inflated price!

Australia, do you get the feeling that you are being ripped off -- again?


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.

Geoffrey Heard worked in media in Papua New Guinea in the 1960s and 1970s and has just returned to that country as an Australian Volunteer supported by AusAID working with the Media Council of Papua New Guinea. The opinions and comments in this article are his own and do not represent the views of the Media Council of PNG, Australian Volunteers International, or AusAID.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

I break out!

by Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard

15 May 2010

Last night I broke out of the prison of Port Moresby and the bonds the Australian High Commission and Australian Volunteers International have woven around me.

They have been telling me since before I arrived back in Papua New Guinea how important my “personal security” is. They are quite sure I am safest when in the city. Well, certain parts of the city. And at certain hours. I’ve been chafing at these bonds.

The chance to slip them for a night was too much of an opportunity to miss.

So it was that in tropical darkness at half-past-nine last night, my mate Lavui and I and a bunch of fellow Papuan desperadoes (a measure of our desperateness -- one was a girl aged only 12, but she had to escape too), boarded a Toyota Landcruiser ute to slip out of town for what amounted to a cannonball run to Lavui’s home village and back -- in darkness all the way.

We thought we might be in trouble before we had even got started when we were stopped at a police road block at 6 Mile, but they cleared us to go on. Routine license check, it turned out.

A few minutes later we were speeding east along the Magi Highway, the bar tread tyres howling on the bitumen, escaping towards tomorrow’s sunrise.

Free at last!

Free to drive and talk and share food and a tinny and a bottle of water. Free to chew betelnut and laugh and bounce over potholes. Free to joke, share intimacies and save the world.

Most of all, free to take a small risk and to be ready to rely on our own resources, friends and rat cunning if we ran into trouble, which might range from getting bogged on an untrafficked bush track in the middle of the night to encountering modern highway men.

As an Australian Volunteer, I have been warned against taking these clearly horrendous risks. I can only say thank God (or The Force or the rock in the back garden if you prefer) that today’s Papua New Guineans and their and our forefathers, and before them, the English, were a bit more open to a spot of risk than your average Australian abroad is these days.

If Papua New Guineans were as wimpy as today’s Australians this whole country would grind to a halt. If our forefathers, even the generation of Australians of which I am part, had been as wimpy as the current lot, none of us would exist, let alone live in Australia.

Or Papua New Guinea. Quite apart from the fact that there was the occasional hold-up on this very road back in the 1970s when it was a washboard corrugated dirt strip and I drove it in my VW Kombi half-cab, I’ve recently been reading a history of Tamate, the Rev. James Chambers, a London Missionary Society man who was one of the leading lights in bringing Christianity to this lovely land in the late 1800s.

After a life of incredible risk and adventure, even by the standards of the time, he was killed and eaten by the Goaribari people of the Gulf province. His fellows in a mission vessel escaped the Goaribari canoes due to caution on the part of their captain and a chance fair wind.

That happened not much more than 100 years ago today, and a touch over 60 years before I made my first acquaintance with a Goaribari man, who was an announcer at a radio station I was managing at Kerema in the Gulf. There could have been people still alive then who had had a slice of Tamate.

I’m told to avoid large gatherings of Papua New Guineans because something (like the assassination of the Emperor Franz Josef, perhaps?) might result in stuff going pear-shaped.

Yet this is a country where Australians are generally highly regarded and 99 percent of the population offer a smiling greeting on first acquaintance. Sure you might get the occasional troublesome drunk (try Paddy’s Bar any time after 9pm on Fridays) but if a jocular word doesn’t carry the day, the highly efficient bouncers will. Or you might run into someone with a genuine grievance, but concern and sympathy will carry you through.

Or if you get out of town, even in the outer suburbs, you might run into modern highwaymen. As we pounded down the highway last night, I recalled the opening of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities where the coach is struggling through foggy darkness up the muddy Shooters Hill, the armed guard alert to the danger of highwaymen who might attack at any second.

The story is fiction but the setting was reality. Nevertheless, life went on. Economic and social development took place, and Shooters’ Hill, now a hardly noticeable incline in south London, is infested with boutiques instead of highwaymen (it is probably a moot question which is worse).

Such, one hopes, will be the case with the Magi Highway in the not too distant future (preferably without the boutiques). In the meantime, life goes on, there is the occasional hold up, but car, truck and bus traffic pounds along the highway day (mostly) and night.

“So what do we do if the highway is blockaded by rascals?” I asked (all street criminals are called rascals here because the term has been adopted into Tok Pisin as "raskol").

“We slam on the brakes and chuck a bonnie,” replied Lavui. (This is a family euphemism for making a U-turn or U-ee, which Lavui adopted with glee after I accidentally came out with it when we were driving together. My daughter’s Year 7 Japanese teacher was named Bonnie Yue, so we adopted her first name to represent the sound of the second name, which in turn sounded like a U-turn).

Then what? Maybe head back to Moresby, maybe just wait a while for the bandits to get bored and go home. Or maybe wait until a big truck came along which would smash though the barricade, then follow it through.

No histrionics were required, and in truth, Lavui has never required them on this run, which he makes often enough if not exactly frequently.

We weren’t really desperadoes, of course, we were on a Mission of Mourning on this night, taking Lavui’s Uncle Male and a big bunch of food to his and Lavui’s home village ready for the feast he would make today to mark the end of a year after his wife’s passing.

The others in the back were a sundry mixture of younger brothers, nieces and nephews and a brother-in-law -- all good friends and all up at any time for a four-and-a-half hour trip to the old home village in the rugged mountains at the back of Rigo, and then back again.

All in a night.

It had to be there and back in a night for two reasons: Lavui needed to be back in Moresby today for his young son’s birthday party, and the ute had to be ready for another trip ... to pretty much the same destination. Why not roll the two trips into one? It would be much more efficient. I have a colleague much given to efficiency. We were having a discussion once, and I asserted that efficiency actually didn’t matter a damn.

And it doesn’t unless it delivers some superior social good.

In this case, Lavui had a family obligation he needed to fulfill. The others wanted a trip down to the old home village even if they would be there only 10 minutes -- just time for a quick chew of betelnut or perhaps, if someone still had a fire going, a cup of coffee or tea, and a catch-up with grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins.

The other trip was another bloke from a nearby village with a different set of relationships and his own imperatives -- including delivering some roofing iron. Socially, it would have been quite bizarre for Lavui to off-load his uncle and the feast food on to the other bloke. Efficient, yes, social good, no.

So there we were, hammering down the highway in the velvety darkness, stopping a couple of times for betelnut refills from tiny, stick and thatch roadside stalls lit by a flickering hurricane lamp, until we were past Kwikila, and then we turned left, north, inland.

It is difficult to depict for you the suddenness of the transformation. At one moment we were on a highway, albeit of only two lanes but nevertheless, black top, and the next we were ploughing through a 50 metre wide ford with the water over the axles.

I’ve been on some pretty rugged “roads” in Papua New Guinea -- the early forms of the road to the Bougainville copper mine site in 1968, the Highlands Highway and the “coffee road” around Elimbari in the Chimbu District in 1970 spring to mind -- but this was as rugged as it gets.

This was genuine 4WD country. Not SUV country, Lavui was at pains to point out, as the ute bucked and bounced over rocks, climbed in and out of washaways and rivers, and slithered through muddy stretches where the wheel ruts were two feet deep. Lavui has a true belief about 4WDs. This place munches up your SUV and spits it out, Lavui averred, that’s why you needed a really serious 4WD. And for him, that meant a Toyota Landcruiser ute. He first drove one on this track when he was 13. That was when he passed his father’s examination -- he could start from a dead stop facing steeply uphill without using the handbrake and without rolling back a centimetre.

That was before power steering, too. This Lavui is no heavily muscled giant of a man, he’s built more on the lines of a cross between a garden rake and a whippet. He’s all bone and tough, stringy muscle; a modern man from Snowy River. And he sure knows how to put the Toyota to the test.

We bucked and slid and and rushed and ground upwards and downwards and across and upwards again for something over three hours. Fortunately, there had been no rain for a few days, so most of the run was pretty dry; we didn’t need to use the shovel Lavui’s mate had thrown in the back against the possibility of being bogged.

As we went, Lavui talked of his childhood in these mountains -- a childhood in which this road played a vital part as the link between the big, wide world and the tiny village where his ancestors were born, lived, loved, died and were buried for millennia. Lavui himself was actually born in New Zealand when his father was studying for his Masters in plant genetics (and suffered heart problems which required open-heart surgery and led, eventually, to his premature and tragic demise) -- but he grew up on this road and every twist and turn was a stepping stone in his life.

Despite hanging on grimly to the grips on the roof and dash, I was thrown around the cab like a pea in a pod. Heaven knows how the passengers survived in the back (actually, I’ve been there and done that 40 years ago, I just can’t remember how I survived and laughed and loved it) but I could hear them singing and joking and enjoying the ride. Enjoying it! Yes, and so was I! We were surviving every challenge!

Finally, a few minutes short of 2am, after four and a half hours on the road, we arrived. The track smoothed out and in the headlights I saw we were on a ridge, with the land falling away steeply on both sides. Small houses with round pole frames, thatched roofs and woven split bamboo walls crowded up to the road on both sides.

“Oooooo!” whooped Lavui, the local greeting, acknowledgement, alarm call.

He pulled up outside a family home. We climbed out, stiff, sore, but triumphant. The youngsters in the back bounced out. Damn! I envied them that resilience.

I sucked in the fresh, clean air, redolent of bush smells with a touch of village, just on the cool side of balmy. Real air - the air all other air should be like. The sky rose in a black vault that went on forever; there was no moon so the stars shone out sharply and the milky way was a mess of bright gossamer strewn across the arch.

I was welcomed with quiet words and transparent friendliness into this little Shangri La, Karai Komana, Cockatoo Mountain, a hamlet of perhaps 200 today, with a remarkable record of producing people of outstanding ability and talent who have served their emerging nation in a dozen fields.

It was too late for anyone to have a fire going, so after unloading Uncle Male and his feast ingredients, we had a quiet chat, a swig of water, and a chew of betelnut, and Lavui took a few steps into the night to commune at his father’s last resting place for a moment -- the father he loved so dearly who had tragically died at only 49.

Then Lavui started the engine, turned the car, the youngsters came bouncing out of the darkness and swarmed into the back, and we were off again.

“We’ll be in Moresby by six,” said Lavui confidently, “it’s faster on the return trip because we’re going downhill a lot of the time.”

Faster down those hills? OMG!

The horrendous climbs now turned into horrendous descents, and the horrendous descents turned into horrendous climbs. We bounced and swung and crashed through the night, the headlights leading us along the track whether it was shale or rock or gravel or mud or water. But Lavui was right, we waded through the last ford and hit the highway again in something under three hours. I saw the highway bridge 100 metres from the turn-off, then the thrum of the tyres rolled into my head and I went out like a light. Lavui woke me as we entered the city in the gray dawn a few minutes before six.

It had been a beautiful night. I made it to the shower, then fell into bed and slept like a babe until noon. I awoke feeling wonderfully refreshed, and got up and washed the clothes by hand (the washing machine has broken down) with a song in my heart.


While I was writing this, sitting in what I am assured is the safety of Port Moresby on Saturday night, I heard three quick reports. Bang, bang, bang. 9mm automatic, I would say. Later, there was another, heavier, shot.

I hear such things every couple of weeks or so. Mind you, most of the time it is just the police letting the rascals know that they're around and mean business. There really isn't that much shooting at people.

I went to bed hoping my friends the security guards were all okay. They are unarmed; they have radios, and at night, dogs. A couple of days ago, four men with guns held them up at the precinct gate and stole their vehicle. Sensibly, the security guys offered no resistance.

I’ve told them I don’t want them taking any risks on my behalf. Anyone burgling my house can have everything I own; I’ll help them carry it out if necessary. Life is too short to worry about possessions (although I would hate to lose my MacBook and old Kodak P880 camera).

But this is the situation in the town where my Australian guardians say I am safer than on the Magi Highway and the backwoods track to Lavui’s home village.

You be the judge. I know what I think. No, not think, know!


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.

Geoffrey Heard worked in media in Papua New Guinea in the 1960s and 1970s and has just returned to that country as an Australian Volunteer supported by AusAID working with the Media Council of Papua New Guinea. The opinions and comments in this article are his own and do not represent the views of the Media Council of PNG, Australian Volunteers International, or AusAID.