Saturday, April 3, 2010

Hardship? I’ve just eaten the best rump steak I ever had

by Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard

Having returned to Papua New Guinea as a volunteer, I am paid at the local rate, even a low local rate. I suspect I am the lowest paid person in my office except for the cleaner, and she works only three days a week.

I’m not complaining, you understand, I put my hand up for the gig with a song in my heart (the best place for me to have songs; vocally, my singing daughter would tell you, I am “interesting”) in full knowledge of what I was doing, so that part is fine. I bring it up only to illustrate that I really do need to be careful with my pennies, or more correctly here, toeas (toy-yahs).

However, feeling a bit frazzled after one of those messy days when you work like stink and nothing seems to happen, I called in at the supermarket on the way home the other day determined to buy something a bit different -- even to splash out.

What looked like a nice bit of local rump steak very attractively priced caught my eye. A bit over 300 grams for a bit over K7.00 (seven kina, about AU$3.00) perhaps a third of the Australian price) -- the “different” was there but splashing out wasn’t needed. I fried it medium rare and served it with a tomato and onion salad, a squeeze of lime juice, and plenty of salt (you *must* keep the salt up in the tropics and your low salt bodily condition means that when you put what might look like an excess of salt on food, it tastes fine).

The big surprise came when I stuck the fork into it with what I thought was reasonable force. The tines bottomed out on the plate with a clang. I applied the knife gingerly -- and found cutting this steak was like carving butter.

Whoa! But what about the flavour? Just plain delicious, that’s what.

I had started out to be satisfied with half the steak but in the end I was overcome by sheer greediness and ate the lot. From gourmet to gourmand in two serves.

It was the best rump steak I have ever eaten and I’ve had a few.

But was it a fluke? Ha! You can see what’s coming. Of course I had to go back and try again. A few days had elapsed so they were sure to be on a different carcass by now.

Same result, even though I overcooked one side a bit because an important phone call came through at a critical moment.

I don’t know whether to tell everyone about the rump steak at SVS Super Value Mart on the Hubert Murray Highway or keep quiet about it. I mean, it would be pretty sad if a rush developed and they sacrificed quality to ... what? Oh damn, I just let the cat out of the bag, didn’t I?

Another gourmet/gourmand delight in Port Moresby has to be the fish in season -- and oh boy, they sure are in season as I write! My local market, Malaoro (pron. Mah-l-ow-row), is known for its fish. It looks like a down-at-heel, dirty kind of place, make-shift stalls along the roadside, but the fish are superb.

Barramundi and Red emperor have to be the pick, but there are a dozen other varieties which are nearly as good. Then there are the painted lobsters and the crabs, both in a size and abundance Australians generally haven’t seen for 30 years.

The fruit and veg are also good at Malaoro and if, for example, garlic is in short supply, the supermarket is right there behind the market.

In addition, I’m starting to feel at home there. My employers, friendly locals and endless expatriates have told me I have to be particularly careful at Malaoro -- it is a known haunt of pickpockets and other criminals who would rip my ears off and empty my wallet at the drop of a hat.

But I know some of the vendors a little now and they know me. They see me coming and launch into their patter. They chaff me, try to tempt me when I am reluctant to buy, and above all, they are honest.

Two things happened at the market today that spurred me to write about it. The first occurred after I had bought some tomatoes. As I stuffed my change back into my pocket, I dropped a K2.00 bill (about $1.00). I didn’t notice, but a young lad of perhaps eight or so did. He was enjoying himself immensely on a homemade swing he and his friend had strung from a small tree behind the stalls.

“Tu kina pondaun!” he sang as he swung, “tu kina pondaun long giraun! Tu kina bilong yu ia!” (Two kina fell down, two kina fell on the ground, your two kina.)

An older man on a neighbouring stall looked down. “Eh, manki tok tru,” he told me, pointing to the two kina bill, “em ia, tu kina pondaun long han bilong yu.” (The boy spoke the truth, look here, two kina fell from your hand.)

Now here were are in the middle of a market which is supposed to be crawling with thieves, confidence men, tricksters and violent criminals but I have dropped two kina, and a boy and a man, both dressed pretty much in rags, have pointed it out to me and made no attempt to hustle me.

As I picked it up, the man was praising the boy. I reached into my pocket, grabbed all the change I had, about 70 toea (30 cents), and gave it to the lad, thanking him for his help.

The old stallholder patted me on the shoulder and told me sagely that I had done the right thing. That was the way to encourage kids to grow up honest, he said. Exactly, I agreed, and thank you for your support.

A short time later, on the other side of the market, a stallholder miscalculated my change and gave me too much. I said I thought he was in error. We calculated it together and found it was 60 toea out my way. He told me not to worry, it was his error. I told him I didn’t want to be responsible for him having to go home to his wife to explain that the financial collapse of his little business selling betel nut and bananas was due to a strange white creature who roamed around the market terrifying innocent stallholders and then took advantage of them when they miscalculated the change.

We had a laugh (along with neighbouring stallholders) and sorted out the correct change.

For expatriates in all sorts of positions, Port Moresby is a “hardship post”. They’ll get paid from 10% to 30% extra on top of their regular, Australian salaries to live and work here (their hardship allowances might be more than my total pay).

But how hard is the ship really?

I fully understand that here in Port Moresby the risk to life and limb from criminals or PMV driver assault while on the road (I’ll tell you more about the latter on another day) is greater than in Australian cities. I also accept that it is hotter than most Australian cities (but not most of Australia), there are unaccountable shortages in the stores from time to time (I’ve had search parties out looking for tonic water for a week), and there are no cinemas.

On the other hand, much food is very cheap (but bacon seems high, dammit, at least on my salary), many aspects of life are much more colorful -- including food shopping at the nearest local market -- household help is expert and cheap, the scenery is stunning, and their inflated salaries should run to a home entertainment system...just like at home but cheaper to buy here.

And anyone open to it will find themselves to be the recipients of constant small kindnesses. (When was the last time an Australian supermarket employee spotted you struggling with a messy armful of goods -- you only went in to buy two items but ... -- and appeared in front of you with a basket, unasked?)

In reality, of course, the measure of the “hardshipness” of anywhere is how much you can make yourself feel at home in it. An important factor in my feeling at home in the Malaoro market is that I am fluent in the local lingua franca, Tok Pisin, so not only do I understand what is being said around me, I can join in -- and do.

Many Australians live in this wonderful land for years without bothering to make themselves fluent in Tok Pisin. The same used to be true in the 60s and 70s when I was first here. It is really quite bizarre; Tok Pisin is a great lingua franca in this nation of 800 languages for the simple reason that it is a so easy to learn -- a vocabulary of perhaps 1500 words, most variations on English (you rely on context and word combinations to make many, many meanings) and straightforward grammar.

If you get a Tok Pisin dictionary and put your mind to it for a few weeks, you can just pick it up. And suddenly, you’ll hear someone talking to you and you will answer them and... .

When that happens, you are living “in” the land, not “on” it -- and hardship has flown out the window.


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.

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