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.