Friday, July 15, 2011

Lighting the morning fire; the plastic bag method

by Geoffrey Heard

Our house in the village has some early risers and some late risers. I tend to be one of the former since I don’t often stay up late gossiping, yarning and chewing betelnut with neighbors, relatives and friends. (I’m happy to gossip and yarn, but I’m not a betelnut addict.)

In addition, I’m leading a fairly active life; you’ve no idea the energy expended staying upright in a minibus driven down the side of a mountain
by a guy with blatant Formula 1 ambitions, to say nothing of the amount of walking you can do between stores in Kokopo which is strung out along three or four kilometers of (glorious) sea front.

So I am up soon after dawn, have the first of my two daily washes (bucket and dipper) in what is supposed to be cold water (but it isn’t really cold; it comes from a 9000 liter tank which has cooled only a little overnight after the heat of the previous day), then dry and dressed (shorts, shirt, sandals), I move on to the question of the morning cup of tea.

Young Rachel or Roselyn, two of my putative great grand-daughters aged something like 12 and 10 respectively, are likely to be up, and we will confer on lighting the morning fire.

Here is how it is done (with a shuddering nod in the direction of environmental correctness). First gather up all sorts of kindling, wood chips, twigs, dry coconut leaves, and if we are really lucky, a segment or two of dry coconut husk (detritus from the evening meal when a coconut would have been husked and scraped out for extraction of the “cream” for cooking -- but usually the evening cook has already used this husk for his or her fire).

Ignore any newspaper lying around (we have that too, a couple of people in the house are avid newspaper readers). This is the wet tropics, that means high humidity even when it is sunny and dry, and that, in turn, means something as absorbent as newsprint is not really dry after a night on the cook house bench. The cook house (or as we call it, haus kuk) has a roof but apart from that, is open to the environment, including having no formal floor to differentiate it from the surrounding “outside”, so if the atmosphere is humid, everything in the haus kuk is too. Day-old newsprint here just tends to smoulder and die.

Next collect a couple of plastic bags. These are your fire starters. Since you can’t get out of a store without your purchase being plastic bagged, there are lots of them around even in a semi-bush village environment.

There is an important principle to grasp before you start. It took me a couple of days to wake up to it. With paper or coconut husk, you set the fire with the igniter underneath so it burns up, the plastic bag method is top down.

Assemble the kindling in the fireplace (a bunch of stones) keeping a few bits and pieces in reserve, squeeze a plastic bag into a bit of a rope, then gingerly dangling it from a stick, apply a lit match to the bottom. As the plastic burns, it melts and drips on to the kindling. Do I hear an “Ah ha!” moment? When the bags burns up near the top, you twist the stick to wrap the remaining plastic bag around it, put that on top of your beginning fire, and add the last of the kindling.

Given good luck, strong lungs to “winim” the fire when it staggers (Rachel and/or Roselyn provide these), and some usefully dry firewood (see the remarks about damp paper above; the same applies to firewood particularly the fibrous logs from coconut palms), you are now on the way to the morning cuppa and a hot breakfast!

PS: I’m no fan of lighting fires with plastic bags, but it’s now ubiquitous in PNG -- I’ve seen it used by a top public servant to light an official entertainment barbecue. I can’t stop it -- nobody can in this intensive recycling community short of banning plastic bags altogether -- but at least I’ve alerted my people to its environmental impact and in particular, persuaded the kids that breathing plastic smoke is a really, really bad idea. ###


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.

The opinions and comments in this article are his own.

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