Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What was interesting about your last visit to the doctor?

By Geoffrey Heard

Free entertainment along the road, free fresh-off-the-tree bananas? What unexpected thing happened last time you were on your way to visit your doctor?

It is a beautiful, sunny morning in Paradise 1, Vunakabi, and the first thing on the agenda today is to take 10 year old Roselyn (named for her grandmother) to the doctor to have her cut and infected foot treated. Well, to the nurse at the clinic a couple of villages away, Rapitok. That means traveling by bus along a secondary route. Could mean a fair wait for the bus.

As we wait at the roadside for an hour-and-a-half for a bus which will pick us up (a couple go past full), I have to consciously suppress the niggle of misplaced urgency.

I chuckle as I on what I would be doing right this moment if I wasn't sitting at the side of the road chatting with Roselyn the child, Roselyn the grandmother, a couple of the kids who are shooting at a tree with their slingshots (and having a go and scoring a lucky hit myself), other members of the family wandering in and out of the picture, chatting with passersby, and editing pictures and writing this on my laptop.

I would be sitting on the tank stand 20 meters away doing exactly the same thing -- but with a poor chance of spotting and stopping the appropriate bus, that's what! I'm not waiting for a bus, I'm having a morning with my family!

There are no designated bus stops outside town. There are designated routes (we're on number 4) and maximum prices, but apart from that the bus stops when hailed or when passengers indicate that they want to get out.

Finally a bus arrives with a couple of empty seats heading where we want to go. Roselyn and I climb in, satisfy the natural curiosity of the other passengers interested in why a 10 year old Tolai girl is addressing the old white guy as "Bubu Geoff" (Grandfather Geoff -- in fact, I am the child's putative Great-Grandfather), and prepare to enjoy the trip through satisfyingly scenic surrounds.

A couple of kilometers along the road, we hear the sounds of celebration. "Subuna," explains Roselyn excitedly, "they're going to do a bride price exchange."

This is something I haven't experienced. It's pretty much an all day event, I am told, where the groom's husband visits the bride's home village to complete payment of the marriage settlement and claim the bride.

She hides in her parents' house and won't come out. The visitors tempt her and try to persuade her to come out with their singsings (song and dance). Finally, they might enter the house and physically remove her.

It is all pre-arranged and scripted and regarded by everyone as jolly good fun. At least, I'm told that is so today. I'm not sure it was always thus.

As we reach the hamlet where the subuna is in progress, the beating of drums and the chanting voices rise to a happy crescendo, then we are past and it fades behind us.
After a 20 minute ride, we reach our destination only to find the clinic closed. More waiting. The sister, it seems, will come, she is very reliable, but she has to catch the bus from another village, Taulil, which is poorly served. We settle down to wait in the shade of a tree under which someone has built a small stall out of bush materials. The two or three women occupying it today are making one or two small improvements to it while selling the ubiquitous betel nut and a few food other items, including some "banana mau" (ripe bananas -- similar to the Cavendish banana common in Australia).

We chat back and forth a bit, explain the Bubu Geoff thing again, and settle down to wait. I'm working through my email (ain't mobile technology grand? it is when it works!) when one of the ladies makes me a gift of a hand of bananas. It turns out her son is a PMV driver I've travelled with a number of times who has become a friend.

Roselyn and I are enjoying a banana snack when a mini-bus arrives with the nurse. She bustles in, lines up the patients on the bend outside the clinic, and deals with them all cheerfully, caringly and with despatch. More patients arrive as we are leaving -- it's going to be a busy day.

Across the road a couple of people are waiting for the bus heading out. We join them; one is an old bloke and having ascertained that I am a b-4 (foreigner who was in PNG a long time ago -- I find it hilarious to be a b-4 -- back in the day, that referred to people who had been in PNG before WWII), launches into reminiscence. We swap the names of people we both knew back then, laugh about the absurd (and there was plenty of that), applaud some of our contemporaries, share sadness over tragedy, and -- like all old blokes -- condemn the current generation and agree that the world has gone to the dogs since our day.

In the course of that, it transpires that a former colleague lives just down the road. My new friend is just proposing that we stroll down to say hello to him when the bus arrives. We all have to take it -- there might not be another bus for an hour or three.

I promise to return on my next visit. Lovely to see you again, Rapitok. ###


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2011.

The opinions and comments in this article are his own.

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.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Aibika to the rescue as we suffer kid-stress in paradise

by Geoffrey Heard

It’s a stressful time in paradise -- it is school holiday time and packs of kids are roaming around, playing vigorous games, hooting and laughing, running, chasing, bluffing, arguing, resolving disputes by shouting louder and occasionally delivering a smack over the ear, and paying no attention to parental cries for merciful quiet.

Our usual quota of anything from five to a dozen ankle biters and above (depends on how many related houses you include in the count and the time of day) has been supplemented by the arrival of a daughter of the house with three of her own plus one of her brother’s children.

The increase of the four visiting kids attracted the attention of every child for several hundred meters around so that we had a whole tribe (in reality, a clan) racing around in one giant pack for a day. Then they were alternatively arguing and playing in a number of lesser giant packs for another day, and finally thinning out on the third day as interest waned, all the kids had got up to date on the news since they were all together last time, parents demanded their children stay at home long enough to complete family tasks, and everyone shook down into comfortable smaller groups.

But every now and again, they coalesce and the chaos and cacophony break out again!

It was quite funny watching normally “cope with anything” parents and grandparents fraying at the edges and suddenly finding they had urgent errands to run in town which demanded that they instantly flee on the nearest minibus to return a couple of hours later looking virtuous, errand apparently completed satisfactorily. And so it was -- they had achieved their goal, a break from the kid cacophony and frenetic activity.

Note the use of “was” in “it was quite funny”. I was rolling along quite nicely in all this when what amounted to a giant wave of noise and mad activity engulfed me just before lunch today. Mercifully, a minibus with a spare seat appeared within minutes to whisk me away to do my urgent business in town. The escape was worth ten times the asking price of K2.00 (80¢).

Right now, the sun is setting and the sky is on fire over Kerevat and the Bainings mountains.

And a level of peace has descended.

The soccer game in our front yard has ended although the bigger kids have moved across the road and joined the touch footy game there (they have a rugby ball on that side) as it runs down to its inevitable end in the deepening dusk.

Our littlelies are out the back undergoing the serial social bathing experience -- they stand on the spare part of the tank stand and are vigorously doused and washed down by the nearest mother or aunt (some aunts are not much older than the tots they are bathing) armed with a bucket of cold water and a can for throwing it over them. Resistance is useless; there are some pretty firm hands around here and the kids know that their mothers are never going to gainsay another mother or an aunt. They’re the sisterhood! Anyway, the water’s not really cold -- this is the tropics! It’s just not hot.

In the haus kuk (cook house), mother and grandmother, Roselyn, is producing mouthwatering odours as she prepares dinner for about 15 (she actually does count them when serving up). The rice is ready, and she is now working on the stew of greens, salted fish and coconut.

I’m very familiar with the underpinnings of this village diet but to my surprise, I’m finding I’m noticing the details of it more than I have before.

I always knew greens played a important part in the diet, but only recently have I noticed how big a part in terms of volume, variety and flavor. Your average Tolai eats a lot of greens. And not just just big bunches of leaves, but a huge variety. Again, it was something I knew intellectually, but after living for decades in Australia and becoming re-accustomed to the focus on just a few species in our supermarkets and fruiterers, I had forgotten how rich and diverse the Tolais’ diet is.

Tolais must regularly eat 100 or more varieties of greens, some of which they grow in gardens and some of which grow wild to be harvested when they see it. The most prized of the greens seems to be the leaves of the aibika, a stalky plant with a spinach-like taste and consistency.

If you’re traveling from Rabaul to Port Moresby and want to guarantee your welcome there, you visit the market on the way to the airport and for about K2 (80¢) buy two big bunches of aibika, enough to feed six or seven people. Yum, yum! (You’ll also be asked for betelnut, buai, but that’s anther story!)

I’ve seen four (or is it more?) kinds of leaves going into the mix tonight. Aibika is there, also pumpkin and/or choko tips, two more kinds of leaves I don’t recognize and perhaps two or three more (or they might be more or less mature leaves of the same). Whatever, cooked with coconut and with the salted (but not salt) tuna added (it might work out wt 20 gms per person), it will be delicious and very nourishing.

After dinner, I’ll have a cup of tea while we sit around talking for a bit, then I’ll retire to bed to repair the stress of the day with some well-earned shut eye.

Ah! There’s the call for dinner now. ###


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.

The opinions and comments in this article are his own.