Saturday, August 25, 2007

PNG dreaming

As you probably know, Sarah is working in Port Moresby until December. I was drawn up to Papua New Guinea recently for a week, powerless to resist her magnetic charms.

You don't hear much about PNG in Australia other than violent raskols, angry politicians and the occasional highlands war. Port Moresby is rated as the tenth most dangerous city in the world for expats, with violence and car jackings common. It is not a place that leaps to mind when thinking of relaxing holiday destinations, a feeling which is reinforced when you get a security briefing after a long day of travel. It doesn't inspire confidence to hear about the danger, to be supplied with a list of all the recent major incidents, told to never walk around at night or visit certain areas of town. If someone jumps out in front of your car holding a gun, stopping is optional. Then you get your own personal security radio, unique call sign, and have to go out the back of the building to test it by calling back to base with a pre-written script (which I managed to stuff-up by forgetting my call sign). All of this adds to the ambience of the city, giving a cheap thrill, especially with the knowledge that you're only visiting. I imagine for those living in Port Moresby the thrill wears off fast.

A short chauffeur-driven air-conditioned trip later and we arrive at one of the razor wire tipped Australian compounds, graced with high walls and replete with security guards who forlornly patrol the interior perimeter on a regular basis. It was a steamy night (they all are) and my body, finely tuned to the Canberra winter, was still pumping out enough heat to power a small city. I began sweating, but at least I had managed to drag Sarah away from work, and the caring clutches of security, and into my arms again. I would recommend spending a month away from your other half if only for the joy a reunion brings. It is the sudden satisfying of many longing hours.

It is a difficult to move to another country and start a new work role, as Sarah has done, especially in a place as claustrophobic as Port Moresby. This pain is lessened by having a Haus Meri, the local term for a maid, who was foist upon Sarah and her housemate by the previous occupiers of the apartment they are temporarily looking after. So despite Sarah's protestations, a local lady named Rose makes her bed, irons her clothes and tidies up. She sometimes cooks meals as well, a tasty example of which Sarah and I ate that night, a sweet potato, banana and lemon grass curry, washed down with Aussie white wine.

The apartment Sarah is staying in has views of the port and a nice balcony for eating breakfast on. It has plenty of space downstairs, bedrooms upstairs, and is a very liveable place. All of the apartments in the compound are perched on a steep hill which tumbles down towards the sea. We slept with the creaking ceiling fan slowly spinning above us all night.

This was not to be a holiday of sleeping in. I had risen at what, for me, was an early hour in order to fly to PNG, but now we had to get up even earlier to catch the plane to Kokopo, a beach resort town on the large island of New Britain, just off the east coast of PNG. Kokopo is famous for being near Rabaul, a town which was almost completely destroyed in 1994 from the simultaneous eruptions of Vulcan and Tavurvur volcanoes. The ash from these eruptions slowly piled up over the town, then hardened after the effects of rain and sun, causing a massive weight which collapsed the mostly abandoned buildings. Most businesses have since moved to the nearby Kokopo, but people still live in Rabaul, the market is still running, and people are waiting for the next big one. It is a strange place to locate a town, nestled among six sleeping giants which could spew hot ash and lava at them at any moment (the last small eruption was in October 2006), but the locals have a healthy respect for the volcanoes, and seem to be proud of them.

We stayed in a beautiful beachfront bungalow which overlooked a lush strip of flowery jungle and a black sand beach. It was a beautifully peaceful spot, and our first day there was perfect - a quick swim followed by lunch, then a nap, a quick walk, dinner, then blissful sleep, in spite of the frog bleating just outside.

The next day we took a half-day tour to Rabaul, guided by Willie, a local guy who went to school in Lismore and spoke with a rasping Australian accent. He had a nasty boil on his cheek which was accentuated by the bright yellow poultice which had been spread on it. Willie was a solidly built guy with a happy confidence. He first showed us tunnels carved into the cliffs next to the sea, built by the Japanese during World War Two for hiding barges from enemy planes. They are huge tunnels, about twice my height, which POWs had to drag the barges into every time the air-raid siren went off. Six barges remain rusting in one of the tunnels, the Japanese insignia still visible on the brown metal. Seeing these tunnels gives just a glimpse of the scale of the operation during WWII. It is quite bizarre to see the evidence of all that effort and pointless waste just rotting away. Seeing the relics of WWII on location somehow accentuates the realities of war more than a museum does. You can hear the echoes of the fighting, weariness and pain. It is such a contrast to have this history slashed into a landscape so warm and friendly.

The violent history of Rabaul is not all man-made. Nature has played its part. Driving through Rabaul seemed normal enough until Willie explained that this empty grassland on the other side of town used to be the main street, and that ash-covered piece of land was once Chinatown. The rubble is under there somewhere still, along with the sealed road, but it has been covered in a dark ash and a flourishing flora, which has wiped parts of the town off the face of the earth, so that now it looks like it never existed. The volcanoes are constantly changing the landscape. What used to be an island became attached to the mainland by land rising from the sea. What used to be an island was blown in half, leaving 500 people homeless. Land here is not the solid thing it appears in other places. Those underground forces which everyone is intellectually aware of are much closer to the surface here, and the powers beneath us are on display. The shoreline near the Tavurvur volcano is covered in black pumice stone, rust-coloured where it touches the water. The sea is a milky blue colour, and steams with the heat. Near the shore the water is filled with bubbles from underwater vents and is hot to the touch. Tavurvur makes a loud hissing sound like a jet engine, and a huge steam cloud rises from its recently renovated crater.

The caretaker of the tribal land told us about the most recent eruption. He noticed that the steam coming from the volcano was a funny colour so he decided to keep an eye on it. Black stuff started oozing out down the side of it, the wind blowing steam off the magma as it headed for the sea, which sizzled when they came in contact. It was only when the rocks started falling out of the sky (one slightly bigger than me) that he decided walking back to his village would be a good idea. If the day we saw him was an indication, he would have been wearing thongs that time as well.

4:30 in the morning is a time when I'm usually twitching in my sleep, dreaming of strange things. On my fourth day in PNG Sarah and I were awake, dressing, then heading to the airport at that ungodly hour. The blame for this absurdly early start lies with Air Nuigini, the monopoly airline in PNG. Apparently they regularly cancel flights and overbook them, meaning that if you have to be somewhere on a certain day, which we did, you are wise to get the earliest flight in case others are cancelled, and you are wise to check-in as early as possible to avoid disappointment. So we were up before the sun in the warm pre-dawn air with other Air Nuigini-weary travellers and staff, driving through the lush landscape. We arrived at new Rabaul airport (the old one was buried under ash) in plenty of time, then lined up as the one member of staff received passengers. The luggage carousel creaking into action, the signal for the next passenger to move forward, was heard infrequently. We were kept company by the midges, hordes more of which waited for us in the departure lounge. The only way to avoid being covered in them was to stand under the ceiling fans which created a force-field of air turbulence that the midges seemed unable to break through. The volcano was still puffing away in the dawn light as we slumped in our seats for the journey back to Port Moresby.

The reason we had to back to the capital by Saturday was that we were flying into the highlands on Sunday for the Mount Hagen show, a display of tribal splendour, colourful face paint, headdresses, dancing and sing-sing. As expected, we left for the airport before the sun had woken, this time heading for a chartered flight organised by Sarah's work. Flying into the highlands is an experience in itself. Mount Hagen is a town in the Wahgi valley, surrounded by mountains nearly twice the height of Kosciusko, Australia's highest peak. Flying into the valley the plane tilts from side by side, navigating a path through the peaks, winding its way like a river to the massive valley below. This valley went undiscovered by western society until the 1930s when prospectors stumbled across it in their search for gold. The documentary, First Contact, shows footage of this moment, the only time a meeting of such different culture has been captured on film. The highlanders thought that these white people, the first they had ever seen, were the ghosts of their ancestors returned from the land of the dead. Mount Hagen is known as the wild west of PNG, a frontier town to the wild highlands beyond, where wars are not uncommon.

The Mount Hagen show features tribal groups from all over the highlands who decorate themselves with clay paints, elaborate head wear, and arse-grass which, as the name suggests, is an assemblage of native flora gathered behind the bottom. You can wander among the various groups as they get ready. Having their photos taken seems to have become part of the ritual - they don't have much choice really. The number of zoom lenses rivalled a red-carpet opening. The colours on the faces are amazing, rich reds and yellows and blues, with headdresses made from masses of feathers. Contrasted with these bright tribal groups are figures clad only in white clay, or painted as skeletons, or wearing beige clay-fired heads.

When the show starts the groups parade around the local rugby league field, which is open on three sides to grass banks, while the western guests make up the majority of the audience in temporary stands on the fourth side. Various groups sing, chant, re-enact war scenes or hunting tree kangaroos. It's an amazing experience which I don't think can be captured other than by seeing this orgy of colour and sound in the flesh. The only strange note for me was that the small crowd was almost entirely made up of westerners, which gave the show a colonial feel of inspecting the natives, rather than the true cultural exchange it must once have been. I like to imagine the show taking place back when the valley was still cut off from the rest of the world, when people travelled for days to get there, and colour meant more than a good photo, more than something we are bombarded with everyday, but was a shock to the senses amongst the green hills and blue sky.

Back in Port Moresby the sky was filled with the smoke from hundreds of piles of rubbish being burned. The streets thronged with locals in discarded western clothes as street hawkers struggled to make a living selling food to people as poor as themselves. The air-conditioned car droned along, avoiding pot holes and dented taxis, ferrying me through the detritus to my flight home. It was 5am.