Go pinis*

The final countdown

Nearly three months ago, I began this blog as a way of keeping  in touch with people while I have been away . It was also a bit of a test for me, a way of seeing what it takes to produce a blog.

And now, after over 10,000 words and more than 90 images in 40 posts, it’s over. Well, almost. This is my last night in Haus 41, then tomorrow I am in the hotel. I fly out Friday, just in time for a mad weekend in Canberra.

It’s been an eye-opener. It’s been testing and nervous and exciting and threatening and busy, busy busy. It’s been an adventure, which is all you can hope for. It’s been an education. It’s been professionally rewarding.

I thought I would end with a photo which I think sums up how I feel about the experience.

This photo is called “The Divide”. On the right is Konedobu compound where I have been living. The highest building is the tower I have been living in. Things to note: solar panels on the roof, the large water tank, the bars on the windows, the height of the trees, the smooth, clean, modern buildings.

On the left is the other PNG. Things to note: the simple and small buildings, the tin roof, the bare ground, the wall made of old tyres.

And of course, there is the large, razor-wire fence running down the middle.

What you don’t see in this photo is the culture, the co-operation, the potential or the promise. PNG has all these things. The challenge for Australia is to make sure we don’t  build the fence too high. The challenge for PNG is to make sure we don’t need to.

*This roughly translates as “go finish”. It is what you say when you are leaving for good.

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Fast food

Almost from day one, I have included an examination of food as part of this blog. As someone who normally relies on the fantastic cooking of Kate, it was always going to be a challenge to come up here for three months and survive on my own and in a new food environment. But I think for any expat in just about any location, the relationship to food becomes heightened.

It is not just the longing for “Australian” food, in whatever incarnation that exists, but it is also the local cultural insights that you gain through food. I can’t imagine going to Italy, Greece, Spain or Thailand and not having the local food contribute to your impressions of the place. And my own experience of living in Russia for a year continues to be reinforced to a significant extent by the kinds of foods I was introduced to and enjoyed in Moscow.

Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about Port Moresby. Three months may not be long enough to really engage with the local cuisine, but my experience is that there is no local cuisine. Maybe you could say the same thing about Australia, where the multi-cultural flavours dominate? But here, there is not even a hint of the same kind of localisation and combination of different styles which exist in Australia.

I would speculate that part of the reason is that there are so many different cultural groupings in PNG that it is hard for anything to cut through. Certainly, with many PNG people still living close to a subsistence lifestyle, there is probably not really room for developing a culinary style or theme. They are too busy just surviving, hence the reliance on easy-to-grow crops like root vegetables.

This subsistence lifestyle also impacts heavily on the kinds of foods which have in many respects come to dominate the PNG plate. I took the picture below to help explain. The signage, from the left, promotes the following: PK chewing gum, Heinz, Coca Cola, tinned tuna, and tinned corn beef. All of these products are ubiquitous in PNG, but some more so than others. I have never seen whole supermarket aisles filled with different varieties of tinned fish until I came to Port Moresby. And instant noodles also proliferate. If you didn’t know better, you might think that the whole country runs on tuna and two minute noodles.

It is not just this lack of a national cuisine that surprises me. It is that there is potential which doesn’t look like being tapped any time soon. For example, seafood could be a culinary feature of PNG but generally it is underwhelming. In fact, I have been downright disappointed – I thought that I would be eating heaps of seafood. Certainly, there are bright spots. Local coffee is fantastic, and the coffee industry is working very hard to support small farmers. Generally, though, it has not been much of a food adventure.

Maybe PNG is the same as any other developing country, more intent on survival than food style. Maybe it is the colonisers who are to blame for introducing products like instant noodles and tinned fish, two products which easily survive the local transport, climate and retailing conditions. A tin of fish can sit on a shelf in a highlands roadside stall for a good while before it becomes inedible. Or maybe, I am just an uppity expat who has had to cook his own dinner and is hankering for some home-cooked goodness and a hug.

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Day trip to Daru

Daru Island is off the south west coast of the mainland in Western Province. It is not that far from the border with Papua (Indonesia) but even closer to the border with Australia. This is why the recent outbreak of cholera there has been a bit of worry for the Australian government.

AusAID has been working with the PNG government and The World Health Organisation (WHO), sending in regular plane-loads of supplies for about the last 10 days.

As a doctor explained to me yesterday, cholera is a pretty nasty bacteria. It is not something which just sits in the stomach pressing the “evacuate now” button, which would be bad enough. It actually embeds itself in the lining of the stomach and starts to draw fluids from throughout the body. Basically, the victims die of dehydration.

The up side is that the treatment is pretty simple – rehydrate. Or it would be simple if you lived somewhere with a good water supply, good sanitation, and an understanding of what cholera was all about. Daru had none of this. The supplies from AusAID, WHO and the PNG government have helped – water containers, oral rehydration salts, IV fluid, purification tablets, and chlorine to help with the sewage treatment.

I flew down there yesterday morning to accompany some media. We’ve had AusAID people rotating through there over the last 10 days so I had an idea what it would be like. The good news is that the cholera outbreak seems to be subsiding on Daru Island itself, although the mainland of Western Province, which is very inaccessible, is more of an unknown. About 50km east of Daru is the mouth of the Fly River, which stretches north up towards the highlands, and the refugee camps on the PNG side of the border with Indonesia. It would be a real worry if things got out of control with cholera up that way.

A river on the north of Daru: the sky was a bit grey but as the pilot told me, the weather down here is not as critical for flying as it is in the highlands.

Supplies included water containers, ORS (oral rehydration salts), IV fluid and purification tablets. The locals turned out in force to unload the plane, even offering their sometimes worse-for-wear vehicles as transport.

We visited the hospital and the command centre, then set off for one of the local villages, Giwari. There is a lot of movement between islands and the mainland, as well as throughout the Torres Strait, and the communities on Daru are divided along village and tribal lines from the mainland and beyond. So there is a Giwari village on the mainland, and the people in Giwari settlement on Daru are all connected to that village.

Giwari is one of the worst hit areas for cholera. They’ve had around 1o deaths. Living conditions were pretty grim. They have community taps connected to mains water but water quality is uncertain. They did have pit toilets, but they don’t use them any more. They dump all waste, human and otherwise, into the ocean, which can then wash back into the village. There are no community toilets and there is a lot of stigma around not being seen going to the toilet, especially for the women. So basically, the women try not to drink during the day, so they don’t have to urinate. But when the basic treatment for cholera is to keep drinking, you can imagine how that impacts on the community.

We have set up ORS stations in places like Giwari so there is easy access to the basic treatments. On my flight, we had some little marquees, to give the stations a bit more of a presence. Setting up this one was like entertainment for the villagers. And then there were a few speeches and thankyous – no sing-sing this time! I couldn’t help feeling that apart from medicine and information, we also served to break the monotony – a group of white people with cameras visiting their village was a bit of an event for Giwari.

These boys weren’t quite sure what to make of all the fuss.

This old guy look just as perplexed.

One of the local men, Kevin, has been fantastic in communicating to his people about how to control the spread of cholera. Kevin is not a tribal leader or a community leader – he just basically volunteered to help out because he has kids and grandkids growing up here and he wants to protect them. He has the gift of the gab and was very good at getting the message out about basic things, like washing your hands.

Of course, for some kids no amount of white people could keep them from their games.

And others had work to do. Kevin told me this guy was renowned as an excellent mender of nets.

The people of Giwari were very friendly. They love seeing the photos of themselves. It always causes fits of giggles. I am not quite sure what they thought of me wanting to be in the photo – some odd looks in there – but generally they were pretty happy.

As we waited to board the plane on the way out, a local Obama fan walked past. He told us that PNG needed someone like Obama to save them.

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Why you shouldn’t work on a Saturday

I spent a lot of yesterday following up work on the cholera outbreak in Daru. There was a bit of running around, phone calls and emails to and from Canberra and Daru, and monitoring what was happening in the media.

Working on a Saturday is not ideal. But on my way into town, I didn’t feel so bad after coming across this little scene.

I have no idea how this could have happened. Obviously, the load is higher than the entrance way. And why is he almost parallel to the road? The guys on the left are security guards, as are the guys pointing on the right. One guard, in the background, was even wielding a shotgun.

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No learn driving

I’ve driven past this bus stop every day but only recently noticed what the public notice sign to the left was saying. Here’s a close-up:

This makes a lot of sense. The “oval” you see in the background is a very popular training ground. Almost every evening, when I drive past, there are between 200 and 300 people training and playing games on this oval.

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More roundabout art

The second in my series on roundabout art, this one shows a traditional PNG boat. It is mounted on a pole so in a big enough wind it will slowly spin.

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A fact of life

I’ve been flat out this week, mostly thanks to the cholera outbreak in Daru. But I did learn one interesting fact which gives context to a lot of the work AusAID is trying to do in PNG.

In Central Province, within 200 to 300 kilometers of Port Moresby, more than half the population live at least a days walk away from a road.

Some thoughts:

  • At least a day of walking, but could be more.
  • At least a day of walking just to get to the road, then how long to travel on that road to get to hospitals, banks, or other services?
  • At least a day of walking, when the person could be sick, pregnant, old, young or hungry?

And this is just Central Province. There are plenty of places, like Daru where cholera has hit, which are much more remote. More than 80% of the population of PNG live in rural areas. Is it any wonder delivering services is so difficult?

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