Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Georgia On My Mind

There always seems to be a point in our transition to a new country where I turn to Steph (or he turns to me) and we say “[Insert name of new country/city], did you ever think we would be living in [Repeat name of country/city]?”   And the answer is always, “Nope--wasn’t even on my radar screen.”  Of course, several of our moves made some sequential sense…going from Mexico, to Peru, to Costa Rica had a certain logical progression and, of course, a common language thread. 
Only a few people looked askance at us when we announced those moves. However, the next round of relocations gave folks some pause…our Egypt/Afghanistan leap of faith had people questioning our sanity and the move to Papua New Guinea confounded many more, if only because they had to admit that they had no idea where it was and, once they Googled it, had only scary information to go on.   The bottom line in the world of international development work is that you go where the jobs are -- that can make sense or not, but you really cannot plot a career path in the same way that other professions are able to achieve.  Not a complaint, mind you, but an observation that if I had been asked 30 years ago when we got married where I thought we would be living at this point in our lives, the Republic of Georgia could not have been further from my mind.
Yet, here we are and I have to say that on many levels, I feel like we won the lottery.  This is particularly true when you look at the countries/locations available for international development jobs and Peace Corps in particular.  We are never going to be located in London, Paris, or Rome, but Tbilisi is getting closer (certainly within striking distance), and it has a history and cultural identity that parallels and intersects that of Europe, the Middle East and Asia.  So, I am thrilled with living in Georgia, and in no particular order, here are three initial reasons why:

Georgia is Beautiful
  We arrived in Tbilisi mid-November and, while we were told this was not the best time of year to come, there must have been an unusual stretch of great weather---sunny, relatively warm—perfect for walking around the neighborhood and beyond.    Many of the streets of Tbilisi are wide and tree-lined with outdoor produce and flower vendors galore.  

There are old churches, parks and monuments throughout the city, as well as museums and the newly renovated opera house, which just reopened last week.  Outside of Tbilisi, the farms and open spaces right now are a bit brown and dull looking, but will undoubtedly turn green and lush in the spring.  And the mountains---they are something spectacular in winter—and only a couple of hours away from our apartment.  There is still much for us to explore, including the coast along the Black Sea, but what we have seen so far is stunning.

  Georgia is Inexpensive
It is entirely possible that my perspective on this issue is forever skewed by my having lived in Port Moresby, which was absurdly expensive, but the cost of almost everything here is extremely low by almost any standard.  The Georgian lari (or GEL as it is abbreviated and often called by some expats) currently is floating around 2.47 GEL to 1 USD, which in itself is pretty good.  You and two friends can go out to eat at a great restaurant, have appetizers and entrees with Georgian wine and beer, throw in a dessert if you still have room and pay less than $50…total…and tips are not expected.  Our most recent “big” grocery shopping trip netted a total bill of $74.30.  For me, however, the real kicker was going skiing in Guduari, a resort two hours north of Tbilisi.  All-day lift tickets and full rental equipment for four adult cost about $100—yes, that’s $25 apiece—for skiing in the Caucasus Mountains.  Did I mention that there were almost no lift lines? 
Georgia Has Great Food and Wine
 Just before we came to Tbilisi, we attended a party with a number of Peace Corps staff members who had traveled and/or lived in Georgia.  They were excited for us about our posting and one of them said to me “You’re going to gain 10 pounds living there.”  Truer words were never spoken…well, I’m not quite there yet, but the risk of my developing Type 2 diabetes is certainly on the horizon.  The Georgian cuisine is magnificent, but loaded with bread, cheese, butter, and the ubiquitous Georgian wine.  I will not go into full detail now, as Georgian food and hospitality deserves a blog entry or two on its own, but suffice it to say that I have become addicted to the meat filled dumplings (khinkali) and the cheesiest bread on earth (khachapuri).  And the fact that I can bring my own empty plastic liter bottle to a shop two blocks down the street to have it filled with a decent, drinkable Saparavi wine for 8 lari (about $3.50) is nothing short of dangerous. I have finally conceded that my waistline and chin have expanded beyond reasonable expectations given age, height, gender and genetic predisposition, and have started a more concerted exercise regime.  But I fear this is going to be a battle I will have to wage with constant vigilance as I don’t think the novelty of this delicious food will wear off any time soon. 

 So, if you are looking for a land of hospitality, history, beauty and adventure to visit where your hard earned cash will go far, look no further.   A plate of khinkali and bottle of Saparavi await you --if I don’t get to them first!

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Blog Awakens

Cluttered desk=cluttered mind?
I have to admit, I’m feeling a little bit like George R.R. Martin …you start writing, you publish a few stories, people like them and start anticipating the next installment and then…nothing…for years.  Ok, so I am sure that my blog is nowhere near as entertaining, racy or profitable as the Game of Thrones franchise, but I have had a few of my close friends and family tell me that they enjoyed reading about my expat adventures and encouraged me to get back to it.  As I have found, however, it is not quite that simple.  To write well, I think, you need both time and a good story…and I sort of lost both of those a few years ago.  Free time escaped when I returned to working full time and the story….well, I have always followed the conventional wisdom that “if you don’t have anything good to say, keep your gob shut.”  That is not to say that there weren’t good things happening in Papua New Guinea, it is just that much of my daily work life was less than note-worthy.  In addition, some of the negative stuff was starting to overpower the positive and I had no desire to add any bad juju to my somewhat fragile chi. 

 Now, however, I find myself once again with days to fill, a new part of the world to explore, and a renewed energy to put thoughts into words.   So without further adieu, let me say “gamarjoba” from our new home in Georgia!  When explaining where we were heading, especially to folks in the US, I would usually add “Tbilisi, you know…in the Republic of Georgia…you know, former Soviet Republic.”   It’s surprising to me how long it took some to realize that we would not be anywhere near Atlanta. 
 For those of you without a map in front of you, Georgia sits snuggly along the Caucasus mountain range just south of Russia, with its western border on the Black Sea and shared borders with Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan.   Historically, Georgians can trace their roots back to the 4th century BCE and the country has been influenced by Persians, Arabs, Mongols and Russians, many of whom at one time or another claimed the region, and the capital city Tbilisi as their own.  The current city reflects both the ancient influences as well as more recent Soviet era, particularly in the architecture, the juxtaposition of which makes for extremely interesting sightseeing.  However, there is no doubt that Georgia is not Russia, nor any other nation, once you start to dig in to the history, the culture and the people. 

Wine seems to grow on trees!

And dig in we have…already we have gotten a taste not only of many of the Georgian sites (more on each later) but also the amazing food and wine.  Georgians are inordinately proud of both their cuisine and their wines, boasting of being the “cradle of winemaking” with evidence of the world’s oldest viniculture.  They have every right to brag…the food is marvelous (particularly khinkhali and khachapuri) and the wines are varied and plentiful.  This is a spot where I will clearly need to make an extra effort to stay in my current clothing size.  Luckily, there appears to be no end to the walk-able spots of interest, so hopefully I can keep the scales from tipping further in the wrong direction.

Can you gain weight simply by inhaling khinkali and khachapuri?

I am looking forward to learning more about this historically rich, culturally fascinating country and to share in this blog what I find.  I can already see that I have ample material to devote separate blog entries to food and wine, and to better describe “taking the waters” at Borjomi, tackling the ski slopes in Gudauri, the crazy tour guide in Mtskheta, riding on marshrutkas, the Stalin museum (yes, “Uncle Joe” was born in Gori, Georgia)….and we have only been here since mid-November!  So unlike George RR Martin, whose Wall-like writer’s block is keeping readers on tenterhooks for publication of The Winds of Winter, I promise not to keep you waiting so long for the next installment.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Do What You Love; Love What You Do

I'm not afraid, I know what he likes!
For those of you at home, you may have noticed a drop in frequency in my blog postings, but a substantial uptick in my Facebook activities, including some prominently displayed age-enhanced photos of me during our run of Young Frankenstein.  I have been extremely lucky in having found, and in being embraced by, the Moresby Arts Theatre community.  Since my arrival here in Papua New Guinea (six months ago, really?!?), I have already been on stage in two major productions.  While I realize that this is part of a “big fish, small pond” syndrome, I am still left to wonder at my good luck in being able to stay active in a pastime that has always been my passion.  As an added bonus, I have met and become good friends with many of the cast, crew, and production staff of the MAT…and, from my experience, theatre people are some of the most creative, funny, entertaining and inspiring people you will ever have the pleasure of associating with, so I am doubly lucky.
At the same time that I have found a worthwhile and engaging extracurricular activity to keep me busy and somewhat out of trouble, I have also been offered a full time job.  Having just celebrated a “not-quite-old-enough-for-retirement-but-just-old enough-to-to-start-scouting-for-retirement-spots” birthday, I realized that this life of leisure I have been enjoying lately is not going to help us buy a villa in Tuscany or a bed and breakfast in southern Spain.  I had originally thought that I would easily find a job at one of the local international schools, but for reasons unbeknownst to me, neither institution seems to be interested in or able to hire me.  Then, out of left field, one of my theatre buddies asked if I would consider applying for a position with his organization in a job that, while neither educational nor legal in nature (my two academic and experiential areas of expertise)  would draw on skill sets from both.  So I thought what the heck…I’ll go in for the interview and see what gives.  And I got the job, go figure.

My soon-to-be employer (left, not right)
 Not to undersell my qualifications and ability to do the work, nor my willingness to enter into a new line of employment (I am excited about starting a new job), but in the grand scheme of things, this is not where I would have seen myself when thinking about my new life in PNG.  However, there were many things we did not expect from PNG, not the least of which is the cultural chasm of workplace expectations between most expat employers and many PNG workers.  Put any two expat employers together and invariably, the topic of local staffing issues arises with a cacophony of similar concerns—chronic tardiness and absenteeism, failure to understand or follow basic directions, low English language competency, lack of task completion, little initiative or creative input, mismanagement of company assets.  They trade stories of new hires who work well for a few weeks and then unexpectedly and inexplicable “go walkabout” to use the vernacular or those who accept the job and then without a word, don’t show up.  There’s the one about the employee who used her cash advance for personal debts rather than business travel or who spent his fortnightly salary on payday and wants a loan to tide him over until the next pay cycle.  And the complaints go on and on.  The concept of a work ethic, while by no means universally ascribed to even in places like the United States or Australia, seems to be a completely foreign notion here in PNG. 


Ultimately, when the one-upmanship of whose workers have done the craziest thing subsides, the expat response seems to be, well, what can you do about it?--it’s just PNG.   But that isn’t fair to PNG, to its workers or, quite frankly, to the companies that have come to PNG and have an opportunity (dare I say obligation?) to understand why this disconnect between employer expectations and employee deliverables exists and to try to find a better solution than shrugging shoulders and washing their hands of it.  I’m not saying I have answers, because some of the problems are fairly deep rooted in cultural differences and will require some creative strategies to resolve effectively, but recognizing these inherent differences is at least a first step.

 In the US, we tend to define ourselves by our work, which makes “what we do” very important in our lives.  Striving to land a good job is what we spend a great deal of our formative years doing…high school, university, perhaps grad school, internships all designed to put us on the ladder of success.  And once there, we pay a great deal of attention to the details of work…arriving on time, staying late, doing extra, and pleasing the boss.  It is part of the “Puritan Work Ethic”, that tells us in no uncertain terms that if we work hard we will be successful, and if we are successful, it is a sign that God loves us best of all (ok, that is a gross oversimplification of the first several weeks of my US history class, but you get the point). 

 While not everyone in the United States wants to be a doctor or lawyer, there is a communal sense that the occupation you have and the way you do your job is somehow part and parcel of your self-worth.  So now, turn that idea on its head and look at a world, oh, say like PNG, where your importance and self worth are not inextricably caught up in your job, but instead in your family and your community or “wantok”.   For those of you not familiar with the term, a wantok (“one talk”) is the concept of your clan or kinsmen—quite literally those who speak your language, although it is broader than that.   The system is a truly communal world where wealth is shared, not necessarily equally, among all members of a given wantok and in return each member can expect to be taken care of regardless of their employment status or how much you contributed.  Your loyalty is to your wantok and theirs to you. 


So what does the wantok system mean for a PNG employee of an expat employer?  Well, first of all, your motivation to work and to do a good job does not necessarily mimic that of an expat.  The PNG employee certainly is working to earn money, but for the most part, all your money will go back to your wantok and that does not always mean that you personally will get more.  Why would you work harder or longer to get no particular personal benefit?  Your wantok does not care what your job title is or whether you got a promotion—that does not change your place in the pecking order of your community.  If you lose your job, well, that is too bad, but you will still be taken care of by your wantok, whose pool of resources will still sustain the community.  And if your wantok needs you, perhaps to take care of a sick relative or to attend a funeral, then you stay home from work and do just that.   Your self-worth has little if anything to do with being an administrative assistant or staff accountant…and everything to do with fulfilling your role within your wantok.  Let your employer down and you might have to find a new job; let your wantok down and the consequences are much more dire.
So it is no wonder that expat employers are pulling out their Puritan hair struggling to find a way to motivate their PNG workers.  Traditional carrots and sticks have little impact when placed against the strength and influence of the wantok.  Add on top of that a weak educational system which does not adequately prepare most young PNG workers for the demands of the expat business world, and you have a recipe for perhaps not total failure, but certainly frustration from both ends—employer and employee. Both sides are conflicted—the expats genuinely want to mentor the PNG workers and have them succeed but cannot tolerate their work habits.  The PNG employee wants to learn how to work within the expat model, but cannot put work above the demands of the wantok. Both leave at the end of the day frustrated and confused as to why things are not running smoothly.

It was in the middle of one of these discussions at dinner last week that I was reminded that really, we may not be so different after all.  We all spend our time and our best efforts doing those things that are important to us, those things we love and care about.  It just so happens, that those things are not always the same to each person or each culture. In the US, we care a lot about our careers and how we are perceived in society as a function of our job choice and performance.   In the case of PNG, one could argue that their loyalties and dedication are exactly where they should be, with family and friends and neighbors.  A job is just a job, but family is forever.  I am about to start a job that I know I will make every effort to excel in, and I hope I will enjoy…but I do not want it to define me or to take me away from those things that are important to me.  The real trick for all of us is  to find a way to find balance in our jobs, to stay attentive to our families, and hopefully to find some passion for what we do…something, that, by the way, many overworked, overstressed workers in the United States have been trying to achieve for some time now.  Perhaps there is some valuable cultural exchange to be had here?



Monday, September 23, 2013

The Price of Independence

Now that our successful run of Twelfth Night is over, I have some breathing room to put together some of my observations on the recent Independence Day celebrations here in Papua New Guinea.  September 16, 1975 marked the day PNG became a separate nation, severing its governmental ties to Australia (but not to the British Commonwealth of which it is still a member).  As in many parts of the world, to mark the day there were lots of flags being sold on every street corner and market—not only the black red and gold national flag, but multi-colored flags from all 22 of the PNG provinces (or for those of you who are persnickety: 20 provinces, one autonomous district and the national capital district).  Not unlike  Fourth of July celebrations in the US, throughout the country there were ceremonies with long-winded speeches from various heads of state and government officials, displays of national dances and songs, a vast array of traditional foods served up (including some delicious sweet potatoes and fried red bananas,) a lot of drunk folks whooping it up over the course of the long weekend, and even a smattering of fireworks.  Yet, for all the similarities, I am struck by the vast differences between life in post-colonial PNG and that of more successful former colonies, and am left wondering if independence is always what it is cracked up to be.

The early colonial history of Papua New Guinea reads like most countries subjected to Western Imperialism, with a couple of important differences.  The first European inroads to the island were made by the Dutch East Indies Company as they were establishing their Indonesian presence in the late 1600’s.  But claiming something does not always mean doing anything with it and, unlike other conquests made by the Dutch, there was no obvious value to the land (its mineral and natural gas resources were not yet discovered) so it was left more or less alone until sometime in the late 1700’s when the British made a half-hearted play for it.  The Brits ultimately agreed to share the island with the Dutch but also did little with their claim until the Germans showed up and made a play for the northern part of the island.  Wanting to buffer Australia from potential German influence, the Brits agreed to divide the island yet again, leaving the east to the Dutch, the Germans in the north and keeping the south-west for themselves.  In the early 1900’s, administration of the British interest was inherited by the Australians, whose own history of independence from Britain is even more complicated than that of PNG!   
Port Moresby circa 1900
There were several aspects of PNG that made colonization slow in coming, at least until after WWII.  The country that the European explorers found held wild, difficult terrain populated by isolated tribes of subsistence farmers who spoke over 800 different languages, fought viciously among themselves, and sometimes engaged in head-hunting, cannibalism and slave trade.  This was not a country with a complex civilization that had developed written language or sophisticated gold and silver ornamentation like the Aztecs or Incas.  It did not have a readily accessible or easily captured population which could be pressed into slave labor like the Mandé or BaKango tribes.  Nor did it have the exotic spices like the Mughal Empire.  What it did have was a strategic location, which was critical during WWII, and a wealth of mineral and natural gas resources which were not fully exploited until the post-war era.
Early mining operations in PNG
I won’t recount the role of PNG in WWII, as I have given much of that history in previous blog entries.   However, given its integral role in the war in the South Pacific, and, the greater need in its aftermath for mineral and energy resources which were discovered in abundance on the island, the expat population (mostly Australians) boomed, increasing from about 6,000 to 50,000 by the early 1970’s.  But maybe because the lure of PNG is in the extractive industries, which is inherently a take-and-use sort of business, many of the expats who came really didn’t intend to settle permanently and create new lives in PNG.  They came, they saw, they conquered, then, for the most part, went home.  Even today, you find that there are many expats who live and work here alone while their families continue to live in the comfort and safety of Australia or other more developed nations.  Even those who do come with spouses and children seem reluctant to move their household effects here, as PNG is viewed as a temporary gig.  There seems to have been limited long-term investment in improving conditions in country, except for what was necessary and convenient for business, and limited support for integrating the local population into aspects of business, society and culture that would allow them to operate the economic and governance machine independently.

When independence came to PNG in 1975, it wasn’t generated by any burning patriotic flame on the part of the Papua New Guineans.  There was no rioting demanding the severing of ties to Australia, no civil unrest, no protests.  Unlike many countries that were kicking and screaming (or at least throwing a good hunger strike or two) for freedom from their Western captors, PNG was seemingly happy and content to carry on and stay calm.  The country really wasn’t prepared to set up its own government; in fact, one thing they had to do first was to identify potential political leaders and send them to school to learn about parliamentary and political procedures.  Yet, by the mid-1960’s and early 1970’s, prompted by the wave of independence movements in Africa, the idea of continued colonial presence anywhere in the world became distinctly un-PC, and, with a little nudging by the United Nations, Australia began to prepare for a governmental and economic hand-off to PNG.  But, once the keys to the kingdom were passed on to the locals, many of the expats washed their hands of PNG and over the next few years, approximately 30,000 of them went home. 

PNG Parliament in session
So where does that leave PNG?  Well, the government has a unicameral parliament with executive power in the hands of a Prime Minister, but the members of parliament come from such divergent areas of the country , speaking any one of the over 800 languages that the running of the government is chaotic at best. For example, in 2011, two different candidates both claimed to have won the race for Prime Minister.  While the country was initially categorized by the UN as a developing country, its status was downgraded in 2006 to Least Developed Country (LDC) as a result of rampant corruption, abuses by police and security forces and continuing violence against women.  In fact, conditions are considered so bad in PNG that the new Australian PM has come up with an unusual immigration policy.  In order to dissuade Iranian and Afghan refugees from seeking asylum in Australia he is sending them to PNG instead. The idea is that the middle-men in Indonesia and Sri Lanka cannot promise the refugees a better life and they may have to reconsider their options. 
Above the door of Parliament building in Port Moresby
Even in a country that should be thriving as a result of income generated by mining and liquefied natural gas (LNG), over a third of the population is living on less than $1.25 per day, and this is no cheap place to live.  It does not appear that the problem is a lack of good jobs, so much as there has been little training of the local population on how to get and/or hold on to those jobs.  One of the biggest issues for businesses here is that the work force is has not had a strong educational system to support them, nor has there been ingrained the type of work ethic that supports the economic powerhouses of the world.  With high illiteracy, often weak command of the English language, and lack of familiarity with western business practices and norms, it is hard to see how gaining independence has moved the country forward.
Low tide in Port Moresby
Don’t get me wrong.  I am not advocating a return to Australian or any other country as overlords here.  This is a proud country with a strong and vibrant culture as well as a population that is fully capable of running its own affairs.  What it does need, however, is more help in strengthening its institutions, starting with education both for its children, and for adults who are looking to improve their job skills.  And, to be fair one of the important players in this arena will continue to be the Australians and, perhaps the US if we ever really make the Pacific Islands a focus in our “pivot to Asia” strategy.  But it isn’t about doing it for them…it is teaching them how to do it themselves.   
In a way, I am reminded of my own baby steps towards independence here in PNG.   We recently purchased a car here, but I have been reluctant to drive it for a number of reasons.  PNG is a left-hand drive country (steering wheel is on the right side of the car), which still has me walking to the wrong side of any vehicle I attempt to enter and not entirely secure in which lane I should turn into.  The car we purchased is also a manual drive, which means I have to use my left hand to shift gears.  Add to that the repeated frightening reports of violent carjacking across the city, with solo women drivers a popular target.  Besides,  I have a number of people who have been seemingly happy to shuttle me around, so why drive when someone else will do it for me?  It is certainly safer and easier for me, but then, I cannot make my own decisions on what to do or how to get to where I want to go.  At least PNG, as an independent nation, can make its own decisions on where it wants to go…but like me, may still need some lessons and support in getting there safely and effectively. 



Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Play’s The Thing

There's still time to book a flight, buy a ticket and come see the show!
If there is one thing that any expat can do to make the transition to living in a new country easier and more rewarding, it is to find some group, organization, club or activity and get involved as fast as possible.  From my experience, the quicker you can find something productive to do, the less likely you are to feel homesick and the more likely you will develop a whole raft of new friends.  All the better if you can find something that you are good at, or at least familiar with, so that you have the added sense of confidence in your value-added proposition.  Here in Papua New Guinea I have managed to hit my own personal trifecta of extracurricular activities in the form of theatre, choir and tennis.

For the oldest and dearest of my family and friends, my involvement in this combination of activities will come as no surprise.  These were the three pillars that kept me grounded, busy and out of trouble throughout my high school years.  People comment on how amazing it is that kids these days can multitask so well (a debatable proposition, which perhaps I will take up in another blog posting), but I would argue that my ability back then to learn lines of Shakespeare while simultaneously perfecting my serve and humming the alto part of Handel’s Messiah equaled or surpassed any of the skills of today’s computer dependant teens.  And, like riding a bike, because I learned these things in my youth, the skill sets are deeply and fundamentally ingrained--with just a little practice, they all come back fairly quickly, albeit somewhat less fluidly.

The Old Globe Theater (Homer High School style)
Of course, it also helped that I learned at the knee of three of the most enthusiastic, patient and masterful teachers—William S. Whiting, Donald Berg and my father, Barney Williams.  I could wax poetically about all three of these men ad nauseum, but I will give you the crystallized lessons I took away with me.  William “Shakespeare” Whiting instilled in me a true love and understanding of the Bard and his works, as well as a sense that in directing a play, especially with students, minimal guidance can produce miraculous results.  It’s not about how well they did, but how well they think they did.  From Don Berg, I discovered (not that I realized it at the time) that there is no such thing as setting the bar too high, and that if you don’t tell your students that it is difficult, they will think that singing Handel, Hayden, Mozart, gospel spirituals and four part a cappella 18th century chamber music is what every kid knows how to do.  And from my father, I learned that practice alone does not make perfect, but  positive attitude, graciousness in the face of loss and disappointment, and the ability to laugh at your own mistakes makes for a true champion.   Oh yeah, and never, ever, ever throw your tennis racket in anger.

Back in the days before we had separate boys' and girls' teams!

These life lessons, along with the underlying skills they taught me, have all been put to the test here in my first few months in PNG.  When I arrived in Port Moresby in May, I was absolutely thrilled to discover the existence of the Moresby Arts Theatre (MAT) and then to find out that the next show was to be Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.  In an odd sort of déjà vu, the MAT is very similar to the Little Theatre Group of Costa Rica (LTG) in that it is run primarily by volunteer expats who do everything from acting and directing to publicity and cleaning the theatre (spelled both here and there with the British conventions).  As I did for the LTG, I will be on stage next week in Twelfth Night.  I have also begun singing with the Moresby Choral Society--still an alto and still taking on the challenging works of Handel and Mozart, as well as a few gospel spirituals that I sang so many years ago.  And most recently, I joined a group of women who are solid tennis players with whom I was able to hold my own.  So I am in the enviable position of being busy, active and happy, with the added bonus of establishing friendships that I am confident will be as strong as those I have made in so many other parts of the world.
I wouldn't need the makeup to play the nurse today!
Never in a million years would I have expected that in a place as far-flung as Papua New Guinea I would feel so connected to my origins in Homer, New York but I guess that in this expat living experience, one should learn to expect the unexpected.  And perhaps I am more tuned into my hometown as a result of Facebook, another “must have” weapon in the expat arsenal for fighting isolation and boredom.  I have reconnected with so many of my high school friends and am particularly enjoying keeping in touch with those who still live in or visit the Central New York area.  But even more so, through Facebook and this blog, I am having a great time sharing my new adventures with my old pals.  I only hope that somewhere, Herr Whiting, “Berger Bits” and Dad are all looking down here approvingly knowing that their lessons have not been lost on me, even on the other side of the world.
 All my English teachers would be appalled but it was not my job to edit the poster!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Take the Plunge (but Don’t Lose Sight of Your Lifeline)

The international sign for "Whose Idea Was This"?
 Any of you who catch up with me on Facebook may have seen that my most recent attempt to break out of my comfort zone has been to learn how to scuba dive.  Now, I’m not sure that all of you would agree that diving is an inherently scary activity, as many of my friends have been doing this seamlessly for years, but based on quite few of the comments on my Facebook posting, I can see that I am not alone in my fear of deep, wet, airless spaces.  Many of you chimed in and told me how brave I was to do this, and I appreciate the shout-outs of support.  However, while I am glad that I was able to overcome my nervousness and to, as the Nike ad proclaims, “just do it,” I don’t think I am any braver than many people I know who do all sorts of things that push them out of their routine and into an uncharted and perhaps, uncomfortable ocean. 

 Is my taking up scuba diving really any more of an accomplishment than that of my newest neighbor who, fighting the depression that often comes when leaving home and moving to a new country, forced herself to go to the gym to begin an exercise program after years of inactivity?  Or that of my friend at home who is starting a new master’s program in Folklore and Mythology while continuing her challenging work as a government lawyer?  Or that of a high school friend who finds himself laid off from his job of many years and is going to jump back into the world of job searching and interviews?  Whether by choice or necessity, these folks are also pushing the boundaries of their comfort zones, and I do not doubt that they will all be better people for having done it.
I am choosing my world-expanding activities with a particular goal in mind—to take the most advantage I can of the new environment in which I find myself.  I’d be lying if I said that Papua New Guinea was my first choice of places for us to go this time around.  In fact, I was presented with a rather egregious “bait and switch” scenario when, during the bidding process for this project, the home location for the job shifted from Fiji (“Yes, let’s go!!”) to Port Moresby (“Umm, well, ok, I guess”).  Once it was certain we would be here, I began to look for the silver lining, the lifeline to keep me afloat and challenged for the next few years.  I quite easily found the Moresby Arts Theatre and the Choral Society, but joining those could hardly qualify as broadening my horizons as they are well within my wheelhouse of competencies.  But the very thought of scuba diving made the center of my risk-adverse core begin to shake.  

 So I approached the idea of diving slowly, circling around it carefully, all the while knowing I would talk myself into it eventually.  First, I did some research on the diving opportunities in and around Papua New Guinea.  As it turns out, this area has some of the most spectacular and accessible dive sites in the world.  Not only are there coral reefs that are visible from my apartment balcony (did I mention that I look out over the Coral Sea?), but there are also numerous WWII wrecks, both ships and airplanes, that can be explored on a day trip from Port Moresby.  And unlike the Great Barrier Reef (which is also easy to get to from here), the PNG diving is not overcrowded, so you can really get to see the underwater life without interference from scores of scuba tourists.  Next, I talked to those who have done extensive diving here and heard only of the spectacular sights to be seen and the exhilaration of discovery.  It all sounded fantastic, so I signed up for a Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) Open Water Diver Certification course to get me on the road to oceanic nirvana.
Equipment check--what can go wrong?

If I thought I had lost my nervousness about diving before taking the PADI course, it only took the first day of academic work to put the fear of Neptune right back in me!  I know that the course is designed to prepare you for all the possibilities, however remote, that might befall a person who knowingly and intentionally subjects themselves to aquatic pressurization, but the multiple routes to disaster in diving seemed endless—eardrum ruptures, lung over-expansion, hypothermia, dehydration (seems counter-intuitive, but a real problem) loss of air, loss of equipment, loss of mind (ok, it’s actually nitrogen narcosis, but it makes you feel kinda drunk and stupid), and decompression sickness (“the bends”).   And those are the things that presumably you can control.  There are also the unpredictable…lionfish, jellyfish and all manner of sneaky, stingy camouflaged creatures, as well as your run of the mill killer sharks and manta rays and..well, you get the picture.  I have to admit that it was the fear of the things that I was supposed to be able to control that scared me the most, not the sealife.  What if I panicked and forgot to breathe, or went up too fast or couldn’t find my regulator? I would like to say that I had nothing to fear but fear itself, but the course taught me otherwise.

Which is worse?  Lionfish or sharks?
But now I was invested.  I had purchased a prescription dive mask before arriving in PNG and had spent good money on the PADI certification class.  I had told everyone that I was going to do it.  So, with great trepidation, I went off on the boat and took the plunge.  I nearly broke the wrist of my dive instructor, Thomas, as I held on with a death grip while mentally repeating the mantra “this was a bad idea, this was a bad idea” for the first ten minutes of the dive.  Had I been willing to concede failure, I probably would have gone right back up the safety line and called it a day.  But breath, by deep, slow breath, I managed to calm down and began to look around to see exactly what all the seasoned divers had described…an amazingly beautiful, accessible, untouched world full of color, life and activity.  And isn’t that what I was looking for in my attempt to push my limits—keeping alive and active, both physically and mentally. 

My savior, Thomas, with his good remaining wrist
 I consider myself lucky on many levels because I know that I am able to push myself the way that I do because I have a number of rock solid lifelines, which I know I must always hold close.  My husband, my children, my family, my friends are all willing to support me in my risky (and not so risky) endeavors.  Just yesterday, I learned of the death of my favorite uncle who, along with my father, his brother, provided me with incredible inspiration for how to live a full and active life.  Neither of them could sit still for a minute (both probably would have been diagnosed as ADHD in today’s world) and both refused to stop doing as much as they could for as long as they could.  My father kept active until Parkinson’s disease finally won out, but my Uncle Sager was able to play tennis right up to the end at age 94.  Like they both did, when faced with the Shawshank choice to either “get busy living or get busy dying” I choose to jump right in, but remember at all times where to find my lifeline!
My real lifeline!


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Pikininis and Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels

 It is nearly impossible to come out of an environment so charged with political correctness as Washington, DC and not feel slightly uneasy about the lingua franca of Papua New Guinea—Tok Pisin.  I know I keep referring to this (and forgive me if you are not a theater wonk like me) but if you have ever seen the Broadway musical, South Pacific, you have been exposed to pidgin English—Bloody Mary and her “Happy Talk” is a nod to the bastardized English languages spoken to facilitate trade throughout the islands.  Variations of pidgin are used in PNG, the Solomon Islands, Vanuata, and even northern Australia…and this makes sense as there are 800 languages spoken in PNG alone—you need to have at least one common language to get along, and a variation of English is logical given this area’s colonial past.


But even as Bloody Mary was a source of comic relief in the musical, it is nearly impossible to hear the language, or, better yet, to see it in print, and not smile at the “quaintness” of it.  For example, the Yu No Ken Kam Insait/Yu Ken Stretim Rum Nau sign to hang on the door of our hotel room to alert the housekeeping staff was my first indication that while English is universally understood by Papuans, Tok Pisin is more widely used and preferred by many.  In fact, on many products manufactured and sold here, the instructions on labels and operating manuals are bi-lingual—for example, when you buy additional minutes for your cell phone, you can either “press send and check confirmation on screen” or “presim send na sekim skrin bilong phone lo confemim.”  In fact, the pidgin languages are so widely used that you may need the Lonely Planet guide to help you out!


What has taken me aback in the past few weeks, however, is the common use of certain words or phrases that would be completely out-of the question to use in the United States.  Coming from a culture where use of the “N-word” can get a professor fired or a book banned, where corporate logos are photo-shopped or abandoned (Aunt Jemima no longer looks like a “mammy”) and where team mascots are vilified or boycotted (can we still sing Hail to the Redskins in DC?), it threw me off when I heard someone refer to a couple of local children as “pikininis” without skipping a beat.  Now, if I called a kid a pickaninny on Capitol Hill, I’d most likely get a call from the NAACP…and rightly so.  In the US, that word hasn’t been acceptable usage since the days when Topsy was running around the plantation in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Shirley Temple was condescending to let a little black child come to her birthday party, and Little Rascal Buckwheat was so scared by ghosts that he turned white.  Not so here.  In fact, the word is happily used in advertising all manner of children’s products and services, and even by one  local group providing free books to improve children’s literacy called “Buk Bilong Pikinini.”  And, though not since Prince Harry donned a swastika for Halloween have I taken my social cues from British royalty, even Prince Charles thought it acceptable enough when on a state visit to PNG to refer to himself as “nambawan pikinini blong kwin” (say it out loud and you will know what he said)!


So I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised this week on Remembrance Day (the PNG equivalent to our Memorial Day ),when I attended a wreath laying ceremony honoring the World War II Papuan soldiers known as the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels.  For those of you who have been following my ongoing history lessons here, these native soldiers served as the stretcher bearers who were instrumental in pulling wounded Australians out of the jungle during their battle against the Japanese on the Kokoda Track.  Apparently this was, and still is, viewed by all as an affectionate term, and there is no modern attempt to sugar coat or white wash the moniker.  Admittedly, Australian soldiers called them this because of their frizzy hair and undoubtedly with reference to Rudyard Kipling’s tribute to a group of equally nappy headed 19th century Beja warriors who kicked some colonial butt in the Sudan.  (For real linguistic treat, you can read the poem at  Kipling, of course, was also the originator of the “white man’s burden” so perhaps using one of his catch phrases is not exactly politically correct in any era.  Yet, there is a real debt of gratitude owed to this group of soldiers, so much so that there was another poem written by an Australian soldier to praise their actions.  ( 


Given the full complement of dignitaries present at the Remembrance Day ceremony, including the High Commissioners of Australia and New Zealand, Ambassadors from Spain, Germany, China, Indonesia, Solomon Islands, and the Vatican, I guess that it is entirely PC to refer to these war heroes as Fuzzy Wuzzies.  Perhaps only the Japanese ambassador and I had any hesitation in celebrating these men, though for very different reasons, which we both diplomatically kept to ourselves, so as not to brukim sindaun (break the peace/cause a diplomatic incident).   He stayed characteristically stoic amidst multiple references to “the enemy” while I tried hard to banish the refrain of yet another famous poem about a hairless bear from my mind so as not to giggle every time the soldiers were mentioned.  Not very PC, I know, but I am working on it.