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.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport

It is an axiom of expat life that nothing is the same as the last place you were living.  You spend a great deal of time during your first days in a new country comparing it to all of the other places you have lived.  The flora and fauna, the climate, the view, the housing options, the languages spoken, the traffic, the local produce, the indigenous art are all weighed against those in a prior life.  Sometimes, your new home will come up short as in “the coffee in Papua New Guinea is not nearly as good as the coffee in Costa Rica” or “remember how cheap it was to buy baskets and pottery in Mexico?”  Other times, you find yourself extolling the virtues of the new location as in “can you believe my apartment has a stunning view of the Coral Sea and a squash court?” or “I can buy every kind of Asian and Indian spice known to man in my local grocery store!”  It’s like being in a new relationship-- it takes some time to get to know what makes your new partner tick and it is hard not to weigh their faults and merits against your last one.  An added complication in getting my love affair with Papua New Guinea going is that, in some strange ménage à trois-like sense, I am also in bed with Australia. 

This is a new experience for me, because here in PNG, an English speaking nation, my American accent is the odd voice in the crowd.  More likely than not, if you are speaking the King’s English,  you are probably from Australia.  (This begs the question of whether anyone from either the US or Australia can actually speak the King’s, or the Queen’s English; on this, I defer to Kingsley Amis or my brother-in-law referenced below).   I really shouldn’t be so surprised given the intertwined history of both nations and the fairly recent independence of PNG from Australia, but as a result, I am learning about two countries instead of one.  So, for what it is worth, here are three things that I have learned about both PNG and Australia that have endeared me to both:

 Cuscus is Not a Grain and Some Kangaroos Live in Trees
In our first excursions around Port Moresby, we have been able to see a number of plants, animals and birds that are indigenous to either PNG, Australia or both, several of which I didn’t even know existed.  There are two lovely nature parks here, both of which are extremely well maintained and provide, as best any zoo-like establishment can, a decent living space for their menagerie.   We were able to see cassowaries (the evolutionary result of an ostrich mating with an overstuffed turkey, I suspect) emperor pigeons, hornbills, parrots, and the elusive Birds of Paradise, the image of which is ubiquitously used on everything from the flag and boxes of matches to the local beer.  We also encountered flying foxes, wallabies, and their marsupial cousins, the tree kangaroo, which looks like a cross between a sloth and a koala bear.  These are not to be mistaken, however, for another local possum-like mammal called the cuscus which, in turn, must never be confused with the Mediterranean grain.  Much like the Peruvian cuy, or guinea pig (hmm, a connection there?), the cuscus does double duty as both pet and entrée.  In the house behind my apartment building, a local family is keeping a rather fat cuscus in a cage in a tree…I’m nervously waiting to see which way this one goes.
I Might Have Been Eating Sushi Here If Not For The Australians
In my last blog entry I made reference to the fact that WWII had a major impact on this part of the South Pacific.  What I did not make clear, however, was the pivotal role that the Australians played in making sure that the Japanese did not get a toe hold on New Guinea.  If you know your geography, it makes perfect sense…which of the Allies actually lived in the South Pacific?  PNG is only 90 miles away from the coastline of Australia and, much like the Cold War fears of the United States that the USSR would be able to use Cuba as a launch pad for conquest, the Australians did not want Japan to have a nice R&R stop from which to plan an invasion of Cairns or Darwin or Brisbane.  The Japanese made two attempts to take New Guinea—the first, a maritime effort, was thwarted during the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 4-8, 1942) which was the first naval battle using aircraft carriers that never got close enough to even see each other.  For the first time in the war, the combined naval troops of the United States and Australians forced the Japanese to disengage and damaged Tojo’s aircraft carriers sufficiently to prevent them from having full strength during a more famous engagement—the Battle of Midway. 

But New Guinea was enough of strategic prize that the Japanese decided to try a land-based campaign next, and it was on the Kokoda Track, a 60 mile, jungle infested trail across the Owen Stanley mountain range that the Australians proved themselves to be one mean, lean fighting machine.  For six months (July 21, 1942-Jan 22, 1943) in brutal environmental conditions prescient of those encountered by US troops years later in Vietnam, the Australians stubbornly fought a guerilla war against the Japanese, and, also for the first time in the war, forced the enemy to “advance to the rear”—a Japanese euphemism for “retreat.”  Today, many die-hard trekkers (lots of Aussies, I’ll bet) take the forced march across the Kokoda Track stopping at old bunkers and war memorials just for fun.

Many of the Australians, and a few local New Guineans, who lost their lives in the Kokoda campaign and the Battle of the Coral Sea are buried in the stunningly beautiful Bomana Cemetery just a few miles outside of Port Moresby.  Again, I was both surprised and impressed by design layout and maintenance of this cemetery.  My anglophile brother-in-law, Daniel, (who most definately speaks the King’s English) assures me that this is par for the course for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission whose mandate is establishing, preserving and maintaining some 23,000 World War I and II cemeteries and memorials in 153 countries.  More proof that the sun never sets over the British Empire!
Alice May Not Live Here Anymore, But Alice Springs Sure Does

I will grudgingly admit that my knowledge of Australia has been colored by iconoclastic cultural influences like Crocodile Dundee, The Thorn Birds, all Mad Max movies, Baz Luhrmann’s box office bomb Australia and all of those lovely actors from Down Under—Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Guy Pearce, Eric Bana, Heath Ledger, Chris and Liam Helmsworth, Hugo Weaving, Geffory Rush, Simon Baker, the guy who plays Gollum, and oh, of course, Mel.  I think there are a couple of actresses, too.  In addition, I can sing the first verse of the Kookaburra song, the chorus of Waltzing Matilda, most of the Men At Work early 80’s collection and have eaten a bloomin’ onion at the Outback Steakhouse.   I know that gives me a slanted and limited view of a very vibrant and varied culture, but those are the first images that come to mind.  However, my all-time favorite piece of Australiana comes from the movie, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert which introduced me to the country’s Northern Territory, and its jewel in the crown, Alice Springs.  (I won’t spoil the joy of this movie if you haven’t seen it, but the scenery and costumes alone are worth the price of admission).  

So you can imagine my delight when I discovered that one of the “local” television stations is actually broadcast from the Northern Territory and features advertisements from Alice (no need to add “Springs”, mate).  There’s the Alice Hardware store where you can get your tractors and power generators, Alice Feedlot where you can buy your cattle, Alice Holiday Park where you can pull in your RV or camper, Alice Hare Removal (which has nothing to do with lasers or depilatories), as well as Alice public service announcements about spousal abuse and water conservation.  One of the “ads” for the Northern Territory is a minute long view of a highway where, ultimately, a fuel tanker truck comes rolling on by…I guess to assure anyone going to Alice that there will be gasoline available in the desert.  Now, this is not the town I imagined from the Abba-infused drag show scenes in Priscilla, but I am intrigued enough to consider putting Alice and the Northern Territory on my list of places to see before I die.  But for now, I’m getting my Australian fix right here at home.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

My Life in A Box

One of the most challenging/frustrating/aggravating aspects of moving around internationally is figuring out what to do with all of your stuff. (Those of you who follow this blog may remember this as the topic of one of my first blog entries when I moved from Costa Rica to Alexandria). You fret and fuss over what stuff you absolutely must have, what stuff you’d like to have, and what stuff you can live without, moving stuff from one category to another based on weight restrictions, cost considerations and ultimately time constraints. Then, once you have made the final cut, and the boxes are all wrapped and taped, the movers whisk everything away. At that point, there is nothing more to do until your stuff arrives at your new destination, hopefully complete and unscathed.

Of course, now that I am in Papua New Guinea, I should probably stop calling it “my stuff” and start calling it “my cargo” in deference to the “cargo cults” that exist in the highlands of this country. During World War II, this island, along with most in the South Pacific, was used by the Allies as a staging ground for all of those epic air and sea battles against the Japanese. As a result, the indigenous people of Papua New Guinea were exposed to modern technology, many for the first time. They saw vast quantities of war supplies arriving daily by airplanes, which to them clearly demonstrated the magical, supernatural powers of these foreign people. But they also assumed that these strangers were stealing the cargo that the ancestral gods must have meant for the New Guineans! So, in a cross between the stranded children of Mad MaxBeyond Thunderdome and the Kalahari Bushmen of The Gods Must Be Crazy, the natives dropped their work, and with near-religious fervor, created mock airplanes out of reeds, makeshift landing strips, imaginary offices and loading docks in the jungle, and waited patiently, praying for the proverbial manna from heaven to be delivered to their doorsteps.

I, too, am waiting for my cargo to magically appear, and while I know more than the cargo cult followers about the origins of my goods, I am just as perplexed at how and why we managed to accumulate so much of it. On a macro level, this question was at heart of Jared Diamond’s book Guns Germs and Steel where he hypothesized how certain civilizations managed to get a jump start on all the other tribes of the world and thereby become the “haves” rather than the “have-nots”. The genesis of his book came from a question posed to Diamond by a native New Guinean who asked why white men had so much “cargo” and New Guineans had so little. Unfortunately, while Diamond’s subsequent theories on geographic luck, development of steel technology and the spread of deadly small pox by Westerners go a long way to explain economic disparity, they do little in alleviating it, leaving many New Guineans with the nut of the question unopened.

The cargo cults that developed during the war to try to tap into the seemingly endless Western bounty still exist today, at least in some parts of PNG. Some believe that it was this underlying belief in magic as a factor in the distribution of wealth that led to a recent case of a well-off tribal woman being beheaded by her neighbors. They believed she practiced witchcraft—and why wouldn’t they? How else would she be able to afford schooling for her children and a house with permanent walls?

My own cargo accumulation process is much less magical, although it does include numerous deliveries from my husband’s and my ancestors. With each of our international moves, I have tried to be a little more brutal in culling out unwanted/unneeded junk and paring down to just the basic essentials-- which is easier said than done. I won’t know how well we managed to do that until the boxes arrive. The uncertainty of what we are actually going to get is compounded by the fact that the shipment due to show up here in PNG by early August was, for the most part, packed away in June 2010 in Costa Rica! Further complicating matters, we had everything staged out of our DC storage unit which comingled the Costa Rican shipment with items that have been in storage since we moved to Peru in 2003! We didn’t open most boxes before deciding whether to send them onward to PNG or back to Dante’s ring of hell reserved for hoarders, so I am not sure of what is on its way and what we may have misdirected. But I am certain that it will be way too much cargo, and, like the coke bottle dropped from the sky onto the Kalahari plain, I will be looking for a way to get rid of some of it. I suspect there are many people here who would see my excess cargo as a gift from the gods… but hopefully not many who would attribute it to the mark of a witch.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Good, The Bad and The Rugby

Only three weeks into this adventure and I already have a running list of things to write about.  Even though I am still living in a hotel and have limited mobility (no car, security concerns), I have been able to see a little bit of Port Moresby and to learn more about what this part of the world has to offer.  As with anything, it is a mixed bag, but for what it is worth, I think there will be enough here to keep me happy and engaged for some time.  So here is the breakout so far, and so as not to cause alarm, I will start with:


The Good


Community Theatre

It will come as no surprise to most of you that at the top of the “good” category is my discovery of, and recent contact with, the Moresby Arts Theatre.  From the day I saw my first live theatrical production (an early 1970’s high school production of Man of LaMancha) I was hooked and have been involved in the world of theater in some manner or another ever since.  It was my immersion in the Little Theatre Group of Costa Rica that kept me sane (a relative term) and happy in San Jose and introduced me to some of my dearest Costa Rican friends.  So I was thrilled to learn that there is a group here that appears to be as active and needy of volunteers as LTG!  And my timing is great…they are just about to launch a production of Twelfth Night, and are holding a pre-production meeting this weekend, with auditions to follow.  I am pretty sure I am too long in the tooth now to play Olivia or Viola, but that crafty, witty, meddling Maria wouldn’t be too much of a stretch!  There is also a choral group that is active here, so I should be able to get my arts game on in the near future.

Teaching Options

Also on the positive side of the ledger, I have had interviews with two international schools.  The principals of both The Ela Murray International School (TEMIS) and Port Moresby International School (POMIS) spent time with me last week and showed me around their respective schools.  TEMIS is a PreK-8 school, with a large expat community and a surprisingly large and well funded campus.  POMIS has students from 7-12 grade, is at least 80% local students and is primarily funded by fees from the small number of students who are college-bound and in the IB program, which, in contrast to TEMIS, means their school has fewer resources available.  I liked both principals, believe they liked me, and have positive impressions of both sets of students.  However, I am not sure either school will be able to hire me, not only because they may not have a suitable job opening, but more because it is insanely difficult to get a work visa.  In order to convert my current dependant visa, I would first have to be offered a contract, and then leave the country for anywhere from 3-5 weeks, possibly longer.  The cost associated with leaving (anyone checked the cost of a round-trip flight to PNG yet?) and staying for an elongated stay somewhere may prove too burdensome.  I have not closed this as an option yet, and remain hopeful that I can do what I love to do, but this topic may ultimately move to the “bad” category before too long.

Food Options

There are a couple of very well stocked grocery stores, with just about any product you would want to buy and with the added bonus of carrying a wide-range of Asian products.  For those of you in the DC area, it is almost like combining a small Safeway or Giant store with Eden Center or one of the large Chinese grocery stores!  And while the prices for US/European goods is extremely high, the Asian products are cheap…oh wait, that is how it is all over the world!  No wonder the US is making its “Pivot to Aisa” policy so prominent! 

 Peace and Quiet

Drivers do not honk their horns, play loud music, drive two-stroke engine motorcycles, and they seem to all have working mufflers.   I know this means something to those of you who lived in Mexico, Peru, Costa Rica, and, especially Egypt!  Perhaps it is part of the culture.  From my experience thus far, many Papua New Guineans are relatively soft spoken and non-confrontational, so honking the horn is just not something you would do lightly. On top of that, I have yet to hear a rooster crow, a pack of dogs bark,  or a mullah call the faithful to prayer.   It is a striking contrast to the noise chaos of Alexandria, Egypt! 

 So now on to the darker side of paradise:

 The Bad

 Security (or lack thereof)

One of the primary concerns voiced by anyone and everyone who has been in Papua New Guinea for any length of time is that of personal and property security.  I am always hesitant to buy into a mindset that lives in fear, but constant vigilance does seem to be required here.  And it is not just the anecdotal wariness—we have unfortunately learned firsthand how critical security is here as Steph’s office was broken into last week and several computers stolen.  No doubt, it was an “inside job” with a very iffy story of being overcome and tied up raskols (the local hoodlum moniker) with machetes related by the hired security guard, but that makes it even more disconcerting.  If you don’t know who you can trust to guard your home or office, how do you know if you are safe?  Luckily it was just “stuff” that was taken and no one was hurt, but it still gives one pause.  So we will be looking for a secure apartment for us and stay alert when out and about, and hope for the best. 

What You Can Get For Your Kina

I know I alluded to this when I bemoaned the cost of a bottle of wine, but it is increasingly clear that this is going to be one expensive place to live.  The exchange rate of kina (originally a large white shell traded on the coast, now a plastic coated paper currency) to dollar is approximately 2:1, so luckily for me the mental math is easy to calculate, but I am still staggering when I come up with the dollar equivalent.   Ten bucks for a box of bran flakes?!  Eleven thousand dollars a month for an apartment?!  Seriously?!  Even basic foodstuffs like milk, eggs and vegetables are at least a third higher priced than in the US.  I know that the cost of living allowances for most expats takes this into account, and, as a westerner, I am likely to opt for higher end goods, but it goes a long way toward understanding the source of the security issues.  With no clear secondary or black market (at least that I am aware of) that would allow locals to make more reasonably priced purchases, and local jobs that pay nowhere near the expat salaries,  it is no wonder that the raskol culture has taken hold. 

OK, that is not too bad…four good things and only two bad ones.  Not a bad ratio.  So now one more category to go:

The Rugby


Blue v. Maroon

 OK, well this isn’t really a whole category, but I guess that I was surprised to learn that the sports teams that seem to generate the most enthusiasm here in PNG play in the Australian rugby league.  It is not a game that I know much about, kind of like cricket, but in my limited understanding and exposure to the sport, I know that it is a tough, aggressive, non-stop, hands-on kind of sport that is usually played by big, burly men (or sometimes big, burly women) wearing tight shorts.  But as with sports fans everywhere, the crowds are polarized for or against “their” teams—this week it was those supporting either the New South Wales “Blues” or the Queensland “Maroons” who scrummed and sweated and gutted it out on Thursday night in the State of Origin tournament.  I have added a picture of one fan who was triumphantly going Friday morning in full battle regalia to see his boss and collect on a two hundred kina bet!  Lucky for him the currency was changed from shells or he would be struggling to carry it home-- I just wish he could buy more with it.