Monday, May 20, 2013

Welcome to Paradise! Check Your Betelnut at the Door.

For those of you who followed this blog during my time in Alexandria, Egypt, you may have noticed (or, perhaps not) the rather extensive hiatus I have taken from adding to this site.  It was not due to my usual excuse of writer’s block or to being too busy and dynamic to take time to organize my thoughts.  It was primarily because we moved back to Washington, DC and I really didn’t have anything interesting to add to the constant media barrage coming from our nation’s capital during an election cycle.  Well, perhaps I did, but it was never anything that I thought worth writing about or sharing with a wider audience.  Besides, the idea here is to capture some of the flavor of living as an expat in an exotic location, and, as bizarre as it sometimes is to live in the United States (especially after living away for a number of years), it just didn’t seem like a compelling thing to do. 


Now, however, it looks as if I will have enough grist for the mill to last a long while!  Last Friday, after what seemed to be an excruciatingly long wait, we landed in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea to begin a three to five year posting, again with USAID.  Truth be told, what I knew about PNG prior to moving here came from 1) having advised Egyptian high school students as they represented PNG in a Model United Nations simulation at the Hague, which in itself made me realize that PNG is a very small, extremely impoverished country since our high school never represented any of the larger, well-heeled nations; 2) Jarod Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel where he postulates that the Highland natives of PNG are still living as hunter-gatherers because of really crappy “geographic luck”; and 3) a visit to the National Geographic’s recent exhibition on PNG’s flamboyant (and as a national symbol, ubiquitous) Birds of Paradise.  All of these sources provided facts, images and theories that are helpful in understanding the poverty, culture, history and fauna of PNG from an academic perspective but gave me little insight on the more mundane things that now occupy my world.  What’s the daily weather like?  Where is the best place to live in Port Moresby?  Is it safe to walk in the streets?  What kind of food can you buy in the grocery store?  Are the people friendly?  Can I ever manage to learn to drive a right-hand drive vehicle?  Will the international school hire me?  What can you buy with a ten kina bill? 


So I sit here in the Grand Papua Hotel while I wait for a realtor to call back to schedule a trip to look at apartments and wonder what we have gotten ourselves into.  While I wait, I note a couple of early observations based on two shopping excursions and several days of hotel living: 

·         The Gulf of Papua and the Coral Sea are spectacularly beautiful.  While the view is somewhat marred by the harbor full of cargo ships and industrial vessels, by looking beyond them it is easy to see why people fall in love with this area of the world.  Just before a morning fog lifted a few days ago, I caught myself humming “Bali Hai” and half expected to see Emile LaBec’s plantation house appear on the mountains surrounding the bay. 

·         Port Moresby is a city designed for men, both locals and expats.  My support for this statement is thin, I’ll admit, but I think it may bear up over time.  The hotel is predominantly populated by men, mostly Australian men, presumably here for the mining and extractive industries.  Apparently, many expat men live here, but their wives and families live in Cairns, Australia, which is a short plane ride away. The local women who work here are unusually soft-spoken and lacking in confidence.  But most telling in my mind:  the biggest shopping mall in the city has multiple electronics stores, restaurants, and sports equipment shops, but no shoe stores.  

·         Living expenses will be high/quality and speed of service low.  From an initial look, both groceries and alcohol are expensive.  I expected as much for imports from the US and Europe, but thought that, at the very least, Australian Yellow Tail wine (the stuff they sell for $5 a bottle in the Safeway) would be cheap.  Not so at $15 bottle .  Not unexpectedly, the service from sales staff, even in this high end hotel, is fairly insipid.  The people are nice enough, but slow and inattentive.  Not a huge problem, but as the workers at Steph’s office have been “fixing” the AC for three days and the realtor who promised to get back to me yesterday still has not called, I am setting my expectations low.

·         Spontaneity will be limited by security concerns.  It is hard to know how concerned to be, but it is clear that this is not a place where I will be able to just walk out the door of my house, jump in my own car, and drive myself anywhere.  The haves and the have-nots are visibly delineated, more so here than in any other country I have lived in.  As a Westerner, even if I am dressed modestly, sans jewelry and purse, I am still a potential source of consumer goods and/or target for pent-up frustrations.  So I will likely have to find a driver and plan my travel accordingly.

·         There are opportunities and things to do here.  All the above being said, this is not the barren wasteland that some led me to believe awaited my arrival.  There is a tennis and sporting club, a yacht club, swimming pools and reportedly some of the best diving in the world.  I have an interview on Friday with the principal of the Ela Murray International School and I have an apartment to find.  Oh yes, and I have this blog to write.  Just not with the aid of buai (betelnut) at least as long as I am in this hotel!