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.