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.

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