Apr 29, 2010

About My Whiteness

I'm actually glad that I planned a 2-day layover in Brisbane as I find I'm needing the time to adjust my perspective. Surprisingly, one of the things I'm having to come to terms with is my whiteness. This will be difficult to explain, but I'll give it a shot.

First, the issue of my being white is something that has come up before, of course. I am married to a Mexican-American who calls me "Guera", as an endearment, a term that translates loosely to "white girl". When we hang out with his family or attend his high school reunion, I am often a bit "out of the loop" because of my whiteness, although I am always treated well by these groups, and always feel comfortable.

When I arrived in PNG, however, my whiteness actually became an issue. Not at all like race discussions in the US, my neighbours were quite comfortable sticking me in a group they called "white" and discussing openly the differences between us. At home, except among close friends of different races, this subject is always handled with kid gloves. I mean, in the US we seem to work at ignoring our differences and focusing instead on our similarities in avoidance of old remnants of poor race relations. In PNG, however, there was much open curiosity about the "white lady" in the neighbourhood and questions and comments about "white people" were frequent. As a side note, the children seemed a bit fascinated with my strange hair, the fact that it stays wet so long after washing, that I never apply cream to it, that I brush it or rearrange my pony tail often, etc.

Some of my PNG friends have never travelled from PNG and often posed some very interesting questions. For example, I was asked if I have ever travelled to another black country. I just had never thought of such a question and had no answer. I talked a bit about my travels to Cuba and Venezuela where I could find no "line" between white and black, but rather a long progression of skin shades with extremely dark skin at one end and extremely white skin at the other, but this seemed to be met with some scepticism. When I think about my work in Houston, I so often work with people of different races, I tend to minimize the differences there as well. I think it might be different if I were a really social person as my social interactions might indicate with which groups I identify more closely. But, alas, I am not. I tend to work so much, and keep to myself outside of that, that most of my "social" interactions are really work interactions that have overflowed the boundaries a bit. In PNG my social selections are clear and straightforward. For whatever reason or reasons, I am most definitely more comfortable in the presence of PNG nationals, no matter what colour I might label their skin.

But, I am rambling here. Let me try once again to get back on target.

"On target" is to say that after living and working in a world where I was most often the only white face in the room (yes, for some reason I tend to avoid the expat crowd, finding them too separatist for my tastes), when I got on the plane in Port Moresby to head here to Brisbane, I was actually uncomfortable. Yes, that's right. Uncomfortable. I would not have been able to put a label on it except for that fact that on my last night out, I ate dinner in a restaurant that was filled with whites as well, and I was able to recognize immediately the cause of my discomfort there. When we chose to sit, I have to admit I chose a seat that put my back to the rest of the room and allowed me to face my 3 friends (PNG nationals) throughout the meal.

Hey, I didn't say I could explain this...I just said that I'm having to adjust to it!

So, here I am in Brisbane now, still a stranger in a strange place, but one that gets no second look at all, unless I open my mouth and let my south Texas accent spill out, of course. I sit at supper in a room full of white faces and struggle to understand their conversations as the Aussie and New Zealand slang I hear here is a far cry from the proper "television English" that is more understandable to me. In Port Moresby, even though I tended to frequent the same locations again and again making me often recognized by those around me, I still was treated "differently". But always "differently" in a good way. Greetings were often exchanged and random, open questions by those I passed on the street were common ("Where are you from?", "Where are you going?", "Do you live here?", etc.)

The neighbourhood residents up and down my street in Korobosea soon learned to expect seeing me at the betel nut stand outside the gate in the mornings and late evenings, talking with my friends and learning new words in tok pisin. Although my presence there stopped being unexpected, it still seemed to be something of a treat as many stopped by to hear my strange accent and listen in as questions were asked about my home and family.

And when I went out somewhere, or travelled anywhere, it was only rarely in a crowd with another white face. [As a side note, although of not much importance, because of my business dealings it was also most often in the company of only men.] Again, this didn't really occur to me, not as a point of consideration, until recently, when trying to figure out just what it is that makes me uncomfortable now.

Finally, there is this "white" habit of keeping to ones self. [I must place a disclaimer here that my husband has NEVER suffered from this...Leo speaks to anyone and everyone he encounters with no sense that this type of interaction is to be avoided. And I, often first embarrassed, am almost always happy that he feel so inclined to "intrude" as we meet so many more interesting people when he is along on the journey.] Now that I am back in a world where looking someone in the eye is almost considered rude, or intrusive, I find myself shrinking back into my comfortable little shell. The woman who sat next to me on the plane did not speak, not even once, and never even glanced my way. So I, of course, took the hint and ignored her as well.

I have no doubt that my 4-week foray into my mostly white world with a sprinkling of brown, black, yellow and all the colours in between will be comfortable and enjoyable. But, I was so very much surprised by my feelings over the past couple of days, that I thought I should try and think them through. I know now that I will very much miss finding out what my friends think of my "whiteness" by the questions they ask and am already looking forward to my return, to my new home, in June.

Post Script: on the issue of my bilum.
I have a bilum that I carry now, actually, I have a collection of them. This is a kind of woven purse that is worn slung across the body and stores an AMAZING amount of "stuff" inside. The first one I received upon my arrival was a string variety found in the coastal areas of the country. I received many compliments on it, from people of all origins there. When another friend gave me one that had a longer, thicker handle and I began carrying it (yes, I carry a lot of "junk" with me), I began getting smiles and compliments from my Highlands friends as well. On one trip to the bank, I noticed a woman pointing my bilum out to her husband and commenting on it. Even security guards and strangers would compliment me on it. And I continue to tell people about my, "Now you look like a proper Huli woman" comment, which is my absolute favourite and the one that gives me the most pride. I arrived in Brisbane yesterday to find I was one of only a few carrying such a thing. I have decided, however, that even if it does look out of place, it is still such a logical item, I intend to continue carrying it with me. I might look like the strange lady with the weird bag to others I encounter on my journey home, but I like my little "security blanket" and intend to continue hanging on to it while I am gone.

Apr 28, 2010

Korobosea Letter

To my friends and neighbours at Korobosea,

Thank you so much for making my stay here an extremely enjoyable adventure. You befriended me, took care of me, advised me, protected me, provided for me, taught me, and shared your lives with me. The card games, the rugby matches, the storytelling, the Tok Pisin lessons, the late night chats, the game play in the drive, and even the emergency runs to the store to purchase electricity, phone, and internet credits for me…ALL of these contributed to making my stay here enjoyable and to helping me achieve my goals.

I will miss you all and can’t wait to see you again upon my return.

Bea Amaya

Houston, Texas USA

Apr 17, 2010

Ten Things

Although it's really too early for me to think about going home for a month, because it's 6am on a Saturday morning and I've been up for hours, I figure I can afford the diversion. So, I've been thinking about the things I can't WAIT to get home for, and the things I'll miss about PNG while I am there.

10 Things I Can't Wait For

  1. HOT showers
  2. Mexican food
  3. Leo
  4. unlimited high-speed internet
  5. online pizza ordering
  6. iPhone interaction
  7. air conditioning
  8. overnight delivery of materials/equipment
  9. Jessie
  10. kids and grandkids

10 Things I'll Miss While I'm Gone

  1. exotic bird calls in the morning
  2. no ringing phones
  3. neighbours waiting at the gate for me to arrive home from work
  4. hearing so many languages spoken each day
  5. polite interest when visiting areas/places frequented by locals
  6. not having to wear shoes
  7. not having to drive
  8. casual business attire [always]
  9. always being surrounded by lush greenery
  10. playing 'spoons' with the neighbours amid raucous laughter

Apr 14, 2010

One Hot Night

Last night was the worst of my stay here. About 11pm or so, the power in the apartment complex went out and there was nothing to be done about it. There was absolutely no breeze and sleeping was almost impossible. I was not the only one I heard up and moving about when I took a cold shower about 3am. It was late afternoon by the time the power came back on, and all the discomfort of the night before (well, almost all of it) was forgotten.

Evenings at my place are about the same every night. I have a steady stream of visitors who love it that I brought crayons, colouring books, and puzzles with me to PNG. This first photo was taken last night, before the power outage. These three sisters laid on the cool tiles and coloured for hours. The little one, fascinated with my hair, spent much of the evening playing with it, brushing it, putting it in an interesting array of "pony tails", etc. We really had a good time.

Tonight, the same crew is back for more fun. Once again the girls are colouring while Justin works on the ongoing puzzle. (Note: We are on our 3rd round of reassembling it!) If you look closely at the youngest girl, Skyla, in the forefront of the photo, you'll see that she has fallen sound asleep, crayon in hand.

It's rather nice to have a welcoming committee waiting on me each evening when I return home from my travels. If I have time, we usually play 'catch' out in the drive with any of a number of balls (basketball, rugby ball, bouncy ball). Then as I settle in to work/homework, the kids settle in to colouring and/or working on the puzzle as we spend a companionable evening together. Not the most exciting of times, these evenings of mine, but comfortable and nice just the same.

Apr 12, 2010

Around the House

I live in an apartment complex with 5 units, 3 of which are occupied. The drive is tiny, and the complex is surrounded by razor-wire topped fencing. Still, I really do like it here. It's the isolation that gets a bit much. Also, the cost of these units is more than I am willing to part with each week, especially considering the fact that I have no hot water, so, I will be moving soon.

I'll miss the beautiful plants here, and depending on where I end up, I may also miss the birds in the mornings and the lush foliage outside my rooms. But more than that, I know I will miss my neighbors. Next door to me is a family who speak little English, but with whom I interact almost every day; especially my friend Justin.

Justin visits me every day, sometimes appearing in my living room without me noticing he has come in, but often calling my name softly at the door first, to make sure it is okay. Of course, it is almost always okay for Justin and Hadassah to show up here. They are so cute, sweet, and funny. Justin lives in a household where older men and boys come and go a lot, most of them speaking very few words of English. No matter how I try, I cannot seem to communicate to Justin, who is 9 years old, that his overuse of the word "sh_t" is inappropriate. He'll stop using it for a bit, giving me a strange look, but forget and use it again only minutes later. How to you explain the inappropriateness of word usage to a 9-yo when you don't speak his language?!

Still, when I move out I'll definitely have to make sure I schedule visits back here now and then to get my "fix" of laughter and fun with these guys. They've made my stay here so much more pleasant! By the way, the photo shows that Hadassah and Justin were able to put together one of my puzzles with no help from anyone else. They were very proud of their achievement, and I have to admit I was surprised as well. I'll keep the puzzle in place a few days more, to show off to friends, then break it up, bag it up, and pass it on to someone else to try. You can also see on the coffee table the signs of our recent foray into the game of "spoons". I will definitely have to post photos of this soon as the game play gets very crazy and occasionally involves security guards, babysitters, neighbors and friends. It is our newest game of choice.

Apr 7, 2010

Apartment Hunting

Last night, I took the first steps toward finding a long-term solution to my housing by contacting friends and enlisting their help. Now that they know what location, price range, and requirements I have (which are few) the search is beginning in earnest. I'm hoping to have something secured before I leave so that when I return in June the transition will be seamless.

In general, housing here in the capital is expensive. The price I will pay for a lower quality 1-bedroom here (no a/c, no washer/dryer, no covered parking, etc.) would get me a medium upscale loft in Houston. But, it is what it is, so I will accept the situation and move forward.

I'm also looking at a vehicle now, a Honda CRV with about 60,000 km (37,000 miles) on the odometer. The road conditions here mean those are 'hard' miles, by the way. The price on it is not nearly as bad as I expected. The good news is that, although I haven't done a straight-forward calculation on fuel here, it seems that, in general, 100 kina ($36) will fill up the tank on most vehicles. Yippee!

The next few weeks are going to be hectic and action-packed, but I'll try to keep the updates here coming so you guys can keep up with my adventures. My next big adventure? Seeing my sweetie after SO VERY LONG!!

Apr 6, 2010

Birthday Weekend

I had an absolutely wonderful birthday weekend here in PNG. It started when some friends invited me to a weekly get-together of their work group (the staff of a local newspaper). I was afraid I would feel like a 5th wheel, but was hoping to do something different, so I went. I had an absolute blast! The home was lovely, the food was delicious, the friends were interesting, there was entertainment of a sort, and it was SO NICE to do something different.

I got home about 1:30am on Sunday morning, in plenty of time to get rested up before church. Although I hadn't made plans, I felt sure I could attend with one of the neighbors. However, Sunday morning turned out to be rainy and ugly. So, I chose not to go out instead. I stayed in and took care of some work, but mostly just relaxed. A little later in the afternoon, one of my co-workers came by so we could work on something specific. He, his wife and family were sweet enough to bring by a birthday cake for me. It was SO DELICIOUS.

After we met for a couple of hours, another co-worker called to tell us all to get ready for a dinner out on the town. We drove out to a lovely (very fancy) restaurant and I was able to enjoy the evening with friends, co-workers, and neighbors. At the end of the dinner, another beautiful cake appeared, which made for a perfect end to the evening. Yes, I had a LOVELY 50th birthday here in Papua New Guinea!

Apr 3, 2010

Trip to Kutubu: Part 3

The drive down from the Ridge each day, and back up at the end of the day, was always incredible. The road is long, winding, but in good condition. Navigating it meant watching for oncoming traffic (most often buses or big rigs) in order to navigate to allow for safe passage. The guys I rode with were used to the views and generally chatted the entire trip, but I was awestruck at the scenery. It was absolutely breathtaking. So, I'm posting some photos here for your enjoyment.

Trip to Kutubu: Part 2

When I checked in, I was given two items: a key, labeled "D9", and a bar of soap. The man I was traveling with, the person who contracted me, had a room in the building next to the mess hall. My building was located in another areas across the site. Down sidewalks, between buildings, past the pool room, through the gym, up stairs at 3 locations, and I found myself in a "building" created from tying temporary office structures together. Image 1: D Building.

Although my room was cramped, old, and worn, it was quite comfortable and always breezy. The door had a section that popped open into the hallway and allowed cool breezes to pass through. I had a bed, desk, lockers, and sink in my room. I shared an adjoining bathroom with the next (unoccupied) cell over. And best of all? I had LOTS of HOT WATER all to myself! In spite of its resemblance to a room at county lockup (don't ask how I know that!), I found my quarters to be quite comfortable and decided I could handle that set-up long-term if necessary. And with all the activities occurring here, I won't be surprised to find that it is necessary on occasion.Image 2: My room, D9.

The site was most often covered by a foggy mist, and we had light showers every evening. By the time I got settled in enough to have a look around, I was amazed at the beauty that could be found all around. Not all of the rooms were like mine, reserved for the 'worker bees'. There were also some very nice buildings with rooms angled to take advantage of the scenic vistas. I assumed these to be reserved for Oil Search higher-ups and VIPs. Image 3: Scenic vistas from the Ridge.

Staying on the Ridge was nice and comfortable. The offices were scattered throughout the site, so the people I passed on my way to mess might be coming from work, from the gym, or from their rooms, at any particular time. It was quite definitely a 'camp' atmosphere. My only excitement came when I was forewarned by a friend that a 'muster' [we would call it an 'emergency drill'] was scheduled for 7am, the time when we were to be picked up. He warned me that this was to be a longer-than-normal scenario, and that we should try to get out of camp before the alarm sounded. Although I tried to call my ride and let him know, I had no luck getting through. About 10 minutes before 7, my companion and I decided to hop on the bus instead in the hopes of getting out of the camp. The bus was loaded, we were all signed in and buckled down, the driver put the bus in gear and let off of the brake...then the alarm sounded. It took a full 2 minutes of debate in the bus, with most wanting the driver to haul for the gate, before reason convinced us to disembark and join the muster. 45 minutes later, when the drill's 'casualty' had been located and evacuated to the emergency facility, those of us who had been standing in line in the gym for the muster were finally released to go. Typical emergency drill, in my opinion.

Apr 1, 2010

Trip to Kutubu: Part 1

This will be a difficult post for me, as I know that nothing I share will be close to the experience of visiting the Southern Highlands area called Kutubu, but, I'll give it a shot. The flight up was uneventful. We checked in at Port Moresby, boarded an hour later, and arrived in Kutubu 1.5 hours after that. What I could see on the flight was lots of forest and lots of water. Image 1: Kutubu Airport.

I arrived in the airport of a typical industrial complex. As a new visitor to the Oil Search site, I was treated to the viewing of the site orientation (they used another word, but I can't recall it) video. It was VERY similar to other such videos--Chevron, ExxonMobil, Dow, etc.--that I have seen over the years. Once I finished that process, and was issued a temporary badge, we were on our way.

The Oil Search site, which covers the entire area, seems to be securely maintained by a system of checkpoints, gated areas, and a strong security presence. Our (the company I am currently contracting to, TWL) trucking operation is located on this site, and a stop at the Moro Head Office was first up on the list. I was given a place to set up my equipment, was introduced to a number of TWL workers (drivers, schedulers, mechanics, etc.), and began the task of sifting through company information in order to identify gaps and prepare a game plan for filling them. Image 2: Trans Wonderland Trucking Limited Moro HQ.

Still early in the day, we decided to drive up to The Ridge and get checked in for the stay. I was told "The Ridge" was first established by Chevron to a) separate workers from the locals, and b) try and avoid exposure to the malaria-carrying mosquitoes in the lower areas. I wasn't sure what to expect, but after Leo's descriptions of compound living in Nigeria, I thought it might be similar.

Besides the little room assigned to me, the mess hall was the other building on site that I frequented most. I just had to provide my room number, D9, to gain access to the building. The meals were delicious with lots of choices available. I really enjoyed meal time as a time of meeting new people, laughing and joking, and relaxing for just a bit. When sitting with other expats (Aussies, Brits, Kiwis [New Zealanders]), the conversation generally turned to language usage, pronunciation, eating habits, and the like. When sitting with the nationals, I was always treated with kindness and curiosity, and enjoyed hearing a smattering of different languages. [Note: PNG is rare in its proliferation of multiple, as in more than 650, languages spoken. Not different dialects. Different languages. Amazing!] The nationals seem to have quite a sense of humor although they are generally more reserved than the expats about expressing it. Most often, I found the humor in this group expressed in looks exchanged, quiet giggles, and comments uttered under the breath rather than in the raucous outbursts of the expats. Image 3. Mess Hall.