Jul 26, 2010

A Day in Brissy

Caught the 8am train into the city and headed straight for the downtown shopping. I stopped in at the first hair salon I came to and asked for help. It was definitely a hair salon for the younger generation, and I offered the girl an out. But she said she didn't like to back down from a challenge, so she took on the job. I am very pleased with the results, and made plans to come back again in 6 weeks or so. We really had a great time visiting while she helped save me from my grown out grays.

When that job was finished, I made my way to the Cinema in the Queen Street Mall. The movie I wanted to see had just started, so I made a note of the time and went to lunch instead. I had a tasty chicken wrap with chips (fries), then took in a bit of shopping. When movie time rolled around I headed in to watch 'Inception' with Leonardo Di Caprio. It was a great flick. The only problem was that [you'll probably have to see the movie to understand] when I left the theatre, in a city where I know absolutely nobody, well, let's just say it was a bit surreal. To cap it all off, I missed the last train out of the city (to the station where my hotel is) and had to 'wing it'. Other than the fact that the Brisbane streets are slightly spooky after dark, what with people ducking their heads as they walk by in order to avoid speaking to you and all (yes...just like in the US), I did okay getting back to the hotel.

To finish off, here are a few things I noticed about Brisbane:

  • There are a lot of Asians there, but very few people of colour. After Houston, it seems a bit, well, weird.
  • Everything seems so very expensive. A regular size bottle of make-up is $25-35. A movie is $16 (matinee). A can of Diet Coke is $2. Crazy high as far as I can tell.
  • People don't avoid eye contact so much, but they don't speak to you on the street. Wouldn't have found this 'strange' but for the fact that I've been living for months in a place where everyone speaks to me on the street--everyone.
  • I still like the fact that I can get around the city with a Go Card and the bus/train routes. I found that I don't enjoy travelling around town by myself after dark, however.
  • I forgot all about it being winter down under. I was comfortable all day with a light shirt and no jacket, but was surprised at how many people were wearing coats and sweaters.
  • I also forgot that the further south you go, the closer you are to the cold weather of the South Pole. So here, South = colder.
  • I found that I like Brisbane a lot better when I have someone along. Can't wait for Rebecca to come for a visit!

Jul 24, 2010

Sogeri Singsing

My driver and my administrative assistant decided that I needed to attend the Sogeri Singsing yesterday in order to get a taste for some of the cultural diversity of PNG. I had an absolute blast!

Although almost all of the holidays here are Australian holidays, Remembrance Day, similar to our own Veterans Day, is one that actually touches the PNG culture in a real way. Yesterday was Remembrance Day here, and all of the offices and businesses were closed in celebration. Although I had originally planned to work, when the boys invited me to attend the Sogeri Singsing on this holiday, I just couldn't resist.

Sogeri National High School boasts student populations from all over the country. Most (if not all) of the 19 provinces are represented in the student body here. Yesterday's singsing was much like a band, dance, or cheerleading competition that you might find in the States. Not only is it the source of tribal pride for the students, but for the entire community as well.

In spite of my best attempts to have a decent camera on hand for the even, I ended up with only an iPhone to take photos on. The photos aren't great, but hopefully they'll give you a good idea of the types of things the celebration involved.

We arrived early to the event. My hosts were worried that it was "too early", but I was glad of it as it gave me a chance to get my bearings and to watch the groups prepare and the crowds arrive. The first group we saw escorted the dignitaries to the platform in front of the performance area, then went to one of the smaller "tents" to watch the rest of the proceedings and rest out of the hot sun.

The area in front of the platform was roped off but had an opening in the back corner. It was in this area that each of the groups performed their best moves. The crowd was relatively thin at the start of the competitions, and many of the attendees did not actually pay the fee to come into the performance grounds but waited along the roadside outside watching the dancers come and go from the grounds, shopping for betel nut, cigarettes, vegetables and fruits from the roadside vendors.

For the longest time, I thought I was the only white in attendance. As the day progressed, however, I did see three others in the crowd. Two of these were older men who appeared to have native wives or girlfriends, and the third was a young white man who looked to be participating in the singsing activities with other students. I saw no other white women in the crowd. My whiteness is generally not a problem here, and tends to encourage people to want to talk to me, an experience I relish. One older woman who spoke little or no English shook my hand and commented on my bilum. I pointed out how much I liked her dress (meri blouse) and we smiled at each other before going on our way. I always feel free to interact with the children, some of whom smile and speak to me, largely in a way that their friends notice their bravery, and others who hide behind their father's legs, embarrassed that a white woman has acknowledged their presence. Only occasionally am I treated with the rudeness of a young man who pushes me out of the way as he passes or unfriendly looks in return to my smile. These I can understand, and do not take personally. Why should they be expected to "like" me or be polite to me simply because I am white?

I did wonder a bit about some of the student dancers as I took their photos. While many of the groups smiled for the cameras and laughed together, others took a much more serious view of the events. Occasionally unsure whether the seriousness was directed at me or was part of their role-playing, I was reassured on occasion with shy smiles from participants when no one else was looking. At first, I was shy about taking photos myself. Again, in an event where there were few whites in attendance, my presence seems to stand out. I also knew it was a hot day, and brought my pink baseball cap with "Texas" written across the top as protection. Add to all of this the fact that I stand taller than most of the people I encounter here (which is funny to me as I am the shortest of my siblings), well, let's just say my presence there was noticed.

The early announcements from the stage were all in English with just a touch of pidgin thrown in. As the day wore on, the comments switched over to being predominantly in Tok Pisin and I struggled a bit to catch all of the implications. Some of the comments surprised me, such as the mentions of "groups you may have never seen before". My hosts seemed well versed in which tribes were which as they answered my questions and pointed out details I was missing, so I assumed everyone there knew them all. Then I remembered just how many different groups there were [although not all represented here] and understood. When another group of some ten elaborately dressed young men were accompanied by twice as many students with nothing more than painted faces to identify their association, there seemed to be a bit of murmuring in the crowd. I got the idea they thought it was inappropriate. However, when the MC remarked about how expensive the costumes were and lamented about the number of students who were prevented from participating simply because of economic reasons, the crowd applauded and all was well again. Still, while I found many of the comments made humorous enough to laugh out loud, I missed out on just as many, as the day wore on, because of my unfamiliarity with the language.

Some of the performance highlights were truly memorable:

  • There was one group from the Gulf province that had girls with wonderfully thick grass skirts that hung to their ankles and had shells around their waists. Many of the girls used a side to side movement that gently swished the grasses and made the shells sing out as they moved. There were two girls in the group, however, that had a little more swing in their hips, and I stood among a group of spectators (men and women both) that sounded out their approval for such moves. It was from these two that we learned, simply from the "swishing", the painted designs on the backs of their legs extended all the way up to the tops of their thighs.
  • There was also one small girl in a group from a similar grass-skirted region that had moves of her own. The more the crowd responded, the more she put into her dance. She was so very cute, I almost felt sorry for the older girls who had put so much into their costumes and moves only to be outdone by this youngster. It was a great presentation.
  • One of the island groups had two scantily clad young men enter the arena first, to a wonderful trio of hollow log drums. These boys had some moves that Michael Jackson would have been proud of, and elicited encouraging hoots from the men in the crowd as well as appreciative laughter from the girls and women.
  • The dancers from the Sepik region put on a wonderful performance simulating the killing of a crocodile as they danced. Then one of their young men moved slowly about the edges of the roped off area with a live young crocodile secured to a piece of wood, thrusting it at audience members as he moved. The young people merely jumped back and laughed, while young children ran for their mothers, and more than a few of the older women nearly trampled people trying to get out of the way.
  • The Asaro mudmen were another crowd favourite in their distinctive clay pot masks, and bodies white with dried mud. These boys played their parts very seriously and even the two younger boys, mudmen in training it seemed, were serious and cautious about their duties in the festivities.

Gosh, there is so much more I want to share with you, but already this post is so long that I know I've lost many of you. So, I'll bring it to an end now. But I did enjoy this day, and this glimpse of only small pieces of PNG culture, so very much!

Jul 18, 2010

Adventures in Grocery Shopping

Although I've been too busy to take care of getting my driver's license here, I do feel comfortable driving to a couple of regular spots. One of these is the SVS at Harbour City. I still get a lot of "looks" when out driving alone, but it's stopped worrying me so much. After working for a few hours this morning, I stopped by one of the banks and pulled out some cash at an ATM. One of the security officers took a particular liking to my bilum, and wanted to talk about it, but I could understand very little of what he said. Still, I smiled politely and patted my bag to let him know I knew what the conversation was basically about.

After the bank, I headed for the grocery store. I'm not sure what they call it here, but "grocery store" is not it. I tried calling it the "market", but that seems to refer to a different type of store. The SVS I go to is one that is frequented by expats. It's a bit different than the Stop 'n' Shop I go to downtown, at which I rarely encounter other whites. I like shopping at both, but for different things.

Although every week I look at the beef in the packages and think I will "treat" myself to something, even if only a hamburger. And every week I shake my head at the high prices and move on. In the vegetable section, I try to buy only locally grown foods. That may seem silly, but the prices are much better, and I just feel like I have a better chance at settling in here by sticking to local products. So, I bought a couple of nice eggplants and can't wait to get home and cook them up. I also bought some locally grown potatoes, which look and taste delicious, but are rather small in size and cost a bit more when you account for the amount of dirt still on them. I bought some local tomatoes, and a small version of what we would call "bell peppers". Here, they call them "capsicum" and I believe they are going to be a bit hotter than the larger, local varieties found back in the states.

Going to the store alone gives me quite a feeling of independence as I am perfectly at home there now. I know where to go, what to buy, how to act, how to check out properly, where and how to park, and regularly encounter people that I "know" from other trips to the store or from other encounters in town. I continue to be amazed at how many people want to extend greetings to me, young and old alike, and how much pleasure they seem to get from me spending a few minutes exchanging words with them. It's a bit funny that I didn't realize how much I missed the independence when I had to rely on a driver to "escort" me there, but I really do love my trips to the market.

When I left, I stopped by the petrol station to top up the tank for the day, then headed back to the apartment to unload my goodies. After that, I came back to work to finish up some tasks and try and get ready for tomorrow's adventures. Oh, although I try to shop "like a local" as much as I can, I generally do splurge on something, some little item, while I'm there. For the past couple of weeks, my splurge item has been a box of pop tarts. Yes, that's right...Pop Tarts! Yum!

And now that I am settling into life in Moresby a bit, there is one little drawback. It seems that since my business associates have figured out that I don't have to use their help so much any more, they don't feel responsible for making sure I am taken care of all the time. In other words, my independence has resulted in a bit of loneliness for me. The solution, of course, will be for me to make some new friends of my own. But this is not as straightforward and simple as it might seem, especially for someone as socially challenged as I am. Still, it's all progress and I'll learn to live with it and learn to deal with it. For now, I'm just trying to deal with the basic tasks in life, like grocery shopping. And by golly...I actually seem to be doing just fine at it.

Jul 13, 2010

Jarusa's Dedication

I was treated to a special event this weekend when I was invited to attend the dedication of the baby of a friend of mine. The family spent the whole day preparing food for the event, and by the time I arrived, the party was in full swing. A group of young men from the church were playing and singing some nice gospel choruses while the women carried food (and a LOT of it!) from the house out to the picnic area.

Everyone was so very nice to me, but it was Jarusa's special day. She was dressed all in pink and was a perfect little lady throughout the proceedings. The pastor spoke about the joy of children and the strength of family, and if I understand it right, even made a little joke about the possibility of Jarusa being the first female PNG Prime Minister.

Jarusa belongs to one of those polygamous families that are still popular in some tribal groups. While Jarusa's mother and father were the main participants in the proceedings, the other mothers dropped off siblings earlier in the day, so many of Jarusa's 12 siblings were in attendance as well. The children in a certain age range all seem to be very close, playing together, exchanging smiles and laughter, and engaging in all kinds of banter and teasing. For the most part, they are a sweet bunch of kids.

At the end of the evening, after a wonderful visit with all the members of the extended family, I headed back to my apartment. I've been invited to attend church with mom and some of the kids on Sunday, so I'm looking forward to that. I felt quite honoured to be invited to participate in the family event. Such happenings tell me so much more about my friends, neighbours, and business partners than I could ever pick out of a book or learn through casual observation. It was a really nice event.

Jul 6, 2010

Roller Coaster

It's a bit of a roller coaster ride at the moment, but not the scary kind; rather the wonder-what's-around-the-next-bend kind. I sleep with a notepad and pen on my bed in case I wake up in the middle of the night (and I often do) with thoughts of something that needs more work. My mornings, days, evenings, and nights are crammed full of mental activity, much of which I have no one to share with. My closest friend here is beginning to get tied up in activities of his own, making him less and less available to me. And although I am beginning to build friendships outside of work, I could really use some strong friendships within my work environment as well.

However, culturally, that is just not really allowed. I am white, I am a female, and although my partners value my business contributions, I don't really fit the profile of a PNG executive. So, I am excluded from all but the formal business transactions. When the partying (and networking) starts, I am left behind. And even in casual affairs of business, I am only included if someone thinks it appropriate to invite me; I am never included by default.

Am I complaining? Sure, just a bit. Am I ready to chuck it all and go home? Not at all. I continue to be fascinated by the political, social, and cultural structures that affect my work, and continue to strive to find ways to participate in productive and contributive ways. Nope. Not ready to abandon ship just yet. I still have so much to do.

Jul 2, 2010

Yes, Commenting Allowed

Thanks so much to my new friend muddleglum who pointed out that my silly blog settings 'preclude commenting'. Darn if he wasn't right! So sorry folks. I've modified them now which means that, technically, it should be possible for people to actually comment on my posts now. Thanks so much, Mr. Smith!!

Catching Up

I know it's no excuse, but my life here has been so busy recently, I just haven't taken the time to provide an update. There is too much to cover to try and update you on my goings-on here, but I want to post something, so, I think I'm going to talk a bit more about my walk to work each day.

If you've kept up with my rantings at all recently, then you know something about my bilum. A bilum is a bag, much like a crocheted purse, that is used to carry everything from cell phones to babies here in PNG. They are so very useful, they are carried by men and women alike. Sometimes they are large and hang across the body with the bag down at the hip. This is the way I carry mine. Sometimes they are smaller, and slung over one shoulder. Some are even quite tiny. The villagers often carry them with the strap across the forehead and the bag hanging in the back. This is also the way I've seen babies carried in them. When the little ones are carried this way, mum can reach around behind and bounce the baby a bit from the bottom to quiet or reassure them.

My bilum is typical of those carried in the Southern Highlands province. Southern Highlanders, like many other groups in PNG, are fiercely proud of their clan, and prone to interacting in social and business situations with others from the region. Many of the betel nut vendors along my walk are Southern Highlanders. Because I pass them 2-4 times each day, the fact that I carry a Huli or Tari bag elicits smiles and comments along my walk...every day.

Contrary to other large cities, in Port Moresby, the people you pass on the street (nationals) in PNG are open, friendly, look you in the eye, and greet you verbally. My walk is occasionally almost tiring as I am expected to greet those I encounter, and there are often a LOT of them, with the traditional "moning", "apinun", or "gut nait". Sometimes they want to engage me in further conversation, and I often oblige, wanting to make friends. Although I often walk through crowds, and most often carrying my laptop in a second bilum, I am never fearful and only occasionally suspicious of someone in my vicinity. [Note: when walking the streets of Houston, although I am also never fearful, I am more often suspicious of those around me.]

Some of those who want to talk address me as "Huli lady", "Tari woman", or something along those lines. Sometimes they want to tell me their names, or ask me questions. "Do you work for ExxonMobil?" "Do you like your walk?" "Are you from Australia?" And when I do stop to talk, they want to shake, or probably more appropriately, hold my hand when we greet or while we talk. While it may seem strange to my friends back home, holding hands while talking was not something that was difficult for me to get used to. Actually, it is strangely comforting and lends a further sense of "friendship" to the situation.

Finally, my friends and I who have discussed my daily walks through town have come to a few conclusions. First, my friends along the walk look forward to seeing me as I am a bit of an anomaly. Second, because I greet and talk to them along my way, we think that I could count on at least some protection from them if trouble of any kind should start. Finally, even though I have a car and could make the drive, and better protect myself and my laptop from the hazards of the walk, what I would miss in return is just too much to give up. So, I pound the streets, often in the heat, and often struggling for breath (both ends of the walk are elevated and the middle section is low), every day. But, I just wouldn't miss the experience now for anything.