|more rantings from that man
||[Mar. 2nd, 2007|02:06 pm]
Even more Harry Butler|
Sorry, this entry has been delayed bekoz of lack of funds and internet time till recently, so its a little late, but only just. Hope y'all are doing well and enjoying 2007. Everyone in oz, it's only four or so months till you'll have to deal with me again!
Happy mardi gras everyone!
Well, heading towards the end of January, and I’ve passed the six month, or half-way, mark for my stay here. In some ways it feels like I’ve been here for ages and in others, just a moment; in some things it feels like the time has dragged, and in others just flown by. I’m feeling kinda strange at the moment, for a few reasons I think.
Some of it is plain homesickness (you’re supposed to go through it real bad at the three month mark, but I of course have to do things differently than everyone else and had it really bad at two months, and quite a bit now); but some of it, contradictorily, is wondering how I’ll cope back in Australia adjusting to the culture generally - it will be weird being surrounded by lots of white faces, and the more brisk pace of life - and what I’ll miss from being here. (Related to that topic, I had this one interesting dream a few weeks back where I flew all the way from Kalago’s village, Kemabolo, to Adelaide to visit my family, within a few hours, only to discover when I talked to my family that I couldn’t speak English any more, only Tok Pisin!).
And some of it is anxiety about the decision making process when I go back – I’m going to have to work out what I want to do exactly (although I have a few ideas about that), but more so where I’m going to live. Melbourne still has its charms, but also its flaws (don’t even mention the weather), and after eight years there I’m still not sure if it’s where I want to call home, and I think I only want to live there again if certain conditions in my life are met; Adelaide has its pull for me too, particularly from my family and friends, but also the ease of lifestyle (after the very leisurely paced life of PNG Melbourne may seem like an eternal manic rush), but then there is the obvious cultural and other limitations of the place. And with things coming along with Paul, Perth may well emerge as another option on the agenda – it certainly would be exciting to live in a new city again, going through that discovery time, and one that actually has entertainment options for instance, as opposed to the *options* (or scarcity of) here. Whichever is the case, I know that compared to very limited Port Moresby, in terms of things to do and see, even Adelaide will seem culturally like Melbourne, and Melbourne probably like New York!
Not really a lot more to report – I’m back at work and coping with that, which is good in some ways (you’d get bored being on holiday for very long in Moresby, and I like seeing most of the people I do at work), but has its negatives and challenges in others ways, which I’ll talk about a little later on. The wet season seems to have come, albeit sporadically, affected by el Nino and global warming, which I’m feeling a bit sad about but on the other hand I’m not big on humidity and even less so on the mosquitoes that come with it. As my budget is really tight over the next month or so there may not be that much to report on the social front I would expect. I have been enjoying doing more reading (have got some Gogol and even Proust that I managed to source from the only decent bookshop here, the Uni PNG one), as well as savouring over a book my sister sent me for Xmas about an English chef who goes to live in the south-west of France for a year, and just discovers all the amazing traditional foods, some of the recipes of which are included. I’ve been reading them vicariously and just fantasizing about them! Talk about gastroporn!
You are what you eat
And on that topic, it might be a nice segue into me talking more about some of the specific aspects of PNG culture as I’ve encountered it – in this case food, or kaikai as it’s called in Pisin. If you are what you eat, most locals would probably be a giant yam or, even more likely, a giant betel nut. And at this point, before I go into nutritious, or semi nutritious, foodstuffs, I *should* update everyone on buai (betelnut), because you literally can’t escape it when you come here – everywhere you go you see the stains or see it being sold.
Betel nut is also chewed in India and other parts of Asia, though in a more refined form than PNG. In India it’s called ‘paan’ and is wrapped in a leaf with herbs and spices. It is best classed as a drug and, aside from being part of the custom here, is also a national obsession with a culture all of its own. The nuts here are sold by hundreds of sellers plying their trade at homemade stalls set up in the streets everywhere, they also sell cigarettes (‘loose’ or single ones, at 50 toea (about 25cAU) each, with the betel nut about the same cost per nut). Smokers here note, in PNG the packs of cigarettes are about 8 kina (or $4AU) a pack; many PNG people nearly fell over when I told them cigarettes in Australia cost four times that, about 24kina per pack, mainly because of tax.
Anyway back to buai, the nut is cracked open and the kernel taken out, it is chewed in the mouth together with segments of a long, thin fruit called daka, from the pepper vine, and a substance called ‘kambang’ (pronounced “cumbung”), which is powdered lime made from burning certain shells and then crushing them. All this mixture in the mouth together is supposed to produce a mild intoxication in the chewer; I don’t know about that, but I do know that it produces buckets of red saliva, which people liberally spit everywhere, staining footpaths and roads, the habit of which I find personally pretty revolting. It also stains the teeth really badly – I’ve seen addicts here with teeth that are black from them chewing so much.
Buai was originally supposed to be used in a ritual way (like you’d offer a cup of tea to a guest), but it’s now chewed everywhere and anywhere, and many places have signs saying “No Ken KaiKai Buai Hia (don’t chew here)” to stop people spitting all over the place. I’ve only tried the nut without the lime and daka; all it did was make me feel quite hot and a bit numb, like I’d been to the dentist. I have agreed to do the whole shebang (just the once, for my teeth sake). When my workmate Stella teaches me how to cook a mumu (traditional feast), then I’ve said I’ll chew buai properly, that’s our deal. In the interim, it’s hard as a foreigner to see what the big deal is; I’d much rather a cup of Goroka coffee anyday.
And speaking of mumu’s, they’re probably some of the best food I’ve had here, aside from one *very* sublime meal for the NVS Christmas Dinner held at an Asian restaurant here which featured bowls of lobster soup, steamed Red Emperor fish in a wonderful sauce, prawns and other delights. Anyway, mumus are traditional earth-ovens. Stones are headed in a fire until they are very hot, then they are placed in a hole dug in the ground, with food then placed on top (wrapped in banana leaves and spices), such as chicken, kaukau (sweet potatoes), cooking bananas, sago and other ingredients, it’s then covered over with more leaves and earth, and left to steam for hours. Mumus are very time consuming to prepare, so they’re only traditionally done for feasts, but they can be quite delicious, the flavour of the food is kinda smokey from the cooking method, and Stella who I work with does a pretty fine mumu, which is why I’ve asked her to teach me.
But aside from mumus or maybe the traditional feasts up in the highlands (pig, pig and more pig), food in PNG, particularly from the non-coastal regions like the Highlands, is decidedly BORING. In fact, some might go so far as to say it is probably some of, if not, *the* most boring food in the world – so now you know why you’ve never encountered a PNG restaurant in the backstreets of Melbourne somewhere! Part of this is the limitations of the environment (little protein in many places, few spices, lots of bland vegetables) but sometimes also lack of imagination as well: people in PNG often seem to see food as fuel and not much else. And with modern food, in some ways it’s arguably worse.
At least with traditional foods, many of them were healthy even if boring. Yam and cooking bananas are easy to get sick of, but kaukau can be yummy cooked in coconut milk and though I’m not big on saksak (the pith of the sago tree, treated), which is basically like a kind of starchy jelly, it’s quite nice when mixed with banana or coconut. And there are some delicious vegetables you can get very cheaply from the market (and some weird ones like taro), as well as fresh green coconut juice. Here they also have this charming habit of selling things in very little amounts, so you can buy just five cherry tomatoes for 1k say (50c), all the food is displayed in little neat piles in the market, though you have to bring your own plastic bags or buy them to put them in. They also sell lots of good fruit like pineapples, mangos, watermelon and papaya when in season. Papayas they eat here covered in lime juice, which is quite delicious, and cucumber covered in ginger and seasonings, which sounds weird but actually works really well because the heat of the ginger balances the cool of the cucumber. Lots of vegetables are grown up in the fertile Highlands, with their milder climate and better soils, and sent down to the cities – some of the sweetest tomatoes I’ve ever tasted come from there. There are also a range of good dishes involving fish and seafood like crabs and squid along the coastal regions that are very tasty.
But it is modern food where PNG really lets itself down. There are some really good modern foods they do, weird anomalies like scones (which they do in multiple forms here, and are actually quite good) and banana and chocolate cakes; and some nice curries with coconut milk; and the ice cream here (Gala brand) is really good, better than the run of the mill Streets or Peters back home. But with much modern PNG food, the label ‘stodge’ really starts to become applicable, to the degree that much of it makes a lot of traditional English cooking look like haute cuisine: what else can you say when faced with stores that sell “deep fried garlic balls” (garlic in a ball of batter, deep fried)?! or battered and deep fried fish where the batter is literally about 4-5cm thick each side (and the fish only about 5cm thick itself)?! Cholestoral overload! I’ve already said before that compared to Australia, which is nowadays all ‘gourmet’ influenced in its foods, with Mediterranean and Asian flavours highly influential, PNG it still very much “the Land of Food that Time Forgot”. Foods such as Milo drinks, Maggi 2 Minute Noodles, Bully Beef (canned corned beef), and Bush Biscuits, big in the 70s in Oz but forgotten now, are very popular staples. And if you think that’s scary, you should try the lamb ‘flaps’ they sell here (yes, you should shudder, cos this meat is basically the lamb scraps and offcuts and leftovers frozen and shipped all the way from New Zealand). Simply yuck!!
All I can say is thank god for the local Asian community, who have set up at least some restaurants that are semi-affordable and have interesting food, otherwise after living somewhere like Melbourne (probably with some of the best variety of foods in the world), then coming to Moresby, I would have gone insane. And I’m sure all of you can *now* understand my recent slavering over the pages of the book on French cuisine my sister sent me!
PS – the other thing I should say about food in PNG is that, despite the fact that a lot of it is of low quality, Papua New Guineans have big appetites, about twice as big as westerners, although again many eat in different patterns (people will often have big breakfasts and dinners but skip lunch and just have buai instead, or have a really small lunch, like just a biscuit or something). I don’t know whether this is because of lack of food security here, or people in the villages working harder than we do (although people in the cities with desk jobs do it as well). Marion calls it the “feast or famine” mentality. There also are a lot of social protocols around food: you *never* refuse food if it’s given to you in traditional culture, and there are protocols for when you eat. In Papuan culture, for example, guests are served first, and only when they finish the other men eat, then the children and the women last. This caused me challenges when I was at Kalago’s village, for example, as not only was I a bit mischievous in wanting to subvert its sexism, but I was also not really enjoying having lots of hungry people waiting on me to finish my serve so they could eat; I couldn’t really enjoy my food so much, had to eat in a hurry, and one of the best things for me about sharing food is the social action of eating it *together*. So I kept pretending to finish so others could start, then sneaking back and getting more food later if I was still hungry! It’s seen as rude not to make sure guests are full up, and there are also lots of issues around saying no to either invitations of eating or to invited guests (just as there are quite a few issues around saying no directly in Papua New Guinean culture – and conflict management generally).
And just as, if food’s there, locals will eat it, they have the same mentality with alcohol most of them; if there’s still more beer to drink, well they’ll just keep drinking them. Many locals drink like fishes and, me being such a light tippler, I haven’t even attempted to keep up with them. Not that some of the local brews are that bad. SP (South Pacific) brew a not bad beer; their Niugini Ice is particularly tasty. But some of the other beverages made here are pretty dire (like Nawbawan Scotch, as well as the pineapple vodka, coffee rum and vanilla punch), though none of them pack the punch of the absolutely evil illegal homebrew ‘steam’ (brewed out of fermented pineapples or other local fruits), which is over 80% alcohol and has caused more than a few poisonings in its time.
Up on the catwalk
Well, it also seemed somehow appropriate, after commenting on food here, that I comment on fashion and clothes as well (maybe I’m just in a superficial bimbo frame of mind at the moment, or something). The two seemed interlinked - food of course, has it’s ‘fashions’, as do clothes (as do, indeed, many areas of society, including politics, philosophy and ideas, economics, governance, business and even religion and spirituality you could argue).
Of course, like food, PNG isn’t really what you’d call cutting edge in the modern fashion stakes, although there have been some innovative designs occasionally, like the dresses they designed for the South Pacific games that were made from the same materials as bilums, the ubiquitous woolen or string bags sold in every market that are very colourful, expandable and useful (for carrying cargo, food or babies). But of course some of the traditional dress was pretty fantastic, particularly when they geared themselves up for the singsings (festivals). In the Highlands especially, traditionally one of the main forms of art was body adornment and decoration, which was developed to a high degree, with fantastic headdresses made of birds of paradise and other plumes, body painting, and unusual costumes the order of the day; compared to some Highlanders at singsing the crowd at Sydney Mardi Gras seem decidedly dull. In fact, many Highlanders, particularly women, still have a sense of style in modern dress, but pulling it off is another thing altogether. I’ve heard people joke that they’re probably the best dressed people in the place, with everything matching and accessorised, but some of them are also the ones who haven’t washed for a week! Mind you, in some parts of the Highlands where it gets very cold you could hardly blame someone for not wanting to wash that often in freezing mountain streams.
The Highlands was also home to that unique PNG clothing ‘accessory’ for men, the penis gourd (no, I haven’t tried on one). This is basically a sheath, made out of some kind of gourd, used to cover ones modesty – and that’s it. In some parts of the Highlands that was the only ‘clothing’ men wore. Of course, nowadays in most part of the Highlands (and the country), traditional clothing has given way to Western dress, and the traditional is only used for festivals. Similarly traditional tattooing is dying out (older Motuan women, for example, used to have tattoos down their face and breasts, and sometimes arms and legs, whereas young Motu women no longer do), although adhoc modern tattooing done in a home-made way still seems popular; which, if not done properly, can be another risk here in terms of the spread of HIV.
Modern clothing here is often second hand clothes (shipped from Australia), which are one of the biggest industries here after security. Like everything else, you can get new stuff but it is expensive, unless it’s locally made. Men generally wear jeans or shorts and t-shirts (particularly the ever present yellow Trukai rice tshirts) or sometimes rugby tops, women meri blouses and laplaps.
Meri blouses are loose fitting blouses that go down to about the upper thighs. They are worn over laplaps, basically big loose skirts of material wrapped around the lower body. The cut is often dowdy and conservative, following the tradition of not revealing female curves (I’ve joked to myself that quite a number of the women here act like lesbians, because they’re so butch, but dress like Christians). In fact, when PNG women here do wear tight fitting clothes, it really stands out because it’s so uncommon, particularly on older women; it’s like “hello, cleavage!” But the colours of the materials of meri blouses and laplaps, like materials in Africa, are often very bright, sometimes garishly so, but certainly more eyecatching than the often drab colours western women wear: bright purples, reds, blues, greens, and yellows are common, often which really suit the colouring of women’s skins. Men are much more conservative in dress in terms of colour, particularly for work which people take dress for quite seriously, but some do wear tropical-themed coloured shirts. You do see some very well coutured, immaculately made-up younger PNG women, very stylish and elegant; some of these, though, you only ever see at restaurants or nightclubs. Some younger more modern PNG women are also likely to wear shorts and caps and tshirts in casual wear; some of them can look like aspiring hip-hop DJs (in keeping with the butch theme too).
There are some quite frankly weird fashion trends (lots of people going around with one jeans leg up and the other down), but others that are quite funky (some great caps in kind of a 60s style). Hair is styled in many permutations: dreadlocks, shaved and bald, bushy, flat tops, crazy afros, plaits and braids, oiled up with coconut oil (or fed with ‘hair food’, which is like a kind of hair fudge), and sometimes bleached orangey-blond (for the Tolai people), although both genders tend to have their hair short; it’s only some women with straight-ish or wavy hair, like the Papuans down south or maybe some Bougainvilleans, as opposed to the standard fuzzy Melanesian hair, who can grow it to any length.
The birds and the bees…
I’ve already talked a little bit about the complicated nature of gender relations and sexuality here in Papua New Guinea; it certainly is one of the more challenging aspects of being here for me to navigate that, particularly coming from my own idiosyncratic perspective. So I guess after food and fashion, sex – well, maybe waxing a little bit lyrical some of the observations here I’ve made, and my own feelings.
A couple of early observations I made here, which many visitors do. Firstly, unlike Australia (and other western cultures), but similar to India, the Middle East and other ‘developing’ cultures, traditional taboos are in place about opposite sex touch in public. That is, in public, men and women do not kiss, hold hands a lot, or embrace. The only times I’ve seen this happen here is occasionally with wantoks, not with husbands and wives or partners. However, same-sex touch is quite common, and generally means nothing more than affection and friendliness. Men often walk around holding hands with other men, sometimes just the pinkies (which I find quite sweet), and women too with other women. For someone coming from a queer background, this can at first be quite confusing and ‘jam your radar’ so to speak, although I’ve now gotten so used to it that it much more jolts me when I see (more westernized) opposite sex couples behaving intimately in public. Same-sex touch in public here doesn’t have the same ‘loaded’ value as it does in Australia, there isn’t the Anglo reserve or (homo)erotic connotations, which is actually really nice, because I’ve always believed that people, particularly westerners, need to detach ‘touch’ or affection from sex, because the two aren’t the same, and touch can have many meanings and values for people.
That’s not to say men and women don’t flirt here. They definitely do with each other, but it just works in a different way, and it also depends on where the people come from, what place, and what taboos there are there, as well as how ‘modernised’ or not they are, as to how they go about it.
Another observation here I’ve noticed is how relaxed people are with the sight of women breast feeding. In Australia, there are still taboos around this, women who feed in public will be very discreet and understated about it. Here, people just see it as a natural and necessary thing to do. I’ve seen women jump on and off the PMVs breast feeding a child as they go, for all the world to see. I’m sure many Papua New Guineans would regard many Australian’s hang-ups over breastfeeding in public as quite neurotic.
Part of that I’m sure comes down to utilitarianism (if you need to feed the child, then you just feed the child), but I wonder whether part of it comes down to the differences in the Melanesian male’s erotic imagination. While, like many men, PNG males can appreciate a pair of beautiful breasts I’m sure, it seems it doesn’t sexually have the allure to them compared to other parts of the female body. While women’s clothing is generally loose fitting, it seems it’s more to shroud the shape of the lower body than the upper. In traditional dances in some areas women still go topless (as they traditionally dressed before westernization), and there don’t seem to be as many taboos about women’s breasts as about their thighs. Wearing very tight shorts on women or anything revealing the thighs is seen as quite inappropriate culturally and could easily be connoted as a sexual come on by some PNG men. In western parlance, you could say many PNG men might be leg men, not breast men.
And there are some quite stunning women here, I must say (and some very striking men – more about that a bit further on). But compared to other places I’ve been, and to home Oz, I don’t think I’ve found as many women (always a minority to me compared to my attractions to men anyway) as sexually or aesthetically attractive here. Part of that may be the butchness factor of a lot of the women here. The women I’ve generally found attractive are either quite feminine or at least if they’re more androgynous than they’re a bit more boyish in a soft way; whereas here some women are stockier than rugby players (and act like them too!), especially some of the women from the remoter parts of the Highlands (in Enga some of the women even have beards!). Having said that, there are some women I’ve found quite eye-catching, but obviously with my own situation and background, the cross-cultural implications here and ethical and other concerns, and not to mention my current relationship, there’s nothing I’ve pursued or explored. But that hasn’t stopped me from being rather seen as a bit of a ‘dish’ by many local women. In PNG white men have the reputation of being ‘of money’ (hence the older white man, younger local women thing). And it’s very seldom that they see younger, reasonably attractive white men around here (most of the white men I’ve met here are in the mid 40s or older at least), certainly ones like me who walk around everywhere; consequently I get lots of admiring (and a few blatant ‘checking me out’) glances from quite a number of women here, more than I’d ever get in Melbourne. It’s very flattering for the ego, although weird to be regarded as the exotic, desirable “Other”, in this way for once.
And on the converse, it’s kinda nice here that I can also flirt with cute men, in terms of being friendly and smiling when I’m walking around talking to them, and they may not have a clue what I’m thinking, they just think “oh, he’s friendly for a white guy”, and I’m thinking something different (and considerably less G rated)!
There are attractive men from all parts of the country I’ve seen, although I think I have a bit of a thing for Papuans (those who come from the south of the country) – Paul is part-Papuan – and particularly men from Milne Bay. Papuans are often leaner and taller and look almost a bit Polynesian or Asian some of them, while Milne Bay are quite slight and small: they are the ‘twinks’ of PNG, Paul jokes, and locally everyone refers to them as ‘size 28s’. But there have been some quite arresting Highlanders or Tolai or Bougainville men as well I’ve seen too. One thing that you definitely notice about PNG men (and women too, but with the men it’s more pronounced) is their extraordinary eyelashes. Similar to Greek or Southern Italian men, many PNG men have very long and curved eyelashes, they’re very striking and quite alluring on some of the lads .
What’s also interesting about being in PNG is that I think my taste is men is changing a little again, not maybe as much as when I went to Melbourne, where I became a supposed ‘rice/souvlaki/burrito’ queen (finding a penchant for Asian, Mediterranean and Latino guys), but nevertheless changing still. I was never that really into black men before, sure there was the odd one I saw now and then that I thought was hot, but they were more the exception. But here there’s been many men I’ve found attractive – I wonder whether I’m now becoming a ‘yam-queen’! What’s also interesting is that I don’t find many of the white or even Asian men here attractive. I went to a gig at the Oz High Commission for Australia Day, Mental as Anything were playing (not a particular fave band of mine, but they are kinda iconic Oz and it was free – I went with Marion who kept waiting for what she called the ‘vegemite sandwich’ song until she realized it wasn’t them that sang that!). What struck me about the crowd, all Aussie expats, was that, apart from a few people here and there, everyone was *so* unattractive. And I’ve noticed that about many of the Asians I’ve seen around here too, which is even more pronounced for me, the supposed rice queen. My friend Brenda, who’s from Melbourne too, agreed that, whereas in Melbourne there are *lots* of really cute Asian guys, here it’s like they got all the ones you’d normally ‘throw back’. With white guys here it’s worse, as many of them are late 40s or older at least for a start – and with white women it’s only marginally better (I haven’t seen many Asian women here to comment on them). It’s really no wonder I’ve gone quite native in my tastes!
…and their byproducts
And while talking about Melanesian people, I can’t finish without making some comment about the kids here. I swear, Melanesian kids are some of the cutest in the world (all big hair and smiles), and some of them have brought out my paternal side. But it’s interesting being in my living circumstance, because it’s made me both less and more clucky; more because, well, some of them are very endearing and sweet; but less because, well, when you live in the same compound as about a dozen small children, you start to see on a semi-daily basis their less endearing habits too, particularly tantrums and tears. Whereas with my nieces (and now nephew), being the doting uncle, there’s only a few of them I deal with at one time, and I see them only in discrete packages, not living next door 24/7. Not that the kids have been the only noise problem here: I think Port Moresby (like much of the developing world) has a noise pollution problem, and relatively high density living, compared to Oz, doesn’t help. If it’s not cars, or kids screaming, or babies crying, or a neighbour playing loud Melanesian (or gospel) music, then it’s the many semi-wild dogs here fighting and barking in the middle of the night. Note to any potential visitors or would-be residents of Port Moresby (POM): one of the best and most useful things I ever brought here was earplugs (the other was Gastrostop for diarrhea).