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Never go back

Kundiawa Airstrip, December 1963 (Keith Jackson)PHIL FITZPATRICK

THERE are several Papua New Guineas.

The most obvious are the two different countries occupied by the educated elite and the rural-dwelling subsistence villager.

While these two different countries exist in real time, in the same place, and often merge into each other there is another Papua New Guinea, equally alive, that exists in an entirely different dimension.

This is the Papua New Guinea that exists in the minds of Australians and other expatriates who worked there prior to independence in 1975.

I first became aware of these two different countries when I went back in 1997.

Like most people I had carried memories and images around in my head for a long time. From that moment onwards, however, the otherwise real country in my head ceased to exist. It had been replaced by a country that I hadn’t seen before and didn’t really understand.

This new country into which I had inadvertently stepped had rundown old buildings covered in mould and surrounded by tall cyclone wire fences topped with razor wire.

Behind the fences men in a variety of paramilitary dress lounged with fierce looking German Shepherds, Dobermans and Rottweilers.

On the crowded and potholed streets people wandered aimlessly amongst discarded rubbish and betel nut stains dressed in nondescript uniforms of long trousers, tee-shirts and thongs or in ballooning and brightly coloured blouses over plain wrap-around skirts.

Occasionally a dark blue and battered police troop carrier would nose through the crowd with scruffy, unshaven men with dark glasses and red-stained teeth at the wheel.

The people spoke a language I had not heard before.  In some ways it resembled the language of that other country but it was aberrated, attenuated and laced with lots of fractured English.

Kieta HarbourThat other country was often called the land of the unexpected but this new country was ominously and often unpleasantly predictable.  The land that time forgot had been rediscovered with a vengeance and visited upon by all the poxes of the modern world.

Over time I got to know this new country.  I learnt the language and I made new friends and began to develop an affection for it. 

The physical and social dilapidation began to fade into the background and I started to discover new wonders in this tatty nation.  It slowly became a place in which I felt comfortable.

There are odd moments when I ponder the words of that master story teller, Chips Mackellar, at the end of his short story collection, Sivarai.

“I spent nearly thirty years of my life in Papua New Guinea and after I left never returned.  I heeded the advice of Felix Dennis in his (poem), A Glass Half Full....

Never go back. Never go back.
Never return to the haunts of your youth.
Keep to the track, to the beaten track.
Memory holds all you need of the truth.

“I could have returned, as many other kiaps have done since they left, and some of them still work there as private contractors to various mining companies," Chips wrote.

"But Papua New Guinea is not like it used to be and I prefer to remember it the way it was when I was there.”

Chips might have been right.  You can’t buy airline tickets to that other country anymore and the lazy old steamers no longer call into its shining ports.

The sun doesn’t set on those fertile valleys, dense rainforests and wide sweeping beaches anymore and those happy people in their grass skirts and glistening skin now sleep somewhere else.

The smell of soft rain on rustling kunai and wood smoke drifting in the wind has dissipated.

It is a country that is slowly being forgotten.  It is a land that has journeyed into sleep, never to be re-awakened.


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Peter Kranz

Some reflections of an expat after a return to PNG after 8 years.

Well Port Moresby has gone ahead by leaps and bounds. There are new motorways, settlements have been razed, new housing estates and sub-divisions built, modern shopping malls and new buildings everywhere.

There is a ring-road highway being built from 9 mile north beyond Morata, through to Gerehu and which I understand will extend to town near Hanuabada.

There's a new rising middle class with money to spend, consumerism is rife and modern appurtenances apparent. I even saw a Ferrari.

New hotels (rooms for a mere K1,000 a night), pubs and clubs, sports venues and even traffic lights which give you a countdown to when your lane will get the go - which gives the impression of the start of a drag race. "Three two one - floor it!"

There is a great new adventure park between 9 mile and Bomana, built by the redoubtable Justin Tkatchenko. There are orchid gardens, lakeside walks, PNG animals in enclosures and you can even go fishing and enjoy a BBQ.

Justin even tried to import exotic animals for the Zoo, but was prevented by quarantine restriction. So the park had concrete pretend animals adorning its entrance. As my brother said "Ah, you saw Justin's animals which don't move!"

Vision City is to all appearances a modern shopping mall which could be plonked down in any western city. I walked past the air-conditioned shops with the sisters and peered through the windows at jewellery, dresses and entertainment systems which would take an average PNG worker a lifetime to afford.

"Who buys this stuff?" I said. "Oh mostly politicians and businessmen" was the answer.

But this is the façade. Scratch a little deeper and the old PNG is still there, even in Port Moresby. And I doubt the trappings of wealth extend much beyond the city pale.

Perhaps the resource boom has brought a new life to the privileged few, but the great unwashed still have to endure a life of privation, lack of services and the constant struggle to make ends meet.

At Nine Mile where I stayed with the family, there are a few mansions being built, but most people living in the settlement still eke out a living running buai stalls, selling Ox and Palm, Wopas and Coke.

We had no water from 9-5 most days, power blackouts and limited if any sewerage apart from an open drain. I wonder if the visiting politicians and businessmen are aware of what life is like just 1 km down the road from their posh hotel?

But the Melanesian way still prevails. One morning we had an urgent phone call (on a Digicel 4G mobile of course) to say that a brother had had an altercation with an employee over a performance-related issue which ended with a punch on the nose, so a compensation ceremony was needed before the aggrieved's family attacked.

So we bundled into Mana's PMV and drove forth to 3 mile in a display of family solidarity.

But there was no need to worry - "put away that busknif Uncle!". When we arrived, brother was already sharing a bottle of Black Label with the aggrieved party, three pigs were nobly sacrificing their lives in the cause of peace and the Aunties from both sides were busy peeling kaukau and bananas.

Peace in our time.

But the ordinary people in the settlements still cry out for development and services, the politicians continue to prevaricate while counting their money, and the kids still get sick and can't afford to attend school.

Cry the beloved country.

Paul Oates

Hi Arthur, Visiting you in your native Wales convinced me that while there are some undoubted benefits of living where you live however those benefits have to be on the far side of a continuum when compared with our part of the world and most importantly, with PNG.

We are part of a very small band of people who it could be said of; ‘You can take the person out of PNG but you can’t take PNG out of them.’

Our PNG experience changed us into what could best be described as an amalgam that once made, cannot be unmade. Perhaps some of our PNG friends who have visited or lived in Australia and elsewhere would understand what I mean.

To the countrymen and women of our birthplace however, we are no doubt thought of as; ‘Lapun emi liklik longlong pinis yia.’

Phil Fitzpatrick

That's a great quote Arthur, I've copied it and filed it away. Up until a couple of years ago my wife and I spent time wandering around the backwaters of the South Pacific and it really resonates.

As we speak (so as to speak) Bob Cleland, 80+ and still counting, is up in Kundiawa where he served as a kiap in the 1950s. He flew to Mt Hagen and travelled with a contingent in a bus along the highway to Kundiawa for the 2015 Crocodile Awards.

It's not so much age but the wherewithal that seems to hold a lot of people back.

If you want to hang onto your James Norman Hall memories, I would say don't go back, but if you are prepared for a few surprises, some of which may not be pleasant and some of which may be disheartening, I'd recommend a return.

There's a whole new world to discover and a great population of wonderful people to meet.

Arthur Williams | Lavongai & Cardiff

Happy 40th I-DAY everyone and thanks for your thought provoking 'Not Going Back' Phil. Alas for me it just ain't simple.

Not a day goes by over here in cold often wet Wales than my brain releases memory from the 32 year data bank files it has on that other life I once led. Having daughters and grandchildren there doesn't make life any easier.

My last 19 month visit to live with them ended near the end of 2008. So I have had six more years of being apart yet again. An old man now it's now an insoluble dilemma; when I'm here I think too much of them and when I'm there I think too much of the daughters and grandchildren over here.

Those 32 years have afflicted me too much.

Many years ago James Norman Hall better described it anchored in an atoll in the Tuamoto islands:

". . . I heard as in a dream the far-off clamour of the outside world . . . but there was no reality, no allurement in the sound. I saw men carrying trivial burdens with an air of immense effort, of grotesque self-importance; scurrying in breathless haste on useless errands, gorging food without relish; sleeping without refreshment; taking their leisure without enjoyment; living without the knowledge of content; dying without ever having lived. .. ."

He describes what I have become. Life in Wales seems almost pointless and I just don't feel I belong here.

Yet Phil you mentioned 'Never go back' from Chips Mackellar quoting Felix Dennis poem , 'A Glass Half Full'. Surely at 76 I should heed those remarks.....but I cannot press a 'delete' button for my memories and would go back tomorrow if I won the lottery!

But as Woody Allen said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

Noken riwain.

Dave Ekins

I also returned to PNG in 1997 after 20 years absence and stayed for 16 years.

For the duration of my 20 years back in Australia, I had generally kept up to date with the ongoing development and changes within PNG.

When I decided to return, many people said ‘Oh, so you’re going back”, to which I responded, “No, I’m not going back to anywhere. I’m actually going somewhere new”.

It was this mindset that made the second experience so fulfilling. I certainly came across a lot of people who yearned for the “good old days”, including fellow ex-kiaps who thought that they would be welcomed back as conquering heroes by a populace grateful for their real or imagined deeds of yesteryear.

There were also the latter day B4’s who bemoaned the state of the country compared to earlier times, and of course, there were large numbers of more recent arrivals whose bogan approach to PNG and PNGeans caused me to cringe just as much as their counterparts in the 60’s and 70’s did.

Most of my time from 1997 was spent in the remotest parts of the Southern Highlands and the Gulf with occasional sojourns to Mt Hagen, Morobe and East New Britain and, also, a considerable period of time visiting Port Moresby.

What I found in this “new” place were gracious, friendly and generous villagers, a well educated and well qualified cohort in both private and public enterprise who were the equal of anyone I knew in Australia, massive infrastructure developments and an overall physical beauty that has no peer in the world (apart from the usual hotspots).

Many people were well travelled, urbane and confident. Very few condoned the political and social negatives engulfing them and most did not let it drag them down. This resilience is why PNG and its people will prevail. There is nothing that cannot be achieved in the right environment.

Returnees and new arrivals that focus on the negatives and draw comparisons with previous times or other places will ultimately depart PNG disillusioned and bitter.

I am not advocating the use of rose-coloured glasses or playing the ostrich, but the sum of all that is currently good and magnificent about PNG far outweighs the bad stuff. So do go back but go with the proper mindset.

Mathias Kin

Keith, this is indeed a very thoughtful analysis of the status of this land I call home. It truly saddens me that we have so much and yet our people are doing so badly, our country is simple falling apart.

Perhaps we should own up and be true to our self. We are a very corrupt nation. This country has failed its citizens.
I was born in the mid 1960s and lived through the other country you describes so avidly.

Last night I returned from a fund raising dinner for the Kundiawa International Primary School and one learned Dr John Konam shared an inspirational talk on good teaching of not just English, Science and Arithmetic but also the strong need for moral teaching at the early stage of schooling.

I am thinking PNG schools should now give ample time to subjects that groom morally upright citizens in our communities. An adjustment of the PNG education curriculum to look in that direction maybe the way forward.

My thoughts on this.

Jack Klomes

Thank you Phil for a very wonderful and insightful article. You have told us a fact that some of us (me) refuse to acknowledge and believe that it will no longer be the same.

I know we speak from different perspectives and points in time but the common denominator is the death of a people, time and place.

I was lucky I guess to have at least lived and witnessed maybe a part of that life. Since development happening in most parts of PNG finally reached Aitape, I grew up there and thinking back now I could remember back then from the early to mid 1990s when going to Aitape town with my parents the town seemed different.

It was more organized, greener, less crowded and everyone you meet in town seems to be there fore a purpose and it gives a picture of peacefulness.

However recently, since I last left in 2012, the town has become crowded, with aimless people just roaming, street markets here and there big noisy vehicles, drunks here there, street preachers and loud music from retailers.

I used to think back to those days when the town is sort of quiet and sleepy, but then its called development. I guess this comes with development and development is on everyone's lips and minds.

This is the picture of development in PNG. Because authorities have done nothing about this, people have come to silently accept and live with it.

Sadly this is slowly reaching and invading the quiet village life of our people. They are changing and we can do nothing but watch helplessly and think about what it was like.

Once again thank you Phil for that article. It has given me a lot to think about!

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