From ‘Pardon My French’ by Anne-Marie Smith, Ginninderra Press, 232 pages, $32.50. You can order your copy here
HENLEY BEACH - Leaving Papua New Guinea after ten happy years there was the toughest yet the gentlest of experiences.
“We’ve come to see you out. It’s for good luck,” our Melanesian neighbours stood at the door.
“It’s our custom,” they said, “we like to safeguard our friends as they leave their house.”
Their presence also took the fuss out of locking up and dulled the ache of glancing at the house for one last time.
Arriving at the airport, I sensed a sweet smell. The scent got stronger, reminding me of the frangipani tree I had left in bloom in the front garden of our house.
“We made these leis for you to wear.” a group of waiting friends called out. “Look, there is one for each of you. Try them for size.”
Someone said “size 0” and giggling resounded throughout the group, a Papua New Guinea English in-joke, no doubt.
After I hugged a couple more friends who’d come to see us off, I noticed my flowers were wet with tears.
Ten years of seeing people come and go and it was my turn to be going finish. I was leaving for good. The circle around my family and me was getting larger yet more blurry. Melanesian people were familiar to farewelling expatriates, a regular post-colonial mission.
“On behalf of your Ni-Vanuatu, Kanaky and Papua New Guinean friends and colleagues, we want to say we indeed had good times together and yumi olgeta [all of us] wish you and your family well.”
By that time, letting go was becoming a real dilemma. Embracing one another felt good, but in the end, I’d have to let everyone of those hands slip out of mine. The lei around my neck was getting bruised, wetter and the inebriating smell made me reel with emotion.
“I can’t find it,” I was fumbling through my bilum, muttering to myself. “I wonder what I did with it,” I said, rummaging through the bag. “It isn’t there!”
Unable to find my camera when I wanted to keep a record of this significant moment made me even more emotional.
“Do we really have to go?” my daughter asked.
“We’ve been here many years, you know it’s time we left,” not the answer the poor little girl in ponytails was hoping for.
“Why can’t we stay a bit longer?” she went on.
I turned to take my son’s hand and with my daughter still tugging at my neck, I started to address the farewell party with what I meant to be a long formal speech.
After this, talking was no longer an option. I was left with a tight smile and tears interfering with my vision.
The scene became one happy heartbreaking blur. Moving on and away from the group, with my family around me, I started to wave at the crowd of Melanesian companions cheering us on, in various languages.
“Don’t worry! Maski! You’ll like Australia. Oi be… you’ll see!”
The group was still shuffling while guiding us towards the tarmac where the aircraft awaiting us stood bearing the colourful Air Niugini plumed insignia.
Our Melanesian friends stopped there, forming a semi-circle either side of the hostess at the departure gate. The sound of the last Tok Pisin words I was going to hear for a long time echoed.
“Lukim yu gen!” [We’ll see you again] and “Lukim yu behain!”
Of all the break-ups in personal friendships and relationships, that day meant the greater loss for me and for my family.
We were leaving behind a ready-made extended family on the Waigani housing campus. I was to find that even extensive networking in Australia could never replace the close ties I had experienced in Papua New Guinea.
Still waving goodbye to the outside world, we entered the Boeing bound for Australia, and settled into our seats.
The passenger near the window next to my husband leaned over and in a jarring brash American tone called out, “Can you keep these flowers away from me, I am allergic to the smell.”
These words, from a person I thought to be a tourist, resounded along our small row of seats. The immediate effect sparked off a new emotion in me - some kind of rage.
My eyes darted towards the window seat and I performed what some call a Gallic shrug, using French as an escape valve.
“J’ai pas compris ce qu’elle a dit” [I didn’t get what she said!] I exclaimed, turning to see my kids by then well ensconced in their seats.
This person couldn’t possibly be asking us to remove our precious frangipani, the symbol of our lives and friendships in the tropics, woven together into personalised leis and ceremoniously placed around our necks as a farewell gift by our Melanesian friends.
Somehow that remark epitomised the change in our cultural lifestyle that was to come.
Peter sat down and politely removed his lei. Taking a deep breath, I sat across the aisle from him and fastened my seat belt. The children had already secured theirs. The three of us donned our leis all the way to Brisbane or was it Sydney, I now wonder, our first port of call after leaving Port Moresby Airport.
Such a potent moment that I couldn’t recall anything about the rest of the flight or even where we landed.
My children said they had to force me to surrender my lei at one of the quarantine booths. When landing at all airports in Australia, passengers will spot multiple green and gold fruit and vegetable quarantine receptacles which double up as ‘welcome’ signs.
These stand so tall that they render everything else invisible as you take your first step on Australian soil. I however insisted on keeping the ‘PX’ trademark labels of Air Niugini Airlines as a keepsake from this heart-rending trip. My son’s initials were also PX as in Patrick Xavier. It was indeed hard for me to let go.
The only thing clear in my mind now was finding my camera when I emptied my bag at the hotel. There it was, where I had packed it, brooding and snug in the side pocket of my backpack, too late for farewell snaps.