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Best of 2019: Living at ground level

Stan GallaherSTAN GALLAHER

After Stan – a wild man of Papua New Guinea – died in Port Moresby in 2016, his son Luke unearthed one of his letters written to his family in Australia in December 2002. “My father made friends and enemies of prime ministers and was famously know in PNG as a man who would give the shirt off his back to anyone,” Luke says - KJ

POPONDETTA - Its 0630 hours Sunday here and we have overcast skies just starting to lift, the sun burning the mist off the ground and birds have been at it in the mango tree for the past three hours.

PNG music playing in all the houses up and down the street, each trying to play their stereos higher than their neighbours, kids starting to give mums heaps waiting for breakfast, the normal shit that goes on every morning with the exception that its Sunday.

Some are on their way to church to confess their sins so they can start the next week off with a clean soul and do it all over again. It’s a ritual, rape , pillage, maim, steal and destroy all week but go to church on Sundays, that way its OK to do all the things you do during the week and it helps when you go to court to answer the charges if you tell the beak that you are a good churchman/woman.

Excuse me if I sound cynical, may have been here too long. There are some good people here but you can count them on your hands and feet if you have your boots off.

Right now we have half of Julie’s family here in the house, her old man has been very sick with TB for the past year and he lost the battle last night at eight, they came round this morning to let her know. This is the second time he has died, we got word last week that he had passed on but in fact he just went to sleep until one of the sons bit him on the hand and woke him up.

I think they are sure this time, they took him out of the hospital and put him in the morgue last night. Poor old bastard, he has had a hard life with a ballbuster for a wife and seven kids and only one who would cook and wash for him and she has been with me for the past year and a half so his last year has been a real shit for him.

Julie has been going down to the house every second day to cook his food and wash his gear. The mother works and so do two of the sons but the rest are too busy doing nothing to look after him. The mother won’t cook for anyone except herself, buys her own food, she won’t do their washing and puts no money into housekeeping, she looks after her self and F--- the rest of the world. She used to come here demanding money from Julie every week until she discovered the real meaning of F --- OFF.

Now we will get to the big bite, they will want money to pay for his planting, all sorts of bullshit will come our way now, Julie is married to a white man and he must have plenty of bucks because he is white. That’s OK - we got that covered, cost nothing to ask, cost nothing to say no. Say yes and the cost never ends.

Oh well, on to more important things. Lorna Jean is growing in leaps and bounds, she is capable of sitting up on her own now, teeth about to come through and Mum looks like a real treat in some of the clothes you and Aggie sent up. She goes to the hospital once a month for her check ups and the nurses all want to know where she gets her dresses from. Some were too small for her and we found a good home for them, a newborn up the street.

As for workwise, the offer from the company in Port Moresby is a good one and I would be very happy if it comes off, in the meantime I have covered myself just in case it don’t. There is a small local firm that I have made an arrangement with and they are willing to make sure I get my new visa and work permits even if it’s only for a short time.

I have told them about the offer from Port Moresby and they are happy to help in the meantime. It’s a two way street, with me on their books they get my experience and reputation in earthworks and my contacts with the major project managers, that alone will get them work they would never have had the chance to get before or in the future.

What it means is I will have to come down to Brisbane on a very short trip to have all my paperwork fixed into my passport, that should take about four days if all goes well. They have already arranged for some people in the right offices in Port Moresby to arrange it so that I can get things done in Brisbane in a hurry.

I won’t be able to bring Julie and Lorna with me on this trip , the cost involved is too much right now and they wouldn’t get to see much in such a short time, we can work towards a good holiday later in the year depending on the outcome of the job in Port Moresby .

If that comes my way I will need to do a second trip to Brisbane to change all my permits again, we may be able to all come down then and spend a little time going around to visit everyone. It’s a case of wait and see right now, I may even get word about Port Moresby before I am ready to do the first trip. That would save a lot of money and time.

Right now we are still trying to sell one boat, it’s 23-foot long and we have a 30hp outboard to go with it, it’s surprising that a small motor of that size can push it along , but they work out OK. In Australian dollars we are asking $3,200 for it, very cheap given the age and condition. We have had plenty of interest but so far no one has come up with the bucks. We will have to decide in the next week if we should drop our price a bit, I won’t be able to go anywhere if we can’t sell it.

The cost of living here has gone through the roof in the past five months with the change in government. The kina has fallen in value. When I came here in 1996 it was just about equal in Aussie dollars now it worth 38 cents. One thousand of our money here will get you $380 Aussie. Because so many things are imported to this country the cost of goods has gone up with the devaluation of the kina.

Small jars of baby food went from K1.85 to K3.25 in three months, the cost of an airline ticket in 1996 was K120 return to Port Moresby, now it’s K400, a packet of Windfield 25s has gone from K2.90 to K8.75, rump steak went from K9 per kilo to K30. The poor local labour has had no wage increase in that time and is paying through the nose for all the little extras including clothes. Award wages for a labourer is K75 a fortnight, not a lot to feed a family of four on.

It’s one reason there are so many robberies in the country, why work your guts out for peanuts when you can get a years pay with one good haul. Workers will rob a company blind if they get half a chance, it’s nothing to have someone offer you a starter motor off a bulldozer worth K10,000 for K1,000 and the worst part about it is that most companies will buy it, no market no theft. Half the time they are buying their own parts back, just being cleaned up that’s all.

Biggest dealer in parts here is the storeman for the Works Department, anything you want he can and will get it for you. Before anyone here buys a car or machine they check to see what Works have and then buy the same type, it’s so bloody blatant. There would be 50 motor vehicles in Works yard that have at one time or another had minor problems, within a week they have major problems because of missing parts.

They had an auction here about two months ago I went too, a Komatsu 623 grader about six years old was passed in at K36,000. I was told that if I wanted to buy it I could have all the parts it needed within a week, no problems. Shame I didn’t have the money, a new one now is worth K999,998. This one was in good condition, they never had money to buy fuel to use it. It’s still got the original tyres on it and they would have 50% life left on them.

This province (as they are called here, it’s the same as a state) is one of the richest in the country because of the oil palm grown here. Local landowners can get a loan from the World Bank through the growers association to plant 2ha that will cost K1,500, the returns now are K196.65 per ton of fruit and its harvested each fortnight. Each block (2ha) returns around three ton per harvest.

Some have larger blocks of up to 12ha, so their income by country standards is very high. At present the company that runs the mill to processes the oil gets K1,800 per ton for oil, not a bad return for a mill that’s 20 years old. They process around 22,000 tons a week for a return of 12,000 tons of oil. The waste material is used as fertiliser on young plants.

The mill employs around 2,000 people, they have their own plantation that is spread out all over the place, in total around 10,000 ha. The local growers have a total about the same. At present the old mill is working to full capacity and the plan is to grow an additional 5,000 ha in the next two years, this will mean a new mill or a major expansion

The mill handles all payments to local growers and payments are made direct into their bank accounts, there is only one bank here and it only has three ATMs, it’s nothing to see up to 1,000 people standing in line from daylight to dark waiting to use the ATMs. The machines get so overloaded and cash runs out and the whole system closes down for a day or two. That puts an even bigger load on the system when it’s back on line. To go to the bank here is a full day’s work, it’s a bloody pain.

Some stores here will accept cheques, others won’t; some have the goods you need, others don’t; can never win unless you find the key to the system; once you have that life goes along at a reasonable pace, still slow but you get there in the end.

What is the key you ask, the PNG factor.

Stan in the wheelhouse
Stan in the wheelhouse

There are five major stores here, all about the size of the original Tom the Cheat in Gladstone. Every day they are full to the brim with customers. I was talking to one of the owners on xmas day, they took K120,000 in cash sales in one day two days before xmas, their normal weekly turnover is K250,000 (Chinaman).

All the stores here lost a lot of money this year, the ships were late getting in with their stock, the bank system went on the blink and the local government put a booze ban on at the last moment, national government didn’t pay annual leave pays to all their people here and the local government never has money to pay their people . All in all a very normal Xmas for Popondetta.

The pot holes on our street are getting so big the kids are talking about closing the street off so they can start swimming training for the Olympics. Someone put a very large pineapple plant in the middle of one the other day, looked quiet at home there, wouldn’t surprise me to hear that a pukpuk moved in and took a kid or a dog one day in the near future, street is starting to look like a swamp.

People throw all their garden rubbish into the pot holes as well as some household stuff, old tyres, car rims, battery casings, just about anything, it’s meant to give the government a hint to fix things, don’t work that way, the government boys just make sure they don’t drive down this street, that way they can say they know nothing about it. “I haven’t seen it so it’s not true“ (me no save) - great words and meaning that, gets you out of all sorts of trouble.

They should change the country name to Me no Sav‘e. “Who took my tools?” “Me no Sav‘e”. Some of the many meanings, “ I don’t know what you are talking about“, “I haven’t seen them“, “Why ask me”, “Must have been that other guy”. The best is “I seen them yesterday but they ain’t here today”.

Our security man Eliza, who is meant to come every night, on a rating of 1 to 10, yeah, 6, he has been with us off and on for the past nine months. I kick his butt out for a week or so about every two months so he realises he is on a good thing. He has watched how I treat the dog here and they get on OK. He got his own dog and has been looking after it reasonably well, it’s fit and healthy compared to many others here.

Anyway, someone who has been on his case for a while over tribal matters put a man arrow through his dog’s back leg, you know what a mean bit of gear that is. He left the arrow in the dog overnight because every time he tried to get it out the dog tried to bite him. He asked me what was the best way to get it out, put a towel or bag over his mouth so he can’t bite you, make sure you wash the wound with disinfectant and warm water, then pull it right through and keep it covered so the flies can’t get to it. OK, to this point we are doing well.

The next night he doesn’t turn up for work, comes in later the next day and Julie asks what is going on, he got the arrow out of the dog, found the guy who put it there and returned the favour, payback. Our man ended up in the police cells for the night or was meant to be, one of the cops is his mate so he took him on night patrol with him until dawn and then sent him home.

The guy with the arrow in his leg is still in hospital, they had to cut the shit out of his leg to get the arrow out. Eliza made sure it went in to the full part of the top of his leg. He told me, “My dog is now a cripple, so is that bastard, if my dog dies so will he, I put the arrow in dog shit before I stuck it in him.”

This guy Eliza, my night security, is from the Southern Highlands and he is married to a very pretty young lady from there, all have legs like fence strainer posts.

His lady is very church-minded and her and a group of church people, three ladies and seven guys, most from the highlands, walked to Port Moresby a month ago, nothing new, people been doing it for years. They did the crossing in two and a half days, f---- amazing.

They left Kokoda station in the morning and walked all day and all night with a one hour stop, the next day they did the same thing and then took a short cut and connected to a logging road that comes close to the top of the Kokoda Gap, got on a logging truck into Port Moresby.

The same day they got to Port Moresby they put one of the guys on a plane back here so people knew they had arrived and to prove they had done it in two and a half days.

That’s a four day walk during daylight hours, 12 hours a day by an extremely fit man to the point where they took the short cut. To do it in the time they took and in the dark is worth recording. She came back a week later well worn out but very pleased with what she had done, can’t say I blame her.

You should see the timber on top of the ridges around the Kokoda Gap, any wonder the logging companies want to get to the top there. I have flown over that area many times and once they get to the top they will hit the mother lode, that will give access to the ridge lines that go for miles up and down the Owen Stanleys.

The value of the rosewood and kwila timbers alone are worth thousands of millions of US dollars, the rest is cream. They could cut roads from there to Alotau or any point along the way and get access to the coast at so many places. That’s going south-east, north-west is even better, it’s loaded with timber for miles and miles.

Both ways if they stop on top of the ridges they don’t have to worry about crossing major rivers, the returns would allow them to engage large helicopters to lift timber out to loading points like they do in Canada. The system that operates here now is meant to protect the landowners. Bullshit. Those guys are so big they could buy this country and not even feel the bump in their bank account.

They are meant to have Forestry approval for logging and export licences. What they do is tell the government and local landowners that they will build a road for so many kilometres for free if they can have the timber inside the road reserve. They do a deal with someone in government and the road reserve is extended from 40 metres wide to up to 200 metres wide.

There is one in the Western Province that starts from the Fly River and goes nowhere, it will end up being a road network of over 900m and up to 200 metres wide. There are no towns there and no services, no one has the money to buy a car or even if they did there is no way they could support it, no fuel available.

You could spend half a life time walking around over there and never bump into another human being, there are no passengers who can afford to pay for transport and because of the arrangement with the government there are very little royalties paid to local landowners because its not a logging deal but a road building aid project given free to the country by one of Malaysia’s biggest companies.

On the day they (RH) got access to this country’s timber they signed a deal with UMW Komatsu tractors and purchased 700 major items of second hand plant from UMW, owned by a Malaysian company. The then prime minister of this country picked up a consideration of K60 million.

How do I know all this, I have friends in high places who remember me for past efforts but never pay their bills. He was paid in US dollars to an offshore account. He is known as the Godfather in this country and would ensure that it’s not a horse’s head in your bed when you wake up. Bastard still owes me K4,500 for the time he kicked the now prime minister out of office when he and all his mates took over the motel for three days back in 1994-95.

It’s now 0230 hours, Monday 30 December 2002, shit the day has gotten away. Julie and baby have been back for hours, both are sleeping well tonight, I am thankfully for Julie’s sake, she has had a hard day what with the old man losing his battle and the shit that has come from the mother.

The big brothers have kicked the mother out of the house and sent her back to her village or wherever she wants to go, they want no part of her any longer, that’s custom and for once I must agree with it, she knows that she could be dead.

The two smaller kids, one girl and one boy, will be looked after by the big boys and theit wives, they will end up as part of their family. On the outside it appears to be a very simple arrangement but once you get to understand the way things are worked (keep in mind each clan has a different system and there are over 700 different clans in this country) it’s quiet complex.

The money the old man paid for his bride price years ago must now be repaid with interest to the sons because the wife didn’t look after him, it’s like if she dies before him her clan has to pay him back because she never lasted the distance, in this case it’s reversed, she failed her duties and didn’t look after him and because of that he died, so her mob have to repay the sons.

Her lot can’t win unless he runs away with another woman, then they get nothing because they have already been paid, so what they all do is sell her again if she is of reasonable sellable age. In this case no one pays for dog food in the village, so her mob should consider themselves lucky they had use of the money the old man had to pay years ago. But in this country you must always look to the future, you never know what might happen tomorrow, try to keep the bride price in a fixed bank account, just in case it has to be paid back

Eliza (security ) is sleeping outside with the dog (mine, not his.) Eliza is due in court come daylight charged with intent to commit a serious offence, namely the use of a projectile to cause damage, injury and or harm to a person or property, that’s like throwing a rock at someone’s fence. It will be adjourned until the guy in the hospital is able to give evidence. If he can’t, next time it’s due for hearing, it will be dismissed. He may be dead but chances are a settlement will be made out of court and you have to read between the lines on that, anything could happen.

The use of a projectile, that’s a good one. If you threw a rock at someone in a car and it breaks the windscreen it’s considered as destruction of property, if it hits its intended target, namely the person you are aiming for, it’s considered the use of a projectile with intent causing grievous bodily harm. These guys here don’t throw rocks or stones for fun, they use them like most people use handguns at close range and the rock travels at close to the speed of a slug from a hand gun but with much larger impact.

They use them to try to kill but when it comes to court any pisspoor lawyer can get them off by saying it was only a projectile thrown with the intent to scare the other party, sorry his aim was off and he hit this man or woman in the head and he or she died or is in a coma but he didn’t mean for it to happen and anyway it was only a stone, not a gun or bush knife he used.

And besides, when he was arrested he wasn’t read his rights and was beaten up in the cells by the dead person’s mates who are policemen and has suffered enough, and besides this he goes to church every Sunday with his family and confesses his sins to the Big Man up there.

It’s bloody New Year’s Day already, the fax system was down so I never got to send this letter the other day, will try soon.

The police drove around yesterday afternoon using loud hailers to advise the locals to behave during the night, my neighbours are still going now at 0745 hours and don’t look like closing down for some time yet, home brew, foul and deadly but they manage to put heaps away. I would hate to be inside their heads in about eight hours’ time. We had a fair drop of rain overnight and that tends to keep them off the streets, although there are always the ones who will go out in any condition to do their thing.

Julie and her family planted the old man yesterday at the big son’s block. Glad they didn’t keep him hanging around at the house for too long, it’s not a pretty sight after a few days. Anyway by the time the clock turned over last night Julie was well and truly dead to the world.

Well, with that I can say no more. All the best for the new year, hope to see some of you soon.

Comments

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Luke Gallaher

Hi Peter - Yes there is another classic letter that Keith and I have but have not had a chance to transfer into a word document.

Graham, nice to hear you knew my father. One of his last sentences to me was he was hoping to leave PNG as he’d come to the conclusion it was a fools paradise.

Thanks for the kind words all and thanks again Keith.

Harry Topham

Shades of a Clive James style with a PNG twist, the irony bears witness.

Diane Bohlen

It's another world. What a gem of a letter.

Lindsay F Bond

Graham, if I say I recall sitting next to you on a Air Niugini flight (Pop to Mosbi, maybe 2005 or 08 or 09) people may be led to think we all knew each other, Oro Province being not so large. Some folk were well enough resourced to mingle, some not so because of non-availability of access for various reasons.

How fortunate for Luke that his father Stan could so put with pen.

For readers who might scoff at the idea of injured limbs, there is verification on sight in and around Popondetta where some men ambulate but by crutch in lieu of lower leg.

Graham King

I knew Stan quite well during the time he wrote this letter. I bought some fishing gear from Stan which was the only income he had at the time. The last I saw of Stan was at the Weigh Inn in POM. Sorry to hear of his passing.

Lindsay F Bond

Priceless.

Peter Salmon

Luke, I'd like to read a few more letters like this, written very naturally, so reminiscent & redolent of former times, do you have any more?

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