TUMBY BAY – Culture shock. It was one of the things expatriates were warned about at the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA) before departing to take up positions in the then colonial Administration of the Australian Territory of Papua and New Guinea.
Culture shock describes those feelings of excitement, anxiety, confusion and uncertainty when you find yourself in a new and unfamiliar environment.
There may also be feelings of stress, homesickness and frustration which last until you adapt to your new setting.
Many of us who went to ‘the Territory’ to work prior to independence know of people who succumbed to the phenomenon.
Some folks didn’t even make it out of the airport before deciding to check the next flight out and go home.
For anyone posted to an isolated patrol post or school the adaption process was particularly stark.
The sudden change from life in the Australian suburbs or small town was a sure fire way to test one’s resilience.
Fortunately, the recruitment process seemed reasonably proficient at selecting candidates with the characteristics to cope with remoteness and hardship and dropouts were relatively few.
I don’t know what the particular characteristics the recruiters were looking for in kiaps. The closest I got to understanding it was when Jack Baker, one of our lecturers at ASOPA, wryly observed we had been selected because we were all “natural born misfits”.
Whether that characterisation was responsible for the apparent ease with which most of us adapted and enjoyed the changes we encountered is now too late to examine.
That’s not to say we were impervious to our experiences. They were part of the steep learning curve we had to move along, absorb and process so that, when we settled into this new and strange environment after a few months, it would be neither new nor strange, but a place we felt we knew and where we could capably perform our duties.
Thinking back, I don’t recall any significant cultural shock, some things stand out all these years later. Small things, that hardly seemed relevant at the time.
As an Australian, I was accustomed to seeing roadkill when driving through the countryside, the bloodied and bloated corpses of dead kangaroos, wombats, birds of various kinds and the occasional cats and dog.
When I arrived in the Western Highlands in 1967 there was a good road network and not as little as a squashed bird to be seen.
Sitting on the verandah of our house in Mount Hagen one afternoon, a couple of other kiaps and I saw a speeding driver run over a dog, an old blue heeler cross.
The expatriate driver was upset by the dent in his mudguard and was ranting and threatening the badly injured dog.
We told him to piss off before we put a dent in his other mudguard and carried the dog to the house where we gave it a drink and looked after it until it died not long after.
Then we dug a hole in the back yard and buried it.
In the morning there was an empty hole and the dog’s body was gone.
It took me a while to work out that animal protein in the Highlands were not so easy to secure.
The body of a dog freshly dead was not something to waste by burying it. It was an opportunity for a good meal.
My Australian sensibilities that this was an abhorrent idea were further dispelled by my friend Joe Nombri’s vivid tales of nocturnal hunts during his student days in Port Moresby when the prey were tasty domestic cats usually owned by expatriates.
It is only recently I recalled how prescient was my observation about the lack of roadkill.
The gradually overpopulating Highlands back then led to the decimation of local wildlife. Now an overpopulating world has led to massive wild animal extinctions.
There are about eight billion people on the planet at the moment. The combined biomass of these people now outweighs that of every wild animal. For every wild animal there are eight people.
Further, the combined biomass of human beings and the livestock we eat outweighs all other animals with the exception of fish.
But given the current rate of overfishing, we’ll probably soon outweigh them.
There was a lesson back then in the highlands of Papua New Guinea but we failed to notice it.
I wonder what else we missed.