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A Week in Moresby

9 a.m., Monday, April 10: As soon as we landed back in Port Moresby, the first thing I needed to do was take a really big dump.  Our little 20-seat Twin-Otter had neither toilets nor stewardesses nor complimentary packets of salted peanuts; nor passengers for that matter—I was the only one, apart from some older PNG dude in thongs and shorts who had hopped on at the last minute back in Tufi, along with a couple of big sacks of rice and nothing else.  I think he must have scammed his way on as a special rice courier or something, since the plane was almost empty anyway.

The captain was a national and the copilot a young blond Aussie chap with an impressively square jaw, the kind that says, “Don’t you worry, I’ll get you where we’re going no matter what.” He was standing at attention at the base of the fold-out steps as we disembarked, and as I said goodbye, I noticed his confidence-inspiring jaw tighten a bit in the morning sun—almost as if he needed to take a really big dump, too.  I think he was pissed because he’d had to wake up at 5 a.m. or whatever and fly all the way to Tufi just to pick up one paying passenger.  Milne Bay Air ran three flights a week between Tufi and Port Moresby—Monday, Tuesday, and Saturday—but they often got cancelled if there weren’t enough passengers.  I’d had enough of Tufi and didn’t feel like hanging around for the next flight, even if that only meant waiting an extra day, so I’d sort of made it known that it was a matter of some urgency that I be in Moresby on Monday morning.  So I was back in town and not a moment too soon—for there was indeed a very urgent matter requiring my full attention without delay.

The sun was already punching a wide, hot hole in the pale blue sky, so I headed for the covered walkway that wound its way towards the domestic terminal, passing several airport workers who all smiled, waved, and said “Mooning!” when I nodded to them.  A sign in the walkway warned, “BEWARE OF VEHICLES / LUKAUT LONG KAR.” Naturally, I now wondered what else I should “lukaut” for.  The baggage claim area was dead, and so was the men’s bathroom, which was good because it turned out there was only one stall.  Settling down inside, my one large bag hanging from a hook on the inside door, I closed my eyes dreamily and recalled the take-off from Tufi an hour earlier: bouncing down the short grassy airstrip that had been cleared from the side of a high cliff, the two engines buzzing loud and hard as we pick up speed, the Solomon sea out beyond glittering like endless acres of aluminum foil in the early light, cliff edge getting closer, a rushing green smear of trees to either side, 200 meters to go and then nothing but air, the captain reaching for a set of levers now, 150 meters, 100 meters, he’s pushing down hard, they’re sliding slowly, very slowly, 50 meters, a slight tilting now, and then—

That was when the lights went out.  I opened my eyes as soon as I heard the bathroom door creak open, bang against the wall.  Saw but had no time to register the gray-green REI pack dangling in front of my face.  The brown paper baggage-claim tag tied around a leather handle.  “TFI” in black letters.  A rustling sound.  Then sudden darkess.  Great, I thought, I survived the take-off, but hadn’t reckoned on an extra rough landing.  In that instant, I felt a great pressure reaching critical mass below.  The forces of gravity and pleasurable release vied with a desire to suppress any noises that would attract unwanted attention.  Unfortunately, the body often has the upper hand over mind in moments of crisis and climax.  It was never a contest: momentary pleasure won out over the will to survive, and as a tortured smile spread across my face, a deep plopping sound reverberated throughout the small bathroom, bouncing off the tiles with almost mocking amplification.  Shit, I thought.  “Shit,” growled a gravelly voice from near the bathroom door.  I looked up into the darkness.  Was this a ghoulish echoing of my own inner torment.  Hardly.  It was simply the most appropriate word for that moment.  And then the lights came on again.  The sound of heels clicking, then running water.  I hurriedly finished my ablutions, slung my bag over the shoulder and emerged from the confines of my cubicle to see a short, pudgy middle-aged national in a brown suit, slightly balding, washing his face and hands at the sink.  Our eyes met in the mirror, and as fear eased into relief, I managed to mumble a half-swallowed “Hello.” He smiled, reaching for the tap, and responded graciously in kind.  I fumbled for my handkerchief, a study in sweaty nonchalance.  He flicked his hands several times in the sink, then left.  I gave myself a quick rinse and followed him out into the baggage claim area.  Across the room by the exit, a truncheon-wielding security guard jerked his head in my direction.  Out of the frying pan and into the fire, I reassured myself darkly.

What was I doing here?  I had a whole week still before I needed to get back to Australia, and I was going to spend it all here in Port Moresby, infamous capital of Papua New Guinea.  I guess that for a lot of people, both local and outside the country, that might be almost like spending a week trapped inside a stinking toilet.  Or, to be more precise, a stinking pay toilet, since things like accommodation, taxis, and food are ridiculously overpriced, especially if you’re an out-of-town honky.  Why waste your holiday dodging marauding raskol gangs when you could be enjoying a leisurely canoe trip down the mighty Sepik?  Why subject yourself to the pollution and dusty squalor of the capital when you could be experiencing some of the best reef diving in the world?  Why burn time and money in this hellhole with few real sights when you could be immersing yourself in the colorful ways of local village life?  Why, indeed, be a bloody idiot when you could be a discerning, adventurous traveler?

 Those were good questions.  But they were also good answers.  I wanted to hang out in Port Moresby for a while because most visitors didn’t.  For when it comes down to choosing between the beautiful and the real, I go for the real every time.  Even if it is ugly as fuck.  Even if it kills me.  My father and I had been diving off the coast of Tufi, and I’ll tell you right now, it was incredibly beautiful.  But for some reason, it was almost too fantastic to really sink in.  I was not a part of that world, I didn’t belong there—I was a warm-blooded interloper, a marine-life voyeur.  That was why I had all this gear on me: it was an artificial life-support system that allowed me to be in this radically different environment.  I never got used to all that crap—the wet suit that made me feel clammy, the flippers that gave me blisters, the regulator that stretched my mouth, the mask that squeezed my head.  For a lot of people, diving is sex: you penetrate into the depths, lose yourself in another dimension.  You see things.  For me, all that gear was an uncomfortable layer of protection separating me form true immersion, true union.  It was like having to wear a condom.  Not quite the real thing.

In fact, the biggest disappointment of my five-day diving experience was the fact that I didn’t see any sharks.  There were plenty in that area, from what I’d heard.  See, sharks don’t care if you’re wearing anything or not: piss them off, do the wrong thing—they’ll go for you.  And fear is real.  Fear is psychological.  Fear is not contingent upon what you’re wearing.  I wanted to overcome myself in some small way by facing my fear of sharks directly.  Because the very thought of one or more of those dead-eyed killers cruising past me definitely scared the shit out of me.  Perhaps this is all starting to sound a bit too melodramatic.  Too fucking Hemingway or whatever.  I suppose that that, too, is a part of the equation.  That melodramatic fear is shit I need to get out of my system.  And until I deal with the real thing, it'll still be there rotting away inside of me.

It just so happens that Port Moresby is itself swimming with sharks.  They’re more commonly known as raskols, and despite their deceptively cute moniker, they definitely bite.  Quite a few could even be described as dead-eyed, cold-blooded killers.  They were another reason why I had decided to spend time in Moresby.  I wanted to catch one—not literally, but on tape.  I wanted to interview one of them, see what they were all about.  I wanted to know the score, go down to the dirty floor.  At the time I thought it would be pretty macho if I could do that.  I had this vague notion that they were a sort of modern manifestation of the ancient warrior spirit, a horrible hybrid caused by the clash between tradition and neo-colonial capitalism.  Turns out this was all just more crap that I needed to get out of my system.  As I stood there outside that small bathroom in the baggage claim area, drying my hands with my handkerchief and using it to cool off my face and neck, the relief I felt from lightening my load was still palpable, even sensuous.  But I still had a long way to go.

It is true that much of the world is ruled by fear and danger.  Thankfully, kindness and good fortune also exist in it, make it more endurable.  But which is stronger? At the moment, luck seemed to be on my side: I had at my disposal an entire house in the center of town, complete with housekeeper and private security guard.  All for free, and right on the main beach.  While in Tufi, I had met a young building contractor from New Zealand and his common-law wife at the little cliffside dive resort we were staying at.  Brian had come up from Moresby with a couple of his “boys” to add a pair of bungalows to the resort, and Isabelle had decided to tag along since she’d just quit her boring office job in the city.  Unlike most of the people I met in Moresby, Isabelle had actually been born there; she wore glasses and seemed fairly straight-laced and “proper,” but then one day when she was wearing just a singlet, I saw that she had a large heart-shaped tattoo on her shoulder—not traditional, but Western-style.  Anyway, we all hung out together during meals and sometimes afterwards; Isabelle and I had even gone on a bushwalk together to visit a local village.  I had told them all about my desire to interview a raskol, and they had obligingly answered the many raskol questions I peppered them with persistently.  And while they had expressed neither obvious approval nor disapproval for my plan, there was something cagey about the way they smiled whenever I raised the subject with them.  Either way, they apparently approved of me, for on my last day in Tufi, Isabelle told me that I was welcome to stay at their house in Moresby while I was there.  I realize now that I may well have been the beneficiary of a bit of sly grassroots diplomacy on the part of Isabelle and Brian.  Or, to put it another way: a small lesson in calculated kindness was just the cure I needed.  Guaranteed to loosen me up nicely.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT-NOV 2000

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