Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Frog in a pot of water

While I was in our project in the highlands of PNG, I was "evacuated" with staff by a 10 seat prop plane that was chartered to fly in, pick us up, and deliver us back to the capitol. It was actually quite emotional - after a meeting where the management informed the national staff why we were leaving and everyone hugged goodbye, we rolled out of the compound in a convoy of white landrovers to the airstrip followed about ten minutes later by crying staff - I felt like I was in an episode of M*A*S*H. My colleagues were worried about leaving patients and colleagues behind and wondered if they would ever return. Despite the fact that I had only been there three days, I was emotional too and even felt some tears in my eyes when we took off down the old dirt runway.

A little background:
In the area where we work in the highlands, its extremely violent and neglected. The people there still wear traditional clothing often and they conduct elaborate tribal wars. Because of the violence, there's been almost no one working there for years. We run a project focused on sexual violence, domestic violence, and surgery for violent injuries. For the past few weeks, there's been a bunch of drunk men with seriously big machetes (one was like 3 feet long!) breaking into the hospital and shouting death threats at the staff. Since we are a neutral agency, we don't use armed guards so all we can do when they come in is lock ourselves in the compound.

Since the authorities woudn't do anything about security, management decided to "send a signal"by evacuating the staff. The community was so pissed off at the authorities for problems in the past that they sent 20 people to kill the CEO with machetes and spears three months ago. So security is a big issue. But the people in PNG are very emotional - it was hard to communicate what the "signal"was that we were sending...
the community was also incensed that we were leaving so they staged a demonstration outside the hospital threatening to burn the place down. Which we were afraid they might do. So as we were packing up on Tuesday night for our 11am evacuation flight, we heard gunshots from right outside of our "doublewide" trailor (or prefab house as its called in PNG) where we were staying. The radio handsets that we are all required to carry with us everywhere went off and we were told that we had to hunker down.

It's been a while since I heard gunshots... in DC, it wasn't that unusual but in Amsterdam, if I hear that sound, I assume its a car backfiring. I've grown accustomed to peace - even though I work in war zones. On the Ethiopia-Somalia border, I saw men running around with automatic weapons but I don't recall hearing shots.

I was staying with a psychologist and a doctor in the prefab house and we had all been chatting as we packed so we all went into the hallway and sat on the floor while our unarmed guards went out to investigate. Then there was another gunshot from closer to our house. We realized that we had the door to our house still wide open but were too afraid to run past all the windows to close it. So we decided to crawl into the shower and sat there for thirty minutes until we got the all clear. Since the UK doctor was listening to Kelly Clarkson whle she was packing, we had to continue to listen to it while we sat there wondering what was going on. So I got to contemplate the fact that I might be killed by a crazy drunk man while sitting in a shower of a doublewide lstening to Kelly Clarkson. Not exactly how I thought I would check out.

In the end, it it was all fairly uneventful. Supposedly the police were "checking their weapons" or one of the drunk dudes that has been harrassing the hospital was in an altercation with another guy and someone pulled a gun. Everyone seemed to think it was fairly uneventful and we had some laughs about sitting in the shower later on. But now that I think about it, I feel more like the frog in the pot of water that doesn't know how hot its gotten until its boiled. The violence in Papua New Guinea is so pervasive that it's hard to see it. The people are so sweet and friendly and nice but there is a potent brew of an unfamiliar culture based on payback and revenge and home brew that gets angry men drunk faster.

Sometimes I think about the risks that I take in my line of work. In general, I have a higher than normal tolerance for risk, I suppose. But sometimes I think that I have become immune to thinking about danger which is a bit scary. I wasn't really scared when we were crouched on the floor, I stayed calm and we thought of options. I remember being scared in Lebanon when the bombing started and I realized I had no idea what to do if the building I was in was bombed. Preparation has always helped me feel calm - if I know what I'm supposed to do, I can just go on auto pilot. But in PNG, I felt scared in the nightclub in Lae but not in the hospital compound in Tari.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Friday night in Papua New Guinea

“I shot the sheriff but I swear it was in self defense“

Went out to the Yacht club in Lae which is filled with fat old white Australian men sitting drinking numerous draft beers and getting drunk. We go because the drinks are cheap and there is a breeze from the sea. Three women, a woman from India, a woman from Germany, and I sit gossiping about work, gossiping about men, talking about our lives – an unusual sight in Papua New Guinea – there is no man there to protect us, to hover over us, to tell us what to do. So the Papuan women are intrigued and always come to talk to us. One comes over – she’s lovely, dressed well, very drunk. She starts off telling us about how she is being forced to do things she doesn’t want to do  - things that she wishes she wasn’t doing. We’re concerned and waiting to hear what is going on. But she instead talks about being unable to get pregnant, about having irregular periods, about being unable to conceive and how sad she feels because she has the money because she’s married to a white man, to go to a local clinic and get a d&c.  I still wonder what she’s trying to tell us. We encourage her to visit us at the sexual violence clinic. She says she works near by and has heard about us. We never mention the word Sexual Violence.

She leaves and we all look at each other – we were thinking the same thing. We start talking about leaving pamphlets in the bathroom so the women who work here and the women married to expat men can read them in private and know where to go for help.

Anyway, its Friday night. The other women have been working for five days straight treating about 25 women who have been brutally beaten by their husbands, raped by strangers, and have brought in their children who have been sexually molested. I’m tired because my brain has been stretched to its limit by an American doctor who wants everyting NOW and challenges me. I am happily tired. Rather have this than ridiculous office politics. We’re drinking gin and tonics and looking at the mountains  that meet the Pacific ocean and the big moon. The mental health counselor tells us about a karaoke night nearby at a place called the Melanesian Inn. Supposedly the nurse and the logistician got pissed and sang “Bohemian Rhapsody” there, completely unaware that a video was playing behind them of women in bikinis holding bananas and riding elephants seductively.

We’ve got to see it. We’ve got to go there! I have to see a karaoke place where women hold bananas suggestively. I always forget what they are really like. So we drive over in our big white humanitarian Jeep, I hope out of the back in my pink sundress, clambering down the back step with my gold strappy sandals.  We walk in – 15 kina charge! Outrageous (that’s almost 3 dollars! And beers are only 1 dollar 50). But they wave us in – three single women! We walk in to an intense punch of the scent of cigarette smoke, body odor, and what smells like barely disguised sexual frustration and anger. I’m suddenly aware of the vulnerable position we are in. I’m not used to it. In my countries, in general, I can wear skimpy sundresses to bars and dance and talk to men, and no one is going to drag me off into the bushes and rape me. I’m a little nervous, I hve to admit. I feel vulnerable with four gin and tonics in me and nothing between me and my modesty but a cotton sundress. I didn’t dress provocatively – it was so hot and humid so I wore the dress because it’s lighter than cargo pants and a tshirt.

We are the only non  Papuans in the place. The music is nice but the man are DRUNK and the women start to cluster towards us. They are all prostitutes. It’s been my experience that prostitutes tend to be the nicest women in the world (with the exception of those on 13th Street NW in DC in 1996 but that’s another story). These Papuan women who are almost certainly on the game come and sit with us – eager to talk to women and chat with us and find out what is going on. “Me no savvy English, me talk talk pidgin” says one. One, who is smoking a small cigar keeps kissing my hand and smiling at me. They are funny and nice. We order a round of drinks.

Suddenly a band strikes up – keyboard, bass guitar, guitar, drummer, and two singers. They are singing John Fogerty’s Centerfield. “Put me in coach, I’m ready to play!”- we get up and dance. The music is surpsingly good. A very short mideget like man comes up to dance with us – he dances in ecstasy with his hands in the air, maintaining a safe distance. One of the prostitutes begins to grind against me. To Centerfield! I dance away. The woman who has lived here six months is laughing hysterically looking at our faces as we find ourselves danced against the wall by the female prostitutes. The band begins to play “I saw her Standing there” by the Beatles. We keep dancing. Some men come up and dance too close – a security guard eases on up and puts their arms on the men and whispers in their ear – the men back off. I wish they had that service in the US. Dutch men are so cold, they never dance too close.

We  feel protected – we dance and sing as the band moves into Bob Marley – I shot the Sheriff – an ironic song given the violence in Papua New Guinea. But an awesome version! The singer has a great voice. And then into … of course… no party is complete without it – “No Woman No Cry”. But still the female prostitute is kissing my friends arms and grinding against me. We decide to take a break to have another beer. And then! The Drifters! The music of my youth in South Carolina – at Camp Saint Christopher, at the Swan Lake Dance competitions, at Myrtle Beach – at school dances. I have to dance to this. The other girls don’t want to dance so I find myself on a dance floor with two prostitutes and four men, dancing and trying to shag to “Under the Boardwalk” . I twist and turn and try to spin the prostitute but she seems unable to follow my guidance and keeps trying to grind. So I sing – UNDER THE BOARDWALK – DOWN BY THE SEA- UNDER THE BOARDWALK- ….

A man starts screaming – two men carry him out on their shoulders as he twists and thrashes about. The men start circling closer and closer. The guards are eyeing us nervously. A giant huge man with hands twice the size of me comes up to talk tome. He’s a local Rugby player. He won’t admit it at first and when I ask him what he does, he says, he’ll tell me later insinuating all kinds of things. He has great dimples. It’s midnight.  Another drunk falls over a stool and lands on the floor. The prostitutes are gathering again –their betel nut stained teeth shining against their dark skin in the black light. The smell of unwashed and sweaty skin is overwhelming and the fans aren’t helping ventilate – just pushing the smell closer and closer to me. I’m getting nervous again – so we leave.

As we walk up to our driver with his humanitarian logo embossed vest and our giant white SUV, he tells us there is still a fight going on – the man who was thrown out of the bar! We can’t resist. We have to go look. There are five security guards still watching. We climb in to the car and head home at midnight – one more hour before curfew but it feels prudent to go home now. Just another Friday night in Lae, Papua New Guinea.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

More shopping in Singapore

Turtles for sale in a bucket in the seafood section - not for pets!

The "Smoking Kills" folks in Singapore are strict - photos of people in advanced stages of cancer and miscarried fetuses!

Frogs for sale in the seafood section too. Those legs look pretty small

Fresh crabs!!!! So nice!

And of course, Jackie Chan herbal shampoo.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Shopping in Singapore

I've always said, you can tell a lot about a country by the flavors of potato chips it sells. Pringles in particular is very adapt to adjusting to the local market.

In Holland you get a lot of Indonesian spices (reflecting their former colony). In France, you get Roast Chicken with Thyme. In England, Vinegar and Salt, Cheddar Cheese, or Worcestershire sauce. In the US, Nacho cheese, buffalo wings and blue cheese, or barbecue.

This is what I saw in Singapore