Tag Archives: Developing countries

Day trip to Catembe

My friends Genimaree, Jo, and Ron travelled to Mozambique with me where we spent a few days in the capital, Maputo. Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a GDP of US$605 per capita, as compared to Australia’s US$54,717. Everywhere in the city we were confronted by crumbling infrastructure, with a great many potholes in the roads and with the once luxurious buildings from the Portuguese colonial era looking like badly faded photographs of their former glory.

After a few days we were all yearning to see a place that was modern and well-maintained. Genimaree, the only one of us who had bothered to take a travel guide on our trip, told us excitedly one morning that there was a four star hotel in Catembe, on the other side of the bay, that we could go to for the day. It all sounded very pleasant and civilised and we were hooked.

We walked down to the wharf, where the guide book had said we could catch a water taxi to Catembe. When we arrived there we queued for a long time in the blazing sun for our turn to buy our tickets at a small, ramshackle ticket office that was well past its prime. Ours were the only European faces in the queue. The cost of a return ticket was only 60c per person. The old saying that you get what you pay for did cross my mind at the time.

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The water taxi, named Mapapai II, was small and overloaded and we were more than a little relieved when we made it safely across the bay to Catembe.

Upon arrival at Catembe we could see no sign of a taxi or any form of public transport. The prospect of a 4 km walk to the hotel along the dusty road in the searing tropical heat did not appeal to us.

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Much to our relief a Mozambican man approached us and offered to take us to the hotel in his “small car” for a fee. We accepted his offer and he walked us to his car, which turned out to be an old ute. Beggars can’t be choosers, we thought, so we all hopped happily onto the back of the ute, where we sat on some old tyres. But the engine would not start.

The driver called over some boys who were lounging about and asked them to push-start the ute. Twice they pushed the vehicle and twice the engine refused to start. They all started wandering off. The driver jumped out and enticed them to have another go. This time the ute took off with a spluttering engine. Some of the boys jumped onto the back with us, beaming with happiness at the opportunity to go along for the ride.

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 Photo courtesy of Ron Exiner

The hotel was nice and had a pool, but to our dismay we found that it was closed for renovations. We talked to the fellow in charge of the renovation work and asked him if we could use the pool, having travelled all the way to the hotel in the heat. Not only did he offer us use of the pool for as long as we wished, but he also arranged for one of his assistants to cook lunch for us at a very reasonable price. The fish dish was to die for.

We lounged around the pool until the late afternoon, when the fellow with the ute returned at the agreed time to pick us up and drive us back to the wharf. The young boys were also on the back with us again.

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During the afternoon the sea had become quite rough and we boarded the water taxi with trepidation.

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Ignoring a sign that stipulated a maximum of 14 passengers in rough weather, the pilot piled 32 people on to the boat. As soon as all the passengers were on board, the boat started to list to the port side. The pilot barked out urgent orders to rearrange some of the passengers so that the boat would remain upright.

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Somewhat to our surprise the water taxi made it safely back across the bay to Maputo. As we stepped off onto the quay Ron said to me quietly, so that Genimaree or Jo would not hear, “Hey, Tim, I take you any bet that water taxi’s predecessor, the Mapapai 1, is lying somewhere on the bottom of the drink out there.”

BAREFOOT LIBRARIAN

I first met Karina Parina when I started my new job with Papua New Guinea’s National Library Service in Port Moresby in 1980. She was a shy, softly spoken 21-year old girl from the village of Tubusereia, about an hour’s drive eastwards along the coast from Port Moresby.

My job at the National Library was to arrange training programs for the Papua New Guinean library staff, to enable them to fill the positions that were occupied at the time by sixteen expatriate librarians. As my job involved working with staff across the organisation on an ongoing basis, my first challenge was to learn everyone’s names. I clearly remember my first introduction to Karina because her lovely rhyming name was impossible to forget.

Like most of the other Papua New Guinean staff members she went about the library barefoot. A few of the others wore rubber thongs. In the tropical heat, we Westerners also abandoned our shoes and socks before long and converted to wearing rubber thongs. For appointments with important people such as the Minister for Education or senior public servants I kept a pair of more respectable leather thongs in my office.

It was far too hot and humid to wear a tie. The only ties we ever saw were worn by overseas businessmen and consultants disembarking from the planes at the airport. Such ties were quickly taken off as the sweat stains expanded on their shirts. with their jackets hanging despondently over their arms.

The names of my Papua New Guinean colleagues are forever engraved in my brain – Paul Dubai, Wiko Bona, Watorea Ivara, Ben Gar, Uru Hoahu, Otto Kakaw, Anita Bagiau, Cathy Bomboman, Geoffrey Bundu, Liz Kwarara and all the others. I loved their unusual names, and admired their colourful shirts and blouses, lap laps and hand-woven string bags called bilums that were used as de facto handbags by the women as well as the men.

During my time in Port Moresby I became so attached to my own bilum, given to me as a present by one of the staff, that I once carried it with me into a medical specialist’s waiting room in Harley Street in London during a visit to my in-laws. The only other person waiting in the room was wearing a dark pin-stripe suit and was reading The Times. He looked up as I entered, glanced briefly at my bilum, and showed his disapproval in that typical, barely perceptible British manner, by the minutest arching of an eyebrow before he returned to his newspaper.

Karina invited three of us Westerners to visit her home village one Saturday. There was only one small ‘shop’ in the village. It looked like someone’s village house with a little counter built on to the front. The shop stocked a few sparse items like canned food, matches and soft drinks. Many of the houses in the village, including Karina’s family home, were built on stilts over the sea. For these houses there was no sewage system in place.

Karina and a few of the other villagers took us out to sea on an engine-powered outrigger canoe, so that we could have a look at the village from a different perspective. The wind blew through our hair and took the edge off the tropical heat. We felt privileged that we had been given this opportunity to see a traditional Papua New Guinean stilt village and Karina clearly enjoyed showing us around her people’s place.

It quickly became apparent that she was a highly intelligent person who had the potential, with a bit of additional training and experience, to take over from one of the expatriates at the National Library. With funding obtained from the Australian Development and Assistance Bureau, I arranged to send her to Adelaide for three months on a training attachment to a modern Australian public library.

But first, we had to get Karina used to wearing shoes. We bought her a pair of shoes and got her to practise walking in them along one of the aisles in the National Library’s staff area. The grapevine must have been active because the other Papua New Guinean library staff quickly congregated to observe this free performance. They were consumed by mirth when Karina wobbled uncertainly down the aisle in the shoes.

I eagerly awaited her return from Adelaide, anticipating Karina sharing with me her impressions of that city’s impressive buildings, clean footpaths, roads that are free from potholes, impressive array of modern shops, safe and reliable public transport, excellent medical services, and uninterrupted water and power supply.

On her return to Port Moresby I picked her up at the airport.

“So, how did you like Adelaide, Karina?” I asked.

She frowned and, in her soft voice, declared, “It’s a terrible place, Tim.”

I was taken aback. “What do you mean? Were some of the people there nasty to you?”

“No, it’s not that,” she said. “But you should see how they treat the old people there. All the buses are full of old people with grey hair who have to travel to the shops and do their own shopping! Where are their children? Where are their nieces and nephews? Why are they not doing the shopping for their old people?” Karina was outraged.

It was then that I suddenly realised how, despite our wonderful buildings, shops brimming with consumer goods and material welfare, we Westerners have lost something of enormous value – the daily care of, and concern for, our older people and the close, comforting and strong supportive bonds with one’s direct and extended family. I was ashamed of my own Western arrogance, having unthinkingly assumed that everything we had in Australia was more desirable and impressive than that of the Papua New Guineans.

The fact that other cultures, including those in developing countries, are superior to our own in some critically important ways, was a lesson that I had to learn from a 21-year old village girl from a stilt village in Papua New Guinea.

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Postscript

Karina Parina, now Mrs Karina Bundu, went on to become the National Librarian of Papua New Guinea.

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Karina Parina (carrying a fuel can) at her home village in 1981.