In 1980 my wife and I went to Papua New Guinea on a three year contract to work for the National Library Service in Port Moresby. My job was to train Papua New Guinean staff so that they could take over positions held at the time by expatriates.
On my first day at work the Deputy National Librarian asked Ben Gar, a Papua New Guinean staff member from West New Britain, to show me where I could buy a take-away for lunch. Ben drove me to a little caravan that sold food and drinks. We each bought a hot dog and a bottle of Coke. Ben asked the seller for a bottle opener, but she said that someone had stolen it, so Ben gripped the top of my Coke bottle between his molars and prized the top off.
There was no television service in the country at the time, but there were two cinemas in town, one of which was a drive-in. The drive-in was the only public place where one could sit outside in the tropical evening in a folding chair, safe from the ‘rascals’ (young thugs) who ruled the streets after dark. Often people would take along a picnic dinner to eat there, or occasionally bring along a birthday cake with candles.
The first time we went to the cinema we saw “Saturday Night Fever”. During a scene where a young man fell to his death from a bridge, the Papua New Guinean policeman who was sitting next to me had an uncontrollable fit of laughter whilst grabbing me by the shoulder and shaking me.
I distinctly remember a double feature that we saw which was typical of the type of fare that the cinema dished up. The first film was an Israeli production called “Parachute dog”. The dog and his military master jumped out of an aeroplane behind the enemy lines in separate parachutes. The dog wobbled in the parachute. It was patently obvious that it was made from some solid substance, probably wood. In a later scene its master was ambushed and shot dead, only to reappear later in the film as though that incident had never happened. It was hilarious. The second film was “American disco”, about an Italian teenager whose entire dream was focused on going to America to become a DJ in an American disco. How could a viewer avoid being swept along in the excitement of someone chasing such an exotic dream?
Having fully explored the cultural offerings of the cinemas and having become bored of the menus at the only two restaurants in town, we started socialising in the evenings, playing bridge and backgammon and the like. At work the males of our motley crew of expatriates tried to outdo each other with colourful shirts on Fridays, the day on which the Papua New Guinean staff usually wore their traditional lap laps. My piece de resistance was a splotchy red batik shirt that I had bought in Cairns, but the competition petered out once an American colleague, Fraiser, came in to work sporting a shirt that he had bought in Hawaii whilst on holiday. The design comprised a combination of yachts and red lobsters. The rest of us lost heart for the Friday dress-ups after that.
The National Library staff played a series of cricket matches against the staff and students of the Library Diploma Course at the Administrative College. Our games started at 4.30 pm on Fridays and were invariably of quite brief duration, as it was very rare for a player on either side to get to double figures. We would hurry through the overs as the storm clouds gathered every afternoon in the rainy season, exploding in a deafening thunderstorm at around 6 pm.
Our best player was Rosa Memafu, a tall lady from the Gulf province, whose fast bowling was feared by all the players of the College team.
Rosa Memafu (second from right) lets fly with a fast ball
Few of us wore shoes to work and none of us wore ties, as it was just too hot and humid to wear such items. The pair of black shoes that I took along from Australia soon turned green with rot in my cupboard, while large cockroaches chewed holes in the leather. I went about my business in a pair of cheap rubber thongs. However, I had a pair of leather thongs in my office to wear on special occasions, such as to meetings with the Director of Education or with the Minister for Education.
During my time in Papua New Guinea I wore a tie on one occasion only, and that was for the Queen’s visit. I also wore my leather thongs. The National Librarian, Sir John Yocklunn, was responsible for arranging the visit by the Queen and Prince Philip and he had arranged good seats for us for the event.
Tim and a colleague with bilums (string bags), dressed up for the Queen’s visit
It was a spectacular affair. We watched from the sports pavilion, sitting within a stone’s throw from the Queen and Prince, while many different indigenous groups were dressed up in their traditional finery in honour of the royal visit.
The Queen and Prince Philip wave to the Highlanders
The condition of the dogs in Port Moresby was a constant source of distress to me. The vast majority of dogs were underfed or were fed a poor diet consisting mostly of leftover rice or stale pieces of bread. A lot of the dogs had lost most of their hair and were covered in sores.
When I eventually returned to Australia I had to stop overnight in Sydney. A few of the passengers from my Air Niugini flight shared a small bus which transported us from the airport to the city hotels. An Australian missionary who had been in Papua New Guinea for a couple of years introduced himself to me. When our bus stopped at a red traffic light we noticed a big Alsatian dog sitting on the rear seat in the car next to us. We stared at its glossy fur in wonder. The missionary took the words out of my mouth. “Just look at that,” he said, pointing at the dog. “That dog looks good enough to eat!”
The next day when I arrived at Melbourne’s airport I looked around forlornly for a bright, colourful lap lap or bilum bag, but I found myself afloat in a sea of drab clothing.