Saturday, 12 September 2015


I have a bit of time on my hands today so I thought I’d post about my disability. Not many of my friends know about this but whilst other people have five senses, I only have three and a half. About five years ago I lost my sense of smell.

I think most people would agree that if they had to choose which sense they could lose then they would choose not to smell. I can’t imagine a life without music, nor the memory of watching sunrise over Uluru but a life without fragrance can sometimes be depressing. Let me explain;

I love food but anosmia (as they call my condition) means that I lose out on all the subtle tastes of herbs and spices. I can still taste spicy but not the other flavours in a good curry. I can taste sweet but not the actual taste of apple in an apple pie.  I find not that I focus on the texture of food and I am more put off food that has a strange texture.  I love eating and I love cooking and now I have to be careful to follow recipes as I can no longer try food to see if it tastes ok.

Last weekend someone shared a bottle of Talisker. Its peaty, smoky smell should have evoked memories of my family’s croft in Scotland and snowy Christmases by the fire. Sadly without a sense of smell a good whisky is much like any other and I found myself taking vicarious pleasure in others enjoyment. 

So, nothing too serious you think but imagine how often a smell lifts our spirits. The smell of roses on an English summer breeze or lavender at bedtime. Imagine that I have no idea what my lover smells like or in fact what I smell like.

So I have to find trustworthy people who can tell me if I smell ok – or not. Sometimes I overdo the perfume and after a day of working in the settlements of Papua New Guinea I suspect that my car and I smell terrible. Sorry if you ask for a lift.

And that’s where the blessing lies. I am told by others that the places I work often smell very bad. Often people in the settlements have limited access to water for showering and in the current drought this has been exacerbated. In wetter seasons there can often be muddy puddles of stagnant water and limited arrangements for rubbish collection mean that things can get a bit whiffy. I am oblivious.  I walk happily through these places unaware of the smell and I hug people and children and don’t notice their unwashed state. I like to think God took away my sense of smell so I could be a more caring and loving person. It is ironic that my role is to spread the message about hygiene, health and regular washing through literacy activities.

I don’t tend to eat food in the settlements unless it comes straight out of the deep fat fryer – mainly because I can’t smell if food has gone off. I will ask you to sniff my milk if you come to my house and one day I may burn down the house because I can only smell fire once it becomes full on, billowing and choking smoke! Apart from that I am coping – I’d pay a thousand kina to smell coffee or fresh bread but I thank God I can still see the sunset over the Owen Stanley Range tonight.

I’d also love to say a big thank you to Fifth Sense for being there when it all becomes more two dimensional than I can handle and for the recipes for comfort eating. PS - I can still taste Cinnamon and Chocolate – thank you God.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Street Kids

It’s a beautiful night; warm and the full moon is casting its glow. I'm in an open space in Port Moresby after dark and we are star gazing. Venus and Jupiter are doing their little duet and I'm explaining the distance to the stars to a couple of young boys.  I've been so very lucky to have spent the last two weeks working with Allan Mogerema as he shares his yoga skills with some of the street children of Port Moresby.

This city is not an easy one to live in. It is ranked about 136 out of 140 in the Economists liveability index.  Street crime is rife, car jackings are frequent and sexual assaults on women, and children, are all too common. These children live on the fringes of this society trying to scrape together money through begging, selling or petty theft.  There are no orphans in Papua New Guinea. A strong tribal tradition ensures that all children have some kind of place in what is known as the ‘Wantok’ system. This translates literally as ‘those who talk like me’ and is one of the strongest affiliations that Papua New Guineans feel.  Unfortunately in a big city like Port Moresby it is harder to maintain care for all the Wantoks because of the high cost of living and limited accommodation, so these children become marginalised. Culturally children are allowed more freedom, back home in their village they would be free to wander after dark and so here children as young as eight can be found sleeping rough and wandering the streets.  Sadly they are very vulnerable to illness and violence and are missing out on education because no one ensures they go to school.  They are highly likely to join the violent gangs of ‘Raskols’ that can be found in Port Moresby and many find themselves arrested and imprisoned in Bomana correctional centre.

In the run up to the Pacific Games there were calls to remove these children from the street. They don’t make PNG look good, they steal bags and break into parked cars. Unlike many countries, however, the approach has been more compassionate than simply rounding them up and taking them elsewhere. Groups of volunteers have been cooking meals for them, bringing clothes and encouraging them to attend school and other activities.  The Governor of the capital city has funded programs for them, including the activity tonight. This group meet after dark in the floodlights of the local rugby field to learn yoga and practice acrobatics.  They are highly skilled, and surprisingly disciplined considering their background. They are performing for some of the photographers from the Pacific Games and they have put on a great show. Allan’s organisation ‘Yoga Unites’ aims to improve self-discipline and reduce violent behaviour through yoga and meditation and they are fundraising to open a regular soup kitchen and literacy program after the games have ended.

There has been some talk of putting them in the opening ceremony or asking them to give displays in between the sporting activities but this is PNG and things don’t always run to plan. Despite this they are relentlessly practicing and rehearsing their routines. Tonight we even have some of the younger children copying the acrobatics and performing their own yoga moves on the side lines. These young people are so polite and respond enthusiastically to my offer to wash some things for them.  As I left the field and loaded their yoga uniforms into the car I felt privileged to have seen tonight’s performance , and to have had the chance to spend time with these lovely , committed and hard-working young people.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Adjusting my sails

Two big things have happened to me this week in PNG. The first was the evil cyclone couple known as Nathan and Pam.  This led to rain and very strong wind in abundance whilst the two weather systems did a lovely dance around the Coral Sea. I got wet – quite a few times. So did my car. This was more of a problem because the week earlier the back window had been smashed so I’ve been driving round with a bit of cardboard duct taped over the window. 

In the middle of the night, whilst staying at a friend’s I woke to hear the sound of torrential rain and realised the cardboard window was not going to hold. So grabbing a large piece of plastic sheeting I found in the cupboard (and the duct tape) I headed out into the weather to try and rescue my car. The concrete steps up to the car park were a spectacular sight. Water was gushing over them and pouring down like a waterfall. I got absolutely soaked holding on to the rails and trying to walk up the steps. I managed to secure the sheeting over the car but then had to make my way down the waterfall shivering with cold and with my teeth chattering for the first time ever in PNG. 

I managed to dry out and get warm but didn’t sleep much that night as the wind howled around us. The following day trying to drive to work was unbelievable. All over Port Moresby the hillsides had slid down onto the road and we were driving though roads that had effectively become rivers. There was a large section missing from one road and I was happy that my four wheel drive managed to navigate the trough left behind. I managed to park inside a multi-story but then got soaked on my walk to work. 

As I passed the bus stop there was a couple arguing loudly and getting very aggressive. Then a strong gust of wind blew my umbrella inside out, my hair all over the place and my skirt up over my head. The uproar of PNG laughter that followed made me thrilled to think that just by ‘showim as blo mi’ I had averted a fight. I am thinking of applying to the UN for funding for ‘Pants for Peace’. 

The second big thing was leaving my job. I once got told that the secret of a long life was, ‘knowing when it’s time to leave’. So I left.  There is a saying that pessimists rail at the storm, optimists expect the wind to change and realists adjust their sails. The weather this week (and some totally lovely friends) has reminded me to adjust my sails.  I had some lovely messages of support from my colleagues when I left but my favourite was that I was wished ‘fair winds and following seas.’

So here we go – watch this space and don’t worry about me.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

When bad things happen

OK - occasionally here in PNG bad things happen.

Two of my good friends have been car jacked at gunpoint, someone was robbed at gunpoint outside my church and I am sad to say I know of too many woman who have been gang raped.

Now I know I am usually very positive about PNG so people may be a little surprised by a post about bad things but it’s because I have something on my mind.  It’s to do with who we blame for the bad things.

I’ll give you an example. A woman was carjacked, at gunpoint early in the morning.  When people talked about it I heard them say “well she should not have been out that early”.

A friend was mugged while walking though the centre of Town in PNG and the reaction was ‘how silly of you to walk alone through town”.

Now I’m not saying we should disregard our personal safety but I’m trying to make a point about how when bad things happen to other people we desperately try to work out how it was their fault.  I think the reason we do this is to help us maintain the pretence to ourselves that it could never happen to us.  

The problem is that here in PNG we really don’t have all the answers to how to be safe. Driving home on a Friday afternoon in broad daylight the biggest risk to my safety is hitting one of the pedestrians that are playing the national sport of ‘run across the highway’. If I did that it’s likely I’d be dragged from my vehicle and killed. It’s how they deal with road safety here.

Yet my neighbourhood at 3am in the morning is peaceful and silent. If, while driving home from a party at 2am I was to be hijacked in my street it would be very unusual and a serious bit of bad timing and bad luck. I am sure however that other expats would be very keen to point out “what was she thinking of - out without an escort at that time”.

Now I am all for respecting the local culture and I wear clothes that cover my thighs and don’t show too much Lisa when I’m wandering around and I have often advised other young women that their shorts are too short or tops too revealing but that’s about respecting local culture. But I overheard two people discussing a local woman who had been raped and they talked about her clothing as if that was to blame. Now that isn’t right.

This is where we need to be careful, if we always react to the bad things by blaming the actions for the victim then we let the actual perpetrators get away with what they do, and we ignore the social factors that led to their actions. We don’t prevent carjacking by having an armed escort, we just prevent them happening to us. The raskols who live in poverty will just go and carjack a different vehicle. A rapist will rape a women regardless of what she is wearing and you never actually really know where and when is the wrong place at the wrong time.

So a plea to those living in PNG: when bad things happen doesn't blame the victim. Give them support and understand their trauma because the last thing they need is to be told they are stupid on top of all the other things they have been through.    

Why are you in Papua New Guinea?

When I get asked, “what brought you to PNG?” I often say “a clerical error.” I am certain I actually applied for a post in Ghana. When I was first told the placement would be in PNG I remember asking “what bit of Africa is that?”  Not long after I arrived in PNG I heard a saying that explains why people come to PNG: They are either mercenaries, missionaries or just plain mental (or misfit for the politically correct). It’s difficult to say which of those categories I fit into. The people in my church think I’m a missionary, but I might be more of a mercenary than people think.

It’s a long story: I began my career in the early 1990’s working as an Archaeologist and Museum Educator. I was privileged to work for the British School at Rome based in rural Italy working on the interpretation of a Post Roman excavation. Literacy levels amongst the village population were low. Working in the local community on the exhibition design I learned a great deal about education, poverty and communication. I also learned how to explain difficult things such as why we were digging up the graves of their ancestors.  Since then my career has been shaped by three things: a fascination with dead people, a desire to communicate heritage and a need to have people pay attention to me.  This is how I got into education.  

I learned how to develop primary school resources when I was the curator of a small Egyptian collection. I became something of an expert on reminiscence and oral history is when I curated a collection of artefacts from the World War II.  I learned to be a story teller and even dressed up as a Tudor housewife to show children how life was lived in Tudor Southampton. I accidently became a literacy tutor whilst researching more effective ways to write museum texts.  When I went to work in the Royal Naval Museum I told people that my mission was to broaden access to the population that lived on the doorstep of the dockyard, and whose family heritage lay in with those ships. In reality I liked working with the Enigma machine and I was fascinated by the dead people from the Mary Rose.    There is a lot more of a career in education I could mention but that’s all boring and doesn’t help with the point.

What is important is why after five years of successfully working in education policy and research and another four years leading a successful learning provider I suddenly gave it all up and went to the other side of the world to earn very little money.

I’d grown tired of the attention and there was no opportunity to do the things I loved. When I got the chance to live in a country with over 800 tribes, some of which had not had contact with the modern world until 1938, I jumped at the chance. I’ve been lucky enough to go out to sea in an outrigger canoe and a dug out. I’ve watched how stone axes are made and been taught to fire a bow and arrow made in the same tradition of a thousand years ago. I’ve been privileged to witness a cane swallowing ceremony and attended a fire dance. I have seen archaeology first hand and filled my home with weapons, masks and paintings from all over this amazing country.  This year I haven’t even started to explore the rest of this land but as soon as I have some money I will be on my travels. I need to see the Sepik river and I long to hear the oral histories and traditions of the different provinces.  This country has awesome and diverse funerary traditions and I’d like to find out more about them.

So that’s why I’m in Papua New Guinea.  I’m an aid worker so my job definitely fits the missionary category; my motivations are personal so I’m a bit of a mercenary. Why do I live in Port Moresby? Because I’m mental. 

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Christmas in Port Moresby

So it’s the last day of 2014 and my New Year’s resolution is to do better with my blogging. The truth is I gave up blogging the last time I was in PNG because I was being so careful not to upset people here in PNG, or back home, that my writing became trite and, to be honest, a bit patronising.  So please bear with me as I explore a new style of writing. I will be honest about myself and my reactions to the things I see around me. Forgive any offense, and if what I say worries you then pray for me.

Christmas in Port Moresby is basically ‘bloody nice’ (family joke)

I only stayed here for Christmas because I have run out of money. No white people ever admit to that but it is true. Rent here is extortionate – my friend pays 1500 kina a week for one bedroom. That’s about 1500 quid a month – like London only hotter. I paid for two flights, used one. I bought a car when I arrived and had very intermittent employment before I left. My reserves are depleted and so too was my energy – the three day journey from the UK wore me out. I am almost 45 and long haul flights bugger up a pre- menopausal woman’s body.   So no, I didn’t lose weight over Christmas it just took two weeks for the water retention to go away.

I did not want to stay in Port Moresby over Christmas because it's hot, a bit smelly and has a reputation for violence. So, as in many aspects of life, when you have low expectations you often find you have a pretty awesome time. New friends invited us for Christmas dinner and it was one of the best Christmas meals I’ve had – not just because I was not cooking but because Aussies do wine and food so well. A perfectly cooked ham, salad of local vegetables and these lovely placename biscuits! Each course had the right wine. Honestly – I feel inadequate that I didn’t have uplift full of French wine to share, but then I wouldn't know a good desert wine if it bit me on the bum.  I received only three gifts; a lovely set of cups, some chilli mustard and a wonderful calendar of family photographs. Perfect: goes to show you don’t need all the shite and nonsense to have a good Christmas.

It’s been great – breakfasts with friends, sailing trips, cocktails made by experts and a great road trip out with some of my lovely PNG family.  I do like a good picnic on the beach – and this was serious class – chicken salad and watermelon, a swim in a very warm sea and a five minute sunbathe! It also did my spirit good to see those unique bumps in the landscape that pass for hills outside Port Moresby and the distinctive spreading rain trees. I love the dusty roads, the heat and the human bustle of the roadside stands. I love that the heavier people have to ride in the front of the car because of the massive potholes (craters) in the road.  I love the conversations in a car in PNG; “don’t run over the naked child”, “when I die bury me under a tree like that”, “don’t drive into the coconut (meaning the whole tree!).

I have missed the barefoot shoppers in the supermarket, and the women carrying massive bags of vegetables by looping the handle of a bilum (bag) round their head. I’ve missed the constant hellos, good mornings and ‘apinuns’ of meeting folk in PNG, and I’m even accustomed to the constant attempts to scam money out of me (mostly police, security guards etc).  It’s good to be home for Christmas, em ples blo mi, yah. When I die you can bury me under a tree like that.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Love, dating and relationships in Papua New Guinea

It’s been a while since I blogged but in celebration of Valentine’s Day I have decided to write about love, dating and relationships in Papua New Guinea.  Please note these are general observations rather than all my own experience and I've not really done a lot of research. Mi tok stori lo pren blo mi - I asked people to tell me stories.

So I’m going to start with a story of modern love in Mount Hagen. A lady in her late twenties becoming concerned about her marriage prospects began chatting by text with a gentleman in Tabubil. Over time (and thanks to the free texts offered by Digicel) she began to fall in love with this charming young man, a landowner with a lovely house. Finally his intentions became more serious and he told her he was tired of texting and wanted her to be his wife. So she sold her possessions and raised the money for the airfare. She travelled to Tabubil with just a few dresses in a bag. When she arrived she found the street name that he had given her, and asked some boys playing marbles in the street, if they could direct her to the house of the young landowner she had come to marry. When she told the children her name, they all began to laugh and pointed to a young boy no more than 12 and said  - this is the one you have been texting all this time.  She took the boys arm and marched him to his house where she told the full story to his parents, his father looked at the young woman who had given up everything and was now stuck in Tabubil and said “you can’t marry my son but you could be my second wife.” And so she married the man and stayed in Tabubil as the new mummy of the boy that had started the romance.

In the land of the unexpected, where nothing ever runs on time, it can be really difficult arranging a date and getting there on time. If the PMV hasn't broken down, it could be the weather that prevents you from getting where you are supposed to be and the taxi you booked has gone to another address, or your mate ran over someone’s dog and is now trying to pay compensation. To add to the confusion not only do the mega storms of PNG affect the roads, they also affect communications, so just when you need to contact your date to say “Yu Stap We?” (Where are you) then the network cease to work.  I once had a date with a lovely local guy who turned up wearing a Digicel T shirt saying ‘This date is sponsored by Digicel’ because we had spent so much time texting one another and cancelling dates before we finally actually managed to have a drink together.

However, population in PNG increased to 7.8 million this year so there must be successful attempts at dating. I mentioned to a friend that there must be a lot of sex happening in Port Moresby judging from the number of free condoms dispensed outside my building. “No” he said. Then proceeded to explain all the other uses of condoms here in PNG: effective fishing lure, catapult for killing fruit bats, water carrier etc. 

It reminded me of a story from the provincial AIDS committee that may or may not have any basis in the truth.  A whole village came to watch a demonstration of how to use a condom, the worker showed the condom being put over the wooden stick and explained that this would help prevent babies and diseases. Sometime later the worker returned and found the supplies of condoms that had been left behind were not particularly depleted. She asked if anyone was using the condoms and was proudly told the whole village was. Then they took her to the ceremonial pole which the condom was placed over so that all the villagers could have sex. She had neglected to mention to anyone that the condom needs to go ‘lo stick blo man’.  I plan to return from PNG with gifts of packets of condoms for all my friends because I like the instructions so much.

My colleague told me of a lovely tradition from Chimbu where girls and boys find a partner through the boys singing. Girls and boys come together and link their legs together. The boys then ‘sing sing’ and the girls listen to see which one they like. If they like the boy they rub noses. Then a new group of boys comes to sing. Once everyone has linked legs, sung and rubbed noses then the girl secretly goes and pinches the one boy she likes. Because it’s dark she has to listen for his voice to choose the right one. Boys and girls then lie down by the fire and the mothers watch them. If the boy moves around too much the mother throws him out of the house. Once the marriage is agreed then the boy’s family have to find the Bride Price in order to pay for the new wife. This sum used to be paid in pigs but is increasingly a cash sum which can be over 100,000 kina. Whilst some see the Bride Price ceremony as a social event, where a new daughter is accepted into a family, others are concerned that it is a form of slavery.

In Tari, the men and women live in separate houses, one house for the men, and one for the women. I’m told this was a form of contraception as it prevented too many children, and ensured the women got on with their gardening. If a man and wife did want to get together they had to meet in the garden for a little bit of loving by the garden fence.

The Trobriand Islands (Trobs) have the reputation for being the ‘Island of Love’ so perhaps a great destination for a future Valentine’s day. If you want to know more read Malinowski's 1930’s book, "The Sexual Life of Savages", not only for its archaic attitude but also for a lovely insight into the voyeurism of anthropology.

I did like the story I was told that in the Trobes men and women have to keep their love affair secret from the girl’s brothers and father when they are courting. As soon as Dad finds out that his daughter has been dating then they have to get married. I wonder what my own Father would think of that.

So here is my final romantic story. At an education function a girl noticed a young man sitting alone when everyone else was on the dance floor. Bravely she went over to him and asked him if he liked the music. “Yes”, he said, “I am a music student”. “Then why aren’t you dancing?” she asked. “I need some help finding the dance floor.” “Are you spak man (drunk)” “No ai pass” (blind). So the girl led him onto the dance floor, they danced together and that was the start….

Those who know me will be aware of how cynical I am about Valentine’s Day, mostly because I disagree with the commercialising of love, but also because it puts such pressure on anyone in a relationship, and makes single people miserable. I will be marking the death of a Saint who was stoned, flayed and decapitated for undertaking marriage ceremonies by dancing on Ela Beach to raise awareness of domestic violence. Then I shall dress in black and go to an ‘Anti Valentine’s day’ party.  

I will however still accept romance on any other day of the year and I raise a glass to all of the romantics out there that still believe.  Much love to you all.