Friday, 2 July 2010

The End

Hello for the last time. It will be a minor miracle if this is read, I have been utterly useless about posting for the last few months of fieldwork, and I am now home and back in St Andrews Library organising my notes. I just want to thank everyone who read my translations of certain happenings, and especially to those who were so encouraging and complementary of my writing style. I never expected that at all, and the confidence which comes from it is a real asset, giving impetus to my not-so-secret desire to be a writer in a parallel life. I wish you all the best, and I hope to give thse who liked it something more to read soon. Anthony.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

The... No News Is Good News

So I have some sad news for my friends who knew him… Frankie the Fiat is dead, I was not present obviously, but I hear it was painless, no nasty operations to prolong his life, just a sudden breakdown and that was it, gone to another place. So this means no more hazardous driving through windscreen fogging, no more hill-starts, and no more part time Back-to-the-Future style dashboard. I will be investing more than 100 pounds in a car upon my return, but don’t worry carless (Carlos [Ed.]) Scotland-based friends, it will most likely be a banger with more hangups than horsepower, so see you at the garage.
Otherwise, I have just been rejected from going back to Deans Court, the postgraduate feedery which got me here in 6 months and could have had me finishing my PhD with wildly overanticipated speed. So I will have to add flat-searching to my internet duties. I will miss the old place, especially as the hoodie looks like it will never arrive here in Goroka, sent not far from a year ago. To those who remain there of my crop, your sadness will be inconsolable I know, but I will be in St Andrews, I promise.
In local news, coffee season fast approaches, my time going regularly to church is nearly up (I am not alone here), and I am back where I belong, in the dirtiest place I have ever been: the betelnut/gambling market known in the local language as Atuwakuka, but more popularly as The World Trade Centre. I was recently caught up in a major disturbance in this market which was the result of the rape of a daughter of a leader from a different local group by a group of young men believed to be based at that market. I cant go into details, but it was a significant event by Anthon and Goroka’s estimation, and not without fight-or-flight moments. Glamorous, no, but news. Aside from this episode (which bore more than a passing ethnographic similarity to the repurcussions recorded by a certain Professor Geertz) I really enjoy my time there, and also with my other emerging informant group, security guards. I am also after beggars, but we will see how that works out.
I am feeling the pinch as time runs out, as the dry season pretends to appear and then hides again, and as nearly all conversations begin with asking about when I go back, I am acutely aware of my impermanence, and its immanence. But, I am determined to return, and will book my tickets straight after my first return meeting with my supervisor, for another 3 months of [insert 3rd worldy adventure stereotype. Ed.]... Just to be sure, humourless PC lunatics, this is a joke at the expense of other blogs and articles concerning this place, often published in national newspapers, which make my brain bleed like a course of leeches.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

The 'Harsh' Reality

I have not posted for a while, I will not pretend to have been very busy. Ok I was at first, doing whatever it was I was doing, and then Christmas crept closer and closer like a lizard or a grinch. Now Christmas was awful, I spent four hours at a Pentecostal church, which with my restless soul was not easy, and made less so by the fact I quit smoking (yes, I know, again). After church I sat at home and relaxed, eating, talking with security guards, practicing my archery. In the evening I heard my family’s voice for the first time in nine months or so. Not too bad, I hear you say, but no cold, no change in the weather at all in fact, no gifts exchanged, and I had not been able to go out and do my work around the gambling places for a week before that. I was bored, very bored. So I made a garden over Christmas and New year, and now I look after beans, tomatoes, strawberries, pumpkins, spring onions, aubergines, sweet potatoes, taro, pineapple, chilli, corn, tapioca, peas and the most over-engineered composting system ever put together by someone with no engineering background. Aside from going to church a lot, conducting a couple of interviews, and getting people to play a research game I invented, I have not actually done very much. But in the last two weeks or so I have been writing my third 3 monthly report, on distributing money. I finished it this afternoon. It has been very informative putting things down, though it can get a bit frustrating staying in all the time when you don’t have anyone to visit in other places where you can work and get away. Each day is punctuated by the roar of the two main flights to Mosbi, and the snarl of smaller, more irregular types of planes. They break the monotony of adult disenchantment at standardised fleets of passenger hungry flying buses and hark back to the excitement of a British childhood: seeing the plane one will take for your holiday to a corner of the south coast of Spain. The small ones leave and arrive at irregular times, announcing themselves distinctly, with characteristic engine calls that recall names given to planes in previous wars. Off they go to far flung places, nearby and yet so distant. Small planes leaving Goroka is a regular occurrence, but in their strained speed you can see them secretly looking forward to being welcomed as a life-giving novelty, disguising their lust for uniqueness under necessity. They burst the low morning clouds or rise steeply into the endless blue sky like fearlessly accustomed nomads on another venture into the desert overhead. Underneath, flights of fancy transmit similar benefits upon people: unexpected, expected, satisfactory or unsatisfactory, fast money is distributed by gambling winners to persons around Goroka. These transactions may never reach further than ones house, or they might go all the way to a village in another province, and like the small planes, they carry with them the name of their initiator, leaving a trace of renown like a jet trail, their origin hidden by decision as the horizon obeys the mountains. This plane bit is how the report starts. As you know, I am increasingly bold about imagery, I think because my poetic moments get fewer and fewer.

Planes and forays are all very well, but the truth here is that we are in the tail end of the rainy season now, and it is earth, not the skies, which preoccupy. As I mentioned, my good shoes were taken in Madang, and so I had to buy a pair of ‘stockman’s’, a cheap version of Caterpillar’s or Doctor Martin’s, and I plod around in these heavy, black oily mud covered things and shorts. The oily mud comes from Kakaruk market, it is disgusting stuff, but not as tricky as some of the stuff constituting the backroads around here. Along these faith is required as one steps, hoping this will not be the spot where the boot keeps sinking until it can no longer be seen anymore. Now it is established that I look stupid; my teeth and lips are now usually ruby red from the betelnut habit replacing the smoking, and my hair is so annoying in length I often resort to tying it up. Now stupid doesn’t seem the right word, does it?

Anyway, at least its not cold, like for most of you reading this. Oh and by the way I have booked my tickets back to London, via Hong Kong for three nights, sweet. I leave PNG on the 14th of June, earlier than expected, but I want to get to the ESfO Conference in St Andrews in July, I am giving two papers, and I plan to do another 3 months back in the field a few months later. Other than that, its all rather mundane I am afraid.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The People That Provoked Me to Attempt Pathetic Prose.

Words cant express my joy at being in this staggering (both senses) country sometimes. I have just spent a week in a remote village in neighbouring Madang Province. It was so quiet, peaceful, people pleased with my presence but without motivation towards return. It was very pleasant to spend a week where my role was not that of the enquiring transactor, washing in a murky ox-bow lake and tending innumerable fires. The experience was made more enchanting (don’t I sound romantic if not exoticising! But piss off anthropology purists, I am the individual from where I am from, and it is only a sentence) by the event of our travel to the village. We were held up by raskols, poetic justice. I lost my shoes, most of my clothes for the trip, my medicine and wash things. After 6 months of tempting fate, it was finally my time, and as it did not happen in my province it changed nothing except the tan lines on my feet. I even found myself framing it as an opportunity to see the other side of raskol life. The story of a homemade gun and Town discompassion prompted villagers to much lending of sportswear, kind offers of accompaniment and cant have hurt my baui (betel nut) accumulation through the week.

Nevertheless, after a week I missed Goroka and my friends, and as I followed the buai trade routes at first to nearby Base Camp with the intention of travelling up along the Highlands Highway at night, I ran into Highlanders I knew by two degrees of separation. I did not know them personally so I decided to travel up the conventional way, via two 6 hour buses and an overnight stay at a friend’s house in Madang. The second bus picked me up from my friends house as the driver is a friend of mine from Goroka. From that moment I was back into my sphere, which I now consider to extend from Goroka down the highway like the rapidly developing tail of a tadpole. At the 4 Mile Buai Maket along the road leaving Madang, I met a baui trader friend on his way back from an expedition into the bush to seek out his green gold, a lady who I buy vegetables from in the market near my house, who was down selling onions from her garden, a body builder friend returning from a sponsorship gathering foray amongst Madang wantoks, and a host of people who knew me by name. Flattering to my hard work, I found myself the donee of further buai to complement those given me by the villagers. Back on the bus, Blackie, the comic driver so called for his dark skin relative to other highlanders, heard my story of a hold-up in Madang, and shared his stories with the bus of bigomy, crashed vehicles and family strife as we all laughed, chewed our buai and smoked. Blackie, whose debts and credits lie dotted along the highway as do his four wives, seemed to have either come across some money or felt it was time to repay some of the extensive comestible debts along the road, as we stopped frequently to donate buai to roadside dwellers and maketers. Remarkably, nearing Goroka at 5pm, we found ourselves blocked by a slow moving maintenance pickup belching oil-black exhaust fumes into our open windows. Raining heavily, the ten or so men on the back of the pickup huddled or wore traffic cones on their heads to shelter themselves from the rain they find so repugnant. The completely unselfconscious act of refuge under orange witches hats, unmentioned by anyone, only added to my own private comic monologue, coming from a country where their act would classify them as a group of inebriated students or stags, and their appearance that of subversively racialised gnomes. The effect was further promulgated by the half-moon smiles plastered on their faces by Blackie’s next unselfish and stylised act. Unable to pass them for oncoming traffic, Blackie took individual buai from his white plastic bag by the handbrake and launched them via the open drivers’ window towards their arms outstretched like those of public school teacher’s pets. Each lob was proceeded by a fleeting attempt at stunt driving as we lunged to within inches of the moving vehicle on the winding mountain road. Some buai fell by the side, others rattled around the corrugated cab amid scrabbling hands, others caught by star-jumping political garden ornaments at the risk of discovering their fragility. 20 flings of buai or accompanying daka later, our host swerved out with a stab at the accelerator and we passed our animated delayers, having lost their cabs and now moving so wildly as to resemble just caught fish, and to my surprise, they called my name as we passed. I have to admit I did not recognise them, but the personal touch tacked on to this unique experience will ferment it into one of my sweeter memories of this place (nothing gets corked in Papua New Guinea!).

In other news, I received comments on my 6 month report on cards, quite encouraging and very useful. Much to get on with though, as always. Also I have had some trouble in the settlement that I cannot put on the blog, but I can no longer work there and I am nervous about going to certain places, hopefully it will simmer down, but I may start working in a village for a while until it does, I have been wanting to anyway.

I am back now, my adopted father will be concluding the death ceremony of his father tomorrow and the 6 pigs and 2 cows are no doubt rifling through the rubbish in his car park, so I am off to take pictures and ask questions (it is not all gambling, thankfully). This entry has been a lot of fun to pour over, it seemed to me to require colourful adjectives, similes and metaphors to translate it to writing.

Until next time,


Sunday, 18 October 2009

The Lack of News

I have been busy yet again, but this time it is harder to say doing what exactly. As I think I said in my last post, things have become everyday here. This is nice, but it doesn’t make for interesting reading via this infernal blog. The last week or so was spent writing my 6 months report, on card gambling if you must know. 6 months, I think after the 4th time just picked up to gale force conditions. I still sleep a night or two a week in the settlement, I still go to pokies when I can, I still find it difficult to find time to go to the market. One thing happened last week though, I was finally given a house to rent in the National Sports Institute. After being in a dorm room the size of a british bathroom 50 metres from a kitchen which it is unsafe to leave your kitchen things in, and 100 metres away from a not so inviting toilet and shower (just enough to consider investing in some empty plastic bottles for nighttimes), I now have a 3 bedroom house with hot water and a fridge the same size as my previous room. The first thing I did when I got it was to go to the second-hand and buy a strong blanket I fashioned into a hammock. I now relax and smoke on that any chance I get, ignoring the fact it is now a haven for mosquitos that get up seemingly only to invite me in to their domain and then get comfortable for a good meal. It is very luxurious for me now, and I can have people over and make them feel at ease in a way I couldn’t before.

I have changed my mind about when I will return, which will be in June next year, hopefully in time for my birthday. This means I will be able to sit on a panel at the ESFO conference in St Andrews in early July, and leaves me three months of fieldwork funding remaining to go back when the inevitable questions arise out of the writing process some months later. This means that I have only 9 months more here, and I feel the time pressure. My fieldwork being in a sense multi-sited, with different gambling locales partially disconnected, it makes me feel pushed to go here and there and less so to other places previously looked at, while the relationships I have made and the investigations I have partially completed in those places pull me back to them.

My report though, it is 12,000 words long and has some interesting things in it about card gambling, at least I think so. Especially there is the matter of the history/genealogies of the games, which is fascinating, for reasons I would rather reveal in more formal writing/speech. When I write these I get very excited about my work, which I hope will be interesting for others too. The main question in my mind now is what is luck, or ‘laki’, but this is very hard for people to explain.

What news, what news… Oh yes, Fiona and Simon have come! To those who don’t know who they are, they are PNG national classmates of mine at St Andrews, and Fiona has come back to do her research on gender violence in the capital. Simon has staggering offers which are up in the air so I can’t say what he is doing. I would like to go and see them sometime, but I don’t know when that is possible. That reminds me though, I would love to know how my fellow classmates are getting on in their respective fieldsites, and who of my seniors has finished their theses and moved on, any news? Ha, the tables have turned now, so little news I have that my news section becomes a reciprocal begging enterprise, but I have so little to give I guess I cant expect much!

I do have some trouble in the settlement with people expecting payment for services rendered, which of course I do not mind, but when it is not up front and it becomes a mud-slinging contest bypassing me then I get annoyed. Basically a man who I thought was a really good guy may not be, he may be more a ‘man blo tainim tok’, as we say here. This concerns me because it may be damaging to some friends of mine, and me. I am now intent on spending more time with other members of the community and if that does not work then to lose the settlement altogether, there is enough work to get on with elsewhere.

Anyway, that is all for now, spout generalities at you next month…


Sunday, 6 September 2009

The Respite

Hello again. I guess this blog is turning into more of a monthly routine. As I mentioned in my last entry, Alana came and stayed for a month, she left a few days ago. If I could upload a map I would show you where we went, but as those reading this will probably have tolerable internet access, and by now achieved the status of sustained interest, I will just give you the names and you can do the rest if you want. We spent 10 days in Goroka, to ‘give a sense of my fieldwork’ (translation: I couldn’t tear myself away), where I dragged her to the settlement, had her meet my adopted father, and otherwise let me get on with things while she acclimatised to PNG (translation: bought a Meri Blouse, something rather like a sheet/hot air balloon that women wear). From there we went down to Madang and stayed with some friends of mine for a week, involving snorkelling, a cultural show, various exploits, and then we entered uncharted waters for me. We flew to Rabaul, a city destroyed by a volcano in 1994 and again in 2006, hung around a volcano and got coated in a fine layer of ash for 2 days, very nice pictures (Robert Foster’s territory anthropologists). After that we took a banana boat, got soaked, very cold, and landed in Namatanai in New Ireland where we got a bus to Kavieng, to stay with some other friends of mine for a few days. For the anthropologists and exotically curious, this is the home of the Malanngan (actually Malagan as it is spelt there), the fine carvings made to in some sense abstractly represent a dead person and then left in the bush to rot as their memory fades. Yes I did buy a carving, a mask, and yes it is beautiful. So one day I went diving, then we went to a village and spent the night after picking up Marvin (the mask, my name), and relaxed on some islands. I would just like to say that those who do fieldwork on the islands are sissies, its bloody PARADISE! Joke, kind of. We flew back to Madang, stayed a night, and took the bus up to Goroka the next day.

Goroka is having a facelift as the town gears up for the Goroka Show in a couple of weekends time. The show is the biggest in Papaua New Guinea, and comprises mainly singsing groups (men and/or women dressed in their traditional costumes dancing and singing), but also heavy gambling just outside the main arena. This is going to be a hectic time for me, as such a huge event is very difficult to cover, and brings up questions of how, and who, I should follow. One thing that may help is the fact that I am moving to Banana Block, part of the settlement I work at. I am renting a room there and I spent last Saturday buying a kerosene stove, a floor mat, mattress and bedding and hauling them back to the block. Sunday filled with picking up things like a kettle, another towel, plates and things. The ironic thing is that it is larger and nicer than the room I have at NSI, which I will keep to house my computer and to type up on weekends. It was not until I had taken the room and filled it with the basics however that Peter told me that I would not be alone in there, for my safety he would sleep on a mat on the floor. As I like my personal space at the end of a day of research, this is not ideal, but safety is a useful thing to have. A late development happened yesterday as I went to watch the local Rugby League (biggest sport here by miles) team play, the captain Nigel (Fionas brother for those in the know) gave me an official t-shirt and I rode with the team on the bus. It isnt the first time I have been to watch a game, but the first time in such style. A very tough match, 2nd vs. 3rd, the boys (Goroka Lahanis) won, it went down to the wire, there was a fight, the game was almost called off, Nigel got man of the match, and there were lots of people I knew there. One of these was my adopted father, who confounded my plans in the way only he could, as I happily told him I was moving to the Block, expecting plaudits for being a true mangi blo block, he said 'maski, yu ba slip wantaim mi', meaning I am to live with him. I think I will still keep the place in the Block though and spread myself between the 3, if its allowed.

Peter from the settlement and the security guards of NSI have teamed up to teach me how to use a bow and arrow, which is the funnest thing in the world. I know, people tend to think that as we have had guns for a while they are a silly and outdated weopen, but I can tell you, these things are deadly, especially with the accuracy these guys have. I am on a little (not very little I think but by comparison) one made of bamboo at the moment to learn accuracy and how to pull first, and then I will get myself a big one. Saturday night was spent in a large haus kunai (traditional style meetng house) firing arrows at a burst football with Simon in a trenchcoat from the second hand clothes shop which made him look like a World War I veteran, and a small boy called Kenneth collecting the arrows and bringing them back (a very handy fact of life here that boys have to earn their right to be noticed). It was surreal, but much more relaxing than a night at the pokies. The odd thing is that nobody took any notice of my practicing, it seems taken for granted that I would learn to shoot.

So what has or has not been going on in the settlements: I have had to delete this section as a couple of friends have responded to my asking for advice on whether to keep what I put on here up or not. The reasons they gave persuaded me that it was beter for my informants and better for me if I just didnt say some things. Daily life continues, card games, buai and hot food selling, drinking, people with jobs, and schemes to make money. Since I have returned from my holiday, visitors, that is relatives distant or close, are staying with people in the settlements, preparing for the Show, where they will be performing or selling something. At NSI the bush material houses for selling things are going up, and the roads have been repaired a little. I seem to do little actual observing of gambling here at the moment, but I think that is part of it. Being here and doing what I do has become normal life now, things which scared me or confused me are not frightening anymore, they become mysteries to reach out for. A little respite, maybe.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

The Creature of Habit

Hello those of you who have not given up on this blog yet. I know, I haven’t made an entry for a long time, I was going to when I was in Madang on the coast, but I was writing my first 3-monthly report and was frankly sick of writing. So the title of this post is a self-effacement for not being the thing I had counted on being. Like many things in this country, habits are often broken, only to be reformed in different guises with all the passion of their former manifestation. In fact, this is ‘passin’ in Tok Pisin, at least as far as I understand it now. It really is quite amusing all these disclaimers (‘as far as I understand it now’) I have to put on my statements here and everyday, as if by magic my opinions of what ‘is’ will crystallise upon alighting that plane in London next year.

So what have I been doing? Well the two anthropologists which came to stay with me (I mentioned in my last entry) have now gone home, a while ago actually. One didn’t stay long, the other, Chris, a Canadian, stayed with me for some time (I have forgotten how long, a few weeks). We went to a cultural show in a village together a few hours out of Goroka, and it was a bizarre, fun, and frightening experience. A quasi-tribal fight broke out, and the show was cut short, leading to interesting compensation payment calculations. It was very remarkable before that too, with a mixture of bare-bottomed old men in traditional costumes dancing and singing in groups; boys and young men drummed in regimental lines as ‘brass bands’ with one or two members pelvicly thrusting their way around the groups as they marched (also skimpily attired); finally Goroka based body-builders oiled up and dressed down to speedos, demonstrating their godly bodies to an appreciative and mildly bemused crowd. We laughed, took notes, crapped ourselves, and made the most of being in Chris’ words the ‘super-monkeys in a zoo’ that we whiteboys face when alone in villages. Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t laughing at the locals in general, but again Chris’ words ‘there is more character per capita in PNG than anywhere’. So, with two quotes, you must think me besotted by this New Worlder, eh? Well we did get on very well actually, similar senses of humour and a grasp of the underlying humour of Lamb Flaps saw to that. Chris will be back in 2010, about the time I leave, to study sport in Goroka, so it looks like a fruitful relationship in the making.

After Chris was gone, I fell back into my routine of getting myself in mildly hairy situations, taking notes, and putting them on computer in my safe haven, rather than doing the former and never writing up the latter, as I did when they were with me. In no time at all, as it seemed, my 3 monthly report was due, and I had to postpone it so I could be around for the third State of Origin game: fascinating and frantic again, in the settlement again, with fighting again. I then went down to Madang and stayed with my anthropologist friend Alice Street for a week or so, who was there a few months getting permissions and gathering data for her new project and next long-term stint. She was, by a turn of events, in an apartment in a plush hotel, opposite the pool. It was heaven! Writing, getting wet, towelling off and writing again. I met two German(ish) anthropologists who I respect immensely: Juerg Wassman and his wife Verena (I have met her before). They had some of their students there as well, and I really hit it off with them, one especially, which was excellent. Nevertheless I was very pleased to get back to my place, my guys, and out of the sometimes quite oppressive heat of the tropical coast.

Now I am back and have started working in Kakaruk Market and Chuave Market, the two buai and gambling markets in Goroka and the most tricky and dangerous places. I feel confident about how to approach it now, how to get people on my side, confident about my friends so far and their advice and their looking after me. My tok pisin is good enough to start tackling it, and it is easier to know quickly who you can trust. There are card games and darts games which you simply don’t see in the settlements there, and as a space in the town they hold a lot in the imagination of people as well as much physical activity. You know I never really thought I would become one of those ‘underworld anthropologists’, but I cant get away from the fact of the links this project brings up: the raskols, the marijuana, adultery, stealing, drinking and fighting. I guess I am one, and an ‘exotic’ one at that; oh well, there are worse things to be. At the moment I am interviewing raskols and getting to know their interaction with security men, who often live next door. This brings me to the one major personal problem I have here, which I did not anticipate. Not only is there so little you can take for granted and it is impossible to turn off the learning side of my brain to make simple friends, but actually a lot of the people I talk to often do things I cannot find less than abhorrent under any moral framework. I can cut it out as I work, but it is emotionally exhausting sometimes, and ethically problematic. I do tell people I don’t agree with things they do, either verbally or through expression, I am no wimp on that front, but I have to persevere with them nonetheless. Rapists, murderers, career criminals, all of these people are not only integral to my research, but also my safety. Now I am very aware that while I am free to roam the settlement at any time, I cannot get on the wrong side of these people, and this is now bringing problems in what I can take notes on around people. Any suspicion on their part that I am an informer and I will be dead, simple as that. Again, I don’t mean to be dramatic, but it is cathartic letting this out, and though day to day things are fine, it is a fact I have to live with, like everyone else.

Anyway, my bestest friend in the whole wide world is coming to Goroka on Friday, that’s Alana (sorry to disappoint you Sparky!). I plan to show her how I live and work for a week and a half, and go to my adopted father’s village for a day to see the rural highlands. Then we will travel down to Madang and go from there, see some of the country. A daren’t take her further up into the Highlands, as I am responsible for her safety, and the risk factor is higher with her without the payoff, so it is the nambis (coast), and the islands. This I think will be good for my research, as I will get to know how people elsewhere live a little. I am really excited about her coming, she will be the only person from home to see me out here, and I plan to make the most of it. It may be a little early on, but I won’t miss any big events, which is good. Also, as a budding filmmaker, you never know what ideas may come out of it.