Thursday, January 29, 2009

3-Ring Binders and Hunting Crocodiles

This week I (Susan) started working with the STEP course (Strengthening Tokples Education in PNG), which trains Papua New Guineans to teach and promote vernacular literacy in their own communities.  (Tokples is the Pidgin word for a vernacular, or local language.)  We have participants coming from all over Papua New Guinea, with a variety of backgrounds.  Some live near cities, and are comfortable with English, while others come from much more remote locations, and while they may know three or four local languages, English is a struggle for them.  The course has been full of surprises for me, and it’s only been two days!


As with many orientations, the first day was filled with introductions and getting-to-know-you activities.  As we went around the room and said our name, where we were from, and then mentioned our favorite hobbies or activities, we heard a lot of typical answers you would expect.  “I like to read.”  “I like to snorkel.”  “I like to cook.”  But then, towards the end, one Papua New Guinean stood up and proudly proclaimed, “My name is Sylvester, and my favorite thing is to hunt crocodiles in the river at night!”  Only in PNG.


I thought that as a mentor I would spend my time discussing literacy theory and explaining assignments to my students, but I didn’t expect to teach them how to use a 3-ring binder.  Some of the things we take for granted, many of our students just haven’t experienced before.  This morning we had a class on note-taking and on how to keep your notes organized.  For this purpose, each student was given a big binder and a set of dividers.  I showed them step-by-step how to write the names of subjects on the tabs of the dividers, how to open and close the rings, and how to insert the papers into the different sections.  They caught on right away, after they had been shown how to do it the first time, but I was surprised at some of their initial mistakes, like trying to turn pages without first closing the rings of the binder.  Some of the same confusion surfaced again when we learned how to take notes (you know – outlines and bullet points and all that).  I realized that at some point in my past, someone must have taught me the way to take notes.  I just can’t remember learning, because I’ve been doing it for so long that it seems natural.  But it was something new to many of the adults in our class.


Some of our students have completed grade 12 (which is actually quite an accomplishment in this country), while others have only made it through grade 6 or so.  And you must remember that PNG schools are not at all like American schools.  Most PNG schools don’t have access to all the materials that we are inundated with (think of pages-long school supply lists for children and back-to-school sales), so it’s really not that surprising that a binder would be a new tool to learn. 


After sitting in class and watching these adults who are competent and respected in their normal spheres feel so uncomfortable and awkward when presented with unfamiliar things, I realized that I felt exactly the same way when I first visited a Papua New Guinean village.  I felt like a child, because I could barely talk, and I didn’t know how to do the most basic things, like plant sweet potatoes or wash clothes at a well.  Hopefully both my students and I will continue to learn how to be more at home in each other’s world.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

House Guests

I was looking forward to a quiet and relaxing weekend before starting a busy new chapter of my life on Tuesday. You see, on Tuesday I start as a mentor in the STEP course, a 5-week training course that trains nationals to teach others how to read and write their local language. A man and woman from the language group that I am working with in the Southern Highlands are coming to the course, and I am going to be their “mentor”, which basically just means that I go through the course with them and help them understand the concepts and do their assignments. They were supposed to arrive on Monday or Tuesday, but PNG being unpredictable as always, they showed up on Saturday afternoon. The 7-hour drive from their villages to Ukarumpa is along a highway that is prone to rock slides, bandits and other kinds of detours. They were so eager not to be late for the course that they decided to leave a few days early, just in case.

While their enthusiasm is commendable, it posed a small problem for us, because their accommodation would not be ready until Monday, and they didn’t have a way of getting food for the next few days either. The person in charge of arranging housing was not available to talk to until later in the evening. So Brian and I offered to have them stay with us on Saturday night, as we had a few empty beds in the house we are renting. We were happy to have the opportunity to get to know Jacobeth and Matthew Peter, because I will be working quite closely with them over the next two years, as they go through more STEP training sessions. But I was left scrambling for something to feed them, as our cupboards were pretty bare. And as we’ve mentioned before, you can’t just run to the store on the weekends! We ended up expanding their palate in many ways, as they had never before eaten pizza, banana bread, or pancakes, which is what we ended up feeding them over the course of their stay with us.

To round out the evening, we sat down with them and watched The Princess Bride on our laptop computer (they had started watching the movie at someone else’s house that afternoon). If you want to have the very unsettling experience of analyzing American culture through another set of eyes, watching a typically American movie with someone from another culture is a very good way to do it. I realized very quickly that much of the humor in the movie was missed by our guests, and I kept finding myself wondering what they were thinking at different parts of the movie. What impression of America was I giving them? Obviously, The Princess Bride was far from the worst movie we could have picked, and we also know from our time in the village that when people do get to watch an American movie, their tastes tend to run towards the violent. Chuck Norris and Rambo have large fan bases in Papua New Guinea. On the other hand, The Sound of Music was our village was papa’s favorite movie.

In the morning, we all walked down to the Pidgin worship service. Without really thinking about it, Brian and I headed to our usual spot, right in the middle of the large meeting hall. I realized, a little too late, that although in the cities it is common for families to sit together, in many village churches men and women sit on opposite sides of the aisle from each other. We stayed where we were, but I think Matthew would have been more comfortable sitting in the rear of the church with a group of Papua New Guinean men.

After church, Matthew settled down in our living room and soon became engrossed in a National Geographic magazine that Brian’s grandparents had sent us a few months ago. He can read English, but ended up asking us for clarification of a few terms that he hadn’t encountered before or which he had heard before, but didn’t know what they were. So we found ourselves explaining in Tok Pisin DNA, genetics and conservation, among other things.

Now please do not misunderstand if I have inadvertently portrayed our guests as unsophisticated rural folks. Both Matthew and Jacobeth are very intelligent, well-spoken people who are obviously respected in their community because they have been chosen to represent their villages by coming to this course. It’s just a fact that they have been able to experience a few new things this weekend, and it has been a pleasure for us to be there to witness/cause it! Well, I’ve got to go and whip up some fried rice; they will be here in a half hour for dinner, before going back to the dormitories, where we finally found them rooms.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Not so quiet Saturday

Most Saturdays here at Ukarumpa are fairly quiet.  You go for a walk or visit friends or just do some work around the house.  Today that is what Susan and I had planned.  We baked some cookies in the morning and were about to head out the door to go to a friend’s house for lunch when the phone rang.  Now since I work in Industrial either my boss or I have to be on call and since he is gone on vacation this week the responsibility landed on me.  Usually nothing big comes up.  You check in on the generators and on the chance that someone calls you go and help.  That is what happened today.


At noon the call came that an electrical power pole was smoking.  Now since this isn’t normal I promptly put on my shoes and headed out the door.  I hopped in my van (Industrial has a van that I take home at night when I am on call) and headed to the scene of the incident less than a block away.  I guess an old wooden cross member on the power pole had rotted out and some ants had found themselves home in it, which caused one of the insulators to fall and let the line touch the wood, which caused the smoke (aka a small fire).


I proceeded to race down the hill to find our national electrician who lives here on center and the two of us raced back up for him to assess the problem.  On my way to get him I shut the power off to about half the center in order to kill power to the line.  Once he determined what he needed we raced back to the shop to get tools, parts and the cherry picker.  Now the cherry picker has a bit of a story in and of itself.  You see it is rather old (like many other things here) and had been in Lae getting repaired for some hydraulic problems and had arrived back about a month ago.  We had been using it and a leak developed on one of the hydraulic cylinders, so I had taken it off and sent it back to get repaired.  Well, the cylinder had just come back from being repaired yesterday (Friday) and thankfully I had installed it and tested it.  If the cherry picker had still been down today, I am not sure what we would have done.


So after having cut a new timber for the wires to connect to, plus about five more trips up and down the hill for parts and gas (for the cherry picker that ran for three hours before running out) and five hours working in the hot sun we finally got the electricity back on.  My electricians worked very hard and really did help to make my life a little easier.  All I really had to do was run and get them things and answer the questions of all the people who would walk by and want to know why the power was out.  It was a good day’s work for a Saturday afternoon and so now I have had another exciting adventure in PNG.  You just never know what each day will bring and I think that is one of the best parts about living here.  Being able to make a difference one adventure at a time.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Creating Art (or at least attempting to)

Here in Ukarumpa there are different people with many talents who are willing to teach what they know to you.  This was case when Susan and I decided to take a pottery class on two consecutive Saturday mornings.  The high school art teacher put a posting on the community bulletin board asking if anyone would be interested in taking a pottery class for only the cost of the materials.  Since there is not a lot else going on Saturday mornings (no cartoons) we though it sounded like fun.


The first Saturday we spent an hour going over the basics of pottery working and talking about the different kinds of clay and how to work with it.  Then we were turned loose to create something.  Since they only have four wheels and there were about 12 people in the class we started with hand-built items.  We both tried making vases, with mixed results.  I honestly wasn’t super excited about the vase because I really wanted to make a bowl on the wheel.  Susan’s vase turned out pretty good and should be large enough for the bouquets of flowers that we can buy at the market.  Mine didn’t turn out the best, so I decided to let it be turned back into a lump of clay for someone else to make into a masterpiece.


The second week was much more enjoyable for the two of us as we got to work on the wheel.  For me it was the first time to ever make something on a pottery wheel, but in no time at all I was getting the hang of it.  Susan on the other hand struggled her way along.  So after an hour and a half she only created one bowl.  I, however, got two nice soup/cereal size bowls done and the teacher was very impressed!  I too was proud of my accomplishment, especially since it was my first time ever doing this.  I tried to make a bigger bowl, something we could put a salad in, but every time I would try to start making it big it would get a wobble to it and fall apart.  So I only ended up with my two bowls. 


So the final tally is two bowls for Brian and one bowl and one vase for Susan.  Not too bad for a bunch of beginners.  Our art won’t be fired (the process of cooking the pottery at super high heat) for another month or two.  The cost of operating the kiln is very high so they want to make sure that it is full before they run it.  So the high school students will make things in their class once school gets started again (they are still on Christmas break) and then in late February or March our items will be finished and we can take them home.


When we get our projects finished we’ll post an entry with pictures of the finished product.


Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Trip to Town

This morning I (Susan) went to town with some friends to do a little shopping. Kainantu (pronounced “k-eye-nan-too”) is the nearest town to Ukarumpa, about a 15-minute drive away. There isn’t much there, but it does offer a change of scenery. We went to the grocery store and then to some of the secondhand clothing stores.

As you can see from the picture, we have a “K-mart” in Kainantu…though it’s not quite the same as back home. This K-mart sells a very limited supply of groceries, and that’s it. As you can see from the billboard out front, HIV is a growing concern in Papua New Guinea. Many aid agencies are working in Papua New Guinea to prevent the spread of HIV because they realize that it could turn into another Africa if the problem is ignored.

Living in a small “town” like Ukarumpa doesn’t offer many entertainment opportunities. There are no restaurants, movie theaters, or coffee shops. So for many people a trip to Kainantu, while not that thrilling in itself, is a welcome change of pace. For a large number of women here, secondhand clothes shopping is a favorite pastime. Clothes are cheap, but there are no dressing rooms, so you just buy a bundle of items and hope that most of it fits when you get home.

There is one nice restaurant at a local hotel where you can go on special occasions, but for everyday eating, there is a fast-food chicken place that is really pretty good. No one is sure what to call it though, because it was supposed to be “Highlands Fried Chicken”, but when they painted the sign, they forgot to put the “h” in the middle of Highlands, making it “Higlands”. At Higlands you can get a chicken sandwich, fries and a soda, and feel like you’re almost at home!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Do you read me? Over.

When language teams are in the village, many rely on radios to communicate with other teams, with aviation, or with friends back at the center. Yesterday I (Susan) got to try my hand at radio communication for the first time.

Brian and I are a support team for Joy (pictured above), a literacy worker who was in our POC group. This means that we pray for her and also help her with practical things like getting ready for a village stay, taking care of her errands while she is away, or stocking her fridge with basic foods before she comes home. We also stay in contact with her while she is in the village by setting up radio skeds (a sked is a 15-minute block of time on the radio schedule). Joy left for her first 3-week stay in the village a week ago, and so yesterday I had scheduled a time to check up on her. Other than almost kicking a snake that she thought was a vine when she went to the water to bathe, she reported that she’s been doing well.

So in radio etiquette, you’re supposed to say “over” when you are done talking, so that the other person knows it’s their turn to talk. In normal conversation, we have all sorts of little “filler” phrases, like “ok”, “uh-huh” or “cool”, just to show the other person that you are paying attention to what they are saying. Well, that doesn’t work so well on the radio. What I realized while talking to Joy yesterday was that it sounds really stupid to say “uh-huh….over.” or “cool…over.” I had to scramble for something more substantial to say. It was hard! If you don’t believe me, try not to use any filler phrases next time someone is telling you a story.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Market Morning

It’s often foggy in the early morning, as you can see in the pictures. It’s not usually very cold though – especially when you are hiking up the hill with a bilum full of produce! You see, this morning was a market morning. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, local villagers bring their produce to Ukarumpa to sell. Market only runs from 6:30am to 8:00am, so you have to be an early bird. The store only sells onions, garlic, and “exotic” things like apples. So if you want fruits and veggies, you have to go to market. I’m an early bird, so I don’t mind at all.

Ukarumpa is built on a hill, and we live at the very tip top. The market is down at the very bottom, which means we have an easy 7- or 8-minute walk down, and that by the time you reach the top again with your purchases, you’re a bit out of breath!

When we were living on the coast during orientation, we got tired of the monotony of available veggies. There are only so many things you can grow in a hot, tropical place. But up here in the highlands, the weather is like Oregon springtime year-round. This means that we get a big variety of the same types of vegetables that we are used to at home.

In Papua New Guinea, you don’t bargain at the market. Prices are posted, and you pay the asking price. Only on handicrafts can you ask for a second price, but never a third. Bargaining is rude! Women must be careful not to step over food, or to let the hem of their skirt go over food on the ground. It is believed that this makes food unclean. (For this reason I’m grateful that most of the food is up on tables in this market. I don’t have to be as careful!)

One of the nice things that you can get at the market is fresh beans. By this I mean black beans, kidney beans, and various other colorful speckled beans I don’t have a name for. They cook the same as buying dried beans, you just can skip soaking them! We can also get strawberries, watermelon, pineapples, bell peppers, and corn. This morning I bought broccoli, tomatoes, carrots, a bunch of bananas and a half dozen passion fruit for about $3.28.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Our House

Ok, just to make sure that everyone is on the same page now, I’ve posted some photos of the house that we are renting in Ukarumpa. We are no longer living in a bush house in the village. Some of you might be a little disappointed to see that we aren’t “roughing it” as much as you thought we were. But people! This is 2009. Even in the middle of Papua New Guinea we can still have creature comforts.

If it makes you feel any better, the house was built in 1972 and the interior still is decorated mostly in that style. Very retro-cool, or so we tell ourselves.

This house is owned by a family who is at home on furlough right now. We get to stay here until they come home, at which point we’ll be moved to whichever house is empty at the time. The beautiful yard is courtesy of a husband and wife team of Papua New Guineans that we have hired to mow the lawn and take care of the garden. The majority of families here will hire helpers for their lawns or homes. It’s a great way to support the local economy. Besides, they do a much better job than I could.