Monday, April 30, 2012

Isn't PNG a 3rd World Country? Why is it so expensive?

This is actually a cheater blog post.  I'm just giving you a link to a post written by my friend Catharine about the cost of living here in Papua New Guinea. 

Click here to read the post

She give prices in Australian dollars, but for comparison, the Australian dollar and US dollar have been fairly equal lately, tending towards the Australian dollar being stronger.  If you want to figure up how much the basket of food would cost in America, here is what it contains:
  • A whole, frozen chicken
  • a loaf of bread
  • a liter of milk
  • orange juice
  • a dozen eggs
  • a package of coffee
  • about 2lbs of ground beef

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Highway to Paradise

There is a popular song here in PNG that sings about traveling on the “Highway to Paradise” (i.e. the coastal town of Madang.) It is true that Madang is a very beautiful part of PNG and many people go there for vacations, but the road there is not actually the best. If fact sometimes it is not even passable due to washouts from torrential rains. However, this post isn’t about the highway itself, but a trip I (Brian) made recently on it.

In Madang our organization has a training facility for new members coming to PNG. New arrivals learn Tok Pisin, PNG customs and begin their first immersion into life in PNG. The center is located at the top of a mountain called Nobnob which has a spectacular view of the Madang harbor, airfield and surrounding area. However, to get to this location is a small dirt/gravel road that makes any Forest Service road that you have ever been on look like a super highway. The road if full of bumps, holes, drop offs and hairpin turns. For years this road has been maintained by our staff in Madang using an old Ford tractor with a front bucket, but in the last four years this tractor has really gone downhill in its ability to mine rock and be reliable to help keep the road open. The staff has long desired a new machine and this past year funding was finally acquired to purchase a real backhoe to replace the aging Ford.

You may be wondering why I am involved in this story since I am not stationed in Madang. Well I am the resident heavy equipment guy for our region (meaning that I have the most experience of anyone when it comes to anything bigger than a small four cylinder diesel engine). So about six months ago I started working with the team in Madang to help with technical advice in purchasing and transporting a proper machine to Nobnob. We found a used 2005 John Deere backhoe in the US that had low hours and the options that were desired by the team in Madang. It was shipped to the JAARS center and stripped down for shipment inside a 40 foot extra-high container to PNG. In order to get the machine to fit inside the tires had to be removed from the rims. The front tires and wheels were also completely removed and using the hoe as a counter balance, the backhoe was driven into the container on 2x6 timber “tracks” and other cargo packed around it. We were told by the JAARS team that packed it that we needed to make sure we had a nice level place to unload the backhoe in PNG. We always kind of chuckle at that thought as we usually have to drag things out in the gravel and dirt with a beat up old steal ramp to get things from the container to the ground.

Anyway after months of waiting for the container to make its was from Savannah, GA to Lae, PNG and then for customs to clear the container we were finally allowed to go down and open it up and unpack the backhoe and reassemble it. It took about a day and a half to put it all together. We had to get it out of the container and on the ground and get the wheels back under it. Thankfully with a backhoe you have lots of hydraulic arms available to lift the machine in to the air so we quickly removed the rear rims and took them to a local tire shop to have the tires remounted. So while we did this the rest of our shipping department was able to unload the rest of the cargo and load our truck for the cargo to be hauled to Ukarumpa. Once all the tires were under it we bolted the plastic top back into place that holds all the lighting and then drove it to our Lae guesthouse. The next day we pinned the front bucket in place and made all the final checks that everything was where it needed to be and we had to leave the machine until the next week to get to Madang.

Before I talked about how the highway to Madang is an okay road and sometimes impassable. Well for about two months leading up to backhoe arriving we began discussing how we were going to get the backhoe from Lae to Madang as the road can be very challenging and did we want to risk our only large highway truck on this type of trip. We looked into putting it on a barge or flat bottom boat and have it sailed around or hiring another trucking company to haul it for us. The other challenge that factored into this was how to get the backhoe loaded and unloaded on a truck at both points. In Lae I have a good relationship with some of the local heavy equipment dealers and they let me use their loading dock from time to time for just such instances and here in Ukaurmpa we have actually two loading docks that can be used so usually this isn’t too much of a problem, but Madang we found out there aren’t any “real” loading docks to be found. Right before Christmas I had been to Madang on holiday and the road was in great condition, but just after Christmas there were heavy rains and the road had gone into poor shape and only one trucking firm based in Madang was still running to the road. The boat was still an option, but getting it scheduled on a boat is always a challenge and the cost was more than trucking it. We continued to wait and see.

A couple weeks before the backhoe trip was supposed to happen the senior class at the high school had their annual trip to Madang and their report was the road was in good condition. So we made the decision that we would use our truck and I would go along with the driver to make sure all went well on the trip. So on a Monday morning I rode with the truck to Lae and loaded the backhoe. Early the next morning (5am) the driver and I took off for Madang. The first half of the trip was pretty uneventful and smooth, but once we got into the rough mountain portion we were not sure what to expect. Since it had rained the night before the road was a bit slick in spots, but honestly everything went really well. There was only one spot where the road was really slimy, but following the advice of another truck driver we asked on the road we just stayed in the middle (the road is unpaved so there are no lane markers that you have to follow) and by driving down the middle of the road everything went great. We arrived in Madang right at noon and met up with our Madang staff to find a “hill” to unload at. There was a local construction company that graciously allowed us to use their dirt/bush/large blocks of concrete pile to use for unloading the backhoe. The problem was it was not square enough to fit up to the back of the truck so we had to get their loader operator to build up the pile and then we backed the truck up. Once backed up I had to use the hoe on the back of the backhoe to push the dirt back that was mounded a bit too high and then I was able to drive the backhoe off.

Once on the ground in Madang my job was done. I was most happy to turn the keys over to the Madang staff and to feel happy that after much worry and prayer we had finally gotten the backhoe from America safely delivered to Madang and ready for work. By 3 pm we were all on the top of Nobnob with the newly delivered backhoe. The rest of the staff was happy to see it. We spent the night and at 7am I was heading back to town for the journey home. This time I helped the driver get the truck fueled and then let him take the truck back to Lae to pickup other cargo for Ukarumpa while I flew back via the round about way of Goroka, but that is another story.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

If it ain't broke, don't fix it!

Monday was the last day of our long holiday weekend.  Over breakfast, Brian wondered aloud what he was going to do for the day.  He shouldn't have worried, because I was quick to suggest that we use the time to clean out the shop in our basement in preparation for furlough.  I managed to convince him that it was a good idea by saying that we could clear out a space to safely store his big tool box for the year that we will be gone.  For the sake of his tools, Brian was willing to give up a day of leisure and get dirty.  Of course, he didn't realize quite what he was getting himself into at the time!

Because my allergies have been so bad lately, we decided that it wouldn't hurt to wear some dust masks while cleaning.  Poor Greg - it was more of a full-face mask for him!

Here is the before photo of the shop.  As you can see, it's a crowded, dirty, cobwebby catch-all place for our random junk.  A lot of the stuff down here came with the house when we bought it.

We had gotten very little done in the way of actual cleaning when we decided to move a set of wooden shelves to another wall, thereby making a space that would fit Brian's tool box.  That would have been easy enough, but the longer we spent in the shop, the more annoyed Brian got at the random, improvised plumbing going every which way. 

The plumbing in our house was done by people who liked to improvise and use whatever materials they had on hand at the time.  It's a very confusing mess, and we've never really been able to figure it all out.  What really bugged Brian were all the funky connections that he saw... things like this:

And this:

Before we moved the heavy shelves, Brian wanted to first go in and fix two of the pipes with proper fittings, because once we moved the shelves it was going to be very hard to access them, and there is a good chance that we would eventually need to repair them anyway.

Our simple fix-it job turned into a huge mess!  Brian climbed up on the roof and turned off the water (or so we thought).  Apparently the pipes in question did not adhere to the same rules as the rest of the house, and had a source of water from elsewhere, because I spent a lot of time with my arms over my head, holding my thumb over the pipe to keep the water from drenching us while Brian tried to attach the fittings.  Water dribbled down my arms and down my sides and we both ended up pretty soaking wet.  

It wouldn't have been so bad if the pipes we were working with were all standard sizes. But we soon discovered that the connectors Brian had would need some sanding and tweaking and lots and lots of trial and error and a good deal of encouragement in order to fit properly onto the pipes without leaking.  We took turns holding back the flood, or changing out the buckets catching the water while the other took a pocket knife or sandpaper to the fittings until they would finally go together.

After we fixed the first pipe, we realized that our jiggling of said pipe had somehow created another leak - this one higher up inside the wall.  And so we went outside into the rain (we were wet anyway) to carefully peel back a section of siding so that we could see - guess what?  Yep, another funky improvised connection farther up in the wall had started to leak.  

Here is Brian carefully trying to replace the connection. The type of siding that is used in construction here breaks very easily, and we really didn't want to have to replace it, so we worked very cautiously.

While all of this was going on for hours and hours, Greg was happily running around outside in the yard, playing with the dog and getting dirty:


And dirtier:


Until at last he decided that he wasn't having fun any more.

He reached the end of the line during one of those times when I was standing there with my arms overhead trying to keep the water pressure contained.  It was not a good time for a meltdown.  So, I handed off the gushing pipe to Brian, grabbed my irritable, mud-caked child, and knocked on the neighbor's door!  I asked if one of their kids would be able to come outside and play with him until we were able to finish.  Being the wonderful people that they are, they went above and beyond and offered to bathe him, rinse off his muddy clothes, and even ended up feeding him dinner.  I tell you what - Ukarumpa neighbors are the best!

The end of the story is that we eventually did get all of the leaks fixed, and we were able to move the shelves as planned.  But by then it was already dinnertime, and so we never did get around to cleaning our the shop.  Oh well... maybe next weekend?


Here are just a few quick photos from our long Easter weekend (here in PNG, both Friday and Monday are public holidays):

Greg got to decorate Easter eggs for the first time. 

We only get brown eggs here in PNG, so the colors don't turn out quite as bright as at home.

Greg was a little too eager, and kept trying to eat the freshly-dyed eggs!

On Sunday afternoon we had a barbecue with our Bible Study group.  Unfortunately, it was pouring rain, so we had to stay indoors, and the Easter egg hunt was crowded into the living room.

We really didn't expect Greg to "get" the whole idea of an egg hunt, but he caught on right away and really enjoyed it. 

And he soon discovered that the easiest way to get eggs was to steal them from other little kids who had already gone to the trouble of finding them!

We finished out the evening with a surprise birthday party for a friend.  It was a fun way to spend the holiday.