Finally...PNG!

Trip Start Mar 10, 2008
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Trip End Jul 16, 2008


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Flag of Papua New Guinea  ,
Friday, May 9, 2008

Hey folks,

I'm going to write this in snippets, otherwise I'm sure it will take forever to keep this entry up to date.

Today is April 15.  I'm in a 450-person camp in Moro in the midlands of the Southern Highlands region for another day.  I say "person", but in reality, since >90% of the workers here are men, I'd say describing it as a "450 man camp" is a pretty fair description.  Tomorrow they send me up in a chopper about a half-hour into the hills to the "Nogoli" camp, a much smaller, more intimate place, I'm told.  I will be based there for the next few weeks.  Some days I will drive out to work sites, other days, when the sites are in the middle of the bush, the chopper will be the only way to get there.

I am looking forward to getting to the new location.  It will be exciting to get out into the countryside and mingle with bush critters and locals.  Unfortunately, most expats working at these camps actually see very little of the countryside, other than when they fly up from the coast, as the general policy is to keep everyone restricted to camp as much as possible.  Sooo...I feel very fortunate that I will get to go out and "play" on a regular basis within that lush green canopy I took in from high up in the plane on the way here.

The grub in camp is good...lots of it.  I'll have to make sure that I don't eat too much and make an effort to stay fit while here (luckily, the Nogoli Camp has an exercise gym), otherwise the pounds will add on, I'm sure.

Hey, I had the world's most expensive steak two days ago in Brisbane.  It was Sunday afternoon around 4:00.  I was scheduled on a 7 AM flight (groan) to PNG the next morning.  I was chomping on what I thought was a "harmless" piece of cow.  Much to my surprise, a rogue bone with an attitude problem refused to budge when I unknowingly bit down on it.  CRACK!  Next thing I knew there was half a tooth floating around in my mouth...oh joy!  What is it about me and going on trips that just attracts trouble?  Anyway, I found an emergency dentist at 8:30 in the evening...on a Sunday...how lucky is that?  Less than a half-hour later the tooth was re-created with magical filler material...it's now better than ever, and I'm $220 poorer.  It's enough to make a guy go 100% vegetarian!  Hmmmm...I don't eat a lot of meat anyway...hmmmm.  Naw!  I'm already in a "dry" camp for the next five weeks with not even a sip of cold beer to celebrate each day with.  I can't kick all my vices in one go.

First impressions of PNG?  In short: beautiful.  The flight in yesterday afternoon from Port Moresby on a Dash-8 charter with about 40 or so other workers took about an hour or so.  The entire way, once we edged inland from the coast, we flew over an unending canopy of green in all directions except where intersected here and there with meandering, crazily looping, lazy brown rivers (see attached pix).  There is no commercial logging of any significance in this part of PNG...hence the forest is intact mostly everywhere...what a concept!  The few locals working for the project that I've met have all been really friendly, open and helpful.  There is a good vibe going down here.  Locals generally welcome this project, and it shows.  I'll talk more about the nature of the project and why I think locals are generally supportive of it a little bit further down the blog...remind me if I forget...if you're interested.

By the way, have any of you read "Collapse", by Jared Diamond?  [If not, I strongly suggest that you consider doing so...it is a great book about how some civilizations collapse, and why others don't.]  In it, the author focuses on PNG at one point.  He speaks of this very same project near Lake Kutubu that I am working on.  The project at the time that he wrote his book was owned by Chevron; now it is owned by Exxon-Mobil and an Aussie OilCo named Oil Search.  The positive and pro-active enviro and cultural impact policies employed by Chevron at that time continue to be employed by the new owners as well.

...
It is now May 8.  I've been here over 4 weeks at this point.  Man...time has just zoomed by!  I've been keeping a journal of my trip, but haven't had a chance to get on and add to this blog entry until now.

Although not every day has been super busy, they are all full...spare time in the evening is at a bit of a premium on most days.  Typically we get up around 5AM for brekkie, we have a team meeting at 6AM before heading out in the field for the day, and then return to camp sometime between 5-6 in the evening.  There is a bit of paperwork to do in the evening as well.  On most days, I try to get to the camp's gym facilty before dinner and do a bit of yoga, run on the treadmill, or pump some massive weights.  ;-)  Dinner is served until 7PM.  Food's been great.  I've managed to eat like a pig and not gain weight (yet)...bashing through the bush and also working out on a regular basis is certainly the reason for that.

What exactly am I doing as for work?  Well, I'm employed by an international engineering consulting firm named Worley Parsons. I'm working with a team of engineers and geologists to define the terrain, soil and rock conditions for the right-of-way of a proposed extension of Exxon/Oilsearch's facilities here.  The consortium is looking to extend it's current pipeline at Moro up to here, and also from Moro down to the coast.  The total distance of the works is several hundred km.  From the coast, the natural gas that is processed here will travel via an undersea pipeline to Port Moresby (PNG's capitol), where it will be processed to Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) and shipped to wherever the market wants it...probably mostly to Asia.  Our job is to oversee soil/rock drilling sites at various locations along the proposed pipeline route.  We log the geology and properties of the material in the ground; which will be used in any final design. The pipeline crosses numerous rivers.  We are investigating those locations as well for subsequent bridge design for both access/maintenance roads and the pipeline itself.  That's it in a nutshell...if I said anything more I'd probably be violating the confidentiality provisions of my contract, so I better stop.

Now...some of you are probably wondering what the heck I'm doing in PNG doing this type of work and not lawyering in Yellowknife.  Good question.  You get top marks for curiosity.  In another nutshell:  For those of you that don't know, I used to work as a geotechnical engineer in my "former" pre-lawyering life .  Last November, a former employer (and buddy) based in Los Angeles asked if I would be interested in coming here to work on a short-term contract.  I jumped at the opportunity, as PNG has always been a place I've wanted to visit.  Once I finish here, I hope to return to Vancouver in September..aka Vangroovie..for a few months to teach a course on engineering practice (hence my professional interest in coming to PNG to get re-acquainted with the profession), law and ethics at the University of British Columbia.  That work opportunity is still being worked out (Scott...any news?), but I'm hoping it will come through.  I've rented my house in Yellowknife for a year in anticipation of my work in PNG and then Vancouver.  If the teaching gig gets delayed, then there's a good chance I'll do a third rotation of work here before venturing on... all this TBA at the appropriate juncture.

By the way, before I continue, I wanted to say a few words about some dear friends in Vancouver who are facing some big challenges right now. My good friend Newc contacted me last week and said his wife Nan was to undergo brain surgery within a few days.  It was all very sudden for them, and understandably a difficult time.  Their network of friends and family cheered them on.  Last report from Newc was that Nan is recovering well.  Way to go Nan!!

Why include this is a "travel blog"?  Because, if I don't stop for a moment every now and then to reflect and think about the things and the people that I value and to give them the attention they need/deserve, all this travelling around I've been doing of late can feel rather detaching from reality.  Life can seem a bit of a lark sometimes...and indeed, in many respects it is and should be; however, I often marvel at just how lucky I am to have these opportunities to travel and see fabulously interesting places/people and things...and to be able to share these experiences with a group of friends and family that are hugely important to me.  This is one of those times.  All my best wishes to Nan/Newc and family...and to all of you, whereever you may be and in overcoming whatever challenges you may be facing, big or small.

Anyway..back to my PNG tales...

Here's a brief journal entry from April 23 that I think is interesting:  "...aside from gatherings at markets, there are few opportunities for people to socially gather here in the highlands; there are no villages or towns of clustered huts, just a bunch of homesteads scattered throughout the hills.  When I spoke to Matiabe earlier today about the pigs wandering about loosening the good topsoil and it washing away in the frequent rains, he seemed indifferent. "When soil no good, we move, come back 10 or 20 years and soil OK again."  And so it is for these people...living their lives in so many ways much as they have for thousands of years..."

Why I think this entry is interesting is because it helps illustrate at least a couple of things: (1) things are not always as they appear at first impression, and (2) these people have a lot they can teach us in ways that will often be rather surprising if we stop to pay atttention.  With respect to the first point:  In my first few days of mucking about in the hills near our first few drill locations, I was surprised by the apparent lack of concern that the people had for the steady downslope erosion of their good farmland.  I convinced myself that they "didn't get it" and somehow didn't understand the connection between their pigs (a sign of wealth) wandering in their fields and the concomitant [being a lawyer, I had to throw at least one big word in here  ;-)] damage being done to their farmland.

After my conversation with Matiabe and taking some time to think through things, it became apparent to me that these people are merely practising a farming technique that has worked effectively for them for millenia.  Keeping in mind that PNG highlanders were essentially stone-age people with no modern technologies up until only 50-60 years ago (and very few tools/technologies have made their way to many of the people even to this day), and that digging through soil with stone instruments ain't easy...then it kind of makes sense to have pigs do the hard work of tilling the soil for you.  As for the soil being eroded away?  So what?  There's plenty of land available for everyone.  The soil layer immediately below the rich topsoil is 5-10 meters thick (or more) in many places.  Given that this place is near the equator (many warm/hot sunny days), and in the mountains (lots (!) of rainfall), conditions for growing anything are prime...and boy does stuff grow! It doesn't take long for a field that has been ignored to be overgrown by grass and ferns and bush and vines and whatever else.  After a plot of land is no longer producing as before, it makes perfect sense to move a few hundred metres away, erect another hut, and continue farming there. In 20 years you can move back and continue as before.  So there you have it; in this context, my initial pre-conceptions/thoughts proved to be wrong.

Now...of course...old practices/ways can be quite problematic when you get too many people on too little land.  So far the population density here is not a serious issue with respect to not having enough land...but at some point in the future it will be...in which case the opportunities to move a few hundred metres away each time you exhaust your land won't necessarily be available.  Ahhh...but that is tommorrow's problem -- we'll deal with it then.  Such is the nature of human beings.

With respect to the second point:  I have learned a ton of things in my short time here.  While I don't always agree with the locals' perspectives, they certainly have value and it is well worth listening to what they have to say  (and thinking about it) before jumping to any conclusions. One simple example; at one location we found a spring of water issuing out of a slope and down to a sink-hole nearby.  There was enough water for us to use in our drilling operations; but there was a question as to whether this source was a steady one that could be relied upon throughout the year for other work.  By asking a few locals, we quickly ascertained that it provided a pretty steady flow throughout the year.  And, as for bashing through the bush, often in mud and muck that is slippery as hell, you sure gain an appreciation for the better traction that the bare-footed locals have than you.

One last point before I bring this entry to an end (yes...I'll finally stop yapping!).  It is interesting to note that this potential mega-project running through the front/back yards of these people is being so well received by a great many (if not most of) them.  There are numerous reasons:  the proponents have maintained and implemented a policy of minimal negative impact in the area thoughout the years of their work in the region.  All work is done in a manner so as to minimize environmental disturbance.  Every aspect of any work requires that a certain number of locals be hired and skills be transferred (as well as much needed $$): an issue the locals have fiercely demanded and received.  While this can slow "progress" in the short-term for any proponent, in the long-term it actually benefits everyone. And so on...however, I won't go on and paint too rosy a picture.  Certainly there are issues that have arisen through "development" (breakdown in the existing social/cultural fabric, substance-abuse, etc.) that aren't so beneficial; however, at the end of the day, if poorer peoples are to "benefit" from development...and they really do in so many ways (schools, medical facilities, improved health, opportunities for intellectual diversity/stimulation, transportation, etc., etc.)...then you have to take the bad with the good...and vice versa.  That's just the way the ball bounces.  Bounce...bounce...bounce...and I'm done!!...for now.

Well, almost...

Below are some snippets of PNG info which I have extracted from a variety of wbesites to give you some background info on this place.  Feel free to read on if interested...otherwise, you may just want to mouse-click over to the pics for a look-see.  I am certain that you will enjoy them.   I am really pleased with the opportunities I have had to take good pictures so far.  I already have a whole whack of great ones to show you on my next blog entry from here, to be entitled: Faces of PNG.

By the way, I leave for Chile on the 19th of this month for my 3 week break before returning to PNG.  My plan is to hang out with relatives for most of my time while there; however, I may also try to get down to southern Chile for a few days and visit a mountainous and beautiful place called Torres del Paine.  If I do, I'll post an intervening entry with photos...which, provided the weather doesn't suck, should be rather spectacular...if the photos that my buddy Scottie in Vancouver showed me a few years ago are any indication.  We'll see...

Ok...here are the PNG facts...just the facts...a bunch of them...

PNG people live in a traditional, non-monetary barter economy that existed long before European colonization began. Co-existing with this is modern economic system based on mining, petroleum, fishing, forestry and agriculture. Our main exports are gold, copper, oil, coffee, tea, copra, oil palm, forest and marine products.

PNG has a population of 5.9 million and covers a total area of 462,840 square km (including the main island and the 100s of other smaller islands). There are 20 provinces in Papua New Guinea. The capital city is Port Moresby. Some 80 percent of Papua New Guinea's people live in rural areas with few or no facilities. Many tribes in the isolated mountainous interior have little contact with each other, let alone with the outside world, and live on subsistence agriculture.

Papua New Guinea lies entirely within the tropics, just south of the Equator and 160km to the north of Australia. With a total land mass of about 473.189sq.km, the country encompasses the eastern part of New Guinea Island - the second largest island in the world, plus some 600 other islands, atolls and coral reefs.

POPULATION
Papua New Guinea has a total population of almost 5.5 million comprised mainly of Melanesian race with dark skin, fuzzy hair and friendly smiles.
LANGUAGE
There are more than 800 distinct languages. Melanesian Pidgin and Hiri Motu are the two most widely used, but English is the official language in education, businesses and government circles.
COUNTRY'S INDEPENDENCE
The country fully independent since September 16, 1975 has a freely elected democratic government. Papua New Guinea became the 142nd member of the United Nations on October, 10, 1975 and is also a member of the British Commonwealth.

RELIGION Local traditional beliefs and ceremonies are maintained in remote areas; however, Christian influence is predominant.

The first European contact in 1526-27 was by the Portuguese explorer Jorge de Meneses, who named the island Ilhas dos Papuas (Island of the Fuzzy Hairs). The Spaniard Inigo Ortiz de Retes later called it New Guinea because he thought the people similar to those of Guinea in Africa.

PNG has one of the most variable climates on earth but the climate is typically monsoonal: hot, humid and wet.

The Lake Kutubu area has one of just five national parks in PNG. South of Mendi, Lake Kutubu has some of the Highlands' most beautiful scenery. According to legend, the lake was formed when a fig tree was cut down by a woman looking for water. The story goes that whatever the tree touched turned to water - hence the lake.
The lake is beautiful, and the surrounding country is home to friendly people living a largely traditional life. Butterflies and birds of paradise are common. You can swim in the lake and visit local villages or walk and appreciate the beauty and peace. Kutubu is the Highlands' second-largest lake, and, at 800m (2600ft) above sea level, PNG's highest substantial body of water (although the Mt Wilhelm's crater lakes are higher). It has a remarkable level of fish endemicity - 10 of the 14 species of fish are found only in this lake.

Tipping is not customary anywhere in PNG, and the listed price is what you'll be expected to pay. There is no tradition of bargaining either, and you'll quickly cause offence if you try to haggle over the price of a souvenir.

Driving a car in the country (left side of the road please) requires a valid overseas licence but be forewarned: tribal paybacks have meant some drivers have been killed by an accident victim's relatives. Some authorities suggest that if you are involved in an accident, keep driving and report the incident at the nearest police station.
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