Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Ministers finger fags

Any day of the week, Samoa is definitely one of the greatest destinations in the world; awesome beaches, wonderfully lush mountains, natural water slides off the sides of said mountains, fantastic beer, relaxed vibe (bordering-on-coma) and a serious commitment to food (my kinda peeps).

There're also the wonderful, friendly locals; always joking, laughing, dancing and singing, that make the place so welcoming and so much fun. 

Hang-on, did I just say "always friendly"?  That's definitely not quite right ... for starters, Samoans – all of 'em, at one time or another - suffer from the "musu".  This is a cultural phenomenon which, for no apparent reason, turns your normally laughing, joking, cheeky colleagues/friends/partners/waiters/hotel staff into brooding, inpatient, aggressive ticking-emotional-time-bombs in the blink of an eye. 

Seriously, the musu can easily turn a happy, convivial conversation into a spiteful verbal barrage.  For example;

Donkey:  Thanks for taking me to the pub last night, I had a great time.
Mose:     Hey no worries, Donkey, me-ol'-mucka.*  Yeah, it was really fun.  You're pretty good a darts.
Donkey:  You think so?  Ah thanks.  Yeah, I really enjoy it.  Wish I hadn't drunk so much, though.
Mose:     Ha!  It was kinda funny when you downed 17 Vailimas and spewed all over the pool table before passing out on the sea wall.
Donkey:  Urgh!  Don't remind me – woke-up with a washed-up, fermenting coconut next to my face.  Still, good fun.  How 'bout we do it again some time?
Mose:     Fuck off!

And that'll be it for Mose for the next couple of hours.  Next time you see him, he'll be his old self again.  Ah, the musu.  It can make inter-cultural relationships pretty difficult to negotiate for the uninitiated.

So as I was saying, apart from the musu, Samoans are great fun to be around; very generous with their time, their praise, their food.  Great people; very open to newcomers ... oh, unless they happen to be palagi (foreigners).  For those of us who aren't Samoan, there's a special kind of Samoan Pride (read: arrogance) which anyone whose been there for longer than a week will have been exposed to at one time or another.  It's not too bad, really; no violence or hate crimes, just a very Samoan way of talking to make you feel that you're less than the dirt under their shoe ... um, sandal.

Actually, this pride (read: arrogance) isn't only reserved for foreigners, but for all who are considered beneath the speaker in question.  So in the hierarchy of Samoa, a man will display arrogance to a woman, who'll beat-up on the kids, who'll have a stab at the dog, who'll take-on the cat, who'll chase the rat.  And we palagis are right at the bottom (luckily there's no plague in Samoa!).

At the other end of the spectrum are matais (chiefs) and church ministers.  These morbidly-obese blokes lord it over everyone, as the next story demonstrates.

Now this story is completely true (I think ... at least, I've certainly told it many times as though it's a true story ... I've even made it slightly better from time-to-time with a few Donkey-specials, just to make sure my audience is on-board ... so yeah, it's pretty true).

Many years ago, some foreign anthropologists from The States were conducting an investigation into the origins of the Pacific races.  They spent many years researching in countries all over the Pacific, and many years in Samoa, particularly.  At the end of nearly a decade of research, they offered to share (in person) their findings with the various countries of the Pacific, and were invited to do so in Samoa, where they would address a gathering of the Council of Chiefs.

This was back in the days before PowerPoint, but they had lots of slides, and went to great pains to ensure the audience understood the rigour of their research, and the ultimate findings that the peoples of the Pacific, including Polynesians, all drifted east from what is now Southeast Asia, settling, then moving on, then settling again.  They described key evidence of language, art, cultural practices, mythology and DNA as supporting these findings.

After a day of talking, explaining, demonstrating and answering questions about their research, the Paramount Chief stood up, and in the spirit of fine Samoan oratory, went on a one-hour verbal bender which can basically be summed-up as follows;

"Thank you very much for coming here today to tell us about your work.  But we know that Samoa is the Cradle of Polynesia; God put us here and from here all the Polynesian nations were settled."

Nods all 'round.  Paramount Chief ... who's gonna argue?  The researchers (both inferior and foreign) hung their heads, packed-up and went home.

Donkey, too, has come up against this closed-minded, unquestionable Samoan arrogance.  I was running a consultative workshop about health promotion; how to do it better in order to meet the needs of Samoa's most concerning health problems.

I'd wanted to get a few young people along to discuss the cause, and possibly throw-around a few ideas towards a solution to the very high rate of youth suicide in the country.  When I asked the gathering of Church Pastors and Village Chiefs why no young people had come along, I was informed by one particularly large gentleman who, despite his profusely sweating brow, managed to pull-off a spotless white sports-coat with nary a blemish, "We are the representatives of God here on Earth and we speak for our communities, which includes our young people".

OK, so by this time I'm getting the message, loud-and-clear, on the high rate of youth suicide.  "So," I asked, "what can we do about it?".

"Our young people need to be more involved in the Church ... they need to pray more and be closer to their parents and leaders, and especially to God".

Exasperated, I looked to my practical, street-savvy, scientifically-minded, Health Promotion colleagues for a life-line.  All I got were beaming smiles and,

Nods all 'round.  Church Pasters and Chiefs ... who's gonna argue?  This health promoter (both inferior and foreign) hung his donkey-head, packed-up and went home.

And now someone else has come-up against the ol' Samoan Pride.  This time it's an international climate change summit to which, for no apparent reason, someone decided to invite a bunch of senior Samoan Church Ministers.  And the result?  What is the Number 1 root cause of climate change? ...

... wait for it ...

I love the line in this article from The Register, "...Academics were apparently thrown off their consideration of "Arts in the Age of Global Warming" and "Ecology in Poetry / Poetry in Ecology..."

Nods all 'round.  Church Pasters ... who's gonna argue?  Those academics (both inferior and foreign) hung their heads, packed-up and went home.

* OK, so clearly Mose doesn't talk in cockney-rhyming slang – I was just translating from Samoan into some kind of cross-cultural equivalent ... I think I nailed it!

Wonder-twin powers...activate!  The white-coated Church Pastors from Samoa power-up to tackle climate change in their own, unique, homophobic way.  Pic:

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Give ‘em an inch…

It’s great being back in Melanesia again.  Apart from the joy in being able to communicate with people in [something resembling] their own language, I have come to remember a few of the wonderful, and occasionally baffling things about these people that I’d previously known and loved, but of which I had completely forgotten.

“What am I, hard-of-smelling?”

Within an hour of hitting Vila, I was waiting on the dusty roadside for a “bus” to come along to take me into town.  Beside me was an old lady with a massive ‘fro and a brightly-coloured, Mother Hubbard dress, unashamedly staring at me with a massive, toothless grin.  I nodded, smiled, said “Halo”, smiled again, nodded again, winked, smiled again … but she wasn’t done yet; there’d be no looking away from my amusing spectacle.

Eventually, a beat-up, rusting old van with clapped-out suspension and bald tyres rocked-up and the mad old hag and I climbed on board, squeezing into the remaining two seats.  From this you might deduce that the bus was packed, but in truth there were only two others - young guys - on board.  The rest of the seats, comprising the back half of the bus, were taken up with two ridiculously-sized woofers which bashed out gut-thumping, island reggae beats.  I settled into the groove, and sat back to enjoy the ride.

As soon as we pulled off the curb, I received Repressed Melanesia Memory #1.  It is a fact of island life that fresh water is a scarce commodity for many communities, and as such, it is not uncommon for people to bathe only once ortwice a week, and this rarely with soap (an unnecessary expense for poverty-stricken households).  And so, as I sat in the sweltering bus, I remembered the all-pervasive, musky tang of Melanesian body odour.

To be honest, though, this is not a completely unpleasant odour – it’s actually quite a sweet smell, which is rather odd.  How is it that Melanesians - women and men alike - despite rarely bathing, and even more rarely with soap, they still smell a damn sight better than those fat blokes in the Australian public service who, despite sitting all day in climate-controlled offices, still exhibit great, wet, yellowing under-arm stains and smell like turds rolled in ground cumin?  Same goes for those pot-bellied, balding types in stubbies and blue singlets you sometimes get stuck next to on the train – ew!  Never mind the “poor, primitive natives of the Pacific with their backward cultures and heathen ways”, maybe island hygiene (or the lack thereof) is still far-and-away more advanced than your average Australian male?

Strange misconceptions.

It must be all those Hollywood blockbusters like Hotel Rwanda, Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland, not to mention the harrowing footage we see on BBC World every night from regions as far flung as Sudan, the Congo, East Timor and Haiti.  Whatever it is, I am ashamed to admit that the sight of a Toyota Hilux racing along a dirt road with a spear-bristling pile of young, black, male faces staring determinedly over the cab fills me to the core with cold, mortal fear.

What a wave of surprised relief I experience, though, when these young men turn that menacing grimace into a big, white, toothy grin, and a laughing “Halo” as they make their way across the island to their circumcision/initiation ceremony.  This is Vanuatu, you idiot, not Sierra Leone!

Give ‘em an inch and they’ll take a mile.

There’s nothing quite so uncomfortable when, as a waetman (foreigner) with comparatively shitloads of money, you’ve just opened and are ready to tuck into a packet of Twisties (a luxury food item, given average household incomes) when the seventeen year-old guesthouse maid walks by for a chat.  Clearly she’s not in a hurry to get back to work, and the stilted conversation seems to drag slowly by as the Twisties waft their tantalizing scent throughout the room.

Giving into my cultural inclinations, and also as a result of the guilt this have, with my great, big bag of corny, deep-fried snacks, feels before this young have-not, I course extend the packet for her to share my tasty treat.  “Thank you”, she smiles as she reaches for the pack, takes it from my hand, turns, and wanders off into the guesthouse.

Oh yeah, Repressed Melanesia Memory #3, one doesn’t share, one gives away.  Bugger!  I really wanted those Twisties.

Guess who’s coming to dinner?

I arrived late in the day to the quiet town in the remote southern island, and all the stores were closed.  In the dark, I found my guesthouse, and was feeling a bit freaked-out at the grotty, shoddy surroundings which would be my home for the next ten days.  With nothing to eat, and only a cold pipe for a shower, I fumbled through the gloom to my sleeping bag, tired, hungry and miserable.

Sometime in the night I was startled awake by a group of staggering men returned from sloshing kava at the nakamal, and I lay quiet and still, fervently mouthing my prayers for deliverance from being stabbed in the night by a pack of wired, tribal warriors, and done up the bum while my corpse was still warm.

In the morning, I staggered out onto the guesthouse’s mouldy, crumbling balcony to see two fat, old, greying men sitting before a well-set breakfast table.  They offered for me to join them and shared their bread, which I gratefully accepted and ate quietly while they farted, scratched their protruding tummies and chatted away in their local dialect.

While cleaning-up in the disgusting kitchen afterwards, the third member of the party, who’d been making the breakfast for the others, informed me that one of the two sitting out on the balcony was none other than His Excellency the Honourable Minister for Foreign Affairs, here on an official government visit to meet with his constituency!  Let that be a lesson to all those who think that national budgets in the islands are all blown on five-star holiday resorts for corrupt government officials.

Lord Voldemort in a Penis Gourd?

Vanuatu, like a number of other Melanesian countries, remains one of the last great tribal cultures of the world, with many people still practicing and following the tribal customs and beliefs of their ancestors.  Rather paradoxically, it’s also staunchly Christian, but like many parts of the world where a kind of hybrid Christianity has sprung-up, much to the chagrin of missionaries both past and present, so too Vanuatu enjoys a rather bizarre mix of belief in both the magic of the Holy Spirit, and the magic of the mountains, trees, rocks and sea.

And to further add to this crazy soup of beliefs and practices, modern technology has been well and truly embraced by all, so that today even the remotest communities have access to satellite TV, internet and mobile phones.

The clash of these ancient beliefs and modern technology was brought to my attention one day while out in the field with one of the engineers responsible for bringing essential water and sanitation facilities to remote communities.  This wiry, weathered bloke is one of the few of his countrymen to have completed both high school and tertiary education, and for the last twenty years, has travelled to every province and island in the country guiding communities to implement these positive changes for their health and well being.

Did I say every island?  Sorry, that should have been ‘every island but one’.  It’s hard to get information out of this bloke sometimes; he being always on his mobile phone, banging away in a number of different languages to someone or other.  One day, I was standing by him when his phone rang.  He looked at the screen before swearing and muttering something in his own dialect, and then turned the phone off.  I realised then that I’d seen this happen quite a few times over the previous days, so asked him jovially whether an old girl friend had finally caught up with him.

Rather than smile at my joke, he gravely explained to me that he will not answer a call that the phone display lists as an anonymous, ‘Private Number’, as this, he said, is likely to be a local sorcerer trying to put a curse on him.

Surprised by this response, and the fear in his eyes when he told me, I asked a few more careful questions and came to learn that the reason he’d never, in twenty years, visited the island of Maewo, was because it is a place of black magic, and he will surely be cursed by a local sorcerer if he goes there.

With that, he picked up his bag and headed-off to church.

But mostly it's the people that make it great.  Pic: Hagas.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Bae mi laek fo drinkem wan fala cofi no moa

I’d not be the first to remark that Melbourne’s obsession with coffee seems to be getting a little out of hand.  T’was not all that long ago that, Lygon Street aside, if you wanted an espresso coffee, you’d have to go to one of those special Milk Bars (the ones with the somewhat perplexing, “Delicatessen” sign out the front), and even then it was only for a cappuccino or a flat white.  But now, especially in Melbourne’s Central Business District, you can’t turn around without some semi-trained dick with a portable espresso cart shooting a spray of steam in your ear, or without seeing jittery, ipod-ed students jumping about with a bucket full of latte in hand.

Of course, the rise of the espresso culture is proportional to the number of times a week one is subjected to one’s co-worker casually remarking (at 20,000 decibels across the open-plan office) to their nearest colleague, “Oh, I just can’t function without my morning coffee”.

Oh, pah-leez! Won’t you people just fuck off and leave the rest of us in peace?!  It’s just coffee you’re drinking – a legal, and very minor stimulant.  You’re not shooting-up heroin; it ain’t acid; it ain’t ice and it ain’t the ol’ nose-candy.  It’s coffee … and besides, you drink it with a pint of warm milk anyway!  So please stop carrying-on like the tough kid from down the road whose showing off to his BMX-riding mates with the pack of Alpine Lights he’s bought with the two bucks he’s nicked out of his Mum’s purse*, “What, this?  Nah, this is nothin’.  I smoke ‘em wiv me ol’ man all the time – don’t you?”.

This attention-grabbing, loudly publicized, faux-obsession with a steamy-hot beverage is not impressive; it just gives the rest of us the shits.  If these self-absorbed show-ponies would just pull their heads out of their own arses for a minute and look around, they’d notice that while they’ve been bragging about how “I can easily manage three before lunch time”, more than half of their colleagues, at any time of the day, have beneath their desk an over-flowing bin of stinking, slowly-congealing empty paper cups.

Like most obsessive types, we keep our habits to ourselves … even try to cover it up with unnecessary, old-growth-forest-destroying HP laser-printer test pages.  We are the truly obsessed, and frankly, we find your ridiculous theatrics offensive.

Now right from the outset, I wanna make it clear.  While I might be a tad on edge most of the time, my relationship with coffee is one of obsession, not addiction.  I … love … the … stuff!  And although this post might be tantamount to shouting across the office that “I just can’t start the day without my morning coffee”, it’s definitely different because I’m pretty sure no one is listening … and besides, it’s not even true … I don’t think.

OK, maybe it’s a bit true.  There could be something to be said for the fact that these days I actually like getting up early-ish on the weekend.  I have to admit that while there are two reasons for this, only one of them is to play with Hambones.  The other is to take my cheap, piece-of-shit espresso machine, and to bash it and squeeze it and gently rub it and squash it and rock it back-and-forwards and then hug it in an attempt to churn out the best possible, double-strength long black money can’t buy … and I don’t mind boasting that together we consistently produce the most exquisite thing to ever come out of such an abusive relationship.

Of course, one doesn’t just do this on the weekend … no, this is Donkey’s de rigueur start to any given day, so I’ve got the jump on my loud-mouthed colleagues long before they’ve even thought about interrupting the rest of us.  And this little morning pleasure of mine; both the drinking and the creation of the special brew, certainly keeps me going well enough until I arrive at my desk at 7.45, when I start looking around for something to drink.  A coffee’d be good, but from where?

Who else will take the kind of care I do?  Who else will obsess over finding, and then sticking to the right beans, the right roaster, the right grind, the right temperature (room and water)?  Who else will constantly worry about whether or not he’s got enough stock to get you through the weekend; who’s concerned about having enough cups on the warmer; about having all the various tamps, spoons, jugs, dirty sponges, clean sponges on hand?  Who else sees making a cup of coffee as a creation?

It’s not easy to choose.  As I mentioned, every cashed-up bogan within a hundred miles of the city these days reckons they’re obsessed with coffee, “and it has to be expresso” (sic), so as a result, every single food outlet, milk bar, convenience store, train platform, pub, street corner, law firm lobby, hospital, book shop - even McDonalds - bashes out lattes and cappuccinos at an incredible rate, and for a pretty reasonable price.  But that’s not to say they’re any good.

Now I don’t mind paying up to three dollars for a decent cuppa, but I will object to having to do so for a tasteless cup of brown water, or worse yet, the steaming mug of what I got served-up last week for the princely sum of $3.30, which looked and tasted as though a diarrheal-ridden Biafran kiddie had taken a squat over a porcelain cup.

This place was supposedly French, named after it’s proprietor, Jacque M, and located in a pretty trendy part of town.  Knowing what we all do about the French and their fastidious attention to fine dining, I thought I was probably in safe barista territory, but I should have known something was up when, as I waited for my long black, he answered the phone with, “Yeah, G’Day this is Jack Mole-ey-nooks … orr, how are ya, mate?”.

Fortunately the French redeemed themselves today … or, perhaps more correctly, some 100 years ago, when they brought culinary discretion to the South Pacific.  Today I crossed a dusty track in a five-ute, three-building, two-boat provincial town on a remote southern island in Vanuatu, and ducked-into a tin shack where I quaffed a cup of perhaps the finest, organic, locally grown and roasted espresso I’d ever sent south.  Vive la France – and jam it, Starbucks!

* - yeah, yeah, two dollars for a pack of fags … I know, I’m showing my age.

This cuppa saved my life.  Pic: