I woke to the sound of roosters and flew in an instant to villages along the Kokoda Track. And then laughed to myself as I recalled trying to explain to a Japanese friend what the phrase “to wake at sparrows” meant. Some things just do not translate. All the Australians in the group were rolling about in laughter, while he stood in perplexed silence and tried to gauge the source of the mirth. Despite claims to the contrary it clearly eluded him as years later he sent an email from Tokyo saying he had woken up with the swallows. Which only created more mirth. I piled out from under the mosquito net, showered, got fed then settled into some reading. There is a handy little library resource on this apartment and I am finding helpful stuff relating to subjects relevant to what I am exploring in this part of the world.
I walk the muddy track in single file with a host of other locals up to the YaYa centre (tag line (Y would you shop anywhere else?). The locals wander along to an easy beat and I force myself to slow down. A woman walks past with a massive shopping bag on her head, swaying a little to keep it in place. She is dressed in a colourful wrap around which is more modest than the girl in ‘pour in’ jeans and boots making her way ahead of me a little. The contrast in cultures and wealth is as raw here as anywhere else. We all negotiate mud, puddles, smoking diesels and each other until I get to the shopping centre. My early morning cups of tea have caught up with me and to my horror I discover all the bathrooms closed for cleaning. A young cleaner takes pity on me just as I am resolved to solve my dilemma in the car park.
I grab a latte in a café which would not be out of place anywhere in the west. Piped blues music and all. It’s the usual mix of local and tourist but at prices that are ridiculously cheap. I am enjoying paying for things in shillings. I am of sufficient vintage to recall the old currency “pre decimal” and shillings has a pleasant evocation of vague childhood memories. Shopkeepers took a long time to change the way they spoke and ten cents was a shilling for a very long time. Mind you a shilling here is a “dollar” not ten cents.
Lunch time rolls around, signaled by a grumbling stomach, not the clock. I wander down to a local eatery that we visited yesterday. Women are repairing the potholes in the road which seems like a futile exercise – there is more hole than road. The girls have Mohammed Ali biceps and swing their hammers to break rocks with a purpose that is well, intimidating. The sun is high and hot but they are thrashing those boulders as if there is no tomorrow. The smashed rocks are carefully placed in the pothole then a finer gravel poured over and around the smaller pieces. I later watch a Landcruiser smash over one of the repairs and nothing seemed to shift. Clearly there is a science to what they do.
Imagine if you will one of our scruffy ibises. Put it in a shrink ray (Gru has one to spare) on the lowest setting to reduce him in size a little. Then stick him on a pole and shove him up a sooty chimney. What you imagine to be the end result, including the noise it makes as you force him up the flue is probably not too far off the air of bedlam these dastardly looking and sounding birds make. A flock of them accompany me as I walk up the lane to the office, leaping from tree to tree, many of which are eucalypts. The ubiquitous eucalypt. And silky oaks and a road lined with bottlebrush. Every now and then a casurina. I could be home. But then I divert down a thoroughfare, simply following the crowds out of idle interest. And I know I am not home for no health department would allow this market to exist along an open sewer. The place is full of vim and vigour but there is another air about it too. Stall keepers watch me warily, even sullenly. I have a sudden sense of divide. I probably have more loose change in my pocket than they see in a long time. Ordinarily my camera would be out by now but I leave it in my pocket, for that would surely be only rubbing their noses in it. The kids smile and say hello and some of the stall holders wave. But it is a desperate place and the occupants know it is a desperate place, tattered and torn and fallen down yet clearly their homes and livelihoods. What happens here when it rains I do not know for the ground is black bog under my feet as it is and there has not been any rain for twenty four hours. I wander until I feel it is impolite, turn about and return to the main road, passing piles of tomatos and cucumbers stacked in the mud, coconuts, peppers and mangos. Bananas hang from poles and small bags of spices are stacked here and there. On the ground, all neatly lined up are folded trousers. Buy your goods out of the mud. One man shines shoes, he too sitting in the mud. We talk about helping people up and out of poverty. If there is a more powerful image of the need of that I would be pleased to see it. As I step back on to the main road I spot a bee eater up on a power line and think “Slim pickings here my friend” then glance down to see a fish stall at my feet. More flies than fish are in attendance. The bee eater might be short on bees but he has plenty of other options it would seem.
As if to accentuate the depths of this market, right next door is a first class shopping centre – at least in comparative terms. At dinner time I buy some chicken Tom Sum cooked by an Indian who decides an Australian deserves the hottest spices. It blows my sinuses to kingdom come but is probably the best Tom Sum I have ever had. The power goes off four times in the time it takes me to eat the soup and I hear a decidedly posh English voice quip “This is such a mess” only to turn and see it is a local lad complaining to his mate. It sure might be inconvenient but everyone else continues on in the dark as if nothing has happened. That sang froid is so appealing and the place grows on me a little more. Roosters and shrunken black raucous ibises notwithstanding.
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