A Blip on the Radar (Part 4) “Apples and Pears “
Posted on November 13, 2008
A Blip on the Radar (4)
Our ship had once again put into the port of Wewak, on the northern coast of Papua New Guinea, to offload her catch onto a refrigerated container ship. I, faced with three or four days of leisure, had gone ashore in search of adventure, and maybe some fresh fruit. I got more than I bargained for.
And I don’t mean the fruit.
People, the world over, are all -pretty much- the same. There are the Good and the Dubious. The occasional Bad. The Friendly and the Sullen. The Welcoming and the deeply Suspicious. Thus it was that my cheerful “Good morning! ” drew a mixed bag of reactions. As always I would start a conversation here, or crack a joke there, or I would wisely and promptly move on if I sensed hostility. I carefully picked my way around the bright red Betelnut spit on what passed for a sidewalk. The locals chew the Betelnut, which is a small, hard looking fruit, which contains a mild narcotic. So I’m told. The by product is that it stains their teeth blood red. It is easy to tell therefore who has been chewing the nut. Their stained teeth tell it all. A visitor often finds it somewhat lugubrious and disconcerting. As if he is surrounded by Dracula worshipers, who have just finished supping some poor unfortunate’s blood. Now matter how many times you visit, as a Westerner it is still hard to get used to it.
The streets are rough, full of cracks and pot holes. The houses are equally poorly constructed, with careless masonry work showing everywhere. Great globs of cement glare ingloriously at the passer by, speaking in their own voice of the inexperience or the lack of pride of the bygone mason. Dry cracks show up next to these ugly globs, as if crying out in desperation for just a quick flick of the wrist. A little smoothing, a quick leveling, and a deft scrape along the mortar line with the tip of the trowel. Alas, too late now, and the neglect was hardened into short term perpetuity. It would be there forever, for all passers by to see. Or for those who cared to look.
Until the house came down. In a few years or decades.
In the midst of all this, you would pass a carpenter’s shop, with work in progress. No routers or skill saws were in evidence. Basic hand tools were being wielded. It made me feel as if I was in some kind of a time warp, and I was really visiting society as it was some centuries earlier. That illusion had no sooner taken hold, when it was obliterated by the small computer shop, where I bought a replacement printer ink cartridge.
Arriving at the main street, I headed for the supermarket, past throngs of people standing and loudly discussing subjects of earth shattering importance. There were large groups gathered there, hundreds of people strong, all seemingly freed of any need to go about more productive business. Unemployment was rampant, and I formed the impression that meeting in the main street was something of a daily social occasion, a meeting place to hear the latest gossip, and to stare at the occasional stranger. Like myself.
The sidewalks, cracked, uneven, dangerous, were now spit slippery with unending streams of chewed Betelnut juice. There were few inhibitions about unloading spent chewings, and the bright red surface on which I carefully trod bore a mute witness to the three main occupations of these large throngs: gossiping, staring, and spitting.
I asked myself how I felt about these fellow human beings. I knew in my heart I bore them no prejudice. A product of a different society, a different culture, and seemingly a different time, they were all still feeling human beings. Capable of great Good and great Evil. Great kindness and great cruelty.
Some smiled at me, and were friendly. I smiled back, and exchanged a greeting. Others gave me hard looks, with searching, measuring, calculating eyes, and I was glad I was there in broad daylight. The machetes so many of them carried looked ugly and sharp, and the stories came back to me about unfortunate drivers, brutally hacked to pieces for running over somebody’s wayward chicken. I had been warned to be careful during the day, and avoid the place altogether at night. On a previous visit I had met up with some Australian missionaries, tired, frightened, some of them quite dispirited, and all of them living in a fortified compound. With a permanent security guard. On rare occasions you could see a white woman walking around the town, always with a tough looking male escort, and they would nod politely when we passed. There was always this air of concealed menace that hung in the air in Wewak. And indeed, in many other local towns I would visit. Sad stories were whispered, about gang rape, and witch doctors, and violent robbery. One missionary had told me, using an odd kind of metaphor, that “if there were Olympic Games for rape, then the Papua New Guineans would be gold medal winners every time. ” Another had remarked that in his view, the Devil had a favorite home in P.N.G.
There was however, as I had discovered, also another side to Papua New Guinea. Many of the people were absolutely delightful. In religious terms, I describe myself as a “Floatist “, which means I am free to attend any service of any religion anywhere in the world. I am free to go with an open mind, and I do not mock what I maybe do not understand, and I respect people and beliefs they hold sacred, even if I cannot personally accept their beliefs. Thus I had attended quite a few church services and Bible meetings in PNG.
You have not lived until you have heard the soft, infinitely devoted prayer of the Papuans, with their beautiful, soul moving singing. I challenge any man, cynic though he may be, not to be touched with the purity of many young Papuans, who embrace what we might call Modernity, and the Internet, education and newspapers with a warm enthusiasm. Who welcome strangers -like myself- by crossing the street with big smiles, and a warm handshake. And who are -passionately- proud of their nation, their people, and their culture.
Yes, Wewak is a mixed bag. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Hope and despair. Enlightenment (what we call it, anyway) and a peculiar primitive savagery. A country where you could still meet a woman carrying a small piglet, and breast feeding the piglet as she walked along, carrying a heavy burden on her head. It was said the piglet was worth more than the woman. And that if anything happened to that piglet, that she might be punished with a cruel and vicious beating. The truth of these stories is impossible for me to confirm or deny. I do know, that when I rented a car, I received the admonition to race to the nearest police station if I was involved in any incident whatsoever. Most especially if I was to knock over a chicken, or, heaven forbid, a piglet. I was to demand to be locked up, and I was to tell the Police to call the rental car company immediately. Whether this concern found its origin in the car rental company’s regard for my personal safety, or whether perhaps this was more a reflection of their concern for their vehicle, I would not like to say.
It was therefore with all these impressions in my mind, that I once again headed purposefully down Wewak main street. Respectfully, but cautiously. I personally had never had any trouble. And I really wasn’t expecting any on this particular day. I arrived at the familiar ramshackle super market, with the massive, rusted bars and grilles on the windows, themselves badly in need of paint. The floor was earth, trodden hard, and the shelves were crudely cobbled together from old scraps of wood. I had picked my way carefully past a throng of locals spilling off the sidewalk outside. They would only be let inside in small numbers, two or three at a time, for fear of shoplifting. I walked in, past the vigilant and tough looking Papua security guard, with the black baseball bat, and headed over to the fresh fruit area. I was allowed to keep my carrying bag with me, but if I had been a local I would have been required to surrender same at the door. Annual per capita income, I have been told, was little more than one hundred dollars per year. Subsistence farming and barter obviated the need for larger amounts of cash. The corollary however was that luxuries, such as a pot of jam, at two bucks each, were indeed luxuries, and beyond the reach of most residents.
There was an older white lady at the fruit and vegetable stand, and we smiled politely at one another.
A few minutes later, engrossed in my task, I had almost lost all situational awareness. The explosion of instantaneous brute violence was as sudden as it was totally unexpected. It took my breath away. The security guard was mercilessly beating two men with his baseball bat. I have never before or since seen any man handle a bat with such a savage ferocity. The blows raining on the two men, apparently caught in the act of attempting to shoplift, were so fierce, that I could both hear and sense the brutal impact of wood upon bone. It seemed humanly impossible to deliver such a quantity of blows, delivered with such a vengeance, for such a prolonged period of time. I for my part, and the lady beside me, stood rooted to the spot. On and on the blows kept coming, while the two victims cowered and pleaded, feebly attempting to protect themselves with bare hands.
It was ugly.
But now I was beginning to be aware of another sound. Onlookers, peering in through the window, family relatives probably, had seen the debacle. A shout was raised outside, followed by another, eagerly -so it seemed- taken up by screaming womenfolk. In a flash, the situation escalated, and now a howling, baying mob was trying to force its way into the building. Ranged against them were several security guards, and the Asian shop owner and his assistants, running frantically from back offices.
That there was alarm in the air was beyond doubt. The battle front now raged at the entrance, with one side trying to force their way in, and the other side trying to close the ten foot tall solid doors. I debated for several seconds if I should run across to assist. The sight however of several machetes being waved in the air (and more appearing all the time) made me think twice. Neutrality –if that were even possible– seemed to be a definite option to consider.
By now the screaming had become deafening. It was not just an expression of anger. There was something much more sinister to it. It was eerie. It seemed more like a war cry, a rallying sound, and even a death threat. Bricks and stones were now being thrown against the windows, and glass was shattering. More rocks were being lobbed into the shop, over the heads of the combatants. It also seemed now that different cries were answering this call to arms, and I could see dozens more men running up the street to join the riot. The security guards and the owner and his staff were now frantically trying to force the doors shut. Their faces communicated serious panic. Again I debated running over to help, and again I decided against it. But now fear was clutching at me. The machetes being waved in the air were bad enough, the hollering and screaming and chanting was intimidating to put it mildly, but what was really getting my adrenaline flowing, and my awareness of extreme danger present, was this:
the extraordinary expressions on the faces of the mob…
It was not just the eyes. The eyes were ugly, staring, crazed, hate filled and bloodthirsty. But the expressions as a whole were peculiarly blank. I imagined the mob breaking in, with their machetes, and hacking down everybody. I imagined them looting everything, and then setting fire to the remains, including us. And if it were to happen, I knew it would happen with the same blank facial expressions. With the same, blank, primitive blood lust…
All of a sudden, I fully comprehended what others had been trying to tell me. If you run over a chicken, don’t stop. They will kill you. If you run over a piglet, don’t stop. They will kill you. If you knock over a child… may God help you.
And now I understood more. I understood the burning necklace. Where they tie an old tire around your neck, douse it with petrol, and set it alight. And watch to see how far you can run. In my mind’s eye I saw it all, and the same cheering, baying, screaming, delighted, blood lust crazed mob, with their peculiar blank stares.
Fear… I had to do something.
I turned to the white woman beside me, who was watching the proceedings with sad, wise, frightened eyes.
“I don’t think much of these pears. Well past their prime, I’d say. “
Resolutely she turned around, and studied my offering.
“No “, she said, her lips thoughtfully pressing together.
“No, they do look as if they needed eating yesterday “.
I nodded. “Um. Well, then there’s these apples. Kinda yellowy looking to me. “
Glass smashed behind us, and inside the store, somebody screamed in pain. I willed myself not to look.
She said she was considering buying some canned prunes instead.
More screaming inside the store.
I said I thought that was a great idea. Maybe they had some canned pears as well? Slamming, body blows, security guards beating people across the head. Machetes clanging against baseball bats.
Her voice trembled a little. But she continued on. And so did I…
With a nonsensical, artificial, distracting conversation. Designed ostensibly with the quality of fruit in mind, but in reality, aimed only at the preservation of our inner and exterior composure…
Exactly what might have happened, belongs to the realm of speculation. Suffice it to say that I was never so relieved when I finally heard those huge front doors being forced shut, and iron bars being placed against them. Although it still felt as if we were under siege, with the mob outside still pounding on the doors and windows, at least we felt one step further away from all those gleaming machetes, and those horrible, unseeing, blank faces.
The local Police arrived then, with water cannons, tear gas, more baseball bats, and a lot of really tough looking Papua men. Within moments, the rioters were fleeing down side streets, pushing one another over in their haste, with the strong trampling on the weak. I could hear shots fired, a lot of screams, and I could see the Police chasing and beating the stragglers. Some of the cops had uniform shirts, but no uniform trousers. Just sawn off shorts. Others wore uniform trousers, with faded American T-shirts.
All had been chewing Betelnut. And absolutely all of them were masters of the baseball bat, able to swing and beat, and swing and beat, over and over again.
Soon, it was all over. The streets were empty, except for the Police.
The shop owner advised us to stay inside for a while. We stayed an hour. I was driven back to my ship.
To this day, if I see a march on Television, in South Africa perhaps, with black townsfolk marching and chanting, or dancing in that peculiar tribal way they have, waving their machetes, I find myself shuddering.
And thinking back.
To a stilted conversation I once had, with a white lady whose name I never knew.
We talked, intimately, intensely, on a deep level of mutual consciousness and awareness…
And some yellowy looking apples…
Last edited by Francis Meyrick on March 19, 2014, 10:53 pm