Francis Meyrick

The Tuna Hunter Ch.10 “A Taste of Papaya “

Posted on December 28, 2008




Sitting outside the Windjammer Hotel, Christina felt herself absolutely enchanted. A dozen steps away from the open patio doors, in seemingly dangerous proximity, waves tumbled rhythmically onto the sand, breaking in generous white foaming bursts that bubbled, swirled and retreated in comforting dependability. Palm trees lined the sea shore as far as the eye could see. The water was a dazzling light green, astonishingly clear and transparent.
Further down, a dozen naked children, looking remarkably healthy, romped noisily in the waves, their laughter and delighted shrieking carrying clearly to the curious onlookers. The sun beat down from almost straight overhead, lighting everything up. Small crabs crept about, shy and quick to hide. This they did by burrowing down the nearest hole in the sand. Then, after a suitable period of time had elapsed, they would cautiously reappear, slithering out furtively, like schoolboys sneaking out bent on mischief, and resume their hopeful foraging.

Gabriel, the representative from the shipping agency, had by now earned the admiration of the whole party. Still comfortably chewing his betel nuts, which accounted for his blood red teeth and lips, he had organized their every need. Personally chauffeuring them around in his company’s minivan, he had helped them in such diverse tasks as finding a hotel, going to the bank, going shopping, and laying on the delivery of supplies to the yacht. With a quiet, good-humored and marvelously polite and patient manner, he had discreetly warned them of pickpockets, and then stood guard behind them as they went through the stores. On one occasion he had caused a momentary slight commotion with a few softly spoken firm words that Chris could not understand, and a youth in his early twenties had apparently been ordered away from a position too close behind Ricky Distefano’s bulging hip pocket. Grumbling slightly, Ricky had then transferred his wallet to his side pocket. Christina, more alert than the others had noticed also the strict security at the hotel. Where the door opened automatically you approached it, courtesy of an ever present attendant who peered outside vigilantly, his solid wooden club conveniently nearby. The uniformed guards who patrolled the grounds, all smiling and pleasant, carried wicked looking clubs too. Security, Christina decided, was discreetly heavy, with every effort made to avoid an impression of menace or thuggery.

The country itself was beautiful beyond belief. Gabriel had taken them on a three hour tour, and explained the sights. A viewpoint on top of a hill, overlooking the bay, had revealed rows and rows of heavily wooded rolling slopes, with thick impenetrable undergrowth. The distant mountains, rumored to have heavy rain fall, and sudden weather changes, seemed to hint at the concealment of many secrets. To Christina, Papua New Guinea was one of the most breath taking, amazing and exciting places she had ever visited.
Ricky was not terribly impressed. He had complained about his room. It had been clean and very tidy, but unimaginatively decorated and rather basic. The T-bone steak he had ordered had not been to his liking, being rather small and very tough. The shopping expedition had frightened him a little. At every door, a guard had watched those leaving very carefully, and there had been many notices warning against shoplifting. Other signs had strictly forbidden the carriage of bags inside the shops. These had to be left at the door with an attendant. When Ricky, rather awkwardly, had tried to surrender his bag on entering the pharmacy, he had been waved through. Christina had laughed at his obvious discomfort, and this had annoyed him.
Judy too had felt a little frightened, walking down the ramshackle main street, over the broken pavement, stained red everywhere with the spit of chewed betelnut juice. She had noticed so many young men lounging around, apparently doing nothing. Their hungry gazes had eyed her with more than curiosity she felt, and she had held on tightly to Brad. She had suddenly felt very vulnerable in her very short pants and flimsy T- shirt. On one occasion, when Gabriel had moved forward through the crowd a little too quickly, her voice had become almost a scream.
“Gabriel…! Wait! ”
Instantly, he had been at her side, smiling broadly, reassuringly. She had in that moment been very glad he was there…
Brad, in his more detached manner, had wondered what the unemployment rate was like. He imagined it had to be ninety per cent. Main street Wewak just seemed full of people doing nothing. A park they had driven past had equally been full of people doing nothing. He had seen a man in his twenties sitting in a tree. A few hours later, when they had passed the same spot on the way back, he had still been sitting there, in the exact same posture. Unmoved…
The economy was obviously not very good. He had been surprised at the poor state of the roads, and the dangerous condition of the sidewalks. The selection of goods in the shops had been pretty basic, with some surprisingly high prices. He had guessed that most goods, being imported, were probably taxed heavily. The people, he felt, were mostly okay. Like Christina, he smiled easily, and soon discovered that most smiles were readily returned. In the crowded streets he got plenty of practice, and even had a cheerful conversation with a very large charming woman, who appeared to be wishing him a very nice holiday. Her fluent ‘pigeon English’ was too fast for Brad, but he nodded enthusiastically, and merely hoped he was doing so at the right places in her story. Upon his return, he was jokingly scolded by Judy, who wished to know if she had competition for his affection.

It was not long before they met up with a tough little Australian on a walk-about, who introduced himself as Glen. A salesman of machinery and trucks by trade, his hard bitten humor amused Ricky, who insisted that Glen accompany them. Glen consented, and soon had Ricky falling around with laughter. Most of his jokes seemed to be at the expense of the Papua New Guineans, who, if Glen was to be believed, owed everything to Australia and the Australian tax payer, were basically lazy, corrupt and incompetent, and needed constant economic aid to avoid anarchy. The presence of Gabriel seemed not to deter Glen in the slightest, and he fired off one racist joke after another regardless. Soon Ricky and Glen decided a trip in the minivan was called for, and, with Gabriel driving, a guided tour duly took place. Christina, unimpressed by the man, was happy to stop at a local open air market. Wandering with Judy past the displays, laid out mostly on plastic sheets and newspapers on the ground, she was delighted at the many smiles they received. Many of the fruits and vegetables were unknown to her, and a large green fruit in particular drew her attention. “Cucumber? “, she asked a dark brown lady with typical black rope-like hair and small facial tattoos. A quick consultation took place amongst five of the women vendors, followed by a ripple of pearly laughter.
“No, no… ”
It was another woman, older, evidently the matriarch, who came laughing to the rescue.
“Not cucumber. Papaya! ”
Seeing the confused face of Christina, the matriarch quickly added:
“Nice! Sweet! You try! ”
With that, a quick swish of a machete split one of the fruits open. A sizable piece was cut off, peeled, and handed to Christina. Gingerly tasting the offering, Christina discovered a succulent fruit, which seemed a little like a cross between a melon and a peach.Delightedly she bought three, and some pineapples. She shook hands with the ladies, and returned in triumph to the rest of the gang, bearing her trophies. Glen stepped forward to tick her off severely. Firstly for shaking hands, and secondly for accepting and eating the proffered piece of fruit. With dire warnings of the dangers of amoebic dysentery, he proceeded to explain that the Papua New Guineans were dirty people, with no concept of hygiene. A hand shake, he said, was sufficient to catch the bugs. Christina, deflated initially, retaliated by demonstratively waving goodbye to the five ladies. Then, on the way out of the market, she went out of her way to shake hands with two charming little boys whilst their proud mother looked on, beaming with delight.

Back on board the bus, they passed what looked like chicken coops on stilts above an expanse of flat, calm water.
“You see? ”
Glen’s face seemed oddly distorted in disgust as he leaned around to Christina.
“See that water? Well, for your information, they piss in it, they cook with it, and they wash with it! And you still want to share their food? ”
His loathing was evident. Christina looked sadly at the poverty, and then waved back at two mischievous urchins that were making funny grimaces at the sickly white faces traveling on board the bus. Some adults waved as well, their betelnut stained teeth clearly visible.
Glen settled back in his seat in righteous indignation, but Christina thought only of the friendliness and radiant charm she had encountered.

Half an hour later, walking along some beautiful beaches, with clear green translucent water lapping on the sand, and tiny crabs scuttling for cover everywhere, it was once again Glen’s turn to rail at the naked children romping in the surf, and some adults sitting nearby, watching. In Glen’s view, unemployment was so high because the work ethic was poor to non-existent. As far as Christina could see, the children were adequately fed, healthy, and deliriously happy. She doubted if many Western children could have such a terrific playground with the warm sun, soft sand and clean waves. In Papua New Guinea at least, the sea was still not polluted, unlike the beaches in the U.K., where plastic litter, used condoms, empty cans and the occasional feces were frequently in evidence. The more she listened to Glen, the more Christina felt that it was he who was missing the point. And that here, in Papua New Guinea, life was evolving the Papua New Guinea way, not necessarily for better or worse, just differently…
Christina by now felt almost exasperated by the man. His cynicism and cruel humor was not to her liking at all. Looking around increasingly desperately for an escape, her attention was drawn to a low, distant beat that seemed to be growing in intensity. She stopped walking, and listened intently.
“Is that a helicopter? ”
Nobody answered. The sound grew louder quickly, and the others too heard it. Moments later, a shape on the horizon confirmed her impression.
“Here comes lover boy! ”
Ricky’s jibe made Christina blush. He noticed it, and felt well pleased with himself. The others laughed. It was Gabriel, with his instant diplomacy, who smoothly covered Christina’s embarrasment.
“Oh, yes, that’s probably one of the tuna spotting helicopters. The tuna boats come in here every three to six weeks or so to transship the fish onto refrigerated cargo ships. Then they lay in supplies. The pilots usually come over to do their own shopping. ”
Then, with a sidelong glance at Christina, quickly taking in her poorly feigned indifference, he continued:
“The airfield is only ten minutes away. We can go there if you wish? ”
But Ricky was having none of it.
“I want a drink. This heat is killing me! ”
Glen had quickly chimed in, supported by Brad. Only Judy was keen on an expedition to the airfield. Once again, Gabriel smoothly did the organizing, piling everybody back into the minivan, and a few minutes later Ricky, Glen and Brad were deposited at the Yacht Club to seek refreshment, whilst Chris and Judy stayed on board for the next leg to the airfield. On the way they chatted casually, and Chris tried hard to conceal her hope that the pilot would be the same cheerful character who had flirted with her over the radio. Judy, with that deep feminine insight, was not fooled, but loyally refrained from any witticisms.

They drew up at a modern, purpose built terminal, and Gabriel whisked them quickly out onto the apron. The machine was parked at the windsock, and a white shirted figure, presumably the pilot, was fiddling around underneath. If Chris had wanted to change her mind, she would not have had the opportunity, as Gabriel’s voice boomed out:
“Hey! Shamrock! ”
The figure stirred, and Gabriel chuckled.
“I know him! He has been here many times. He’s from Ireland. His name’s Bob… ”
He raised his voice to where it carried clearly across to the now grinning pilot.
The reply was quick and good humored.
“And you’d know all about that, wouldn’t you, you daft betelnut-chewing cave man! ”
The two men shook hands like old friends, and then Gabriel introduced his two charges. Christina felt insanely shy, and relieved that everybody else was doing the talking. Judy quickly established the fact that this was indeed the same pilot who had buzzed the ‘Lady Annabelle’, and that he was off for the next four days. With the aplomb of a seasoned match-maker, she stunned Christina with a direct and to-the-point suggestion:
“Bob, Christina is dying for a ride with you. Why don’t you two blast off or whatever it is you do in this thing, and Gabriel and I will go and have a cup of coffee? ”
Bob grinned, nodding, and Christina started to protest. Judy however placed a hand across her friend’s mouth, and pushed her unceremoniously in the direction of the cockpit.
“Good! Mush! Have a nice flight! ”
And with that, towing Gabriel along by the shirt sleeve, she trotted off purposefully to the terminal.

By the time they landed forty minutes later, Christina and Bob were the best of friends. Christina was also totally hooked on rotary flight. She was impressed at how considerate Bob had been, how carefully and patiently he had explained everything, and how conservatively he had flown. It was obvious that he had taken great pains to put her at ease, avoiding any hair raising ‘stunts’. It was only natural that they should agree to meet again for dinner, and she quite missed the conspiratorial wink that passed between Judy and Gabriel when this piece of news was broadcast. Chortling along happily, reliving every second of her first helicopter flight, Christina led the way into the Yacht Club with Bob following along behind. Even the exaggerated wolf whistles from Ricky and Glen did nothing to dampen her high spirits, and she introduced Bob whilst somehow managing at the same time to lightly cuff Ricky across the head with a folded menu.

Laughing happily, the rest of the night passed in an excited blur for Christina. Helicopters, hovering, and landing on remote jungle beaches filled her thoughts. Not to mention Bob, whose quiet good humor and civility had won her confidence. They were all so happy and elated, that nobody, not even the cautious Christina, noticed the sallow faced man in the corner, who chain smoked steadily, and studied them surreptitiously. Even when he left to make a long phone call, returning to walk closely past their table, straining to pick up their conversation, nobody noticed. Beer and Coca cola flowed freely, cigarette smoke curled lazily upwards, and the noisy chatter of the late night revelers mixed incongruously with the night time noises from the nearby jungle. Birds screeched from the tree tops, as if in protest, and bull frogs called grumpily for a mate. Crickets and bats added their contributions, and the distant lights of the moored fishing boats cast an unreal aura, evidence of unseen but intense human activity. The ‘Lady Annabelle’ bobbed quietly up and down a few hundred meters from where they were sitting, and formed the subject of much curious local gossip.
They were young, they were happy, and there was not a care for the morning. The sallow faced man, satisfied, got up and left, the dim lights from the naked bulbs bouncing helplessly off the smiling, congenial mask he wore so well to conceal his inner thoughts…


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