Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Life in Volcano Town

So, yesterday I reached the halfway point for my time here in Rabaul - three weeks down, three weeks to go. It seemed as good a reason as any to reflect on my time here so far.

I currently live down the road from an active volcano - Mt Tarvurvur.

My time is spent mostly either in my room or in the office at the Rabaul Hotel - situated in what the owner Susie jokingly refers to as “the Paris end” of Mango Avenue. Once the bustling main street of Rabaul, the hotel - formerly called the Hamamas Hotel - is the only building at this end of the street. The locals still call it the Hamamas Hotel, and I can’t help but feel a sense of irony (Hamamas is Tok Pisin for "Happy"), as it stoicly stands tall amongst growing mounds of volcanic ash and overgrowth.

Hamamas tru!
The first thing I notice when I step outside is the misty mountains that surround the former town of Rabaul - reminding me of my previous months living in Alotau. And then the dragon deep without the mountains lets out an intermittent roar - not unlike a jetplane circling above - and I remember that it isn’t mist, but volcanic ash. If the wind is unkind, which I’m told it is at this time of the year, the whole area is veiled in a grey cloud of ash, which inevitably gets into everything. Not that there's much to see - most of the buildings have been torn down, and all that remain are vacant lots, piled high with ash and overgrown with greenery. My eyes sting, my nose clogs up, and I can feel the silty grit between my fingers and toes, in my ears - even between my teeth. That’s just part of the experience, I keep telling myself - but I can't help but feel like Mother Nature is telling me something else.

Of course, there is a lot of history - and emotion - tied to this town. Established by the Germans in 1884, taken by the Australians in 1914, then later taken by the Japanese in 1942, and then taken again by the Australians in 1945, and eventually returned to the local people in 1975, the town was once known as the Pearl of the Pacific. And although there has always been a volcano nearby, it only caused serious problems every 50 years or so. However, in 1994, the volcano on the other side of the harbour (aptly named Mt Vulcan) joined in on the eruptions, and everybody packed up and moved to Kokopo. Well, most people. A stoic few are working hard to keep both the history - and the future - alive in this place. There's the hotel here, and down the road there's the Rabaul Yacht Club and the Travelodge Hotel. Further away, on the other side of the harbour is "new" Rabaul, where the shipping industry, soft drink production, and half a dozen supermarkets (no, really!) keep many of the local village residents employed.

Meanwhile, the daily life has definitely been a challenge for me - moreso than my time in Alotau, where I had a regular social life and reliable communications access. I’ve come to appreciate how much I rely on social interaction to maintain my sanity, and I worry that my desperation to connect with people is coming off a little creepy. Like when I was recently in a supermarket in Kokopo, and I saw a couple of young kiwis, and waited for the opportune moment to jump behind them and say “Oh, hey! You’re volunteers from New Zealand, right? I saw your photos on the VSA Facebook Page!”

Nope, not at all stalkerish, right?

Still, as the philosopher Bon Jovi once said, “Woah, we’re halfway there.” I’ve come this far, and I’m slowly but surely getting some good work done. And despite the challenges, I’ve also had some amazing experiences. Last week, the National Mask Festival was in Kokopo, which I used as an excuse to get out of Rabaul for a couple of half-days. And with only three weeks remaining, I’m definitely feeling the pressure to explore some of the other attractions of the region before my time is up. Maybe some exploring of the Duke of York Islands, or a weekend over in New Ireland and Kavieng. Papua New Guinea is such a beautiful and diverse place that I still feel lucky to be here, and whilst Rabaul hasn’t been the easiest of places to live, there are certainly far worse places I could be.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Going through the emotions...

So, I'm six days into my second assignment - this time in Rabaul, East New Britain. A town surrounded by volcanos with a fascinating colonial and military history, it has much of the beauty that I enjoyed in Alotau, but a completely different place in other respects.

The town of Rabaul, with Mt Tavurvur smoking away in the distance.

I've been a little apprehensive, to be honest - not because of the location, or the people, but because of myself. Last time, I found that being on a short-term assignment was somewhat emotionally turbulent. To be given 6-8 weeks to settle into a town, develop relationships with counterparts and stakeholders, build local support networks, and address various personal challenges such as cultural barriers, social isolation and technological shortcomings is quite an undertaking. And it can be overwhelming at the best of times.

So, I was definitely hitting the one-week blues today. The last five days have been wonderful - I'm in a fascinating place, and have met an array of interesting, enthusiastic and supportive people, and starting to get a sense of where all the action is happening in order to have a stable and regular social routine. But last night I definitely hit the wall, and this morning I was miserable. I just wanted to be back home, see my girlfriend, eat mexican food, and wake up in my own room. I wanted to ride my bike around town, walk the streets at night, and go swing dancing in Brunswick Street.

So this morning was a struggle, but I forced myself out the door by 9:30am. Down the main street to the centre of town. Onto a PMV to take me on the 30 minute ride to Kokopo, and then another PMV to Rapopo Plantation Resort, where I had hoped to go yesterday, but ran out of time (I need to leave by 4:30pm if I want to safely make it home by sundown!).

And I'm so glad I did. Rapopo turned out to be Kokopo's equivalent to Driftwood in Alotau - but with a pool! Barely had I swum a dozen laps, when a couple of other familiar faces arrived for a swim. This was followed by a much-needed pot of coffee and a fantastic meal, with friendly company. Three hours later, my morning's angst had become a distant memory.

It's exhausting, but I know that I can do this - especially as I've done it before, and I know that I'll do it again. I just have to remember to keep moving, take every opportunity to connect with others, and not to shut myself in. As tempting as it feels to let myself get down, I must always remember that things will get better so long as I let it. It's the key to survival in these situations.