It’s been 4 ½ months since we made our big move to PNG. This past week I made my first foray back into ‘civilization’ with a trip to Jakarta, Indonesia for the World Health Organizations “8th Bi-regional meeting of National Influenza Centres and Influenza Surveillance in the Western Pacific and the South-East Asia Regions”.
note: I started working on this post just after I got back from Jakarta, but hadn’t gotten a chance to finish until now. We’ve now been in PNG for just over 6 months!!!
As is typical PNG fashion, the paperwork was difficult and I wasn’t really sure I was going to get my entrance visa until I stepped off the plane in Port Moresby and met our visa liason there, who handed me my passport with visa intact.
As I mentioned before, this was my first trip away from Goroka since getting here. There were a few interesting things I noted along the way. Many of the people on the flight from Goroka to Port Moresby were not wearing shoes. I’m used to seeing a large number of people without shoes around Goroka, it’s a normal thing – but I just hadn’t considered it in terms of airplanes for some reason. Another interesting thing was the type of luggage that people checked. I’m used to seeing the usual uniform rectangles of typical luggage you might see in North America – full of clothes and maybe electronics. However, the majority of ‘luggage’ making the rounds off the Goroka to POM flight were sacks of vegetables and fruit. Some in bilums, some in pastic sacs. (Bilums are a traditional bag woven from plant fibre, but there are newer versions made using brightly coloured synthetic thread.) This is for good reason – the quality / price ratio for fresh and delicious fruit and vegetables in Moresby is extremely high compared to that in Goroka. It’s similar to me begging for cocoa and quinoa from Canada. Thank goodness for the incredibly fertile soil and eternal spring conditions of the Eastern Highlands that make it the perfect growing season for many of these items year round.
My next flight was to Singapore, on which I watched a number of ‘PNG Destinations’ videos that were hosted by one of the Moresby MP types: Justin Tkatchenko. They were definitely interesting, but they were more about his enthusiasm for, and PNGs plethora of, unique orchid species than about the culture and splendor of the destinations. Still entertaining and informative though. There were also modern movies like any other international flight (with nicer screens than Air Canada).
But, unfortunately, there were no GF food options. Eventually they brought me some fruit…and a sandwich… I asked if they could just bring me fruit, and they did. But halfway through the fruit I found breadcrumbs and realized they used the same plate…
I met my boss in Singapore and we ate at the airport, where I had Sendang rice – which was incredible! Those of you in Halifax who have had the Singapore noodles from “Jean’s Restaurant” – it was very similar to that, but better. It was a great reward for 10h without suitable food.
In Jakarta we landed and took a 1-hr taxi ride to our hotel – the Intercontinental MidPlaza hotel. This hotel was just great. I had told the WHO that I required GF meals – and was fully prepared to truck it to a supermarket to provide my own food. But, every coffee break, and every meal, while everyone else went to the buffets, I had my food personally delivered, and it was delicious! They really went out of their way to accommodate me, more than I have ever experienced outside my own family/friends. I swear they had a picture of me before I got there, because every server and hotel staff just seemed to know who I was, and took care of me the instant they saw me. On one occasion I was describing my food to someone – forking it around to point things out – and a server popped out of NOWHERE behind me to ask if everything was ok. He was like the ‘very very sneaky’ guy from Mr. Deeds. A bit overwhelming after being in PNG for 4 months where even when I say I can’t have it in tok pisin, they still just don’t quite understand… I’m probably the only person they’ve ever encountered with this problem. They made me cookies, bread, EVERYTHING!! I haven’t had a cookie in 4 ½ months, and it’s hard to describe the feeling.
Many of you know my love of coffee. Well, Goroka has fantastic coffee. What it doesn’t have is Starbucks and “quad-venti soy-latte 1-pump mocha” ‘s. So, naturally, one of the first things I checked on was the proximity of Starbucks to our hotel. There was one about a 5 minute walk from the hotel, so I made my way there first thing the first morning.
The sky-scrapers were looming, the traffic was busy, and I was anonymous in a city of people about their morning routine. It’s hard for me to convey how much of a relief this was – an unexpected one. People certainly picked me out as a ‘tourist’ and looked at me – but not like they do in Goroka. In Goroka, I’m probably the most transparently white person there. 100% of people I am in the vicinity of are staring at me intensely. In the super market and farmers market people hold my hand, stroke my arm, pet my hair, do their best to catch my eye to say ‘morning!!!’ Now I completely appreciate that I stick out like a sore thumb, and that a lot of people and children haven’t seen someone like me before (or at least not often). And I haven’t really felt threatened by any of this behavior. But I’m still on constant vigil – aware of everyone’s stares and touches, constantly aware of what’s happening around me, never able to truly zone out without being concerned about safety. I didn’t realize that this was affecting me until I went for my walk to Starbucks. I just felt free, and anonymous, and at home in the hustle and bustle. Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t trade the PNG experience I’m having, it’s been fantastic so far. I was just surprised at the relief I felt there, and the realization that I had been expending so much mental effort on these seemingly simple things that we take for granted in Canada.
I’ve already mentioned the exceptional service at our hotel for food. The service at Starbucks was no exception – by day 2, they anticipated my order and greeted me as I walked in: “Good morning miss Amanda!” The people really seemed to take pride in their jobs, and I really appreciate that! One area that didn’t have good service was the hotel lounge/bar. After a heavy day of conferencing, most people head to the lounge to have a drink or two, and network. Trying to get a servers attention was like pulling teeth! They seemed to do everything in their power to not make eye contact so they didn’t have to take an order for alcohol. The only reason I can think of is for religious reasons since a good portion of Indonesia is Muslim and therefore do not drink. But I don’t actually know what the motivation for poor bar service was, that’s just the only thing I can think of. I was quite surprised since the service everywhere else was excellent.
I had plenty of opportunities to experience Indonesian food – and it is delicious!
During the meeting we toured a hospital that has a level 3 isolation wing, and a level 3 lab. At each place we watched a video where they basically did a mini-drill for avian influenza. The first video had the most ridiculous music – it started out as ‘Mission Impossible’-esque, and switched to an acoustic version of ‘Dust in the Wind’ in the middle. The second video, which seemed more coordinated, had a mistranslation: “H5N1 is the greatest treat to humanity…” I can chuckle at these things, and at some of the inadequacies, but at least they are doing something. They are leaps and bounds ahead of PNG for outbreak response. And I don’t think Canada or the US do any drills to make sure their response flows properly [well, maybe now they are in light of the recent Ebola situation]. We do fire drills, why not outbreak drills? I think it’s a good idea.
We had a few mini discussion sessions during the meeting to bring up challenges faced by the National Influenza Centres (NICs). As we went around the table it was clear to me that we were the red-headed step-child of NICs… Indonesia complained of only getting dry ice twice a week, and it taking 48 hours to ship samples from West Papua (on the Indonesia side of our island). We can’t get dry ice in the country, and at the moment can barely get samples from any villages because the people are afraid of sorcery and/or exploitation. We also face major shipment challenges both within the country and internationally. For example, I placed an order with Bio-Rad on June 26 to our procurement dept. It was paid mid-August. They shipped it with 8kg of dry ice, and it arrived in POM on September 1. It was held in POM for about a week, where all the dry ice dissipated. We finally received the shipment, only to find no dry ice, and all the enzymes dead. So, we waited months for this package, only to have it arrive useless. I’m still awaiting the replacement enzymes. This is a common occurrence. An Australian at the meeting said “Why don’t you use a courier?” I actually laughed – you think we didn’t think of that? We do use couriers, they are just afraid of dry ice and infectious samples. In order to get stuff here we have to coordinate with everyone, call the airline and courier, make sure they’re ready for the shipment and are willing to take it. It’s just a lot more difficult to do these ‘simple’ things in PNG. Anyway, we ‘won’ NIC facing the most challenges so yay us?
On the way home I bought some Kopi Coffee in the airport. I’ve always wanted to try it – but it is rare in Canada and can cost $100/cup! For those of you that are unaware of what this coffee is, I’ll explain. Civets in Indonesia eat fresh coffee beans. They are supposedly picky, choosing only the best ripe beans. In their stomach, the beans encounter gastric juices that break down some of the bean, making it less bitter. Finally, they poop them out and someone goes around sifting through their excrement, picking out the coffee beans. Those are cleaned and roasted like any other coffee bean.