Hi everyone! Ali and I have been on the ground here in Buka for three days, but we’ve already had enough adventures to supply me with material for at least a dozen blog posts.
We arrived early Wednesday morning on the daily flight from Port Moresby and were met at the tiny airport by the WPBI program’s Chief of Party. From there, we hit the ground running because, in addition to our partner assessment and assistance work, we needed to help prepare for the kickoff ceremony for the WPBI program, to be held next week. The first few days of our field visit have been fully occupied with working with the program staff to finalize the event arrangements, although we’ve also carved out time to prepare for the work with our partners that will be taking place after the launch. The planned ceremony is garnering a lot of interest and positive attention from groups and officials in Papua New Guinea and beyond – we’re excited that the US Ambassador to Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu will be an honored guest along with representatives from USAID, senior leadership from the Autonomous Region of Bougainville Government, Counterpart’s Vice President for New Business Development, the Chief of Party and staff of the WPBI program, and local women’s organizations and partners.
Settling into Buka has been a bit…bumpy. Despite being the regional capital, it’s a very small town, with only one grocery store, one pharmacy, a small police station, a small post office, one bank, and a small hospital. There’s one main road, which is paved, but the other streets are dirt – there’s lots of mud due to frequent rain. The sunshine, heat and humidity are pretty brutal, especially for those of us who aren’t used to the intensity. Ali and I are both very fair-skinned and fair haired, and more than one individual has commented that they are worried for us in the sun! (We have planned for this – between us I think we packed about six bottles of sunscreen, approximately SPF 2000). Luckily, the guest house rooms where we’re staying and the program office have AC wall units, which helps us all bear the heat, although we’re all pretty sweaty!
Unfortunately, though, while it’s nice to have, AC isn’t always an option and you just have to deal with the heat. For instance, when the power goes out! Last night, Ali and I were in my room discussing a program issue when suddenly we found ourselves in total darkness. I had packed two small flashlights, and I was able to dig those out of my bag so we could see where we were going. Eventually we determined that the power was out in my room, certain parts of the guest house, and nearby buildings. But oddly, Ali’s room and several others still had power. When we went outside to investigate, the owner of the guest house informed us that PNG Power was investigating the problem. Happily, the power came back on about an hour later, BUT it shut off again in the middle of the night. And it was a very warm, very humid night. The next morning, the power was still out, but I knew I still had to get to the office. However, when I went to wash my face and brush my teeth, I discovered that there was no water either! Awesome. At that point, I just had to laugh. Luckily, I had showered the night before, and I never travel without a supply of baby wipes! When I emerged from my room, Carol – the guest house owner – was waiting for me. She laughed and said we had “double trouble,” with no power or water. She explained that PNG Power had run out of fuel to run the town’s power generators, so the power was out for the entire town! She reassured me that the water would be back on soon and that fuel had just arrived by ferry but that the power company would need time to distribute it to their generators, so we shouldn’t expect power for a few more hours. Well, the power didn’t come back on until late afternoon. We were fortunate that we could still work because our office landlord has his own generator — he gave us an extension cord and power strip to connect our laptops. Although the lack of power (and AC!) definitely made it more challenging to try to get things done, throughout the day, Ali and I joked with each other, a la Tim Gunn, to just “Make it work!”
As you’ve probably gleaned from my earlier descriptions of the program and the local history/ context, the security environment is another challenge for us in Buka. To reduce risks, Ali and I are careful about the places we go, we always travel together (often escorted), and we are limited to moving around town only during daylight hours. It is not ideal, but due to the high rates of unemployment and high level of alcohol use, there are many people loitering in the streets who are often drunk and can quickly turn violent. This situation definitely impacts our ability to move freely and to get work done, but we also try to find the right balance.
However, that is not to say that we can’t interact with anyone or that we don’t get out and about! Ali and I tend to attract attention as we walk through the streets, and we’re often given the customary friendly greeting – “Mornin” or “Ammanoon” – as we walk by. The owner of our guest house has been very friendly and kind, and she keeps an eye on us, providing advice on where we can go and what we might like to do.
Because we can’t drink the local water, we’ve had to go to the supermarket to buy bottled water, and we’ve created quite a bit of amusement with just how much water we’ve been buying. Because it’s so hot, Ali and I are drinking lots of water and have been making daily visits to renew our supplies. Each time we get in line holding a couple of 1.5 liter bottles, we get funny looks and some laughter directed toward us. I guess they think we drink an awful lot of water!
That’s not the only purchase the local residents find funny. I cut my hair really short prior to traveling to PNG to make it easier to deal with, especially since I knew that I wasn’t going anywhere near a blow dryer during my time in the field. So my hair is pretty low maintenance right now. However, I completely forgot to pack a comb or brush, and between the bed-head and humidity, that has led to an interesting hair situation each morning. I went to the supermarket to buy a comb, so I could try to tame my crazy hair. The personal toiletry items in the store are kept behind a counter, and you must ask a salesperson for the item you want. When I asked for a comb, the woman behind the counter gave me a funny look, then asked if I wouldn’t rather have a brush? She reached behind the counter and rummaged in some boxes and until she produced a round styling brush. She showed it to me and asked if that was what I wanted. I smiled and said no thank you, I’d prefer the comb. When I said that, the lady behind the counter looked at me like I was crazy and didn’t seem like she was going to sell it to me at first. It took me a moment before I realized why: they are pick combs, for black hair. The cosmetic shelf was full of chemical relaxers and products for African American hair. She seemed like she couldn’t figure out how a pick comb was going to help me with my type of hair. We both had a good laugh as I paid for the comb.
Well, I better stop there because this post is incredibly long! But there’s still tons to tell, even though it’s only been a few days. We had dinner at a local restaurant and learned that “pizza sauce” here is…ketchup. So, I don’t think I’ll be having any more pizza while I’m here, thanks. We visited the local hospital and met a nun who is doing amazing work to support survivors of domestic violence – more on that soon!
Internet access is sporadic and we’ve been insanely busy, so I’ll do my best to post again before too long. Ali and I are hoping to use the weekend down time to visit a neighboring island and swim! We are surrounded by palm and coconut trees as well as crystal clear water, and we’ve been craving the chance to jump in! There are two electric blue starfish in the water beneath my room’s balcony, and it makes me want to go snorkeling. We’re hoping to make arrangements for an outing to a secure island where we can relax, swim, and enjoy the tropical environment. Will report back!