Thursday, December 9, 2010

Cruel Species Well-Suited for a Cruel World

I can't get the image of those huge sad brown eyes out of my mind. We were walking back to the "boat shed beach" where all the banana boats come ashore in Lorengau to bring their produce and fish to the market. Lorengau is the "big smoke" on Manus island. Locals and cruisers alike have consistently remarked on how educated the population of Manus is. So when we saw a grandmother carrying a furry brown object with a strap over her shoulder, we thought at first that it was some new fashionable handbag. The bags that most people carry, especially the men, are usually made of palm fronds or strips from the Pandanus plant, with tassles hanging all the way to the ground. But then the mink purse squirmed and turned his big brown eyes towards us. We were walking to the front of the old lady to get a closer look. It wasn't a purse, or a pet, but dinner. The lady was carrying a ring-tail possum trussed up with vines around his feet, tail and mouth. It looked like a tiny, furry human baby about to be burned over the fire as punishment for witchcraft or at a cannibalistic feast. In the islands the locals don't have power or refrigeration so they have to keep their dinner alive until the last minute. You could see the despair in the possum's eyes as he glanced pleadingly from person to person, searching for a sympathetic face. The lady sat down on the concrete curb and dropped her dinner on the road just as if it were a purse or backpack. She had obviously detached herself from it as a living thing and certainly didn't feel any of the parental, baby-care instincts that were welling up inside Larissa and I.
For the next two days at sea we anxiously sailed through a midnight gale, and then strong rains that lasted all day. And we kept returning to the scene of that furry animal in our minds, trying sort out what the possum felt and what his captor or buyer felt. As we rehashed the experience, Larissa revealed that they are an endangered species in Australia. Their curling tail, like a monkey's, is unique among possums. We must not have crossed the Wallace line yet, so we're still seeing the possum and parrots of Australia and the south pacific islands rather than Southeast Asia monkeys and tree-climbing kangaroos.
The grandmother probably paid dearly for the possum. They must be extremely rare on an island where every living thing is hunted by a swelling population skilled in exploiting every natural resource within their reach, after thousands of years of hunting tradition in these jungle islands. It's really no different than the live chickens sold in Asian markets and even some ethnic neighborhoods in Los Angeles. And it's certainly a bit more civilized than the cannibalism that was certainly practiced on this island by that grandmother's grandmother. We urban monkeys just aren't used to being so close to the cruelty of life on this planet. We let corporations plastic-wrap and flash-freeze the cruelty for us. And even us country boys aren't accustomed to the cruelty of another culture on the other side of the world. In the south, our brothers and fathers brought home deer, squirrel, and even possum for dinner, and even us nerdy types killed and cleaned our share of fish and crab. Despite eating squirrel for dinner, we sometimes raised pet squirrels and ferrets whenever a hurricane or the Christmas season pet store boom turned nature on its head. I'm sure a squirrel and the eyes of a buck are no less sad and "knowing" than those of a condemned ring-tail possum or monkey, but it sure feels different. I guess it always felt this way, I just got used to ignoring those "higher" feelings in favor of the primal pleasure of a rich meat stew. It's a cruel world, especially for these islanders that regularly lose their limbs or lives to tropical ulcers, regularly sacrifice their lives in childbirth, or at sea chasing fish. And we even learned recently that a man we met on Kavieng barely survived being crushed to death by a falling coconut... and his family, his wontok (tribe) laughed hysterically as they dragged his limp body off of the beach and into a clearing, leaving him there for his empoloyer at the surf camp to ferry him to a hospital by boat, where he recovered. It's just considered your duty to die contributing to the tribe. If you are foraging on the reef and get a cut on your leg that never heals and you die a painful death of gangrene and gradual organ shutdown from staff infection. If you fishing canoe goes missing for days on end, you must fend for yourself or die. The chief won't send anyone to look for you. There's no PNG search and rescue force. We even met an Australian carpenter, Greg, on Kavieng with a similar story of the hard life in paradise. He comes here for 6 months each year to build bungalows for the Kavieng surf camp that he'd visited one year on vacation. Several years ago he lost his right leg to a blister on his heel from an ill-fitting and over-used pair of diving flippers. With ulcers blooming on my own heel and knees, I listened with rapt attention to Greg's story, and the next day walked a few kilometers to the local pharmacy on my sore foot to stock up on the Australian med kit for tropical ulcers: Cephalexin (Keflex trade name), Bactriban (antibiotic ointment), and Detall (Pinesol disinfectant wash for your skin). It was nice not to need a prescription to get whatever you needed. In the tropical heat and bathwater sea, Greg's ulcer spread to to his Achilles tendon within a week, before he even thought to start popping antibiotics or go see a doctor. Apparently, once an infection gets inside a bone or tendon, where there's no fluid circulation, removal of the infected tissue is the only cure. Greg now shares the ex-pat islander moto with everyone he meets, "When in pain, get on a plane." But he continues to return each year to this hard life in an easy climate, like a pirate running around on a peg leg as nimbly as the rest of us. He even plans to move here permanently. He's trying to stay away from his previous life running his family's abalone trawler business in the Bass Straight. It wasn't the danger and misery of life at sea in a stormy part of the world that sent him to the islands. What convinced him to "retire" was sitting in the protection of the wheel house of his trawler watching the underwater video from his dredges. It was too painful watching the 10 ft wide dredging bucket with hardened steel claws ripping up everything living and unliving, scraping a permanent scar into the ocean floor.
On Hawei island (pronounced "Hawaii" by the locals, with a smirk), just off of Manus Island, David's brother had talked to me about how "all this talk about the environment doesn't work. It all starts with money. If you don't have money you don't have anything." David and his family are fishermen. They live on an isolated island several miles offshore from Lorengau town on the barrier reef that surrounds Manus Island. They're close enough to the mainland to use cell phones, but far enough away not to have any power or land lines from Manus. When David arrived for our water taxi ride into down on his banana boat, he was early. "Sorry, we're not ready to go yet. Timothy won't be here until 8 o'clock to watch the boat." "Why don't you just call him?" "Do you have his contact number?" And David's whole family whips out their cell phones. It's weird being able to use a cell phone again, and even weirder to have the islanders reminding you how to use it.

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