Sunday, March 30, 2014

Highlands and Islands

When you are first hired by the Foreign Service, you are invited to join the American Foreign Service Association or AFSA. It seemed like a good idea at the time so I joined and, thereafter, the princely sum of $11.65 was deducted from each paycheck to pay my dues. And, since that first day I have remained, thanks to these automatic deductions from my paycheck, a member in good standing of this professional association. I receive from them a magazine published monthly (more or less) and a newsletter published irregularly. Oh, and it also turns out that AFSA is a union and I am, therefore, a dues-paying union man. Woody Guthrie, Upton Sinclair, John L. Lewis, Wobblies and me! Why is this of interest?  Well…..

Recently, I discovered that I have a difference of opinion with the Department of State. As differences of opinion in labor history go, this one doesn’t quite rank up there with the bloody battles of the steel workers or the coal miners in the early 1900’s but it has offered me a lesson or two on the grievance process as practiced by diplomats. As Will Rogers once said, “Diplomacy is the art of saying, ‘Nice doggy’ until you can find a rock!”

It all began back in 2011 when I received my assignment to become the Management Officer in Embassy Port Moresby; an embassy designated as a Hard-To-Fill post. In order to encourage competent and qualified bidders to serve at our Hard-To-Fill posts, the Department offers a Service Needs Differential payment as an incentive. To qualify for the SND payment, an officer must serve at the HTF post for three years. A two year assignment would have left me with an awkward eleven month gap until my mandatory retirement date in August 2014, so I volunteered for a three year tour. At the end of my first year at post I received the SND payment for that year. At the end of my second year at post I received the SND payment for that year. Then this year the Department of State said, “Hey, wait a minute! You’re going to miss serving the required time at post and don’t qualify for the SND payments.”

Due to my mandatory retirement date I will actually miss serving the full three years at post by three days. Even with mandatory retirement I would still have been at post long enough to qualify if I hadn’t been required to attend a mandatory training course and then a mandatory conference. In my opinion, missing the full three years by three days due to a series of mandatory events might qualify me for a waiver and allow me to receive the third year’s payment. Post’s front office agreed, the Bureau’s management agreed, my Human Resources rep agreed. Unfortunately, the panel of people deciding on the waiver did not agree. They determined that I would not have to repay the first two SND payments I’d already received but would not receive the third. Because diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way, I decided to, diplomatically, express my disagreement with the panel’s decision and I appealed my case to the Director General.

The DG gave my appeal due consideration, shook his head and said, “Nope!” Ok. Churchill once said, “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to Hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”  After asking for directions I sat at my desk pondering my next move. (I’m not ashamed to admit that the directions were somewhat confusing so I didn’t go.) My options seemed to be to A) give up, B) fire off an email filled with righteous indignation steeped in a tone of incredulity, or C) whine privately to the few semi-sympathetic friends who still listen to me. Then I remembered AFSA and the dues I’ve been coughing up since 2007. Silence in the Union Hall, Brother Gemmell has the floor and wishes to air his grievance! More accurately, since AFSA doesn’t actually have a Union Hall, I crafted a polite email asking for their advice and opinion and sent it off. As the Brits used to say, “Down tools, mates, we’re off until they see us right!”

AFSA, my union, has to date chosen to ignore this obviously complex and thorny issue. But I expect to hear from them any day now and I’m preparing the picket signs in advance. Brothers and sisters, to the barricades!!

Sorcery and Turtles

I took some time off to tour parts of PNG that I haven’t had an opportunity to see yet. I flew up to Mt. Hagen in the highlands and visited some villages around that city, then traveled by road to Goroka on the Highlands Highway. The Highlands Highway, the longest stretch of ‘improved’ road in the country, is a pitted, pot-holed, decaying two lane goat track that demands a somewhat na├»ve conviction that you won’t be swept away or squashed by the frequent landslides that occur along its path. Oh, and a four-wheel drive vehicle is mandatory.

Somewhere between Mt. Hagen and Goroka, the driver pulled off the majestic Highlands Highway and drove down a rutted dirt footpath to a small village. I assumed that this planned stop was going to be a sing-sing, a performance in which the tribe dresses in their traditional costumes and hops up and down while chanting and beating on drums. Sing-sings are really interesting when dozens of tribes get together and strut their stuff in friendly competition. They’re not quite as fascinating when one lone tribe hops up and down by themselves in their own village. So, I prepared to be a good sport and just hoped that the ‘performance’ wouldn’t last too long and we could be on our way.

Instead of a sing-sing, the tribe performed a play in pantomime. I sat on a log bench and my guide stood behind me describing in great and vivid detail exactly what I was seeing. The story involved a ghost who lived in a cave in the region and who stole, killed and presumably ate children. The ghost looked like the misbegotten love-child of a bear and an enormous rat. The villagers were painted like skeletons and the cave was a brush covered cubby-hole. The acting was decent, the plot was interesting and my guide’s interpretation was unnecessary but enthusiastic. “Do you see,” he whispered in my ear, “the ghost is coming out of his cave!” Yep, here he comes. In the end, the villagers kill the ghost by cutting off its tail.

This play, the guide assured me after the performance, is a reenactment of real events. If we had time he could show me the cave in which the ghost lived before the villagers managed to kill it. After the ghost was killed, it moved to another valley and the villagers even know the location of its new cave. That, you’d assume, would be the end of that. The ghost is now another village’s problem. Unfortunately, the evil spirit of the dead and relocated ghost stills drifts around in the hills and periodically enters the body of some wretched villager, usually an elderly woman without family to defend her, who then naturally becomes a sorcerer. Sorcerers are frowned upon, blamed for everything bad that happens and brutally slain. This is a tough country in which to be an old lady.

Outside of Goroka I visited two other villages. In the first I watched a courtship dance and in the second saw a performance by the Asaro Mudmen. In the courtship dance, the couples sit on the ground in a line with their legs stretched out straight in front of them. They sit boy-girl-boy-girl with the girls facing in one direction and the boys in the other and begin to sing and chant as they sway left and right against each other. This can go on for hours and, apparently, by the end you know if your intended is sitting next to you or not. My guide met his own wife this way. Online dating can’t compete with sitting on the bug infested ground next to a prospective spouse, chanting a monotonous nonsensical phrase throughout a hot afternoon while rubbing shoulders and stealing quick glances into each other’s eyes. You may very well agree to marry your neighbor just to get away from the ants!

The Asaro Mudmen of Goroka are among the most well known and photographed of the PNG tribes. Their performance was a slow motion demonstration of the battles they have fought with neighboring tribes. Because their tribe was smaller than most of their neighbors and had fewer warriors, the Mudmen began to cover themselves in white mud and wear frightening clay helmets to make their enemies think they were ghosts. They would dig holes and wait in them for the approaching tribe, then rise out of the ground in slow motion and the battle would be over before it had even begun. Now, of course, all their neighbors have caught on to their trick so the Mudmen tend to entertain tourists and sell their clay helmets for 250 kina a pop! Tribal warfare is still pretty common in the highlands but the Mudmen are more or less like everyone else and fight it out with bush knives, bows & arrows and spears. There used to be some fairly well defined rules to tribal warfare that resulted in a lot of shouting and martial display but few if any casualties. Now, however, guns are becoming more common and warfare in the highlands is beginning to resemble warfare everywhere else except, of course, for the white mud and the clay helmets.


Everywhere I went in the highlands and every village I visited treated me to a muu-muu. In Hawaii it would be called a luau and it would probably taste much better. Here a muu-muu is prepared by digging a pit and lining it with rocks that have been heated in a fire. The food is wrapped in banana leaves, placed in the pit and then covered with additional banana leaves and random vegetation. After some period of time the food is judged to be ‘cooked’ and is dug up and served. In every case the food consisted of bland dry sweet potatoes and small dried out bananas. After all the work that went into preparing the meal, the rocks would have had more flavor.

Leaving the highland’s ghosts, sorcerers and muu-muus behind I flew out to Kavieng on New Ireland to do some diving. From Kavieng I took a 20 minute boat ride out to Lissenung Island and moved into one of the four units that make up that resort. The next morning I began a series of dives that covered the next eight days. There is a subtle and generally unspoken competition among divers to be the last to surface (the rule here is that you must still be alive, drowning automatically disqualifies you). It’s a zen thing. Be calm under water, be at peace, find your center, all that crap. A full tank of air holds about 3,000 psi. I’ll use 1,000 psi while I’m adjusting my mask! If there were a prize for surfacing first I’d have a mantle full of trophies.

The dive instructor could tell that it was bothering me so he gave me some invaluable advice. “Smoke cigarettes. They destroy your lung capacity and you inhale less air with every breath,” he said and took a mighty drag on his cigarette. I guess I’ll stick to cigars, but they don’t seem to be helping. The following day on three dives I came up first, first and in a remarkable display of consistency, first. I also have a knack for missing the good stuff even when it’s pointed out to me. My dive buddy was pointing at a bit of coral on one dive. I looked at it pretty closely and nodded that I saw it. It was a nice piece of coral on a solid wall of coral. After we surfaced everyone was excited at having seen a large moray eel. My buddy said, “We saw it too!” Uh, yeah. It’s almost a skill to be able to miss a giant moray eel on a coral wall when your dive buddy is virtually touching its head to help you spot it.

The woman who owns the Lissenung Island Resort goes out to neighboring islands and digs up turtle nests to rebury the eggs on Lissenung. She does this to save the eggs from the locals who dig up the nests to eat the eggs. While I was there two of the nests hatched and dozens of green and hawksbill turtles made it to the sea. It was quite an experience seeing them explode out of the sand and scrabble their way across the sand to the water. With the half dozen guests of the resort providing an honor guard, none of the baby turtles’ traditional predators were able to feed on them and all of them made it into the waves.

Finally, I flew from Kavieng to Rabaul to visit the major Japanese WWII base. In addition to touring the caves they dug and the gun emplacements guarding the harbor, I dove with a group on a site called The Deep Zero. It’s a Japanese fighter that was shot down close to shore and sits undisturbed in about 140 feet of water. The deeper you go, the faster you use your air. In spite of that, I made it down to the plane and almost outlasted one other diver. Although I went up first, everyone else was right behind me. Back on the dive boat the group reviewed the dive and compared the things they’d seen. It seems that there was a yellow moray eel in a hole in the wing. Oh yeah, I totally saw that too. At least I did see the damn plane!

On solid land I went to the base of the very active Tavurvur volcano. In the 90’s this monster erupted and wiped out Rabaul City. You can’t hike up it now because it’s too active and unstable but, for some reason, they’ll let you stand around at its base and gawk up at the fumes and ash raining down on you. Etna, Vesuvius, Stromboli and Tavurvur, hike it or not, I’m adding it to my active volcano collection!!

The islands are a good deal safer and quieter than either Port Moresby or the Highlands. Apart from active and unstable volcanoes, that is. It was nice to be able to go to the market and even ride on a bus neither of which is recommended in Moresby. The diving is excellent and I wasn’t asked to eat muu-muu even once.

In the time it’s taken me to write this, I’ve received a reply from AFSA. Sadly, it appears that my union won’t be calling on all diplomats for a general strike on my behalf. Nor do they recommend that I pursue my argument further. In fact, they recommend that I drop the whole thing. Cavalier treatment, I say, of a man who knows the general location of a cave containing a ghost who, with the right incentive, might just move to DC!! On the bright side, however, I’ve just learned of a man with emphysema who dives once in a while in Moresby. I have every expectation of coming up second in the near future!