I've been in Papua New Guinea for four days. Every day is a roller-coaster, and while I've been on this ride many times, it's still exhausting. I'm alternately disconcerted by what is new - huge buildings! mad traffic! - and comforted by what remains as it ever was: the open smiles of people on the street; old friends who greet me as if I have merely returned from a long vacation; the way things never happen as planned (no matter how carefully you plan).
Olfactory memories have returned with particular force. On the flight from Brisbane, I smelled Rid, the Australian insect repellent that my mother used to favour for its cheerful, fruity fragrance. Walking into a shop in Port Moresby, the nostril-singeing tang of sweaty bodies struck me like a hand across the face, announcing the place more vividly and definitively than any visa stamp. I kept breathing, and bought a local SIM card while children looked on with that mixture of frank curiosity and longing that always gets me in the gut, the guilty bite of privilege.
Later, as afternoon dissolved into equatorial night, a soft veil of acrid, sweet smoke drifted from garden- and cooking fires through the louvred windows my friend K--'s house. The house itself moved me deeply: older, slightly decrepit, still floating modestly on its stilts above the hibiscus hedges and the crumbling street. I watched K-- make coffee in the kitchen, each fluid gesture familiar as a childhood song. The coffee, one of Papua New Guinea's top exports, was rich and strong and tasted of chocolate. I slept a few hours; awoke, and was lulled to sleep again by women and children speaking softly in Tok Pisin, somewhere nearby.
Slowly, Tok Pisin is coming back to me, like fluid trickling back along aged veins. Yesterday, J--, the hausmeri where I am staying, told me a story about someone I used to know, who unexpectedly passed away. Halfway through she looked at me:
"Yu harim?" (You understand what I'm saying?)
"Ah, mi harim. Mi sori tasol." (I understand. I'm just sad.)
This morning J-- arrived with her bilum brimming with fruit and vegetables from the market. Long beans, aibika, bok choy, paw paw, muli, tiny red tomatoes, green bananas. I wanted to bury my nose in the aromatic juxtaposition of the sharp greens with the sensuous, floral scent of the paw paw. (Some perfumer should do a fragrance with a paw paw focus, if that hasn't been done already.)
If experience becomes memory as soon as we apprehend it, then I am experiencing sensorial memories within memories, moments from both the deep and the immediate past. Port Moresby has changed drastically in the last ten years, yet at every turn, something absorbed, then long forgotten, resurfaces and surprises me.
Tonight I inhaled the scent of frangipanis from a tree overhanging the balcony where I'm writing now, and realized immediately what OJ Frangipani Absolute lacks: the fresh, lemony top notes that lift the spirits at first breath. I wonder, now, whether anyone who has not grown up with that smell can evoke it accurately. It's like a friend said, when we first met in Port Moresby over ten years ago:
"You grew up here, so you'll understand how things are."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, the way things are...not the way other people think they should be."
Tok Pisin - Papua New Guinean pidgin
hausmeri - housekeeper
bilum - a string bag
aibika - a kind of local spinach with a strong, iron-rich flavour
paw paw - papaya
muli - citrus