Sunday, 13 September 2015


The past few months have been full of emotion, yet I have been struggling to articulate my experiences. After several attempt at writing esoteric, philosophical blog posts and hating the end result, I decided to just write an update, without trying to turn my experiences in to a lessons learned, or epiphanies about the meaning of life. The result of this is the following blog post; just me, what I’ve been doing, how I feel, and not much else.

In July I spent a lot of time missing Dan and filing. The Archives Office is implementing a new classification system, which involved Michael and I re-classifying and re-labelling some 2000 or so files so that we can transition to a new database. This is a huge job, and while important, it’s mind-numbingly mundane. Thankfully, the monotony was broken by a few VSA volunteers from East New Britain visiting Bougainville and staying with me. I have always lived with family, or flatmates, and one of the hardest things about this year has been the isolation that comes with living alone. The pain of this isolation is sharpened by the fact that in Buka, there isn’t a lot to do outside of working and going to the market. I spend a lot of time hanging out (read: drinking on my balcony) with Bryn and other migrant workers (read: expats), but I still find the solitary nature of living alone unbearable at times. There are only so many books you can read, movies you can watch, and journal entries you can write, before you start talking to yourself a lot more than usual. Having friends to come and stay was such a relief for me; a month of various visitors to fill my house with laughter and conversation, and put my soul at ease. In particular, having Laura and Hadleigh from Wellington come stay, was wonderful. We spent late nights lying on the couches and discussing life, religion, love, travel. I felt at home amongst similar-minded people…bliss.

Me and Laura in my office; you can see the filing work has resulted in a chaotic mess of files. Photo courtesy of Hadleigh Tiddy.

After three days of this, as well as wonderful hugs from Laura (I’m starved of physical contact!), I received a call from Mum; my Baba (Dad’s mother) was sick, and the family was all flying over to Launceston, Tasmania, to be with her. The doctor didn’t think she would make it through this illness, after various other illnesses in the past. After an evening of frantic emails and calls to the travel agent and Mum and Dad, I decided to fly to Tasmania also. It was exorbitantly expensive to get from Buka to Tasmania, and required two to three days of flights and stop-overs, but I needed to go. I hadn’t seen Baba in two and a half years, and had been planning on visiting her on my way home from Bougainville in December. I hated the idea of her dying without me seeing her, saying goodbye, and being there to support Dad. So, the next morning I flew out of Buka, stayed a night in Port Moresby, and was in Tasmania the following afternoon.

I was so overwhelmed to be in Australia. Skyscrapers, flat whites, huge supermarkets with thousands of products, busy streets and footpaths and people who didn’t say “avinun” and smile as they walked past you; overwhelming levels of wealth, efficient airports, all kinds of restaurants with all kinds of food, shops that sold everything. When I arrived in Bougainville I didn’t feel too overwhelmed with culture shock, but arriving back in Australia just knocked me off balance. It was incredibly difficult to adjust to a culture that was so prosperous and had such easy access to amenities after having spent the previous six months in a town that had water shortages, power cuts, poor internet coverage and people living in villages, living subsistence lifestyles. It made me realise that for all my homesickness, when I actually return to New Zealand I’m going to be in for a shock. I don’t think it’s possible to live in a country such as PNG, where 80% of people still live in rural villages and so many people have such a hard time accessing quality education and healthcare services, and transition back to life in New Zealand effortlessly.

Seeing my family was incredible; when I left New Zealand, I didn’t anticipate seeing them until the end of this year, and yet here they were as I walked up the stairs in to the Launceston Airport arrivals lounge; Mum in her red coat, smiling and waving and crying; Dad in the background, looking mighty pleased, Veronica receiving my euphoric hug with her typical PDA-averse grin. I think I really needed them at this point in my assignment. The past months had been difficult, with my work satisfaction levels flagging and no holiday in sight. Being surrounded by people I loved, who looked after me and loved me, was so soul-restoring. No matter how old I get, nothing quite beats a hug from my Mum or Dad.

The Tamar River, which my Baba lived beside in Launceston.

Baba had pneumonia and was very weak when I first arrived. She was awake, however, and I was able to tell her I was there, I had missed her, I loved her. I told her about Bougainville, about the bright flowers she would love to see, about the beautiful parrots and the stunning Bougainvillea that was just blooming. Over the next few days she slipped away from us and on the morning of August 15 she passed away. From the moment we arrived until the moment she died, Baba always had one of us there with her. She was an incredible woman; born in Melbourne, she was one of the first Australian women to join the Royal Australian Air Force and she spent the WWII years as an aircraft mechanic in Northern Queensland. She faced incredibly tough times and poor health but she pushed through, raising two boys, becoming an award-winning gardener and writing her first book aged 92. She was determined, intelligent, loving, and extremely witty. I’m so glad that I got to be with her before she died, despite the difficulties of getting there. 

After the funeral I flew back to Buka. It was a shock to be back; after spending two weeks surrounded by family, in an environment of love and care and remembering, I was back in my house, all alone, missing my family and not wanting to go back to filing records. It took a while to get back in to the swing of things; eventually, going to work, walking to the market and buying my vegetables for dinner, passing the weekends by with pot lucks and episodes of Parks and Recreation, all became normal again. In the past few weeks the Media and Communications team at work has been holding community awareness workshops in Haku, a northern district on Buka Island. I’ve been able to travel with them and talk to people about the Archives Office and the importance of records management in Bougainville. People have really been engaging with us and many people have a lot to say on the importance of retaining Bougainvillean history and custom in this rapidly developing region. If I had the capacity, I would run community workshops all over Bougainville and work with people to preserve local history and oral traditions, but we just don’t have the resources or funding to do that. So, we take baby steps and do what we can within central government. 

Moses, the community liaison officer for the Bureau of Media and Communication, speaking during our awareness workshop in Lemanmanu, Haku COE.
A group of boys from Tung village, Buka.

So now it’s already half-way through September and I only have around two and a half months left in Bougainville. It is very strange to think of my assignment here finishing up. I feel like I haven’t achieved much, but I suppose the research project, the file classification, the Human Rights Film Festival and the policy work I’ve done with Michael isn’t insignificant. There is a lot more work to get done before I leave! Mum and my cousin Robyn are coming to visit in two weeks, and once that holiday is over it’ll be no time before I’m home. Being in this time and place, I feel every emotion under the sun; exhaustion from the struggle that is working and living in such a different environment, in awe of the beauty of Bougainville, desperate to get home to Dan, excited to see my family, stressed about job hunting, lucky to have had such an amazing experience, ambivalent about preparing to leave behind friends (and the dogs). I am aware that I want to fit as many experiences and memories in to these next few months; they will be over too soon. In which case, hopefully my next blog post won’t be too far away.

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