MONTREAL

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I usually try to focus on the positives of life in Papua New Guinea, and I only talk about the nasty stuff from time to time because if I mentioned every incident that takes place in PNG then this would be a rather depressing blog for readers. But alas, there are hundreds of crimes committed in Port Moresby and the other big cities every day – it’s so commonplace that one almost tunes it out as noise. Then it all suddenly hits home when a close friend is affected. You may recall that a female friend of mine was carjacked last year and managed to escape unscathed but lost her favourite shoes. Well, she was a victim of a carjacking again a couple of weeks ago. She and her boyfriend were accosted at gunpoint right outside their home. They were unharmed but they lost the vehicle and valuable possessions including a laptop and a passport. I would forgive her for wanting to jump on the next plane out of here and never coming back.

Then yesterday, I heard about an attempted car jacking on an associate. It occurred at a roundabout near my house that I use half a dozen times every day. He saw a fellow walk out on to the road in front of him, pointing a gun. He accelerated and tried to avoid the guy (probably the best thing to do, all things considered). Four other assailants emerged from the sides and threw rocks at the car as he took off. The guy with the gun fired and the round hit the top of the windshield, but then the car was able to speed past and out of danger.

In this case, things ended well, with damage to the car but no injuries. It is a sobering reminder of the constant risks attached to life in one of the world’s most dangerous cities.

In other news from dangerous places, you may have heard about a couple of brazen attacks by gunmen in Kabul, Afghanistan recently. The first, about a month ago, killed over a dozen people, including two colleagues from the company with which I work. The second happened yesterday, when nine people were killed at the Serena Hotel – a place where I used to go to  eat when I lived there. It has a great buffet. These tragic events highlight that the half-hearted attempt by the international community to reform Afghanistan has met with limited success. That country has some very painful years ahead.

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Dangers aside, daily life in the developing world is plagued with frustrations. A friend recently said, “A measure of a country’s development is the ease of undertaking everyday business transactions”. In developed countries, when dealing with efficient and reputable companies and government agencies, transactions happen quickly and smoothly. There are many exceptions, but these smooth transactions are a daily occurrence. We check our bank balance on smart phones in seconds. We pass through a road toll for a bridge and it’s marked by a beep on a little box in our cars. We tap a credit card on a reader and the payment is complete.

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These things do not happen in the developing world, or at least almost never. The picture above demonstrates a good example. Buying petrol (gasoline) in Port Moresby is an agonising experience. For a start, there are not nearly enough fuel stations. There is a constant queue. Anywhere else, the private sector would simply come to the rescue and provide more, but for many reasons that doesn’t happen here. Then, there is the efficiency of the stations themselves. They don’t have the concept of ‘self-service’. At first, it seems quaint having someone pump one’s petrol – like a throwback to the 1950s. But in practice, it’s a nightmare. The queue is disorganised and turns into a zoo. The staff are slow and fail to communicate what is happening. They are friendly and they try hard, but they seem to make it an ordeal every time. Then comes the payment. It’s not too bad if one pays with cash. They will take the money and then come back with change. However, if one needs to pay with a credit card, one then needs to move the car, park it, and go to the window to pay. Here, one discovers that the poor folks pumping the fuel have to compete with each other for the attention of the clerk behind the window who processes the payments. The photo above provides some insight into the chaos of paying for one’s fuel. A relatively simple and minor daily event that regularly makes me want to throttle someone.

One of the reasons why new fuel stations don’t open to meet the demand is that there is a lot of regulation in PNG to overcome. Most of it is ignored most of the time. But as soon as one tries to do anything large and public, people come out of the wordwork with rules. An odd thing about PNG is that despite the chaos, the law and regulations are reasonably good. They are often developed by foreign advisors and they usually follow Australian standards. So when it comes to safety measures, on paper at least, PNG is regulated similarly to a developed country. Of course, the capacity to administer these fantastic laws is drastically limited, creating a situation where it is both hard to do things and heavily regulated. So in the service station example, one would have to procure land (difficult because land titles are shaky), build the facilities (challenging because such projects always go over time and over budget), and comply with the myriad of laws governing the management of hazardous materials. As a result, no one builds a new service stations.

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In the photo above, some folks are doing safety training down on Ela Beach. It always surprises me that a country that is struggling with providing people with so many of the basics of life has the resources to invest in safety training like this. I’m not complaining – these measures really do save lives and that helps with development. But it does demonstrate how haphazard development can be. It doesn’t follow set paths. Development occurs in dribs and drabs. Bursts of energy create improvements in one area and then neglect causes the gains to slowly ebb away until the next spurt of activity and progress.

20140314_162842I had reason to escape the chaos this week. A work trip to Montréal Canada with some of my Papua New Guinean colleagues. It has been a fascinating experience as many of them had never before left their country of birth. Out at the airport, I was admiring the various provincial flags and came across these statues of pregnant women. One thing that is refreshing about this place, is that the culture is not driven by Hollywood. At least not nearly as much as it is elsewhere. Models of female beauty and “normal” are vastly different here. Many women still have the ‘fuzzy wuzzy’ afro. They wear bright, billowing garments called “Meri dresses” that would make a fashion designer throw up his foie gras. And they don’t care. It’s a society that is gloriously independent of the Western ideal of what a woman should look like. The younger generation is a bit different – more likely to have straightened hair and wear jeans. But it’s inconsistent. This is another example of PNG bucking the trend of a homogenised world.

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Travelling anywhere from PNG is challenging. We took the route Port Moresby to Manila, to Los Angeles and then on to Montréal. The Air Niugini Airbus in which we flew obviously belonged to an airline from Iceland in the past. The vast cost of producing new laminated safety cards must have prevented Air Niugini from making their own when they bought the aircraft. So they just recycled the old ones – complete with “IcelandAir” logos.

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This is the airport in Manila. I was feeling awful as I had been up all night vomiting from some unknown tropical disease. I had thought it was malaria, but it seemed to pass. I had recovered a lot and thought I was well enough to travel and wanted to get somewhere with access to reliable medical treatment. But travelling to Manila took the wind out of my sails. I felt awful by this point, so I paid for an upgrade to business class so that I could get some sleep.

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I was able to sleep for about 10 hours on the 747 and woke feeling so much better for the arrival in LA.  20140315_115135

We chased the sun the whole way and arrived on the same day that we left.

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Urban sprawl at its finest. My colleagues from PNG went ballistic in the souvenir stores in LA. They’ve been wandering around in LA Dodgers hats and such ever since.

20140314_193900We caught an Air Canada flight from LA to Montréal.

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The Papua New Guineans were very excited to arrive in Canada – some of them had never seen snow before. Suddenly, it was all around them.

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We all piled into a van and took off – headed for our hotel.

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Montréal has a population of about 1.7 million. It has some great infrastructure, but the weather is so harsh here that structures that would last a century elsewhere sometimes begin to fail after 40 or 50 years.

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What appears to be a mountain on the left here is in fact a giant pile of snow. All the snow that is cleared from the airport runways ends up in this big pile that then gets dirty over time and looks like a hill. By May this will have all melted and the hill will disappear.

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The realities of living with snow on a daily basis. It gets all dirty and slushy. The cars are filthy all winter because there is a mixture of salt from the roads and melted snow flicked up all over them. Walking along the footpaths is treacherous because the snow melts during the day and then refreezes over night.

20140315_085400We crossed the “Pont Jacques Cartier“, which was built between 1925 and 1930. It is the third busiest bridge in Canada.

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The bridge links Longeuil, where I am staying, to downtown Montréal. To the right, one can see the roller coaster from La Ronde, a Six-Flags amusement park on St Helen’s Island.

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The little spikes (called finials) are actually 3 metres high themselves and resemble mini Eiffel Towers.

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The Olympic Stadium from the 1976 Olympic Games still features prominently in the Montreal skyline. That games was particularly bad for Australia, and it led directly to the creation of the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra and a massive boost in sports funding. Apparently, it simply doesn’t do for Australia to be bad at sports.

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One of the first things that I did upon arrival was buy a jacket. I only had my PNG clothing with me so I was freezing. This puffer jacket is a miracle of modern science. It weighs almost nothing but provides a huge amount of warmth.

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It’s hard to see in this picture but on the day I arrived it was minus 16 outside. It has been around that overnight most nights.

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But the forecast was for some warmer weather – a balmy 4 degrees some days.

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In such situations, one is forced to invest in thermals. I bought these on sale. They make me feel like Captain America.

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The snow and ice all over the ground makes walking anywhere potentially hazardous.

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Fortunately, I am sure-footed but it’s only a matter of time until I end up on my ass.

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My colleagues from PNG are coping remarkably well with all this trudging through snow.

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It is so cold that any body of fresh water freezes.

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Including the St Lawrence river.

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I wasn’t coping with the cold so I was forced to invest in this stupid hat. I decided to forego any chance of self-respect in favour of being warm. It is made from real rabbits. Feel free to throw blood on me in protest. It was me or the rabbits, so those cute little bunnies had to die.

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There are lots of cute differences about being in Francophone Canada, which I am quite enjoying. Food is an obvious one. It’s easier to buy real food here – European food. Not so much burgers and fries like in the rest of North America, although there is plenty of that too.

20140315_160337I followed my rule of “Always eat where there is a queue of locals” and it lead me to this patisserie.  20140315_161339

With glorious French-style pastries. One knows that it’s going to be good when it comes in a box large enough to hold twenty of them.

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This poster at a supermarket says, “Vive la bouffe” or loosely translated, “Long live food”. I concur.

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There are other subtle differences too. Like these awesome traffic lights that have round greens, diamond-shaped yellows and square reds.

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The architecture is far more European than on the West Coast of Canada.

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It reminds one of a time when people tried to make buildings attractive, not just cheap and functional.

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There’s an energy to this place; a vibe that’s hard to describe but it warms the heart, despite the snow on the ground.

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I was wandering around Rue St Denis and discovered a little jazz club. This trio were pumping out some great music – all of it written by the drummer.

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I’ve been catching the metro around. It’s just like the Paris metro and runs on rubber tyres rather than rails to keep the noise down. It’s a very efficient way to get around town.

20140317_195156The subway stations have advertisements for Air Morocco. One doesn’t see that on the West Coast.

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This poster shows Pauline Marois, the Premier of Québec Province. They are in election mode here, so everywhere I go Pauline follows me.

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The folks from PNG got themselves all rugged up and went for a walking tour of the city. It was bitterly cold and they complained a little but they found it interesting.

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It was cute how they took care of each other – making sure that everyone was appropriately covered up against the cold.

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We toured the old Montréal, with the Québec flags flying proudly. There is a talk of another referendum on independence. I rather hope they stay. I think both Canada and Québec would be the weaker for the separation.

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Like the metro, Montréal also has its own mini Paris version of Notre Dame Cathedral.

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Some of the nicer buildings are in the financial quarter and many are or used to be banks.

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This one is about to be repurposed but still has the tellers in place.

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The high ceilings are stunningly decorated.

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And this ornate post box tells a story of its own. Note that it says “Royal Mail” as it is from before the Canada Post era. It is also written in English – as the Francophone community did not run the banking system in Québec until the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s.

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I grabbed a photo of this striking statue just before it was overrun with Papua New Guineans. I am sure that we must have set a few Guinness World Records for the most Papua New Guineans photographed with a statue in Montréal.

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Note the Ukrainian flag flying on the right of this building – in support for the country that is presently being carved up by Russia. I think we should all boycott the Olympics in 1980 as a protest. Oh wait…

Yoga en francaisI went to Moksha Yoga Montréal and tried yoga in French for the first time. That was a lot of fun. Downward Facing Dog (Adhomukasvanasana in Sanskrit) translates as “Chien tête en bas”.

Until next postcard…

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