A late night on the phone to Papua New Guinea (9am there is 10pm here), which you have to keep telling yourself is a unique and entertaining way of spending time that would otherwise be wasted while being asleep. Firstly there are a variety of different and confusing dial tones used to tell you the phone is not working. Some, but not all, of these sound very similar to the tone that tells you the phone is in fact working fine. It’s just that no one wants to answer it. When you do get through, any residual frustration this has caused is washed away by the relaxed and contented manner of the person on the other end, who will happily ask you to send them an email. Having explained that it is now quarter past eleven at night and you don’t want to sit up until morning waiting for their email in response, this person tends to laugh merrily at your situation and reach out to the rustling pile of papers on their desk that happen to contain all the information they would have sent in the email, had you not ruthlessly forced them to actually reach out and pick them up now.
Or, they will transfer you to someone else. My favourite conversation was with the man from the Ministry of Inter-Governmental Relations, who I finally got hold of after bouncing around the Ministry on various telephone transfers, each of which played me a highly synthesised and very fast version of Beethoven’s ninth while I waited. Like this: De de de de de de de de dum. I was hoping the man could give me a phone number for the Bougainville Autonomous Government (Bougainville being where the Carteret Islanders are being evacuated to.)
“Ah, that is not possible. You see, they are on the first floor and we are on the ninth. There is no way of getting in contact I am afraid.”
“So you are in the same building?”
“The same building yes, but they are on the first floor and we are on…”
“Yes, I see that is a problem. But surely there must be some way of getting in touch with them?”
“Allow me to transfer you to someone else.”
De de de de de de de de dum.
Another highlight was in conversation with Bishop Hank Kronenburg, the Catholic bishop of Bougainville, whose church has donated land for the Islanders to build homes on when they arrive. I said I had been having difficulty getting through to people by phone. He laughed, happily.
“That is normal. That is very normal. I have three telephone lines and today two of those lines are not working,” he said. “You have to understand that things here are not the same as they are in England.”
Wise words. It is easy to forget just how different other parts of the world can be. I may now be tired, but at least I have a better idea of what is going on. This is what I learned:
High tides in December and January put nine islands under water.
The Islanders now survive only on shipments of rice and water sent out for Bougainville. The next aid boat is due to leave at some point this month.
The Catholic Church has donated 81ha of land on Bougainville for the Islanders to live on.
The Islanders have started to build family homes on this land, in preperation for leaving the Carterets. Building work on these homes has stalled for a lack of money.
Bishop Hank believes people will begin to leave the Islands after easter, ie. late April, possibly May. I think it is very hard to be certain of exact dates but the evacuation is real and it is happening.