13 January 2015


Throughout the last two years there have been quite a few occasions when Paul and I have been baffled that we live in the third world. Sometimes, we would just stare out our bedroom window, or stand just outside and look out onto the developed portion of the undeveloped world: a rolling hillside the color of Tennessee dirt, more copper colored than brown, speckled with hints of green only during the rainy season; two parallel runways at the small airport that seemed close enough to touch; two roads, also parallel, one leading to the Airways Hotel and to the developing landscape beyond, the other providing access to the airport and all of the businesses that support the local aviation industry; planes, lots of planes. O.K., in reality there were probably a dozen and a half planes at most but still, planes.

Planes that would wake us at 5 a.m. when three consecutive overnight flights landed within half an hour of each other, thrust reversers broadcasting their arrival in an otherwise tranquil early morning. Planes that would start their engines with high-pitched squeals and booming whooshes any time Paul and I would attempt to sleep, whether napping in the afternoon or lying down for an evening sleep. Planes. Because we lived in a place where there was an airport in our front yard.

Sometimes I would watch vehicles make their way along the hillside roads on the other side of the runways. Little miniature cars, mostly white, just pushing along as if a child were providing the energy needed to move the trucks from one side to the other.

Once we saw fire in the evening sky. PNG’s land is fertile when it comes to natural resources; copper, gold and natural gas are just three of the major exports. Exxon Mobil last year completed a liquefied natural gas line just north of Port Moresby and, when the pipeline was ready for production, the initial gas expelled was burned and the whole eastern sky looked as if the clouds were burning the black out of the night.

Paul and I spent most of our days in our two-room apartment. Mostly because there wasn’t a whole lot to do in Port Moresby and mostly because my husband was leery to see what else Port Moresby had to offer – you know, safety and personal security wise. He was always content inside where he had the comforts of cable television, unlimited, though often slow, Wi-Fi and air conditioning.

A local cafĂ© and clothing boutique called Duffy and the compound next door, The Airways, were the only two places Paul would ever let me visit unaccompanied. Only twice was I able to go all the way into town for a grocery run without him chaperoning me. “I would really prefer that you wait until I am home to go,” he would say if he were out on a trip.

I made friends in PNG, though a little too late. Desi, one of Paul’s flight attendants, is a wonderful woman of God with a heart bigger than the Grinch’s new one. Her 2-year-old daughter has immense, cautious eyes – she examines every situation and thinks carefully before responding. Paul and I were the first and likely the only Caucasian people she met.

Brenda is Paul’s boss’s wife. She speaks the most beautiful prayers I have ever heard.

As Paul and I left PNG today, I was sad to leave them, and I was sad that I had not become friends with them sooner. I think we would have had many happy times together, but I am certainly grateful that I know them now.

Paul and I no longer live in PNG. We left today after an emotional few months. The short version of the story begins with the company issuing a new contract to all the pilots, an inferior contract that included pay cuts and decreased benefits, making it nearly impossible for some of the pilots to continue their employment. Paul, like many pilots, chose to not sign the new agreement and, while everyone around the world spent 24 consecutive hours counting down the seconds to the conclusion of one minute, one hour, one day, one month, all signifying the end of one year, Paul and I were watching the clock, counting down to the 5 p.m. deadline that would determine whether or not he would have a job come midnight.

Three pilots operated Paul’s plane. Though he technically worked for a commercial airline operation, he was responsible for flying government officials on an airline-managed corporate jet. The commercial pilot agreement only partially applied to the pilots on the corporate jet and, since only three people out of more than 200 are trained to fly the aircraft, Paul felt he had a bit of leverage. On the evening of December 31, the deadline for the pilots to either sign or resign, Paul stated his intention to continue with the company under better terms, otherwise he was happy to leave. Paul was advised that his contract would be extended two days so that company management could review his proposal to continue his employment.

Instead of having a firm decision, the next several days only extended the drama and the uncertainty. On January 2, Paul was told that if he did not sign the contract prior to the end of the day, he was no longer employed. He accepted the notion that he was no longer employed. On January 4, he received a call to fly the plane because yes, the company said, he was still employed. On January 6, Paul was told that he had three options: resign and work two more months to conclude his existing contract, terminate his employment and sacrifice a lot of money or sign the 2015 contract to remain employed. Terms changed, an attorney was consulted and, finally, on January 9, Paul came home and announced that he was unemployed. We were done. We were leaving the country in four days.

Paul and I spent Sunday inspecting every nook and cranny in our apartment, throwing away things we would no longer need or would absolutely not use. We decided to spend a few days in Hong Kong while making our journey back to the U.S., so we sorted our belongings into a Hong Kong suitcase each, placing the rest of our needed items into two large suitcases. Anything not in the suitcases would be packed by the moving company representatives and shipped home.

Monday morning the movers came and had everything packed in under 30 minutes. We filled three boxes with food and kitchen supplies and gave them to Desi to share with her friends and family members. We sold our car last night.

The last week has been a combination of a whirlwind and a great pause. Yes, our departure has moved quickly, but the process to get to that conclusion has taken months. Like many days the last two months, we the last week spent a lot of time waiting and debating. So much of this process was out of my hands. With nothing to do, I spent hours pondering – life, what else to clean, what else to pack or organize, how soon I should shower if our flight doesn’t leave for seven hours.

After a lunchtime good-bye with friends and more waiting in the airport, Paul and I finally boarded our plane. After waiting on paperwork and the ever-so-slow taxi to the main runway, Paul and I held hands and said our final goodbyes to PNG while praying for a safe journey. As the wheels started turning, tears unexpectedly filled my eyes. I looked out the window to my right as the world started to pass by and I felt a tear run down my right cheek, then another. I carefully hid my face from Paul who was two seats to my left, looking out the window on that side, for fear that he would mistake my tears for sadness.

When the tires were off the pavement and we were airborne, Paul and I squeezed our hands and glanced at each other with hopeful smiles. He made a comment about my tears. “Sad?” Paul inquired. I shook my head. “This is pure relief,” I explained. And it was. I finally felt relief. It’s done. It’s all done. The work drama, the changing plans, the which-one-do-we-choose scenarios, the what-are-we-going-to-do quandaries, the when-are-we-leaving, what-are-we-taking-with-us, are-we-actually-doing-this predicaments done. I finally breathed. For me. For us. That moment in Argo when everyone on the plane enters into international air space and at once becomes free – that was my moment.

I stopped crying. And then in my mind I saw Brenda’s face and Desi’s face and I cried a little more, this time out of sadness for the friends that I will dearly miss.

Paul and I have often joked about saying the words that we can now officially say: Hey, remember that time when we lived in Papua New Guinea?


Anonymous said...

Hi Rachael,

I was just about to add a comment to your other post (the one in which you decided to go into writing), but since things have so much changed in your life I just want to say good-luck in whatever path you'll choose in the future. Also, your blog has been very inspirational, not mentioning your great writing style. And you actually helped people through your writing. If it wasn't you my time in Singapore would have been very lonely - we have never met in person but through your blog and your own stories I discovered the whole expat community out there and figured out my way to join them. Over the past years, you also shared all your observations and dilemmas that come with the expat life and that not many people are always aware of.
It's been almost two years since I first started reading your blog. And although life keeps on changing and you moved away and I moved out from Singapore, I've stayed with your blog and followed. Discovering PNG through your eyes was also a very unique experience although I can imagine how hard it must have been for both of you to live your life there. And now as you are coming back to your homeland I hope you won't quit this blog. All the best, Oksana

McKee said...

Hi Oksana, Thank you so much for your note. I am truly touched. I deeply apologize for not seeing your words sooner. I took a break from the blog to settle back into the U.S.

I do intend to keep the blog alive, but my posts will likely be less frequent. I am developing a book based on my time in Singapore and, hopefully, will have another about my time in Papua New Guinea. Keep checking back for updates and find the blog on Facebook if you haven't already. I am so glad you seem to be enjoying Singapore as much as I did!

Anonymous said...

I was just searching for some information about PNG and stumbled across your blog. Very well written!
I am considering going there from Canada to do some flying and appreciate your insights as to life in Port Moresby


McKee said...

Hi, thank you for your note. Are you a member of ProPilotWorld? There are a few PNG pilots who are members of that community. I highly recommend reaching out to them if you are interested. Best wishes!