Educating Wendy

  • Educating Wendy
Blog of the month
Published 2011-06-01 00:00

I'm “Dr. Wendy”. I grew up on the outskirts of Washington, DC., but now live in Lae, Papua New Guinea – literally the other side of the world.

I'm “Dr. Wendy”.  I grew up on the outskirts of Washington, DC., but now live in Lae, Papua New Guinea – literally the other side of the world. 

I think Meredith Brooks described me best in her 1997 song “Bitch”…. Yep, I’m a bitch, I’m a lover, I’m a child, I’m a mother…. All the rest is pretty inconsequential. 

When and how did you decide to move to Papua New Guinea? Is it complicated to settle down there?

I never considered working overseas, but I finished my Ph.D. and started applying for jobs in my field– which wasn’t many at the time. I remember getting an email about a scheduled phone interview and something just felt right. I had the interview and immediately knew I would be offered the job. I just had this gut feeling that it’s what I was supposed to do.

I must admit settling into the university was a challenge. I was literally dropped off at my temporary house with my luggage. I just remember wanting a glass of water but thinking is the water okay to drink? Wait, I have no glasses to get a drink of water! Toilet paper?  Where can I go buy toilet paper??? I was so glad that there was another American on campus that came over to reassure me that I would survive the first few weeks. I quickly realized that life at uni was a far cry from the “corporate” expatriate experience in PNG! I was so thankful for the friends I met in town that helped me integrate into the larger expat community. 

Have you ever lived abroad before? How many countries have you visited?

I never lived abroad before, and had only traveled outside of the United States a handful of times before moving to PNG…. just places like Bermuda, Bahamas, and other holiday cruise ship locations. I had been to Ireland and London, but nothing over the top in terms of travel. I was the quintessential minivan-driving suburban mom, and, like most Americans, we were usually too busy to vacation. When I came to PNG to sign my contract, it was the first time I had been to a developing country. It was an absolute shocker, but immediately I knew this is what I wanted and needed to do. Now that I’m living outside of the U.S., I’ve been able to travel so much more and just love it. I find the best experiences are off the beaten track where tourists dare not to venture! 

What do you like the most about Papua New Guinea?

There’s something about PNG that is hard to articulate. Lae is littered with trash, has pot-holed “roads”, and can be quite violent. Getting things done in PNG can be frustrating and completely illogical!!  However, the people have such a tenacious spirit. It always amazes me of what people overcome here on a daily basis. I am reminded every day of how precious life is and all of the fortunate things I have in my life.

PNG has also taught me to just appreciate the littlest things. When the power stays on, you think, wow, the power was on all day today! I am a Type-A, on the go personality, but PNG has forced me to slow down and learn to appreciate all the things I used to take for granted. 

Papua New Guinea is considered as one of the most culturally diverse countries on earth (e.g. more than 800 local languages): can you see it in the day-to-day life and how is it?

At the university, we have students from all over PNG, but each province has their own culture and identity. The diversity can be an advantage, but it can also be problematic as tribal clashes still occur and reconciliation isn’t as easy as it sounds. 

How is/was the cultural shock? What are the main differences with your home country?

I was fortunate to come to PNG for four days to sign my contract. Those four days were my introduction to third world living. Ants covered my luggage (and toothbrush!), I tried to go to sleep with bizarre sounds of wild creatures, and I wandered around wide-eyed and my jaw a’gaping! Some people from the university drove me to one of our small campuses at Bulolo and we literally ate cucumbers and raw peanuts from a market on the side of the road for our lunch. We forded a pretty big raging river on the way and one of the ladies said “no worries, I have a torch,” (translated: in case we get stuck, I have matches to start a fire). Once we finally arrived, most of the town was closed due to a strike at the timber mill and people were rioting in the streets. We literally got onto the university property with a lock-down. It had flooded the day before, so classes were cancelled and students were mopping up classrooms. And I won’t even discuss the bucket toilet experience! Looking back now, it’s all just everyday stuff here! I just had never experienced anything like that before and tried to reconcile it with my suburban American life. It was just surreal.

The main difference between the US and PNG? Oh my god, what’s not different???  I guess the biggest things for me are the everyday violence, extreme poverty, and blatant corruption. Especially in the city, it can all be overwhelming. There are razor wires everywhere and they are here for a reason. You can’t just call the police for help so you have to really be able to be resourceful and take care of yourself or hire private security (and even that can be sketchy). The remote villages don’t have this problem, but the city isn’t really “owned” by any one group so it can be somewhat of a free-for-all. The living conditions are also a shock. “Tent City” is literally a village within the city, which consists of makeshift housing with no running water or electricity. Families subsist on what is grown around them. It just puts everything in life in perspective. 

Do you miss anything from your homeland?

I miss cheap, fast, and available Internet!!!  I spend a small fortune on Internet access and it runs like the 1980s dial-up AOL (when it works)! I also miss just the conveniences of having the basics in the grocery store. If you see it, buy it, because you never know when (if) it will be in stock again! (But always remember to check the expiration dates as I have bought things two years beyond the dates by not looking!!!) I also miss diversity of (good) food that is available in the States. I just miss a good restaurant meal.

Any “memories of an expat” you would like to share with other Expat blog members? Your best souvenir? Or maybe your worst experience? 

My best souvenirs are gifts from people that I know. The first time I went back to the States, the debate students on campus threw me a party and brought bilums, necklaces, and hats their families had made for my family. Those are the things I treasure the most.

As far as my worst experience, well, they all typically relate to violence. I’ve watched my fair share of people getting beaten – as in beaten to near death. There’s nothing you can do about it, so you drive around or back track. Friends have been car-jacked, have had their houses broken into, and have had some serious near-misses. Just yesterday, a friend of mine that worked for an NGO was pulled out of the country. Three men broke into his house and held him up at knifepoint as he pleaded for his life. It happens here and, unfortunately, I’m reminded of it all too frequently. 

Your blog: when did you start it? For what reasons?

I started my blog in 2007 when I was working on my Ph.D. I just wanted to document what was going on in my life, but I was pretty hit or miss about it. Only when I got to PNG did I find my blogging groove and started posting nearly every day. I find it cathartic to have a release from all the craziness that surrounds me here. I try to be pretty candid about my experiences, but since I use my real name, there is still quite a bit I censor. As you’ll read, I’m pretty sarcastic, so you have to keep that in mind when reading my blog.

Did you make new friends with your blog?

Oh yeah!  Since there is so little information about PNG on the Internet, my blog typically comes up in a search. I’ve gotten emails from people that are thinking about taking a job here and I also have readers that have once lived in PNG and are vicariously reliving their experiences through me! I really like it when people comment or email me. 

When did you register on expat blog ?

The majority of expats that come to PNG are based out of the capital, Port Moresby (POM). Although Lae is the second largest city, there is little commonality between the two. POM has restaurants and shopping and even a couple of traffic lights! Anyway, someone had a question about Lae and I felt sorry for the person as I remember the tough time I had trying to get information. Anyway, I registered and helped him out. Now I go out and try to answer questions the best I can, even if I only provide responses from a Lae perspective or just general PNG information. I enjoy doing it and have met some really great people.

Which advice would you give to people who would like to live in Papua New Guinea?

My number one piece of advice would be to make sure you know the reason(s) why you want to come to PNG. You need to keep that in mind while you’re here to keep everything in perspective. Also, research where you’re going and what you’re going to do. This isn’t a country that you just pick up and move to without a plan. There have been many expatriates that have arrived only to take the next flight out because they weren’t prepared for it. However, I enjoy being here. PNG is my home!

Educating Wendy