Spring’s on its way here in Canada, so I’m enjoying this bouncy warm jam from PNG about saksak (sago dumplings).
PAPUA NEW GUINEA: Chicken and mango rice
It’s a bit of a trick finding recipe sources that are actually from Papua New Guinea, but this one for chicken and mango rice came from Trukai rice, a major PNG brand – recipe from here.
This was a straightforward recipe of chicken browned then cooked with rice in stock, with seasonings at the end. It calls for “sweet chili sauce”, as there doesn’t seem to be a lot of preference for really spicy food in the PNG recipes I looked through – very different from neighbouring Indonesia! I went for a “Szechwan chutney” from an Indian grocery store – still some heat, but sweetness too.
I really like using mango in savoury dishes – it goes really well with the green onion and chicken. It also liked the technique of adding in the raw veggies at the very end and letting them lightly blanch in the heat while the rice rests – meant they stayed crisp. It made a HUGE amount of food and was really quick, I think I’m adding it to my recipe roster!
PAPUA NEW GUINEA: Independence from Australia
In 2015, PNG celebrated its 40th anniversary of independence from British and Australian rule. As part of celebrations, EMTV, one of the main broadcasters in PNG, put out this interesting little special on the country’s history since independence:
It’s a bit rah-rah rose tinted glasses, but it’s a refreshing change from a lot of very orientalist discussions about PNG out there – ones that either paint it as exotic tribes or dangerous gangs. It’s also interesting that PNG is positioning itself in Oceania as a “big small Pacific state” – that it has much more in common with countries a fraction of its size like Fiji and Vanuatu than it does to Australia or New Zealand.
There’s also an interesting Australian mini-documentary on PNG’s independence that hits on the big tension of the time – the desire both internationally and within Australia to stop being a colonial power, but also colonies like PNG flagging their concerns of being cut loose by Australia with little preparation (see Nauru as a cautionary tale).
PAPUA NEW GUINEA: WWII
While I never learned much about the Pacific battles of WWII growing up, I do know that the fighting along islands in southeast Asia and the Pacific was particularly brutal, and that Japan invaded New Guinea – getting so close to Australia as to bomb cities like Darwin. Japan was eventually pushed out by Allied troops. I found interesting this old American wartime propaganda film of the Battle of New Guinea – the conditions seem like a proto-Vietnam from this angle:
A really important part of the narrative that doesn’t come out in the war documentaries often is the experiences of Papuans themselves – many were pulled into the war as scouts and labourers, and villages were destroyed and caught in the crossfire of the fighting. Kokoda Story is a great little documentary of Papuans’ war experiences along the Kokoda Track campaign:
Check out this Allied airfield, with planes, that was abandonned and has now been completely reclaimed by the forest. (Warning, video is LOUD)
PAPUA NEW GUINEA: Bougainville
Two looks at the incipient country of Bougainville, an autonomous region of PNG that is set to become its own sovereign nation in 2027. The first is a bit of history on the island and the larger history of PNG, while the second is a more nuanced look at the geopolitics surrounding independence (and the economic issues this new country may be born into).
PAPUA NEW GUINEA: Geography Now!
So, as I often do with countries I really don’t know much about, I’m getting a start with good ol’ Geography Now:
The “exoticism” of the remote interior seems to be a theme, I wonder if it’s really as uncontacted or isolated as this video makes it out to be.
Bougainville is another situation I want to dig into more – I heard that it’s set to become a fully independent country in a few years.
This month: PAPUA NEW GUINEA
I’m back after a little break to my regularly scheduled programming – another country picked at random. This month, I’ll be learning more about Papua New Guinea!
So, as always, what do I know off the top of my head about PNG before I start?
I know that despite sharing the island of New Guinea with Indonesia, it’s not part of Asia, but Oceania – geographically, culturally, and historically. I think it’s part of Melanesia. I’ve also mainly heard about PNG in outsiders’ ethnographic or exoticized terms, but little from Papuans themselves.
PNG is famous for having the most linguistic diversity in the world; there’s about 800 indigenous languages spoken there, many from unrelated language families. In comparison, there’s about 60-70 indigenous languages spoken in all of Canada – half a continent vs half an island.
I know they were a British colony, so English is spoken widely there, and like Canada, they’re a Commonwealth Realm with the King as head of state. I’m not sure how their government works on the ground, either in terms of function or effectiveness, and I know it isn’t the richest country.
From what I’ve learned from the other Oceanian countries I’ve looked at – especially Nauru – there’s no way Australia doesn’t have major involvement in PNG’s government and economy. And likewise, I’m sure PNG is also navigating China’s growing presence in the south Pacific.
I do know of some people who have been to PNG, but they were extended American relatives who went as missionaries. (Yes, missionaries. In today’s day and age! Or, well, the 90s.) I’m not sure how difficult it will be to find Papuan-made media, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a Papuan community in Canada – there isn’t a single PNG restaurant in Toronto, which normally has a restaurant from every country on earth.
What did I learn: ISRAEL (Part 2)
I already did a whole month on Israel (it actually was the second country I covered), but this month has been a part 2, as I had the great opportunity to travel to Israel for the first time this month. It’s also the first time I’ve been out of the country since the pandemic started – last time was Sep 2019 to Mexico City.
I covered a lot of turf in the three weeks I was in Israel: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Golan Heights, Haifa, Nazareth, the Dead Sea, plus trips into the Palestinian Territories and Jordan. There was just so much to take in – the historical sites, the religious sites, the food, the conflicts, the politics, the diversity, and the stuff I had no idea about before I even went.
There’s no way I can capture my whole experience, but I hope I’ve been able to share a bit of what hit me most. One of the things that hit me, especially as we stood on a lookout with some UN officers into what had been a Syrian warzone only a few years ago, was just how small and packed-together everything is. There’s little room to maneuver for anyone.
Likewise, getting to see the most contested and controversial piece of real estate in the world, the Temple Mount, is something that I’ll remember my whole life. Touching the Western Wall, working my way up to the Dome of the Rock, and seeing these historic and modern flashpoints in person will definitely change how I see the next time that conflict breaks out.
And speaking of conflict, getting to experience a “weekend war” of rockets from Gaza? As an Israeli friend put it, I definitely got the real Israel experience. Israelis really do treat attacks the way we Canadians take bad winter weather – be careful on the roads, but not a reason to panic.
That’s not the only conflict I got to witness. I’m still so pleased that, among all the contested and historic religious sites, I got to see the most important one of all: the immovable ladder.
I also got to see some of realities that Israelis deal with every day, including a trip to the Knesset in the middle of the fifth election in three years. I was also hit hard by the fast-moving environmental disaster of the Dead Sea, likely to be gone in my lifetime. It enjoyed floating in it while I could.
But Israel isn’t all conflict and tension, there were so many beautiful, fun, or even mundane things that I loved. The Haifa Carmelit. Good dark comedy. Cats everywhere. The Tel Aviv beaches. The markets. The fast train between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
The moment Avi, one of the best tour guides I’ve ever met, read out in his New York accent the last stand of the Jews from Josephus, as we stood on the spot on Masada itself.
I can also now say on good authority that 36C and 80% humidity is much worse than 44C and desert-dry. I’m already a winter person, but my god, if I ever complain about the snow in Ottawa, I’m going to remember just how sweaty Tel Aviv was.
Best of all on this trip was the food. So much amazing food and drink, and fresher than anything you’d get in Canada – I don’t think I can have hummus or falafel here anymore, there’s no competition.
And just to cap it off, this shirt is definitely on my “most hilariously out-of-pocket souvenir” list.
ISRAEL: The Knesset, Chagall, and the endless election cycle
As part of my trip, we were given a tour of the Israeli Knesset. Our group were all political nerds, so we had a blast getting into the details of the political system and the functioning of the legislature.
One of the highlights was the stunning Chagall triptych in the main hall – setting out Jewish past, future, religion, and stories. Chagall’s work pops up all around Israel, but these massive tapestries are some of the most stunning, just overwhelmingly full of small details.
The Knesset was very quiet, as both it was summer break, and there was an election on. However, there will still a few MPs around, as there is a live board that shows which ones are in the building. It seems like it would be really useful for political staffers to find their MPs, but weirdly, this live board is also viewable online. It seems like a major security loophole in a country very focused on security, though our guide explained that in this case, transparency was more important.
While this was quite rosy and straightforward, Israel’s political system is anything but. They’re currently in the middle of their fifth election in three years. Israel has one of the most extreme forms of proportional representation, which ends up with messy coalitions of many parties, with minor party leaders becoming the “kingmakers”. There’s political parties along the left-right spectrum, like in any country, but there’s also identity-based parties, including Haredi and Arab ones. Religious vs. secular and Zionist vs. non-Zionist adds an extra dimension as well.
Here’s a really good primer on the Israeli political spectrum – it’s a few years old, but touches on a lot of deeper divides, voting patterns, and political priorities.
The time between elections in Israel is often spent forming and maintaining coalitions. The previous coalition was between eight parties, including leftist, centrist, right-wing, and Arab ones, and was notable for actually passing a budget. The coalition has since fallen apart, and this election this fall is once more a question of “Yes Bibi / No Bibi” – yes or no to a return of Netanyahu and his coalitions of right-wing and Haredi parties.
Somehow, voter turnout remains high (and higher than turnout in Canada), but most Israelis I spoke with expressed frustration at the constant cycle of elections, dealmaking, and coalitions – there seems to be very little time for actual governance.