THERE are several Papua New Guineas.
The most obvious are the two different countries occupied by the educated elite and the rural-dwelling subsistence villager.
While these two different countries exist in real time, in the same place, and often merge into each other there is another Papua New Guinea, equally alive, that exists in an entirely different dimension.
This is the Papua New Guinea that exists in the minds of Australians and other expatriates who worked there prior to independence in 1975.
I first became aware of these two different countries when I went back in 1997.
Like most people I had carried memories and images around in my head for a long time. From that moment onwards, however, the otherwise real country in my head ceased to exist. It had been replaced by a country that I hadn’t seen before and didn’t really understand.
This new country into which I had inadvertently stepped had rundown old buildings covered in mould and surrounded by tall cyclone wire fences topped with razor wire.
Behind the fences men in a variety of paramilitary dress lounged with fierce looking German Shepherds, Dobermans and Rottweilers.
On the crowded and potholed streets people wandered aimlessly amongst discarded rubbish and betel nut stains dressed in nondescript uniforms of long trousers, tee-shirts and thongs or in ballooning and brightly coloured blouses over plain wrap-around skirts.
Occasionally a dark blue and battered police troop carrier would nose through the crowd with scruffy, unshaven men with dark glasses and red-stained teeth at the wheel.
The people spoke a language I had not heard before. In some ways it resembled the language of that other country but it was aberrated, attenuated and laced with lots of fractured English.
That other country was often called the land of the unexpected but this new country was ominously and often unpleasantly predictable. The land that time forgot had been rediscovered with a vengeance and visited upon by all the poxes of the modern world.
Over time I got to know this new country. I learnt the language and I made new friends and began to develop an affection for it.
The physical and social dilapidation began to fade into the background and I started to discover new wonders in this tatty nation. It slowly became a place in which I felt comfortable.
There are odd moments when I ponder the words of that master story teller, Chips Mackellar, at the end of his short story collection, Sivarai.
“I spent nearly thirty years of my life in Papua New Guinea and after I left never returned. I heeded the advice of Felix Dennis in his (poem), A Glass Half Full....
Never go back. Never go back.
Never return to the haunts of your youth.
Keep to the track, to the beaten track.
Memory holds all you need of the truth.
“I could have returned, as many other kiaps have done since they left, and some of them still work there as private contractors to various mining companies," Chips wrote.
"But Papua New Guinea is not like it used to be and I prefer to remember it the way it was when I was there.”
Chips might have been right. You can’t buy airline tickets to that other country anymore and the lazy old steamers no longer call into its shining ports.
The sun doesn’t set on those fertile valleys, dense rainforests and wide sweeping beaches anymore and those happy people in their grass skirts and glistening skin now sleep somewhere else.
The smell of soft rain on rustling kunai and wood smoke drifting in the wind has dissipated.
It is a country that is slowly being forgotten. It is a land that has journeyed into sleep, never to be re-awakened.