Paradise Prison

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Prony, New Caledonia – March 2005

The locals of New Caledonia often refer to their island as “the island closest to paradise”. I find it ironic that many of the people who use this phrase, those who call themselves Caldoches, are descendants of people brought here by force. Exiled to a faraway land to serve out their debt to society. One of my friends, a Caldoche, once told me that she grew up believing that her ancestors were sent here for stealing a piece of bread. Boatloads of Jean Valjeans victimized by the unjust French system. For that is what the elders say. As an adult, she was disappointed to learn that, in fact, the worst criminals were sent here. Murderers, rapists, political agitators from the Paris Commune. Women criminals were sent here as incentive for the men to settle the territory after they were freed. These women were convicted of infanticide, prostitution, or other crimes. Over the generations they intermarried with each others’ offspring. The attachment to this far flung archipelago grew fiercer with each generation. What was once a prison became a paradise.

One individual’s paradise is another individual’s prison.

Here, where the rust-colored dirt road meets the sea, we have come upon the deserted village of Prony. This excursion is a temporary balm for my hysteria. Please, let’s just drive somewhere. Anywhere new, I asked my husband, who understands my disposition. Since I’ve lived on this island, I’ve rationed those precious few lines on the map. Much of the island is inaccessible by road. It’s going on six years now. The supply has dwindled to dregs.

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New Caledonia was supposed to be my escape from the tedium of nine to five and one-hour commutes on packed freeways. From a hamster wheel existence without end. I stopped spinning all right. However, isolation and inertia has not stilled my turbulent mind. I never knew how much of my identity was based upon that action and noise. On this distant rock, time is sluggish, elongated. I feel as if I am lying flat on my back, a boot pressed firmly on my sternum.

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We walk around the tiny village. We are alone, except for the meaty, fist-sized spiders that dangle from the trees like ominous fruit. Their massive webs undulate in the soft breeze. Most of the structures have been totally shackled by banyan roots. A prison imprisoned.

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I stand at the edge of the earth. This sand under my feet is the color of corrosion. Some of those long ago convicts managed to escape. Those who had no writing instruments used charts scrawled in blood.

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Where is She Now?

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A fleeting exchange of glances, a momentary affinity, is often more enduring and profound than long conversations. I’ve reached the point where it’s impossible to remember all of the faces and names of the individuals that I’ve encountered on my travels. Even the most vivid slip to the back of my memory until rekindled, usually by something external and random. Photographs, journal entries, information that flashes across my computer screen.

Back in September of 1995, almost nineteen years ago now, I was walking through a crowded market in Wewak, Papua New Guinea. My traveling companion and I were gathering provisions for our journey to the Upper Sepik. Out of the corner of my eye, I sensed movement. I turned to look. A little girl was waving at me from the back of an empty PMV. Her smile had a glow of untainted happiness. I was hot and tired and frazzled. My legs moved towards her on instinct. A tall, elegant woman stood beside the vehicle. She had that same look of innocence, though hers was a little sad.

During my short time in PNG, I had learned that bad things befall most women in PNG. I had witnessed women being beaten by men, some of them police. My traveling companion and I were too afraid for ourselves to be shocked by it. Over ninety percent of women in PNG experience gender-based violence. Somehow this lovely woman had managed to keep her gentle spirit. I looked at her, then at her daughter, and pointed at my camera. She bowed her head in a nod and said something to the girl. The smile vanished as the girl leaned her head against a post. I took the photo and lowered my camera. Somehow I had killed the magic.

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Before I visited PNG, I had never seen such listless resignation. On our way back from the Highlands to the coast, I stopped to pick up a party of three that was walking in the heavy rain – two men and a woman. The men promptly got in the front of the truck, while the woman climbed in the back. She didn’t bother to huddle under her shawl. All light was extinguished from her eyes. My friend and I exchanged a look. I felt my face flush.

“There’s room for her in here,” I said.

The older man shook his head. “She belongs back there.”

I gripped the wheel and bit my tongue. I was in their country, not mine. I had to accept it.

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About a year ago, I came across an article about sorcery killings in PNG. If someone in a tribe dies, it isn’t the fault of an accident or a tiny germ. It’s the fault of a witch, sometimes a man, but usually a women. The family seeks out the culprit, someone on the perimeter of the tribe. A widow or some other woman who has no husband or sons to protect her. Easy targets. Such killings have been around since forever, but what’s new is the sadistic glee with which they are carried out. In the past the witches were simply killed and that was the end of it. Nowadays, it seems that such killings have become brutal spectacles that are watched by everyone, including children.

Things are supposed to get better with time, education, and technology. Here, in the First World, I’m not sure that the trend is going in a positive direction, either.

The Highlands of PNG are the epicenter of the atrocities, but the trend is creeping across the landscape into other regions. When I arrived in the Upper Sepik region, I felt I could relax a little. The people were gentler, calmer. The women still did all of the chores, but there was no threat hanging in the air. The woman in the photo above was washing sago palm, the main part of their diet. I can still hear the rasp of the hollowed out coconut as she brushed it against the hollowed out tree. Back and forth over and over again. It was too much effort for her to raise her head to look at us, the rare strangers.

During our walk through the jungle to search for birds of paradise, a woman emerged from the thick foliage. A feral, intelligent light shone in her eyes. This was a place of death adder vipers and trapdoor spiders with fangs that are long and strong enough to penetrate hiking boots, yet she wore only rags on her feet. When the guide asked her if I could take her photo, she pulled herself as upright as she could with the heavy billum on her head and smiled.

After she passed, the guide told us, “She’s more than thirty years old!” He shook his head in admiration.

In 1995, the missionary presence was strong in that area. But I fear for her now. Is she still moving through the jungle, silent and purposeful? A respected presence on the periphery of her tribe.

And what about the little girl? She would be in her twenties now. Did she somehow manage to get out of there on a scholarship or other opportunity? Did she marry a gentle man? For they do exist, their voices as yet unheard behind the roar.

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What I Was Doing in Guam

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When I tell people that I used to live in Guam, the usual reaction is, Guam? What were you doing in Guam? I tailor my replies based on the person asking the question. If there’s a risk of my husband or family being hurt or embarassed, I say, Oh, I worked in a bar. If the risk is only that the person may sneer or refuse to associate with me, I say, I was an exotic dancer. A stripper. Both statements are true. One is simply more precise than the other.

Guam. Oh, Guam. Haunted vortex of contradictions. I spent six months there in 1995. Six nights a week, I danced in seven inch platform heels. Vikings Tavern was on Tumon Bay, where most of the luxury hotels are located. At the time, it was considered the cleanest club on the island. If guys were looking to paw the dancers, they best go elsewhere.

The Japanese tourists, who often were accompanied by their wives, treated us like movie stars. The American military men treated us like sisters. It was easy to forget that I was naked, because they didn’t seem to notice. The club was tiny; the number of dancers hovered at around seven. Those of us on short term contracts lived in dancer housing. The other ladies, most of whom were married or in a relationship, had their own places. We had no choice but to get along, because the island was too small to escape from each other.

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During the day, the other dancers were active. They’d go shopping or snorkeling or just lie on the beach. I was invited to do these things, but I usually prefered to lie in bed with the curtains drawn, too exhausted to be envious of their energy. In my six months on the island, I managed to make it to Two Lover’s Point, Jeff’s Pirate’s Cove, and to an eerie, hidden water hole that was known only to the locals.

Women sometimes become strippers to feed an addiction – to drugs, alcohol, sex, attention, etc. Looking back, I see that I was no different. My addiction was travel. Escape. But I couldn’t even hide from myself in Guam.

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In 1998, I went back to Guam for six weeks. I’d been working as a travel agent for a couple of years, so I knew that I was capable of having a respectable job. My friends talked me into one last quick fling on the stage. Besides, my new job had fallen through and I needed the money.

Vikings Tavern was different. Breezy Ryder, the dancer whom I was closest to, had died of an overdose. Two of the ladies I worked with were still there, but the others were new. Guam was different. Tahiti Rama and Wet Willie’s beach bars were slated for demolition, making way for high rise hotels. I was different. Two days after my arrival, I met the man who was to become my husband. Though I didn’t know it yet. After he went home, we communicated via staticky phone calls. Alone or with other dancers, I spent the days exploring the places I missed the first time: Ritidian Point, Piti Bomb Holes, War in the Pacific National Park, the Umatic fiesta. One day, all of us met up for a stripper field trip to Talofofo Falls. We promised ourselves that we’d make these outings a regular occurence, but it never came to pass. I left Guam shortly thereafter.

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**A short passage about Guam is in my memoir, but I thought I’d post a short excerpt from my novel, Blue, which was published by a Canadian small press in 2006. The novel is about the world of exotic dancing and some of it takes place in Guam. It’s not autobiographical, but some of the characters are based on the colorful people I met. This is a relatively tame excerpt, but it’s best avoided by those who are offended by adult language and situations.**

As I stepped off the plane, bleary-eyed from jet lag, the humid air hit me like the hot breath from a giant beast. It had a ripe, organic, and not altogether unpleasant odor. It smelled like foliage in a state of constant decay.

“Who are you?” said Annie, the manager of Castaways, when I called the club. “What do you want?”

I could have been concerned about this, but since they’d already paid for my ticket, I figured they’d have to give me a job.

I passed through the sliding opaque doors. A man emerged from the crowd. He lifted his chin at me, “You Blue?”

I nodded.

“The car is this way.”

I followed him outside the terminal. The dense air clung to my clothes and body, adding to the dinginess I had already acquired from the twenty-hour journey.

“We gotta go to the club and get the key for the condo,” Horace said. He had bulging eyes and a twitchy smile. I would soon learn that they were the result of an ice habit. At least the place had bouncers, I reminded myself. Not like the Pink Palace, where the girls had to fend for themselves.

Metallica bounced out of the doors into the nearly empty parking lot. The beach was across the street.

“It don’t get pumpin’ until about eleven on weeknights,” Horace informed me.

I reached for my suitcases.

He said, “Leave them. We’ll only be a few minutes.”

I looked at the entrance of the club. The doorway was partially hidden by fake foliage: palm trees and hibiscus flowers. As we approached the door I saw the flowers had faded from red to a coral peach color and were covered with mold. The plastic coconuts on the palm trees had graffiti written on them like, Maria’s hooters or My balls after looking at Maria’s hooters. The Castaways sign hung over the door by one hinge. But I figured it was meant to be that way.

There were two fish tanks inside the club. In the brochure they were brightly lit and filled with jewel-colored fish. Times had changed. The one behind the bar was dark and empty except for boxes of straws and stir sticks. The one that formed the wall between the entryway and the club was inhabited by one enormous, sickly orange-colored carp that barely had enough room to turn around as he made lazy laps back and forth in his murky home. He was the sole survivor of what were once the pretty little fish.

Everything had lost its color. The candy-colored walls were mere pastel shadows. The neon palm trees gracing the sides of the stage glowed inconsistently so one’s imagination was needed to see that they were, in fact, palm trees and not abstract designs there just for the hell of it. The neon tubing around the base of the stage was still intact, as was the shower that was set into the wall above the left side. At the bottom of the stage, in the middle of the bar, was a giant glass pole. Bubbles frothed inside, and the color changed hue every few seconds. To the right of the stage was the red curtain hiding the dressing room.

A tall brunette whipped the curtain aside and screamed, “Put me up will ya, goddammit, Annie!”

A gaunt redhead with breasts like overripe watermelons stood behind the bar. She squinted behind her glasses and dug through a box of tapes. She put in a tape that moaned with the strain of countless plays.

The dancer, who appeared to be of South American, pranced onto the stage, throwing her arms into the air as if to say, I’m here, worship me!

The guys jumped as if startled. The girl was stunning: perfect natural body and a smile so bright it hurt to look at it. She exuded hot Latin sexuality and she knew it. She tossed her wild brown curls back and forth and growled at the audience. She slapped her ass and hissed, “Oh yeah. Do it to me hard, baby.”

A guy near the stage laughed and gave her a little tap. “Harder, harder!” she yelled, bouncing up and down on her heels. Please, please, please.

He shrugged and laid a good one on her and she screamed, “Oh yeah!”

For her second song she stripped and got into the shower. She squeezed shampoo between her breasts. It curved like a fluorescent river down the length of her body. At the right moment she tilted her pelvis up so that it slithered between her legs. The guys cheered as she lathered up, massaging herself everywhere.

I felt myself getting hot and turned away, embarrassed.

She sauntered out of the shower with a towel wrapped around her head. She threw another towel down on the stage; she twisted down to the guys, mopping up the excess water. Her jubilant tits bounced up and down like those dots at the bottom of a karaoke video.

A dainty black girl at the bar said, “So what do you think?”

“I just want to go home,” I said and yawned.

“That bad, huh?”

“Oh no! I mean, I’m exhausted from the flight. I just want to get some sleep. The place is fine. Not posh, but it’ll do.” Compared to the Pink Palace, it was heaven.

She nodded and turned to her drink. She didn’t introduce herself.

“I’m Blue,” I volunteered. “What’s up with the fish?”

“Oh, that’s Otis. Our mascot. I’m Tina, but my stage name is Brandy. Blue’s not your real name, is it?”

“Actually it is. I don’t use a stage name because of it.”

“You wouldn’t have to,” she snorted. “These losers would never believe it’s your real name.” Her smile seemed a bit sad, as if she tried to psych herself up for the long night ahead. Finishing her drink in one gulp, she pushed back from the bar. “Time to get all dolled up. Welcome to Guam.”

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I’ve received hundreds of emails regarding this post. It seems to attract people who feel entitled to something – a free ebook, my time and energy, etc – but who are incapable of saying “please” or “thank you”.  I am not here to promote your stripper memoir, help you track down the stripper that you’re obsessed with, do research on clubs for you, and so on. All emails regarding this post will no longer be responded to.