Papua New Guinea

Posted on June 27, 2017

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Marauding cannibals, city car-jackings, tribal warfare and gender violence. Papua New Guinea (PNG) does not have a great reputation as far as the rest of the world is concerned. But it’s a country I’ve long had a fascination with and I’m finally here, if only for a week. 

PNG is four hours from Fiji. It’s still in the South Pacific but the contrast in its people’s morphology is huge. They are smaller in build and height than the Fijians. Their features are definitely more African than Polynesian. Skin tone ranges from vanilla to the darkest cacao, almost blue/black in some cases and iridescent. Pretty much everyone’s teeth and mouths are stained blood-red from the constant chewing of Betel nut. They look a bit like flesh eating zombies as they shuffle around looking dazed and confused. 

Betel nut is found on every street corner despite the government trying to ban its sale. It costs around forty pence a fruit and is consumed in vast quantities. The pavements all around Port Moresby are stained like a Jackson Pollock painting. People spit from buses, taxis and while moving on foot. Like Yaqonq (Kava) in Fiji it is part of the bedrock of Papuan society. When chewed with lime powder and mustard seeds, the mixture has a chemical reaction and acts like a stimulant. It suppresses hunger and heightens awareness. Most of the poor from what i’ve seen are as high as a kite. 

Before arriving in the capital I was warned don’t walk anywhere it’s not safe. The paranoia over fear of muggings, stabbings or murder is excessive. Only those too poor to afford the bus, walk. Everywhere is gated and barbed wire decorates most perimeters. The more expensive properties have armed guards, like in South Africa. But I’ve found it’s no more edgy than some rural parts of Africa. If you’re used to travelling in poverty stricken countries then you can handle PNG.

Port Moresby is an industrial wasteland. It’s ugly, dirty and the districts are spaced far apart. It makes Jakarta look like Santa Barbara. 

The heat here is stifling and sticky. On the roads all the beat up cars as well as plush trucks have blacked out windows. No one stops. There doesn’t appear to be a speed limit. The traffic hurtles down the newly built two lanes flanked by barren hillsides. Scorched to a crisp by the blazing sun. You risk playing chicken everytime you cross the highway.

Flying over the city it’s clear where the extractive industries operate. Identical non descript flat-pack housing built in compounds are scattered about. The marina plays host to the Royal Yatch Club and it’s the only place you will see a smattering of white faces. 

It’s the first week of the elections in Port Moresby and most of the wealthy ex pat families who live here have vacated the city. Rumours there might be trouble and possible rioting have caused the exodus. I’ve seen no sign of trouble so far. The large barren fields or balding football pitches have become makeshift polling stations. Cardboard boxes everywhere. Groups of skinny locals standing lopsided, arms folded, chewing incessantly waiting for their turn to cast the vote. 

When I arrived at my digs on Monday I found there was only one other guest. Port Moresby is not a tourist hot spot. It takes a certain type of character to travel here. My new acquaintance was a 48 year old Dane. Tall and fairly muscular with shaved hair. He could have passed for military. He isn’t. He works for Price Waterhouse Cooper and lives in Manila. 

Over the last three days he said he’d pounded the streets and found the locals to be friendly and curious. 

“Yeah but you’re a man. And let’s face it, you look like you can handle yourself. The reaction you get from people will be very different to mine if I walk alone.” I replied. “But I do wanna get out. I need to have a look at the neighbourhood and see what’s what.” 

There’s not a lot to do here unless you get out of the city and into the national park a good hour’s drive away. So for something close by I wanted to check out the city’s museum and the parliament and possibly the nature park with its exotic indigenous animals. 

The Dane asked to tag along. So we got a ride, first stop the Museum of National Art. The artefacts were incredible but there were no other western faces to be seen. In fact we were the only people inside. I wanted to take photos but was told not to. Next door was Parliament House which was closed. 

“You wanna walk back?” asked the Dane cautiously.“Yeah actually, lets see,” I agreed. I thought at any point if I was feeling uncomfortable I’d hail a taxi. We talked about politics and shared what had brought us to this side of the world and bonded. 

I was really grateful to have company that afforded me the opportunity to engage with locals first hand. I wore shapeless, unremarkable clothes and had no valuables on me. Enough money for a cab or to bribe a would-be mugger. But it never came to that. 

I borrowed the Dane’s phone and asked people if I could take their photos. No one refused or asked for cash. We walked past groups of homeless, young lads playing football and women selling junk. Everyone said hello and smiled showing their crimson teeth. People genuinely looked surprised to see us on foot. They wanted to engage. We walked a solid 8km back with no hassle and no drama. 

The Dane left this morning and today I went by taxi to the nature park. The distance was too far to go on foot. I saw a Cuscus – a marsupial – that looks like a primate crossed with a bear. I lost count of the number of vivid coloured parrots I saw. The racket coming from the aviary was thanks to a Papuan Hornbill who was competing with a group of Southern Crowned Pigeons. It made me smile and brought back memories of Uganda.

Another cab ride took me to the marina where the city literally looks like a different country. There’s no rubbish, the yatchs are huge and you can smell the money. Everything is shiny and new. Not dusty and grubby and peppered with rubbish. 

Next door is a small shopping mall with security everywhere called Harbour City. Alcohol and cigarettes are sold alongside gold and silver. You have to go through three sets of doors and be frisked before you’re granted entry. It’s a strange place Port Moresby and a day and a half here is enough. 

Tomorrow I fly on a small plane to Kimbe in West New Britain Province. I’ve found a remote plantation to stay at where the scuba diving is meant to be world class and an active volcano I’m dying to hike.

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