If I only had one phrase to describe my experience in Port Moresby it would be “hanging on for the ride.” Each day, Andrew and our new friends have some place or another we are traveling, and I am just waiting for my very own carjacking experience. Would a trip to Port Moresby be complete without? Thankfully, It never happens.
One evening, we are sipping beers at the yacht club patio and a native Papuan greets us with a smile. He pulls up a chair upon our invitation and orders a beer; he quickly becomes a friend.
“So, what is your perspective of Port Moresby?” Andrew asks.
Our PNG Pal confirms there are safety difficulties, even in his neighborhood. “A couple mornings ago, I woke to the sound of a girl screaming in my village. She was kidnapped.” He says, somberly. “It’s not my village. It’s people from outside who come to hurt us.” Our PNG Pal takes us through his perspective of the political situation and the Australian business influence driving so many economic factors. The election was not too long ago, and he described his worries leading up to the election about possible violence if the election went one way or the other.
“What do you think can be done to fix it?” We ask.
He shakes his head and says, “There are just so many people to feed.”
This is something we have heard repeatedly. Poor Bill Gates is the scapegoat for so many problems in the international community and PNG is no exception. We are told his foundation provided mosquito nets with chemicals in them that kill a mosquito that lands on it. These nets have all but eradicated deaths from malaria here. What could be bad about eradicating malaria deaths? Then the population of PNG exploded. Children are no longer dying, but everyone continues to have large families. The fertility rate is 4 children in the urban areas and five children per woman in the rural areas. UN census data indicates women would prefer on average to have only 2-3 children rather than the 4-5+, but contraceptive knowledge and availability is quite low. With all these extra mouths to feed, traditional subsistence farming/fishing cannot provide. People move into cities to find work, and when that doesn’t pan out, some bad-eggs turn to theft. The money and jobs with good wages that should be flowing into this country as a result of its huge mineral wealth and many successful business ventures does not seem to benefit the native population as well as it should. Education is expensive and not widely available, so Australians and New Zealanders travel to PNG to fill the skilled labor jobs. They fill up houses paid for by the corporations and the rates of rent skyrocket. The wealth doesn't seem to "trickle down" as it supposedly should.
Trying to turn the chat in a more cheerful direction, we discuss the sports everyone likes to play here. Soccer (“footie”), beach volleyball, and rugby seem popular. “There are two olympic gold medalists living in my village!” He says, “both women, olympic weight lifters.”
After chatting several nights in a row, he lets us know that if we need someone to keep us company in town, he would be happy to join us on our treks. Andrew thinks this is a golden opportunity. “Will you take us to your village? Is it safe enough?”
“Sure. You just don’t want to go wandering around there alone at night after everyone has been drinking home brew.” We saunter out of the guard gates matching PNG Pal's casual pace. We head left, around the roundabout with the weightlifter in the center.
As we near the settlement, the car traffic thins out and is replaced by open air, smoke billowing busses. Papuans lean out the open windows, dangling their arms down the side of the bus. Graffiti marks the sheet metal fences, razor wire, spikes, buses sputter by. The people gathered on the edges of the roads watch us and titter in their local language about the strange people entering their world. I wave and smile, “hello!” I chime, it’s my scary-people-litmus-test. Are we welcome here? As soon as I break the ice, the whole group breaks out in big smiles, they start waving, too. Some want to shake my hand.
Our PNG Pal and Andrew take the front and I follow from behind. Every now and then, PNG Pal turns to me and asks “Are you getting tired?” He is kind. I think he is giving me an easy out if I start to become afraid. So far, though, I am not afraid.
The neighborhood is crowded with people living life. Ladies sit on woven mats, selling betel nuts and candy. They gather their daughters, friends, cousins, sisters with them, all sitting and talking in a nice patch of shade. Some women walk along the sidewalk, carrying heavy bags laden with mangos slung with straps across their head. Men drink their grog from plastic water bottles, playing an old guitar in a circle. Kids climb on the frames of old vehicles. People are gathered everywhere, seeming to enjoy each other’s company.
The houses are built from the rubble. If the homeowner is lucky, their house is built of a mishmash of plyboard, sheet metal, stones, blocks, tarpaulin, canvas, cardboard, old fabric. If unlucky, the walls are made of smaller dribs and drabs of anything that can be found. Their use for what I think of as garbage knows no bounds. The houses are mixed together without a sense of roads or rows. Some of the houses are built on land, but when they ran out of space to build on land, they drove logs into reef mud and started building houses over the water.
Soon, we come upon a group of people standing in the road, a few armored vehicles, and uniformed officers carrying assault rifles. Jake points and explains. There is a dispute going on between the people who have lived on that land for decades and, apparently, someone who allegedly purchased the land. The "owners" wish to evict the villagers, but the villagers do not know who these owners are, how they bought the land, how the title is drawn, or if it has ever been drawn. The eviction is attracting a quiet crowd of frustrated people.
“I don’t think there will be trouble,” PNG Pal says, pointing at one man in the crowd and explaining he is a politician that represents the neighborhood. We keep walking. We pass a guardrail that has two bouquets of faded silk flowers and ribbons tied in a bundle.
“This is why the police bring armored cars and rifles if they have to come to our neighborhood.” Years ago, two boys were causing trouble like boys tend to do. The police came and the boys started to run away. The police shot them both and they fell, one there and one there,” Jake indicates where the bouquets are tied. “Everyone in the neighborhood came out. All the fuel for the city comes by truck through our neighborhood; we stopped everything. They couldn’t get their fuel where they needed it to go and the whole city came to a standstill.” I look around and I have no doubt about this story. I picture the collection of humans around me, heartbroken from the loss, forming a mob.
We turn left and venture down a road with a makeshift stage. A politician shouting an inspirational campaign directs those in the neighborhood to welcome the military and “give thanks to Jesus” for their aid. Large military trucks are filled with household items, guarded by military and waiting to be delivered.
PNG Pal explains. “Last week, a fire started. It spread, and burned down nineteen houses. Lucky for us it was at 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon. If it happened at night, somebody might have died.”
He points to another corner, where the living quarters could only be described as a makeshift tent. “They have to live there, now, until we can rebuild their houses.”
This turns my thoughts to new housing development we ventured to with The Imperialist. Row after row of freshly built houses, on stilts, fabricated out of sheet metal light enough for a man to lift up two rows of scaffolding and screw into place. A Chinese development, they are providing modular houses with two-bedrooms, two bathrooms, a small kitchenette, and a living room. The cheapest of these houses are selling for approximately $285,000 US. Given that a small apartment goes for $4,000US, home ownership for $285,000 seems more “affordable,” but who among these people have a job that can support such a purchase? Are loans available? The number of people crammed into this settlement cannot possibly have the financial means to enter even the $285,000 home ownership market. It’s a problem so vast, yet tucked into such a tiny corner of the world we have sailed, it seems beyond my own comprehension.
I ask our PNG Pal if we can meet the gold medalists, but he says he has no idea where they might be today. Rats. We head back toward the yacht club. We are waylaid by a man who stops our group to introduce himself and shake my hand in one of those awkward, longer-than-I-intend handshakes. “Okay! Nice to meet you!” I tell him, pulling away as Andrew and PNG Pal both lean toward our further destination. “Okay! See you later,” Handshake says. “See you later!” I say, knowing that I probably won’t see him later.
We stop in a different grocery store than usual to take survey of their stock find cold beer and chocolate bars. We taste test some fruity wine coolers, as they were on sample. I sip from my little paper cup, then look to my right. The man standing to my left looks at me, expectantly. “Handshake!” I say. He smiles, so happy that I recognize him and remember his name. We laugh. “I said I would ‘see you later!’” I exclaim, and he holds up a closed fist in my direction, and I reciprocate: knuckles.
Back at Sonrisa, PNG Pal pulls up a chair. We relax and sip on the little pack of wine coolers we bought after our taste test. We go through our playlist of PNG Pal's favorite music: Credence Clearwater Revival, John Fogarty, and the Eagles. Somehow the topic of Andrew’s unplayed guitar comes up and PNG Pal plays us a few songs he knows. Quite a talented musician!
As you know, I’ve been feeling a bit down about our turn Northwest away from the South Pacific. Papua New Guinea is a location that embodies the full complexity of my emotion. I am in love with Papua New Guinea in the same way I have loved all our destinations. With just ten days here, mostly spent tucked away in the Yacht Club, we made wonderful PNG friends. A quick google images search shows Papua New Guinea is filled with unbelievably beautiful wildlife and culture. We have heard it has some of the world’s best scuba diving and surfing on the North side, but our friends on another sailboat woke at 5 a.m. to a group of frightening and intoxicated men boarding their sailboat in that area. We are missing most of its beauty, largely due to the safety factors that scare us away. The fact is, these people are struggling with real issues and the natural environment is impacted by the increased density of economic activity and human population. Life is so much more complex than pleasant tourism. I am trying to be brave enough to witness it as it comes, yet smart enough not to get myself killed.