Port Moresby, PNG has a bad reputation amongst sailors. It is known as a place where you get robbed. The reviews online describe the danger and recommends that if you must stop in here, you should go directly to the “safe haven” of the Royal Papua Yacht Club and stay sequestered within the walls with electric fences guarded by twenty-nine security guards, twenty-four hours per day. Then, you should just get out of there as soon as possible. We read that the customs and immigration authorities are known to be harsh and unpleasant. We have heard the people described as “angels in the daylight and devils in the dark, make sure you are back somewhere safe by sundown”. This is the mindset with which we landed in PNG. We motored straight to the yacht club, Sonrisa wary of the little fishing boats passing by for fear of being robbed.
Immigration arrived on Sonrisa’s deck just an hour after we radioed our arrival. Customs Agent Andrew stepped aboard, shook my hand and laughed to learn my name is Andrew, also. Checking in proceeds flawlessly. Several Yacht Club employees help us into our slip, in the middle of B dock, and of course we head straight to the bar to enjoy our first post-passage brew. There, we meet a long term expat Australian who owns a shop that carries various yacht parts. We ask him if it really is as bad as everyone says; in response, he explains you will be carjacked every year on average. The “Highlanders” set up roadblocks, invite you out of your vehicle, ask you to remove your clothing (because they need that, too), then let you go. "Get it, I'll take you for a ride around town."
We stuck to the yacht club. Even then, within twenty-four hours I had my shoes stolen off the deck of my boat. (Yes! I was wearing shoes, but only because the yacht club requires shoes. You can imagine my disappointment when the first time I wore my shoes in 9 months, they get stolen.) Eventually, though, we ran out of fresh food and had no choice but to venture to the grocery store, one block away. We consider our strategy then remove the cards out of our wallets, carry no camera or phone, and just took the cash we needed to buy groceries. This way, if we were robbed we could hand the money over and not be much worse for wear.
As we exit the gates, our feet plod along a street covered in bright red splatters and stains. Every establishment in town is fenced in, topped with spikes and razor wire – even the boy scout meeting house and the churches. People loiter about, walking, sitting, standing, everywhere. These people chew, chew, chew, then spit, spewing a red concoction on the floor or against the fence. Their lips, mouths, and teeth are stained this deep red, as though their mouths are filled with blood. The scene looks scary to eyes calibrated to American Suburbia.
To our surprise, the people filling this frightening scene greet us with smiling faces and “hello” person after person. We get into the gated compound that is the grocery store. We do our shopping in a store that looks like any grocery store in the US, and I acquire new shoes to replace my stolen pair. We gather some of the world’s most delicious coffee, tea, and chocolate, made locally in the high mountains of Papua New Guinea. We head back through the parking lot laden with food and no money; we wave to the no less than fifty security guards keeping watch.
We meet a street vendorselling betel nuts and I stop to give this “cultural experience” a try. Betel nut comes from a palm tree and is a stimulant similar to coffee. It is the substance responsible for the local’s red mouths and the Jackson Pollock painting beneath our feet. I tell Barbara I had never tried this before; she laughed and explained how to do it. First, you use your teeth to bite the covering off the nut, pop the nut into your mouth and begin to chew it up. Next, you dip the stick of mustard seed (mustard seed for flavor!) into a bag of calcium oxide commonly known as lime. Here, the lime is made of crushed up coral heated to over 950 C. Then, you add the mustard stick and lime powder to the mushed up nut already in your mouth. You are supposed to chew this mash for up to thirty minutes to maximize the light buzz and appetite suppression the nut is supposed to provide.
By now, I have gathered a viewing party of a dozen locals (it is easy to gather a crowd here) watching this strange foreigner try betel nut. They are all talking and laughing at once, trying to tell me what to do next. I dip my mustard stick and poke it in my mouth. The flavor is bitter and terrible. I almost gag and spit everything out, but I don’t, knowing I will just have to start over. I can’t go without the full betel nut experience. So, I chew, chew, chew; and I am rewarded with cheering. Suddenly, as the betel nut started to kick in, I experience a nearly overwhelming rush. Now, I am under the influence of some unknown drug, and walking “dangerous streets,” my mouth filled with bitter brew, surrounded by a dozen of the “4th most dangerous” people in the world. And, they are all paying attention to me. I wanted to run! I said thank you to nice Betel-Nut-Brenda, and Leslie and I carry on with our fresh vegetables to the safety of the yacht club.
That evening, we are introduced to the truly most terrifying part of PNG: Australians. I am sitting in Sonrisa’s cockpit, when an almost-octogenarian clad in “business casual” marches down Sonrisa’s dock slip and introduces himself as The Imperialist. Would we like to join him for “wine and nibbles” at 6:30 p.m.? We agree and set about finding a bottle of wine to share. We walk a few boat slips away and knock on the hull of his boat. He shows us in, now donning a fresh jersey cotton t-shirt and long, vertically striped pajama trousers. He motions to a spread of cheese, crackers, olives and a decanter of wine. “Would you like wine or tea? PNG has the best tea in the world. The Dowager Countess will be joining us shortly.” Brahams plays in the background; four glasses of wine are already poured into crystal goblets.
Once “The Dowager Countess” arrives, she takes up her own glass of wine and kisses The Imperialist on the head on the way to her seat. We balance small plates of cheese and olives on our laps. The Imperialist explains he came to Papua New Guinea in 1958, relocating from Australia. “I was sent to ‘carry the white man’s burden’* to bring society to the ‘savages’.” He explains. As far as I can tell, I think this is said tongue in cheek, but neither Leslie nor I could ever be sure. Our conversation wanders through sailing, PNG history, politics, the Dowager Countess's social plans for the week, and religion. “I consider myself more of an existentialist.” The Imperialist declares, inquiring as to our “presumably Christian upbringing.” We are interrupted by the arrival of his “overprivileged great grandson.” Though the Imperialist never married (“women are superfluous”) he adopted a great many children, grandchildren and great-grand children – all PNG Natives. "Ralphie is spoiled rotten.” The Imperialist insists, Ralphie taking a seat on the stairs to the top deck nearby.
The Imperialist is one of those original explorers, sent to set up a western society in a land of people who would rather shoot him with a bow and arrow. Between these efforts, he would take three months at a time to go sailing in his own sailing yacht, along with his right hand man and PNG Native. “Women do not belong on sailboats.” The Imperialist states with authority, looking straight at Leslie.
At this, the Dowager Countess declares the Imperialist to be ridiculous and the conversation turns to her own long history in PNG. She, too, arrived in PNG in the early 60s as a single woman, assigned to be a teacher to the native populations.
At the close of the night, The Imperialist invites us to join him the next morning. We will go visit “the office,” and then the Right Hand Man can drive us to the fruit and vegetable market. We accept, and we are instructed to join him at 8:00 a.m. sharp. Work hours!
We rise early and make our way to our collection point. There, The Right Hand Man has made a pot of tea and we enjoy cup before we depart. It’s a peaceful morning as we climb into the Ford crew cab truck, the Imperialist taking the wheel. The key turns over, a Mozart minuet blooms from the speakers. Then, the Imperialist spins his wheels through the gravel collecting atop the paved parking lot and speeds away. He waves as the guards lift the gate just in time for us to duck beneath. The Imperialist uses every lane (including those oncoming) and the sidewalk like it's his God-given right. When stymied by traffic, he heaves the wheel hard to the right and climbs over the sharp median, wondering why in the hell all these people are in his way. The most terrifying part of this country to date has easily been riding with him in his truck.
“The worst part of PNG are the overabundance of Australians and Kiwis,” He declares as we cut from a side street across three lanes to the sound of car horns. “They would never venture out to this neighborhood. Too afraid. They come here for two weeks at a time, lock themselves in the marina and get fat at the bar.”
“Is the danger overstated?” Leslie asks.
“Listen, of course you are going to get car jacked from time to time. For a while, there were a group of boys who would hang out under this under pass. Dumb Australian women drive up. When they stop in traffic, the boys would start making obscene gestures. What do the women do?” The Imperialist imitates them throwing their hands off their steering wheel and crying with horror. “They don’t lock their car doors! The boys open the door and invite the ladies out. What do they expect?” Brian shakes his head. “Just lock your car door and keep driving! The kids don’t have guns or anything for God’s sake.”
We squeal to a stop at the exit near his office. “We’re the ‘fourth most dangerous city in the world’” He quips, the exaggeration twisting his lips, “Hardly. The Australians just want better hazard pay.”
The Imperialist is an extremely gracious host. He takes us on a tour of his real estate sales office, holding court with his employees and confirming the status of all ongoing tasks. We enjoy another cup of tea, and he shows us a series of photographs from his sailing trips. We peruse properties for sale. The property here is outrageously priced – a small, basic apartment in a guarded complex drawing $4,000 US per month. The Imperialist shrugs, “the Australian mining companies pay for housing.”
Then, he hands us over to his Right Hand Man to take us shopping at the fruit and vegetable market and to the cleanest fish market I have had the pleasure of exploring – anywhere in the world, including the US. Everyone is excited to see us - or at least Leslie - and they all want their pictures taken.
The Right Hand Man takes us back to the marina, and with our new found stash of veggies and fruit we make stuffed peppers. When the Imperialist stops by after work, we offer to share. Soon, The Imperialist, Leslie and I are seated at the kitchen table with tea, wine, a delicious chicken and vegetable stew in coconut milk made by the Right Hand Man's wife, and our stuffed peppers. I can’t remember how we get there, but at the end of a story about one of The Imperialist's friends who died, he declares “I don’t go to funerals. The dead cadaver isn’t my friend. My friend is gone.” He looks straight at Leslie, “I’d rather remember you here with your big, bouncing tits.” Leslie’s mouth drops open, I stifle a laugh.
“What! Imperialist!” Leslie responds.
“Yes! That’s it. I want to remember you with….” And he repeats himself in all seriousness. “Anyway, I have a real treat for you tonight,” He says. “You can watch a movie that will show you exactly what this place was like when I arrived.”
He seats us in front of the TV with his adopted family. Once the film is running (“A Walk into Paradise”), The Imperialist excuses himself to round out his work day, completing his responses to emails. 8 full decades and the man is still hustling. I can’t imagine that he needs the money; I think he just likes the challenge.
The Imperialist invites us out again the next day to lunch with a lawyer (“you want to meet one of your own kind, don’t you?” he asked Leslie) and to tour a new neighborhood being built by the airport. More adventures! So, we accept.
We visit an Asian Fusion restaurant. Then, the Imperialist drives us through the neighborhood he declares to be the most feared in town, “You would never find an Australian driving through here.” He says, as the former Australian drives us through. We arrive at the neighborhood being constructed for sale. He parks his truck in a reserved space in front of the sales office. Three guards swarm the truck to inform the Imperialist that the space is reserved for someone important. He waves them away, “I’ll only be here a minute.” He makes a call, summoning someone from within the building to join us. The person on the other end of the line is not ready. He waits for forty-five seconds, and the guards are back knocking on the window. The Imperialist ignores them, “Oh for f*#k sake!”
He growls and gets out of the truck, the door pushing the guards aside. The guards follow him in the building where, I can only imagine he is rousting whomever he is waiting for out of his/her hiding place. He exits the building, and returns to the truck. He shifts the truck into forward despite the fact that still no one has emerged from the building. We wait. Soon, a small woman of Asian origin emerges. I unclip my seatbelt to get into the backseat, but the Imperialist says, “no, no, stay there.” The woman looks our way he points to a Land Rover that followed us in. She climbs into the Land Rover. “I don’t think I could cope.” He says.
We spin out of our parking space, security guards scattering to avoid being hit. That afternoon, the Imperialist hands us over again to one of his “drivers” and we head over to a large mall. We take a tour, search for Leslie’s ever evasive soda stream to no avail, then purchase two large Italian Gelatos, hazelnut and pistachio. Back at the marina, the next day being Saturday, I watch hobie-cats and lasers racing in the bay. It’s a familiar sight that helps me imagine that I could live here. I reflect.
Although being brash to a level I could only envision in my history books, The Imperialist is a good man at the core. Despite being taken to a feast where human hands were being roasted, he fell in love with the country and has stayed ever since. He built businesses, made friends, hired employees and lives among the native Papua New Guineans as a fellow citizen. I can see why. This country feels like I imagine the wild west, with its neighborhoods even the cops are afraid to go into. Beyond The Imperialist, the way people drive is best described as “post apocalyptic.” Instead of spitting tobacco, they spit betel nut. But, for those who can handle an annual carjacking, the occasional mugging, living behind razor wire and private hired security guards this place is wide with opportunity to extract. The mineral wealth is extensive. Some of the largest gold and natural gas deposits on the planet are located here as well as many other useful minerals still being discovered. Australians are mining it in droves. The Chinese are investing. The Imperialist is right, the chaos appeals to me.
As soon as he explains it, my mind jumps to the feeling sometimes expressed by soldiers: the idea that normal life can’t compete with the potent drug of war. While this place is not a war zone it is filled with chaos. There is no nanny state here, if you want to set up road blocks and steal people’s cars you can do that. If in searching for gold you want to venture out into the wild jungle filled with people who even in 2017 may never have seen a person of European decent, you can do that. The days that you think are consigned to history books are still alive and well in PNG. There is excitement, freedom, unpredictable challenges, and brotherhood built into chaos, and the experience is a potent drug. It is an addictive rush like the betel nut that even a first timer can feel and be drawn in by. I feel it, I see it, and despite being the most terrifying place I have ever seen in my life, I am starting to like it.
**Disclaimer: The concept of the “white man’s burden” is that Christian society was sent by God to bring civilization and Christianity to the “uncivilized savages” of the world. It is the colonial equivalent to the “manifest destiny” used to justify the advance of European interests in the early days of America. I think both concepts are absolute horse shit and I believe The Imperialist says the phrase only with irony.