Expecting the unexpected in Papua New Guinea: Part 2

…continued from part one.

I’d been warned about safety in Port Moresby so I was walking through a chaotic bus station with my hands in my pockets wishing that I didn’t have an iPhone, cash, cards and a digital camera on me. Dumb tourist, but I was with two local friends so wasn’t too worried. As we were getting on a bus I felt hands trying to get into my pockets but a big North London “Oiiiii!” from me had the thief scurrying off. This was thankfully the closest I came to being a victim of any crime in PNG and I have to admit it was actually quite exciting and I felt smug that I was ready for it. I wouldn’t have been so smug if they had been armed which is common in the capital.

We were heading across Port Moresby via a series of local minibuses to go and visit Uncle Boga, the brother of Reverend Jacob who I stayed with in Mt Hagen. He lived in a very quiet fishing village away from the mayhem of the city. It was a completely different world. A peaceful simple life fishing in the warm Pacific. Many years ago, Uncle Boga had begun medicine training but his father needed someone to stay and continue the family fishing tradition. Out of about 5 brothers, he was the only one who was willing to sacrifice a modern career for the traditional life, but he was happy fishing and said he enjoyed being out of the dirty city.

Back in town, we visited PNG’s interesting parliament building built after independence in 1975. PNG is a very young democracy with its 9th parliament just sworn in. The parliament building had an inscription about power to people, but the country is incredibly corrupt. It’s well known that when ordinary village people are elected into government they instantly become incredibly rich from all of the back room dealing. Without sufficient rule of law there doesn’t appear to be consequences for corruption even when it’s fully exposed. I read in the local newspaper that a former senior policeman was trying to set up an anti-corruption task force but the prime minister refused to back it. It made me realise that although we might not like the government in our own countries, it’s a hell of a lot better than in places like PNG.

Ollie and I went to Port Moresby’s cinema at the new Vision City mall and watched the film Ted. It was exactly like every other modern air conditioned cinema throughout the world. I felt like I could have been in the Odeon on Brighton seafront until we got back outside into the humid nighttime heat and danger of Port Moresby, with red betelnut spittle on the floor and making sure we got into the right kind of taxi. It reminded me instantly how far I was from home.

Staying with my friends in Port Moresby was so humbling and I continued to be blown away by the hospitality and kindness that they showed me.

Next I flew to Madang met and met Reverend Zachariah at the airport, a friend of Rev. Jacobs from their days at theological college. Reverend Zachariah was a young and slightly built man with big cheeky, charismatic smile. In spite of the very loose connection, he hugged me like a brother at the airport and a member of his congregation took me to his house on the campus of the Divine Word University where he served as the chaplain.

Also staying at his house were Kudeb and Vela (who was amused when I told him that his name meant ‘candle’ in Spanish.) They were trainee teachers doing their practical assignment – a week of observing primary school classes then teaching for the first time. Kudeb was possibly the most earnest person I have ever met. He moved all of his things out of his room so that I could have it and then shared another room with Vela. Being British it feels uncomfortable to have other people making such sacrifices for you and once again I felt humbled by the PNG people. At meal times Kudeb always turned to me incredibly seriously and asked ‘Are you satisfied?’ at least twice which always made me chuckle. Such a great guy.

On my first night in Madang, Zachariah invited me to fellowship with some students, which is a bit like a mid-week religious meet-up. On the way I had the religion conversation again. I repeated my belief is that it’s values and actions that bind us rather than faith and said I thought that people with and without faith are capable of doing both good and bad things. He thought about this for a while and seemed to like it, later repeating it to the fellowship students. As in Mt Hagen, there was no attempt to preach to me or convert, and whilst I know I will never share their faith, I had grown a huge respect for the values that Christianity gave them.

Fellowship was a small bunch of people, about 10 students including a young man wearing a ‘jesus loves you’ shirt in a completely non-ironic way. In that place it was just fine. Jesus-shirt was a really good guitarist and kept going even when a string broke. There were teachings about life and the bible. As a non-religious person I felt how secular society misses out on thinking about things beyond our own existence and reflecting in this way, but I find it impossible to accept a philosophy based on just one book, written so long ago, as having all the answers we need. I think human understanding is built upon and extended over many generations, yet there is still something that atheists can learn from those with faith.

I asked Zachariah how he’d met wife. With a trademark cheeky grin he said the usual way is to write a love letter, but he was a modern reverend and so had done it by text message. He said he really admired her commitment to her faith and church work and asked if she was interested in a deeper relationship. Apparently she’d never thought that a reverend would be interested in her and was very flattered. He gave her a few days to think about it, then they got it together and were enjoying the first couple of months of marriage… with a random English guy and two young trainee teachers also in the house!

The next morning, Zachariah and I took long walk down the seafront into centre of Madang. It was so different from Port Moresby. It was safe and relaxed with well maintained grass verges, a golf course and one fancy tourist resort where I booked myself in for two days diving. Zachariah told me that although Madang was considered one of the safest cities in PNG, it was becoming more dangerous with people from outside the city moving there. He no longer felt safe walking along around the city at night.

I met a young guy of about 15 who wanted to tell me about his idea for a new invention which was essentially a perpetual motion machine – an engineering impossibility unfortunately. I encouraged him to keep to keep working on ideas. This wasn’t his only plan. He also wanted to export spicy ginger to Europe. I gave him some ideas about finding agents or distributers or even trying to arrange a trade mission. This was a real entrepreneur in the making and I think he’ll go on to great things, however with very little Internet access it would be so hard to actually make things happen.

After five days in Madang I flew to Manus, a tiny island province to the West of New Ireland. This was where the trail of hospitality I’d enjoyed for my first two weeks in the country finally ran out and I was on my own again. I arrived in the tiny island airport with nothing arranged, an hour away from the town. I saw a modern looking minibus with ‘Harbour Hotel’ on it which looked promising so I told the driver I wanted to find out if they had any rooms, and got a lift into town (by the way, this is a great way to get a free transfer from an airport to a town centre anywhere in the world.) It was actually a pretty dreary hotel and really expensive but I was able to leave my things there and walked into town asking local people for help finding a guest house. It seemed like there were only two on island. I found one a bit ramshackle on the outside but much cheaper than the hotel, with air-con and the room was clean. As the sun went down and the tropical rain hammered down I felt very alone and wondered what the hell I was doing there.

The next day, a Sunday, some local kids took me out for a walk and showed me around. They took me to their school and we walked back along beach where we saw WWII wreckage from the war with the Japanese. It was amazing how much rusting war junk was still lying around. Back at the guesthouse, one of the young guys said his older brother wanted to meet me. He was downstairs drinking South Pacific, PNG’s only local beer with a few friends. He was a very lively and friendly chap and they enjoyed the novelty of having a lost white guy there. He arranged for a friend to take us all out on their motorboat, loaded up with South Pacific, to a little island off-shore where we swam in gorgeous warm water. Then they took me on a little tour to a huge channel bombed out of the island by the Japanese for their submarines with wreckage of pontoons by the shore. Everyone was getting drunk. I’d tried to stay off the beer but had given in under pressure by this point and was quite merry myself. We stopped at a little store to buy gas but there was none available and we didn’t have enough to get home. Fortunately my friends managed to stop another boat who sold us some petrol and we made it back. One of the guys was so drunk he was lying semi-unconscious in the boat as the rest of us dragged it up out of the water. After a couple more beers I sloped off to bed. What an awesome day. Expect the unexpected in Papua New Guinea.

My friends arranged for the same bus to take me back to the airport for free the next morning. My friend was working on the check-in desk, soaked in sweat, massively hung over from the day before. It was a very funny sight watching him struggling to get the passengers checked in. We had a sweaty hug (I wasn’t in a much better state) and said goodbye on the tarmac. Next up, New Ireland.

To be concluded.

6 thoughts on “Expecting the unexpected in Papua New Guinea: Part 2

  1. Pingback: Expecting the unexpected in Papua New Guinea: Part 1 | Tom Nixon

  2. I was in the Peace Corps in Koroba – Southern Highlands. That was 20 years ago. I enjoyed reading your post. I recommend Ambua Lodge and climing Mt. Wilhelm.

  3. Love reading your post. I was in PNG 3 years ago for two months and had such an amazing time there as well..dangerous, yes, some places but also the most friendly people I’ve ever met and the most beatiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. I hope to get back some day! Good luck in New Ireland, try to go to Tsoi or New Hannover. Amazing.

  4. Thanks for the write up of our beautiful country, wantok. Most people who write negative stuff have never been to PNG or if they have been have tended to hide in their hotels without getting down to the local people. Thank you Wantok!

  5. Hi there! This blog post couldn’t be written any better! Looking through this post reminds me of my previous roommate! He always kept talking about this. I will send this post to him. Pretty sure he will have a very good read. Many thanks for sharing!

  6. Hi Tom,
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your posts! I acknowledge PNG has alot of issues which get alot of negative publicity but you unlike other tourists that visit PNG and only stay in hotels and do pre-aranged sight seeing etc. have truely been involved with Papua New Guinean hospitality that other outsiders rarely experience.

    Great read, and am looking forward to read part three.

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