‘There will be gunshots any moment now,’ Moses said as the commotion in the market a couple of hundred metres away got louder. As if on cue, three shots rang out in the hot night air but the noise didn’t die down.
‘I think we should go inside now.’ said Moses’ wife Barbara, then added ‘Expect the unexpected in PNG’, a phrase I heard a lot in the five weeks that I was there.
A week earlier, I was sitting in the departure lounge in Cairns airport, Australia waiting to fly to Port Moresby, the capital of PNG. I was on my laptop, hovering over the ‘buy’ button for the electronic download of the new PNG Lonely Planet. Something that goes against my religion as a world traveller, but given the reputation of the country as a dangerous place with almost no tourist infrastructure I thought it might be a lifesaver. In the end I decided I was just going to wing it and got on the plane without a plan of where I was going or what I was doing when I got there. Possibly slightly mad, but it’s an adventure.
I spoke to a few people before the flight. All confirmed the reputation of PNG as a dangerous place. One said that in Port Moresby you shouldn’t even walk around in public on your own. So I decided on the flight that I would try to get in and out of the capital pronto and head to Madang which sounded like a nice place with good diving.
In Port Moresby, the Air Niugini ticket office said there was a flight in the afternoon which meant it would be arriving after dark with no place to stay. I asked what sort of a place Madang was – whether it had ATMs and guesthouses. She pointed me to a little tourist information office which of course was locked up with nobody there. I struck up a conversation with a couple of porters who were picking up customers for one of the expensive hotels in town (with the growth in natural resource exploitation, hotels for foreigners have seen skyrocketing prices.) They said it wouldn’t be a good idea to go to Madang without anyone to meet me at the other end so I asked if they knew of a cheap place to stay for the night. One of the porters, a young chap called Shamus said I could jump in their minibus and after they had dropped off their guests he would help me find a cheap place to stay. I decided to trust him and true to his word, he managed to find me a pretty grim, but cheap for Port Moresby, guesthouse. Once I’d checked in, he took me on a local bus to a supermarket to buy some food and we chatted about life in PNG. He talked about having been mixed up in the wrong crowds when he was younger and had be involved in petty crime. He had the scars to show for it – both from other ‘rascals’ and from the police who had broken his fingers with a golf club down at the station. Now that he was working for the hotel he said he was on the straight and narrow.
Shamus asked me if I wanted to take a walk round the neighbourhood. All I could think of was the warnings I’d heard but I decided to trust my instincts and we took a look around. We stopped at his uncle’s house who was surprised and pleased to meet a random British guy. It turned out he was the former minister for sport for PNG having lost his seat in the recent election, which he was contesting due to reported corruption in the ballot process. We talked for quite a while about education, the environment and of course sport. He would have been at the Olympics in London at the time if he was still in office. By this time it was getting dark and he invited me to join him, and some friends for dinner at a restaurant which I gladly accepted, and we talked more over Korean food.
It was a pretty mind-blowing introduction to the country, and a first glimpse of the kindness and hospitality of the people in PNG that I was to experience throughout my time there.
The next day I flew to Mt Hagen in the highlands where I’d heard there was a cultural show happening that weekend. My new friend the former minister said he would put me in contact with ‘his people’ up there who would look after me. This was the ‘wantok’ system (‘one talk’ translated from PNG’s common language, Pigin) which is the extended networks of family and friends who can call in favours and help, and you’re obliged to say yes. The perfect system when there’s no government social security or insurance. The good news for me was that I was now considered ‘in.’
True to his word, a young reverend called Eddie who permanently wore sunglasses met me when I got into town. He offered me a place to stay at a lodge run by the baptist church. I was happy to take anything offered by a friend-of-a-friend, but then one of Eddie’s colleagues, an older church minister, reverend Jacob with a warm and concerned expression said that he didn’t think they really looked after the lodge well enough and that he thought I’d be lonely there. Having just met me, he insisted that I stay in his house in a village on the edge of Mt Hagen with his wife, son, and another minister, reverend Oscar who was from one of the very remote highland areas. It’s extremely humbling to be offered such warmth and generosity when it’s hard to imagine the same happening in the UK.
Eventually the question of which church I belonged to came up. Being a fairly devout atheist I thought this might be awkward, but I wasn’t going to disrespect them by making anything up. I chose my words carefully and explained that although I had a different faith to them and didn’t go to church, and that for me the important thing is less what you believe, and more about where that leaves you and how you lead your life. I said that I thought we shared a lot of values about how to live a good life. Reverend Jacob smiled and told me he thought I was on a good path. And that was that. No preaching or trying to convert me, just mutual respect.
We talked all evening. Reverend Jacob had some great stories, delivered with a sense of humour and giggles. He was from a line of villages chiefs and talked about how he feared his grandfather, the chief, when he was growing up. He said that if he was out playing when his grandfather gave the whistle he would have to run home immediately. If his grandfather had to actually come and find him, then not only would he be in big trouble, but whichever family’s house he was in would be in trouble too and would have to offer the chief a pig as compensation. He laughed as he described himself as becoming a ‘hot potato’ in these situations, with the other villagers shooing him out of their houses.
Jacob was from a coastal village where the people lived in houses on stilts over the water. In past times, the coastal people feared the in-land tribes who were ruthless headhunters where warriors had to earn their position by taking 100 heads to their chief. However the coastal people’s tactical advantage was that the inland folk were scared of the water and would not even wade waist-deep into the sea. He chuckled as he said that all they had to do when their village was approach by outsiders was get back into their houses and pull up their ladders and they could wave at their would-be decapitators on the beach.
The other visitor in their house, reverend Oscar, was from Teleformin, a village only accessible by light aircraft to an old military airstrip deep in the highland jungle. He told me that there were even more remote villages nearby where the people still walked around naked, although he added that they kept the clothes given to them by the missionaries outside their village, only putting them on when they wanted something, then stripping off again and heading back into the mountains in the buff.
Oscar and Jacob worked together on a large HIV programme that the church ran across many disparate and remote areas. 1% of the population in PNG is HIV positive and the church is leading programmes to educate people about the disease and safe sex as well as handing out condoms, testing, and counselling for those who become infected. I visited their office where they also had a little industry going where groups of HIV positive women made ‘bilums’ – hand-woven bags for carrying anything from mobile phones, to vegetables to babies. The money from the sales went back to the women, and they even sell online, having had a VSO volunteer create a website for them.
Over the weekend, I went to the Mt Hagen show. A cultural event (sponsored by Coca-Cola – urgh) where people came from villages across the highlands in their incredible traditional tribal costumes and danced in a large arena. It was a really weird set-up, simultaneously extremely authentic and contrived. There was an inner and outer arena. The outside part for local people (and me), costing about £2 entry, and an inner arena (where the dancing was happening) for tourists, many of whom had come a long way for the event, costing £100 for entry. Outside the two arenas the people from the various tribes were out on the grass getting ready while tourists in classic touristy ‘explorer’ clothes mingled and pointed expensive SLR cameras at them, not that they seemed to mind at all.
I decided to give the local drug of choice, betelnut, a try. To chew betelnut, you tear open the husk with your teeth, and chew the nut inside, spitting out the juices. It doesn’t taste great, but it’s not too strong. Then you take a long bud of a mustard plant, wet the end and dip it in lyme (a white powder made from heating shells in a fire and grinding them down) a bit like a sherbet dab. You chew the mustard and lyme with the nut and a reaction turns the thick paste bright red in your mouth, staining your teeth and lips. The drug is a central nervous system stimulant which in practice meant it made me a bit sweaty and dizzy. Once they’ve built up a tolerance, regular chewers find it gives them an energy boost and makes them chatty. From what I could gather, chewing betelnut can fight parasites in the stomach (a real problem in places without clean water) and although it stains them, it actually helps keep teeth healthy, perhaps from the calcium in the lyme. Regular chewing greatly increases the chances of mouth and throat cancer though so it’s not a great idea, but the population are incredibly addicted to it, with small vendors not just on every street corner, but dotted all over the place in any public areas. There are both fresh and old splatters of red spittle everywhere as well as thousands of old husks. Apparently the government has tried to take steps to control betelnut but it grows abundantly by the coast and it’s such a part of the culture that for now at least it seems it’s not going anywhere.
Reverend Jacob took me to a ‘bride price’ ceremony in his village. The wantoks of the bride and groom were bringing offerings in the form of pigs, food, animals including rare birds as well as money to give to the groom’s father (apparently in different PNG cultures it’s the bride’s or the groom’s parents who are paid.) I gave the groom’s father the small amount of cash that I had on me.
After five wonderful days in Hagen I said goodbye to Jacob, his wife Lucy and their son Jakes (the most well-behaved 15-year-old I’ve ever met!) I later got a text saying that they had cried on the way home after dropping me off at the airport as they had come to consider me a son. Quite hard to describe how truly heartwarming that felt being so far from home.
Back in Port Moresby, Jacob’s son Peri came to meet me at the airport and I was again shown incredible hospitality, staying in their house with his wife and baby daughter, his sister Barbara, her husband Moses, his other sister Oli, as well as a collection of aunts, uncles and cousins. It was a real full house because uncle Felix was in town to try to get his ear operated on, but I was still treated like a guest of honour.
Also in the house was a young cousin called Keypax with an incredible story to tell. He worked on commercial fishing boats and a month previously the boat had caught fire. They had neither the appropriate training or the right equipment on board to deal with the fire and so the terrified sailors all jumped overboard and watched their boat go up in flames and then sink, many miles away from shore. They clung to a piece of wreckage and waited all day and night to be found. Tragically in the meantime, crew members were lost due to dehydration and even shark bites. Expect the unexpected in PNG.