Tropical heat, the smell of freshly spat buai spattered red on cracked concrete, bunches of raw peanuts for K1 from roadside markets, gangs of unemployed youths, geckos running up fluoro-lit walls of white bessa block, security guards with bows and arrows, bougainvillea and barbed wire…
The first couple of days here in Port Moresby, according to some the world’s most dangerous city, were overwhelming. It’s been 18 years since I left my home here for highschool in Australia. I missed PNG for years, and have wanted to leave Australia ever since — not just to visit PNG, but to travel to Other Places. I’m finally here. So it’s funny that — even though I’ve been looking forward to this trip for years now — when the plane took off from Brisbane, I felt myself missing Brisbane for the first time in my life.
But I’m glad to be here. I’ve been wandering about the streets of Port Moresby, trying to wrap my head around the changes of the last two decades. Some things are wildly different, other things the same, and reality and memory fail to mesh in confusing ways. But I should probably start at the beginning…
Arriving at Jackson’s Airport, I was quickly reintroduced to “Melanesion Time”. Picking up my next plane ticket — which I’d already booked in Brisbane — took an hour, then I spent another hour waiting for the courtesy bus from the guest house, 10 minutes away. But I wasn’t too bothered. I got talking to the policeman on duty while I waited. I didn’t find out his name, but since many New Guineans have biblical names, John will do.
John’s from the Southern Highlands. He moved to Moresby 10 years ago, marrying a local and fathering 5 kids. He’s only been home once in the last decade, as travel is too expensive for someone on his (relatively decent) salary. PNG’s mountains are one of the main reasons for its incredible biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity, and even the capital city is only connected by road to one other major town. Many places are accessible only by air. John went back home last year, straight into the middle of a tribal war. Their PMV (the ubiquitous Public Motor Vehicle, or small coaster bus) was surrounded at one point by a group of men from one tribe, but they were eventually let through. It was, he says, the first time he’d ever seen a civilian with an M16. They’re standard police issue in Moresby.
John’s an enthusiastic Maroon‘s supporter, and apart from crime, Moresby is currently gripped with Origin fever. Strange but true: rugby league is huge up here, and people arbitrarily, and passionately, align themselves with the Blues or the Maroons. John is called out sometimes to break up rioting after a game. People get beaten up, stabbed, sometimes die. He told me that supporters of the losing team often smash their TV, in a kind of (un)sympathetic magic. The electrical goods company Sharp is currrently running (slightly cruel) ads for television sets: “If you can’t be there, get the next best thing”.
John has a few wantoks in Moresby, but he doesn’t see them unless he has to. He didn’t say why, but it was probably because they only want money. “Wantok” is Tok Pisin for relatives — it translates literally, as “one talk”, or people who speak the same language. (Tok Pisin is the lingua franca of a country with 10% of the world’s languages, and a tongue I grew up speaking. It’s changed a lot since then, becoming more complex, and I’m now struggling with relative clauses and particles…) PNG is tribal, and wantoks are the social welfare network. The wantok system is a blessing, but also a curse: it’s one of the main reasons PNG is one of the most corrupt places on earth. Nepotism is normal — goverment ministers simply hand out cash to family, friends, and anyone they want to buy. So I can understand why John might not want to see his less fortunate, and probably distant, relatives.
Anyway, after chatting for a while, John kindly offered to drop me off at the guest house. Just then the bus pulled up, so I thanked him and said goodbye. Welcome to PNG, he said.
Hoping you didn’t notice my cunningly disguised infodumping,