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Papua New Guinea: Fear Eats the Soul, Faith Restores It

Papua New Guinea is one of the most exotic places in the world, full of tribes and languages and the artifacts of ancient culture, many of which only came to the light of the rest of the world less than one hundred years ago. Unfortunately, unlike many other exotic countries- such as Ethiopia or Kampuchea or Bolivia- PNG has a reputation for crime and violence that precedes it. Think South Africa without the national parks or the fancy cities. And the fact that much of that violence is directed toward each other in inter-tribal rivalries is not much of a consolation. So it is with some trepidation that I venture into its domain. Add to that high hotel costs and you’ve got an equation struggling to find the ‘equals’ sign. Think Lagos without the Kuti Brothers. Did I mention that there are no roads leading anywhere from the capital on the coast at Port Moresby?

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Who knows? Maybe I’ll fall in love with PNG and live the rest of my life there. At the very least, the crimes of the Port may very well turn out to be a non-issue, as were the case in Nairobi, Dakar, and many other places where a man’s ferocity is all too often gauged by the darkness of his skin and the kink in his hair. That’s one reason I’ve booked rooms with missionary and other quasi-religious organizations. They might give a flying flip if- God forbid- I should actually have some sort of problem. What’s that? You didn’t know that the Salvation Army offered rooms? Their rates are among the more affordable, also.

So the trip from Chiang Rai, Thailand, to Brisbane, Australia, goes smoothly enough, though a bit long, at right around twenty-four hours. That’s the way it works when you string together three separate flights, but not bad when you consider the final segment KL-BNE itself is eight hours, which is news to me, helluva deal at $160. At least the LCCT airport at Kuala Lumpur has free WiFi. That can cover a multitude of sins. Other than that it’s not much more than a glorified Quonset hut. Oh yeah, and they’re even able to transfer me to my Oz flight so that I don’t have to technically even enter Malaysia, with ensuing hassle of exit. At least I finally cured my lingering jet-lag. The east coast of Australia is only five hours’ difference- albeit a different day- from the west coast of the US, so no big deal.

So after a couple days in Brisbane I catch my flight to Port Moresby, way up on everybody’s list of the world’s worst cities, and then connect on to Lae, PNG’s second city, and supposedly a bit nicer. If all goes well, I’ll spend the night there, and then connect on a PMV bush taxi up to Goroka, in the highlands where the traditional culture is stronger and hopefully will be at least a little bit in evidence. But that’s a big IF. It starts raining while waiting for my flight in Pt. Moresby, which may seem like a small matter, but arguably enough to cancel the highland trip, especially when I have yet to find budget accommodation there, ‘budget accommodation’ being anything less than a hundred bucks US, this in one of the world’s poorer countries.

The connecting flight finally takes off an hour late, so by the time we land in Lae, it’s around 7:30pm and very very dark. A taxi from my guest house is supposed to meet me, but I don’t see anyone. I hear someone say what I think is, “Lae Guest House,” so assume that’s my driver, but when he takes me to a communal shuttle, I realize that he must have been saying, “Lae… guest house,” but I stay with them, figuring it to be the best bargain. When the drive turns out to take the better part of an hour, I’m glad I did. And when one of the fellow passengers says something like, “Don’t worry; you’ll be safe,” I don’t think much of it, but when he says it over and over again, then I start worrying a bit, first about him, then about the others, especially when no one seems to know where my guest house is. Finally most of the other passengers get off, and I’m almost alone, driving through PNG at night with a bunch of guys I don’t know. Oh, sh*t. How’s my credit rating, God? We’re good, right? I’m mostly paid up, aren’t I? Band-width has been a bit narrow lately.

Quoting the address does no good. How many streets here have signs? How many Papuans even know how to use maps for that matter? I suspect less than half the world is adept at it. I explain that Lae G.H. is affiliated with the Summer Institute of Linguistics, but that does no good, either. Given their reputation in Guatemala, that may be just as well. Did you know that missionaries are at the forefront of linguistics studies? They’re not of the Chomsky school. Finally they let me off somewhere that’s not the right place, but the prices are relatively reasonable, and I’m just so happy to get off the bus that I content myself with it. I’m in the right neighborhood, Eriku, anyway. And I have a private room for less than the L.G.H./S.I.L., if more than the cost of shared facilities. I’ve even got a color TV, if the screen is barely larger than my computer’s. I’ve got a mini-fridge, too. If there are any grocery stores close by, then I’m good.

There are. There are fast food joints, too, consisting mostly of fried chicken, beef stew, and even some Chinese food, though not much for a vegetarian. Still, I’m good. I didn’t bring a kg of granola and a large brick of cheese over for nothing. I don’t plan to take any back. There is even a bus rank close by, maybe even the one with buses for Goroka. It doesn’t matter now, though, since I’ve already canceled out. First I have to get my bearings, and then see what’s possible. The Goroka plan was contingent upon things falling together quickly. That didn’t happen. It’s all too weird, too, and the paranoia all too real. There are armed guards in front of EVERY commercial establishment, not just banks, and there are just too many people hanging out with nothing better to do than look at my pockets. I know what THAT means. Store guards grab your pockets on the way out, too, feeling you up for illicit goods.

So I spend my days watching TV- all Australian, mostly Oprah- and reading Encyclopedia Britannica (that’s the best you can do without Internet) and cruising the treasure fleets of Chinese junk- did I mention the Chinese run all the stores here? Every day I probe outward to expand my horizons a bit, creating my own personal map by repeated dead reckonings, going and returning, then cross-referencing. A Chinese ice-cream entrepreneur even comps me a double cone, free of charge. I guess they don’t get many tourists. It’s hot, but not TOO hot. It’s not really even THAT scary here. What’s scary is thinking that this is the up-scale suburb, and that it all goes down from here. Oh well, I guess the fear factor helps explain the high prices. Otherwise these are some greedy pigs running the hotels. I wonder if they’d even believe me if I told them that in Hollywood they could get a hotel- of slightly higher quality- for the same price.

I still have one more day in Port Moresby before heading back, so hopefully it won’t be too weird. I manage to get on an earlier flight out of Lae, so that’s a good start (even if that earlier flight is three hours late). At least this time the driver knows my guesthouse, so that’s good. They’ve lost my reservation at reception, but there’s room at the inn so I’m in… me and a couple dozen missionaries and assorted preachers and parishioners, all Protestant, from America and New Zealand. Everyone is very nice and chatty, nothing ‘holier than thou’ or anything like that. I feel like young Jesus trying to talk trash with the Sanhedrin. It’s pretty cool actually. I almost think they understand me, even appreciate me, maybe better than some of my friends. At least they see my lighter side; maybe they’re looking for it. Many have lived most of their lives in PNG. They have some stories to tell. One guy got held up four times on the drive down from Mt. Hagen. This is what I planned to do the first night, find out all kinds of information from the old PNG hands. But we all agree that these are some of the nicest people in the world in one of the most dangerous places in the world. It just doesn’t make sense.

So there’s really nothing left to do now but catch my flight. That should be easy enough, shouldn’t it? I DO have a little extra time next morning so one of the missionaries guides me to a nearby commercial area and crafts market. It’s nice enough, but I’m really no longer in the market, so to speak. At least I’ll know where to find a taxi if my guy John from the airport yesterday fails to show. He doesn’t. That’s why I allocate lots of time. Since it’s only 10am and the flight’s at 2pm, there should be no problem. It actually turns out that a lady I met from breakfast is on the same flight, and her trusted guy is due at 11. I’m welcome to tag along. At the appointed time she allows that it was ‘11 or 11:15,’ so I chill. Her guy knows the flight time. She trusts him so much she even paid in advance. Huh? Red lights flash inside me…

At 11:30 I bolt. The missionary lady is cool; I’m not. She knows what she’s doing. I don’t. She’s ‘in the moment’. I’m not. I’m in the past and the future, all over the place, my life held together with some kind of existential duct tape that gets more expensive every moment I sit here waiting on Godot. I could just as easily wait in the airport, mind you. They’ve even got A/C. I never saw her again. It doesn’t always make me feel good to be right. Maybe that’s why I could never totally accept the missionary position. She was either violated, a subject of discussion we had over breakfast- that the violation is more heinous than the actual loss- or she was the victim of gross incompetence. When I checked my e-mail in Brisbane airport after flying back from PNG, there was a note from L.G.H./S.I.L. there, with the name of the correct shuttle bus from the Lae airport. What species of butterfly WERE those in PNG I wonder?

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