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Friday, June 18, 2010

Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea: Bad Dinner, Bird of Paradise & Near Mishap in a Very Rough Town

Wed 16 Jun 2010 Brisbane – Port Moresby (Kina 1 = S$0.46)

Woke up early, checked out and took an early train to the airport. Reached there by 8am.  Stomach was somewhat unwell and bloated.  Check-in was pretty fast, though Virgin Blue not only checked that I had a PNG visa but also an air ticket out of Port Moresby (POM). 

The flight lasted 3hours, slightly ahead of schedule. Despite the clear blue skies and welcoming sight of atolls and crystal clear waters of the Great Barrier Reef below, there was quite a bit of turbulence during the flight. I read two chapters of Paul Theroux’s Happy Isles of Oceania, which entertained one with typical Therouesque humour and equal measure of condescendence and exaggeration as well as great philosophical insight into life in the Pacific isles.

POM airport was a pleasant little place with bright colourful mobile and beer ads, full of tribals sporting exuberant headdresses, tattoos and boar tusk piercings.  Nothing mentioned about tribal warfare and alcohol abuse rampant in this country.  Images of exotic South Sea dancers competed with promises of exciting mountain treks, great river cruises and sightings of wild creatures.  The immigration officers were cheerful, courteous and polite, and there were ATM machines, cafes and a helpful tourist information office in the arrival lobby.  It was certainly different from Paul Theroux’s POM airport of the 1980s, which was a urine-smelly bombshell manned by illiterate officers.

I scanned around for the pickup from Comfort Inn but no one could be found. Most of the passengers, either PNG nationals, diplomats or NGOs (i.e., there are hardly any tourists) were promptly picked up by their own fixers or hotels.  The guidebooks have advised never to take your own taxi to town, for POM is one of the most dangerous cities in the world and most hotels here, outrageously expensive by any standards - have duly included airport transfers in their pricing.  I returned to the tourist office and asked if they could assist.  A nice officer rang the hotel for me and assured me that a mini-bus was coming to pick me. When nothing happened, he rang again several times and eventually the mini-bus arrived.  I half expected him to ask for a tip but have to slap myself for doubting the sincerity of this gracious samaritarian.  I was most impressed by his helpfulness, as well as other locals at the airport who asked if I needed assistance.

Also picked up were two Australian NGO staff who were in a project in Western New Britain Province.  The early explorers had an unusual sense of humour when naming PNG places which have little resemblance to the places they were named after – the country has an Eastern New Britain and a New Ireland provinces as well. 

It was a short 5 to 10minute drive to Boroko, the suburb where Comfort Inn was located.  Port Moresby is more a collection of semi-rural, semi-suburban neighbourhoods built across several hills. Wide open space often separate one building from the next. Some suburbs, such as the Boroko and diplomatic/governmental quarter of Waigani, are separated from downtown by seemingly deserted hills and occasional unsightly slums.
Comfort Inn was located 100m from Boroko central, and like many properties I was to come across in POM, protected by high metal fence, electric alarm systems and uniformed security guards.  POM is one of the world’s most dangerous countries, and yet located in a country without civil conflict.  Why is this so?

Up till recent times, the isolated island of New Guinea has been ignored by explorers and was only colonized in the late 19th century.  Even then, there was little attempt to develop much of the country, especially the interior which the German, British and Australian colonials thought were uninhabited highlands, and it was only as a result of WWII, that Australian air force planes flew across the central highlands in search for Japanese invaders that they came across densely populated valleys with communities untouched by the outside world.  It was as though the European colonials built the coastal cities of New York, Miami and San Francisco, without realizing Chicago, Denver and Kansas City ever existed. 

The PNG highland communities, which accounted for a significant proportion of the PNG population, literally jumped from naked Stone Age lifestyle, cannibalism and animism, to hip hop modern era lifestyle, planes, technology and the like.  Better medical care in the 20th century has resulted in, as with many developing countries, a severe over-population problem in PNG.  The desire for a life beyond farming and big city attractions have drawn thousands to POM every year.  The rapid rise in an urban population, lack of jobs and economic development and cultural dislocation from the leap from Stone Age to cyberage are among the reasons for the high crime rate that plagued this nation. 

POM is particularly notorious for the rascals, the feared gangs who have been known from anything from pickpockets to armed robbery, murder, rapes and carjacks.  Such a reputation has frightened away many tourists; most of those who come are either NGOs or expats working in the mining industry.  In other words, people who can pay for the money isn’t theirs. Hence the high cost of accommodation in POM. For my simple single room, I would be paying 230 kina, i.e., S$115 (US$82).  And the hotel does not even have internet.  It has a pool with a “Do Not Use - Pool Under Maintenance” sign for the full duration of my 3-day stay.  The hotel, as with a few others in POM, appears to be owned by Indians though staffed by locals. After check-in, I made enquiries about car rental and quickly arranged with a hotel staff, for a princely sum of 300 kinas (US$107) to get his taxi driver friend to drive me around the next day and also be my bodyguard.  And this was just for downtown sights that I could easily do myself in most parts of the world.  In POM, they say, it’s better to be safe than sorry.  I was promised that the driver was big and burly, and would frighten away any potential rascal eying my wallet.

I had a quick wash-up and decided to set off for Boroko Square for a bit of jalan-jalan.  Concerned hotel staff warned that, yes, Boroko Square was less than 100m away, but I should be back before 5am, for it would be too dangerous to walk around after that.  And I recall that the Aussie NGO who shared the same mini-bus to the hotel told me that their HQ-imposed curfew for POM was 4pm! 4am or 5am sounded ridiculously early, especially when downtown Nairobi (aka Nai-robbery which I visited 2 years ago) was only considered dangerous after 6:30pm. Given the serious tones of those people, I guess I have to take the advice seriously! 

I had imagined Boroko, being one of the two or three safer neighbourhoods of POM where foreign expats, MNCs and large local corporations would be based, to be a clean, leafy refuge like Holland Village, Singapore or Chelsea, London.  Instead, I found drains clogged with a few hundred years’ accumulation of plastic bottles and red betel nut spat everywhere.  In fact, Boroko Square itself could be downtown chaotic Freetown (of Sierra Leone) or notorious gang-ridden downtown Kingston (of Jamaica). 

The commercial buildings around the square were mostly dilapidated with paint peeling off. A few flew the beautiful bird of paradise national flag of PNG but these were usually half torn and a few resembled faded kitchen rags.  The sidewalks reeked of urine smell. Litter everywhere; assorted hawkers selling mobile charge cards and individual medical tablets of unknown origins; fuzzy haired, thick bearded men sat in a daze in their dirty t-shirts, some even with tribal tattoos and yellow Chimbu dyed hair straight from the central Highlands; young teenage girls carrying babies with half-dried mucus smeared across the lips from their nostrils; young men with Rastafarian caps walking around aimlessly. This is not inspiring at all.

I found a café at a so-called shopping centre, which resembled more a battle-scarred inner city collection of fortified shops.  The café serves pseudo-Chinese food at prices far lower than my hotel but still high by the standards of many Asian cities (about US$4 for a portion)…there were fries (how very Chinese), rice and an assortment of chicken, beef and mutton dishes typical of Chinese takeaway eateries everywhere round the world.  Locals were queuing up to buy the food in what was perhaps one of the dirtiest Chinese eateries I have seen anywhere.  Plastic plates and cutlery and leftover bones were overflowing from the dustbin.

It was well past 3pm and I hadn’t had lunch.  I wanted to order an overpriced chicken drumstick and tried to shout my order in Mandarin through the metal grilled glass-panel that divided me from the Chinese couple within the inner serving enclosure that resembled more a prison cell than a restaurant order counter. They didn’t seem to understand me – it could be due to the chaotic local crowd ordering food or having meal time conversation, the obstructive metal grills, or background noise from an ancient, irritating fan.  I then switched to English and what I heard in response was pidgin, the unique PNG language which is the mix of English, German and a whole host of tribal tongues.  Perhaps even the Chinese here have gone local and prefer to speak pidgin than English.  A local guy behind me laughed aloud – “They no understand yu!” I wanted to tear my hair off.  Whatever – I made my intentions known, paid for the food and an over-starved Wee Cheng gobbled up the drumstick in no time.

I went to the cybercafé upstairs (12 kina per hr) and spent the next half hour checking emails and news. Most cybercafés worldwide are sanctuaries from the chaos of the real world; but this one plainly isn’t one. It is overcrowded – one finds a mini-crowd behind every terminal. Every schoolboy seems to be sharing a PC with 5 of his mates, and there are adults – some in smelly tattered clothing - walking in and out of the cybercafé all the time.  Most did not do much except to join a mini-crowd that formed behind every terminal.  There was no such thing as privacy and that made me really annoyed and nervous.  Were they (the entourage behind me) peeping at my email passwords? (- It’s so open that it couldn’t be called peeping)  Or learning bad English by reading my emails?  When I asked the one behind me to go away, another simply joined the queue to watch Wee Cheng perform wonders on Internet Explorer.  And while in the midst of all these, I had to be mindful of the encroaching 5pm danger time.  How stressful!

Once done with the internet, I literally ran back to the hotel.  It was 4:30pm and it was still bright and sunny. What to do next?  I ended up learning simple pidgin from the hotel’s friendly security guards (who were all born in the Highlands but have moved to POM in the last two decades). 

Pidgin is one of the three official languages of this country with over 700 languages.  PNG is so riddled with deep valleys cutting across 4000 meter high mountains, swampy river plains and deep tropical rainforests that many tribes live in splendid isolation – many speaking languages not even remotely related to the tongue of the next village.  Tok Pisin or Pidgin (together with the mainly coastal spoken Miri Motu) thus became the lingua franca of the peoples of PNG.  Tok Pisin may look weird at first but you can often guess the meaning before long. Some examples from a tourist booklet:

Tok = language (“talk”)  ; tok ingeris = English language
Plis = please    ;    Sori = sorry
Bagarap = bad, not good, sick or spoilt (“buggered up”)
Missis = miss or lady   ;   Masta = mister or man   ;  Sista/Brata = sister/brother
Silip = sleep  ;  Dring = drink
Noken = do not (“no can”)
No I nap = not enough
Samting-noting = trash or rubbish (“something which is nothing”)
Haus pek pek = toilet (“house to pee pee”)
Yu = you  ;  Mi = Me   ;  Yumi = We (“you me”)
Planti = plenty or many   ;   Pinis = finish
Orait = alright or fine

Looking at how teenagers in Singapore or indeed everywhere else in the world send sms (or, regrettably, how some of my university students prepare their presentation slides), I am convinced pidgin will one day become an international language.

Dinner at 40 kinas (US$15) is served from 7-8pm. It’s like a boarding school canteen or army cookhouse. No choices at all - you take what is served.  Oops, I think in Singapore army canteens, you can opt for Muslim or non-Muslim food.  The sole Indonesian engineer who arrived today had to remind the chef not to serve pork in his plate. What do we get for 40 kinas?  A plate full of seemingly unrelated assortment of badly cooked so-called food: Rather tasteless fried rice (- I would have thought the owner would have instructed the PNG chef of the finer traditions of briyani), a tough semi-rare slab of beef steak, a fatty slab of equally tough pork steak, a huge red sausage made of meat of unknown, probably dodgy origins, and finger portions of fries, macaroni and carrot and cabbage strips; plus two scoops of vanilla ice cream on canned fruits to complete the dinner.  Maybe the chef had tried to imitate the tasting menu of Michelin-listed establishments elsewhere in the world.

This is not my ideal of PNG food, but I should be thankful that I get something after all after 5pm in this dangerous town. It was said that Captain John Moresby, who first discovered and named the location (how obnoxious, after himself) in 1873, had a fantastic meal (of what I do not know but you can never trust a gourmet nation like England) on an island nearby and promptly named it Dinner Island. On second thoughts, according to the LP Guide, the name was changed to Samarai Island (which I presume was less appetizing) so as not to encourage cannibal tribes nearby.  From that, I gather that he probably wasn’t forced to eat his mother-in-law either – anthropologists say some Highland tribes cut up and eat the bodies of their dead kin so as to make their loved ones part of themselves.  Other tribes used to kill and eat their enemies so as to prevent the souls of the dead from rising for revenge.  Who knows, but some say the term “used to” might not be quite appropriate in remote parts even today.

Whatever it is, I doubt many would endear themselves to this wonderful meal.  I had a casual examination the day after – no guest I saw the first night were there a second night.  So traumatized I was over that dinner that I packed rice with gravied mutton takeaway from the dirty Chinese eatery at 4pm the next day, so that I could have a cold but tasty takeaway meal rather than the pathetic similarly cold but bad and overpriced hotel food for dinner.  Even then, the hotel would always have unaware new customers or those too busy to think about food but found themselves trapped in the hotel after the early unofficial curfew of 5pm.

To be fair, the hotel owners were a friendly and nice couple.  (They told me they have been to SG over 20 times and were married in SG.)  But they really need to improve on the food or at least quality of their chef.

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Locals mad are mad over Australian rugby – many cars have red flags to indicate support for the Maroons…the team for Queensland State which is just south of PNG.  Tonight, QLD would be fighting NSW in Brisbane. The game is not even in PNG but the Papua New Guineans were excited over it – more so than the ongoing World Cup in South Africa.  But is this any different from the Man-U or Liverpool-crazy Singapore football fans?

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While waiting for dinner, I watched TV at the dining room.  The TV was on Imparja TV of Australia, which appears to be  channel for Northern Territory and rural/Outback Queensland.  The news even included fishing tips – what fish to seek in which areas.  Ads on cattle fairs, medical workers for remote areas of Australia, etc.

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Thu 17 June 2010 Port Moresby

6:30 to 8am was breakfast time.  Standard mediocre fare found across the world.
At 9am, Joe, a Highlander taxi driver introduced by Nick, a hotel staff, turned up.  Yes, burly indeed to fight off an unarmed rascal, maybe two, and he spoke decent Tok Ingeris.  Off we went towards Waigani area where the National Parliament, National Museum, various government ministries and a number of foreign embassies were located. 
The High Commission of PNG’s old colonial master, Australia, is now overshadowed by the brightly-coloured murals on the outer walls of the Chinese Embassy, which depicted PNG and Chinese cultural themes and proclaiming eternal friendship between the two nations.  The Chinese first arrived seeking sea cucumbers, a Chinese delicacy, and more came as traders and petty merchants when PNG was colonized by the Western powers.  Some even married local women and gave rise to a number of prominent mixed Sino-Papuans who included Sir Julius Chan, who was a many-term former prime minister, and another gentleman who was once a speaker of Parliament. 

Joe, however, also commented that many Chinese also slept around with local girls and then abandoned them when “half-breeds” were born.  He lamented, alas, the Chinese are good in doing business and the Papua New Guineans only keen on spending money.  He said, that in the older days, the PNG economy was controlled by the Australians; but they have since lost their fire.  Most of the huge businesses, especially in the retail sector, are run by the “Asians”, which he seemed to have included Chinese-Papuans, new Chinese immigrants and various big corporate Malaysian, Indonesian and Singaporean investors, all of whom have some form of ethnic Chinese link. 

Malaysia is particularly prominent.  There were a few Malaysians on my Brisbane-POM flight, my hotel served Malaysian bottled mineral water and Malaysian goods found across a supermarket I visited.  As we drove across POM, Joe would point out one construction site after another: New mall, Asian; new supermarket, Asian or Malaysian; new hotel, also Asian.

“We are a poor country with poorly educated people, corrupt government and bad, evil criminals everywhere. What can we do?” Joe said with a sigh.  The government steals and everyone follows.

The number one attraction in town was the National Parliament with its prominent traditional style façade typical of the Sepik region in the northwest of PNG.  This is the only obvious spot in POM that I haven’t seen any litter, faded paint, potholes or aimlessly-loitering locals in tattered clothing.  The friendly parliament receptionist cum guide gave a short but informative guided tour of the Parliamentary chambers, which was full of symbolic traditional carvings and motifs from all over PNG.  Very impressive. There were even baramundis in the artificial lake/pond in the parliamentary compound.

The National Museum next door was ramshackle in comparison.  I wasn’t impressed by many of the dusty exhibits and moth-eaten biological specimens, although the tribal mask section was breathtaking – those spirit poles and masks of the Sepik provinces are simply magical.  Joe provided an unnecessary running commentary along the way. He would point to some Western Province Red Mangrove Crabs and said “see here, crab”, or some rare yellow Rabaul oyster from Eastern New Britain Province and said “look, these are oysters.” 

We then headed for the University of PNG where I had a quick browse of the bookshop for PNG titles, all of whom were ridiculously priced.  Not surprising.  A country with a small population (5 million) most of whom are illiterate cannot expect to have a vibrant publishing industry.  There are simply no economies of scale.

The Botanic Gardens (which former British colony does not have one?) was rather small but charming enough.  The highlight of the gardens was the bird of paradise, the national bird of PNG that appeared on the national flag, coat of arms as well as banknotes (not to mention numerous corporate logos).  What beautiful birds they were!  Their golden tails were the stuff of legends.  Not only do tribal chiefs crown their headdresses with these shiny tails/feathers, these feathers were in huge demand by the kings and nobility of Europe.  Before the Europeans saw live birds of paradise in the 19th century, many thought these were feathers from the mythical phoenix.  I also saw cassowary, hornbill, crocodiles and wallaby – all native creatures of PNG.

Done with the Waigani area, we headed for town, but suddenly the car broke down at a road junction.  Joe slowly maneuvered the car to a side-road that appeared to lead to a slum 200m away.  Joe apologized and kept saying he thought he had checked the car alright early this morning.  He made a few mobile calls and then said his brother would bring another car here for us. We waited and waited but the rescue vehicle had yet to arrive.  Joe said his mobile credit had expired and so couldn’t call anymore.  I was getting nervous, especially with the slum not too far down the road.  I put on my dark glasses and tried to look fierce but how could I a smooth-chin average built Asian guy with fair complexion intimidate all the heavily bearded and hairy, burly PNG Melanesians with piercings and tattoos all around me?

Many people walked past and asked us what was wrong. A few kind souls even expressed concerns that I, a foreigner, should get out of here immediately, or I might get robbed.  Joe had to assure me (as well as the passersby) again and again that nobody would bother us and his brother would arrive soon.  One lady even insisted on standing by my side but she was asked to leave by Joe.  Pointing to a roadside umbrella booth near the slum, Joe said he would go there to buy mobile credit.  Just stay here and wait for me, he said.

I was very worried.  Is Joe for real?  Or is this a plot to go away momentarily, and a group of rascals, pre-arranged of course, would appear, and robbed me at knife point?  Joe could claim he had nothing to do with that.  I recalled a plane hijack in 2007 I read about in Lonely Planet.  A plane carrying US$2 million cash was hijacked by two fake security guards supposed to accompany the cash to a mine. They forced the two Australian pilots to land at a disused WWII landing strip where their accomplices also boarded the plane to help loot the cash.  So, have I been hijacked by a fake driver-bodyguard as well? 
Oh yes, today’s The National newspaper carries a headline news about a surprise attack on a Highlands police special operations unit station in which a few officers were injured but none of the attackers were hurt.  The attackers included a few recent escaped criminals and they made off with high-powered guns and other ordinance. Such is the state of law and order in this country and the ability of the uniformed forces in dealing with the situation.

Fortunately, before I went berserk and ran away from Joe screaming with all madness, he was back with additional mobile credits, rang his brother whose car arrived soon after.  We switched to the new car and off we went to “Town” at the harbor of POM.

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Besides crimes of financial nature, Paul Theroux, the famous travel writer, pondered over the dangers of getting raped in PNG.  He wrote about the risk of getting raped in the Trobriand Islands in the southeast of PNG, made famous as the islands of love by renowned anthropologist, Malinowski, in his classic work, The Sexual Lives of Savages.  These matriarchal islanders have a relaxed attitude towards sex and no hang-ups over birth outside wedlock and having multiple sex partners before and after marriage. 
The biggest festival of the Trobriand year is the yam festival, named after the most important crop of the islands, during which people have sex with gay abandon with anyone.  Theroux visited the islands during the yam festival and local men told him that they were actually very worried about getting gang-raped by women, which is the norm in this society where women have higher status than men.  The women would push the cornered man down on the ground, strip him and tickled him till his ar-hem rises, then take turns to sit on him.  Theroux thought that could be interesting but the locals assured him that one wouldn’t want to have sex with just any woman, especially those one would not be keen on outside the festival.  I read and re-read those pages again but somehow there were no references as to Theroux  had encountered similar issues during his stay in the islands.

Another renowned anthropologist, Moffatt, wrote about the sexual habits of the PNG Eastern Highlands’ Sambia tribe in yet another classic work.  This one involved fellatio that young Sambians have to perform on older men as rites of initiation and passage.  In fact, these ceremonial rites, which also involved the ingest of semen considered by the Sambians as sacred fluids, are done over several years of a young man’s life and are not considered by the tribe as homoerotic in nature.  PNG has simply too many tribes and ethnolinguistic groups, many of whom, given their isolation from other tribes and civilisations, practice the most bizarre customs known to mankind.

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Town, near the original founding spot of the city by Captain John Moresby, is today a little block of tall buildings not found anywhere else in the city.  A few banks were located there, together with a Catholic church with the traditional Sepik style façade and roof, and a heavily fortified US Embassy.  There were the usual bearded Highlanders and aimlessly wondering individuals with much ado with nothing also found in Boroko and other parts of POM.  Just south of town was the pretty Ela Beach, lined with attractive coconut trees.  Nobody was in the water although some were resting under the coconut trees.  A closer look revealed rubbish on the beach and the guidebook had cautioned against mugging and robbery on this beach.  We also drove past the stilt villages of Hanubada and Koki, where POM’s original Motu peoples still live.  Again, the guidebook dissuaded anyone from visiting unless accompanied by someone who lives there.

I popped by a supermarket (also Asian known, Joe said) where I bought cookies, water and drinks.  Most goods here are manufactured abroad.  There is hardly anything other than fresh fruits and vegetables which are PNG-produced. One can find cookies manufactured in tiny Fiji but none from PNG.  PNG has an almost total import-based economy.  In fact, this is already fairly obvious by the rather thorough check of luggage by PNG customs when one enters the country.  The mines of Bougainville had long closed down due to local rebellion and there are little local manufacturing goods or export of agricultural products, hence the over-reliance by PNG customs on import taxes for state revenue.  As the imports have to come via infrequent cargo routes and then get taxed by a cash-strap government. No wonder everything is outrageously expensive in this poor country.

Back to Boroko, I visited the crafts market.  I was tempted to buy a traditional Sepik mask and a figurine of a dancing Highlander with the bizarre pyramidal-conical hat-mask.  But this was only the beginning of my Pacific journey, and besides, friends had cautioned me against bringing home too many items of pseudo-spiritual nature.  I resisted the temptation and bought some stamps instead.

I returned to the Chinese eatery, this time, at a less crowded occasion.  I heard the owners speaking Shanghainese to each other and realized that they were not the Hakka or Cantonese speaking “Old Chinese” who came to PNG a long time ago, but new Mainland immigrants who came in recent years.  English is a less useful foreign tongue to these people and they picked up pidgin instead, for pidgin is the language of their everyday customers. 

We spoke to each other in Mandarin and they filled my Styrofoam box packed with rice and mutton.  I told them I had to rush back to the hotel quickly as it was another 20min to 5pm.  What an unusual phenomena, I commented in a slip of tongue. That was cruel of me. I came as a tourist and would be leaving this poorly run country and its dangerous, messy capital the next day; but these entrepreneurs have begun their life and investment in this country which they could not just leave on the whims.  They just smiled and waved me good bye.

PNG would be a wonderful place to visit if not for the crime rate.  Most people I have spoken to were kind and friendly.  I would love to visit the famous Highland festivals – famous for the colourful dances and mock tribal warfare – one day. 

Tomorrow, I am heading for Honiara, capital of another independent country, Solomon Islands.

Posted via email from Nomadic Republic2

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