So three weeks in Papua New Guinea did little for my stress levels. It was the most frustrating and uncomfortable three weeks of my life. I even broke out in stress hives at one point, contracted unexplained fevers, and I was counting down the days until I could come home.
And I’m unspeakably happy I did it.
The trip began in Port Moresby with my half brother Jeff and his family. He and his wife both have careers, so three of their male cousins live with them and pitch in around the house, cooking and cleaning and looking after the three children. From what I understand these cousins are not paid for the arrangement, but they have food and a secure razor-wire enclosed home to stay in – the latter being the more important commodity in Port Moresby.
Before I saw Lae, I decided Port Moresby must be the most horrible city in the world. It’s filthy and terrifying. There are metal detectors at the entrance to major shopping outlets. Everybody is shifty looking, and the poverty is ridiculous. Residential picket fences are non-existant; it’s all 10 foot tall chain link topped with barbed wire. My brother and his family are constantly on the alert for trouble – a couple of years ago he was carjacked at gunpoint, and under no circumstances would they let us out of their sight. They must have felt under tremendous pressure chaperoning four foreigners around town. My mother and her brother are both full-blooded Papua New Guineans, but somehow they manage to look like Westerners. They don’t look like locals at all. As for my cousin Nicole and I…well she’s a full Minnesota gal and I’m Aussie born and bred. We both have coffee coloured skin that’s the envy of our white friends, but for three weeks we were repeatedly called ‘the white girls’. Black is clearly in the eye of the beholder.
I don’t have many photos of Moresby, because frankly I was too terrified to take my camera out.
On our second day, the family took us for a two hour drive to a swimming spot called Crystal Rapids. It was wonderful to get out of the Moresby shithole and into the mountains. Nicole and I sat in the back of the ute (with the cousins and their machetes to ensure nobody abducted us) and were happily burnt to a crisp by the time we arrived at Crystal Rapids.
Most of the land in PNG is still owned by the local clans, so if your particular patch of land has something fun on it, say a nice swimming hole, then you’re entitled to charge visitors a fee to visit. I think we paid 20 Kina ($10 AUD) for the carload of us to spend the day picnicking and swimming. That money goes to the tribe, and they in turn construct public toilets and keep the place looking nice. The one thing they don’t provide is bins – I was speechless when the cousins blithely tossed all our picnic rubbish onto the side of the road on our way home. Nobody thinks twice about littering, which somehow is doubly horrifying when the natural scenery is some of the most majestic I’ve ever seen.
I questioned my sister-in-law Anas about the piles of cooking rocks and firewood that were for sale on the side of the road.
“Why would people buy it when you can collect it anywhere?”
“Because the land where you’re collecting rocks and firewood belongs to someone,” she explained. “And if they catch you taking their rocks girl, they’ll kill you.”
Halfway to Crystal Rapids we stopped to look at a waterfall. One of the tribal owners sat on the ground with his machete beside him, collecting 1 Kina from everyone that wanted to walk to the lookout point. On the way home, we stopped there again and one of the cousins jumped out of the car and handed him a buttered bread roll and soft drink he’d purchased from a roadside vendor. Later I asked Mum what it was all about, and she told me Waterfall Guy had given our cousin some coins to buy him some food. Let me point out that it took us a good four hours to finish our day out and drive back to the waterfall. That poor bloke must have been sitting there all day without food or water, and he probably does the same thing every day. It was my first insight into the ‘real’ PNG, and I had my first inkling that my brother and his family are among the very privileged in this country.
I found myself to be quite privileged a bit later on, when Jeff and the cousins prepared for us an aigir, a traditional method of cooking involving hot rocks and coconut milk and chicken. It was delicious, but I confess I was more interested in the array of PNG beers my attentive big brother kept foisting on me. “SP” (which stands for South Pacific or Sweet Papa, depending on who you ask) is everyone’s brew of choice, and I can confidently tell you it’s in the same league as Australia’s very own Vic Bitter and XXXX. That is, it tastes like camel arse.
Jeff’s home had Foxtel (once again, I didn’t realise at the time that televisions are not a typical fixture in PNG homes, let alone cable TV), and we found ourselves watching the New Guinean version of Idol. The judges were sickeningly fawning, and showered the contestants with praise even though some of them had the vocal range of Stephen Hawking. When I observed this aloud, Jeff pointed out that if any of the judges humiliated a singer on national TV, it wouldn’t be surprising if the contestant’s wantoks made sure the judge was never heard from again. It made me laugh, but I’m not sure it’s that far from the truth.
Next instalment: Inga discovers the real arse-end of the planet.