We flew from Moresby to ‘Rainy Lae’ in a Fokker 100, sitting next to a young Morobe Province native on his way home from Brisbane. He was clearly as terrified of the ungodly turbulence as I was, which was mildly vindicating.
Nadzab Airport in Lae doesn’t believe in conveyor belts, therefore the baggage collection system consists of a long hole in the wall facing the tarmac, through which luggage is tossed like meals through a serving counter at a deli. I should point out that the cargo of PNG travellers mainly consists of things like pandanas mats, woven bamboo products and fresh produce. It’s not unusual to see poorly secured bags of cabbage, corn, sweet potato and taro being hoisted out of the cargo hold. A spare change of clothing and toiletries seem extraneous to their journeys.
Like Port Moresby, security guards were everywhere – especially making sure that the baggage tags matched those of the ticket holders. I’ve often wondered why we don’t do the same in Australia. After we’d been through the rigmarole of collecting luggage and exiting the building past security, I decided I needed to use the restroom – upon which security had to escort me back inside the building like a criminal. I’ve never peed so fast.
In the airport car park we were faced with an army of balus (airport) buses, each with a man hanging out of the doors hollering unintelligible destinations. The most common destination being Lae town, which was broadcast to the milling crowd as “Lehlehlehlehlehleh! LEHLEHLEHLEHHHH!!” by various manic-looking gentlemen. Fortunately Mum had run into someone she knew inside the terminal (this is not an uncommon occurrence in Australia, either), who ended up giving us a lift to our destination.
Our destination was Uncle Moro’s house in Kamkumung.
Uncle Moro has eight family members living in his three room house (one of which he gave to my cousin and I), and regularly feeds ten to fifteen people. The only household income is that of his wife, who sells buai (betelnut) at the local market. I can’t imagine she brings in much more than 10 to 20 Kina a week ($5 to $10 AUD). The entire family are thin as whippets, and Mum tells me they’ve all lost heaps of weight since she last visited in 2011. Luckily they have a network of in-laws and extended relatives living on the same block who seem to help them out. Luckily for us as well, one of these extended families had a shower facility they were willing to let us use.
By shower, I mean it was a cold tap screened by fertiliser bags. It backed right onto the local market, so any local with the inclination could have a peep over the top at any time. Normally I would have been uncomfortable, but after any amount of time in muggy, dusty Lae, fresh cold water on your body is an absolute godsend regardless of who’s eyeballing your goodies.
I need to tell you about Lae city. Port Moresby horrified me, but it boasts a certain pride. There is street art and gardens and universities, not to mention Parliament House. It’s the capital city, after all. Lae, on the other hand, uses pride as toilet paper – if anybody there used toilet paper. It’s grimy and sullen and dangerous, and so hot that the bitumen melts at midday and sticks to the soles of your shoes. The footpaths and public areas are drenched in red buai spittle, and every evening at 8pm the thunderstorms come and wash a bloody red, muddy mess into the Bumbu river and churn the pot-holed roads into an impassable muck. The most common crimes, according to my cousins, are rape and murder. It’s horrid, and I was miserable the whole time I was there. The cousins had to chaperone us everywhere, including the shower. Sometimes extra ‘cousins’ would attach themselves to our party as bodyguards, and Mum and my uncle had no choice but to provide lunch and bus fares to whoever came along.
One of the extras was a bearded fool in a baseball cap, maybe in his late thirties. He repeatedly introduced himself as my uncle, and in standard douche-canoe fashion he insisted he was a ‘big man’ in the area, and all visitors had to pay their respects to him as his family was very important. He followed us on excursions, and it infuriated me to watch him eating fried chicken my mother had paid for. He was a complete fucking idiot, and had I been in Australia I would have punched him in the throat.
Before I go too much further, I want to talk about dress codes in PNG. Ladies, you gots to cover your junk up in da ‘G. Every time I spoke to Mum before the trip, she would hammer it into me: “Make sure you don’t bring any skimpy outfits! No, I’m not saying you dress like a slut. That’s not what I’m saying at all. Just…don’t wear what you usually wear. Nothing too skimpy!” In the end, I bought a bunch of horrific clothes from the op-shop that were one or two sizes too big, to the point that my erstwhile mother confessed she was pleased to see me back in my usual outfits once we came back to Oz. But yeah, PNG women need to cover everything from collarbones down to their knees, which is strange considering some of their traditional outfits look like this:
Also, it’s perfectly acceptable for a nursing mother, or any mother, to pull their boobs out in public. When I questioned Mum as to why it was ok for them to this while I couldn’t even wear a tank top, she explained that men can’t possibly be interested in something that has or is currently being used to feed a baby. I’m still not sure whether Mum is naïve or PNG men are vastly different from their Australian ilk. It’s a place of so many contradictions, and as my American uncle advised me sagely in front of the fire one night, “Stop trying to look for logic. You won’t find it.”
Next instalment: A trip to the seaside and a con-woman.