I couldn’t just sit in my hotel room upon my arrival to Port Moresby.
I seemingly had every reason to do so. The 21-hour journey from Los Angeles through Brisbane to POM, as Papua New Guinea’s capital city is affectionately (or in many cases not so affectionately) called, would leave even the most seasoned traveler jetlagged. This afternoon was my sole window to rest alone over the course of a two-week business trip. And the portrait painted of POM four tourists is incredibly bleak anyway.
“Port Moresby isn’t just a place you go walking around alone.”
As the date of my arrival approached, this was something I’d been told time and time again by the surprisingly large circle of acquaintances I’ve accumulated lately who have frequented this city so seldom visited by travelers from the Americas.
Port Moresby is often listed amongst the world’s worst cities, both for its crime rate and low standards of living. A quick Internet search reveals dozens of horrifying headlines, and from a tourism perspective its known more as a stopping off point to Papua New Guinea’s wild wilderness than a hub of culture.
I knew all this and that of all the places I’ve been, POM probably had both the least to see and the highest risks for me as a female solo traveler. But still, to spend my one free afternoon locked in my room at the Holiday Inn Express– that’s just not who I am.
I looked at the square walls of my room, white and unblemished and knew I couldn’t stay. I rolled my suitcase into a corner, changed into a pair of conservative khakis, placed a small amount of cash and my iphone into the money belt strapped around my waist and trotted down to the front desk to ask what has become one of my favorite travel questions – “What is there to see here?”
Ida, a manager at the Holiday Inn Express answers my question with kindness and enthusiasm. She pulls out a map and walks me through the few options deemed to have cultural value– the National Museum is about to close, the Port Moresby Nature Park is already on my itinerary for the following day, and Vision City Mall… well I can tell you I did not come all the way to Papua New Guinea to visit a mall.
Ida looks at me for a moment in silence, simultaneously pondering the options available and sizing me up to determine the level of adventure I’m seeking. The stillness is broken as she fills the air with another one of my favorite questions – “Do you want to go for a drive?”
My eyes widen with excitement. Yes, I do want to go for a drive. It’s one of my favorite ways to see the world and in a place like Port Moresby seems to be the safest option for discovery.
Before I say a firm yes I ask a flurry of questions that are by no means my favorite but necessary when traveling alone in a place that feels so distant from the way of life you’ve know. These questions include –Will it be safe? Can I negotiate a flat rate? Can you call someone you trust? Am I dressed appropriately?
I look Ida deep in the eye as she patiently answers each question thoroughly and frankly and I trust her. You won’t get far as a solo traveler if you don’t decide to trust a few strangers.
In a few moments a brown sedan pulls into the hotel driveway and out steps Francis, who shakes my hand and flashes a large grin. For the flat rate of 100 Kina, or $31 USD, he has agreed to drive me around town for an hour or two.
“Don’t worry,” Ida says as I step into the car. “He’s related to me so you don’t need to be scared.”
Fear in Our Wake
As we drive off the lot I don’t feel scared, not of Francis nor of what awaits beyond the secure gates of the hotel. To tour Port Moresby by taxi with Francis is to leave my fear behind, floating in our wake, swimming in the sea of armed guards, glass windows and barbed wire fences.
The fear I detach from is a fear of plastic. That is, of the sheet of plastic, the bubble wrap that sometimes gets wrapped around a destination and placed comfortably in a box for visitors. In my travels I want to cut through that plastic, to be inside the box experiencing a place for how it really is, seeing it though the eyes of people who call it home.
I’d soon learn that what makes Papua New Guinea so special is that there’s not really a way to experience it through plastic. To visit PNG you are automatically thrust inside the box, and like it or not, there’s no way to fully separate yourself from the realness of the country.
But I don’t know this yet as Francis and I hit the highway and head into the city center. I only know Francis is allowing me to eschew the plastic and I’m elated.
Francis is calm and quiet. I can tell he doesn’t quite understand exactly what it is I am trying to see on this excursion, and so he points out everything that could possibly be of interest – the only mosque in PNG, fields littered in trash where young boys play soccer, and a vacant stadium with rusting metal structures– sights that may not be all that spectacular, but feel spectacular for me because they are real.
The Holiday Inn is located a little more than four miles from the city center. It’s Southwest of the city center and nearer to the airport. Many hotels are located here, since most visitors are just passing through for a night in between flights or coming on business, likely in the oil, gas or mining industries – mineral resources account for more than a quarter of the country’s GDP.
Signs reading “Eda Ranu” crop up on the hillsides and Francis explains this means “our water” in the local language. More than 850 languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea making it the most linguistically diverse place on earth. Francis speaks three languages – his mother tongue, a language from the Highlands Province, as well as Pidgin and English, national languages.
“Eda Ranu. Our water,” I repeat.
“That’s right,” Francis says, still calm and quiet. “Eda Ranu. Our water.”
Francis is from the Highlands Region and has moved to the city for work. He’s in his late twenties and not married yet though he does have a girlfriend back at home. She doesn’t want leave her family and natural surroundings to move to the capital, a city she feels is full of concrete and so they’re at a bit of an impasse in their relationship. He flies back to visit every few weeks. He agrees the Highlands are a much healthier place to raise a family than a city.
Like many in PNG, Francis is deeply religious. Christian missionaries provide much needed education, health and development assistance throughout the country, and Sundays in PNG mean church for most. Francis is not afraid of what will happen in his relationship he says because he knows that God will show the way.
We reach downtown. It’s much small than I had imagined, just a few blocks f buildings clustered on a hilltop. The crowds are thin here and there’s very few shops or restaurants. Most buildings look like offices. One says Deloitte Tower, another Qantas Travel Centre. The most colorful building is the Bank of the South Pacific – carvings of figures frost the side in white, green, red and yellow. In open spaces between buildings the blue sea peaks out and waves.
The Purity of Joy
We drive along the recently completed Ring Road to Ela Beach, POM’s very own strip of white sand and tropical waters. Before this road was completed the only way to the beach was through the downtown district. The Ring Road, with its fresh pavement, bright white lines and rows of PNG flags, is just one of the many recent infrastructure enhancements that have come to POM as part of the government’s efforts to increase tourism. Much of the city’s developments, including the convention center, rugby stadium waterfront dining area and the country’s first ever five-star hotel, have all been completed in the past year or so.
Ela Beach isn’t a beach for tourists. There’s no sunbathers or surfers. In fact I’m the only tourist around at the moment, and I’m sure I stick out amid the crowd of local families, fishermen, vendors and women who rake the beach, collecting the trash that’s washed up ashore in small piles. Francis explains the government pays the women a small fee for this work, but the trash never gets collected – just mixed around.
The most dominant feature here is a waterslide. Rusting stairs lead up to a bright red slide. I walk along a concrete path toward the water and take a seat on a rocky ledge, mesmerized by the sight before me.
Boys run up the stairs and fling themselves down the slide, emitting shouts of glee as they hit the water. Their sleek bodies glisten in the sun – they are all muscle. No fat. The smiles on their faces radiate pure joy.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen children just being children – playing, talking, scheming. Using their bodies to swim and climb up rocks and run up stairs and slide back down into the water. Unburdened. Unsupervised. Uncompromised.
Papua New Guinea is one of the poorest nations on earth. Based on what I’ve read about the country’s poverty, looking out at this scene I should perhaps feel sorrow for these children. But I don’t. I feel sorrow for our culture. For all of our advances, we’ve also lost ancient elements of humanity – the purity of joy found in nature and childhood.
Driving in Circles
We circle the city, passing the SP Brewery, National Parliament House, City Hall and the main bus depot, which is flanked by a large sign that reads “Making it Happen in Moresby South.”
There are markets all along the roadside and we stop at one. Like everywhere else today I am, at least visibly the only foreigner. Though I do feel visible, I don’t feel threatened in the least, especially with Francis at my side. I’m surrounded by people – milling about, walking to work, selling food, buying fish, waiting for buses, playing in the grass, talking with friends. I feel so privileged to be here, so far from home, watching people on the other side of the world living their daily lives.
We complete a circle around the city. Francis suggests we drive around the city in a smaller circle, and then when that is completed back out to make the wider loop again. There’s not much else to see. Francis could drop me off at the hotel now or I could ask to go back, but we linger, driving not to see anything in particular but just to prolong our time together.
Francis buys peanuts from a man in the road. I’ve never seen peanuts like these – they are bunched together like flowers and raw. They taste like peas.
“These are good for you,” Francis tells me as I crunch away. “Their milk gives you strength and a long life.”
The radio has been on during the entirety of our drive playing a mixture of American pop and local PNG hits.
“Country music on the radio in Papua New Guinea,” I scream as a Keith Urban song comes on. I start to sing.
To my great surprise Francis knows the lyrics too and cranks the volume up – we sing together at the top of our lungs. Francis says this is one of his favorite songs and it touches me that someone whose life is so different than my own finds joy in the same places.
I want to love somebody, love somebody like you!
When the song ends a local ballad starts to play. Though Francis speaks three languages, the language on the radio right now is not one of them. Since we don’t know what the singer is saying we make up lyrics and sing along as we head back to the hotel.
“I fell in love with a man and gave him everything and now he left me for a younger girl and I’m all alone,” I sing.
“I think she’s saying, ‘I must wait for a good man’,” adds Francis.
The next song is happy.
“I know what she’s saying,” I say. “I found my husband and I’m hap hap hap happy.”
I bop up and down in time with the hap-hap-haps and Francis and I fall into pearls of laughter.
We pull back into the driveway of the Holiday Inn Express and I feel a sense of sadness come over me as I realize Francis and I will soon part ways. We’ve made plans for the next day – he’s offered to take me back to Ela Beach in the morning for a walk before my conference.
Francis and I have become friends and my day with him has reinforced so many of the beliefs I’ve garnered in my travels – that getting in a taxi and driving around with a local really is one of the best ways to see the world. That people are what make travel so beautiful and every corner of the planet is home to possible new friends. And that, though the world may be dominated by news of violence and fear, up-close you find it’s just full of people taking what has been given to them and spinning it into life.
Note: Should you be interested in touring Port Moresby with Francis, he can be reached at NUMBER