Port Moresby: Papua New Guinea's ugly stepchild


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Published: April 6th 2018
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Port Moresby has a bad reputation.

Papua New Guinea conjures images of steamy jungles, of verdant hillsides, of distant tribes with bones dangling from their noses. Its name seems to reach out and say: Come here if you want adventure! Come and see nature in the RAW! What is doesn’t usually conjure, at least to me, was violence and mayhem.

Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s edgy capital, is a place to avoid if the media is to be believed. Travel advisories warn of the extreme violence that can befall a visitor foolish enough to step off a plane there. The chance of being robbed is very high, they say. The chance of meeting a bad guy is almost probable. The chance of being hacked and thrown into a cockroach infested pit something to consider. The main perpetrators of these devilish deeds are young, disenfranchised men. With an unemployment rate running at over sixty percent, coupled with a non-existent welfare state, the youth who live in Port Moresby’s squatter communities have banded to form gangs. They call themselves Raskols. In these roving bandit groups, they wield machetes and guns. They are a big problem in Port Moresby.

Raskols

Their main crimes of choice are rape, murder and carjacking. Rape comes mainly from the Raskol initiation ceremony whereby a gang member boy who wants to move up the chain of respect and be seen as a man has to rape a woman or girl. In order to evade arrest, the rapist usually murders the victim lest she identifies him. Not that he would be caught, anyway. The police are notorious for their lacklustre response to any crime. There is simply too much of it to deal with.

Papua New Guinea is perhaps the worst place in the world for a woman to live. Almost seventy percent of married woman have been beaten by their husband to the point of needing medical care. And this is a country where being drunk is an acceptable defence for a man who has punched or stabbed his wife.

So what the hell was I doing going there. This was a question I asked myself on the flight over from Brisbane. What was I thinking? Visiting a city regarded as the third worst in the world to live (number two is Lagos; number one: Damascus) seemed the antics of a madman. To give a little example of life in Port Moresby, I spoke to a young man at Brisbane Airport who sold me a bottle of water. When he asked for my boarding card and saw my destination, his eyes widened.

“My brother works over there. He hates it,” the young man told me. “To get to work he has to change his route all the time. His car had just had some extra bulletproof glass fitted. He’s got a panic alarm, too.”

Arrival

Landing was smooth and passport control was easy. And then I was in a minibus on the way to the Grand Papua Hotel, located downtown Port Moresby. From my rear seat, I peered outside, scanning the litter-strewn road for Raskols. I couldn’t see any.

“So is Port Moresby safe?” I asked the driver, a fifty-something gent with a paunch.

“Not really. It’s the gangs. They have no money and so steal what they can. But during the day, everything’s fine.”

“So what about at night?”

“Not safe. Don’t leave the hotel.”

We arrived at the Grand Papua safe and sound. The hotel was surrounded by tall walls, barbed wire and plenty of security guards. Just beyond the perimeter fence was a long line of faded storefronts. A few men sat under the shade near them. Dogs lolloped along the street, sniffing the dust and palm tree trunks. A group of children ran past carrying sticks and raucous laughter. A minivan stopped to pick up some passengers. Among them was an old lady wearing a large hat.

And then I decided to see some of the city. Not brave enough to walk around myself, I decided to order a taxi. It came with three options:

1. Unmarked car

2. Escort vehicle to follow

3. Armed Guards

This did not calm my mounting fears at being in a city that no one ever visits for their holidays.

Touring the city

And still I went outside. My taxi driver was an affable fellow with darkened windows. He told me that he lived closes by to the one of the squatter camps. “I know a few Raskols,” he told me. “The thing is, if you hide yourself away from them, they will come for you. But if they know you, and know your family, they leave you alone. Mind you, I wouldn’t recommend you – as a white guy – paying them a visit. They will take everything you have.”

We drove the Koki Fish Market, a hotbed of tuna, silverfish and mud crabs. All the crabs were alive and tied up. I felt sorry for them. But the people in the market were a friendly bunch. All of them were happy for me to walk around and see their wares. And that was the thing, wasn’t it? Even in so-called danger zones, people were going about their business, just carrying on with their lives. And with no sign of a Raskol, my anxiety levels disappeared. Here I was, in a brand new country, enjoying the sights and sounds of a country that people rarely ventured too.

Overall:

Port Moresby is not somewhere I would rush back to – it did have a definite edge. It’s also not the prettiest place in the world – dusty, dirty and plenty of stray dogs. But on the outskirts there are some picturesque stilt villages (where I met a chief with a machete. His face was like thunder until the taxi driver introduced me. Then a smile transformed his face. He introduced me to his son, who then showed me around the homes, explaining how they were built). Port Moresby also has a nice Botanical Garden, which I had a walk through. I think I may have come across some Japanese tourists there.

And in the end, I’m glad I went.


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