Hello from Papua New Guinea!
I may have scared some of you last week talking about some of the dangers (or concerns of danger) in PNG. Sorry about that 🙂 While last week I spent my time in Port Moresby, this week I adventured away from the capital and to the highlands of PNG.
I wanted to visit a few villages, but they are all so different, how to choose? While visiting the museum last week, I commented how varied the masks and face paintings were. My guide for the day, Michael of the PNG Tourism Promotion Agency, explained that each tribe has their own style, which shows up in the face paint, the clothing, the masks, the head-dressing, everything. And with over 700 tribes, that means there’s a lot to see!
The Asaro Mudmen had my interest as soon as I saw a picture of them. When looking at what other tribes might be interesting nearby, the Skeleton Tribe in Chimbu was the clear winner. These two tribes don’t just have a slight variation, they have their totally own style, and that’s what I wanted to see. Both tribes were of course incredibly welcoming. I got the stories on where their unique styles come from and enjoyed sharing laughs and stories with them.
But my favorite moment of my PNG visit wasn’t a planned tour or visit – it came in conversation on a bus. I talked with Elos, a nurse training to be a midwife. The conversation was incredibly impactful and I’m totally humbled to have met her. The people are always the best part of the travel experience. We had great conversation about the current state of PNG – how is a country that has every resource they could need, a solid hub for business, with so much money coming in for gold, etc. mining, and so on, struggling? Where is it going? It’s obvious from being in Port Moresby that there is a lot of money coming in. But the roads outside of the city are hardly serviced. The health situation is shocking. The standard of living for the vast majority of the country is genuinely hard to witness.
How can such abundance not get back to the people? (her answer: corruption and foreign companies, which makes a little more sense why many locals don’t rush to welcome foreigners) The hope is that the government continues to work on things like PNG’s hosting of the Pacific Games (2015), bidding for the U20 World Cup, and other such events, which not only bring international tourism, but hold the government accountable to things like road improvements and other obvious infrastructure projects that can’t be swept under the rug from tourists.
Not only did Elos share her struggles and insights with me, but when she noticed a questionable character get on the bus and sit next to me, she made him switch seats with her. She didn’t want him next to me.
Her intuition was right, as it turns out. When he got off the bus, he came around, jumped himself up through the window and ripped my power bank out of my hand, and ran off down the hill into a village. There wasn’t anything I could do really, I was inside the bus and couldn’t very well come through the window. It all happened so fast, but I was over it emotionally pretty quickly – I had actually been trying to charge the power bank all day with no luck, so not really a big loss.
Now I know what you may be thinking – looks like the stories about PNG are true. Well, maybe. I’ve had things stolen before, but never so blatantly. I mean, there’s no shame in his game, to take it directly from my hand.
But what I think is really important here is what happened next. As he ran away from the bus and down the hill, more than half the bus emptied out and chased after him. They told me to stay on the bus. He had disappeared into the bush, so I tried to call them all back. Nope. One of the men on the bus had some type of title in the area, so he decided to stay behind, go into the village and see what he could suss out. My guide said he wanted to take me to our next stop, and then he come back to go to the police (I thanked him, but told him it was unnecessary, given the value of the item, for him to go out of his way like that). As everyone got back on the bus, they were pissed. Not only that it happened, but that it happened to a tourist. They were embarrassed. When I got off the bus at our final stop, every single person on the bus apologized to me.
For the record, the power bank was recovered within a few hours.
So my feelings on current PNG are mixed. For tourists, it’s an expensive destination. Crime is a concern and travel around the country is difficult purely because of the infrastructure. But the tribal culture is rich and unique. I stayed with several amazing families, and connected with some ex-pats (who say they’re temporary). The people are working hard and want to be proud of their country – many aren’t yet (my fellow bus riders showed this to me as they told me how upset they were that the pickpocket would likely be my impression of the country). They seem to moving in a direction that makes them happy, which can only be good for everyone.