When people think of Papua New Guinea, they often conjure up images of the violence in Port Moresby and giant saltwater crocodiles. Sometimes they think of wild, barefoot natives that’ve eluded “progress” by murdering all those who would impose it on them, eating their bodies, and taking a shit on their heads from out the bottom of their grass skirts. Sometimes they imagine the wild, barefoot natives spearing people in the head while riding on TOP of giant saltwater crocodiles.
I’ll admit I was skittish about going. There was almost no information online outside of the emphatic plea NOT to go. It was made out to be a country filled with people that were carrying on the same way they’d been doing for thousands of years, and that even money (in the silly, government-regulated paper form we’re used to) had yet to gain any real momentum,… which sounds charming and all until you consider that they gained social prestige by instead chopping off and collecting people’s heads.
Any information that wasn’t about the aggressive and flesh-hungry nature of the people was instead concerned with monstrous, this-island-only, multi-legged horrors. At the end of my research, I was left supposing that my plane was likely to be snatched out of the air by a giant octopus and dragged into the sea long before I even got to Immigration.
As a traveler, you get used to fending off the concerns of people who love you. My mother often worries about me getting sick in some jungle outpost somewhere and dying alone without ever getting the opportunity to tell her that she was right. My father, the more reserved type, just silently sends along articles about natural disasters, pirates, terrorists, and hippos (which are not, according to Mike Birbiglia, harmless marblevores, like participation in the tabletop board game “Hungry Hungry Hippos” would lead you to believe). Even friends who have been abroad themselves have sat me down and sternly given me a what’s-what about the difference between flip freedom and stupidity.
However, unless you plan to limit your travel to the developed world and a handful of other “safe” destinations, you get pretty good at both comforting others and ignoring them a little bit. Everywhere is dangerous, at least a little. It doesn’t mean you should stay home. You just need to know where you’re going and do some research. Be a good little traveler, and don’t make a spectacle of yourself. Meet local people and stay informed. Most of all, avoid crowds, and get as far out into the countryside as you can.
After all, when was the last time you heard of a terrorist attack on a sleepy fishing village in Vanuatu?
Fucking never, that’s when.
Many of the most rewarding destinations I’ve been to have come with a folderful of bad press: Sri Lanka, South Africa, Indonesia, Venezuela, Bosnia. They were the bad boys of the 90s, stealing headlines and leaving behind a trail of broken promises (usually regarding peacekeeping efforts) to the UN. They were unique, and I walked away from them all with incredible experiences and impressions of warm people who were keen to teach me about the other side of their country- the part BBC and CNN didn’t carve out time for.
And yet, Papua New Guinea gave me a case of the willies.
But why? After all, nobody I’d met had sat me down and warned me against it. Nobody was sending me seismograph readings and nobody was telling me about how they’d gotten robbed there. In fact, nobody was saying anything about it. Nobody knew anything. Nobody had been there, and nobody was going. It was as if somebody had accidentally punctured a hole in the map and cut out the world’s second-biggest island. Where was all the info?
Prior to boarding my Denpasar => Port Moresby flight (the very first one ever!), I buddied up to a few of my fellow passengers, hoping to extract some tips on the culture and some advice on where to go.
“You have someone to pick you up?”
“You have a booking at a hotel?”
Muttering amongst themselves, they clustered into a tight ball, discussing logistics.
“She’ll never survive!” A 286-year old Australian nun’s voice floated shrilly out of the mass.
At the end of their meager conference, a kindly man told me that the only advice he could give was to cancel my trip.
“I’m already at the gate.”
These people really were very nice. One of them tried to give me money, and nearly all of them stuffed business cards into my hands with directions to call if anything at all went wrong. But in the end, all they did was freak me out.
But whatever. I was going. After reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, I had promised to see this place for myself. I had dreamed of experiencing the unique landscape and sampling the local cuisine. I had been itching to dispel all the myths.
I had also bought a non-refundable one-way ticket from Port Moresby to Vancouver that had cost me close to $2,000.
I was going, god dammit.
So yeah, PNG has a bad reputation in the South Pacific. Everyone is terrified of the capital, Port Moresby, just like Guatemala City in Guatemala, or Johannesburg in South Africa. Just like every capital in every developing country. In fact, the only big, safe city I’ve ever visited is Vientiane, and that’s because it’s so hot, everybody’s asleep. No one has the energy to murder anyone.
Well, PNG is mountainous and cool. The people have energy and they move about. They’re not exactly busy and distracted all the time, either, as you see groups of them sitting on the street drinking Squash. They’re mobile and they’re attentive, and they’re all staring at you. You with your cadaverous skin and flaccid hair. And what the hell are you doing carrying around that huge bundle on your back? Don’t you know to put it on your head?
So what do they do? They come up and help you with your bag. They get you to have a cool drink out of the sun while they find someone to walk you where you’re going. They speak perfect English and not only get every joke that you’ve made, they take the piss right out of you in return.
I spent all of my time there in the company of Papua New Guineans. I walked down to the shop with them. I drank (much to my pucker-mouthed chagrin) copious amounts of Squash with them. I talked about politics, and love, and women’s rights with them while a gang of overly-enthusiastic third graders plucked at my roots and attached flowers and bits of garbage to my hair.
I helped out at the elementary school, and went hiking with the children. I asked them to explain their country’s history to me, and I hesitatingly attempted to sing (what I knew of) the Star Spangled Banner for them. They had never heard it before.
When I left, the friends I had made helped me attempt to wrap up all the various gifts I’d received in the last few days: a small wooden canoe from one of the kids at the school, a handmade shell necklace from one of the teachers, a painting from a friend, a bag,… and stow them away in my groaning Gregory 40-Liter. I hugged them all good-bye and was genuinely sad to go, knowing that in their little village, they would not hear of me again, even if I sent a dozen emails to the poorly articulated address (which contained no “at” symbol, even when I pointed it out and they wrote it for me again) that they folded neatly and packed with care inside my new handwoven purse.
It’s amazing how easy it is to get caught up in headlines and your own fear of the unknown, even if you’ve faced it a million times before and come out fine on every occasion. It’s unbelievable how quickly one can forget the humanity of people they don’t know and saturate their mind with apprehension and anxiety instead.
Thankfully, I was in a country where they’re not having any of that. No time to be afraid of the “natives.” They’ve invited you to dinner, and their friends have already all introduced themselves– signaling their good intentions by pressing small, oval-shaped beetle nuts into your hand. A chicken has been slaughtered, and their daughter is already making a bracelet for you out of a piece of her own shoe.
The sun has gone down, and there are no generators. Someone has located a guitar, but a 2-year old has fallen asleep with her arms wrapped around it. Both of them are laying forgotten on top of a heap of rubber bands. The family has brought their one solar-powered lantern to your hut. Everyone in town is there, and they want to hear all about you.
“The sky was clear – remarkably clear – and the twinkling of all the stars seemed to be but throbs of one body, timed by a common pulse.” — Thomas Hardy