Our friend and sometimes travel companion Oke Millet, a Canadian now living in Santiago, writes about working in Papua New Guinea. We look forward to more stories of his adventures around the world!
Earlier this year, I got an incredible opportunity to work with the Government of Papua New Guinea. At the time, I knew very little about living and working in Papua New Guinea, although the country had long been on my list of places I was eager to visit. Reading a number of science books that discussed the incredible cultural diversity of PNG, in particular Jared Diamond’s work in PNG had made a visit here a bucket list item for me. Once the contracting was sorted out, I jumped on a plane from Santiago, Chile to Port Moresby, PNG (well, several planes to be precise) to begin this amazing chapter.
If you’re planning on visiting PNG as a tourist, the first piece of advice I have to offer you, is to save your shekels. This country is experiencing economic inflation unlike anything I’ve witnessed previously in any developing country. A combination of an influx of aid workers as well as massive oil, natural gas & mining development means that prices are absolutely ridiculous. For example, when I arrived, the cheapest hotel I could find (that was reasonably comfortable) was $375 USD a night. And this was FAR from a 5-star property. Renting a house was not hard to arrange, but even there, I pay $6500 USD a month for a two-bedroom, two-bath steel pre-fabricated house, located close to the office. (I sublet the second bedroom to offset some of the expense.)
The cost of living here is atrocious. Internet service is doled out by the MB of download – about 20 cents US per MB. To quantify this, if I wanted to download a 700MB movie, it would cost $140. If Hollywood ever wants to shut down BitTorrent, all they have to do is convince ISPs to price-fix like they do here. Other benchmarks: Fresh produce is almost exclusively imported from Australia and flown in by air. So I pay about $8 a pound for broccoli, $5 for a small head of lettuce, and so on. A pot of jam recently cost me $8, and I’m not talking some homemade specialty product. I’m talking dollar store discount brand, which may have had a strawberry wafted over a pot of bubbling pectin & red dye.
Beer & alcohol are priced on par, or perhaps a bit higher than what I would pay in Canada. A case of 24 beers is about $50. Wines start at about $15 a bottle, $20 and up for anything I would deign to ingest. Spirits are around $80 – $100 a bottle for brand names, although there are some local firewaters that are much less (I haven’t tried them).
As for the city of Port Moresby itself, there isn’t much to say other than spend a night here to get over your jet lag, and move along. It is the government and trade capital, but there is little to see or do here. The beaches themselves are polluted: Ela Beach is cheekily called ‘Cholera Beach’ as the settlement homes just dump their untreated sewage into the bay. The city has a bad reputation for criminal activity – muggings & car jackings – however I’m rather cynical about this. I find the city’s residents to be by and large friendly and accommodating. I take similar precautions as I would when travelling in any urban center. I don’t flash around money, I don’t wear any bling (not even a wedding band or a watch) or sport fancy electronics, and I keep a low profile. I also don’t drive around in a swanky car, preferring to use my legs or a Toyota taxi. Unfortunately, a number of the aid projects and foreign mining companies are engaging out of work Afghanistan/Iraq security services, which means you see aggressive driving on the roads, and a proliferation of weapons on the streets, often in the hands of steroid-monkey ex-military goons. It is most unnecessary. Almost none of the crime in PNG is violent, and certainly there are no terrorist types of incidents where an armed guard could be of any use to you. I much prefer my more practical approach to personal security, although it does result in some head shaking and tut-tutting on the part of some of my colleagues.
The climate is tropical and pleasant, if not a bit overwhelming at times. One side of the island tends to get buffeted by winds, and rainfall is common October through February. The city itself is quite green, with lots of tropical flowers in bloom. The University botanical garden is definitely worth a visit while in Moresby – nicely maintained, and several displays of animals to boot.
Travelling outside of Moresby, even just 10 miles or so, and one feels instantly like you are travelling on a National Geographic expedition. Going for a hike in Varirata National Park, or visiting one of my co-workers home villages on the weekend, are exciting opportunities to observe interesting landscapes, see all sorts of unusual plants, animals and fish, and to generally have a fascinating cultural experience. PNG is a Scuba divers Mecca. While I haven’t been, I have dove extensively in Indonesia and East Timor, so I assume it is as equally stunning here if not more so. There are apparently whale sharks from time to time, if you are particularly fortunate.
If you get the chance to observe a ‘Sing-Sing’ you must absolutely seize the opportunity. PNG is one of the most diverse countries in the world, with pockets of ‘tribes’ who have had little contact with the outside world. There are apparently over 800 languages spoken in this country of some 6 million people, a mind-boggling fact. In speaking with many of my colleagues, I am surprised to learn that there are few similarities between many of these languages. It is not uncommon for villages a few miles apart to have languages that are completely unrelated. At a ‘Sing-Sing’ representatives from these various tribes will danceand sing according to their traditions, which are as varied, interesting and dramatic as the Papua New Guineans themselves.
Since I am here for work, and not pleasure, I have yet to have an opportunity to travel to more remote locations in the country. I hope to visit places like Mt. Hagen, New Britain, Bougainville and Lae in the months ahead, and I will share those experiences here. For the adventuresome, Papua New Guinea awaits!