Sunday, November 14, 2010

Someone to watch over me

by Geoffrey Heard

Let's be quite clear -- Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea's capital, is a tough town. In fact, it's a hot, dirty, tough town.

HOT: most of the time it is pretty hot and dry, and right now it is particularly hot and humid -- this being the doldrums, the few weeks between the dry season with its cooling laurabada (south-east trade wind) and the lahara (the north-west monsoon) with its cooling rains. Particularly hot, by the way, means only a couple of degrees more than its usual 30 celsius -- that couple of degrees really makes a difference.

I can remember decades ago when I was about to make perhaps the silliest decision of a life liberally sprinkled with silly decisions, looking out the window as the sun rose on yet another Port Moresby doldrums morning and saying out loud (with expletives deleted): "One more sunny day and I am going to go crazy!"

Then I took off for Australia. Just plain silly. It took decades for me to get back.

DIRTY: the rubbish in the streets is amazing. No busy street sweeping machines here, although now and again, you see men and women equipped with spades, shovels, brooms, and wheelbarrows cleaning up a length of street or drain or whatever and doing a darned good job. There's also the "voluntary" rubbish collection -- people collecting bottles of various descriptions for private recycling, for example.

But every day there seems to be a new accumulation of plastic bags, bits of cardboard, paper, drink bottles, cans, mango skins and stones, betelnut husks, and whatever rubbish, casually discarded to clutter the footpaths, roads, shoulders and gutters, and float around in the wind along with the dust, and petrol and diesel fumes from the racing minibuses, trucks, and ubiquitous SUVs (of the better off travelling in airconditioned comfort with the doors locked -- see "Tough" below).

And then there's the red splash of betelnut juice spat everywhere, defacing walls, paths, roads, everything up to a height of a metre or so. Everyone, it seems, is chewing betelnut and spitting the crimson liquid, it is even served after lunch in some pretty classy restaurants. Of course, no-one spits in the restaurants (they swallow), but nearly everyone feels free to spit outside.

It makes the few attempts at what one might call "proper graffiti" appear pathetically ineffectual in terms of defacing anything.

At times, Port Moresby looks like one mighty midden. It would surprise most visitors and even many foreign residents of this town to see that the same people who litter in the streets generally live in neat and tidy villages. In the village, they still litter, but they sweep around their houses first thing in the morning and often again in the afternoon. That's even true of squatter settlements (generally hidden from the eyes of the better fixed) within Moresby itself.

TOUGH: I've talked about this before. There's lots of street crime in Port Moresby, simple theft like pocket picking or purse snatching, but also armed hold-ups, and violence. There is invasive crime -- armed hold-ups (characterised locally as "a hands-up") of businesses, householders, and car drivers (hence the closed windows and locked doors of the SUVs), and the like. Every business house and home of any consequence has its security grilles, secure entrance, and fence, a barred or mesh construction a couple of metres high, often topped with razor wire. Attack dogs snarl behind the fences; uniformed security guards are ubiquitous ("security" might be Port Moresby's biggest industry).

You don't need to look twice to see where this crime comes from. Everywhere is the evidence of people struggling to make a tiny living. While most of Papua New Guinea is not in what you might call "starvation poverty" because people still own their own land traditionally, in Port Moresby people really do struggle to eat because it is hard, dry and they are a long way from home. They are selling pretty much anything on the streets to put a feed in their belly. Or committing crimes. Or both.

And that brings us to the title of this piece. Most days, Port Moresby is pretty busy, but on Saturdays, when most working people have the day off and do their shopping and socializing, it is a seething mass of humanity, no more so that in the retail area known as Boroko which is five minutes walk from where I am staying.

So last Saturday morning, having put in several solid hours writing, I strolled down to Boroko in mid-morning to visit the bank for a withdrawal and to do a little shopping.

I was stripped to the essentials for a tough town; no bag to be snatched, shorts with pockets fastened by velcro, a nearly empty wallet with just one credit card in it, and the awareness that as a white guy I am a target for street crime -- I am automatically labelled "rich" even though this label is laughably distant from reality. But when you have nothing.... Besides, all those Papua New Guineans who are far richer than me are in SUVs with the windows up and the doors locked.

Jenny, the housekeeper where I am staying, was concerned but was tied up with her work or she would have accompanied me. She uttered a warning to be careful because it was Saturday. My first watcher.

The second appeared as I stepped off the pedestrian overpass that took me across the main road into Boroko proper. I had noticed a youth peel off from a group at the other side of the overpass and follow me across; I had varied my pace, shifted from side to side to put others between us, and used the excuse of people coming the other way to walk somewhat crabwise so I could keep an eye on him. Now a biggish, oldish bloke hove to beside me. "Better watch your back, my friend," he said. "That young fellow looked as though he was up to something, so I kept just behind him ready to give him one if he made a move." My second watcher. I thanked him sincerely.

I made a couple of purchases with a credit card at a jewellers, then headed off down the street for the bank. I should have had a small bag with a strap over my shoulder and held under my arm. As it was, I had a couple of valuable small items stuffed into what had become a rather over-full pocket. Not the best way.

At the bank, a couple of the ATMs weren't working, so the security guard looked pretty busy managing a fair sized queue. Not too busy, it turned out. When I finally got to make my transaction 15 minutes later, the guard stepped in front of me as I left. "Better take a taxi, sir. Four men followed you here and they are waiting outside ." My third watcher. I marvelled that he had been able to keep an eye on the street while he was managing the queue and entry to the ATM booth. More thanks -- I walked straight out and jumped into a passing taxi.

Later that day, as I was extracting 50 toea (20 cents) from my pocket to pay the fare for a minibus ride to a hotel where I could access the internet, I dropped 10 toea on the seat. A fellow passenger, obviously of humble means, noticed my loss, picked up the coin and handed it to me. My fourth watcher.

Nasty things happen in this town, really nasty things, but when you get perfect strangers helping you in the street, it feels pretty nice.


O. Henry, famous for the kickers he dreamed up for his short stories, would have loved this.

When I was in the jewellery store, a little old lady, very poorly dressed, slapped down about K1500 ($600) to buy a lovely little gold mask ornament. When I got to the bank, she was already there, a couple ahead of me in the queue, wearing the mask on a gold chain around her neck. She withdrew several hundred kina then walked away through the crowd unremarked and unnoticed by the thieves watching me.

The damned ATM rejected my card so I actually left the bank with just enough cash in my pocket to pay the taxi driver -- not even enough to tip the eagle-eyed security guard.

Someone should have told those thieves the first rule of life: don't judge a book by its cover! ###


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.

The opinions and comments in this article are his own.