May 17, 2015

Playing with Bows and Arrows. Lae, PNG.

I tried to to like Lae, I really did. But I could not wait to leave. It is the second city of PNG, with just over a 100,000 population, located on the Huon Gulf, with palm trees, beaches, and a great position overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It could be a tropical island village in Hawaii, but the reality was more like Kabul.

It all started at the airport. I decided to take the airport minibus into town, it was cheaper and came highly recommended. It was also covered completely with a metal cage. It had been held up four times the previous month with all the passengers robbed of their money and luggage, and that was with the cage already in place. How the driver could see out  through the windscreen was a mystery. It was pouring with rain, and the windscreen wipers and the metal grill made vision impossible for me, and I was just behind the driver.

The airport was a long way out, and we passed through many villages on the way. Their naming lacked a bit in imagination, 'Ten mile' village was followed by 'Nine Mile' and 'Eight Mile' and so on until central Lae. Apparently the weather was causing flooding, and a fellow passenger told me that  the minibus would plough on regardless, it would not stop anywhere on the road into Lae for fear of rascals (gangs with home made guns) attacking it.

Lae is not a tourist destination, and may never be again. It has a lovely botanical gardens (I was told point blank I would be mugged if I entered there at any time of day) and some beautiful old colonial buildings. But it has fared worse than even Port Moresby, with crime out of control and little to recommend a visit now. As elsewhere in PNG the handicrafts are impressive, but there are few buyers. I popped into the central market and bought a beautifully carved wooden crocodile, which inventively used part of a tyre for the eye, and did not even bother to haggle the starting price was so low.

I met some of the few remaining expats who religiously went to the old colonial golf club in the centre of town every friday lunchtime and ate in the Chinese restaurant there. Great food, at a somewhat inflated price. One young English lady still jogged through the streets at 6AM every morning, was she worried I asked? "Not at all" she replied, "no one bad is up at that time, and anyway my car and driver follow behind me".

I was working for a few days at one of the major employers in Lae, distributing imported Chinese goods into mini-marts across the island. I was invited to stay at the worksite, it covered a large area and included staff housing, mainly for the expat management, as well as the huge warehouse and administration offices. 

Once the workers went home the place changed. Quiet, with a strange party atmosphere more reminiscent of a holiday resort. Huge amounts of alcohol were produced, and one of the managers wives from Fiji had cooked a curry feast. After a great evening I made my excuses and walked back to my small ground floor apartment, bumping into a smiling security guard, one of many I had seen walking around the perimeter beneath the large fence topped with razor wire. 

The guard was wearing a smart, carefully ironed, uniform with bright shniy buttons. In one hand he carried a heavy torch, and rather surprisingly had a large wooden bow over one shoulder, with arrows in a small sack around his waist.  I asked why he was so happy, "I just killim rascal supia bilong banara", he said. Which roughly translates to him shooting an attempted robber with one of his arrows. Apparently he had seen the man climbing carefully over the razor wire and had shot two arrows, one a direct hit causing the man to fall to the ground outside. I learnt later that the police were called, but only found a blood trail leading to the road. 

The next day I returned to Port Moresby, which was beginning to not look so bad.

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