You know, when I stepped out of the Vietnamese Consulate back in September I honestly thought that my days of being trapped like a cog in the bureaucratic nightmare that is VISAHELL was over.
But then came East Timor, deciding just a few months ago to stop issuing visas for the trickle of western tourists that bother to visit their country overland from Indonesia. But even after that was all sorted out, like the mythological hydra, more bloody visas were called for, most hilariously for Indonesia as described in my blog entry entitled A Red Background.
And now with just 17 countries left to visit and all of them being as far-flung as you can fling a flang, I’m trapped on the border of Papua New Guinea almost having a nervous breakdown brought upon by yet another impenetrable layer of bureaucracy that makes the world of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil look streamlined and sensible.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH THESE DAMN PLACES? I’m not a criminal, I’m not a terrorist, I’m not a international superspy. Are they really doing that well that they can afford to turn back tourists?? PAPUA NEW GUINEA, in the short time I was in Jayapura I met SIX people who gave up trying to get into your country. I’m not bigging myself up, I’m just a wannabe TV presenter on just one of Rupert Murdock’s myriad cable channels. But one of the guys you shooed away was a millionaire.
I’ll say that again, just in case ANYONE from Papua New Guinea is reading this.
YOUR COUNTRY, WHOSE PER CAPITA GDP IS LESS THAN THE GAZA STRIP’S, TOLD A MILLIONAIRE THAT THEY DID NOT WANT HIS CUSTOM.
Are you guys INSANE? Like, really really insane??
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s start at the beginning. Stepping off the Pelni ferry at 4am on Thursday 16th December was a little like trying to get out of the front row of an Oasis gig just as the band is about to start but loaded down with backpacks and teetering on a watery precipice. There were people EVERYWHERE. It was all I could do to prevent myself falling into the breathtakingly polluted water of Jayapura’s port.
Groggy, sleepy and unhappy I began to trudge towards the few hotels listed in the Lonely Planet. The few CouchSurfers here had buggered off for the Christmas hols and so the choice was either hotel or a notel. The first place I tried was full.
So was the second.
And the third.
And the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh.
After TWO AND A HALF HOURS of trudging around with my backpack and my bags, I finally found somewhere for the night, but at $22 for a single room, I could feel my already stretched budget kicking me in the balls. But I justified it to myself because I could have a couple of hours kip this morning, so I was effectively getting two nights for the price of one.
It wasn’t much of a justification, but at least there was air conditioning, a hot shower, a western-style toilet and a TV (that I didn’t use). I fell asleep and woke up a couple of hours later, gathered my ‘visa kit’ and raced off to the Papuan New Guinea Consulate for when it opened at 10am.
Now it says in the Lonely Planet that you can get a PNG visa at the Consulate in Jayapura the next day, or if you ask really nicely, the same day.
Good one, LP. Did you actually get a visa at this consulate, or did you just go in and ask them how long they take? Because I can tell you it’s much MUCH more of a headache than that.
I filled out the form enquiring after my collar size and father’s maiden name only to be told that I couldn’t make a visa application without a valid airline ticket out of the country.
TOP TIP for developing nation: If a western tourist ludicrously outstays his or her visa and you can’t afford to deport them, just sentence them to five years in jail. THEIR OWN COUNTRY will soon pay for their repatriation!!
Anyway, twattily enough, I also had to write another daft letter explaining why I wanted to go to Papua New Guinea.
The temptation to write TO RAPE AND STEAL AND DESTROY was almost overwhelming, but I managed to stifle that baser instinct. So I went to the internet place over the road, bought a ticket from Port Moresby to Brisbane, wrote a silly letter and returned… to be told to come back after 1pm.
So I waited outside in the baking heat of northern New Guinea, within a skerrick’s pube of the equator, sweating and fuming. If only I’d know this would just be the beginning of my VISAHELL, I probably would have gone off to shoot liquid crack into my eyeballs. But instead I waited patiently (and sweatily) and at 1pm I walked in and handed over my papers, tickets, photocopies, photos and application forms only to be told I needed to get a photocopy of my Indonesian visa.
Wha? Uh? Bu…?
I stormed off down the road, got page 23 of my passport photocopied in a roadside shack and returned within the half-hour.
Thanks. Will it be ready tomorrow.
The lady said she would try.
I jumped onboard the next ‘bemo’ (minibus) back to town. Happy days.
I found a place just up the road from my hotel that had free internet but where the coffee was TWO POUNDS a cup (blimey! – so much for travelling on the cheap!) and managed to pad two coffees out to last me the whole day. The coffee place closed at 10pm and I retired to my hotel. Things were going well – at this rate I should be in Papua New Guinea by the weekend.
The next day I checked out of my hotel and hop, skipped and jumped down to the Consulate, five miles away.
Here’s a video recreation of my conversation with the woman on the front desk.
I stepped outside and emitted a silent scream. Looks like I’ll be in hideously expensive (well, let’s just say ‘hideous’) town of Jayapura for the weekend. If this visa isn’t ready by Monday morning, I am quite frankly going to have a bit of a meltdown. After scoping out the competition (and finding them all full for the weekend) I checked back into my hotel only to be told that the only rooms they now had left were ‘luxury’ rooms.
I stepped outside and emitted a very LOUD scream.
So the weekend slobbered by with me attempting to minimise my expenses as much as possible. I generally hung out in the café with internet and actually managed to stretch the purchase of one coffee cover a mammoth twelve hour internet binge in which I managed to download this video off my good chum Leo and convert it for YouTube:
No mean feat at 56 kbits a sec I tell you!
So what do you want to know about Jayapura? Well it’s a wild west town on the far eastern edge of Indonesia. It’s unattractive, unremarkable and, well, about as much fun as sticking broken glass up your nostrils.
But here’s something to make you laugh. Or cry, I dunno. In the middle of the town there is a excruciatingly tasteless concrete statue of an Indonesian soldier standing with a flag and gun – and this soldier is being held up on a pedestal by obviously Papuan natives. Anyone who has seen the latest Harry Potter film might spot the similarities with the ‘Magic Is Might’ statue ordered by a certain He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
Anyway, before I knew what was what it was Monday. The weekend was over (not that Jayapura has much in the way of ‘weekends’ but hey-ho. So I hailed a bemo and headed off to the PNG consulate for the fourth time.
Here’s a video recreation of my conversation with the woman on the front desk.
I returned THREE TIMES that day. The first time she told me to come back at 1. The second time she told me to come back at 4. The last time she told me that it wasn’t ready, but would DEFINITELY be ready for tomorrow.
It’s not just the inconvenience here, it’s the fact that Jayapura is ugly, smelly and EXPENSIVE. I returned to my hotel sweaty, hot, exhausted (the consulate is five miles away) and ready to kill, kill and kill again. Luckily for me I ran into a couple of Bules in the same position. One was a South African surf/wave detective (yes!) called Harald, and the other was a top chap from Hawaii called Mike. Harald and Mike are travelling the world in pursuit of the perfect wave. It’s all very cool indeed.
So we had a few drinkies together. They were going to try and get visas for PNG but decided (based on what they had been told by fellow Bules) that they were going to skip their trip to Papua New Guinea BECAUSE IT WAS TOO DIFFICULT TO GET A VISA. You hear that, PNG?? So they were going to stay in Indonesia instead AND SPEND ALL THEIR MONEY IN INDONESIA INSTEAD. Yeah – go for it, guys, PNG obviously has bigger fish to fry.
The next day I (again) packed all my things together and checked out of my hotel. I travelled over to the PNG consulate and… hey! Guess What…?
So that’s a no then is it? A NO. EVEN THOUGH YOU TEXTED ME THIS MORNING SAYING THAT MY VISA WAS READY AND I COULD COME PICK IT UP.
If somebody had handed me a tank of petrol and a match at this point I would have not been responsible for my actions.
So I returned to my hotel as quickly as I could an – would you Adam n’ Eve it – the damn place was FULL. Utterly utterly full.
That was it, I thought. Death must reign down from above. While I know it’s not Indonesia’s fault per se, I must regretfully report that I’m really starting to despise Indonesia. While India will always be home to the most irritating people in the world, Indonesia (appropriate name) comes a very close second. As I walk down the street there is an excruciating meeeeee-ster every few seconds. If I ignore it, it will continue meeeeeee-ster! MEEEEEEEEE-STER!!! MEEEEEEEEEE-STER!!!!!!! MEEEEEEEEEEEE-STER!!!!!!!!!!!, but if I turn I know I’ll get the old howareyou? followed by the usual, predictable peel of howling laughter that leaves you wondering whether you remembered to put on your trousers this morning.
No, I don’t want to shake your hand wizened old man – mainly because I was having a slash the other day and I saw the man next to me SCOOP PISSY WATER OUT OF THE URINAL WITH HIS HAND and ‘wash’ his dick with it. As with many developing nations, germ theory and basic hygiene are undiscovered countries here – people do all kinds of disgusting crap with their hands and then expect me to shake on it. Ha! No! Bugger off.
And for heaven’s sake: maybe, like one day, I might, you know, want to go 24 hours without eating luke-warm white rice with a GODDAMN COLD FISHHEAD ON TOP. I saw a sign for Pizza Hut yesterday. I got very excited about it and all day I was fantasising about getting a nice HOT pepperoni pizza… Actual Bread! Melty Cheese! Spicy Sausage!!
I walked back to my hotel and asked the girl on reception to order me a pizza. Then I found out that Jayapura does not have a Pizza Hut. It’s in another town, 15km away.
Okay: is there anywhere in this large sprawling town where I can get… chips? No. Steak? No. Pasta? No. Potatoes? No. A Sarnie? No. A Sausage? No. Mexican? No. Indian? No. Thai? No. Malaysian? No. Chinese… come on, there MUST be a Chinese place…? No. A kebab?
What’s a kebab?
DEAR GOD PLEASE HELP ME.
There are a hundred food stalls and shops here in Jayapura, and EVERY SINGLE ONE just sells white steamed rice and fish-heads. You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. In the Middle East I get it, IT’S A DESERT: a lump of gritty meat wrapped in sandy bread is the best you can hope for. But in Indonesia you could throw a stick into the ground and it would grow into a tree. These were THE SPICE ISLANDS for heaven’s sake. What’s with the monoculture? What’s with the little plastic packets of ‘spicy sauce’ I get with my rice and fish heads?? Maybe Indonesia isn’t such an appropriate name – if there’s one thing I’ll always forgive India all her sins for, it’s the corkin’ nosh. Here you’re best bringing a packed lunch – those fish heads have been sitting in that hot, sweaty, fly-infested window for hours… or maybe days…
And is anything open after 9pm? I know going to bed early is the Asian disease (and quite possibly why there are so many Asians in the first place) but please, I just want a bottle of water. Or maybe a pack of Handie Andies.
And are sidewalks without massive deadly holes in them too much to ask? Do Indonesian town planners sit around with diagrams and schematics working out the optimum way to turn a simple task like walking down the street into a live-action version of Super Mario Brothers? And does all this litter bother anybody but me? On the boat to see the Komodo Dragons last month there was so much crap in the water I was convinced that a ship hauling rubbish to the dump had recently sunk – it brought to mind the trash-compactor scene from Star Wars: oh no, all in a day’s work for this dianoga-friendly UNESCO World Heritage site. Illegal logging? That’s no problem – just give me a bung and I’ll look the other way… after all, there’s plenty more virgin rain forest where that came from.
AND WHAT is with this whole thing of making it impossible to see out of the windows of minibuses? How the hell am I supposed to know when to get out? Now I understand some people (drug-dealers mostly) don’t want people seeing into their vehicle, but purposefully making only 10% of your windscreen see-through is just f—ing NUTS. Is it to stop tall people stealing your minibus?
And no, I DON’T SMOKE. But thanks for walking all the way over here so you can sit right next to me in this big empty room and blow smoke in my face. And, since you’re here, why not crane your neck over so you can read what I’m typing? Go ahead, I find it easier to write with a goddamn audience. Yes, I prefer friendly people to the cold indifference of Eastern Europeans, but c’mon, this is just… irritating. Really, really irritating. Like that noise they make in Dumb and Dumber.
AND YES your music is shite it keeps me up all night. Well, it would do if I wasn’t such a heavy sleeper. And no, I don’t want it amplified so loud that it shakes the poo out of my bottom. There’s a passive-aggressive notion from middle-class dinner tables that western (well, UK, US and Jamaican) music is somehow inferior to what we like to condescendingly describe as ‘World Music’. To that I say PFFFFFFFFT. Local music is AWFUL pretty much everywhere: in Latin America the best you can hope for is Me Gustas Tu, in Africa everyone is too busy listening to African-American homosexual jingle-pop (or R&B as it’s also known), continental Europe is all um-pah-pah, accordions, the Spinal-Tap of Death Metal or 80s pop that would have seemed dated in the 80s, the Middle East just sounds like Tarzan falling down a very deep well, India is some shrieking harridan singing through her nose whilst wobbling about behind a pillar, SE Asia is even more obsessed with Celine Dion and Bryan Adams than even the Middle East (the more I travel, the more I become convinced that heterosexuality is the one that’s ‘not natural’) and Indonesia? Jesus wept. Possibly because people kept playing Indonesian music at him.
Oh Graham, you big meanie… you’re such a music nazi. Yes, yes I am and this music ist not gut! From a population of 250 million with its thousands of islands, hundreds of languages and mosaic of cultures, I expect at least one song that makes me tap my foot instead of sticking my fingers in my ears and going LALALALALALALALALALALALALALALA.
In short, Indonesia: you irritate the crap out of me, you don’t wash your hands, your cuisine is as dull and your music is poo. And too loud. It’s not me, darling, it’s you. You’re too plain Jane, the spice has gone out of our relationship and I would rather spend my time with other countries – ones that like to stay up late and dance until the break of dawn. Let’s get divorced so I never have to see you again, but I can look back on my time spent with you with fondness as my memories of your bloody awful cooking fade with time. Welcome to Dumpsville, Population: You.
BUT WAIT…! What’s this?
Indonesia… come back!!
I didn’t mean it! I was just – you know – venting!
Yes, I will forgive a country of pretty much anything if it manages to send my tastebuds on a spine-tingling roller-coaster ride of texture, flavour and outright yumminess. And tonight, Indonesia you have surpassed yourself.
Maybe the fact that I had to eat crap for two months was a conspiracy to make me lower my standards, lower my defences before… WHAM!!!
The tastiest dish I have EVER EVER eaten.
A little bit of backstory: after getting kicked out of my hotel, I headed over to the hotel that Mike and Harald were staying at and tried to check in there, but (lords-a-lordy) it was also full. Harald and Mike, being the top blokes that they are, agreed to let me sleep on their floor and the hotel kindly supplied me with a mattress.
So once I was settled in, Mike and Harald had some good news… unlike me they wouldn’t be spending a lonely Christmas in this shithole, they had just scored the last couple of seats on the last plane out of here on Thursday morning. Lucky buggers.
Mike was (understandably) ecstatic at this news and wanted nothing more than some decent tucker to celebrate, so we headed towards the seafood shacks laid out along the road beside the harbour. But not just to any seafood shack, we went to THE seafood shack. Possibly the finest seafood shack in South East Asia.
THIS is what I’m talkin’ about! For just six quid each, we got a deliciousfreshly-caught blue grenadier cooked to perfection of the barbie:
We also got a plateful of delicious deep-fried king prawns:
But that was a mere trifle compared to the gastronomic perfection that was to come. I ordered fresh calamari out of the cooler box and Harald, being fluent in Indonesian (and an able fisherman himself) was able to explain exactly what we wanted. And what we wanted was heaven on a plate. And that’s exactly what we got.
She may not look like much kid, but she’s got it where it counts.
Lightly tempura’d calamari, served up with long-cut stir-fried veggies in a sweet and sour sauce. Man, my mouth is watering just thinking of it. Usually calamari can be a bit chewy – this stuff was so fresh it literally melted in your mouth.
So yes, Indonesia, you have won me over. Unlike the BLOODY PAPUA NEW GUINEA which well and truly HASN’T. That night I stayed up drinking with the other Bules staying at our hotel, all of whom were waiting for visas. This guy, Quentin, was from France and had been waiting TWO WEEKS for a visa.
Please be aware that at this point it was the wee small hours of Wednesday morning: Christmas day is NEXT SATURDAY.
If we didn’t get our visas for PNG today, we’d be stuck in Jayapura until 2011.
And all the wonderful calamari in the world wouldn’t make it worth staying. I wanted out. I wanted to reach my 51st country before the year’s end – and, more than that, I wanted to USE the damn plane ticket to Australia they made me buy.
I wanted to see Mandy again. It’s been too long.
So after a few hours kip, Quentin and I descended on the FRIKKIN’ PNG Consulate for the twentieth time. And this time we were not leaving until we got our visas. I had been told yesterday that my visa was ready and IN MY PASSPORT. Arriving at 10am, we were told to wait.
The visa is in my passport! Give me the damn thing!!
It needs to be signed.
By the man who signs the visas.
And is this man in work today?
And is this man coming into work today?
I don’t know.
ARE YOU ON CRACK?
Okay, give me my passport now, I’ll sign it myself and take my chances.
I have never wanted to beat another human being to death with their own shoes before, but this bloody woman was seriously moments away from joining the choir invisible. I told her I wasn’t leaving without my visa and she put up the ‘closed’ sign and tottered off.
If they had just told me in the first place that it would take a week to put a bloody stamp in my bloody passport it wouldn’t be so bad. If they hadn’t made me come back TIME AND TIME AGAIN IN THE SWELTERING HEAT with false promises that my visa was ready it wouldn’t be so bad. If they where rushed off their feet and had thousands of applications to get through, it still wouldn’t be acceptable, but it wouldn’t be so bad.
But we are talking here about a stamp in a passport and a couple of lines of writing. Even if you were an illiterate slug it would only take a minute to do. And it wasn’t as though there was a queue of Bules waiting outside every morning – and Indonesians don’t need visas for Papua New Guinea. They probably had about ten visa applications to process A WEEK. If that. Well, me and Quentin waited. And waited.
The first few hours were painful. It was hot, it was sweaty and I’m sure my hair was beginning to fall out. At 1pm they wanted to close for lunch so we go chucked out, but we were back again at 2pm sharp. My bloody mindedness was now thinking along the lines of ‘if I create a bloody nuisance of myself, they’ll give me the visa just to get shut of me’.
Well, it wasn’t the most elegant of plans, but (eventually) it worked. But not early enough for me to be able to get to PNG today. The last taxis apparently left at 1pm. It was 3.30pm before I got my visa. Another exasperated Bule, a German guy called Jan, came into the consulate and got his visa at the same time – he, like me, had been waiting a week.
Quentin, on the other hand, who had been waiting for TWO WEEKS for his visa, came away empty handed. Unbelievable. Utterly unbelievable.
Oh, and our ordeal didn’t end there. Jan and I headed over to the immigration office in Jayapura to get stamped out of the country when we were hit with the most baffling piece of red-tape in the history of dick-headed bureaucracy. If you got a visa on entry to Indonesia, you aren’t allowed to leave via Jayapura. As Jayapura is the ONLY border post between PNG and Indonesia, this somewhat leaves your options limited.
Luckily for me, I had gone through the frigmarole of getting a ‘proper’ visa for Indonesia in East Timor (as they weren’t being issued on the border). Jan wasn’t as lucky. Of course, the c—s at immigration would be willing to accommodate his predicament (for a $60 ‘fee’), the alternative being for him to FLY BACK TO JAKARTA.
This is just quite mind-boggling and a new one on me – an international border that you cannot LEAVE a country from without the correct ENTRY visa. How f—-ing stupid do you want to be?
Oh, Indonesia, you had me for a moment with that sublime calamari, but you’ve just blown all that good will. Sickeningly corrupt and loaded with ill-gotten blood money, you can go to hell, Indonesia. You SUCK! And, while you’re at it, get the hell out of West Papua. It’s not yours and you’re only there for the gold. The profits from which go on WHAT EXACTLY? Health care? Schools? Roads?!
Ha. HA! HAHAHAHAHA!! Don’t make me laugh!
They go straight into the back packets of the slimy politicians that live on an island a thousand miles away, literally and metaphorically. Bluuuuuurgh to the lot of ya!!
Happily, Mike and Harald weren’t leaving Jayapura until the morning, so they (being top chaps) again allowed me to kip on their floor. Thanks, guys!!
Tomorrow there will be nothing to stop me getting into Papua New Guinea. I booked a taxi to the border. It will be the Eve of Christmas Eve. Looks like I’ll be spending another Christmas without the girl I love. PNG is not a happy place and while I’m quite happy to risk my safety doing this crazy stuff, I’m not willing to put Mandy in that situation, so I’ve told her not to fly to me this time around.
Up early as Jan wanted to get to the border the moment it opened. Mike and Harald had left in the wee small hours, so I checked out on their behalf (thank god there was no minibar!!) and hit the road in a shared taxi.
The drive to the border was surprisingly slick, I was expecting worse and we arrived in good time. The was the usual formalities, but nothing went wrong and nobody asked us to pay an imaginary ‘fee’, so that was good.
I’m now in the 184th country of The Odyssey Expedition: Papua New Guinea. One of FOUR Guineas spread out all over the world (the others being Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Equatorial Guinea: and all of them utter basketcases, sadly enough). Even though West Papua is culturally very similar to PNG, you are left in no doubt whatsoever that you’ve crossed a border into another country.
BYE BYE Nasi Goreng and cries of mieeeeeeester and fried fish heads in the window, HELLO and massive queues for everything, no cafes, restaurants or fast food and a general feeling of malevolence that means you’d be highly unlikely to leave your bags unattended for any length of time. If Indonesia is South East Asia with a tinge of Arabia, PNG is Africa with a tinge of Outback Australia.
The first town over the border, Vanimo, was a bit of a culture shock. The massive queues for the supermarket, bank, cash machines were crazy and, to my mind completely unsustainable: of course they were, I soon found out that the cargo ship had come in today: by 1pm nearly everything had been sold, and the supermarket shelves, previously full of all kinds of stuff – food, toys, clothes – lay empty. That was the ‘shopping’ for the week. Boy, you’d be several different shades of pissed off if you overslept. It would be like forgetting to put the bins out, only you’d starve.
So, first things first – I needed to find a way of getting to Wewak – the first major town along the north coast. From there I could plant my flag, somehow get to the capital city of Port Moresby then onto Australia to be with my (exceedingly patient) girlfriend for Christmas. I’ll be flying back to Wewak in the New Year to continue my journey and Australia will not be ticked off the list. Of course, Mandy could fly to PNG to meet me, but, er, if anyone has actually been to PNG they might appreciate how much not fun that might be!
The cool thing is that Mandy is blissfully unaware of my intentions, it’s only known to a handful of people. She hates surprises, but she might just like this one.
There were just several small problems with this plan:
My flight to Oz leaves Port Moresby tomorrow at 2pm – and Port Moresby is on the other side of the island. There would be no other way of making this connection other than flying. Okay…
The next flight from Vanimo (here) to Port Moresby leaves here tomorrow at 11am and would be getting into the capital at 1.10pm – leaving agonisingly (just) too little time for to check-in for my flight to Australia.
My only hope of catching a flight that would get me to Port Moresby in time was to get to the next big town along the coast – Wewak. There was a flight at 6am tomorrow morning which would get me to Port Moresby in good time for my connection to Australia.
But to get to Wewak before 6am wouldn’t be easy: the weekly cargo/passenger ship that trundled along the coast did leave today (which was lucky), but was scheduled to get into the port of Wewak at – get this – 6.30am.
Why do the gods mock me so??!!!!!!
Happily, since my Lonely Planet was written, a half-decent road had been constructed between Vanimo and Wewak. So all I needed to do was to find a bus or shared taxi that could take me to Wewak today. So I sat in the baking heat of the equatorial sun waiting for some kind of transport to come along.
And I waited…
And nothing came. Nothing whatsoever. Since the boat to Wewak would be leaving this afternoon, there was little or no reason for anyone to drive – all of the transport was waiting until tomorrow. I must have spoken to over a hundred people, staggering about in the dust and intense heat weighed down with all my bags. One guy said he’d take me in his car – for $2000 (really). An Aussie guy in uniform said he could take me in his helicopter – ‘if I was rich’.
By 3.30pm I was tired, exasperated, sunburnt and more than a little upset that because of my Papua Visa Hell I would be missing Christmas with Mandy. I called up the only person in the world who could help me out of this predicament. Alex Zelenjak, Our Man In Havana (well, Sydney). He got on the phone to the airlines and snapped into action.
Could Virgin Blue change my ticket to a later time? No. The 2pm one is the last flight tomorrow. Could they quickly escort me from my internal flight from Vanimo to my flight to Australia? No. There would be no time. When is the next flight available? The 26th December.
Arse arse arse and arse.
Hmm… if I take the boat to Wewak (on the grounds that by some miracle I MIGHT make the 6am flight to Port Moresby) but miss the 6am flight, can I cancel the ticket then?
No. In fact, you can’t change the ticket within 24 hours of the flight.
I looked at my watch. It was 4pm. My flight left in 22 hours.
You’ve got to be kidding. Out of options and unable to change my flight, I ran towards the Wewak ship. Alex, help me out here, man.
I was the last person to get a ticket for the ship and clambered onboard pretty much as they were raising the gangplank. If I thought the boats in Indonesia were a little overcrowded, they have nothing on the boats in PNG. Heaven help us if we sunk – the passageways weren’t full of people who didn’t have a space in the sleeping quarters – the passageways were the sleeping quarters. It wasn’t cheap either, but then (as I quickly discovered) nothing in PNG is cheap.
Jan the German guy was onboard and he was one of just two people who had bought a VIP ticket, which meant he had a room with 15 aeroplane-style recliners (which were dirty, broken and looked like they had been recovered from a crashed airliner some time back in the 1960s). I didn’t have a VIP ticket, but sleeping on the metal floor in the squish didn’t seem like the way of the future, so I hung back while the VIPs got their tickets checked and then entered the room after the ticket guy had left. The boat was all filth and bedlam so I figured the ticket guy wouldn’t notice. Happily, he didn’t.
The boat departed and Alex, bless his cotton socks, having spent an hour on the phone to Virgin Blue asking to speak to mangers etc. finally got back to me. Virgin Blue had agreed to make an exception – I could change the ticket to Boxing Day, and, even better, if (by some miracle) I did make it to Port Moresby airport in time tomorrow, I could change my ticket back (so long as it didn’t sell out). But there was a catch – Alex couldn’t change my ticket for me – I had to do it myself. They wouldn’t ring a PNG mobile number and I didn’t have enough credit to call them – and I was on a banana boat, so it wasn’t like I could go and purchase some more credit from the shop.
But Alex (again) came to the rescue: in the ten minutes before I lost phone reception he managed to set up a three-way call between me, him and Virgin Blue. I changed my ticket and breathed a sigh of relief. Thanks Virgin Blue!!
AND THANK YOU ALEX!!!!!!!!!!!!
The guy in the VIP room that wasn’t Jan was a Papua New Guinean from Madang called Richard. Lovely guy – told me that judging from the time we left, the ship should be getting to Wewak early – around 4am.
Maybe this would be the miracle I needed to make this crazy scheme work.
Amazingly, the ferry boat arrived at Wewak early: by 4am, we were less than a mile from the port. I stood out on deck: it had been a hot and sweaty night and I hadn’t got much sleep. The warm breeze beckoned me towards land and salvation, but the captain had other ideas. For some mad mad mad reason, we started to go around and around in circles. Full power, engines whining and groaning, the water churning. I stayed up for an hour, perplexed and bewildered. Why? WHY?
At 5am I went back to the VIP room and fell back asleep. I woke up an hour later. We were still running around in circles. I looked at my watch.
I had missed the 6am flight to Port Moresby. There was no way I was going to be back with Mandy for Christmas. As if to add insult to injury, it was at this point that the captain swung the boat around and headed to the port.
I was the first off the ship, bounding down the gangplank as dawn broke in the eastern firmament. At the end of the day, it was Papua New Guinea: I still had hope that the flight was delayed. I ran to the port building only to be confronted with a wire gate and large padlock. It took me ten minutes to locate the guy with the key. Apparently you’re supposed to wait to go through some kind of customs clearance. This annoyed the hell out of me: we hadn’t crossed any international border. I argued my way out.
There were buses waiting outside the port, but even if they were going to the airport they would take an age to fill. I asked where I could find a taxi and was pointed down a long, lonely road. I walked as fast as my weary legs could carry me. After about ten minutes I had made it to the main road. A guy there told me there were no taxis in Wewak – I’d have to take the bus.
Luckily, a bus was coming. I stuck out my hand and jumped on board. I was the only passenger, but they only made me pay a quid. The airport is on the way to town from the sea port, so that worked out well. By 6.45am I was at the airport… but it was closed. I found a security guy who told me that the plane had left fifteen minutes ago.
There are no other carriers that come to Wewak, it’s Air Niugini or nuthin’.
I took a deep breath… I still had one more roll of the die. It was a long shot, but the guy told me that there was a flight which left here at 11.30am today which would get me into Port Moresby at 1:10pm. (It was, in fact, the same flight that departed Vamino this morning – it stopped at Wewak on the way, I could have saved myself a night on that wretched boat!!).
So I jumped a bus into town and waited outside the Air Niugini office for it to open at 8am.
Wewak is not the most attractive of towns, and I really didn’t like the vibe it was giving off – it was sharp and disquieting. One guy was just standing in the street giving me daggers as I sat on the step of the airline office. I tried my best to ignore him and watched the town of Wewak come to life. It seems as though there isn’t much of a community in this town: the building are all sheds full of stuff: groceries, banks, offices; but there are no pubs, no restaurants, no cafes – nothing communal. I asked if there was anywhere I could get breakfast and the poor security guard looked at me like I was insane.
Eventually, the office opened. Behind me a massive queue had formed; I was incredibly thankful to be at the front. I have never been to a place where standing in massive queues is such an integral part of everyday life. Think of people camping out for the new year sales or the opening of Star Wars Episode I at Mann’s Chinese Theatre being the norm rather than the exception.
Inside, I had to wait at the front of the ‘seated queue’ for a couple of minutes before I was called into the side office. The lady I spoke to, Debbie, was incredibly helpful. It wasn’t until she said the name of PNG’s national airline outloud that I realised that ‘Air Nuigini’ was pronounced ‘Air New Guinea’. Stupid of me, I know, but I had only seen it written down!
Debbie told me that the 11.30am flight to Port Moresby was still on, but it was sold out. But, if I wanted, I could go on standby. Remember the good old days of cheapo stand-by flights? Well I don’t. And neither does Papua New Guinea. It cost pretty all the money I had left. By that I mean all the money I have left to finish this adventure. That’s it, I’m skint, I’m broke, I gambled and lost, my horse was shot I bet it all on black and lost my shirt at craps. In other words, I’m well and truly on the bones of my ass now.
But what do you expect when you haven’t worked for two years? Mustn’t grumble.
I needed to get the money out of a cash machine, so I asked the security guy to escort me to the branch of ANZ bank across the road, which (thankfully) he did. The daggers guy was still outside and still giving me daggers. Never had an armed escort to the ATM before. So with my overdraught well and truly maxed out I bought the stand-by ticket. If the 11.30am flight wasn’t full I would be getting into Port Moresby at 1.10pm. My flight to Australia left at 2pm. IF the flight to Oz was delayed, even by just half an hour, I could (just about) make it.
Fingers crossed for a Christmas miracle, I asked the security guard to escort me to the bus stop. That crazy guy was still outside the office and still staring at me. The guard took me down the road, but luckily his boss drove past and offered me a lift. I jumped into the back of what looked like a police van – grates on the windows, the lot. Turns out the guy driving, Matthew, is the owner of the private security firm that oversees the business and banks in downtown Wewak.
On the way to the airport we stopped outside a rather grand mansion. Matthew jumped out of the van and went and had a chat with a maid at the front wrought iron gate. His colleague, sitting in the passenger seat, told me that it was ‘the Prime Ministers’ house. I assumed that the actual Prime Ministers house must be in Port Moresby, I guessed he was talking about the mayor or the regional governor of some sort.
But no, as I was to learn later, it was the Prime Minister’s residence – the long serving Michael Somare is from Wewak. And – get this – he was deposed in a bloodless coup* just LAST WEEK.
READ ALL ABOUT IT!! http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-11990157
Seriously? Seriously! And Matthew is in charge of the security of his house. Small world eh?
After conducting his business with the maid, Matthew jumped back in the car and drove me to the airport. Lovely guy – he gave me his card and told me to give him a call when I get back to Wewak. Given the tense atmosphere of this place, that wouldn’t be a bad idea!
So into the airport eh? An airport…
I’ve got some criticism for flying to see Mandy, and I would just like to address this point. This is my adventure, I invented it and I make the rules. The rules are simple: I have to forge a continuous path of travel to every country in the world without flying. I never said at any point that I wouldn’t fly under any circumstances, I said I wouldn’t fly as part of the journey.
I’ve made it clear from the start that, if necessary, I would fly home (if, say, I had to deal with an emergency) and then fly back to where I left off. If you want to do your own surface Odyssey, the same rules would apply to you. If I was single, there’d be no way I’d go to Australia for Christmas, but I’m not single. I’ve seen Mandy for just 7 days in the last 724. She can’t come here, but I can (and will) go there.
I was mulling all this over in my head while I was sitting in the airport terminal, a small concrete hall next to the narrow ribbon of tarmac that constituted the landing strip. My iPod, sensing my mood, played Fairytale of New York. Just as Shane MacGowan was singing that he built his dreams around you, my phone rang. It was Mand. We couldn’t chat for long – the price of the call was $1.75 a minute. She told me how sad she was that I wasn’t finished, how sad she was that she would be having another Christmas without me and how sad she was that she’d be the only person in a group of twenty-five of her mates going camping for New Year who wouldn’t have a partner.
She explained that her mum’s house has no internet connection, she won’t be able to speak to me tomorrow, on Christmas day. I didn’t tell her I was coming back to her for two reasons: one was for it to be a surprise, the other was because there’s a good chance I won’t make it. As I said goodbye she burst into tears.
All of you who think I’ve sold out can stick it: I’m not doing this for you. I’m doing this for the girl who has stood by me through thick and thin for the last eight years. She doesn’t deserve another lonely Christmas.
As I struggled to get my iPod working again, I realised that I was crying too.
The plane was delayed (typically) and everyone got on board. I was told to wait. After I felt I had waited long enough, I asked the guy on the door what was going on, he asked me what I was doing and I explained that I was the stand-by passenger. Oh, right he said and went to get the supervisor, a large woman with an unhomely face. But when she told me there was space on board for me I wanted to give that unhomely face a big kiss.
Within a couple of minutes I was fastening the buckle of my seat of the little 36 seater Bombardier DHC-8-202. It was a prop plane, which is always a little disconcerting, but it was brand spanking new, which made me happy. I sat through the safety blah and soon we were taxiing along the runway, faster and faster until…
Wow. This is it, I’m actually flying for the first time since 29th December 2008.
As we ascended I saw the seaport where I had arrived just a few hours earlier, I saw the town and the jungle and then it was jungle all the way to Port Moresby. The captain (an Aussie) said that he would try and make up some lost time, but as the minutes started ticking past 1pm I started sinking lower and lower into my seat. This wasn’t going to work.
I had printed out some (legally acquired!) pdfs of the PNG Lonely Planet and the accommodation options in Port Moresby didn’t make for great reading. Everywhere was outrageously expensive and the best deal was a hostel run by missionaries that would probably be full and even if it wasn’t, they had a strict no-alcohol rule.
Merry Christmas, I don’t think!!
As the plane descended into Port Moresby (it wasn’t a very long trip) I was staring intently at my watch as if by looking at it I could somehow slow down time.
It never works.
At 1.27pm we the hit tarmac. I was the first off the plane and ran as quickly as I could to the baggage carousel, a bit miffed that they hadn’t let me take it on board (it’s all Osama Bin Laden’s fault). The bags came out in good time, but mine didn’t. I soon realised that these bags were from another flight: I recognised the people waiting from my flight. At 1.46pm the bags from our flight started to emerge, and mine was the first one out. I grabbed it and dashed out of Domestic Arrivals.
Running over to the International terminal, I realised how hot it was without air conditioning. By the time I entered the concourse I was sweating like a fat chick in a cake shop. The building was pretty empty. I ran over to Virgin Blue…
Has the flight to Brisbane been delayed? Has it?
I clenched my fists and bit my tongue. My mind was whizzing around like a wheel on a fruit machine.
And there are no other flights to Australia today?
I closed my eyes and sighed.
…well, not from Virgin Blue, but I think there’s one from Air Pacific….
She pointed over to the other side of the check-in area. I sped over, but all the little offices were closed. All shut up for Christmas. Damnit. I walked over to the seemingly empty Air Pacific Check-In desk – there was a girl sitting down reading a magazine.
Are there any more flights to Australia today?
Yes, there’s one to Cairns at 5pm.
OH MY GOD.
Is it sold out?
Dunno – ask at the office.
She pointed to the office that I didn’t see because the venetian blinds pulled down over the windows made it look closed. It wasn’t closed, there was someone in there. I ran over. There was a guy inside dressed up like a pilot.
Are there any seats left on the flight to Cairns?
I dunno. I’m the pilot.
Which explained why he was dressed up like a pilot. Then a little lady came in and attended to me. I explained my predicament. She tapped on the computer. I raised my eyebrows. She tapped some more.
Yes, there are seats available.
I kissed the glass.
You really don’t want to know. I reached into my pants and pulled out my emergency money pouch. I took out the faded and battered emergency Visa card that I haven’t used since the Odyssey began. I handed it over and prayed that they didn’t ask for my PIN – I don’t know it.
No worries – I just had to sign.
She handed over my ticket and I danced a little jig. I then got on the phone to Alex Zelenjak in Sydney.
I’m getting into Cairns tonight. What can you do for me mate?
When Alex gets on the case, boy does he get on the case. Within 15 minutes he was calling me back to tell me that he had bagged me a place on a fight from Cairns (which is in the far north of Oz) to Melbourne (down in the south, where Mandy lives) for 11.45am tomorrow morning. Better still, he was able to use the credit from my original Port Moresby ticket (for the flight I just missed) to pay for it.
Chucking in ten bucks of his own money to pay for the extra baggage fee, I was set. Alex you total LEGEND. You made my Christmas, damnit – you made my YEAR!!!
GOOD ON YA MATEY! I owe you a night out at the Three Monkeys in Sydney!!!
And that’s how I got my Christmas miracle.
I went upstairs a shared a beer or two with an Aussie guy called Angus who had been gold prospecting in the jungles of PNG. Better him than me. He’s the one who told me about the Prime Minister being kicked out and the resultant unrest in Wewak: he had just come from there yesterday.
By 4.30pm I had got through security and been stamped out of the country and was crossing the tarmac towards the 737-700 that would whisk me away to Australia for Christmas.
Don’t worry, PNG, I’ll be back.
NOTHING CAN STOP ME NOW!!!!!!!!!
I arrived in Cairns around 7pm. I had almost forgotten how fast you can travel if you fly. After the usual grilling by the Aussie border guards (they get my vote for nastiest in the world, and I should know!!), I jumped a taxi (sharing the cost with a random Chinese guy) to the backpackers that Alex had booked me into. The good news was that if I was quick, I could grab a free meal in the pub next door, the bad news was that the pub next door (and, seemingly, all of Cairns) closed at 12pm. Oh, and by the way, ‘Cairns’ is pronounced ‘Cans’, which just sounds like somebody saying ‘Cannes’ incorrectly.
DON’T LOOK AT ME, I DON”T MAKE THE RULES.
After the day I had had, I wasn’t prepared to go to bed sober so I teamed up with the gang from my dorm and hit the sauce. The night soon descended into the usual chaos: booze, dorm parties, booze, the pub, booze, random walkabout trying to find somewhere that was still open, booze, more dorm parties, booze, told off by security, booze, booze, booze and booze.
I retired to bed as the Christmas dawn was breaking. Everything was right with the world. I fell asleep humming the greatest Christmas number two of all time.
Twas Christmas Eve babe
In Ol’ Wewak
And old man said to me
The sea’s too choppy son
You’ve got your timing wrong
Give it a month or two
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you
So took the flight to POM
Came in at half past one
I got the ticket
This trip’s for you and me
So Happy Christmas
Sod The Odyssey
Deserve a bit of time
To wrap my arms around you
* Okay, he resigned. I just like the word ‘coup’.
The time for procrastination is over. Much of this year has been spent – some might say wasted – holding out hope for a yachtie to invite me onboard his vessel and whisk me away into the wild blue yonder for nothing more than the price of a few beers and a barrel of diesel. After being held on tenterhooks for 8 months (repeatedly being told that the yacht in question would be ready to go ‘in a few days’) I gave up that pipedream. I guess the old adage is a good today as it’s always been: if something sounds too good to be true…
So I cast my net out wider, appearing on TV here in Australia and on countless radio shows, always throwing in the ‘anyone up for an adventure?’ line (while trying not to sound too desperate, of course). I got a few backpackers wanting to join me, and a couple of delightful offers of dinner(!), but no red-blooded mariners quietly waiting on their sailboat willing to take a ginger landlubber like me for a high adventure on the high seas.
But now it’s too late: even if I found a willing skipper and a boat called “Unsinkable II” today, cyclone season kicks off in November and good luck getting insurance to be bobbing up and down on the silver seas when that happens. No… I’ve got to come up with another way of getting around the Pacific, in other words: I have to revert to Plan A. Cargo ships.
“Why didn’t you just do that in the first place YOU IDIOT?” I hear you cry. Well, given the choice between visiting all the Pacific Islands in a few months at no great cost or visiting them over the course of six months at great cost, it was always going to be the former. Plus, look… I’ve been living with my girlfriend here in Melbourne and there aren’t too many relationships that could survive not seeing each other for two years – I’m not making excuses, I just wanted to take the path of least resistance, especially if that meant I could hang out here a while longer.
But now the time has come to GET REAL: the only way I’m going to get this journey finished is on board freighter ships, and one way or another I’ve GOT to get back on the horse.
The ticking clock never stopped. It’s not just my own personal drive to get this thing finished, it’s practicalities like my Aussie visa runs out on Sept 22, so I’ve got to make like a tree and get out of here. So, not being one to stand on ceremony, I’m heading back to Papua New Guinea next week. I’ll have to head over to Wewak and then make my way to Lae and then try my best to get on one of the ships that goes to The Solomon Island and beyond: either to Fiji, New Zealand or Australia.
Lorna, Mandy and I are busy talking to shipping companies and valiantly attempting to side-step the whole “we don’t take passengers” malarkey to get me passage. But the good news for you lot is that my bag is packed, I’ve got a stack of miniDV tapes in my jocks and I’m raring to go.
I’ve just heard back from Martin at China Navigation (the subsidiary of Swire Shipping involved with PNG) and the good news is that there is a ship willing and able to take me from Lae in Papua New Guinea to Honiara in The Solomon Islands and back to Australia so I can FINALLY officially tick this great big silly continent off my list.
The ship is called the Papuan Chief (cool name eh?) and it’ll be departing Lae around the 10th of October.
Major thanks to Swire Shipping, China Navigation, Ray and Sebastian in PNG, Paul in Melbourne, Ross in Sydney and Martin in Singapore as well as kudos and kisses for Lorna and Mandy who helped out with the deal. Lorna especially so: she’s in the UK and the time difference meant she either had to stay up very late or get up very early in order to make the calls – somebody get Interflora on the phone!!
So… what I’ve got to do now is head back to Wewak on the North Coast of Papua New Guinea and pick up the trail from where I left off. Then I’ve got to get to Lae. Luckily for me, I’ve got an age to do this, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easily. Flights from Port Moresby to Wewak were extraordinarily expensive, so instead I’ve opted for a much cheaper flight to Madang – halfway between Lae and Wewak. But while it takes 6 hours on the road to get from Madang to Lae, it the road from Madang to Wewak is slightly err… problematic, as you can see:
Consequently, I’ll have to get on the same sort of Steamboat Willie affair that I took along the coast from Vanimo to Wewak last December – there and back again. But I’m not complaining – it’ll be fun! And, more importantly, THE ODYSSEY EXPEDITION IS BACK ON!!
21.09.11: I left Mandy in Melbourne’s wee Tullamarine airport on Tuesday evening. We had spent the afternoon getting the last things sorted: chief of which was a new click-click camera for me as well as a teeny battery powered razor (which I heartily recommend to any would-be globetrotter who likes to play with his (or her) facial furniture). Mand was with me as I checked onto the flight and after us both hoovering up some Nando’s chicken (truly South Africa’s second greatest export after Nelson Mandela) we said bon voyage… a parting made a little sweeter by the fact we would be back together again at the end of October.
A couple of hours later I was in Brisbane airport looking for Mandy’s mate Matt who had kindly offered to put me up for the night.
After a swift half at an Irish pub that was about as authentically Irish as Oliver Cromwell, we chewed the fat over a couple of cold ones in Matt’s back garden, Graham here keeping a beedy eye out for Queenland’s infamous giant flying screeching super-glue spiders which are every bit as terrifying as I’ve just made them sound.
That morning I had to be up for 5:45, but the excitement of being back on the road kicked in and I was up an’ at ‘em at 5:43. Take that, snooze alarm! Matt gallantly dropped me off in the city centre (Brisbane’s commute was recently voted second worse in the world… which I find had to believe – maybe commuters in Nigeria, Egypt and India weren’t given a vote) and before you could say blimey that was fast I was on a train speeding towards Brisbane airport and out of this loveably irksome continent.
But you didn’t think they’d make it easy for me did you? This IS Australia we’re talking about, the most anally retentive nation on Earth, the country that makes the Gestapo look laid back and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder a positive job requirement.
Upon checking in, my delightful checker-iner fretted at my lack of exit plans from PNG. PNG being an Aussie colony for the vast majority of the 20th century, their skill at freaking out about the slightest bureaucratic misdemeanour is understandable while still being unfathomably irritating. Now the problem was this: in order to get a visa for PNG at Port Moresby airport, you had to have a valid ticket out of the country. Now my email confirmation from China Navigation saying that I was leaving on the Papuan Chief in a couple of weeks is more than enough evidence that I do not intend to hang around. The problem lay in the fact that my Aussie visa runs out tomorrow, and the ship brings me back to Australia and even though I can’t apply for a new Aussie visa until I leave the country, they wanted me to have a new Aussie visa before I left. Which would be as silly as it would be impossible.
Happily for the forces of sanity, my ship calls into The Solomon Islands before Australia, so my Australian visa (or lack thereof) has nothing to do with the PNGers, the Aussies or the man in the frikkin’ moon. After explaining this salient fact (in much politer words, believe me), I was (eventually) welcomed onboard. Ta-ta Australia, do you think that while I’m away you could, you know, chill the —- out?
TRAVEL TIP: if I had booked exactly the same flight from Brisbane to Port Moresby through Virgin’s Pacific Blue website, it would have cost me TWICE as much as booking it through the Airlines PNG website. Bear that in mind, fellow tight-arse travellers.
Within a few hours I was smacking the tarmac of Port Moresby and ready to hit the town. After waiting way too long for a taxi, I got a local guy to drive me to the city centre for 30 Kina, which is how much it says it costs in the Lonely Planet and WHO AM I TO ARGUE? I trotted along to the Crown Plaza hotel, a concrete monstrosity, but a useful location opposite the EU mission headquarters here – the workplace of Sophie from Belgium, my CouchSurf host for the next couple of days.
22.09.11-23.09.11: After meeting with Sophie I was whisked away to her flat which overlooks Ela beach and she made me some din-dins which we ate with her flatmate Alex on the balcony as the sun went down. Port Moresby has this dramatic look to it, with many of the buildings perched on the hillsides that drop off to the sea – sadly, most (if not all) of the buildings are made of that cheap nasty concrete stuff that so excites the loins of architects and accountants, so the next day I visited the Port Moresby museum to see some authentic PNG art and culture – and I’ve got to say I wasn’t disappointed.
The museum is free – okay, so it could do with a spring clean — but the wooden artefacts, carvings, totems, masks, canoes, shields etc. are a sheer joy. The Papuans have been here for at least 50,000 years, and with some tribes not contacted by The West until the 1930s (and some might still be uncontacted), there’s a LOT of stories and a lot of culture to attempt to squeeze into a little museum. My only complaint is that it wasn’t bigger.
Before first contact was made in the 1930s, the Central Highlands (an east-west spine running down the middle of the country – with peaks reaching as high as 5,000 metres above sea level) were assumed to be unpopulated. Mr. Leahy and his team were actually looking for gold, but instead found over one MILLION inhabitants who had never seen white people before, never mind gramophones, aeroplanes and top hats. It’s little wonder that a number of inhabitants from PNG and The Solomon Islands fell so easily into Cargo Cultism – the belief held for a short period after the Second World War that if they built makeshift airstrips and shuffled bits of paper around a pretend ‘office’, they would receive gifts from the gods in the form of aeroplanes dropping off cargo.
After the museum, I spent a good couple of hours at the Parliament Haus and visited the spot where in 1975 Papua New Guinea declared a reluctant independence from Australia. While I will cheerfully concede that being run by Australia must have been one soggy picnic, it doesn’t take a genius to see that the structure of hand-overs – in fact, nearly all hand-overs pushed by the UN after the war – and the general health and education of the country at that point were not really taken into consideration. Like the cargo-cultists shuffling their papers in their wooden radar towers, the UN believed if you could get a gang of locals and put them in suits they would magically have the ability and drive to run a country.
The UN was right… to an extent. The newly independent government of PNG could run the country, to the extent that running a country doesn’t seem that difficult. But running a successful country, running a country that doesn’t thrive on corruption… ah, that’s another matter entirely. And so PNG like many former colonies started its long tortuous slide towards becoming a failed state. The expats left in their thousands. Port Moresby gained a reputation for crime and social disorder that would make Mogadishu blush. A reputation somewhat exaggerated in my opinion – of all the people I met in Port Moresby, not one of them had been the victim of a mugging or a car jacking. But while methinks the Aussie press doth protest too much, you don’t walk anywhere at night, and that fact alone smells very much like the upshot of an inept government.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel. A pilot light. They’ve just discovered the biggest gas field this side of Alpha Centuri beneath the soil of PNG, and with a bit of luck, PNG has a chance to throw off its shackles of being a resource-rich, cash-poor country and become a resource-rich, cash-rich country in the next ten critical years. If they succeed they could easily become THE Pacific tourist destination for adventure travel: with over 700 linguistically unique tribes, the Kokoda Trail and some of the best Scuba diving spots in the world, it’s an easy sell. Or maybe they will fail. Maybe greed and corruption will triumph as they often do in countries in which most children never go to high school and the government see that as a green light to take the piss. Who knows?
What I do know is that the GDP of PNG has doubled pretty much overnight and I would hope that the international community has made enough dumb mistakes in the past to know that if we steal the gas for a song and a sweet backhander, if we let PNG fail, we’ll be storing up a world of pain, not just for the local PNGers, but for the world as a whole – this place is just too marvellous, just to unique to allow the forces of darkness to triumph.
On Thursday night, Sophie had to go to Madang for work and so Alex and I hit the town. A leaving do for a couple of Alex’s mates meant pizza around a swimming pool, more alcohol than was is strictly necessary and a selection of people from so many different countries it was like the UN… so it didn’t come as too much of a shock to learn that most of the people around the table did in fact work for the UN. I met Algerians, Turks, Aussies, Kiwis, Yanks, Poms, Swedes, Dutchies, South Africans, Filipinos, Colombians… you name it.
In the club afterward I found myself drinking with a gang of Papuans and thinking that PNG was actually a really cool place. Okay, so it’s a little expensive, (compared to Europe and the US, not Australia) but then whatever voodoo economics make that the case (Indonesia
Eddie left early Saturday morning to go Scuba diving (did I mention that PNG offers the best Scuba diving and snorkelling opportunities in the world? – Excellent visibility, tropical delights, coral reefs and – oh yes – hundreds of WWII wrecks for you to explore… nice) so I met up with his fellow piloty mates Duncan (NZ), Heinrich (SA) and Shane (Oz) to grab some commonwealth brunch on the way to the airport.
Port Moresby airport is a pretty sweet little aerodrome, but I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw this friendly sign.
Ah… Madang internet no likey uploady images… I’d add it later!!
I said thanks and goodbye to the guys. They’ve got a couple more years to run on their contracts so no doubt I’ll see them again if and when I return to PNG.
Up up and away!! The prop plane landed in Lae on the way to Madang. For the first leg of the journey I was inconveniently seated in the aisle (booooo!), but then for the second half I slid over to the window side of things (yaaaaay!) and what a ride! Lae and Madang are both on the north coast of PNG, but instead of taking the route along the coast, the local airlines fly as the crow, well, flies. This means that there are mountains over 4000 metres tall to fly over. And that’s exactly what we do.
So for the first fifteen minutes we go up and up and up and for the next fifteen we go down and down and down… as much fun as you can have in 40 seater prop plane. Madang aerodrome is as wonderfully rustic as you might imagine. You get off the plane, walk across the tarmac into the concrete hut that passes for the terminal building and the guys give you your luggage back off straight off the trolley.
My local CouchSurf host, Katherine, had organised for the bus to pick me up and take me to the DWU – the Divine Wind University* – the University of Madang. She’s an administrator here and has an apartment on campus. And what a remarkable campus it is. Close your eyes and picture a university campus set amongst a lush green forest of palm trees and tropical plants. Giant trees, covered in vines and creepers stand like ancient sentries at the side of the red brick road and provide a home for the thousands of flying foxes that call to each other in the sweltering heat of the afternoon sun.
The bus was late, and as often happens in places like PNG, a local family offered me a lift. Jumping on the back of a pick-up truck I was reminded why I travel, for moments like these, the wind on my face and the thrill of the unknown. I arrived at the University just before dark and that night Katherine took me out with her friend KK and KK’s mum for some pizza and beer: two things I find it hard to object to. The local brew here is called SP (for South Pacific) and — without wanting to sound like I’m ragging on Australia too much this week in my blogs — is a million times better than any Australian lager I’ve have the misfortune to consume. I’m in no way a lager connoisseur, but I know when my poo comes out like looking (but definitely not smelling) like chocolate mousse, I’m pretty sure that they’re putting way too much hops into them there beer vats. You hear me VB, Coopers, Carlton, Boags, Little Creatures??! Yeah, I’m talking to you.
KK is a media teacher here at Divine Wind and so we got to talk all techy stuff that make me think everything is thinking “hmm… how interesting, these guys must really know what they’re doing about”, although it’s more likely they’re thinking “Nerds!”. KK’s mum (also a teacher) is interested in getting the work of certain NGOs filmed and put online so that people can see what’s happening with their charity money around the country – sounds like a job I’d be good at. We’re going to keep in touch.
The next day was a lazy Sunday and I spent it idly wandering along the coast with a big smile and a hello to everyone I passed along the way. Madang is by no means Port Moresby and petty crime here is fairly rare, so despite some offers of ‘security’ in exchange for a few dollars, I was happy to do my own thing and stop into some of the resorts along the way for a beer and a view.
Last night I sat up drinking tea with Katherine and KK, chatting about the insane number of living languages in PNG (over 700 at last count) – the highest concentration anywhere in the world, no less. Sadly, many of these languages are under threat of extinction, and there seems little is being done to record them before the last native speakers die. Many of the language spoken by the younger generation is now interspersed with words from Pidgin or Tok-Pisin, the national language of PNG, a very Papuan version of English in which ‘New Guinea’ becomes ‘Niugini’ and you really have to operate your grey matter in order to suss out what on Earth people are saying.
KK told me that in a recent attempt to translate the New Testament into Tok-Pisin (there are more religious zealots in PNG than in your average medieval witchhunt) that the Tok-Pisin expression thought meant ‘love’ translated instead as ‘got pregnant’. Much hilarity can be gleaned from the idea of a white preacher explaining to the PNG natives how God so got pregnant the world that he sent his only son to die for our sins and that Jesus got your mum pregnant, your dad pregnant and – if you’re very good and say your prayers – he’ll probably get you pregnant as well.
So here I am, it’s now Monday 26th of September 2011 and I’ve just got back from buying my ticket for the overnight ‘Lutheran’ ferry (a vestige of German colonisation). Next stop: Wewak and the RETURN OF THE ODYSSEY!!
* Hang on, doesn’t the word ‘kamikaze’ also mean ‘divine wind’? What are they teaching here? The art of smashing your Zero into an American battleship? Eek!
27.09.11: It’s Day M.
As I stand outside Wewak aerodrome on the northern fringe of Papua New Guinea, I dip my hat on the morning of Christmas Eve 2010 and… MATCH CUT: I raise my head and it is now 27th September 2011, Day 1000 of The Odyssey Expedition. Eagle-eyed viewers will spot that I’ve put on weight and my facial hair is approximately 83% sillier than ever before.
A lot has happened in those missing nine months, and a lot has stayed the same. I lost my sister and my good friend Si lost his father. Stan got married and my video Best Man speech was a disaster. Babies came into the world, and it was an honour to meet the new additions to our planet. Captain Danny finished his fourth and final tour of the Middle East. Upon his return to the UK last week, the Bluecoat Massive breathed a huge sigh of relief. He proposed to his lovely girlfriend Penny just before heading off to Afghanistan last March leading to plaintive cries of “for God’s sake Danny, do you not watch war films?!!”. Talking of proposals, I just heard on the jungle drums that Dino and his delightful squeeze Ruth are all set to tie the knot – congrats guys, here’s sending my love from Wewak.
After losing millions courtesy of the stubbornly strong Aussie dollar, Lonely Planet TV relocated from Melbourne to San Francisco and so I have no idea a) if there’s going to be a second series of ‘Graham’s World’ or b) if anybody is left to remember that they lent me a Sony A1 video camera last year. I’m hoping the answers to those questions are YES and NO respectively. I got myself a literary agent who is too busy to read my stuff (I wrote that to see if you read this!!) and made friends with my Aussie counterpart Steve Crombie (‘Natural Born Traveller’) who I’m sure we’ll encounter again in the near future.
Liverpool, despite the unhappy reason I returned home, was several shades of totally awesome – like getting into a hot tub with a bunch of supermodels dressed as pirate queens. Melbourne, well… Melbourne was Melbourne. It keeps getting voted most liveable city in the world, by which I assume they mean ‘city that you’re unlikely to die in prematurely’ rather than ‘city that makes you feel good to be alive’. Then again, if you’re a well-heeled teetotaller who doesn’t like chips, footy, music or going out on a weeknight…
Maybe once boat people like myself people have paid the $3,000 toll to live and work in Australia (that’s $3,000 more than I would have to pay to live and work in Paris, Rome, Athens, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Madrid… but I digress…) they – understandably – feel compelled to say the place is great. Ah well, you can’t win ’em all.
So here we are, nine months on. I could be furious at the people who promised me more than they could deliver, but to be honest I’m more angry at myself for not taking the Pacific cargo ship route earlier. This way would have taken a long long time whichever way I did it, but I didn’t need to set myself up to fail by waiting 277 days (yes) between Christmas Eve and now before picking up the trail again.
Hey, if anybody reading this feels like smashing my record, I think the trickiness factor has been reduced by at least 27.7%.
The good news is that the blog entries will be coming fairly thick and fairly fast once again. (“Got up. Made tea. Phone didn’t ring again…” does not a good blog make.) I know that for some of you out there, these posts are one of your favourite tools of procrastination, so I’m sorry if my extended leave of absence has made you irritatingly productive.
Well then, I guess THE ODYSSEY EXPEDITION is now officially BACK ON THE ROAD. I’ve cranked up my battered GPS logger, I’ve got a new screen for my old Dell laptop, I’ve got a stack of MiniDV tapes and a new Sony Cybershot 14 megapixel stills camera with this nifty ‘panoramic’ feature that totally kicks ass… I guess I’m ready to go.
I arrived in Wewak this morning onboard the good ship Rita at the princely time of 10am. Rita is an old beast owned by Lutheran shipping, and it’s not the same ship that I took from Vanimo to Wewak all those months ago – if anything it was older (if that was possible and still afloat), but it was (happily) a lot less (over)crowded. Upstairs was tourist class, a load of spare bunk beds (take your pick) but a higher price. Downstairs in economy you had to make do with any space you can find. I decided to go for tourist class. Oh don’t look at me like that, it’s not like it was air conditioned.
Doing my best to avoid sticking to the plastic-covered mattress I sweated my way through the night using my laptop and camcorder as a pillow lest some rascols had their eye on my gear. The constantly screaming kids and the tinny mobile-on-speakerphone music made it difficult to get off to sleep, but trust me, I’m a professional. Sleeping in ridiculously uncomfortable situations is my specialty.
Wewak was much like I remembered it – a neglected seaside town on the edge of nowhere with no road connections to Indonesia, Port Moresby or even Madang. In fact, there are no road connections from the north of this country to the south of it – you take the boat around the coast, you fly or you get your hiking boots and your mosquito net out. This lack of infrastructure is simultaneously what is holding PNG back AND acting as the saviour of indigenous tribes, customs and languages across the country. It’s a tricky balancing act and I’m glad I’m not the one making the call.
What Wewak has got going for it is that it is the entry-point for the Sepik River – the mighty Amazon of Papua New Guinea. The Sepik is the river that you have to negotiate in order to penetrate the dense Papuan jungle and believe me, The Sepik drives a hard bargain. She’s the reason why there is no road from Wewak to Madang: the river would eat it.
But that’s a journey for another time, and as a) Madang is much nicer than Wewak and b) I had left most of my stuff at Katherine’s flat, I feel it wise to return there as soon as possible, thus picking up from where I left off and FINALLY extending my official airline-free journey to every country in the world.
The Rita makes her return journey this afternoon at 2 (I’m thinking 4) and I plan to be onboard. It’s not cheap though, 180 Kina ($50) one-way for a bunk in a shared space with no amenities, air-con, cups of tea, nothing. And the return fare? 360 Kina – the same as two singles. Welcome to PNG folks – it’s so expensive it makes my nose bleed.
After firing up my GPS tracker outside Wewak airport – the very airport that I logged out of The Odyssey Expedition back in December – I headed along the coast to the newly-reconstructed beach patio of the Windjammer’s Hotel. There was a fire here two months ago and the entire place is being rebuilt. Aside from the staff and construction workers, I’m the only one here.
To my left and right the deserted beach stretches as far as the eye can see. Five large fishing vessels and an empty freighter sit out on the horizon doing whatever it is they do. The silhouettes of local fishermen in their wooden canoes with the balance bar set leeward rise and fall beneath the mirage sea. The waves crash upon the shore as the mighty Pacific Ocean breathes in and out: the promise of escape, the promise of adventure: the promise of great things, yet to come.
I just want to say a massive THANK YOU to everyone out there in the blogisphere for following me this far, and if you would follow me a just little farther, there are still 17 more countries and a hundred more adventures to go.
THE ODYSSEY EXPEDITION: 1,000 NOT OUT.
When you’ve the world travelled as much as I have you learn one salient fact about developing nations: NOTHING EVER LEAVES ON TIME. But I’d like to amend that little nugget of information to: NOTHING EVER LEAVES ON TIME, UNLESS YOU’RE LATE.
When I was told that the ship to Wewak was supposed to leave at 2pm yesterday, I was dubious. I rucked up at around 1.55pm to find that the ship was still unloading and wouldn’t be leaving until 4.30pm at the earliest. This is normal. So when my return journey back to Madang was supposed to leave at 2pm I turned up at 2pm. I would have turned up earlier but I was in a nearby hotel watching Doctor Who on my laptop and it was a really good episode and I can’t quite get over how hot Karen Gillan is, for a ging.
In fact, I’m fairly confident that discounting Jessica Rabbit, Arial from the Little Mermaid and MJ from the Spider-Man comics (who are all, sadly, cartoons) that Amy Pond could quite literally be the hottest ging on the planet, present company excepted, and such a step up from face-like-a-smacked-mackerel Catherine Tate it’s almost obscene.
Tangent, Graham… stick to the story…
So there I was, with only my laptop bag, my camera and my toothbrush, ambling down the dock road, sweating like a priest getting his computer fixed by PC World… and I arrive just in time to see the boat depart from the old dock.
I look at my watch: There can be no mistake. It is 2pm.
WHAT. THE. HELL???
You can’t be admirably tardy 99% of the time and then for ONE DAY decide that your ruthless efficiency is going to put the Germans to shame. It’s just not cricket. The sudden and weird realisation that I haven’t missed a single connection since… Brazil, December 29th, 2008 had me twirling with frustration, hubris and a whole heap of D’oh.
With no clothes to change into, no clean underwear, no shampoo and nowhere to stay, I cut my losses, found out when the next boat was leaving for Madang (the day after tomorrow) and headed out to the nearest (and cheapest) guesthouse in town. So much for the Odyssey-a-go-go.
On arriving at the Wewak Guesthouse I was pleasantly surprised to see a couple of backpackers sitting in the ‘bar’ next to the reception desk… why? Because there was a pretty good chance I knew who they were.
Are you Catherine? She nodded.
And you’re Dave, right? He nodded.
And you’re both from Liverpool?!!
Catherine and Dave looked overwhelmed by the knowledge displayed by this fellow scouser… a scouser that neither of them had ever met. Who the hell is this guy? Some kind of travelling Sherlock Holmes? A Liverpudlian Derren Brown?
Nah… they were the couple that stayed with Katherine — my CouchSurf host in Madang — a couple of days before I got there. Katherine had mentioned I might run into them in Wewak and here they were! Yeah, I probably could have gone in all wild-eyed and jazz hands saying that I had been tracking them for months and that Liverpool need them now more than ever (possibly with an invitation onto my stealth helicopter), but nah the freakiness of there being three tourists in the whole of Wewak and them all coming from Liverpool and them all being the same age group was already maxing out the cool factor.
So we settled in for the night. Mrs. Barry, the octogenarian lady (originally from Serbia) who runs the place welcomed me in and the scouse massive shared a room to cut down costs. Catherine and Dave have been travelling slightly longer than me –- three and a bit years –- and are currently attempting to overland it back to Liverpool. Having just come from the Solomon Islands, they were great to pick up much needed intel from (I’m going there next), and when it comes to visa information for pretty much every country in the world, I’m your man.
We drank SP beers and talked long into the night about travel, politics, religion and The Krazy House. A magic moment there in Wewak, and once again we find that missed connection has a silver lining. One that usually tastes of beer.
When I say the Papua New Guineans are the friendliest bunch of people you’ll ever come across, I hope you don’t take me for a liar. These guys make overbearing drunk Russians seem a little distant. Yesterday a local guy called Tony who had taken Catherine and Dave out on an excursion last weekend offered to take me to his village today which is just a few miles from Maprik, the entry town for The Sepik region. With the offer of authentic Sepik carvings, the chance to go inside a Haus Tambarans (a vagina-shaped meeting house – men only(!)) and the promise of giant yams dressed as people (I’ll say that again but louder, GIANT YAMS DRESSED AS PEOPLE!!), how could I say no?
The plan was that Tony would pick me up at 8am. This being PNG (Lutheran Shipping notwithstanding), I didn’t expect him until noon. As it happened, he finally turned up around 3pm, just as Catherine and Dave were gearing up to leave on the “Star” Ship to Vanimo on the border with West Papua/Indonesia.
So we said our goodbyes and explained to Tony that we were Wantok – a Tok-Pisin word meaning “one-talk”, or “people of the same language” – in our case, Scouse. Tony then took me in his Toyota pick up truck to collect one of his wives (he has two, the lucky badger) from a house near the airport and within half an hour we were bumping our way over the Prince Alexander Mountains towards the little village of Yangichkou. I was in the back of the pick-up and by God it was a fun (if long) ride.
Every man, woman and child waved as we drove by. Beaming smiles, peels of laughter and shouts of “Hey White Man!” echoed through the valleys. I haven’t been given this kind of global superstar treatment since I left West Africa (East Africans can be a little indifferent to us backpackers) but in a country were nearly all white people are ex-pats, aid workers or missionaries, having a tourist in their midst – and one happy to ride on the back of a pick-up – must have been the funniest thing they’ve seen all week.
We were halfway to our destination when disaster stuck: the road was flooded. A river ford, usually fairly sedate, had been turned into a thundering white-water rapid by the mountain rains. Any car or truck attempting to cross would surely be swept downstream by the torrent. What now? I asked Tony. Tony said we would just have to wait. Oh well. So much for seeing the village before nightfall.
By the time the flood had subsided, it was dark. We hurried to the village, but by the time we got there, everybody has gone to bed. Damn that flood, where are my giant yams dressed as people eh? Oh well. Instead Tony and I sat talking for a gudlong time. Tony is one of the Regional Presidents of the Sepik area and the bigman of his village. It seemed natural to discuss what he thinks lies in store for PNG over the next ten years.
A continuous road (and possibly a railway) from Vanimo to Lae for starters and, with any luck, an extension all the way to Port Moresby: thereby joining the north and south of the country by road for the first time in history. The road will bring cheaper goods in from Indonesia, bringing down the cost of living and mean there will be more money in the pot to pay for health care and education – two areas PNG scores infamously poorly in at the moment.
The building of this road — even though the easy bits are already done –- would be a monumental task, requiring a 10 mile bridge/causeway over the Sepik and either some kick-ass switchbacks over the central highlands or tunnels the maintenance of which would stretch the Swiss, never mind the Papuans. But that road is something that PNG desperately needs if it is to decrease unemployment (the source of 99% of street crime here) increase its productivity, improve its infrastructure and boost individual wealth.
The gas which everybody here is praying will be a help not a hindrance (I think back to the sole surviving villager in ‘Blood Diamond’ who says he hopes they don’t find oil because then their troubles will ‘really begin’) has already doubled PNG’s GDP almost overnight: they may not get another chance to give their country the leg-up it needs if it is to get out of the same rut that has plagued the fortunes of many former colonies around the world.
PNG is in a good position geographically — a natural stopover to/from Australia, NZ and the South Pacific — and it’s got the resources it needs to do well for itself. The big worry here — shared amongst almost everybody I’ve spoken to about PNG — is that the money that belongs to the people of PNG will end up lining the pockets of corrupt politicians and foreign businessmen. If that happens, PNG will be yet another promising little country callously fed to the Vogons of the world.