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.