On the 16th of April this year, (2017…for those of you who much like myself often forget which year we are in!) I began my trip to Papua New Guinea (PNG) for the first time of my life. PNG is not a place where many have the opportunity to travel. I am not all-knowing, but assume this is partly to do with funding (flights in particular being comparably expensive), and a lot to do with the danger. So here I am, Earl Grey tea in hand in suburban Hamburg, ready to tell you about danger.
There is no point denying the danger in PNG. Yes, there are people who are violent. So here are four major tips on avoiding danger and experiencing Papua New Guinea in a wonderful stress free light:
ONE: Avoid the cities.
Like anywhere in the world, some places are just smart to avoid, particularly the bigger cities (Port Moresby (the capital) and Lae especially). Honestly, I am not a city gal and have no interest in the cities of PNG. If you are desperate to see them, I warn you on behalf of all the locals who warned me, it can be dangerous! Especially in the wrong areas at the wrong times. Stay away from the poorer suburbs and don’t go out alone at night in the city. As far as I am aware a large proportion of the crimes are opportunistic and largely due to how poor the local population is. To me the real beauty of PNG is in the remote isolated corners. The hidden waterfalls and untouched reefs, the local celebrations and rituals, the value of time without trying to catch it. Whilst I am sure there must be sights to see and experiences to experience in the cities, they are not for me. I am yet to set foot in any PNG city so really cannot help or advise through personal experience there. But remember, a dangerous capital does not equal a dangerous people and the reverse stands true.
TWO: Respect culture and don’t try to change it.
Yes, there are problems in PNG and it would be incredible if people cared and worked towards change! But to do that you have to be more than a tourist. You have to be committed to the people and understand the cultures. If you see a child carrying a machete don’t try to stop that! These kids grow up knowing how to handle knives and you are more likely to cut yourself than they are! If you see something you perceive is wrong, take a moment to re-evaluate if it’s really wrong, or simply different. If you still want to help? Then offer, and if rejected don’t force yourself. Be respectful.
THREE: There is some conflict between the Highland and Lowland people. Don’t get between it.
I did experience a little bit of friction between the highland and lowland people. I have not spent time in the highlands yet, but was told that they were initially a less welcoming people group. My uncle Morobe (from Morobe), was actually one of the most welcoming in my family. And a Scottish botanist I met spent most of his time in the highlands and found them to be extraordinarily welcoming. In my young, limited, perhaps naïve and undoubtedly somewhat biased opinion, people will be people. You will find sweet and lovely people alongside hard and prickly everywhere you go (yes, the ratios may change). And whilst culture, customs and appearance may change depending on the altitude, fundamentally they were one of the warmest people group I have ever had the honour of interacting with.
Lucky FOURTH: Make friends!
All Papua New Guineans have a devotion to family. And family is not about blood relation. As soon as you are accepted by someone (which can be as simple as sharing some Betel Nut) all their family is your family. Having connections to locals can limit the likelihood of harassment, but more importantly will make you feel safe and welcomed! Danger when travelling will always exist, as long as you are living danger will be present. To me, everything worthwhile exists on the other side of feeling fear. In saying this, not once during my visit did I feel unsafe or threatened by someone else (I did however experience fear when pushing my body in a new environment and my mind in a new society). All the people I met had incredibly quantities of friendliness, gratitude and generosity, something I will undoubtedly devote an entire blog to in the future, which I believe is best seen in small villages where everyone knows each other. Although I was a tourist, my experience was with my father, who was raised in PNG until he was almost 16. My grandfather also invested an odd 40 years of his life into the community and their welfare. This was the umbrella I stood under when introducing myself. I was returning to my father’s homeland, being reunited with lost family and thus was in a bit of a unique position. But the generosity of my family is unparalleled to anything I have ever witnessed, and this immense generosity was not because of who I was, but who they were as individuals. I am certain that if a tourist waltzed into Divini and asked for food and shelter, they would immediately be welcomed and treated like honored guests. Language in PNG is another thing I cannot wait to delve into but let me give you a brief understanding of the complexity. There are currently over 850 languages spoken in Papua New Guinea, I believe that makes it the most linguistically diverse country on Earth! Tok Pisin is the most widespread language and is a creole language with a lot of English roots. In saying this, so many people there understand English and whilst not fluent can get by! You will almost always be understood. I will write more about PNG but let me finish with this; If you are looking to travel to PNG but are fearful, scare not. With a little bit of research and talking to someone who has travelled (here if you need!) YOU can experience it in all it’s imperfect wonders and wild perfections!
— Johanna – Wakilele
(All foreign words are written in Tawala, the language spoken by my family in Divini)