By Marco Venditti
Whenever I tell people that I have travelled alone to a new destination in Papua New Guinea, I feel that I am lying, as you are never alone in PNG.
All it takes is to get somewhere, drop your bags and go out for a walk. It doesn’t matter where you are heading to, you’ll end up making a friend within 10 minutes and you won’t be alone with them either, as they will meet other people who will want to come along.
This is life in the Pacific after all, where people are as generous with their time as with their material things, making a trip in these distant lands a truly unforgettable experience.
This time I decided to travel to Goroka in the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea, and as usual the trip was spectacularly unplanned, as I believe that the best of PNG comes upon improvisation.
Of Goroka I knew that people were kind, the fruits sweet and the vegetables oversized, or at least that’s what I had heard from a friend during one of those quick exchanges at the check out of a swanky supermarket in Port Moresby.
I also knew about the annual cultural show held over Independence weekend, where some of the most colourful sing-sing groups get together for a competition; and about the Asaro Mud Men, whose white head masks used to terrify enemy tribesmen and have become a symbol of PNG.
European explorers only reached the interior of Papua New Guinea as late as the 1930s, while two Australian brothers looking for gold stumbled in the Wahgi Valley, where traditional tribes had developed, 30,000 years ago, some of the most advanced farming practises, and social and political organisations in the world at the time.
Several of these techniques survive till today, but it was only in the last decades of the 20th Century that these people finally made contact with the rest of the world, including the rest of PNG, thanks to the construction of the Highlands Highway which stretches from the port city of Lae through peaks as high as 2,478m at the Daulo Pass, before crossing into Simbu Province.
That’s what my favourite travel guide is telling me, when the speakers above my head announce that we are about to land in Goroka after a rather quick flight from Port Moresby.
Aboard a taxi, I drive around town looking for a place to stay for the night, as I couldn’t bother doing that while still in the capital.
“That’s the Digicel tower,” says the driver, pointing out a tall metal structure that made communication possible here (although at prohibitive prices).
“That’s the post office.”
The silence that follows after this information is a hint that there isn’t much more to expect from the provincial capital, which has grown from a small outpost in the mid-1950s to a major commercial centre. Where nature continues to be more of a protagonist than modern architecture.
In Moresby nobody walks anymore. It’s is too hot, and too dusty, while the traffic is starting to resemble that of any other major city around the world, with plenty of cars, and plenty of roads that need to be built. And of course it is dangerous, at least that’s what they say, especially if you don’t know where you are going.
However, here in Goroka people on foot seem to be the norm. While many, especially women, carry loads on their heads, some, especially men, listen to music with chunky headphones. Others walk around with hands in the pockets of their coats, like I do. It gets chilly in Goroka, at 1,546 meters, even though technically the city is still in the tropics.
When the plane landed there was fog, which actually caused a delay as we circled the sky for a while, but the air suddenly cleared and there is nothing to stop the view of the undulating grass-covered hills that encircle the town, almost as if someone threw a blanket on it to protect it from the cold.
My lodge is nothing to write home about it. A simple structure with a few rooms and a bit of a view, but it is located just outside town and surrounded by neat traditional villages with low-walled round huts whose thatched roofs offer an aesthetic relief to the town’s anonymous architecture.
According to local legend, the tufts of grass on the peaks will reveal secrets to the ones willing to listen, and I think I am one of them.
The girl at the reception tells me that the area is totally safe, so I decide to venture around for a walk, and after approximately 30 minutes I end up at the entrance of what looks like a tiny community.
Two old women sitting on the ground (and many seem to do so up here) suddenly stop talking to each other and, judging by their expression they have not seen many foreigners lately.
“I was looking for someone to walk around with me,” I say with smile, in the attempt of wiping away their expression of disbelief. And, as usual people are much sweeter than they appear at first sight in this part of the world, and after disappearing for a few seconds inside the hut, one of the old women comes out with her granddaughter Teeta, who is wiping her hands on the side of her dress.
Teeta is the eldest of a family of five and a mother of two, and her English is surprisingly good. Women’s entrepreneurial skills are renowned around the world, and PNG is no different, so it doesn’t take long to convince Teeta to put together a group of people who can walk around with me for a while, for a fee and perhaps some food on the road.
In fact, it is I who has to insist on remuneration, as the idea of being paid for something so natural seems totally alien to her. Her young brother, a couple of friends, and two of her children complete the group and after few minutes we leave the small village under Teeta’s grandmother’s watchful eyes, as she smiles and says a few words in the local language.
Right from the start I was impressed with the capacity of Teeta’s group in making quick decisions: where to go, what road to take, and how to make the best of a day out with a perfect stranger.
While Teeta’s two boys, Ozy and Ernest, never leave her side, they never ask for attention either. They just hang around, like kids often do in PNG, which makes them particularly adorable, and frankly more bearable than their equivalent in the West.
After the initial few questions about my country of origin, how long I have been in PNG and the sort of pleasantries common among all people, we fall rather quickly into a perfect silence as we walk around apparently without a destination. Places have no boundaries, time is not time and the day lasts forever under the sun of a perpetual spring, as we swim against the current of a shallow river, eat fresh fruit, and stumble into the estates of small coffee growers, before resting on the side of the road.
Not everybody is around to have fun though, as life can be pretty harsh in rural PNG and raising few kina is not an easy affair in the absence of a formal economy. We meet two old men carrying their sugar cane on their heads on the way to the market. They have been walking since early morning, hoping to sell each bundle for K5.
Women walk in the same direction, carrying wood to be used for cooking. Some are too old to make the journey by foot, and they might catch a small bus for a fare of K1 each way, making a dent in their meager profit.
This is the real economy of PNG, not the inflated one of Port Moresby, where a dinner in an average hotel will cost the monthly salary of a regular worker. As I reach into my pocket to pay half 50 toea for a bunch of sweet bananas, I notice that the street is littered with stacks of used playing cards.
They are everywhere, scattered for a hundred of meters in each direction, perhaps dumped by disappointed gamblers the night before, who knows.
Teeta picks up a card with her usual smile and I know that for many life will continue to be a gamble, here and in every city around the world.
What many do not know is that life can be much sweeter in Goroka, up in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, and I almost wish this to remain secret.
But Independence weekend is about to come again, and once more Goroka will put up a show for the people willing to make the journey, even though for me it will always be a place to return to, anytime.