Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

Consistently ranked in the top ten least livable cities in the world, Port Moresby, the capital and by far largest city of PNG, has a formidable reputation. The high violent crime rate is top of mind. Information online says not to walk anywhere. Canada’s travel advice recommends hiring private security while in the city, in addition to granting PNG the distinction of being the only non-African country with an orange “avoid non-essential travel” rating.

Get into town and you’ll see the what the PNG government promotes. Fancy hotels, giant malls, and billboards in Waigani district. A stunning parliament building in the style of a Sepik haus tambaran. There’s a shiny new convention centre built for the 2018 APEC summit, next to Ela Beach, surrounded by glitzy mid-rises. The pièce de résistance? A giant “Amazing Port Moresby” sign by the shore, at the best spot from which to watch the sun set.

Reality, as usual, is somewhere in between.
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 Rabaul and Kokopo, Papua New Guinea

From Kokopo, in good weather, there’s a tantalizing sight in the distance: Mt. Tavurvur, an active volcano at the edge of the Gazelle Peninsula, past the town of Rabaul.

Having been rained out of visiting Rabaul during the Mask Festival, and spending the rest of my time after it waiting for a boat that never left, I had every intention of returning to East New Britain for four or five more days after New Ireland. Alas, the national fuel shortage and arbitrary airline shenanigans stranded me there, leaving me with just one day back in Kokopo and Rabaul before my next flight.

It’s just enough for a speed run, and a quick hello-again to my new friends at the guesthouse in Kokopo. It’s sadly not enough to accept their invitations to visit their villages, including one who greeted the first visiting missionaries from Fiji by, uh, eating them. Their bones are still kept in the village… but at least the village is Christian now? Would’ve been an interesting stop. Thanks, Obama Air Niugini. Ahem, back to Rabaul.
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 Kavieng, Papua New Guinea

The waters off of Kavieng are renowned for pristine reefs, pelagics, and WW2 wreckage. Despite my stolen wallet, I splurged on the chance to scuba dive. Wowed by the alien world of colourful coral, strange creatures, clouds of fish, Nemos (clownfish) hiding in anemones; large creatures like tuna, Spanish mackerel, sharks, and rays; and getting a thrill out of swimming through tight caves and crevasses, I opted for a second day. The shaky videos and photos in variable water clarity don’t do the experience justice: I can’t tell a blurry reef shark from a WWII torpedo.

I’m joined by a middle-aged Australian man who didn’t show up the previous day because he was too hungover to dive. Owing to his many visits in the past to dive sites nearer to town, we’ve headed an hour out west, weaving through shallow turquoise waters. He hangs up the phone after talking to either a business associate or secretary.

“Just booked three flights home for about A$3500 in case any of them don’t work out. The airlines are so unreliable here. Gotta make sure I can get back to work.”
— “What do you do?”
“I’m a geologist out in Milne Bay. Been living out here for over 20 years, after the divorce.”
— “Do you think you’ll be here for good?”
“I’ve moved all around the world for work opportunities – Asia, Africa, Europe – but I decided to come back to PNG. I’ll never move back to Australia. I tried once. It’s too… regulated. Too safe. Too many handrails. And Aussies are insufferable.”
— “As opposed to this country where things like scheduled flights don’t run? You haven’t had many good things to say.”
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 Boluminsky Highway, Papua New Guinea

“Ni hao! Oh, you’re waiting for the PMV? Please sit. Leave your bags here. Have a drink.

The Konos supermarket is full of customers, and I awkwardly sit between cashiers. Like in some other developing countries, Chinese people own all the supermarkets in New Ireland, maybe the entire country. Every time I walk into one, there’s that wordless glance that says it all: “wait, I know every Chinese person here, you’re new, what’s your story?” Straight to Mandarin.
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 Dalom, Papua New Guinea

I’m 200km down New Ireland’s Boluminsky “Highway,” the only paved road down this narrow island/province. It’s been a weird route to get here, having lost three days stranded in East New Britain province attempting to take a boat from Kokopo to Namatanai, the nearest town to ENB on New Ireland, only slightly further down the road. Two boats of passengers were lost in the last week of bad weather. I’m a bit relieved that our boat never left, our driver refusing to depart after lackadaisically wasting away the sole brief window of good conditions — but the cost was great, as I missed the Shark Calling Festival.

After an extraordinarily expensive 30-minute flight to Kavieng just to take a PMV truck almost but not quite all the way down to Namatanai, at last: Dalom, this tiny village of a few dozen people. Immediately upon arrival, seeing the extraordinarily idyllic emerald river running through it, I decide to stay for three days — doing what with so few people, limited electricity by generator, no cell reception, and little activity, I don’t know. But on this one weekend, it’s swelled by maybe a hundred – there’s a Seventh Day Adventist church camp comprising of kids and adults from surrounding villages literally camping out in the open between the few houses in this village.

It’s given an energy I wasn’t expecting in this place – the river teeming with children jumping in off the bridge and swimming against its current, its confluence with the ocean full of others playing ball in low tide. There’s a lot more people bathing and washing clothes in the river than usual too, that’s for sure. And then there’s me, since that very refreshing river is the only option for a so-called shower.
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 Kokopo, Papua New Guinea

When people think of Papua New Guinea, they think of traditional cultures. On my first true impression of the country, well outside of the messy capital, Port Moresby, I had the chance to see that in full concentration at the National Mask Festival & Warwagira held in Kokopo, the first in three years.

East New Britain province (ENB) is home to four main cultures: Tolai, Baining, Pomio, and Sulka. That’s but four language groups of PNG’s over 800. Yet even within these four, there’s vast diversity of kastoms (customs) — rites, ceremonies, singsings (songs and/or dances), and whatnot performed for initiations, funerals, bride prices, and so on.

Yet all of this coexists with what appears to be a very Christian country. And in this day and age, how often do we see traditional cultures in the world practiced as more than a costume we put on once in awhile? Is anything still considered sacred? For PNG, we know that answer already — a big yes to both — but I’m here to learn what exactly that looks like and means.
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 Brisbane, Australia

Bleary-eyed after a 13-hour flight, I go for a walk in West End and end up on Granville St, eventually turning onto Boundary. After braving the brunch lineup at a hip café for a delicious meal and coffee, I top up my TransLink card at a train station, before opting to walk some more to the nearby waterfront for a ferry ride instead. The weather’s spectacular as I watch the glistening glass towers of downtown disappear in the distance. I disembark by a park, and walk along a pedestrian path bisected by a bike lane, surrounded by picnickers on this lovely Sunday afternoon. After some more aimless wandering, the sun’s going down and I’m hungry. I head to the night market — packed as usual, full of people speaking everything including Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, and the like.

If it weren’t for the cars running down the wrong side of the road, if it weren’t for the accent… I may as well have been describing a lovely summer weekend at home. Oh yeah, it’s winter here.

Brisbane may be on the other side of the world, but the similarities to Vancouver don’t end there. Both are the third-largest cities of their respective countries. Both have a metro population of roughly 2.5 million. Both have a vacation-friendly Sunshine Coast about an hour away. And for whatever reason, both cities like to thank their bus drivers when disembarking. I think that’s great.
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 Porto to Lisbon, Portugal

10 years ago, despite spending five weeks in Spain, I had so much going on with all of Silvia and Óscar’s recommendations, and so many friends to visit elsewhere, that I never had a chance to get to Portugal. Six years ago, the original idea of my Silk Road trip was to go from one ocean to the other, from Hong Kong’s Pacific to Portugal’s Atlantic, by land. I had so much fun in the middle that I ran out of time by Austria. So there’s some motivation to address some unfinished business!

But let’s just cut to the chase here: this portion of the trip was completely overshadowed by the Azores. I had a fine enough time in mainland Portugal, but having experienced so many emotional reunions and seen everything I already wanted to, my head was already elsewhere. Unseasonably frequent rain also didn’t help. But there had to have been something more to explain the general sense of disconnect I felt despite being in an objectively compelling place.
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 São Miguel, Azores, Portugal

After all these years and after becoming conversational in Portuguese, somehow I’ve never been to Portugal, a pretty popular place in its own right. It’s right next to Spain, too. So… Let me just skip right over it (insert meme song here) and fly to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean instead. Sounds logical, right?

Well, the Azores are still Portugal. Maybe not the first thing that comes to mind though, since they’re an autonomous region. Even some of the mainland Portuguese visitors I encountered slipped up and called it “going abroad.”

I’ve been fascinated by these little dots on the map ever since I saw the largest city, Ponta Delgada, had relatively short direct flights from Boston, home to a large Azorean diaspora. Though I never took the opportunity to go while I lived in Boston, they’ve stuck in my mind ever since. Why are these little isolated islands so inhabited? How’d they become part of Portugal?
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 Empordà / Girona, Catalonia, Spain

It’s funny how fast and intense travel friendships can be. Usually it ends with people extending an open invitation to visit their homes: hey, I’ve been on both ends of that. As genuine as they are, more often than not, these invitations are aspirational, seldom followed up.

It’s thus all the more surprising which friendships endure. I spent barely a day and a half with Gemma and Ramon in Sri Lanka seven years ago! We pulled a memorably freezing all-nighter, hiking up those 5500 steps, before parting ways in opposite directions with each other’s recommendations. Occasional messages over the years gave way an increasingly serious desire on my part to act on their open invitation to visit. And so here I am!
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