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.

I stayed three separate occasions in POM (as it’s often called, by its airport code), staying with Couchsurfing hosts Ken and Mona, but more often accompanied by their friend Gilson, who gave me a quick tour of the city. Lavish buildings and international hotels sit on chaotic roads across from or next to ramshackle buildings and occasional squalor. Most of the time it’s just nondescript concrete blocks for buildings everywhere, like the rest of the country — only at a much denser level. You don’t exactly see shops and restaurants much in the open – they’re probably all inside the malls. People live in secure, gated compounds with security guards, a sign of pervasive crime. Even mall and hotel parking is gated off with security. Ken’s car is tinted to the max — extra dark all around and two-thirds tinted on the windshield, I can barely even see out the windows in the day, let alone the night. (This is also why I have so few pictures — that, and losing my phone with pictures of the “Amazing Port Moresby” sign!)

Gilson does not agree with the sign. Neither does Ken, someone with dreams of a Port Moresby with much better and more controlled urban planning. The city expands voraciously, eating up traditional lands — the floating village of Hanuabada is being squeezed from all sides, and housing is spreading up into the hills. There are giant parking lots everywhere. There’s no unifying architectural styles. While it may look pretty from above or from a distance, on the ground it’s quite polluted, especially in contrast to the rest of the country. There’s few to no green spaces to walk and enjoy, and public safety is lacking. Traffic is an absolute mess and frequently clogged: major arteries are single lane, and streets twist and turn without rhyme or reason to roundabout after roundabout. Many people I’ve met here have travelled internationally for work and pleasure: they know things can be done way better and they’re frustrated that it isn’t. Even in the capital city, there are frequent brown-outs every day. (Ever seen a fancy restaurant go completely pitch black for a few seconds before the generator kicks in, without anyone reacting? Or an office?) Why invest in these uselessly fancy government buildings or that touristy sign if they still can’t nail the basics?

There’s a lot of money here, and there also isn’t. Australian expats are everywhere in town, jogging by the beach despite the punishing heat, living it up in the fancy hotels, and working fancy jobs in development or mining, but there’s a bit of criticism out there that they still treat PNG as their yard and money-maker, despite granting it independence in 1975. Lots of Chinese people here too, predictably with Filipino employees. If you’ve got the money, and that’s not just limited to the foreigners, there are fancy things you can enjoy, and Ken treated me to some absolutely fantastic restaurant meals with excellent international food. Prices for things are surprisingly high, whether lodging or at supermarkets, and even domestic travel, in a country without sufficient connecting roads: you can’t even drive very far out of POM.

Somehow locals can make it work, despite pretty poor wages. But driving on the streets and seeing so many people just roaming around aimlessly during the day, it’s pretty obvious that much of the youth can’t find employment. Just like how others alluded to the same situation in Kokopo, many come looking from other provinces with no money, leaving them to the petty — and occasionally violent, if of a particularly tribal mindset — crime that locals often warn about.

And that’s the thing — despite all its problems, people still flock here. This is the biggest place in the country, where you can get your luxuries. Rent is absurdly high, with the so-called “nicest” areas costing per week what people would pay per month in a city like Vancouver, and yet people will pay it. Maybe aside from the other cities of Lae and Mt. Hagen (both of which I’m skipping, and both of which are orders of magnitude smaller), this is the only place in PNG you can go watch a movie in a cinema, go clubbing, go shopping for more than just the essentials, or do…anything fun, really. If you want to see and be seen and pursue trends and styles and fortune, you do that here. And for most of the youth, this is the best place in PNG to pursue higher education.

So yes, with some basic precautions to not stick out, you can walk around here in some areas…though there probably aren’t many pleasant places for that. (And as I found out, if you walk somewhere that maybe isn’t the best idea, nice people will warn you.) The streets are full of people anyways. You can take the bus around town. (I had a ride instead.) You can go out at night. (I certainly didn’t.) People are friendly. There are good neighbourhoods and bad neighbourhoods. It’s not as dire as whoever comes up with those lists or travel advisories make it seem, and frankly those have a noticeable Western bias. In POM and across PNG, locals bristle at their international reputation. Vancouver’s got occasional random, unprovoked assaults. America’s got mass shootings every day. Neither are enough to prompt an advisory to avoid non-essential travel, nor should it. In my eyes and theirs, there’s not enough here for one either, even if incidents may be more frequent.

There are some unique things to enjoy here too. I’ve heard the National Museum is excellent, but I only got to see the outside on a day they were closed. All I had time was the Nature Park — where you can get up close to those birds of paradise that are otherwise very elusive in the wild. Even the blue-black riflebird!…just don’t expect it to do any mating display dances where it turns into a bouncing alien blob. Right by the university, it’s a place locals and foreigners seem to enjoy in equal measure. It made for a satisfying morning right before my flight out of the country.

So there are pleasant things to do. Does that make this a pleasant place to be? Well, no, POM is still pretty ugly, and probably every local would agree with me there. “Amazing Port Moresby?” Maybe it’s putting the cart before the horse, a symbol of following international trends without considering local reality. If I squint, I guess I can envision the potential.

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