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Date : 22nd January, 2017
Time : 58’ 44”
Total distance run to date : 970 km
Run map and details : https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1543565159
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office – to give it its full title – operates a travel advice website. It covers every country in the world and subjects ranging from safety and terrorism through to entry requirements and local health issues. Created primarily for Brits, it’s a great resource for any would be traveller.
I use it a lot to research the 3 Vs that hang over my travels : visas, viruses and violence. The concern in Papua New Guinea is violence.
The Foreign Office advice is stark : “Serious crime is particularly high in the capital, Port Moresby. Settlement or squatter areas of towns and cities are particularly dangerous. ’Bush knives’ (machetes) and firearms are often used in assaults and thefts. Carjacking, assault (including sexual assaults), bag snatching and robberies are common. Walking after dark is particularly dangerous in Port Moresby and other urban centres.”
As a general rule, the Foreign Office (understandably) takes a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach to their advice. I quite often arrive somewhere to be told that it’s not as bad as its reputation.
Papua New Guinea was the opposite. The closer I got, the more worried everyone was. When I told people in Guam I was going to PNG, everybody grimaced and told me to be careful. One person told me that there was still cannibalism in in PNG. I assumed she was winding me up. “No. I’m a sociology student and we’ve just studied PNG as part of a Pacific cultures course. They still have cannibalism”.
I was travelling to the capital, Port Moresby, where there probably wasn’t much risk of me being bundled into a cooking pot (no doubt to then hear my would be eaters complaining that wasn’t enough fat on me to make a good stew). My risk came from the local criminal gangs – known as the Raskols. ‘Raskol’ is a pidgin English word derived from the English word ‘rascal’. It makes the gangs sound naughty but endearing. The reality is anything but.
This from Wikipedia : “Over the years, raskol gang activities have evolved from opportunistic incidents of small scale theft or breaking and entering to more organised criminal activity including serving as middlemen in the marijuana trade both within PNG and between PNG and Australia, as well as becoming increasingly politicised as the instrument of various political powers. The growth of squatter settlements in Port Moresby have led to a corresponding increase in the number and size of raskol gangs. Crimes such as rape, murder, and carjacking are common in a city that has a 60 percent unemployment rate.”
In urban areas, Raskol gangs often require would be members to rape women as part of their initiation. Wikipedia also includes the following chilling paragraph : “Peter Moses, one of the leaders of the “Dirty Dons 585” Raskol gang (picture above), stated that raping women was a “must” for the young members of the gang. In rural areas, when a boy wants to become a man, he may go to an enemy village and kill a pig to be accepted as an adult, while in the cities “women have replaced pigs”. Moses, who claims to have raped more than 30 women himself, said, “And it is better if a boy kills her afterwards, there will be less problems with the police”. (Papua New Guinea is often ranked as the worst place in the world for violence against women ; the rape statistics are sickening.)
Small wonder that a contact in PGN emailed me to say, “We strongly advise expatriates coming to Port Moresby never to walk the streets and especially at night and again, to always use a Security Company for transport & escort services.” And “I can only recommend that you don’t run on the roads. Hate to see you targeted. Even those expats who go out on their bikes have a security escort.”
Graham, the incredibly helpful manager at the Holiday Inn express, (picture below) took a more sanguine view. He thought it would be safe to run into town.
I decided to compromise. I would run into town – but make sure I completed the run and got back to the hotel while it was still light. And so it was that I set off at about 4pm.
Which is not a good time to run in Papua New Guinea as it’s still pretty hot. The best time to run would have been early morning but as I’d landed that morning at 6 am, after a largely sleepless night, that hadn’t really been an option. (By the way, thank you Holiday Inn for the early check-in.)
After about 2 1/2 km, I was feeling pretty cooked and the road ahead looked as if it climbed for the foreseeable future. There was flattish road off to the left. I ummed and aahed for a bit about which way to go, all the time thinking that standing still on a street corner looking at a map might not be a good idea. I went left. It meant turning off Graham’s recommended route but I was already done in and just couldn’t face the hill.
It wasn’t just the heat affecting me. Anyone who’s read the other blogs from my Pacific trip will know that I was really struggling physically. And, if I’m honest, I was probably a little bit afraid and that may have been sapping my strength.
For whatever reason, I was finding the run extraordinarily tough. When it came to the next hill, I thought, for the first time, about giving up. Not giving up on the run in question. I often think about that. But giving up on the whole crazy, crushingly knackering scheme to run 10km in every country in the world.
I’d just had enough of the running, of the endless travel, of the sweaty moments at borders, of the lack of sleep, of the time differences, of the heat, of being told I had cancer. Of everything.
Every inch of my body was screaming at me to stop.
‘You can’t do that’, said an inner voice. ‘How could you live with yourself? And what about all the people who’ve donated and supported you?’
‘I’ve got cancer, isn’t that excuse enough’, said the scumbag side of my mind.
‘You should be ashamed of yourself, trying to hide behind your cancer’, responded whatever was left of my integrity. ‘They caught it early. You’ll probably be fine. Now get on with it’.
Feeling duly ashamed of myself, I plodded on. I can vividly remember the rest of the run but I don’t think it would make for good reading. Just one long – seemingly endless – battle to keep moving. Without my rule of finishing the 10km within an hour, I would almost certainly have succumbed to the overwhelming desire to walk rather than run.
Finally the torture came to an end. By now I was at Ela Beach. Graham’s advice had been to head for the Crowne Plaza hotel at the end of the run and ask for a taxi. The hotel was up a 200m hill. Not far by any standard. But I couldn’t make it in one go. I had to stop and rest half way up.
Eventually, I stumbled into the hotel and asked them to call me a taxi. But none of their usual taxi firms were working (it being a Sunday afternoon). They could see I was pretty nervous about wandering around on the street looking for a taxi. So they got out the hotel van and their driver drove me back to the Holiday Inn. For free.
Port Moresby has a reputation as a seriously scary place. The reason there are no photos from the run is that I didn’t dare take out my phone in public.
But it’s also the capital of a seriously beautiful country with, by all accounts, an amazing diversity of cultures and flora and fauna. And, at least in my experience, a number of exceptionally kind and helpful people.
The Facts & Stats
Papua New Guinea occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and its offshore islands in Melanesia, a region of the southwestern Pacific Ocean north of Australia. Its capital, located along its south-eastern coast, is Port Moresby. (The western half of New Guinea belongs to Indonesia.)
Papua New Guinea is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. There are 852 known languages in the country, of which 12 have no known living speakers. Most of the population of more than 7 million people live in customary communities, which are as diverse as the languages. It is also one of the most rural, as only 18 percent of its people live in urban centres. The country is one of the world’s least explored, culturally and geographically. It is known to have numerous groups of uncontacted peoples, and researchers believe there are many undiscovered species of plants and animals in the interior.
Papua New Guinea is classified as a developing economy by the International Monetary Fund. Strong growth in Papua New Guinea’s mining and resource sector led to the country becoming the sixth fastest-growing economy in the world in 2011. Nearly 40 percent of the population lives a self-sustainable natural lifestyle with no access to global capital.
Most of the people still live in strong traditional social groups based on farming. Their social lives combine traditional religion with modern practices, including primary education. These societies and clans are explicitly acknowledged by the Papua New Guinea Constitution, which expresses the wish for “traditional villages and communities to remain as viable units of Papua New Guinean society” and protects their continuing importance to local and national community life.
At the national level, after being ruled by three external powers since 1884, Papua New Guinea established its sovereignty in 1975. This followed nearly 60 years of Australian administration. It became an independent Commonwealth realm with Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state and became a member of the Commonwealth of Nations in its own right.
Finally, here’s the latest World Bank data for Papua New Guinea – with the year 2000 as a comparison.
Population 7 619k 2015 5 374k 2000
GDP $16.93 billion 2014 $3.25 billion 2000
GNI per capita $2240 2014 $620 2000
% below poverty line 39.9% 2009 NA
Life expectancy at birth 62.6 years 2014 58.8 years 2000
Primary school enrolment* 60.5% 2009 71% 2000
*Percentage can exceed 100% due to the inclusion of over and under aged students