On the road for LP in PNG travel blog

Bilums for sale

Signwriting in Mt Hagen - a spectator sport

Kiap house near Wabag


Working in PNG as an LP author is a different experience from authoring elsewhere. You can't slip into town pretending to be a tourist, and then go checking every hotel in town, writing notes against your knee on the footpath, checking your guidebook map walking apace every street, snapping photos and bailing up shop attendants asking for directions. You are the only tourist in town, everybody's watching - thousands of eyes, everywhere you look. But everybody would be watching whatever you did, so you just get on with it.

People approach, they take my hand and want me to stay and talk, they're genuinely affectionate, speaking tok pisin (pidgin) too fast for me to understand. I have to say monin to literally everyone I pass in the street, and the people across the street. It's all very reassuring, saying 'you're OK here'. Manners are important.

I'm in Mt Hagen, PNG's third-biggest city, and it's a tough town. There are raskols (criminals), homeless kids and social problems. Despite its beautiful location in the mountains it's not an attractive town. There's rubbish in the street, windows have extruded-aluminium covers, there are guards and dogs, razor-wire. Yet, for all of Hagen's grim exterior, I don't feel unsafe for a moment. People are incredibly friendly. Nobody asks me for money, nobody hassles me. (But beware the thieves in the market area and don't walk the streets at night.)

There are drawbacks to this guidebook-author-in-town over exposure. The guy serving me dinner says he saw me at the bank today, and on weekends he's a guide to the villages in the hills behind town. 'I should be in your book' he says. His brother is building a bush guesthouse (everyone's building a bush guesthouse). Other people tell me what I should write, where I should go. Some people ask my advice about things I know nothing about. I feel like a reluctant celebrity.

I'm very careful not to incur debt or obligation to anyone - in PNG these notions are particularly onerous. In customary law (kastom) gift-giving, debt and reciprocity are very important. I have to remain independent - no fear, no favour.

My last day here, I buy some Highlands hats and bilums (woven bags) at the Hagen market, a different seller for each item to spread my money around a little. I don't bargain. I buy a cheap soccer ball for the kids in the village behind my digs in the mountains just out of town.

Back at my room I ready myself. Tumora mi kisim lik lik balus go long Wewak (tomorrow I get a small plane to go to Wewak), on the northern coast. They have surfing in Wewak, gateway to the mighty Sepik River. I hope they also have a laundry service.

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