No two days were ever the same over the 8 years I lived and worked in PNG. Strap yourselves in for another of my PNG experiences that takes us all out of our comfort zone.
I don’t remember exactly when the PNG tourism board decided to promote the tagline ‘Expect the Unexpected’. But for us long term expat residents, and even the ‘two year tourists’ at the Aussie High Commission residential compound (aka Fort Shit-Scared), Expecting the Unexpected became the norm pretty quickly. Especially when the Unexpected was things like armed robbery and mass prison breakouts!
In retrospect the nickname given to Aussie HC staff is incorrect, because most did little touring or cultural immersion whilst on their 2 year posting. Many came to Port Moresby on the lure of a good wage (danger pay) and free housing, helping them to get ahead with their mortgages back home.
Their daily routine involved being provided transport to and from the High Commission from their home at the compound, Fort Shit-Scared. The ‘Fort’ had everything one would want or need (except Tim Tam’s as they qualified as contraband), so once back behind the very high concrete walls with crushed glass and razor wire on top there was no real need to go outside and experience the people, land and culture. Something many were happy to do for 2 years. ‘Avoiding the Unexpected’ became their tagline.
Security was tight for all AHC staff and even tighter when an ‘incident’ occurred in the capital. An incident included many scenarios, from an AHC daredevil staff member being harassed at the markets on a Sunday morning (looking to haggle a 2 for 1 deal on penis gourds) to the time the Prison’s Chief Warden decided it was a good idea to let 113 prisoners out on day leave so they could march with other ‘public servants’ on parliament to protest the decision by Sir Bill Skate’s (prime minister and self-confessed godfather/overlord) government.
PNG did have the highest number of Knighthoods per capita, but I think Antigua & Barbuda holds this distinction now with Knighthoods bestowed upon 3 cricketers recently. There are more Sir’s is sari skirts than bowler hats!
At the time of the ‘breakout’ the furniture company I worked for was not only renovating all the housing at the Prime Ministers residence Mirigini House, but we had just opened a woodwork shop in the prison. A woodwork shop complete with every tool imaginable that a prison riot or break out gang could ever dream of. I never forget sitting in the wardens office and listening to him recount how he initially decided to let the 113 prisoners have the ‘day off’, only if they verbally promised to be back before sundown! He even supplied a government funded bus to assist with their transport to/from the march. ‘When we opened the front gate and the men started to run I realised that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea.‘ Before they could get the gates closed approximately 30 inmates escaped and scurried into the surrounding scrub with hoots of glee and hands full of new shop tools.
This incident, like all incidents, lead to the increased security measure of all staff at Fort Shit-Scared being allocated a personal guard that would radio in all movements to security head office. Basically this meant the departure from the High Commission and then the arrival behind the concrete wall at the ‘Fort’. A 10 minute drive that took in not one set of traffic lights or any obstacle. At the time Port Moresby only had 3 sets of traffic lights, 2 of them within 200m of each other in a very odd location. The bribe on erecting the first was said to be considerable enough to warrant a second nearby. When the first set of lights were erected in the Highlands town of Goroka, families from the mountains walked for days to sit by the side of the road and watch the lights change!
I was held up at gun point 3 times whilst living in Port Moresby. The first two times on the golf course (a location you learnt to expect to be greeted by unexpected guests brandishing bush knives and home-made guns that can blow up at any time making the actual procedure of a hold up dangerous for all parties involved) and the third time in my office. The two times on the golf course are a story for another day.
By this third experience I had become expectant of the unexpected and found the incident somewhat comical. At the time I was the General Manager of the Papuan Rugby League and we had hosted the Australian Kangaroos vs the PNG Kumuls the previous day, a first in many years. An event we had sold out which meant 8000 tickets. But, the official (and trusted) printers had decided the opportunity was too good to pass up and sold/distributed/gave away a further 6000 tickets at a tidy profit we never saw. On game day (Sunday) at 6am I arrived to a Custer-esk welcome at the stadium by a well behaved 2000 ticket holders who happily waited until 10am when we opened the gates for a main game that did not kick off until 3pm. Just under 14,000 attended, but thats another story for another day.
When you host an event of that magnitude you will attract a lot of attention from all elements of society, especially the criminal ones.
Throughout the day I made several armoured truck cash deposits from the gate takings, corporate box and club house bar sales. I could have done one at the end of the day or utilised our onsite safe but I half expected to be visited by rascals during the course of the day. Something most people would consider to be unexpected! Another reason I made several cash deposit runs was to make sure those criminal types who’d be ‘casing the joint’ understood that there would be no money on sight overnight, thereby avoiding a late night/early morning break in.
The next morning I arrived at about 10am cloudy headed after a night celebrating with both teams, a night that included much betel nut chewing and ‘fire water’ drinking (we had a name for the local fire water, it was ‘sh*t-in-a-bottle’), to be greeted by the usual 6-10 males dressed in clothes worn for at least a week without change, leaning up against our front security grill. This was a daily occurrence as I knew these lads were here to hand over a dirty piece of paper (aka resume) and plead for a job working as ground or bar staff. The security guard was nowhere to be seen but that was all too common occurrence. Likely asleep under a tree on the other side of the car park I deduced.
I was a little shocked when I felt the barrel of a home made gun pressed against the side of my ‘sh*t-in-a-bottle’ affected head and a bush knife pushed into my back (familiar feelings by this point!) as I started to unlock the main grill gate. Shocked because I thought I made it very clear the night before that there was no cash left onsite, this action supported by the large sign above the gate and my head stating the same in English and Pidgin (the native tongue).
As I was marched up the stairs by a group of 4 I explained, in my very poor Pidgin, that they were too late for the booty. To which I received a reply in beautifully spoken English ‘Sir, we will make that assessment upon inspection of your office safe’. This caused me to giggle. ‘Whats so funny mate?‘ the head rascal (man with gun) asked to which I replied ‘this is obviously an inside job and whoever your informant is should now be at the end of your barrel!’
Regardless, as requested we made our way to my office and I proceeded to open the safe to prove the point. When the head rascal looked inside and discovered I was not pulling his leg he said ‘Kila, he losem tingting’ (Kila, he’s lost his mind). Kila is the name of my head barman at the time!
The discovery of only 100 Kina ($40) in coins (which I gracefully offered as recompense for their time) upset the bush knife carrying rascal who proceeded to wave his weapon around dangerously and cut the third member of their group across the buttocks. He began to bleed badly which just added another dimension of tension to the already agitated (and I suspected a little high on the local kerosine equivalent home brew spirit – much better tasting than sh*t -in-a-bottle I might add!) group. At this point rascal number four chimed in and demanded my watch. I said no as it was a present from my mother that I had owned for many years. He accepted that refusal and then asked if they may borrow my car to make a getaway and take the injured member of their party to Hospital. The car was insured so I said that would not be an issue.
I must point out that my office is very small (the size of the Doctors Tardis but sadly lacking the spatial interior), and when I’m in there with the safe door open there is normally only enough room for one other person. So to have 5 of us crammed into this small space, one of which is holding a home made gun that could go off/explode any second (as home made guns have a habit of doing due to the trigger having to be held open the whole time) and another who was bleeding badly, urgency and frustration were not welcome to our confines.
The lads took the car and $40 worth of coins. As they made their way out of the building I asked where the car could be collected. The head rascal said they would park it under the big iconic tree in the Hospital car park and leave the keys with an old man resting nearby. I said ‘thanks‘.
As soon as they left I called the local police station, number disconnected. Most likely the bill hadn’t been paid, again. I then rang the security company to come pick me up and take me to the hospital. They arrived at the same time the on duty front gate guard awoke from his slumber and proceeded to disrobe and wash at the garden tap. Only a 2 hour nap to start the day I noted, things were beginning to look up for me!
We arrived at the Hospital tree to find my car and an old man sitting under the tree ‘keeping watch’ over it. I asked if he had the keys, he replied in the affirmative and requested 10 Kina ($4 = 4-5hrs work) for doing such a fine job.
I dutifully paid him, started the car and took it straight home to ask my haus-meri if she had something to get blood stains out of the rear seat upholstery.
Another day in paradise expecting the unexpected.