Surviving without wi-fi in Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea is a place we’ve all seen on maps and on TV, where remote jungle tribes are discovered and studied by anthropologists. No doubt the best of this country is well away from the cities: hidden inland villages or a coastline that offers perfect conditions for diving. I didn’t have time for either of those, unfortunately, so spent just a few days in the capital, Port Moresby. My expectations weren’t high. The travel guides are less than enthusiastic and warn of the city’s dangers. There’s not a great deal to see from a tourist point of view.

With a British passport I was able to get a ‘visa on arrival’ free of charge, an impressive full-page yellow sticker giving me the right to enter the country as a tourist, duly stamped by a uniformed official. On arrival in this new country I did my usual things: withdraw some cash and buy a local SIM card for my phone. The small hotel I’d booked hadn’t answered my email about a pickup from the airport and they didn’t answer when I phoned from Arrivals. Not very encouraging. Anyway, I found a local taxi, negotiated a price for the short ride and soon arrived at the Hideaway Hotel.

The staff at the hotel’s reception seemed hesitant and unsure, not fully confident in what they were doing, as if it was all a bit daunting for them to check in a guest, take payment and give me a room key. I soon realised they had taken payment for only one night so I went back down to reception to pay more, as per my online reservation, wondering if they would ever have noticed if I hadn’t. The hotel was nowhere near full and I had the feeling that I could stay for as long as I liked without anyone ever challenging me about hiding away there, as if nobody was really in charge.

I needed to buy some water and a few bits and pieces, so asked the young woman at reception about the nearest shops. I was told that there were some stores nearby but it was unsafe for me to go there. Instead, they recommended I get a taxi to the shopping mall and called local taxi driver John to come and pick me up. It cost only 20 Papua New Guinean Kinas for the long ride to the mall, which made me realise I’d paid way over the odds for the taxi from the airport, despite thinking I’d negotiated a fair price. In the larger scheme of things, the amount of money was insignificant but I don’t like to be ripped off. (There have been times I’ve negotiated hard to bring the tourist rip-off price right down, then in the end given a tip that takes the price back to the driver’s original ask. The bottom line is the same, but for me at least, it’s very different in principle.)

The hotel had wifi, but it wasn’t free and only available in the lobby. I needn’t have bothered asking the price because it wasn’t working anyway. Thank goodness for my local SIM card, which gave me some access to the internet. It also became useful for calling John, who became my driver for the next few days. The Lonely Planet guide offered a few things to do and places to go in Port Moresby, one of which was Duffy’s cafe, described as being fit for any European capital. So I put it on my list for the following day, for lunch and access to wifi.

The next morning, after spending some time in the hotel and sizzling briefly in the sun by the pool, I called John to take me to the Port Moresby Nature Park, a conservation project with local animals and birds, out of the city centre near to the University. By late morning the sun was scorching though there was some shade in the park. By mid afternoon it was time for a coffee and a late lunch in an air-conditioned cafe. John didn’t know Duffy’s but I showed him the location on my phone, and even the route, courtesy of Google Maps. He studied it long and hard, trying to memorise it, but I reassured him we would get directions along the way. When we set off, he was astounded to hear a woman’s voice telling him where to drive, junction by junction. He laughed out loud with delight every time she spoke, and became concerned when she went quiet on long straight parts of the journey.

Duffy’s was quite impressive on the inside, cool in both senses of the word, with European style pastries, acai berry smoothies and an assortment of dishes catering mainly to Australian and other ex-pat employees of the multinational companies based here. The outside, however, was the opposite of impressive. Located in an industrial part of town you wouldn’t want to walk through alone, the entrance was through two guarded gates, as if going into a high-security industrial complex. Not very welcoming. I think that part of the charm of sitting in a European cafe is looking through the window watching the world go by, and people-watching the comings and goings of casual customers. Those things were impossible here. I was glad to see on my phone that there were a few wifi options but when I asked the waitress for the password, she said that the wifi was only for management. Still offline, I drank my coffee. Then, using 3G from my local SIM card I looked up nearby hotels and phoned the Holiday Inn, where they confirmed they had wifi that was working. So I made another call to Taxi John.

Later, back in my hotel room, I wrote some business emails and a proposal for a potential client, all of which I was unable to send until the next wifi signal, wherever that might be. After all, this was not just a holiday but also ‘work on the move’.

I realise that there is much more to Papua New Guinea outside its capital, so my impressions are jaundiced. I was really just passing through for a few days and my expectations of Port Moresby were quite low, which coloured my perception of the place. Having arrived from Australia, there was a certain amount of culture shock, particularly in relation to personal safety and internet access. In places like “PNG” (as they call it) it takes a few days to acclimatise to a slower pace of life and the minor inconveniences of a developing country. Who knows how my impressions might have been more positive if I’d spent a few more days in the city, or even better, had time to venture into the villages and out to the coastline of this exotic land.

Copyright © David Parrish 2018.

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Papua New Guinea