Sunday, May 27, 2007

Papua New Guinea’s public transport system doesn’t enjoy the reputation of being amongst the best in the world (and don’t get too cocky, we’re not so much better off in Australia. Well… no, actually we run rings around them… but we could still do with a lot of improvement), but at least up here in East New Britain it is passable.

The ‘system’ (a generous description) involves a fleet of publicly licensed (privately owned) mini-vans tearing all over the peninsular on fairly loosely defined routes. These are known as PMVs (short for Public Motor Vehicle). There are route numbers (No. 4 route, for example, runs between Kokopo and Kerevat… most of the time), but the designated routes are often ancillary to the whims of the drivers. It’s not unusual to find your bus diverting from the familiar track to pick-up a relative or to drop some beer of at one of the trade stores that are off the main road. It’s no big deal.

In addition to the fleet of mini-vans, there are also ‘local’ buses that do a set route from certain villages to town. These are generally big open bed trucks with makeshift wooden bench seats across the back with a capacity of somewhere between 20 and about a million (depending on time of day). These ‘local’ buses are dear to me, as they are easily recognised (they are all named – my two favourites being Pearls and the Silom Queen) and once you’ve travelled with them a few times the drivers recognise you and stop at your door. This is particularly important on the busy days, as it’s near impossible to signal your attention to dismount from the middle of about thirty people on a ‘rush hour’ bus… in the early days I regularly had to walk a couple of hundred metres back down the road after the bus had trundled past the lodge without looking like stopping.

Up until recently I was catching the No.4 buses to and from work. In theory I had an allocated daily lift to pick me up and drop me off, and therefore could avoid the pain of public transport, but when I put this theory to the rigorous scientific test of waiting for my lift to arrive, it was generally found wanting. It shouldn’t have been too much of an issue, after all, over 90% of the population (a Burford estimate – I’m having trouble proving this at the moment, the most recent reliable data being from 1991), relies on the PMV network and have no complaints, and it is cost effective (a four Kina round trip), but it would be a stretch to say I ever really enjoyed the travel. I don’t enjoy standing out in the crowd too much, and it’s hard to be anonymous when you are the only white person fumbling his way to the back of a packed capsule not much bigger than an average double-bed. And (without being too disparaging) the locals really don’t make things easy on themselves – or me - either. There seems to be an unspoken rule that the seat you first occupy is the one you stay in for the trip. As such, a bus will pull up, half passengers will disembark so I can get to the vacant seat in the middle (normally bumping a small child in the head with my laptop bag on the way through), those passengers will then re-board, and away we go… until 500 metres up the road someone sitting behind me reaches their stop, then half the passengers, plus me, plus the guy behind me, disembark, then re-board (minus the dislodged passenger), move off, until the next person wishes to leave, etc, etc, etc. I would’ve thought a bit of prudent reshuffling could make the trip far more efficient, but it never happens, and who am I to suggest it to people who’ve used this system their whole lives?

They’ve also recently filled the numerous potholes in the road that runs past the lodge (coincidentally enough only five weeks out from the election), which has turned out to be a curse in disguise. Whereas previously the drivers were restricted weaving in and out of canyons of varying depths for pretty much the whole trip, now they can indulge their Cool Runnings fantasies and pilot these minibuses at experimental speeds as if they were on a bobsleigh (bobsled? Have I Americanised there?) track. At first I found it terrifying, but I’ve since learned to vest my trust in the drivers, figuring that they do this all day every day, so they’re probably better judges of their abilities than I am. The exception to this rule coming the other day when I happened to look up to the cockpit – the view out the side windows of a blurred green of miscellaneous vegetation passing by at the speed of sound was making me feel sick – to see the driver and his co-driver passing a 375ml bottle of rum back and forward to one another. On this occasion I assessed the possible scenarios, and all of them ended with me getting a closer look at the windscreen than I’d really like… I decided it wasn’t such a bad day to be taking a walk for the remaining two kilometres to the lodge.

Anyway, it’s academic, as I’ve been transferred to the main office in Kokopo (meaning I can catch the friendly lumbering giants of Pearls and Silom Queen), and have been assured that I’ll soon be moving to that same town (meaning I’ll be able to walk to work… and, with any luck, have a social life). Hopefully the PMVs will be removed from my life altogether – or at least relegated to the optional category of Adventure Sports for when I’m in the need of a dose of adrenalin.

Now… here’s the part of the post where I relate the observations back to the theory of town planning (possibly the part where everyone else stops reading), lending some legitimacy to the hours of work time that I spend writing the blog in the first place.

For all my complaining about the PMVs, I have to acknowledge that they are nothing less than an essential public service. Not so much in the way that State Rail or the London Underground (that is, public transport as we would normally think of it) are essential services, but in more in the way that (say) reticulated sewerage is an essential service (a bad comparison because we don’t have reticulated sewerage here… but I’m sure you get the point).

Private car ownership here is virtually non-existent, or at least extremely rare compared with industrialised nations. And the few private cars that are on the road are normally:

1) nowhere near roadworthy; and/or
2) overflowing with passengers.

Add to this the fact that PNG is one of the least urbanised nations on earth, and you start to build a picture of how important mass transit is. For anybody other than the fourteen per cent of the population that live in the urban centres or the ten per cent of those that don’t but have access to private transport, almost any access to the formal economy has to be through the PMV system. So if, hypothetically speaking, all PMVs were withdrawn from service tomorrow, the Province would grind to a halt.

Of course, the PMVs won’t stop running tomorrow… the market won’t let them. Public Transport in Australia (in comparison) is so heavily reliant on subsidy that it (sadly) falls more into the category of ‘welfare’ than that it does ‘infrastructure’. Back home, basically, people are given a choice between their private cars and public transport (unless you live in regional Australia, where the latter is fictional), and – lets face it – public transport can be a f*cking horrible experience. If you’ve ever stood in the middle of a sea of civilization that smells of wet animal and is lubricated by human grease on a peak hour train, you’ll know what I mean. Engwicht urges us to use our encounters on public transport as in inspiration in our own lives – observe the struggle of the elderly to come to terms with your own inevitable aging etc – but my experiences usually led to me developing a wholly negative view of humanity. I still use public transport wherever possible (and practical) out of moral obligation, but there’s no way on earth I’m going to enjoy the experience. Most other people simply exercise choice and avoid it all together. Not so here. Here, there is no choice; you either travel by PMV (with all its failings) or you don’t travel at all , there is a clear winner.

But there is a change in the air. As economic development progresses (often seemingly with the expedience of plate tectonics), private car ownership is just as surely on the rise (although, admittedly, at about the same sluggish rate). But slowly and surely, with every additional new car on the road, the wholly unsubsidised (and largely unregulated) PMV network is just that little bit less sustainable. I guess there will come a day when there aren’t enough readily available passengers to maintain the PMV network as it stands… and then the drivers will have to make business choices about either putting their prices up, or shutting down their operations. Either way, the non-car owning population are the ones who will lose out.

And I guess if you follow this through to its natural conclusion, as PMVs become less frequent and more expensive, the cycle lends itself to private car ownership becoming a more attractive option for more and more people, further marginalising those who are at the bottom of the economic pile. And as traditional thinking will have it, no good can come of this at all… the inevitable results are congestion, pollution and alienation. It’s all obvious in theory, but you try telling any local that they shouldn’t aspire to private car ownership, and see how far it gets you.

While I for one won’t miss bumping along ill-maintained roads in a seat that long ago lost its cushioning ability, I still think it’s a terrific shame that this model system for mass transit is doomed to extinction. With my work here, I’ll do what I can to soften the blow when the inevitable happens, but I realise that both planning and politics are impotent against the change. Kinda pisses me off.

Hope you are well wherever you are.


Thursday, May 3, 2007

u noken kaikaim bui tudae?

The local culture here is an inclusive one and – essentially – people will not deal with you until they feel congenial towards you. I’m at ease with this, as its how I like to do business anyway. I’ve never felt comfortable with the Australian/Western contemporary business model of completely fucking people over with a smile and the throwaway ‘nothing personal, just business’ line. Here, business is personal, consensus is paramount, and people aren’t inclined to tread on their associates as they are likely to be part of their own wider social network. I’m not saying this is by any means perfect, but I’ll leave the criticisms for another time. Right now it’s sufficient to say that I’m enjoying building trust and networks.

In this inclusive spirit, I’ve spent a lot of time standing idly around chatting with the staff and community members. And there’s a lot of standing and chatting to be done, the concept of standardised working hours or set break times seems to have not reached Kerevat yet. More often than not the conversation passes me by as it’s conducted in Pidgin or Kuanua and flies back and forth between people with the rapidity of machinegun fire - my Pidgin is far from conversational level yet and my Kuanua nonexistent – but I’m slowly getting accepted as more than just someone to be babysat.

The biggest ice-breaker has been accepting betel nut. For those that don’t know, betel nut (bui in the local tongue) is a ‘mild accelerant’ that is chewed (and spat) by pretty much everyone in PNG. It’s described as kopi belong PNG (Papua New Guinean Coffee).

The nut itself is fairly innocuous, but it is traditionally mixed with lime (the chemical kind, not the citrus fruit) to produce a chemical reaction that turns the juice bright red and induces the ‘rush’.

On my first two occasions chewing, on advisement, I choose a mild nut with very little lime. Rather then blood red, I was spitting pink saliva and the ‘mild accelerant’ manifest only as a slight tingling of the lips, a little like chewing on a battery.

On the third (most recent and very well likely last) occasion I was given a stronger nut by a local Ward Councillor and mixed it with a standard dose of lime. It would have been rude to refuse the offer and – besides – I thought I knew what I was doing. One of the few givens in my life is that I will automatically assume myself an expert on any subject based on limited experience, only to be bought thumpingly back to reality when more if it comes my way.

On this occasion, the ‘mild accelerant’ effect was like having a triple espresso delivered directly to the brain via hypodermic between the eyes. It really didn't right, but I couldn’t question the sensation as my body had reacted by producing saliva by the litre. I looked like I was haemorrhaging from the tongue, and for all I knew I might have been, because I couldn’t feel my mouth to check. It soon became apparent to my co-workers that I was not at all enjoying myself and they responded – as I would have had I been in their position – by pissing themselves with laughter.

Unpleasant as it was, it was certainly a watershed moment in my being accepted by the team. Now hardly a day passes when I’m not asked ‘James, you noken kaikaim bui tudae?’ (which translates with a little liberal interpretation to ‘still not chewing then sissy?’. It’s a running joke, and it’s at my expense, but it’s well intentioned and is helping greatly in getting to know people better. And although they can stick their ‘bui’ up their arse as far as I’m concerned (I can only guess what sort of effect that would produce), it’s nice to be part of the group.

Hope you are well wherever you are,