PNG is a tragically fascinating place. First contact with outsiders for people up in the highlands was in 1933, when Michael Leahy and his brothers ventured there looking for gold. The indigenous people first thought these strange white figures might be ghosts, but after stalking them through the jungle, and then smelling their poop, they concluded they must be the same species (watch the video above). For many people living in PNG, not much has changed since then, or we can more accurately say, most people do not believe much has changed since then, since there are very few that venture into its depths.
Many of these areas are still just as inaccessible as they were then. Tribal warfare, the lack of infrastructure, violent crime, malaria, steep mountains and dense jungle, mean age old traditions still dictate the tempo of daily life, and information still travels by whispers and rumors. The environment is so hostile that for thousands of years small tribes have lived both next to, and isolated from each other, forming their own customs and languages. Currently it is thought that around 850 distinct languages are spoken across the island nation. However, people are not even sure how many people are living in the country. The last census was conducted in 2000, and its accuracy is debated, meaning today people generally think there are somewhere between six and eight million people there, but nobody knows.
Port Moresby is a capital of contradictions. As the economy booms from the initial stages of the Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project, crime rises and a great number of locals are forced to move out of the city into surrounding slums. Skyrocketing property prices reflect a sudden jump in demand from aid workers and LNG project personnel in relation to an extremely constrained supply of adequate accommodation. Ironically, no talented construction workers will stay in Moresby to build houses, when they can make much more on the LNG project up in the mountains. Rental housing got so expensive that the LNG project finally brought a cruise ship into the harbor to house its workers for a while.
Government officials and highly paid Australian consultants are couriered around the city in vehicles with tinted windows, speeding through red lights, stopping only at meetings and posh restaurants. There is a glaringly large divide between the elite, and those still wearing penis gourds in the jungle. There are two societies, separated by Dutch disease, connected by the pervasive violence. The issue is that as the elite race ahead to supply the Asian markets with energy, there is no bridge to help pull-up those still isolated in the jungle. The societal divide is growing.
However, every once in a while they overlap a bit. A bartender in the fanciest hotel downtown told me a story. He said that since land is still owned communally, isolated tribes often received significant cash payments so miners could go tear up their mountains, or so loggers could rip down their forests. Since there is nothing to spend it on in the jungle, they would bring it to the city. In fact, one tribe had brought in a suitcase of money and rented out the hotel for a month until the money ran out. Then they left, barefoot, back to the jungle. The big new sparkling city…nothing but an amusement park.