Monday, August 29, 2011

Adventures in Driving

As I started typing, I was about to say that there are limited roadways in this country.  However, as is the case with any serious journalist, I had to get my facts straight, so I turned to Google to find some statistics.  Encyclopedia of the Nations ( tells me that there is actually 19,600 km of roadway in PNG.
I admit, that’s more than I expected to see.  But the subsequent statistic didn’t surprise me at all.
Of that, “only 686 kilometers are paved.”
That’s about 3.5%.  Yeah, baby.  That’s more like it.
I found it further interesting that of the “492 airports, … only 19 have paved runways.”  That’s a whopping 3.9%.  Maybe I’d be better off owning a plane?

It’s not uncommon to start a road trip here with prayer.  The pray-er, if an experienced PNG traveler, usually includes a clause that goes something like this …
“… and as we drive, please guide us as we encounter pigs, pedestrians, and potholes.”
Driving here is very stressful.  Especially on the driver and whoever else feels a sense of responsibility for the people in the vehicle.  You have to be on guard at all times, constantly aware of road conditions that we all but take for granted in the US.
As is the case in many third-world countries (or, I suppose, any country where the motor vehicle to human being ratio is negligible), people use the roads as pedestrian thoroughfares.  Old and young, male and female, alone and in groups, people walk along the roads as if they would be shocked to actually see a vehicle driving on it.  Sometimes they will move out of the way when they see you coming, but it’s smart to not expect it.  Many of them are carrying something – a baby on the back, a cord of firewood on the head, large bilums (string bags) filled with garden produce, machetes.  It’s not uncommon to see gaggles of small half-dressed, barefoot children walking down the road carrying machetes (here called “bush knives”) that are almost as long as the kids are tall.
Pigs and dogs, too, roam the roads.  And should the unthinkable occur … should you hit one of these precious treasures … don’t even think about stopping.  That is very difficult for our western minds to compute … that you wouldn’t stop – that if you value your life, you SHOULDN’T stop to help in such a situation.  The response of the local community wouldn’t be any more tense if you’d hit a person – you have just destroyed something that belongs to them and you will pay.  If you want to get out of the situation with any hope of only paying monetarily, your best bet is to floor it and drive straight to the nearest police post (if you can find one).  Tell them what happened and trust that they’ll protect your life until compensation can be negotiated.
While I’m on animals, I suppose I shouldn’t neglect the bovines among us.  You don’t see them often, but in one straightaway in the lowlands, I recently saw a sign that read:
“Draiv isi isi.  Bulmakau wokabout long rot.” 
(basically, “Drive carefully; cattle walk on the road.”)
And potholes … I think if the powers-that-be were to go back and seriously evaluate those 686 km of “paved” roadway, they just might have to disqualify about 127.3 km for … well, pavement that no longer exists.  :)
There are no superhighways here.  No interchanges, no on- and off-ramps.  No odd-for-North-South-routes and even-for-East-West.  In fact, there is not a single road – no road - that connects the highlands to the capital city of Port Moresby.  The Highlands Highway – the only thoroughfare spanning the northern half of the country, consists of 2 lanes – one going each direction.  Bridges tend to be one lane, with right of way going to whoever is driving away from the coast (presumably so the few heavily-loaded tractor-trailers coming up from the port cities don’t have to stop as they’re driving through the mountains.)  Sometimes potholes leave a section of road as effectively one-lane.  Sometimes portions of road shrink laterally as chunks of asphalt gradually break off and plummet down the mountainside.
There are a few private vehicles out there, but not many.  Most vehicles you encounter on the road are PMVs (Public Motor Vehicles).  Those that drive long distances tend to be vans, while short-distance PMVs are generally open-backed trucks.  Of course, they’re always overloaded, often with several people following the one-appendage-in-the-vehicle rule: hang on, for example, with one foot on the back bumper and the other leg thrown over the tailgate.  Sometimes the people are sitting on heaping piles of burlap bags filled with copra, coffee beans, or buai (betelnut).  Either way, it’s a house of cards, and I fear woe to anyone who follows too close.
Roadside markets dot the highway.  Usually people are hocking sweet potatoes, pineapple, and mangoes, but in some places you may see a table lined with soda bottles.  On closer inspection, you will notice that though these bottles contain a dark brown liquid, it is not Coca Cola.  It’s motor oil.  Quite possibly slightly used motor oil, but with the lack of gas stations (you can drive hours and not see a gas station – best just to fill up in the major cities), sometimes that’s the best you can do and they know it.
On one two-hour trip, I counted no less than 15 skeletons of vehicles along the road.  That’s one every 8 minutes if you’re doing the math.  If your car breaks down, and you have to abandon it, be prepared to say goodbye.  If your car breaks down on my land, that makes it my car, and that bench seat in the back would be a great addition to my house.  If your biscuit-filled tractor-trailer breaks down, let’s just say our village will be sitting pretty for tea time for some months.  These “skeletons” are vehicles that have literally been stripped clean of everything that could potentially be useful, leaving, at best, only the steel frame intact.  In one location, I saw what used to be a bus, stripped clean except for a flap of sheet metal.  One small, resourceful child was using it as a trampoline.
If you ever do take a drive in PNG, please don’t focus only on the road and its hazards.  (Unless you’re the driver, of course.  So, sorry Dad … no matter how successfully you gawked at the sights while managing not to tumble off the winding mountain roads of the American West, I will have to put my foot down here.) 
If you’re not driving, enjoy the view.
This land that was once thought to be a homogenous mass of rainforests sports rugged mountains, vast grasslands, deep valleys, glorious rivers.  Eight foot tall kunai grass waves in the afternoon breezes.  Patches of the hillsides burn dramatically to make ready garden plots.  The higher vistas reveal mountaintops that seem to float in the clouds. 
And sometimes, if you’re lucky, there might even be a stretch of asphalt ahead of you as far as the eye can see.  :)

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