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2 July 2001

Living up to Somerset Maugham

They drink beer, not gin, and their women are now executives. Otherwise, the expats in Papua New Gui

By Stephen Smith

“If you’re out on the road and you hit anything, anything at all, you make a phone call and drive straight to the airport.” This was the advice I heard more than once in Papua New Guinea. I could never find out who you were supposed to telephone, but the business of driving to the airport as fast as you could was not hard to grasp. You damaged someone’s property or livestock at your peril. In Papua New Guinea, everyone buys into a code of payback so fanatically observed and hair-trigger that it makes the Sicilian vendetta look like the Co-op Christmas club.

A few years ago, a pair of anthropologists who had spent five months in the country were driving through the highland town of Tari when they struck a pig. Instead of making a call and carrying on directly to the airport, a custom that you might expect a pair of anthropologists to have absorbed after five months, they got out of their car, identified the owner of the dead pig and offered their apologies. They were skinned alive.

Papua New Guinea has a well-deserved reputation for violence. Although the island is credited with up to 45 per cent of the world’s entire variety of languages, perhaps 1,300 in all, and is in this respect, if not in others, an anthropologist’s dream, what is seldom mentioned is the corollary of this: that a population of only four million people can hardly talk to one another (they fall back on Pidgin as the closest thing to a common tongue). Some of this can be put down to the country’s extraordinary combination of unbiddable terrains: here a mountain range to tax the most accomplished climber; there an illimitable, uncharted mangrove swamp. Many disputes arise out of the complex way in which land is passed on within clans: parcelled out, cheese-pared, balkanised.

But it is a remarkable feature of Papua New Guinea that tribes separated by the merest ribbon of river cannot understand each other. This suggests that they spring from a culture that is not particularly inquisitive, or sociable. Historically, they have tended to be wary of strangers, even hostile to them. As in the nicest homes, however, drink makes things go with a swing. And again, as in the nicest homes, sometimes things go too far. Papua New Guinea has a bad case of what antipodeans used to call “Friday night swill”, the swift and sometimes violent conversion of units of currency into units of alcohol. It can happen on any night, in fact, but most spectacularly on Friday pay nights. Then, the capital city, Port Moresby, fills with the malevolent sprites released by the bottle, known as “rascols”, or rascals (a piece of understatement to rival Northern Ireland’s “troubles”). Rascals are groups of young men, typically of disputatious highland stock, who are attracted to the capital in the hope of finding work, but all too often end up drinking to excess and committing crimes with menaces. One effect of this is a sense of embattlement among the expat community. The foreigners who have collected their homes and offices together to form the few square yards of Port Moresby’s “downtown” are like settlers encircled by their wagons. They reside behind stockades and don’t venture abroad after sundown.

The city of Port Moresby dominates a dazzling bay in the South Pacific, where brown-skinned children gambol in the palm-shaded breakwater. The horizon is broken up by alluring atolls, but in the middle distance, relief comes in the shape of the scuttled and rusting hulks of freighters and tramps and fishing boats, craft that aren’t going anywhere in a hurry.

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I first saw the bay on the day I arrived in Papua New Guinea, coming in from the airport by my hotel courtesy bus, swabbing myself with a courtesy chilled towel. The bus was, in effect, a taxi to the Park Royal, the place in Port Moresby where expats without a roof of their own found a billet. I was sitting next to Shelley, an Australian who had been delightedly tempted out of retirement by his old bosses at British American Tobacco for one last tour of “PNG”. Shelley was as lined in his way as a carving of a highlander. He was keen to look up an old friend who, he said, was manager of the brewery in Port Moresby. He seemed to expect to see his friend at the wheel of one of the cars we passed, but then the city was a small place. It was Shelley who first introduced me to the law of the road in Papua New Guinea about driving fast to the airport. “What we’ll do, Stephen,” said Shelley as we arrived at the Park Royal, “I’ll phone my mate – he’s sure to want to come up and have a few beers. We’ll meet in the bar around 4.30.”

I wasn’t too keen. I had been up for 24 hours, on the last leg of the endless flight from London. I thought I would take a nap. At this time, I was still under the impression that I could do as I wanted in Port Moresby, within the constraints of keeping out of the way of rascals and not running into pigs; of avoiding pay day and payback. I hadn’t absorbed the lessons about expatriate life in the Far East that I’d read in Somerset Maugham and Conrad: having assumed, I suppose, that these were long out of date. Rubbers of bridge and immaculate white ducks (whatever they were) were nowhere to be found, it is true, but I was wrong if I thought that I wouldn’t be hearing about “the company” or “the manager”, or if I thought that “drinks at the club” was a practice as outmoded in its way as wearing mud masks into battle. It was hopeless to imagine that I – fresh flesh – could avoid the social rituals of the expat community.

In my naivety, I thought I was a free agent. I abandoned an unsuccessful attempt to sleep and called a taxi. I asked the driver to help me find a “bigman”, a leader or elder. I was impatient to see some magic. The driver, who gave his name as Iago, had a relative in the sorcery business, he said, but made heavy weather of tracking down this uncle or cousin, as did Iago’s Toyota. As we ground along in low gear, Iago turned round in his seat to renegotiate or restate my fare, as though it was pegged to every fluctuation in the currency markets. We left a main road and went up a rise, and the taxi drew up outside a metal gate that marked the end of a drive. “He live here,” said Iago. People emerged, some of them young men. Remembering the rascals, I grew a little concerned. “It’s all right, I know them,” said Iago, leaving me alone in the beached Toyota.

But the bigman wasn’t at home. At this discovery, my long journey to Papua New Guinea caught up with me, and I wanted my bed. Iago drove me back to the Park Royal. There, standing next to a porter and lighting a cigarette, was Shelley. He grabbed the door handle of the taxi and slid in beside me. “Lucky you got this bloke,” he said, meaning Iago. “He speaks good English.” Shelley leant forward. “We want to buy postcards,” he commanded. He smelled of alcohol.

For the second time that afternoon, I sat in Iago’s car as it laboured up the hill behind Port Moresby, and Shelley explained the purpose of his trip. He had been commissioned to carry out research into sales of BAT’s brands in PNG. “But we’ve more or less got a captive market,” he said, his cigarette weaving around at the end of his arm. “I’m pretty happy to be here,” he went on, unnecessarily. Anyone could see that he was as happy as a highland airline passenger without a ticket. “Me and the wife own the house in Cairns now.”

I was bothered by the seeming non-sequitur, which I heard several times, between Shelley’s happiness in PNG and his home ownership, until I decided that clearing his mortgage had left him feeling entitled to a trip to Port Moresby. It wasn’t for everyone, with its rascals and malaria and “sheilas with the clap”. But Shelley was thrilled that he had been sent for one last time. He had a month’s tour on expenses to look forward to, with rounds of drinks at the Park Royal and, when those palled, the derelict-looking yacht club in the bay (“the grotty yachtie”) and the company of his mate who managed the brewery.

Shelley was fun but, I decided, exhausting. That evening, I fell asleep in the bathtub, to be woken up by the phone ringing. “Stephen? We’re in the bar,” said Shelley. It was six o’clock.

I began to see that it was possible to get Shelley wrong. Because of his old man’s habit of repeating himself, and the distracting pyrotechnics of his facial expressions, it was easy to underestimate him. I was travelling on a tourist visa, because press visas for Papua New Guinea were difficult to get hold of, and I had told Shelley only that I worked in television. I was, in fact, planning to rendezvous with a camera crew in the swamps of Gulf province to shoot a story about illegal logging, but I had told Shelley that I was going to meet some friends who were keen birdwatchers. “So you’re a TV journalist,” Shelley began in the bar.

“Actually, Shelley, I work in television advertising,” I improvised lamely. I think I could have told him that I was going to do an expose of the tobacco industry in the developing world, or even that I was an eco-terrorist, planning to contaminate every packet of 20 I could lay my hands on, and neither Shelley nor his companions would have turned a hair – so long as I joined them at their table, so long as I mucked in, made it look as though I had abandoned any thought of doing my own thing in favour of the shared thing of having rounds of drinks.

Reg was talking about “Steak Day”. “The steaks are the thickest you’ll see,” he said, miming a voluptuous fillet between his thumb and his index finger. Steak Days were held at the club, and the next one was coming up at the weekend. The club was an all-male affair, with a dress code. It had premises on a floor of an office block near the Park Royal.

Shelley and his friends began gossiping about a man who had left his wife for his mistress, a CEO and something of a ballbreaker, by all accounts. This might have been the currency of the billiard room in one of Maugham’s stories, but for the twist of a woman holding down an executive post. Referring to an absent colleague, Brad hesitated over the man’s job title before settling on “GM” (general manager). We had another round of drinks: not Maugham’s forgotten gin-based cocktails, but beer in sweating bottles. Around us, there were other men just like us, sitting in leisurewear, working at laptops and ordering beer.

Eventually, I got a flight out of Port Moresby. It was an old, noisome plane, and the seats bore a rich patina of use. My fellow passengers were from the lowlands. They were impeccably behaved in the cabin. We flew to Gulf province, over the greatest mangrove swamp on earth: prodigiously fertile, monstrously abundant, brain-jammingly vast. You looked, searched, for detail: a white bird in a treetop, a lost lagoon. This was the wilderness where we filmed our news story. We needed some aerial shots, and footage of Lake Kutubu, a body of water as mighty as an inland sea and glassy as a tarn.This entailed hiring Ian, a cussed old aviator, who had a Cessna. It also entailed setting down at the airstrip in Mount Hagen.

Mount Hagen meant the highlands. More than that, it meant the highlanders’ highlands, the place where they were most fully themselves, or at least at their most outlandish. Here, the authorities, such as they were, had taken the drastic step of banning alcohol outright. Rascals who drove pick-up trucks lived among tribesmen who painted their faces bright yellow and affected periwigs made out of the hair of their wives. The rascals and the tribesmen were warriors from two different ages. The combination was as incongruous as a pairing of, say, Hell’s Angels and Picts.

History would have prevented them from encountering each other anywhere else but Papua New Guinea.