Settling as an expat in Port Moresby – a personal account

Written by Carmen Voigt-Graf

Bushwalk in Port Moresby Hills (1)When we started making plans to relocate as a family from Port Vila in Vanuatu to Port Moresby, the overwhelming reaction from our expatriate friends was one of negativity and caution (“it’s too dangerous there”, “there is nothing to do in Port Moresby”, “how can you do this to your children?”) and I had to combat the occasional feeling of guilt, given that the Happy Isles of Vanuatu had indeed been a wonderful place for us as a family. As I gathered more information about our new temporary home, I found that Port Moresby is considered the third least liveable city out of 140 cities worldwide, ranked just above Damascus and Dhaka. Port Moresby’s overall liveability rating was 38.9 (anything under 50 reflects a situation where most aspects of living are severely restricted). After arriving here in early July, briefings on the security situation organised by my husband’s employer and accounts by expats who had been living here for a while further increased my sense of unease, fear and anxiety. At expat get-togethers stories of violent car-jackings and robberies are popular conversation topics. As a result, I envisaged myself spending most of my time at home, afraid to leave except for the most essential trips to the supermarket or to school. Fortunately, the reality quickly turned out to be rather different.

Bushwalk in Port Moresby Hills (2)There is no doubt that our daily lives are considerably restricted by security concerns. A thriving security industry employing thousands of people is concerned with the security of expats and comparatively wealthy Papua New Guineans. This security industry has a strong interest in maintaining the present perception of a high level of security risk. We have received a range of security devices that we carry around and keep in the car, we have adjusted our driving style, we use an armed escort for trips in the dark or into unknown areas, and we do not walk in public areas. In addition, we avoid certain areas within Port Moresby altogether and on the few occasions that we have travelled out of town, we have done so in a convoy of many cars. Our house also has several security features, in addition to its location in a secure compound. In other words, the actual risk of becoming a victim of crime can be reduced, while it is still possible to participate in outdoors activities. The terrain around Port Moresby lends itself to unforgettable bushwalking experiences with frequent panoramic views of the Coral Sea. These walks have to be done as part of an organised group, not only due to the security situation, but also because of the lack of signposts, and the fact that landowners’ prior permission is required. While some people might consider this restrictive, there are few capital cities in the world that offer similar bushwalking opportunities in their vicinity. In addition, there are snorkeling and diving opportunities just off Port Moresby – evidently, one needs access to a boat or has to join a group, but again, how many capital cities even offer the opportunity for snorkeling or diving day trips?

Apart from the natural beauty around Port Moresby, there are several other positive living aspects. The range of grocery products available in supermarkets is impressive, with some of the supermarkets looking more like an Australian Woolworths than supermarkets in developing Pacific Island countries. The local fruits are excellent. There are cinemas, shopping malls, and a good variety of restaurants. Compared to Port Vila, Port Moresby’s climate is very pleasant and the risk of natural disasters is considerably lower. In addition, lots of developments are currently underway in connection with PNG’s hosting of major regional events, including the 2015 Pacific Games and the 2018 APEC summit. Indeed, Port Moresby’s cityscape has been transformed substantially since my last visit in 2008 and now features many characteristics of a truly big city, both in the positive and negative sense. At all levels of the housing market rents in Port Moresby have gone through the roof, but, in contrast to many other developing countries, quality housing is available for those willing to pay exorbitant rents.

Ela Beach Craft MArket (3)Probably partly as a result of the admittedly challenging living situation in Port Moresby, the expat community is welcoming and helpful. There are always social events happening and newcomers are quickly integrated. Everyone’s paths cross regularly at the few venues frequented by expats: the Saturday morning craft markets with their amazing collection of paintings, carvings, woven articles and other craft items from all over Papua New Guinea and live entertainment with music and dances; the Royal Papua Yacht Club; Vision City and the Waterfront; as well as The Ela Murray International School for families with children.

One fact we appreciate about Port Moresby is its proximity to Australia. Our children grew up in the Pacific and Israel/Palestine and we are happy that they are now exposed to and can participate in an Australian way of life to a greater extent than in any other place where they have lived, preparing them for an eventual return to their country of birth. Australians are the dominant group of expats. The shared history and geographical proximity between New Guinea and Australia is very pronounced. Some places in Port Moresby look like they have been taken out of Australia and planted in Port Moresby – the Yacht Club comes to mind – other places are significant for the psyche of both nations – Bomana War Cemetery and Owers’ Corner, the southern end of the Kokoda Track. The landmasses of New Guinea and Australia became separated only when the area now known as the Torres Strait flooded after the end of the last glacial period. As a result, the two countries share a similar fauna with kangaroos (tree kangaroos in PNG’s case), wallabies, possums and cuscuses, echidnas, and cassowaries to name but a few. On a practical level, there are several flights a day from Port Moresby to Cairns and Brisbane.

Loloata Island near Port Moresby

Some expats choose to spend a few years in Port Moresby for the additional allowances that most companies and organisations pay their employees as compensation for living in such a challenging place. There is also a sizeable group of expats roaming the Pacific, working for regional organisations or companies with branches in various countries, many of whom will sooner or later end up spending some time in PNG. We know several expats as well as Papua New Guineans, now living in Port Moresby, who used to live in Fiji or Vanuatu at the same time as us. And then there are those who have fallen in love with PNG and with what makes it such a special country: the diversity of its people, the dramatic landscape, the beautiful fauna and flora. A few weeks ago, we were privileged to witness the week leading up to the Independence Day Holiday with its associated events and performances. Many Papua New Guineans display two or three different flags of their ancestral provinces and wear costumes and colours from all corners of the country. The rich culture and enormous diversity within the population is difficult to grasp and is part of what makes Papua New Guineans enormously proud of their country and the political independence gained from Australia 39 years ago. Accordingly, the greeting around the Independence Day Holiday is “Happy Independence”, rather than the expected “Happy Independence Day”.

Economically, there are challenging times ahead for the PNG government, most importantly the question on how to translate the country’s wealth and rapidly increasing government revenues into social development at the grass roots level. I feel privileged that I will be doing research into exactly this question as part of my attachment with the National Research Institute as an ANU academic. The population of Papua New Guinea is several times that of all other Pacific Island countries taken together and the scale of issues is vastly different. I also feel privileged to be based in an institution staffed by Papua New Guineans, and to have an opportunity to learn from my colleagues over the next couple of years. In contrast to the doubts before moving here, I now look forward to what awaits me in this extraordinary country.

Carmen Voigt-Graf is a Fellow at the Development Policy Centre, and a Senior Research Fellow at the National Research Institute in Papua New Guinea.

Carmen Voigt-Graf

Carmen Voigt-Graf was a Fellow at the Development Policy Centre. Her main research interests are migration, labour mobility and labour market analysis. Carmen has a PhD from the University of Sydney and has previously held academic positions at ANU and at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. She has worked on a range of development and economic issues in the Pacific, including as Senior Fellow at Papua New Guinea’s National Research Institute and as Economic Adviser with the Office of the Chief Trade Adviser in Vanuatu. Carmen has consulted for various development partners in the region.

28 Comments

  • Thanks Carmen, great article on the life there!
    We operate a business from Australia in PNG and we were there last week again, things are improving with time!

  • Hello everyone;
    My name’s Jordi I’m Spanish and I’m going to be relocated to PNG in January 2017. My employer is sending me to Kokopo. I’ve been living in China for the last 20 years so I am not new in the expat life but I would like to know what is it like in Kokopo and if some of you guys can give me some tips on do’s and don’ts.

    Thanks

    • Hi Jordi,

      I am PNGn but from another part of the country. I have just completed a three year assignment in kokopo. You are in for the best, kokopo is the best town in PNG, it has most of what we would consider as basic services and among if not the safest. It is a beautiful par of the world and your only main challenge would be the earth tremours and occaisonally earth quakes. Most or all the expats that visit kokopo always want to return so I will not be surprised that you will too.

      I can provide many other details but I should leave the rest for you to pleasntly surprise ypurself.

  • I’m 9% body fat, black belt in TKD, have 1000+ hours small arms experience, a photographic memory and I can fix electronics – and I don’t remotely feel like I have the skills to survive in Port Moresby. The climate, diving and wildlife look amazing but it just isn’t worth hiding behind barbed wire with guns hoping to not get dismembered. No doubt there are a lot of nice Melanesians but until “raskols” are dealt with, POM is never going to be livable.

  • Did you people read the same story that I did? Are you intentionally being obtuse to defend the place where you work (but have the luxury to eventually leave). Carmen wrote: “We have received a range of security devices that we carry around and keep in the car, we have adjusted our driving style, we use an armed escort for trips in the dark or into unknown areas, and we do not walk in public areas. In addition, we avoid certain areas within Port Moresby altogether and on the few occasions that we have travelled out of town, we have done so in a convoy of many cars. Our house also has several security features, in addition to its location in a secure compound.”

    This sounds like an absolute nightmare and to compare this situation to ANYTHING encountered in the U.S. or Australia, as many of you did, is intellectually and otherwise dishonest.

    • Jake – we read the same article! We responded differently to you – simple as that – Port Moresby is far from a nightmare as we all noted – and that was exactly the point Carmen was making. Not sure whether you live there or whether it’s your home – but it was mine for 7 years and I have ongoing short term visits. Yes there are constraints and yes we can leave. But some of us really love Port Moresby despite the constraints. And for the record – Victoria alone has had over 170 car jackings in the past 12 months and many armed robberies. Violent crime happens in my home city every day. And I’m afraid I disagree strongly with you – to pretend that my country (or the US – with massive and repeated death tolls from domestic gun violence) is without risks to personal safety is dishonest, to constantly denigrate someone else’s home city is neither helpful nor respectful. That post was written 2 years ago – Port Moresby is even more vibrant now – in my view. You may see it differently and that’s fine. It may be your home and you may have very good reasons for being outraged. Or you may be judging something quite wrongly.

  • Dear Carmen,

    thank you for the very balanced presentation and for the equally balanced discussion which followed it.

    I would very much enjoy joining the Bushwalking Club. are you able to give contact persons and telephone numbers or emails? Or whether the next bushwalk is: June 26th or July 4th.

    Jim Macpherson

    jmacpherson015@gmail.com

  • Thank you Carmen for your honest view about Port Moresby and Papua New Guinea in general.

    Carmen is my colleague researcher at the Papua New Guinea National Research Institute (PNG NRI). She treats all Papua New Guinean employees at NRI with respect. She mingles and associates herself very well with everyone at NRI. She has time to talk to researchers, ancillary staff and even cleaners. It is a pleasure working with her at NRI.

  • I agree with you Carmen. I also love PNG. I am a Filipino and went to Port Moresby for a two month vacation as a tourist and I found it very nice. The number one thing that I love is no traffic compared to here in the Philippines. But there’s one thing I would like to know, can a Filipino couple or any expats get married in Port Moresby? And any requirements needed?
    Thanks.

  • Thank you Carmen for such a relevant article!

    PNG as a nation has so much more to offer than what is perceived by the world!

    • Hi Carmen,
      Thank you for a honest and unbiased write up. When I started reading your post I was fearing the worst already, but the story never went the way I had thought like most stories would end up (Negative). I hope you enjoy your stay in PNG and if you have time, do walk the Kokoda Track, and visit other places around the country, because you will never regret. All the negative stories you hear do happen because the tourists do not respect local authorities and try to do things their own way and get into such mishaps. I have organised trips for tourists from Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Townsville, Sydney, Singapore, Cape Town, Brussels and New York besides the local expatriates from Pom, Lae Mt Hagen and Goroka. They have never regretted and I know you will also have the same experience.
      Ed.

  • Hi Carmen, thank your for positive message about our country. Although there is no much negativity about its law and order problems, there is so much this country has to offer. I guess you will have to live in it to experience the truth about PNG, we are not that bad. I hope your enjoy your stay here and look forward to hearing more of your adventure in PNG. God bless!

  • I dont know why but I come to love this country so much I hope one day I wll be there either for employment or vacation. I am from Tanzania and thru information from internet and youtube PNG is having a very bad reputation by Western media – its like South Africa, Brazil and America just to mention a few are better places than POM, but this is how western media does when it come to third world countries especially Africa or any other place.

  • Hi Carmen,

    Great piece of writing! I am sure you will enjoy more of Port Moresby and PNG, its “land of the unexpected” theme. I have had an Israeli, couple of Aussies, couple of German’s come to my humble abode to spend a night or two in the mosquito net and catch the bus 9 route… Or put them on the plane to experience Goroka then bus ride along the Highlands highway or the Madang highway and even doing the banana boat cruise from Alotau to Samarai These were the expatriates who ventured beyond imagination what PNG had in store for them and their love of this beautiful place which is my home, their home! Being able to indulge with you in a coffee the other day was great and we will catch more to do this and that to make you stay memorable!

  • Carmen, thanks for your lovely insights. I agree that PNG gets a very bad wrap because of POM and parts of the Highlands where tribalism is rampant. One forward looking leader is Hon. Anderson Agiru from Southern Highlands. His message is consistent, plain and bold. “You keep fighting tribal wars, then don’t come and ask me for compensation.” I grew up in POM (my Mother tongue is Motu). I’ve been in a lot of places in PNG. Even remote villages in Goroka, and the Gulf and tiny Islands like Malie in New Ireland Province. Life goes on. People in ‘rural’ places have products to sell, fish and game to catch and children to feed. What happens in Port Moresby, or other parts of the country, in a 24 hr cycle, is of no direct significance to them.They look after their land. I’m not bragging, but I had seen most of the world by the time I was 23. I have lived, travelled and worked in a lot of places! Once, in Sardinia, my taxi driver told me that his island was not Lebanon or Damascus! Go figure. Yes, I’ve walked Kokoda, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Amman, Harlem, Cairo, Sofia, and Aiwo in Nauru too. They had their risks. I caught the same bus as Kofi Annan to the UN most mornings from Roosevelt Island,NYC without private security. Thank God, nothing happened. I have used common sense. Well, well, my house got burgled in Suva, but all they got was my Cuban and Pacific CDs and my leather jacket! I lived in “Domain” on Ratu Sukuna Rd, two minutes walk from town. I moved from Fiji to Cairns, Australia. After 5 years, my two cars got stolen outside my yard in the City! Damn, I thought I was in a civilized world. Crime happens everywhere. In Cairns, a guy just dissolved his partner in acid thinking he could get away with intentional murder. Is Cairns still safe and touristic? Yes, yes, Yes.

    I look outside my house in POM in the morning, and see mums and dads taking their children to school, hoping that they get a good education and succeed in life. I wish things could be less expensive and tougher in this city. I now work in PNG (with Carmen), and the one big contrast with PNG and other developing and developed countries is that elsewhere I have lived, ‘you do the crime, you do the time.’ Sadly, in PNG, this is still not evidently so, and the Good Samaritans, that Melanesians are known for, seem too afraid to help others in trouble, because of the psyche they grow up with in this city, and come to accept that it’s the norm, so as to survive another day. But they are there, plentiful, the PNGean that is a proud landowner, hard-working, happy, peaceful and kind. They need to turn the tide, so that the fences and Walls, like the Australian fortress at Konedobu, (Ozcatraz), near to where I grew up with my aunt, with a small wire fence, expat neighbours, a mango tree, a cricket ball, and no crime – can eventually come down. Sadly, I doubt this will happen very soon. Perhaps. Adam

  • Carmen,
    Thank you for writing this positive article about PNG. PNG does suffer from too much negative coverage and those of us who have come to love the country and its people share your enthusiasm and vision for its future. While I acknowledge the many challenges PNG faces, I have no doubt that the resourcefulness of its diverse and resilient population will find culturally appropriate solutions to develop a fair and equitable society.

    • Here here Diane! And thank you Carmen for your fair account. As a PNG ples mangi who’s lived in New Zealand and now Australia, I miss home and given the chance would return in a heartbeat. I look forward to reading about the outcomes of your work there. All the best, laikim.

  • Carmen great article, I would also like to add it is not within the best interests of any of the “Security Agencies” to paint PNG and or Port Moresby as a safe and comfortable location to reside, first of all they would all be out of business if they did, so in effect the worse it appears from the outside the more money they make, why the PNG Govt continues to blame the “Foreign Media” for this is anyone’s guess as from my perspective a person who was born and remains a resident of Port Moresby for the past 52 years the biggest culprit for PNG’s or Port Moresby’s bad name is the resident Security companies as they are the ones who work in tandem with “The foreign risk management” agencies to write up most of this negative rubbish. It is a huge multinational business with many shareholders in the UK, US and of course Australia who receive huge dividends based on PNG’s bad international reputation….I accept Port Moresby has its crime issues not unlike many cities where people are hungry and have little hope, however I have traveled extensively and note there are many places in the US I would not walk after dark nor drive for that matter, so it is in fact all relative.

  • Dear Carmen – thank you for posting this account of your time in Port Morseby. I too loved Port Morseby and lived there for 7 years until April this year. I worked in the law and justice program so the horror stories always found their way to our in-boxes. I loved the city, the harbor, the people and its vibrancy. Many of my friends felt likewise. My two adult children visited several times and loved POM too, choosing to stay in POM on one visits o they could experience everything POM could offer. I found a local driver and guides who gave them the best time possible. I had a couple of minor incidents during that time but was never hurt. Few expats ever are. The security industry and many expats have a lot to answer for Port Morseby’s image. I learned so much culturally whilst i was there – one of the most lasting was how damaging it is for the people of a nation when other (almost always expats) people write negative stories about their country – whilst benefiting financially themselves. I hated the horror stories – they still incense me. I had my car stolen in Canberra and know of quite a few incidents where friends or family members have been hurt through crimes in Australia. No-one would dare write Australia off as a place to visit. Thank you for writing this and enjoy the rest of your time there.

    • I lived in Port Moresby for 11 years and had to leave as I was attacked by 3 men who were after my car in my front yard. One had a machete and I lost my left hand when he tried to strike my head with it. I was well known and had many Papua New Guinean friends right up to the ex GG Sir Tore Lokoloko.

      Unfortunately some of these incidents do occur and I was extremely vigilant around my home, travelling at night and while at work. I hold no-one other than the 3 who attacked me responsible for the attack. This is a horror story as it took 14 operations to my left hand over 2 1/2 years before I finally recovered. But to label every negative story as one that would incense you is going a bit far.

      • I am sorry to hear of your experience Jim – that must have been shocking. However I was not saying at all that every negative story on POM incenses me. But tragic and shocking crimes also happen here in Australia and women and men die here as a result – every day. What incenses me is the single image of PNG and Port Morseby which is perpetuated by a heavily vested interest, security industry, and the media. POM has its dangers and it would be naive to ignore them. What Carmen has done is present an alternative story of the vibrant and beautiful country which is PNG and a balanced account of living in Port Moresby in a way which respects the people whose country it is. It is still true that few expats have the sort of traumatic experience you had. The data does not lie.

        • I loved my time in Papua New Guinea. I went prawn trawling on my friends trawler for 11 days in Gulf Of Papua off Kerema. I visited Bougainville in 1980 and helped with a Pidgin Radio broadcast on Radio Kalang. I visited many wonderful places from Vanimo to Rabaul, Mendi, Lae, Mt Hagen and along the Papuan coast.

          The place was truly uplifting for the warmth of the people once you were trusted by Papua New Guineans as a person there to help and not just chase the dollar. I was married while I was there and 3 of my kids were born at POMGH Maternity ward. I am still in touch with a number of my friends there after not being in PNG for 24 years. It really is an amazing place and yes I have seen the worst of it but still hold my time there dearly.

    • Thank you , Carmen for writing this,. As a local born , bred and educated in this beautiful country that I call home,. it pains me when working , for an International Company,. my expat colleagues utter negative words about the country and its people,. it often hurts and I wonder if their homes are truly better than ours,. Or if they look beyond and see the beauty,.

      Thank you so much for your honesty and what you have written, it is uplifting to know that no everyone views the country with such narrow eyes,. I wish you Gods blessings as you stay in my home and if we ever do cross,. I would very much like to give a hug and take you home to meet my extended family and the beauty of the Land of the Bird of Paradise- PNG , especially the Papuan Coast,. where I am from

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