Living in The Slums


An Experience that Deserved a Tale to be told from it – Comparing Lae and Port Moresby

By Hazel Kutkue
After ending my career as a resident doctor at Angau Memorial Provincial Hospital, Lae, it was time to pack up my bags and move temporarily to the big city.

In Lae, I had lived in accomodation provided by the hospital for resident doctors. I had initially lived in a bedsitter inside the hospital, and then I moved to Eriku in flats rented by the Hospital. I shared a spacious 3 bedroom flat with two housemates, who were residents dentists. I grew up with my mother in urban suburbs of Wewak and Mt. Hagen and knew of no other life.

Offcourse I’ve had several years of “growing” in the village, but village life is a far cry from living in slums in Papua New Guinea’s capital city.

Before I left Lae for Port Moresby, I had joined several Facebook groups that advertised rental rooms in Port Moresby. I scoped out the rooms and made enquiries while still in Lae. I wanted to be able to arrive in Port Moresby and move into a fairly good rental room with good sanitary facilities.
Most “good” rooms costed between K500 and K250 per forthnight. I knew that I’d be able to afford rooms for K300 or less per forthnight. Most rooms looked okay in the photographs. I got into contact with two people, one as a backup and one to actually check out the property.
The day I left for Port Moresby, I had informed the contact that I would be travelling that day and he needed to be at the aiport to take me to “his” rental property.
I had booked the first Air Niugini flight for that day so I had to get up super early to travel to Nadzab Airport. Being excited, the 45 minute flight went by in a blur. I had the largest luggage on that flight, a massive black bag with wheels with an orange sticker with the wards “HEAVY! BEND KNEES” or something stuck to it’s side. After collecting my luggage I wheeled it out of the terminal to the waiting area.

After the rainy, lush green of Lae, I did not like the dry, brown face of Port Moresby at all. Not a single bit. I called the man who informed me that he was in Morata and he would be coming over. The property was at 9 Mile. This confused me a bit but then I put it down to him visiting people at Morata.

Waiting around at the waiting area, I looked around at the people, some in dirty clothes, others well dressed. On the concrete floor, a run-away baby crawled on all fours with snot running down it’s nose and shoving random pebbles in it’s mouth. Much to my annoyance, the mother who was perched on a bench telling stories with her wantoks would glance at the baby and hurl a sharp retort at it and then carry on with her tales. I looked at the small groups of people and wondered about their lives in the city.

Soon enough, the guy called to say he was at the airport. I wheeled my bag outside to the parking lot where the guy stood up to ask if I was who I was. Getting into a cab, we headed for 9 Mile. In the advertisement, the house looked good on the outside and the rooms look good. It said that tenants share common ammenities including the shower, toilet, kitchen and lounge room. The walls were painted a nice shade of blue and the cupboards had neon colours painted on the doors. I liked what I saw. The rent was K300 per forthnight. The electricity and water bills were covered for in the rent.

Driving towards 9 Mile, I was a bit worried about the location as I have never lived elsewhere than my dorm room at UPNG when I was in school and my aunt’s place at Gordons 5. It was a whole new experience.

When we arrived at 9 Mile, the man directed the cab driver to turn down an unpaved, dusty and uneven road with people standing by the road almost the entire lenght of the road. There were houses built in different styles and materials the 100 or so meters of the road. Some houses were more aesthetically pleasing than others. A couple of Highlands men were drinking beer at the side of the road and talking in loud voices. I became worried.
Stray dogs with scabs and no hair roamed around digging piles of rubbish to search for food. I became more worried as we drove past roadside vendors sitting under scrap corrugated iron shelters selling fried meat and sweet potatoes.

At last the cab rolled up to a metal gate and honked. Several dogs who looked only slightly better fed than the ones in the street scampered to the gate and crawled under it outside and barked at us. It created an annoying fiasco.

We made it inside unscathed and to my surprise the man who brought us there was not the owner of the property. The owners were an imposing highlands couple-the man was very large and the woman looked like the madhatter (except female).
We were shown the rooms and I liked it. The only problem was there was no ceiling fan. I was used to having the fan on full blast day and night. I decided to just go with it, after all it was only for two weeks only anyway.
After showing us the rooms the owners went down a long list of “rules” which I verbally said I were fine with.

Then slap-bang, they mentioned that tenants are either short term or long term. Short term for them is 6 months and long term is a year. I was taken aback. I was also taken aback that the “bond-fee” was K500. After explaining that I was going to be in the city for max a month, the owners said it was OK for me to just pay rent instead of the bond fee and stay without signing a tenancy agreement form.

Unpacking in the room, I couldn’t help but sweat. Despite big windows, the sun shone directly in and baked the room like an oven. The curtain on the window was an ungodly brown that was too short and too narrow. The locker style cupboards were cute but had broken latches. I could make do I thought. Exploring outside, I discovered that the toilet and the shower were squeezed in a 2m by 1.5 m space that doesn’t allow any possible humane movement at the end of the hall. I was taken aback. The kitchen was spacious and a fridge held the food of the occupants. There was a common double electric cooktop for use. The living room had wooden lounge chairs and a Television set. Everything was covered in dust. The only ceiling fans were in the lounge and the dining area. It was not very convenient to sit in the room.

Soon I discovered that the other end of the house was occupied by the owners and their children. The kitchen space was however for the tenants use only. The lounge area always felt out of bounds to me because the children of the owners have their stuff there and they hang out in the lounge and do homework or watch cartoons. Now, not that it’s bad, but sharing the same space with tenants for anything is not recommended at all. It is the most restrictive thing owners can ever do.

For two weeks I walked that unpaved, dusty street with people just sitting beside the road talking. Men drank at small road side shops and shout in their languages in loud voices. Kids ran around, playing or crying. People often stare, but sometimes not-given we were new faces in the area. All houses seemed to have running water and electricity, which is a good thing.

At the main road, buai vendors sit in the heat and dust, sweating into kambang bottles and shelling buai to give as piksas to customers. I hated that place. I hated the sun, the heat, the dust, the landlord’s dogs and everything else.

While I planned to stay for only two weeks, the process of acquiring my licence dragged on longer than planned. On the Friday of my second week in Port Moresby, I acquired my licence. That left me to process my applications to hospitals I was interested in working.

Of the three hospitals that I put in applications, I got accepted at two. One was an urban Hospital in the New Guinea Islands and the other a rural hospital on mainland PNG. I decided to go for the latter. Due to administrative matters I had to stay in Port Moresby for another two weeks. This turned out to be very horrendous for me.

The rental room was never a comfortable hideaway. It was an oven day and night. There was no rain. The place was dry. The Landlord’s dogs hated me despite my love for all dogkind.I compared everything to Lae. The price of food, the meteorological issue and everything else. I wanted out.

Lemons costed me K1 a piece when I got them for 20t in Lae. Aibika costed me K1 for flimsy leaves when a huge bundle was 70t in Lae. Almost dead carrots costed me 50t or K1 a piece and Capsicums K2 a piece. I dreamt of Lae in the night, unsurprisingly. Busfares for long or short distances was K1 as compared to 50t and 70t in Lae. Chicken was however cheap and that surprised me too (lol).

I spent the second two weeks making the most of my stay in Port Moresby. I went to Ela Beach, I went to Taurama Beach, I went second hand-shopping and I rode the bus to almost all the suburbs in the city and strolled around. I ate street food and drank gallons of water and soda.

Soon the two weeks ended and the Landlord with the imposing eyebrows knocked on my door to ask if I was staying on or leaving. He had an interested tenant who wanted to rent two rooms long term and there was only one room free for him and his family. He needed the one I was staying in. It was time for me to go.

I again looked up rooms online and saw a room for K150 a forthnight at East Boroko. I decided to check it out. Again it was in the slums. However there was running water and electricity paid by the Landlord. The room was smaller than the previous one and was not furnished. I had a veranda all to myself and trees shading the front. It was very cool and I didn’t need to switch on my portable fan at all even during the hottest hours of the day.

The landlord was a kindly middle aged Apo, who was very soft spoken with a very lovely teenaged daughter. I liked him right away. His daughter was the model hostess.

Water was sourced from a long hose and got filled into large blue plastic drums. There was water for kitchen needs and showering and a seperate black plastic drum to flush the septic outdoor toilet. I knew I was staying for less than 2 weeks and I didn’t mind.I liked the outdoor shower where you can shower with sunlight and not feel cold outright. I was a bit scared of the toilet however, it was a flush toilet which functioned well but I was scared of the frogs that tend to perch around on the floor at midnight when my bladder became outstretched. The kitchen sink had a proper drainage and everything with the only catch in it being outdoors and you have to fetch water from plastic containers to wash your stuff.I enjoyed my stay at East Boroko more than at 9 Mile. I got to stay home and chill all day without the excessive heat of 9 Mile. The landlord and landlady and their children lived in their own house and left us to ourselves. It was ideal.

I watch the most glorious sunsets in the afternoons from my plastic chair perch and looked at the pinpoint lights of Boroko in the night. I loved the view.

Now, despite the perfect location of the room, the journey getting there is a hustle. Climb up a paved road and then take a turn up an unpaved one with people who originate mainly from Hela Province shouting, cursing, drinking beer at the roadside shops and gambling with decks of cards. That was almost unbearable.

Another turn in the road climbing upwards and in a depression beside the road, a PVC pipe spews out water. Throngs of women and children gather with their buckets and plastic cointainers, laundry and plates and much more. Little kids climb up the road, hauling large containers of water, breathing heavily and struggling to balance their loads. Women had large buckets of water in each hand and plastic bottles of water in large bilums climbing uphill, straining with the effort.It was painful to watch.

The 1 and a half week I spent in East Boroko, I marveled at the ability of humans to adapt and survive. I now understood a little bit more about life.

In the middle of my second week at East Boroko, all administrative issues with my hospital of choice were fixed. The landlord arranged for my pickup to the airport at 4am. I had to get an early flight because it was the cheapest and I was already running over my budget.

I thanked my landlord and left for the airport. Leaving the big city was the biggest relief of my life and living in it was the biggest challenge of all.I will return one day, and I only hope it will be a better experience.

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