‘I'm glad we took a chance on Papua New Guinea’
19 August 2019
LORNA THORNBER | Stuff New Zealand
WELLINGTON, NZ - When there was a shooting on the street outside his hotel on his first night in Papua New Guinea, David Lee wondered whether he had made the right decision, accepting a job in the country that had seen his wife and children move there with him.
Lee, who hails from Lower Hutt, knew that running insurance company Capital Life in Port Moresby was a great career opportunity, and he and his wife Lydia thought their sons Jayden and Jack, aged five and almost three respectively, were young enough to adapt to a different way of life. But they got a bit of a shock when they began reading up on the place.
"What we read and saw focused mainly on the negative stuff, which made us pretty nervous," David, 38, says.
While the shooting initially exacerbated their fears, David says they have come to see PNG as a beautiful, and beautifully diverse, country that, for expats, offers an enjoyably exotic lifestyle.
"Our first impressions were much better than we had expected. There is definitely a level of personal risk and you have to take safety precautions.
“The poverty can also be pretty in-your-face but the people are generally very friendly and there is a surprising number of things to see and do if you are prepared to make the effort."
Like most expats in the capital, the Lees live in a secure compound surrounded by high electric fences. It's far from prison-like though, with some 110 apartments and townhouses spread across a few, well-manicured acres.
There's a communal feel with regular barbecues by the pool at weekends, and the kids roam freely within the compound with the many other children who live there.
Security concerns mean they can't take a walk to the beach or picnic in the countryside on a whim, but David says they are rarely, if ever, at a loss for things to do. The nature and adventure parks and local markets are regular hangouts, as are the tropical beaches on organised trips.
"There are a surprising number of decent restaurants and clubs, and Lydia and I try to keep the romance alive with regular date nights. To go anywhere further afield than the city limits, we have to organise it with others and go in convoy for safety reasons.
“There are not criminals lurking around every corner and we have never had any major issues, but everything has to be planned and you constantly have to be aware of your surroundings."
While working longer hours than he ever has, David is proud to be employed by a company that enables 150,000 Papua New Guineans to access healthcare. With the average GP bill, including prescriptions coming to about $90, which is a few days' wages for a lot of local people, many do not visit a doctor until they are very sick, if ever.
"Unfortunately the public health system here leaves a lot to be desired. We're constantly trying to improve our processes and systems because that $90 is the difference between having food on the table or not in a lot of cases."
David has settled in fairly easily, making friends through work, but Lydia, who is not allowed to work in the country, has found it much harder. She has managed to develop a good network of friends however and, like her husband, is enjoying the experience of living somewhere so different.
David's employer pays for them to have a domestic helper, Salo, who, while poorly paid by New Zealand standards, earns two-and-a-half times the local minimum wage.
"We make sure we provide meals and gifts from time to time for her children. We are always aware that we live a pretty privileged existence compared to the local population, many of whom deal with grinding poverty, high living costs, substandard housing, limited education and health facilities, communicable disease, and violence. Violence against women, in particular, is a major problem."
David feels women have it tough in PNG in general, saying he's found it hard to accept some of the men's attitudes towards them.
"I know domestic violence is an issue in NZ, too, but in PNG it is on another level. It is slowly getting better, I believe, but it is a generational issue and will take a long time. Some of the stories I have seen and heard are incredibly sad."
For David, the best things about living there include the weather (it's about 22 degrees Celsius at dawn, and peaks at about 29C degrees in the dry season and 34 in the wet), and the diversity of the people.
"There isn't really a 'typical' Papua New Guinean with over 2,000 different cultures and 800 distinct languages. Everyone is very proud of where they come from and very receptive and interested in New Zealand."
For expats, it can be hard to get to know locals but Lee has found that learning a few words of Tok Pisin goes a long way and the result can be "very rewarding and humbling. I've been surprised by how resourceful and resilient Papua New Guineans are. They're an incredibly tough people who often endure huge challenges in life".
A standout experience for David has been walking the 96km Kokoda Track – where Allied (mostly Australian) forces fought a series of battles against the Japanese during World War II – with his father.
Making the notoriously arduous trek through the remote Owen Stanley Range, they encountered "some of the most beautiful and humble people I have ever met – the Koiari, descendants of the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels who helped the Australians defeat the Japanese along the track during the war.
"Villages have no electricity or running water, and people live pretty much as they always have, with very few modern conveniences – just like 85% of the eight million Papua New Guineans.
Descending into a village one cool, misty morning, David recalls "hearing the church bells ringing and young women and children running along the path in front of us, laughing and talking. They must have been late for church because, as we got closer, we could hear the singing coming from the thatched building. The feeling among all of us that morning was that we had just stepped back in time, 100 years or so, to another world. It was an incredible, surreal experience."
That could sum up their nearly two years in PNG.
"We won't want to stay forever but we are definitely richer for the experience and I'm glad we took the risk. It has worked out well for us, and we have gained a new perspective."
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