Places, IdeasBen Jackson

At the traffic lights

Places, IdeasBen Jackson
At the traffic lights

I feel the outline of the little red panic button hidden behind my steering wheel.

The lights are red at one of Port Moresby’s notorious intersections. It is a city with an unfortunate and unenviable reputation for carjackings.

My podcast continues playing but fades in to subconscious background noise. My focus is outside the car, scanning between the mirrors, the windscreen and little clock on the traffic lights.

The countdown to green begins. Green is important. It means movement, speed and the safety they bring.

120 seconds.

People flood the busy four-lane arterial road and engulf the vehicle, which feels as though it has shrunk down to the size of a matchbox car with me still sitting inside.

Commuters alight from diesel-puffing shuttle buses and stream nearby trade stores and markets to shop for the evening’s food.

Packs of kids run across the road, grasping lollies and cans of soft drink, laughing in delight as they make their way home from school.

Street sellers march up and down the lines of traffic and each intersection has its own selection of wares.

At a different, more health-orientated set of traffic lights one can find bananas, guavas, pineapples, peanuts (roasted or fresh), earphones and earbuds too.

I once saw a man selling a live cuscus – an indigenous possum.

Another time there was a guy who, for the right price, was willing to part with two eagles.

At this intersection they only offer and ice-cold soft drinks, cigarettes and buai – betel nut – the remnants of which leave a visceral red stain that is splattered across road.

90 seconds.

There’s a big part of me that wants to open the window and let all the scents pour in.

The diesel fumes, burning grass and freshly chewed buai. The sweat of people working hard in the sun all day – these are the real aromas of city life in Port Moresby.

I want to wind down my window and speak to one of sellers and connect – just to say hello.

An imaginary conversation plays out in my head, but meanwhile my air is kept artificially cool, my windows remain shut and my doors stay locked.

Port Moresby can shift from relaxed friendliness to violent intensity in an instant.

Port Moresby can shift from relaxed friendliness to violent intensity in an instant.

60 seconds.

I touch the little red button again.

What would happen if it was pressed? What if a man stood in front of the car with a gun a forced me out?

My partner and I were once stuck in traffic at this exact intersection when police began to fire shotgun rounds in to the air at the adjacent petrol station.

The gunfire had the opposite effect to what I’d imagined and, presumably, what was intended, as a crowd of people flocked in to watch the scene play out.

As the crowd grew, I began to feel increasingly conspicuous and wanted to find an exit but couldn’t move the vehicle an inch.

We tried to duck under low and then, realising that was attracting more attention, attempted to get high above the tinted windscreen strip, like giraffes who raise their heads in to the canopy to hide but leave everything else exposed.

Ultimately we could do nothing but join as onlookers, while the suspect, a young man with a backpack, was wrangled by the police.

The crowd moved on, the traffic eased and we drove home.

30 seconds.

It’s very difficult to ascertain to what extent the threats drilled in to expats are real.

Security is a major consideration for conducting business in PNG, but there is an element of the industry which drives fear out of self-interest and self-legitimisation.

Fear is a useful risk-mitigation tool for international organisations. It is self-evident that if more people who stay behind barbed wire and electric fences then fewer the incidents will occur.

There is no mention of crime against foreigners in the World Bank’s 2014 report Trends in Crime and Violence in Papua New Guinea and as an expatriate male I am among the least vulnerable people in Papua New Guinea.

When it comes to crime Papua New Guinean women are overwhelmingly the most victimised demographic.

Armed robbery and carjackings present a stark divergence from this trend.

One independent review of 700 successful carjackings, collated patchy police statistics and numbers from private security firms, and found that around women were the primary victim of around seven percent cases.

One possible explanation is that the impetus for this type of crime tends to be financial, rather than caused by social-cultural issues related to gender and power. It be in part because, at least anecdotally, there are fewer women drivers than men on the roads of Port Moresby.

Expats are involved in incidents from time to time and there are places and times of day where the risk is higher – as there are in any city, anywhere in the world – but the narrative of constant, imminent danger is overblown.

The aforementioned review also indicated that in nearly 95 percent of incidents the target was a Papua New Guinean.

Nonetheless I remain on high alert.

I can feel the little red button behind my steering wheel.

It is a constant reminder of my privilege – one that is not extended to most of the population.