Friday, August 29, 2008

Papua New Guinea: A Damn-Near Tragedy

Around 9:45 last Friday night, I was driving home from the gym. The drive takes about 15 minutes, and, as is typical at that time of night, the road was practically empty.

The middle portion of the trip covers Port Moresby's only highway, the Poreporena, which stretches a few kilometers through town. From the direction that I entered the highway, it runs with a slight incline for a bit. I hit this portion and accelerated up to 80 kilometers per hour (50 miles per hour).

Not long after the gradual incline, the highway crosses a steep hill, and at that point the incline becomes much more severe. It was just as I started climbing the hill that I noticed a man standing directly in front of my car. The poor lighting of the street in conjunction with his dark skin and clothing left him totally shielded from my view until the last second. Of course, there was also the element of surprise since I did not expect to see a man standing on the highway. In a year of driving the same route almost daily, I had never seen that before.

I was so close to this guy that the beams coming from my headlights made small, concentrated circles of light on his lower body. There wasn't enough distance between us for the light to spread. Like a tree rooted to the earth, the man remained perfectly still as I approached him, and the patch of highway where he stood was wet. I couldn't identify the nature of the wetness in the dark, but I suspect it was vomit. Maybe it was urine or blood or alcohol, though. I couldn't tell.

By the time I jerked the wheel and shot my car across three lanes of highway, I thought that it was too late. There was no sound, though, nor any other indication of contact.

I corrected my course and continued up the hill, and in my rear view mirror, I could see that the man was still standing in the road where I had encountered him.

Many Papua New Guineans, young men in particular, like to walk across the highway at a leisurely pace, daring cars to hit them, to show machismo. Initially I thought that the guy I had encountered must have been someone who had taken this dangerous game too far, or else someone who was not very good at it.

When I noticed that he still hadn't moved after I had narrowly missed him, however, I decided that this wasn't the case and that he must be drunk.

As I said, I left the man standing. In my mind, though, I could see him collapsing on the hood and crashing through my windshield. I could see the blood and hear the screams.

There was a truck a short distance behind me, and the driver saw everything that had happened. When I managed to miss the drunk man, this driver flashed his brights a few times at me. I don't know exactly what he was trying to signal, but I think it must have been along the lines of, “Good f**kin' save, mate.”

I drove the remaining 5 minutes or so to my house, and by the time I got there, my legs were a bit shaky; I was chilled, and I felt something akin to being very hungry. This was the result of the adrenaline and whatnot that my body had drummed up for the occasion.

As I was walking to my front door, I saw my good friend Rophie, one of our Papua New Guinean guards. He was patrolling the housing compound with our Rottweiler, Casper.

Feeling the need to talk, I told Rophie about the incident on the highway. He, however, thought it was funny, which was not the reaction I was expecting.

“It is the fortnight, after all,” he told me.

In other words, it was payday, which meant that many people were very drunk by now. Some people supposedly start drinking as early as 8:00 AM on payday, and from what I had seen on this night and others, I don't doubt it.

I didn't share Rophie's lighthearted view of the incident, so I went to my good friend Kim's house and told her the story. Thankfully, she did not find it amusing.

If I had run over this man, he would have probably been dead. It wouldn’t have been so great for me either. Besides the psychological impact, there is also the possibility that I could have lost control and killed myself. Here, there are other considerations as well.

In Papua New Guinea, running over a pig or a dog is a big deal. The owner (or in the case of a stray animal, the first person who claims ownership) sometimes threatens violence and always demands compensation. If I had killed a man, there would have been hell to pay. If there had been enough people around to form an angry mob, they likely would have tried to seize and kill me on the spot. Since no one was around, though, retaliation would have come in the following days. I would probably have had to leave the country. Never mind that the would-be victim was drunk out of his mind and standing in the middle of a five-lane highway in the dark of night.

Anyhow, I called it a night after that and went to bed.

Then the next day, I was out and about again.

As I approached an intersection, I noticed a dog that was on the move and seemingly not paying much attention. When I was just short of the dog, I slowed from a crawl to a complete stop, and the stupid thing walked headlong into my car.

All I have to say is that it’s time for all you fools to get back on the sidewalk.


Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,

The unexpected the the Land of the Unexpected is not always pleasant. I'm really happy to hear that no one was hurt. It's amazing how a split second has the potential to turn our lives upside down.


NB: We still going to see you in Goroka in a couple of weeks?

Unknown said...

Hello my friend,

Wow...I missed reading ur blogs, this one I must say was a strange one...I wonder how I'd reacted if it was me knowing how unsafe the streets are this days in Pom...My policy driving at night and being a female, stop to NO ONE and never slow down at the crossing at night..Glad ur okay, how u doin though?

Take care and stay blessed...


Alexis said...

I have heard of something similar to what you experienced- except a young man really was hit. It was in the Netherland Antilles, and the man survived with a broken arm. His family attacked the the person who ran into him and broke his arm.

I am considering the FS as a career, and this perception of right and wrong is really the scary part to me.

Patrick Comey said...


I know your feeling! I came around the traffic circle near the brewery in Tajikistan one snowy winter night. There was a drunk man passed out laying in the traffic lane. I was able to make it around him, but I couldn't bear the thought of someone else hitting him. I stopped and backed up. My female friend and I helped him into my car and drove him the short distance to his house. He had a coat and tie on and had slipped in his drunken stupor on the ice. He invited us into his house when his wife opened the door, but we passed on it!