I call this blog “Postcards From Dangerous Places” for a reason, and this week the reason was that I narrowly escaped being mugged. On Monday, I went to the gym after work and had a good workout. On the way back, I was walking past the “settlement”. In Port Moresby, settlements are areas of land that were unoccupied but have been appropriated by squatters. They build ramshackle huts on them (sometimes quite substantial ones) and then occupy the land without permission. As settlements attract the poorest members of society, they have a tendency to become slums and as a result, the settlements are widely known to be too dangerous for outsiders to visit.
My route takes me past the road that leads to a settlement, but not directly past it. I generally interact with people in a friendly way as I walk along there and they are usually very nice in response. I sometimes have my headphones on and I probably seemed distracted, but in fact I am very spatially aware when I walk past the entrance to the settlement. I am very wary of the people around me, while doing my best to make it appear that I am comfortable. That’s what I do every time I walk past there and it saved my ass on Monday.
As I was walking along, I passed a young guy who looked a bit out of the ordinary. Most people have a very relaxed look about them, and will often greet me with a big smile. I subconsciously do a risk-profiling exercise with every person I pass on the street. For example, many people here wear uniforms of some kind to work. They are very casual but they always have the name of the business written on them. People wearing such uniforms have jobs and therefore something to lose. They are lower risk than people in casual clothing during work hours.
The “C” represents me and the red “1” indicates the fellow approaching me.
This guy that I passed did not have a uniform on. He looked dangerous. Something about the way he stared at me as I approached made me pay close attention to him. I greeted him in a friendly way, but also gave him a wide berth as we passed on the footpath.
Just as I passed him, I saw a second guy who was crossing the street heading towards me. He looked at the first guy and nodded towards me. That got the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. I kept walking and picked up my pace a little while keeping a close eye on this second guy.
I did a quick scan of the area around me and saw that up ahead there were two more young guys coming towards me. I know the demographics of the area to know that this is unusual. The second guy (who seemed to be the one in charge of the group) did a similar nod to them and then at me.
At that point I knew that I was about to be boxed in, so I turned around immediately and started walking rapidly back the way I had come. At that point, the second guy (the leader), did an about-face and changed his course to head directly toward me. There was absolutely no doubt now that I was about to be attacked. I looked him in the eye and his intentions were clear.
I broke into a run, and saw that that the second assailant had increased his speed too. He was planning to intercept me near the first guy. I was quickly in full stride and shimmied past the first guy (who fortunately, wasn’t paying much attention). When the second guy saw my pace and realised that he couldn’t cut me off, he gave up and stopped running towards me (he was in the middle of the road by that stage – almost at the footpath). I ran down the street back towards the gym and away from the settlement. When it was clear that they were well behind me and I was safe, I turned and took a photo, hoping to get something useful to give to the police. I then went around the corner and caught the first taxi that I saw there.
Some of those shapes in this blurry photo are the criminals who tried to attack me. Unfortunately, this photo won’t do anything to help bring them to justice.
My hands are shaking as I type this. I was really rattled by the whole thing. I felt like a gazelle among a pride of lions and it was not a pleasant feeling. I guess I broke the first rule of security, which is don’t be in a vulnerable position, as well as the second, which is don’t be predictable. I thought I was ok walking through there but I have been walking back just on dusk every night for weeks now. I guess someone got wind of it. Wearing earphones makes it obvious that I have something valuable in my pocket so then I became a target. I am pleased that I was alert and that I read the situation correctly. And also that I responded appropriately and got the hell out of there. But it scared the shit out of me. The whole thing was unfortunate. I will drive to the gym from now on – even though it seems ridiculous to drive somewhere so that I can walk on a treadmill. I preferred walking there. But until the police force here starts to get serious about tackling crime I can’t see the situation improving, so I shall have to drive.
I’ve had a couple of days process these events and I’m feeling OK now. As I was taking the stairs at my office today I realised that I have survived far worse places and situations than what I faced on Monday. In Afghanistan, I survived daily rocket attacks, a suicide bomber who blew himself up outside my building, and even having a bounty on my head (anyone who killed a foreigner would be paid US$2,500 – more for a soldier). So I figure that if a little petty crime is the best that PNG can throw at me, then I can roll with it. They’ll have to do better than that to frighten this guy off.
I leave Port Moresby in a few days for my first break. I am very much looking forward to visiting a country where no one tries to rob me and I don’t have to live in fear that the mosquitoes will give me a horrible disease! For those of you in Canada, I hope to see you while I’m there. I feel like I could use some respite from the frustrations of daily life in the developing world.
Getting out the door and to work this week has been a good example of that. I had a fairly typical PNG moment yesterday. My colleague and I were about to drive to work in the morning, when we discovered that we couldn’t get the car out of the compound. The main gate is opened with a remote control but when we pressed the button, nothing happened. The mains power was out (as it has been a lot lately). The gate won’t open without power and the backup batteries were flat. The generator is supposed to provide back-up power during black-outs but the automatic starter for the generator didn’t start, and the attempts to start the generator manually were not producing any results. So there was no way to get the car out. I walked to work instead. I didn’t mind as I quite enjoy the walk and it’s quite agreeable in the cool morning air.
Coming home tonight, we had the same problem. We were heading up the driveway and hit the remote button, but the gate did not move immediately as it should have and we realised that the power was out. Then unexpectedly the gate started moving. The guard had seen us approaching and started pushing the gate open. It’s great – we press the button and the man pops out and opens the gate for us.