Jo Columbus-Seal spent over a year commuting between Rangiora and Papua New Guinea for work. She tells Jo about some of her unforgettable experiences.
“What have I done?” was the first text Jo Columbus-Seal sent her husband Phil soon after she arrived at Port Moresby Airport for the first time.
“Here I was, a white woman in a ridiculous office outfit with heels, carrying an overstuffed suitcase. The heat and smell was overwhelming, and I had to walk down the road to the domestic terminal, past a sea of national people staring at me. I was thinking, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do this’.”
Jo had taken up a software implementation contract with a company called HBS (PNG) Ltd that hired, bought and sold earthmoving machinery, servicing mainly the mining sector.
The company was based at a secured compound at Lae, a 45 minute flight across a mountain range from Port Moresby, and famous for being the last stop aviator Amelia Earhart made before her final fateful flight.
The city had also, rather dubiously, been listed among the top ten most dangerous places in the world. It also had a high rate of malaria and HIV, facts Jo didn’t discover until much later.
“I was really naïve. I relied heavily on my colleague Mark and thought, if he’s working there too, surely I’ll be ok?”
Jo and Mark had worked together on other projects, and it was a “random” call from him offering her the contract that led Jo on her unexpected adventure.
“I initially said no, but Phil convinced me it was a great opportunity. We had not long sold Gulliver and Tyler so the time was right for me to try something completely different.”
By the time she finally arrived at the HBS camp, situated at 11 Mile because of its distance to Lae, Jo had been travelling on her own for almost two day due to disrupted flights.
Hot and exhausted, she was shown to her “donga”, which was effectively half a shipping container with a bed, wardrobe, desk, bathroom, and most importantly, an air conditioning unit.
“I slept with the air conditioning unit remote in my hand for the first few weeks until I became acclimatised.”
Later, Jo moved into a brand new house in a complex at the camp, which was a step up from the donga.
She was one of around 50 expat staff among the 500 people employed by HBS. With only five expat women based at Lae, they became a close-knit group.
Razor wire separated the camp from the handful of villages located on its edge.
“Many of the national staff was hired from the villages, including some of the women employed as ‘haus meris’ or cleaning staff at the camp.”
Jo’s role was to implement and train staff on the Microsoft Dynamics GP and Wennsoft business software to provide HBS with a full package for accounting, costing and equipment servicing.
“The GP software had been implemented a few months before I arrived but wasn’t done correctly, so we were forever fixing things. Because of my accounting background I also helped the company through the financial year end as they didn’t have anybody on site with the experience to do that.”
Apart from a couple of month-long stints back home, Jo’s roster from May last year to June this year was 30 days in Papua New Guinea and 10 days at home.
“It was challenging for all of my family at times and I was getting pretty tired by the end of the contract.”
The environment outside the camp was too dangerous for Jo to enter unless she was driven by an expat man, in a locked vehicle with steel security grills over the windows.
She would sometimes go out for dinner in Lae, or attend local rugby league games, supporting the Lae Snax Tigers team in the national competition.
“At one game some spectators started a riot, a fight broke out on the field and someone set the stadium alight opposite us. The police, armed with AK47s managed to take control. We put our backs to the members stand building and stayed there until it had finished.”
With life in Papua New Guinea about “survival of the fittest”, Jo is not surprised by the recent violent attack on a group of local porters, who were guiding tourists on a trek.
“Retaliation and payback for any wrongdoing is common. It really is an eye for an eye.”
Jo knows of a national man who was stabbed in the throat with a screwdriver and died, so his village burned down the entire village where the perpetrator was from.
“Another evening we were driving back to the camp from dinner in Lae when we came across an accident. Hundreds of villagers seemed to appear from nowhere and the driver who caused the accident had his ute fleeced before it was burned. We couldn’t stop. It was just too dangerous.”
Many of the national people chew betelnut, that when mixed with lime powder and mustard has a drug-like effect.
Alcohol is another constant problem, despite an alcohol ban in place.
“One of our national staff had a locked cabinet with some beer in it. He got a couple of cans out for himself and his friend. It was asked, ‘why only two cans’? He said if he had a third he would probably kill his friend.”
Just up the road from 11 Mile, Jo visited a huge crocodile farm that sells skins to the Hermes fashion house in Paris.
“It was amazing to see. Crocodiles are protected species but if they break into a village and are threatening, in order of priority – pigs, chickens, children, or women, the villagers are allowed to kill them.”
Jo says this is an example of how women are regarded as “second rate” in Papua New Guinea, but she was delighted to get to know some of the national women she worked with at the camp and office.
“They are very private people. One of our office staff Lillian was having her second baby but didn’t tell us for a long time. She was able to hide it under her clothing.”
Jo was delighted when Lillian named her baby girl Jolarn, or Jo-Jo for short after her Kiwi colleague.
“I was really thrilled and used to take her over a few things from Pumpkin Patch. They only have one department store in Lae but most of the people there wear second-hand clothing.”
Another of Jo’s staff, Rowena, lived in a women’s hostel run by the City Mission in Lae above an orphanage.
“Nearly all of the orphan’s parents had died from Aids. Rowena supported a local Soroptomist charity which we all donated to.”
With the support of Jo and her female expat colleagues at the camp, Rowena entered and won the Morobe Show Queen title at the local A&P Show, which required her to have an in-depth understanding of her village and ethnic background.
Jo says her 13 month experience working at Lae was life changing.
“I really enjoyed working with the national staff, and met some amazing expats who will be lifelong friends. A comment was made that I was forever smiling which sums up how much I enjoyed the experience.”
She says she is a lot more independent now and surprised herself that she coped as well as she did.
“To go from my black-suited corporate days to finding myself working in a third world country was a huge change. Every time I flew in I thought, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this’. But it’s something I’ll never ever regret.”