Suppose you’d like to go somewhere—say, the store or work or the mall or the movie theatre. Unless you live in New York or Boston, you’re probably taking some form of individual transit, as in driving your own car or catching a ride with a friend.
Here in Papua New Guinea, individual transit is limited to pretty much just walking. So unless you are fortunate to own a car or know someone who owns a car and you don’t want to hoof it the whole way to your destination, you have one primary option: the PMV.
PMV stands for Public Motor Vehicle and it can be either a van or a boat, depending on where you’re trying to go. Suffice it to say, neither the aesthetics of these vehicles nor their safety standards provide very much peace of mind. The dinghies (which carry people several hours across rough seas and equatorial sun) have no canopy or shade and no seats. And it is rare that you find a van without a severely cracked windshield or a partially broken door.
And yet, they work.
The PMVs we use most often are the vans. Everyone squeezes into one of these with their bags and their bananas and their kids to get from point A to point B. Each one has a ‘crew’ that consists of a driver and a ‘bas kru’ (bus crew). The driver, well, drives, and the bas kru is in charge of squeezing in passengers, taking fares and making change, as well as telling the driver when to stop.
To my knowledge, none of the PMV pick-up and drop-off stations are labeled—you just have to know where they are.
The pick-up and drop-off process goes something like this:
- You get to a PMV pick-up point and stand in a rag tag group of people waiting for the right number PMV (different number PMVs go different places—again, you have to ask someone to figure this out)
- Periodically, a PMV will veer unannounced onto the dirt beside the road (look out!), roll open the van door, and take on as many passengers as it can fit. You have to move fast here if your number PMV has arrived since people don’t exactly form a line.
- Once inside, the PMV is off, with its door usually closing fully about thirty seconds after the van is back on the road.
Somewhere between your pick-up and drop-off, you pay the bas kru based on the number of seats your party is taking up (80 toya—about $.25—per seat to get from the PMV stop nearest our flat into town, about a ten minute ride). Also somewhere between your pick-up and drop-off, you have to tell the bas kru where, in fact, you would like to be dropped off.
The conversation goes something like this about a 1/2 mile out from your drop-off point:
“Bas kru!” you call out from wherever you happen to be packed in the vehicle.
He looks at you.“Mi laik go long Andersons” you say (or Papindo or PNG Power or the Post Office or Headquarters, etc.), confident in your clear communication of this information.
He looks away from you.
As you come within a hundred feet of your intended destination and the van is not slowing down, you hope he heard you. And then, at the last possible moment, he flicks the roof of the van—quite a loud, echoing sound since most of the PMVs have been stripped of their insulation from top to bottom—indicating to the driver to stop. The driver swings onto the dirt beside the road, the door is rolled open again and you attempt to maneuver yourself, your children, and your personal belongings gracefully over and between the people and bananas still sitting in the PMV.
As a side note, the music selection of these ten minute jaunts vary widely. I’ve heard everything from sermons preached in English to American rap music or pop music (I have, in fact, heard Taylor Swift) to Tok Pisin radio discussing the frequent power outages in town.
All in all, it seems to be an effective system of transportation here in Madang and a great way to get to know people. You get the opportunity to have a ten minute conversation with the two ladies who’ve come out of their village in the mountains to buy salt, kerosene, and rice before hiking it all back in; or the university student in their last semester at Divine Word University.
Are you sweatier afterwards due to being locked up with ten or fifteen other bodies in a van in a hot and humid climate? Sure.
Is there a better chance of getting sick being in such close proximity to all the breathing and coughing and runny noses and touching? Possibly.
Have you just put your life in danger slightly by virtue of riding in a vehicle with no seatbelts, car seats, or fully functioning van door? Perhaps.
But have you gotten your grocery shopping done while literally rubbing elbows with new people and getting to practice your Tok Pisin?