PORT MORESBY (TR) – For Port Moresby cab-driver Paul Egan, the smashed and spiderwebbed upper-right section of his windshield is not a big deal.
Probably, he surmises, caused by a stoning after an argument.
Nor is the bullet hole just beneath the handle of the driver’s side door.
A car-jack attempt?
He doesn’t know.
Sporting a collared plaid shirt and gray trousers, Egan, 46, from Papua New Guinea’s mountainous Simbu Province, pulls his deep blue Mazda 323 cab from the International Terminal parking lot at Jackson Airport.
“All that damage,” says the former restaurant chef as he drives toward the NCD (National Capital District), about a 10-minute drive, “happened to the driver who had this car before me. I got it 8 months ago.”
That goes for the repaired hole, about the size of a wallet, in his hood, too.
Manning a taxi in Port Moresby is certainly an adventure, and through his windshield — cracked as it may be — Egan is offered the unique view of a nation grappling with lax administration standards and an economy that relies on a mix of subsistence agriculture and foreign investment.
Just past the Airways Hotel, the most posh accommodation in the city, he rolls the wheel to the left to reveal “Paul” tattooed on his inner right arm. The blue air freshener fluid in his oil lamp resting on the dash sloshes from side to side.
“I’ve never been in a accident,” he boasts.
In a day Egan can earn up to 160 kina (55 U.S. dollars), but more realistically he pulls in around 80 on average. Sunday is his only day off.
After subtracting costs for fuel, flats, and the fee to his employer (Kongo Taxi), he’s still doing much better than the national average. (For reference, a worker in rural areas not engaged in subsistence agriculture will earn less than 40 kina a week.)
Egan’s worst customer is the drunk.
“Sometimes,” says the thirteen-year veteran, “they drink and drink and drink until all their money’s gone. Then they cannot pay the taxi bill.”
Casinos, of which there a few scattered throughout Port Moresby, are a common location for a few drinks and a couple dozen slot pulls.
Egan pulls his sedan up along a bus. Two passengers hang their arms out the windows. Egan hits the accelerator with his dusty black loafer and zooms past, up to a stretch where razor wire is coiled over concrete walls filled with colorful graffiti.
“At the drop off point,” he adds, continuing with his average drunk tale, “they say ‘oh sorry, no money.'” Then they go searching through all their pockets.”
It is still mid-morning; students in t-shirts are moving along Port Moresby’s dusty sidewalks. Blue uniformed security guards positioned in front of markets stare blankly at traffic rolling past.
“It is a problem,” Egan grimaces.
A lime green Datsun slides up in front of Egan’s four-door. He has his favorite reggae cassette in the player. The thumping song coming through the speakers rolls on.
The roskol, which is the local Tok Pisin language term derived from the English word “rascal,” is one of Port Moresby’s most common conversation starters. Everyone has a story.
Rascal gangs, which have existed since the early 1970s, are comprised of mostly unemployed youths who commit various crimes.
Egan says he’s been robbed 4 times. The last occurrence was a few years ago.
He makes a turn at a traffic circle whose center is occupied by painting of prime minister Sir Michael Somare sitting atop a dirt mound.
NCD is just up ahead. But Egan’s cab doesn’t have a meter. Prices are negotiated from the outset.
“The situation with the rascals,” Egan says, “is this. We taxi drivers are doing our job. We don’t know if the rascal is hiding someplace. We are just picking up and dropping off passengers in a normal way.”
Do they strike in the daytime or nighttime?
Egan adds though that they tend to wait in the city at times that are the most busy, such as Fridays and Saturdays. The assumption is that these are the times when people are carrying the most cash.
“They are trying to find money to survive,” he adds. Egan has had as much as 600 kina swiped by a rascal gang.
Do they target foreigners?
A government employee at the PNG Waterboard, who has been robbed 5 times, agrees.
“The mining boys come into town for projects,” he says of the industry that accounted for over 17% of PNG’s gross domestic product in 2000. “The local boys are very observant. They know who is new in town. The mining boys are oblivious. They then wind up losing their tickets, their wallets.”
The last time he was robbed was three years ago while driving through Port Moresby with his two children.
“The next thing I knew,” he remembers, “my door was open and I had pump-action to my gut and a factory-made pistol to my forehead.”
But Egan thinks the frequency of rascal rampages is on the decline. He cites an improving economy as the reason.
Treasury Minister Sir Rabbie Namaliu indicated last week that PNG’s economy is taking advantage of higher international prices on minerals like copper, oil, and gold. He said growth this year is expected to be 3.7% in real terms, an increase over the 3.5% projected in the original budget.
Sometimes, though, violence is not at the hands of rascals.
A story in PNG’s Post-Courier newspaper in the first week of August reported the shooting and beating of a 36-year-old Australian man at the hands of drunk police officers.
The report said that after he finished a meal at the Airways and exited the gated parking lot, an unmarked car of drunk policemen tried to pull him over. He was then shot, dragged from the car, and beaten by the officers.
The sun on this day is being held at bay. But Egan’s flower-patterned covers over the back seats and the pair of dolphin caricature screens over the back window are in place for Port Moresby’s hot summers, when temperatures can reach well over 30 degrees celsius.
He stops his cab along a curb in NCD. A multi-story office building is having its outer tile removed.
Two men are crouched down at the curb. One is smoking a cigarette with typed lettering all over the white paper. Another is spitting red betel nut juice into the gutter.
“I like my customers,” Egan says, “because everyday they give me money. That is very important.”
This article originally appeared in August 2006 on the Sake-Drenched Postcards Web page.