Minute with Mike - Transit bus would thrive in Lumi

This column submitted by Michael Jacobson on 5/26/99.

Maybe the Paynesville Area Transit has the wrong market. Here it's in desperate need of passengers. All this summer, they'll be practically giving away rides around town. Fifty cents for a one-way fare in town? Think about that. Fifty cents?

If you include my time, I can't even drive myself from the Press office to the high school for fifty cents. But that's the type of loss leader the transit system will be using this summer to try to get people to think about using the bus. Better than just thinking about it, they hope lots of folks will try the bus and find that it's a convenient way to get around town.

To be fair, I haven't tried it yet either. I'm not sure if I'm a prime target for their campaign, but I do know that the bus service is open to people of all ages. It is only offered two days a week right now, which isn't especially convenient, but the hours could expand to meet increased demand.

I know a place where there's a huge demand for bus transportation. In Papua New Guinea, they have 21-passenger buses and regular passenger vans which they call PMVs, short for Public Motor Vehicle. Local PMVs thrive in towns and cities, and flatbed trucks act as long-distance buses. Rides would cost 25 in the capital city, Port Moresby, and only 15 in towns like Madang.

In Lumi, there were no PMVs, either for local rides or to go 200 kilometres to Wewak, the primary destination of the grandly named Sepik Highway. Lumi is virtually at the end. Off-road vehicles can still make it another 10 kilometres to Karaitem, if the Sibi River isn't flooded. In Karaitem, the road leads to a green wall of jungle and disappears as a walking path, called a bush road in Melanesian Pidgin English.

Rides are so scarce in Lumi that they can't be bought. It's who you know. As a whiteskin, I was frequently offered preferential treatment. Most Saturday mornings, I would hike up the road for 50 minutes to shop for food at the local market around the airstrip. Frequently, I would pass an old woman carrying a load of firewood on her back. Up to a metre in diameter, it was a load. I might have offered to help if I wouldn't have been scared that I was unfit to carry that by my forehead.

I could pass her, walk 30 minutes to the station, do all my shopping, and meet her again on my way down. If I got up before the school truck, it would invariably stop and offer me a ride. She wasn't always so lucky.

Being a driver is an important position in Lumi. They choose who gets to ride and who doesn't. They decide when the truck leaves, and just how long the riders will have to wait. I would chuckle at how they would always offer rides to fat, fellow government workers, but normally speed past villagers, even calling them lazy if they tried to flag down the truck for a ride.

One of the goals of the Peace Corps is to live like the people of your host country. In PNG, that meant walking and taking PMVs. I enjoyed doing both.

I liked to walk so much that I would consciously avoid riding on the school truck. It puzzled me for quite a while to see people from my school wait for hours under store awnings or shade trees for a ride. Even if they could walk the distance in a fraction of the time, they would wait. Eventually, I realized that while walking was a new experience for me it wasn't new at all to anyone who has spent their life in PNG.

(Reminder: To ride the Paynesville Area Transit bus, you don't need to wait under awnings or trees. Just make an appointment the day before by calling 1-800-600-7498.)

While training in Madang, I took at least two PMV rides daily for two months. And that doesn't count the ride I got from the neighboring village's truck every morning. In hundreds of PMV rides, only once did I see another whiteskin ride a PMV. Peace Corps volunteers rode them all the time. Volunteers who had had the misfortune of staying in Port Moresby for an extended period of time for some reason became virtual experts on PMV routes.

I even took my parents on a PMV ride when we went back to visit my host family in Madang. During their trip, we spent another morning on an undoubtedly expensive, private tourist bus in the Highlands. The PMV was a better bargain, and it was a more realistic cultural experience.

Almost a year ago, I returned to my village near Madang to visit my host family for the last time. Around Madang, you mostly see rich expatriates driving cars, shopping in air-conditioned stores, and lounging in luxury resorts. Crowding onto a rickety PMV made me feel unique, accepted. I'd disembark at a market outside of town where expatriates were so rare that people would occasionally ask if I was lost, or at least where I was going. From that market, it's still a 20-minute walk to my village.

Sure, PMVs weren't always convenient. Waiting for a PMV was not fun at all when you had a plane to catch. On a number of occasions I debated whether I should try to arrange a special PMV ride for an early morning airline flight or if I should carry my backpack and walk. I did it both ways. In Aitape after a Christmas holiday with other Peace Corps volunteers, five of us ended up walking for over an hour carrying the luggage and three months worth of nonperishable food supplies for three people.

Each of us gladly would have paid a heck of a lot more than 50 for a bus ride that morning.

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