A local tribesman waits to see China's President Xi Jinping during his visit to the Butuka Academy school in Port Moresby on November 16, 2018, ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. (Photo by Peter PARKS / POOL / AFP) (AFP / Peter Parks)

Like no summit on Earth

Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea -- I have covered a lot of summits.

I have battled sleep deprivation during all-night affairs in stuffy Brussels buildings as EU leaders scrambled to salvage the euro during the Greek debt crisis.

I have hob-nobbed at swanky gatherings in the snowy mountains of Davos as presidents, prime ministers and business tycoons put the world to rights over champagne and canapes.

More recently, I watched locals struggle to hold back the tears at a summit between the leaders of North and South Korea and, just a few months after that, the historic moment Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un clasped hands in Singapore.

But none of this could have prepared me for the absolutely unique experience that was the recent APEC summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea.

Performers in traditional costumes and headdress welcome delegates and ministers to the international convention centre for the 30th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) ministerial meeting in Port Moresby on November 15, 2018. (AFP / Saeed Khan)

Let's start with our digs.

A sizeable chunk of Port Moresby's poverty-hit population lives in ramshackle slums, scratching out whatever living they can. There's not much call for luxury hotels.

In addition, the dusty and sun-baked capital has acquired a reputation for lawlessness, with reports of the feared machete-wielding "raskol" street gangs mugging and beating people at random and carrying out frequent carjackings.

For these two reasons, journalists and delegates were housed not in the standard summit business hotel but on three colossal cruise ships moored in the bay.

This picture taken on November 13, 2018 shows cruise ships that will accommodate delegates and journalists at this year's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Port Moresby. (AFP / Saeed Khan)

"Like No Place On Earth" was the company motto and the full range of cruise facilities was available onboard: from the quoits deck to blackjack and roulette at the "Players" casino.

After a stressful day at the summit, attendees could choose between three sauna and steam rooms or splash in the jacuzzis and plunge pools up on the sun deck.

Evenings were generally spent in one of the many restaurants -- mainly the copious buffet as it was free -- followed by a nightcap in "Connections" or the "Orient" bar, complete with live music that ranged from chilled-out jazz to a band loudly belting out "Hotel California."

It may sound nice but we did sometimes feel like we could check out any time we liked, but we could never leave.

This picture taken on November 13, 2018 shows people on the deck of the cruise ship Pacific Jewels, which will accommodate delegates and journalists at this year's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit, in Port Moresby. (AFP / Saeed Khan)

We were instructed that under no circumstances should we venture out alone -- especially after dark.

One of the great joys of summitry is when the work is done and the team heads out to sample local restaurants and bars, usually under the experienced guidance of the local AFP bureau chief.

But Port Moresby is one of only a handful of capitals where AFP does not have any presence at all so the summit was an endless series of shuttling between the Pacific Jewel ship and the city's Aquatic centre which served as the press room for the international media.


That's if you could get there.

The APEC summit was Papua New Guinea's debut on the international stage and it visibly struggled with the logistics of hosting delegates from more than 21 countries plus the world's media.

Much of the talk in the run-up to the summit surrounded the purchase of 40 Maserati luxury saloons to ferry around world leaders and the resulting cost to a city where tens of thousands live hand-to-mouth.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends an electricity projects signing ceremony during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Port Moresby on November 18, 2018. (AFP / Saeed Khan)

But despite throwing money at the situation, transport snafus seemed commonplace. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was kept in his car for more than five minutes waiting for the summit host Peter O'Neill to arrive.

I'm based in Tokyo and let me tell you that the Japanese don't wait that amount of time for a metro, never mind a delay to the PM.

PNG authorities were proud of their shiny new buses -- funded by China -- to transport journalists and delegates seamlessly around the city but numerous delays and problems were reported.

At one point, a shuttle bus "direct to the press centre" took the AFP team to the parliament building and then on to the national museum. Only by begging the driver was it prevented from then going to the airport.

We finally got on our way -- despite leaving more than two hours ahead of time to get to an interview, we were in serious danger of being late -- when we sped too quickly down a hill and obliterated the front of the bus.

The result: more than an hour and a half to travel about five kilometres.

Another "direct bus to the press centre" just took me next door to the neighbouring cruise ship and then back again.

Papuan villagers in traditional costume go through the security screening at Parliament House in Port Moresby on November 16, 2018, ahead of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit. (AFP / Saeed Khan)

It wasn't just transport. Small details that are run-of-the-mill for experienced summit hosts proved tricky for the PNG novices.

The "family photo" of the leaders was delayed when one delegation realised there was no lighting for the photographers and it was pitch black. Cue a mad scramble around the hotel which eventually unearthed a temporary light but the pictures were still far from perfect.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Chile's President Sebastian Pinera, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, US Vice President Mike Pence, New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and others pose for a family photo during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Port Moresby on November 17, 2018. (AFP / Saeed Khan)
Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev takes pictures at a gala dinner during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Port Moresby on November 17, 2018. (AFP / Saeed Khan)


Then just minutes before a signing ceremony involving US Vice President Mike Pence, one eagle-eyed PNG official noticed that their own flag was upside down.

This turns out to be the international symbol for a country in distress, which was particularly unfortunate as the ceremony was about bringing electricity to millions in PNG who live without power.

But if the summit proved to be a logistic uphill battle, the frustration was eased by the people of Port Moresby who were employed in their thousands to help things run -- well, less roughly.

Summit helpers were unfailingly kind, friendly and smiling -- even when faced with furious journalists shouting at them because the internet crashed two minutes into Pence's keynote speech.

But the real gem of the summit was not found in the sterile gym hall of the international media centre.

Without a bureau in Port Moresby -- AFP covers the country from Sydney -- this was a golden opportunity to tell stories from a rarely visited dateline.

Papuan villagers sit outside a women's only makeshift market on the outskirts of Port Moresby on November 19, 2018, one day after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit. (AFP / Saeed Khan)

So AFP teams ventured out -- with a local driver and "fixer" -- in an attempt to report on the real Port Moresby, which seemed a million nautical miles from the summit.

We visited markets, settlements, and shopping malls. We spoke to minority groups, housewives and passers-by who gave us a short burst of their tribal tongue on camera for a feature on the more than 800 languages in Papua New Guinea.

Everywhere we went, we were greeted with genuine warmth. Crowds would form immediately as locals could not believe the international media could be interested in them -- little did they know they were in fact the most interesting part of the summit.

A vendor selling vegetables waits for customers at a women's only makeshift market on the outskirts of Port Moresby on November 19, 2018, one day after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit. (AFP / Saeed Khan)

And despite the doomsday warnings, at no stage did I feel threatened or unsafe. Admittedly we didn't hit the streets after sunset but I have felt more on edge wandering around parts of Paris or my native London at night.

Instead, we encountered grinning locals, their teeth stained red from constant munching of betel nut -- an omnipresent narcotic banned in most countries -- who told us they wanted to see some of the benefits of the APEC trickle down to them in their tough lives.

We visited a rickety settlement consisting of thousands of dwellings perched on stilts far out into the sea, with precarious wooden planks serving as "streets" and a caged pig outside almost every hut.

Residents are seen in the village of Hanuabada, one of only two remaining stilt villages in Port Moresby on November 15, 2018 ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. (AFP / Peter Parks)

You don't get that at an EU summit or G20.

When our bus broke down at the museum, who should come to our rescue but a local flower-seller, who bundled us, our copious video equipment, and a bemused Chinese journalist who was also stranded into her truck and gave us a lift. When the China Aid bus failed, PNG aid stepped up and we made our interview with minutes to spare.

And when the memories of the logistical snafus have long blended into the memories of a dozen other summits, it is the warmth from the PNG people that will endure.

I have covered a lot of summits. But none quite like the Port Moresby APEC and I doubt any of us ever will.

AFP's APEC team contributed key anecdotes to this blog.

This picture taken on November 19, 2018 show makeshift huts seen across the ship accommodating delegates and journalists attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Port Moresby. (AFP / Saeed Khan)


Richard Carter