Papua New Guinea is perhaps the most diverse country in the world. Its five million inhabitants speak anywhere from 700 to 1500 languages, depending on who you ask: nearly a fifth of the world's surviving languages are confined to the country's borders. New Guinea, of course, is one of the largest islands in the world, and even though Papua only covers half of it (the other half belongs to Indonesia), the country is still about the size of California, factoring in other constituent islands like Manaus, New Britain, New Ireland, and the North Solomons. This incredible scope of peoples and environments has made the country one of the hottest research areas for linguists and anthropologists from around the world, going back to the days of Margaret Mead: National Geographic loves the country, too.

In the beginning, New Guinea was a collection of tiny nations, built by humans migrating southward from Melanesia into Australia about fifteen to twelve thousand years ago. In the 1880's, the Netherlands, Germany, and Britain divided up New Guinea: the Dutch got the western half, which now belongs to Indonesia, while the British got southern Papua and the Germans got the north. The British and Germans set up their capitals at Port Moresby and Kokopo: in 1899, the Germans moved from Kokopo to Rabaul (destroyed in the eruption of Tuvurvur in 1994).

Australia took over the German portion in 1914, and administered it under a League of Nations mandate until World War II, when the Japanese Empire moved in and filled the underground of Rabaul with tunnels that can still be seen today. By 1944, though, the Japanese were kicked out and Australia regained its mandate, now under the United Nations and incorporating the British portion of the country as well. PNG elected its first government in 1973, and became independent on September 16, 1975.

Today, PNG is a parliamentary democracy divided into nineteen provinces. Most of its citizens (85%) live in rural villages. The official language of the government is Tok Pisin, a standardized form of pidgin English that is similar to English when spoken, but dramatically different in spelling.

Copper and gold mining are the mainstays of the economy. Oil is also found there, and cocoa and coffee are harvested and exported. Australia accounts for most of PNG's trade, with Japan a distant second.

If you're interested in visiting Papua New Guinea, you can fly there from Australia, Singapore, or Japan on Air Niugini. The country has a fairly good air transport network between major cities, and a mediocre road network serviced by minibuses called PMV's. Travelling around PNG is akin to walking around New York City: it's pretty safe, as long as you don't do it in the middle of the night or show off your valuables.

All in all, it's an impoverished, relatively pristine, and infinitely interesting country that will probably be swallowed up by capitalism within the next century. Go while you can.

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