Part 9: Vanuatu: Scrubs, Nerds, Escapists, Eccentrics, Nosferatu and the Deluded
Bislama word/phrase of the day:
Rus pinat – Roasted peanuts
At one point in history the white man trespassers on the Vanuatu collection of Melanesian Islands were missionaries, anthropologists and traders. Now, the white contingency are no less clicky but have very different agendas. In our short time here and our limited experience of the country we have encountered a number of these groups all of whom seem to be made up of an eclectic mix of individuals. I have detailed some of them here for your perusal.
Medical students – Nicknamed ‘the baby docs’, they are on abroad internships from the UK and Australia and are mostly aged between 19 and 25. They generally seem passionate about their future careers and are desperate to get stuck in although the opportunities seem to present themselves disappointingly infrequently.
US Peace Corps volunteers – They predominantly seem painfully young and quite chuffed with themselves. There is no doubt that the work they are doing is commendable but after hours of sitting in cafes hearing them congratulate themselves at the top of their voices on their worldliness, or seeing them aching to prove their ‘nativeness’ to elevate them above mere western mortals, one tends to have a pretty bah humbug opinion of them.
Expats – For the most part, they are business owners who have arrived on the islands for a plethora of reasons but in all it seems as though each are searching for the allusive ‘paradise’ to call home. This is the most eclectic mix of people we have encountered and there is no doubt that in any developing country, ex-pats are a notoriously peculiar bunch. Everyone knows everyone’s business, competition is high and politics run deep. They are friendly, entertaining, amusing, annoying and intriguing. I enjoy learning from these people the most.
Yachties – The eccentric lone wolves. They are quiet, drifting characters mostly. Accustomed to floating in and out of countries and not in need of the approval of others.
Cruise ship zombies – I am ashamed to say that I find myself chuckling secretly at these hordes of fleeting visitors. They clamber off their gargantuan shopping mall and stroll desirelessly through the streets of the invaded town, their eyes squinting and skin screaming at the daylight as if they were troglodytes and their clothes tensioned around their all-inclusive fed waist lines. Around their necks they carry their cruise-ship credit card in the same way that un-mins used to wear ID bags just incase there was any doubt as to their origin. They talk loudly to the locals in a bastardised form of language because not having English (or in this case Australian) as a first language is a handicap and usually indicates a hearing impairment and/or mental retardation. They complain at the standard of coffee and tut at the menu selections. They become one with local culture by getting their hair braided which mostly results in far too much white scalp on show and the betraying of a peculiar shaped head. They squeal at the opportunity to have their photo taken with a real primitive tribes-person who is simply a regular guy who has swapped his billabong t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops for a grass skirt and woven wreath because it’s ‘cruise-ship day’.
The streets explode in techi-colour; pop up stalls manned by droll locals burst with sarongs, necklaces, shells, colourful hula outfits, hawaiian shirts; cafes adorn their shops with balloons or singing locals; parents plunge their children into ‘traditional dress’ and nudge them itching and awkward towards the big ugly bags of money; women pound the ground with sticks and brazenly bare their breasts in the manner that to the superiorly ‘demure’ westerner, epitomises primitive Eden-esque original innocence; and begging appears for the first time dolled up as ‘donations welcome’. The zombies filter past the peacock displays, gravitating towards the biggest and brightest, totally unaware that this is not what the real town is like and this is not what the real people are like. This is cruise-ship day. At the end of their visit they are summoned back to their unproductive hive to continue in their bottled reality until their next day release.
They are a tourism industry necessity particularly for a country which seriously lacks a tourism infrastructure but they don’t half give visitors and travellers of all kinds a bad name.
So what category do we fit into? Our arrogance has probably blinded us to the fact that we’re more than likely the worst kind of tourist; tight-arsed, spoilt and deluded. We will probably leave Vanuatu feeling like we have an understanding of this country, it’s people and their cultures but in reality we won’t have a clue. One’s level of experience of a country is all relative. Sure we have cared for and delved more deeply into Vanuatu than the cruise-ship day visitors but we have encountered nothing in comparison with those working deep with local villages in island interiors. Can one ever fully understand any country though? I have been pondering this today (I really do know how to have fun). Naturally most of us only become intimately acquainted with the microcosms in which we operate. Those, as well as our perceptions of them, are dictated by social backgrounds, upbringing, experiences, interests, education etc. (This is not a ground breaking observation, incidentally; such questions have robbed many an academic of time probably better spent learning a real skill).
I have lived in two countries in my life, South Africa and England and I have barely any understanding of them at all. Ok, so I’m not the most perceptive person in the known universe and I have only been on the planet for *cough* 28 years, and technically my time in South Africa doesn’t count because I was a child, but you get the idea. I’ve been in England a fair old while and I have no idea about the complex ins-and-outs of the economy, the political situation, natural ecology or national zeitgeist. And as for my fellow Brit? They completely allude me. So how on earth can I pretend to have any inkling of a country in which I have spent a nano-second? Well, the short answer is, I can’t, but I am sure that on occasion I will find myself talking in a manner that suggests greater understanding than I have a right to lay claim. Be assured that at those times, I will hear an inner voice resonate these words throughout my shallow and empty cranium, ‘you fallacious pompous moron’.
On that note I shall bid you adieu and sign off for another day, ever grateful that you have sat through my incessant blatherings.
Tank yu tumas