I’d bet my life you’ve never pulled out a foot long knife on a plane. But that’s what new fellow island mate, Mike, began our Santo adventures doing.
Flights to Santo are commercial ones, so it was after we were served a beverage that he asked me to snap a photo. The other passengers simply laughed. That’s Vanuatu for you. There are so many incidents like this, incidents that don’t make any sense anywhere but this country. Incidents that make Vanuatu an impossible country to describe.
My counterpart, the principal of the school, picked me up in the airport and we drove an hour in the back of a pickup truck to get to my site, the village of Narango. The last stretch of dirt road zigzagged up the side of a giant hill and opened to a sea of coconut and banana trees, endless bush, and numerous custom houses.
The truck pulled up to my school, where they had prepared a small welcome ceremony for me in one of the classrooms. Shaking hands here is as average and as expected as saying “what’s up” in the United States, so I took a solid ten minutes to shake numerous hands. Various members of the community then got up to speak a little before I was unceremoniously pushed to the front of the room.
I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I do remember that it was in poor enough Bislama that my counterpart had to push me aside afterwards and assure the community that no, I was not in fact an idiot. You can’t win every battle, I suppose.
After my attempted speech, I spent the next hour walking through my village carrying a knife, smiling, and saying hello to everyone. Message delivered? I think so. Depending on who you are, you hopefully received the right message of the many I tried to convey. Regardless, I have the next two years to continue to instill it.
Walking granted me a glimpse into the hum of electricity that buzzes throughout Narango. From its vast 500 residents, to the constant chirp of birds and squeak of insects, Narango is alive and vibrant with the life it hides in the shade of its mango trees. The view from its corners, where the hill drops downwards, boasts an expanse of the tops of coconut trees, which open quickly to the sea and then pick back up on close neighboring islands. When the sun sets, the sight from the edge of Narango is stunning enough to eclipse even the darkest spaces my mind has created in these past few months of being away from home.
And speaking of home, it was within these first few hours that I found out that I do not actually have one. On that first day, I saw the outline of where my home should be and the eight posts sticking out of the ground that suggest it has a frame. But that was it. In the Vanuatu way, nothing was simple or working the way it was supposed to.
At first, I couldn’t process the information. I was squeezed into a shared room with my host sister, fed some laplap for dinner, and was pulled on relentlessly by my new cousin. It’s a rule of the Peace Corps that every volunteer must have their own house. Maybe I would have been okay if I had been warned, or if my house was less than 4 months away from being done (it takes quite a long time to get anything done here). But neither of those things were true and I felt cornered and overwhelmed. As a sister and someone who has been a roommate many times, I’m no stranger to sharing a room. But doing so after months of already having done so, after months of being thrust into a new country, and mere hours of being thrust into a new community, alone and friendless, the prospect of sharing my host families house was a strain I was not prepared to meet. All I wanted was to sit alone in my house, sweating, eating breakfast crackers and peanut butter, and drinking tea by a fire I had barely managed to light. Was that so much to ask for?
But then I looked down and my cousin had whipped out my new sisters nail polish and was painting each of my toenails a different color. Laughter born amidst conflict is fragile and shaky, but it’s still laughter. I looked to my sister, sitting on the bed opposite me. “It’s okay she’s using your nail polish?” I asked in Bislama. Quick to a mocking smile, she said “It’s not a crime.” My bad mood fell away almost instantly. You can’t be sad when your toenails are sparkly, pink, red, and purple, and your roommate speaks the same language of laughter that you do.
We’re supposed to be integrating the first few months at site and I guess having my nails painted made me realize how much easier integration can be when you’re thrown into it, when you’re not making the effort to leave your house and invite yourself to dinner.
As in all situations, even the most unlikely negative things carry some good with them. Sometimes that good isn’t evident immediately, and sometimes it doesn’t even exist immediately. Good is hard and often impossible to see when we’re burdened by darkness. But since when did we not believe in things we can’t see?
You don’t always have to see life as divided by its lows and highs, but instead as a road generously heaped with speed bumps. Sure you might need to change your course, or stop at a gas station because you broke down. But what after all, is waiting for you at that pit stop, at that place that you never would have gone if you hadn’t had to feel pain for a minute? Who cares if you took that turn because you were forced to? That doesn’t mean it’s a bad turn. That doesn’t mean there isn’t something good waiting at the end of that detour.
After the Peace Corps heard about my lack of a house, they told my counterpart that the village had a week to complete my house or they’d take me away and send me somewhere different. The following day, I went down to help, intent on staying in this place I already felt connected to. They laughed at me and told me to go help cook lunch. I suppressed a growl of feminism, and tried to help my counterparts daughter prepare lunch for the twenty men trying to build my house. To my dismay, even she was reluctant to let me help and I spent most of the morning on tedious tasks like peeling Taro and mixing juice.
When the afternoon rolled around, we lost half of our men and I snuck over and demanded the chance to help. To my surprise, they let me. The half kitchen I now have was built in part by me.
Within the next few days I went to family events with my host family, I hunted down a witch doctor in a neighboring village, I named my new cat Stupid (she deserves it), and I stayed glued to my host sisters side. In return for not having a house, I got to see how custom houses are built, I bonded with my sister, and I glimpsed the pulse of Narango from its core.
In the way that Vanuatu is Vanuatu, nothing is ever straightforward. Nothing happens the way you expect it to. The normal is sometimes as absurd as carrying a bush knife on a plane.
I spent all of yesterday seeking a boat that was carrying mine and all of my fellow island mates luggage. We had mailed it via an island hopping cargo ship, whose other destinations we did not know. Arriving a day and an hour late, we finally had our luggage in hand. Sure, it didn’t get there when we expected it to. Sure, we did a lot of waiting and talking and figuring things out, but did we have our luggage at the end of the day? Yes.
Part of the magic of Vanuatu is that it forces you to disregard your perceptions about what constitutes a success story. It’s not always about getting from point a to b. Sometimes it’s about finding out that you never wanted to get to point b, anyway. Maybe it was point c, or d, or e that you were looking for. It doesn’t matter, as long as, in the end, you find that glimmer of positive hiding in what you thought was just a brooding rain cloud, but instead was a much needed sprinkle of cold water atop skin that had been baking in the hot sun for far too long.
So, fall rain, fall. Honestly, my village needed the water anyway.