If you had shelter and all the food you could ever want, would you still work?
If I had to guess, the answer most common would be yes. What about purchasing all the other things you need? A computer? Nice clothing? A nicer house? You’d want it all, wouldn’t you? I would. But I guess the real question is why? Aren’t our basic needs: food, water, and shelter?
The thing is, there’s so much to want in the U.S. So many things. Here in Vanuatu, there are many places where things are virtually nonexistent, islands so remote that when they don’t mow the runway for a few weeks, no one comes to or leaves the island.
As a result of all this, no one works. Why should they? They are happy. They have a house, plenty of food, clothing, and no idea what they are missing out on. They go to church, they work in their vast gardens, they talk, they laugh, they rest. If someone needs a house, they build it for them. If someone is hungry, they give them food. Thirsty? Climb the nearest coconut tree, cut down a coconut, open, and enjoy. You live surrounded by family. In some cases you can hear the constant crash of the pacific oceans waves from your bed, and in others, the view from your backyard is a hilltop like mine, overlooking an expanse of coconut trees that drop to the edge of the salt water.
It’s peaceful here too, quiet. The echoes of bird calls and squeak of insects is broken only in the dead of night, when flying foxes (bats) shrill calls fill the air with a constant drum.
To the tourists that come here and stay in their air conditioned resorts, with their iced pina coladas and refrigerated bottled water, this is paradise. To the people that live here, inside their bamboo and leaf houses, with water they collected from a rain tank or a river, and clothes that have seen a scrub brush one too many times, this is paradise.
They’ve never lived on the other side, they have no reason to think otherwise. But are they really missing out? I can’t make that call. Not with a battery powered fan in one hand and an intense craving to have an iced cold smoothie in the other. I want my things. So who am I to tell these people they don’t need the things I have? Vanuatu was once named the happiest country in the world. It shows in their smiles and it shows in their round bellies, which harness laughs bigger than themselves.
Don’t get me wrong though, the gardens require maintenance. And between cooking and hand washing clothes, the mamas have their work cut out for them.
And the food really is nothing to boast of. Laplap is concoction of any chosen plantain that’s smashed together and cooked under hot rocks in the ground. Samboro is a smashed cooking banana rolled up in island cabbage and then cooked. Almost everything is milked in coconut juice (not nearly as delicious as it sounds). And then there’s breadfruit. Don’t get me started on this bland fruit, whose title carries the promise of something as good as bread and as flavorful as fruit. Why it even exists is beyond me. It’s typically consumed after roasting, which does not help the flavor.
But the pineapples are sweet as hell. And the mangoes are plentiful. And if you’ve grown up your whole life on this food, I guess you love it because it’s all you’ve ever known.
Plus, it’s always there, always available, even if it’s not growing in your own garden. I expressed a fear to my sister late one night, that I would not be able to find food when I finally lived on my own. She laughed at me and did not understand the question. In a suburb example of coconut wireless, first thing the next morning my mama pulled me aside to tell me not to worry, that I could come get food from her any time that I needed it. That food belonged, she said, to everyone. It wasn’t the sole property of one person, but for the benefit of us all.
But it’s not just in my own family that this is true, it’s with the entire village. Once, while writing in the solitude of one of the empty classrooms at my school, I went to a neighbor to see if they were selling breakfast crackers from their store. Instead, she told me she was just about to cook some Taro, and ‘Did I like Taro? Would I wait there while it cooked so she could feed me?’ Another time, while playing with someone’s kids, their mother came out and offered me a plate of pineapple. Now, granted, I’m the resident Peace Corps Volunteer, but the same rule applies to everyone. Sit somewhere long enough and someone will put food in your hands.
There are plenty of things that need work here though. Good health is hard to come by. When sickness like Malaria strikes, death in many cases can be sure and quick to follow. (Especially since the closest doctor in such cases as my village, is an hour walk away, and is a witch doctor) Dirt swims constantly at the bottom of each cup of tea that I try to swallow without looking. And lack of water is always a threat, especially in dry season. As a result, the average life expectancy age is not high.
If we could change all this though, it would mean pulling Vanuatu further into the globalized world, where things matter, where you must work, and where this country faces the harsh reality that they have nothing to export but ecotourism. You pull them from the shelter in which they so comfortably rest, humming through life, few cares and few responsibilities. You extend their life, but do you make it better?
I don’t have the answer to that, but I stay here in hopes that I prepare them for a future that finally rips all of what is left of their isolation and thrusts them into the world in which nothing is free and ‘spel smol’ (rest a little) is something you do only when you’re dead.
Note: Not by the Hair of my Chinny Chin Chin, Part 2 to come next week, hopefully with pictures of the completed house.