On a typical Saturday morning in Vanuatu, sun seeps through my bamboo walls, littering the room with circles of yellow light. The nights cool air fades by 8 and the ensuing heat is like glue, binding my back to the sheet beneath it. Unable to sleep in the puddle of sweat, I roll out of bed, ducking beneath my extra holey mosquito net- made that way by persistent rats chewing their way through it.
After a cold bucket bath to cool me off, I start the walk over to my host families house. I pass by the headmaster first, who lives right beside me. Most likely, he’s alone in his kitchen, cooking, or else reading in his house. He’s the most solitary and well-read Ni-Van I’ve ever encountered. He often asks to borrow books from me and then proceeds to devour them in just a day or two. His glasses hang slightly crooked (one of its supporting handles is missing) and he’s deaf in one ear and hard of hearing in the other.
Donald has said some of the most unusual things I’ve heard a Ni-Van say and keeps me laughing even on days that smiles don’t come easily. Once, in a playful argument with my host mother about drinking kava, he asked, in response to her “kava is no good” speech, why do you grow and sell it then? This wasn’t a confrontation, there is not much of that here, it was a joke and a direct acknowledgement of some of the hypocritical philosophies ingrained in this culture (as it is in many). At a fundraiser recently, he told me that “all the widows are here” because the women had shown up but their husbands were nowhere in sight.
He often says, “sori, Jess” and seems to mean it whole heartedly in a way that makes you feel his sorrow, even when you believe it’s entirely misplaced, as it often is. Whether he’s telling me about how much he loves cheese, or he’s drinking kava, or talking about school issues, he’s genuine in a way that makes you feel an automatic trust. As I pass the kitchen, I’ll sing out a hello, with a 25 percent chance he’ll actually hear me with his one half-good ear.
I walk the rest of the way across the field and exit the school grounds. Helen’s store is off to the right and I usually hear her laugh before I see her. She’s rambunctious, flirty, secretive, keen on a joke disguised within a lie, and definitely doesn’t act her age. 40 years old and we often talk about her parade of secret boyfriends or the next time we’ll be drinking homebrew together. Her son (or a kid she looks after- her true kids are in their twenties now) is always running around wearing Spiderman pajama pants. I call him Spider-man.
Within each encounter she’ll ask me at least once if I’ve seen the Papa of all my kids recently. That would be Julie. I don’t quite understand the joke, but I assume it has something to do with the fact that we are two women that drink kava together, and someone must then logically be the man in the scenario. I tend to respond to Helen’s questions by saying I haven’t seen Julie in a while and I’m applying for a divorce.
From here, I’ll drag my feet through Narango’s second worst patch of mud, slinging specks of it onto my already coated legs. Before I’m even through the mud, 3 year old Sheena’s probably spotted me, yelled my name 12 times, and is in a full on sprint straight at me, jumping a foot into the air and using legs and arms to latch onto me in a seemingly permanent hold. She giggles the whole time I’m there, infused with an inexplicable energy that I only ever saw die once, when we both fell asleep on her kitchen floor, cuddled next to one another after a full day in the garden pulling peanuts.
A walk through an open field at the villages center follows the blast of energy that is Sheena. Out in the open field I tend to be spotted by a slew of kids that chase me across it or stick tongues back out at mine. A cement base marks the end of the field, a symbol of my villages inability to finish anything (which you’ll know if you’ve read the origin story of my house).
From there, I run into a white-haired man with the biggest smile you’ve ever seen. If he catches me trying to sneak by he tells me stories about World War two and the American soldiers that came here and camped out, and even about some old lore of things that were buried here by the soldiers for later use. And then he’ll tell me 2, 5, or 10 times how glad he is in his heart to see me there, to see Americans here again. I thank him and keep walking.
The road market here usually has people playing 7-lock or just talking. The men will signal to me silently asking if I’ll be drinking kava that night and if Vavatu is around, she’s sure to tell me to get a bottle of it and come drink secretly in the kitchen instead.
If it’s late enough, I see the men at my favorite Nakamal already preparing kava. They’ll be playing music from their phones and the stench of the drink will overwhelm me, even from 12 feet away. It’s here that I reach the biggest mud pit, which slopes downward and threatens a fall that will coat me entirely in brown. Daddy Bae waits for me on the other side, with a speech and a joke that I’ve heard so much our conversation feels like a rehearsal for a play that will never happen (Jessica, you’re women Narango now… you must marry here now… sorry for the mud on your feet and on your back and in your hair…)
And now I’ve reached the end of the village. I see my brothers big puff of yellow hair and he sings out my name and then calls towards the kitchen, “Momma, Jessie I stap cam!” He then raises his eyebrows at me, which I know always means “did you bring your laptop?”. If it’s a yes, he’ll squeal in excitement and do a lap running around the yard. I weave around him and enter the huge, open kitchen.
If it’s not time to eat, my papa probably won’t be there. Apart from my host mama, he’s probably the busiest and most hardworking Ni-Van I’ve ever met. He’s always off diving for Nawra (prawns) or working in the garden, or helping my mama cook. If it’s time to eat though, he’ll be there and come over to me to offer me a side hug and a pleasant, sing-songish “hello Jessie”. Most people mistake him for being a quiet man but if you field him the right questions a conversation with him could last hours.
My host mama will come in dancing or hurrying past me to perform some task. She’s as restless and hardworking as my papa, a rarity in a culture based around sitting around and doing nothing. My mama is as full of energy as Sheena, but it’s a calm inducing energy that takes my bad energy and churns it into positivity. Just being in her presence is sometimes enough to quiet homesickness stirring inside me.
Ever since I told her about Americans negative reactions to people calling them fat (something they do quite often here and think is a compliment) she has taken to telling me I look thin every time she sees me. She is culturally sensitive and considerate towards me and always has a spare bed ready in case I want to sleep there (often pressuring me to do so).
It’s sitting there on the kitchen floor that I feel most comfortable here, that restlessness finally rests and I feel full, whole and a part of something great. It’s the closest I feel to Sunday dinners at grandma’s or Christmas Eve sleepovers with my siblings. I feel like I’m home. And all the colors and patterns of my life here can finally collide and mix and come out like a Jackson Pollock, chaotic but endlessly pleasing to the eye, and in this case, the heart.
Sometimes, I’m not amused by the WWll man. Sometimes my headmaster fails to make me laugh or Sheena’s not around to hug me. But most days, those things are not true. Most days, I get a Sheena stuck to me, I’m covered in mud, and I’m drinking kava with the papa of all my kids.
Because the truth is, I’m depressed here fairly often. Sometimes I spend the whole day swinging in the hammock, feeling sorry for myself. But usually it’s because I can’t get a milkshake, or because another volunteer upset me or I upset them, or most of all, because I miss home, I miss Tori, Nicole, and Joey. I miss Sunday dinner at Grandma’s and nacho’s with dad. Never, not once, was I depressed because I was here with these people, the people of Narango, of my village, of my home.