Buckle Up

When I first got to Vanuatu nights scared the hell out of me. During the day you could pretend that everything was okay, you could get caught up in the rush and busyness of a daily routine. At night you couldn’t escape like that. You were tucked under a mosquito net, listening to rats run around and enduring a million thoughts about that day and how many of them you have left. Night is when all the monsters under the bed come out.

After just a few months of being here I felt like I was integrated into Vanuatu. I was wrong. I thought I was integrated because I did things like eat taro, story with mamas, cook with a fire, endure a lack of electricity and go to community events. But I did those things because I felt like I had to. I still do those things. But lately I’ve realized I’ve been doing them for the last few months because I want to.

Nights are now colored with some of my favorite Vanuatu moments. Just the other night I was walking to the Nakamal to drink Kava when I ran into some of the kids from my year one and two classes. They were standing by burning grass and bush rubbish, taking turns jumping over the flames.

The moon was bright enough to illuminate the kids on its own, but the extra yellow glow of the fires danced across their bodies, distorting their features in such a way that the kids seemed almost bonded to the earth, moving with nature itself. They made me jump one of the fires and as it died out, they kicked some of the leftover rubbish, spraying the grass with hot red embers. The light of them sparkled as they cooled on the dry grass, the sea of bright red specks reflecting the night sky above, which was littered by more stars than you’ve probably ever seen in your life.

I left the kids to continue on to the Nakamal. It’s hard to articulate just how dark it is here on cloudy nights. (Or how bright the world is when there’s a full moon torching the earth.) Inside a Nakamal, they light just one candle and often it’s so dark you can make out only some of the faces, and even then not very well. It’s when the men put a flame to the end of the cigarettes they rolled that you can really make out features or identify friends (though I should specify that Ni-Vans seem to be capable of seeing just fine with this dim of light).

Nights at the Nakamal are another thing I’ve come to love. While it was intimidating at first to be in a hut in the dark with a bunch of men, the people there are not only welcoming but interested in the rest of the world, and in sharing their own world.

On that night, I brought a bag of peanut butter m&m’s with me to use as washemout (food you eat after you drink a shell in order to wash the taste out of kava out of your mouth). I shared them with the whole Nakamal, who had never tasted anything like peanut butter m&m’s before. I gave extra to one of the guys sitting next to me that I frequently story with and he asked me “Do they melt if I keep them overnight?” I asked him why and he told me that he wanted to save them so that he could eat some in the morning because he liked them so much. I warned him to keep them safe from rats and gave him the few I had left. I heard about those damn peanut butter m&m’s for a week afterwards.

Part of what used to scare me about nights was the possibility of being creeped (when a boy comes to your house in the middle of night and calls out to you, trying to get you to let him in). Narango had been a safe place since the moment I got here, so I had let go of that fear. It faded into the background. I became complacent. I became comfortable.

A couple of weeks ago, my neighbor’s house girl came out of the house shining her torch and promptly gave a loud squeal of surprise. At the same moment, I heard movement outside, maybe half a foot from where I stood inside the house. My neighbor called out to me and informed me that a boy had been peering in through my window. While creeped out and feeling slightly more vulnerable than usual, I shrugged it off.

Two days later, I was walking to Mikes (he, Hunter, and I were headed to check out Araki island that weekend), and a guy on a bike, that I had never met before, came up behind me about halfway down my hill. There was no one else around. We storyed for a second before he leaned real close to me and said “Yu likem fuck?” I don’t think I have to translate that for you, but basically he was asking me if I wanted to have sex with him. I declined strongly, and sped up my walk, but he continued to bother me with questions about why. He finally left me at the bottom of the hill and continued on his bike.

Separately, neither of these incidents particularly freaked me out beyond fleeting moments of feeling unnerved. Together though, they set off an alarm in my head. I no longer carry pepper spray or my bush knife. I feel safe in Narango, as safe as I do in small, cozy Sayville. And I think that’s good for the most part. But complacency is dangerous. Sure, I shouldn’t worry every night if there’s a monster under my bed, but it doesn’t hurt to check, right?

And just as I shouldn’t get too complacent about safety, I shouldn’t either about living here. There’s so much I still haven’t done, so many adventures I have ahead of me. Like diving in the saltwater after the sun’s gone down, or going to a real, legit village in the bush that’s been relatively untouched by the developing world.

Last week I dove in fresh water for Nawra, using a small stick with 4 prongs on the end. You work it by pulling the elastic band forward and then releasing the stick, essentially spearing the Nawra (a small lobster or shrimp, I’m not sure of it’s English name). We started diving in a coconut plantation and then followed the river until we were deep in the bush, diving under fallen coconut trees and floating coconut shells.

I only speared one Nawra but it’s one of the things I’ve done here that I think I will always remember doing, because it is unlike anything I’ve ever done before. And it’s magical, like jumping over fires with carefree kids, or watching a man put peanut butter m&m’s in his pocket to save for later.

It seems to me that the things it has taken me the longest to like are the things that I have come to love the most. Living here for so long forces me to reconsider aspects of this life and culture over and over again, from different emotional, physical, and intellectual places. It gives me the chance to see things freshly that I might have missed, might have ignored, or might have misread, and completely turn them around.

This past Monday marks Group 25’s one year in Vanuatu and I can sincerely say that I look forward to the surprises, adventures, and changes that I’m sure this country and this experience is sure to throw at me in the next 14 months. Happy one year.