When we first arrived in Vanuatu, living here seemed like a challenge, something that I needed to power through, to run and sweat and labor through until I crossed the finish line. But as time went on, it became less of something I was trying to overcome; I stopped thinking of it as a detour, as a chunk that would be missing from my life. I no longer consider this my life in Vanuatu, but simply, my life.
So when mom came to visit me last week, I was given a taste of home that brought me sharply back to my life pre-Vanuatu, pre-Peace Corps. I had been afraid that her visit would make me even more homesick than what I normally feel from the ever-present lump of it that’s lodged in my chest. In some ways it did, but in others it reminded me that although in some ways whatever I had, wherever I was before I left to come here, is over, it’s still just as much a part of me and a part of my future.
While mom was here, we stayed at Village de Santo, a hotel in Luganville (that mom affectionately referred to as an oasis after her stay in my village). The owner, head of the Santo Rotary Club asked us to attend the premiere of a project she had been working on, an exposition of Mango Village. So Hunter, Mom, and I tagged along to see rural Vanuatu from a tourists eyes.
At first I was kind of put off. It was clear that some of what they were doing was an urban, modern version of Vanuatu while at the same time they were attempting to portray the custom, rural parts of it. A very custom dance was followed by an urban, choreographed one. All the dancers were dressed in custom clothing that was partially modernized. It was confusing and misleading. I turned to express this thought to Hunter, who was thinking the same thing, but in a positive light, saying that if they made the distinction between the two clear, the performance would actually be honest and interesting.
They had a small kitchen set up on one side, and a nakamal on the other. It was in the nakamal, while some of the tourists tasted the Kava, that I realized just how torn between the past and the future Vanuatu really is, and why exactly an acknowledgement that there is an old and new culture here is so interesting. The culture here is constantly pulling and twisting and evolving in the exposure of tourism in the same moments that it remains rigid and unchanging in the shade of the bush.
While she was here, mom did a lot of reading up on the missionaries that first came here over a hundred years ago, when cannibalism was still prominent, and many of the islands had been untouched. When they came, they brought their religion, their ideas, and their style of dress. Whereas before women walked around in grass skirts and nothing above their waists, their current “custom” style of clothing is the island dress. The missionaries taught them that they needed to cover themselves up. Now we’re here, all these years later, encouraging them to uncover themselves a bit.
Deep in the bush, even on Santo, you can find villages never touched by the missionaries, where the women and men remain barely dressed. Half in the bush, half on the way to town, you can find villages like my own and Mike’s, where island dresses are a clothing staple and skirts never hike past your knees. And then in town, you can find women in pants, shorts, and sometimes, if they’re on the way to church, island dresses.
Kava itself is a tradition that only became as habitual as it is now almost a hundred years ago. Before then it was part of a ceremony reserved only for important events, chiefs or visitors. Does that make kava any less a part of the Vanuatu culture? Does the fact that island dresses were introduced as a result of the missionaries make them any less a part of the Vanuatu culture?
It’s amazing to me that I was disappointed when I first found out my site placement was Vanuatu. I browsed the internet to find that the Peace Corps was sending me to a tropical island and I assumed all sorts of things. None of them have been true. How often we assume we understand a culture, or even a person, by the glances we take, by the questions we let other people ask, by the words in a tourism book, or a scripted news report. Rarely, do we sit and stare. We let other people decide what our glances mean. Maybe the world is too big to stare at everything, but we only lose the battle if we decide this means we’ll stare at nothing at all, that we won’t even try to garner understanding at the expense of time.
What I’ve found, is that this country is beautiful if you’re glancing, but exotic and stunning when you sit and stare. When I’m staring I can see from a small bustling Luganville, straight to the heart of the Bush. When I stare I see muddy footprints and winged island dresses. I hear the thud of a falling coconut and the persistent call of roosters. I smell kava and ripe mangoes. My fingers pin together sleeves of natangora leaves and run freely through the million blue hues of the ocean. When I stare, I feel that tug from the past comingling with the tug of the future, the tug that is not a struggle, that is not a fight or a contradiction, but instead a compliment, a series of high and low pitch notes that not only make a beat, but a beautiful one, one that makes you want to get up and dance.
Vanuatu is kava and island dresses, it’s laplap and missionaries, it’s nambasas and torches, it’s thick bush and thin wooden canoes, it’s cannibalism and tourism, it’s volcanoes and earthquakes. Just like Vanuatu is not a culture solely of its past, or only of it’s future, my life is not a life in the United States, or a life in Vanuatu, it’s just life. This is not a detour I’m taking or a piece of the world I’m glancing at, to use for now and throw away later. It’s a part of my own personal culture.
These things that make us up, no matter how different they are, no matter where we are in the world, no matter who influenced us or who gave us those bricks to build our life with, or who touched our hearts, or who broke our hearts, or how many bruises we have, or successes we’ve smiled about, these are not things that come and go, they are who we are and who we’ll always be, even when we think we might have lost them. They’re still there, like the pieces of Vanuatu that remain buried deep in its heart, cut off from the influence of globalization, undiscovered, and unknown, but beating all the same to the rhythm that is Vanuatu.