Sunday, September 12, 2010

Give ‘em an inch…

It’s great being back in Melanesia again.  Apart from the joy in being able to communicate with people in [something resembling] their own language, I have come to remember a few of the wonderful, and occasionally baffling things about these people that I’d previously known and loved, but of which I had completely forgotten.

“What am I, hard-of-smelling?”

Within an hour of hitting Vila, I was waiting on the dusty roadside for a “bus” to come along to take me into town.  Beside me was an old lady with a massive ‘fro and a brightly-coloured, Mother Hubbard dress, unashamedly staring at me with a massive, toothless grin.  I nodded, smiled, said “Halo”, smiled again, nodded again, winked, smiled again … but she wasn’t done yet; there’d be no looking away from my amusing spectacle.

Eventually, a beat-up, rusting old van with clapped-out suspension and bald tyres rocked-up and the mad old hag and I climbed on board, squeezing into the remaining two seats.  From this you might deduce that the bus was packed, but in truth there were only two others - young guys - on board.  The rest of the seats, comprising the back half of the bus, were taken up with two ridiculously-sized woofers which bashed out gut-thumping, island reggae beats.  I settled into the groove, and sat back to enjoy the ride.

As soon as we pulled off the curb, I received Repressed Melanesia Memory #1.  It is a fact of island life that fresh water is a scarce commodity for many communities, and as such, it is not uncommon for people to bathe only once ortwice a week, and this rarely with soap (an unnecessary expense for poverty-stricken households).  And so, as I sat in the sweltering bus, I remembered the all-pervasive, musky tang of Melanesian body odour.

To be honest, though, this is not a completely unpleasant odour – it’s actually quite a sweet smell, which is rather odd.  How is it that Melanesians - women and men alike - despite rarely bathing, and even more rarely with soap, they still smell a damn sight better than those fat blokes in the Australian public service who, despite sitting all day in climate-controlled offices, still exhibit great, wet, yellowing under-arm stains and smell like turds rolled in ground cumin?  Same goes for those pot-bellied, balding types in stubbies and blue singlets you sometimes get stuck next to on the train – ew!  Never mind the “poor, primitive natives of the Pacific with their backward cultures and heathen ways”, maybe island hygiene (or the lack thereof) is still far-and-away more advanced than your average Australian male?

Strange misconceptions.

It must be all those Hollywood blockbusters like Hotel Rwanda, Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland, not to mention the harrowing footage we see on BBC World every night from regions as far flung as Sudan, the Congo, East Timor and Haiti.  Whatever it is, I am ashamed to admit that the sight of a Toyota Hilux racing along a dirt road with a spear-bristling pile of young, black, male faces staring determinedly over the cab fills me to the core with cold, mortal fear.

What a wave of surprised relief I experience, though, when these young men turn that menacing grimace into a big, white, toothy grin, and a laughing “Halo” as they make their way across the island to their circumcision/initiation ceremony.  This is Vanuatu, you idiot, not Sierra Leone!

Give ‘em an inch and they’ll take a mile.

There’s nothing quite so uncomfortable when, as a waetman (foreigner) with comparatively shitloads of money, you’ve just opened and are ready to tuck into a packet of Twisties (a luxury food item, given average household incomes) when the seventeen year-old guesthouse maid walks by for a chat.  Clearly she’s not in a hurry to get back to work, and the stilted conversation seems to drag slowly by as the Twisties waft their tantalizing scent throughout the room.

Giving into my cultural inclinations, and also as a result of the guilt this have, with my great, big bag of corny, deep-fried snacks, feels before this young have-not, I course extend the packet for her to share my tasty treat.  “Thank you”, she smiles as she reaches for the pack, takes it from my hand, turns, and wanders off into the guesthouse.

Oh yeah, Repressed Melanesia Memory #3, one doesn’t share, one gives away.  Bugger!  I really wanted those Twisties.

Guess who’s coming to dinner?

I arrived late in the day to the quiet town in the remote southern island, and all the stores were closed.  In the dark, I found my guesthouse, and was feeling a bit freaked-out at the grotty, shoddy surroundings which would be my home for the next ten days.  With nothing to eat, and only a cold pipe for a shower, I fumbled through the gloom to my sleeping bag, tired, hungry and miserable.

Sometime in the night I was startled awake by a group of staggering men returned from sloshing kava at the nakamal, and I lay quiet and still, fervently mouthing my prayers for deliverance from being stabbed in the night by a pack of wired, tribal warriors, and done up the bum while my corpse was still warm.

In the morning, I staggered out onto the guesthouse’s mouldy, crumbling balcony to see two fat, old, greying men sitting before a well-set breakfast table.  They offered for me to join them and shared their bread, which I gratefully accepted and ate quietly while they farted, scratched their protruding tummies and chatted away in their local dialect.

While cleaning-up in the disgusting kitchen afterwards, the third member of the party, who’d been making the breakfast for the others, informed me that one of the two sitting out on the balcony was none other than His Excellency the Honourable Minister for Foreign Affairs, here on an official government visit to meet with his constituency!  Let that be a lesson to all those who think that national budgets in the islands are all blown on five-star holiday resorts for corrupt government officials.

Lord Voldemort in a Penis Gourd?

Vanuatu, like a number of other Melanesian countries, remains one of the last great tribal cultures of the world, with many people still practicing and following the tribal customs and beliefs of their ancestors.  Rather paradoxically, it’s also staunchly Christian, but like many parts of the world where a kind of hybrid Christianity has sprung-up, much to the chagrin of missionaries both past and present, so too Vanuatu enjoys a rather bizarre mix of belief in both the magic of the Holy Spirit, and the magic of the mountains, trees, rocks and sea.

And to further add to this crazy soup of beliefs and practices, modern technology has been well and truly embraced by all, so that today even the remotest communities have access to satellite TV, internet and mobile phones.

The clash of these ancient beliefs and modern technology was brought to my attention one day while out in the field with one of the engineers responsible for bringing essential water and sanitation facilities to remote communities.  This wiry, weathered bloke is one of the few of his countrymen to have completed both high school and tertiary education, and for the last twenty years, has travelled to every province and island in the country guiding communities to implement these positive changes for their health and well being.

Did I say every island?  Sorry, that should have been ‘every island but one’.  It’s hard to get information out of this bloke sometimes; he being always on his mobile phone, banging away in a number of different languages to someone or other.  One day, I was standing by him when his phone rang.  He looked at the screen before swearing and muttering something in his own dialect, and then turned the phone off.  I realised then that I’d seen this happen quite a few times over the previous days, so asked him jovially whether an old girl friend had finally caught up with him.

Rather than smile at my joke, he gravely explained to me that he will not answer a call that the phone display lists as an anonymous, ‘Private Number’, as this, he said, is likely to be a local sorcerer trying to put a curse on him.

Surprised by this response, and the fear in his eyes when he told me, I asked a few more careful questions and came to learn that the reason he’d never, in twenty years, visited the island of Maewo, was because it is a place of black magic, and he will surely be cursed by a local sorcerer if he goes there.

With that, he picked up his bag and headed-off to church.

But mostly it's the people that make it great.  Pic: Hagas.


Ann O'Dyne said...

re the body odour question: I think it is diet-related.
Japanese eat little or no dairy-food, and they are very sensitive to the smell of it on Melburnians (my best friend has a Jap daughter-in-law living here, is how I know this).

re the Twisties: she did you a favour mate. adjust your diet and live, please!

DonkeyBlog said...

There wasn't much else to eat, honest! Mmmm ... Twisties.