(It seems to take about a day to have enough experiences for a new blog entry, I’ve been here a week now so this may be longish.) I pop in to Sydney airport and in three hours I’m back in the Stone Age. Or should I say back in that weirdest of all collisions between the Stone Age and the Information Age that is Vanuatu. There’s a Japanese tour group led by a lady with a sign that says “DOA Travel”, I’m sure they have no clue. I cab over to the Pacific Paradise motel, the taxi is a 1983 Datsun with no headlights and the ground whizzing by through the rusted floor, tinny island music on the radio, ahh it’s great to be back. At the motel there’s the usual vibe, laughter from one side, singing and laughter and horseplay from the other. A pickup truck full of partiers roars by, horn honking, standing room only in the back, hope they didn’t lose anybody. Probably a visiting soccer team from Papua New Guinea or somewhere as there seems to be a tournament on.
Soon I’m settling in to my monk’s room, tonight’s dinner is a yummy tuna sandwich. At the store I cleverly avoided the regular brands, yeah this one looks alright, it’s called Solomon Islands Big Blue, and besides, it’s half the price! The label assures me there’s “Lit mit insaed”. Upon opening the can I discover where all the skankiest little bits of dark tuna “mit” have ended up, they’re swimming in an oily broth right in front of me. Without thinking and before draining the can I dump a bunch of mayo in, shit this is really going downhill now. By this time the store is closed, so I smile and pretend that greasy thick purple-grey tuna-flavoured soup poured on bread on a cheap Chinese plate is some kind of exotic island treat.
In the morning I retrieve my rental truck, fingers crossed. Last time they gave me a Great Wall truck, imported “pre-owned” from China, the odometer said 36,000, later I decided it couldn’t be 36,000 or even 136,000 but was probably 236,000 or more. Usually it ran OK, but around here they always seem to think that shock absorbers last forever and never need replacing. The truck bobbed and swayed like a boat, roll, pitch, yaw, why bother putting your blinker on when your guess is as good as mine which way she’s going next. Above 80 kilometres per hour this particular truck had the bad habit of dying, complete system shutdown, and I was thankful for once that it didn’t have power steering. I get a smile from the sign at the rental place that warns: “Dear customer, evri cash transactions, yu must gat one receipt. Spos yu no gat receipt, yu no gat refund”. Phonetic spelling with just one verb tense could cut out years of grammar school English classes, would it really make a difference?
I drive to my appointment with the realtor who will show me the little rental house I’ll get while house construction gets going (rent is just USD $700/month). Up some smelly steps to a cramped, fungal lobby which the realtor evidently shares with an offshore tax haven setup. There’s a board with a list of some of the tax-dodgy “companies” that are domiciled here: a few official-sounding ones like “European Technology Corporation” and “Asian Investments Unlimited” but also silly ones like Creative Chique, First Love, Daydream Investment Holdings, and my favourite Couger (sp) Consulting. Later on I make six attempts to open a bank account at the local branch of my bank in Australia. There’s always something: oh, the manager is not back until next Tuesday; he forgot to look at your papers; he’s in the middle of a divorce (?) ; then: we lost it all, can you please fill it out again? A phone call comes, we need you to come back in, we can’t read the copy of your driver’s license. Finally though, success: an offshore bank account, address: (Bank), Port Vila, Vanuatu.
I head out the dirt road to the land and there’s a commotion ahead. As I round a big bend I see a pickup truck, completely smashed, upside down, wheels still spinning. I skid to a stop and my stomach tightens, I expect to see corpses and gore. Instead four Aussie twenty-somethings squirm out one by one, the youngest is chattering and sobbing and hiding the shakes but otherwise they’re unhurt (roll bar). The driver formulates his story line right away: “I wasn’t going too fast. I wasn’t going too fast. I wasn’t going too fast” (yes you were, mate, by definition). The truck is hissing and there’s a brief panic, fears of a Hollywood-style detonation, but the badge on the back says Diesel so things calm down. Pretty soon the usual crew of locals show up, we flip over the smashed steed, wow getting it going is completely out of the question, how in the hell did they survive this? A few minutes later they seem sorted so I flee the scene.
Today’s task at the land is to bust up some ornery rocks in the power and water trench with a rented jackhammer. Let’s see, I had laparoscopic hernia surgery in Sydney September 23, what’s today, October 10? No worries, should be fine by now, no? Great way to test drive the new plumbing anyway, a vigorous gut-busting workout while Mike Tyson pummels Hey! exactly that part of my body. In a few places the hammer kicks back at me extra hard. I’ve hit steel, rusted underground remnants of installations built here during World War Two. Two million G.I.s passed through the New Hebrides on their mission to annihilate Tojo’s maniacs. I pause to reflect for a moment, seeing my grandfather’s 1942 tax dollars at work, staring up at me after 70 peaceful years underground. They paid cash for their just war, and now these small reminders surface to tell a tale, if only someone would listen. A jagged steel finger points skyward, and I imagine an admonishment: “…you guys are really screwing up…you guys are really screwing up…” But all that is so very far away from this place, this happy place so unsuited to all that political pessimism I seem to be so susceptible to.
I’ve always appreciated digging into the earth as a way of understanding and connecting with a place. In Arizona, I dug up an ancient Indian granite corn grinder in our yard (while planting corn!) that we still have. Here in Narpow I stopped the backhoe driver time and again when fossil specimens worthy of oohs and ahhs on any Manhattan mantelpiece were uncovered, then rolled and crushed like, well, just more ordinary rocks. Some were three feet across. The driver and his assistant gave me the same look you would give a guy scurrying to collect chunks of concrete at the corner of Broadway and Lexington Avenue.
The ground in the Narpow area is the uplifted river valley of the Teouma River, the largest river on the island. It’s the best agricultural land around, a broad plain bounded by palmy escarpments on both sides and metres-thick black volcanic soil. About 3 kilometres away is an archaeological site with remnants from the Lapita people, the largest such site in the Pacific. A Frenchman I hope to meet stumbled on them while digging a new pond for his freshwater prawn farm (if the gate is open on a Friday I’m told you can buy armloads of them for a pittance). The Lapita originated in Taiwan (some say southern China) and lived here 3000 years ago. They’d arrived, lived, and disappeared long before the current Melanesians got here in their canoes 1500 years ago. There’s a distinctive Lapita pottery style, simple and lovely, earthen reds and whites with raised dots and geometric designs. For some reason all the skeletons they find are headless, and while I’m looking forward to visiting the site someday, today I would prefer not to jackhammer into any pelvises other than my own, thank you very much.
I decide I’ve had enough of the Sing-Sing routine (rock breaking), so I get in the truck (which starts) and head out in a “let’s see where this road goes” mood. Kilometres of deserted beach later I see three “pickaninnies” splashing in a lagoon; I stop 100 or so metres away and listen for their laughter. They spy me eventually and wave furiously, so I wave back and do a little jig for them, legs akimbo. Their squeals of delight carry on the wind, reach me, and then blow away. How many moments are we allowed just as perfect as this one.
Time to return the infernal tool so I scoot into town and give them their jackhammer back, good riddance. An ad comes on the truck radio for a local store (imagine the echo chamber) “We gat evryting yu need! Microwave oven, light bulb, pots and pans, disinfection cabinet…” WTF is that I wonder. Next up is a report about a man who was convicted of murder by black magic on one of the islands. A lengthy discussion follows, they talk about how in this modern world we don’t believe in such superstitions, but in this particular case it was just so obvious that it was black magic that killed the victim that the verdict stands. They take their sorcery seriously here. Some friends are building a Yoga/wellness/healing retreat and once word got out that there was a competing magic coming to town the local sorcerers and witches responsible for their area started aiming powerful spells at the place. Tongues were wagging furiously on both sides, surely a showdown of some unknown kind was coming. This would be a collision of energies, willowy French expat lovelies and their Gaias and chakras versus a darker, deeper, and I suspect much more powerful vibe. To be continued…
I’d bought a used Nissan pickup truck in Los Angeles sight unseen on “the internets” and it had supposedly arrived in the harbor. I had to buy a truck in America instead of Australia because they drive on the right side here. For about a decade, though, when the New Hebrides were jointly controlled by the French and the British under something called The Condominium, they each drove on their respective “correct” sides. Great, two people who hate each other continually poised for head-ons with both sides always in the right, must have been good fun. (BTW thanks Gabe for checking the truck out for me and driving it to the dock in L.A., you get a free ride in it when you visit, ha ha.)
I turn up at the dock for my niufela (new fellow) truck and they hand me a whopper of a bill, almost 20% of the cost of the vehicle. Charges are listed for: Customs Clearance Fee; Delivery Order Fee; Stevedoring Charges General; Government Toll Tax; Wharf Unpack Fee; Quarantine Fee; Attend by Customs Fee and I probably missed a few. I start moaning to the freight guys, eventually one of them lowers his voice and says I need to ask for a “special meeting”. Ah, OK. I’m told to “go see Mr. Tony” in Parliament House on the third floor “and bring him sumting”. So I rock on up with two large lattes and assorted pains au chocolat (is this enough?) to Mr. Tony’s office. Roll cameras, Take One. Mr. Tony is Jabba-esque, and I consider the camo jacket and black boots a particularly nice touch (at least there are no machine guns around in this peaceful nation). “Wat yu want!” he barks, instantly impatient with me. “Mi already have toomas coffee, wat yu needem?” I have to think fast before he encases me in bureaucratic carbonite. I quickly consider my next move: chagrin, perhaps? Defiance? Supplication? I decide on “Goofy and Harmless”, and happily he caves right away, grabs my forms, says “Why they chargem Stevedore and Wharf together? Dat not right.” We’re on the same side now, holding back a tide of intransigence by unnamed and incompetent others. With a stroke of his pen he cuts the charges by 20% and then seizes the pastries, so I dissolve backwards through the doorway, suppressing a grin.
That evening I’m invited with Therese (the French realtor who sold me the land), her American partner James (former Oakland A’s first baseman) and her brother Loic to go to a ranch outside town for drinks and snacks. We bounce through the jungle, at the limit of what her Toyota Hi-Lux 4WD truck can handle, especially with nonchalant James behind the wheel telling stories that seem to require both hands. James has retained some impressive hand-eye skills which he uses for several last-minute saves. We open and close a few cattle gates and arrive to see Therese’s friend Odile’s wonder of a…well I’m not really sure how to start describing it. JRR Tolkein…plus Apocalypse Now…plus Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test…plus original Tarzan. Yeah, that’s about it, it’s a collection of homemade jungle houses with bouncy bamboo floors, spiralling up a banyan tree that is gigantesque, 200+ feet tall and 100+ feet wide, hundreds of roots trailing to the ground, with a staircase winding up through them and a thatched bedroom perched at the top 60 feet off the ground. The middle of the tree at ground level has a natural…space maybe 20 feet high, and there’s an open stone pit in it with a fire blazing and some seats, torches and candles everywhere, where’s Yoda. Odile is a bit Tolkein herself with a fantastical worldview, she and husband Eric spent 23 years sailing around the world until they finally stopped here in Vanuatu because, when I ask, she replies “c’est le meilleur endroit du monde” (it’s the best place in the world). They built the treehouses themselves with some helpers, the structure is mangrove wood which once dried will not take a nail of any kind it’s so tough. Odile waves us in and we stumble through the dark jungle. She mutters about how she’s trying to cultivate the phosphorescent mushrooms to light the footpath (I’ve seen them myself so I believe her), one of many ongoing projects.
The evening progresses, getting livelier and livelier as the wine flows and the French enjoy their favourite pastime, conversation. Odile talks about the adventure of dreaming up and creating this extraordinary…place. The locals have followed her progress with awe: they ask “but aren’t you afraid of the Lisepseps?” The Lisepseps are the local race of tiny forest people, with huge wild hair and glowing red eyes, you can see them once in a while if you turn your head fast enough, and apparently they are very mischievous and just love banyan trees. Odile is a bit of a gnome herself but the power of her narrative soon wins me over, and through great gasps of green smoke she recounts tales of surviving tsunamis in Tahiti and whale attacks in Kamchatka. Currently she’s trying to learn to speak Thai… “tous les mots sont ecris comme du joli spaghetti” (all the words are written like beautiful spaghetti). I’m sceptical and call her bluff, asking her how she would say “hello how are you” and she says “salaam aleikum!” so we both convulse with laughter, what a great evening.
Tonight it’s James’s Welcome Back party at the cowboy bar, they’re planning a game of Chickenshit Bingo. The subject in question is placed in a big wire cage with squares on the floor, if she poops on your square, you win! Yes yes yes, my house will get built, no worries, in the meantime there’s a moveable feast called Vanuatu and boy am I hungry.
End transmission for now.