S. S. House Vol. 5

This is my first time working with steel, I’m using it in the foundation to strengthen the concrete and I’ve concluded that it’s nasty stuff, it pinches, it’s heavy, it’s expensive, very hard to cut, and in this climate especially near salt water it melts away really quickly. I head in to the hardware store and buy $1800 worth that I need delivered, they say “what about now, the driver will follow you there” so off we go. The driver brings his entire extended family along for the ride in the big truck, it’s an outing in the country and a chance to escape the stuffy warehouse for a while. We arrive on the site and 30 seconds later the steel is unloaded with the help of all the moms and sisters and cousins. We chat for a while, they want to know about me, my family, what am I doing here, do I like Vanuatu. One of the cousins points to a papaya tree and asks if she can have one, pretty soon it’s a papaya party in full swing, they’re singing along to the songs on the truck radio, laughing at my jokes, an hour of pure human fun and connection. Finally I convince them I have work to do and they ride off, smiles and waving til they’re out of sight.

Next day I need something at the same store so I head on over, I hear one of them shout “Mr. Mark Pey is in the store!” so they all come running and line up to shake hands, say hello, and revisit yesterday’s bonhomie. Margaret, the materfamilias, takes both my hands and won’t let go. She can’t work out how I can be here but my family has somehow stayed behind in Sydney. “Yu lonely, yu stay in Vanuatu, yu family, yu happy”.

The store itself is a wonder. Whatever the opposite of “merchandising” is, this is it, the operating principle is “we happen to have some of this stuff over here so let’s try and sell it”. Long rows of identical yellow Chinese welder’s goggles are followed by plastic grape outdoor lights; then big boxes of crucifixes; then huge industrial lathes; then diapers. We’re at the very fringes of the Great Machine That Makes Stuff, interesting to see what finds its way here and think about how and why. There’s another store in town simply called “Fresh Cargo”. This week they might have batteries; next week it might be sandals and tampons, the following week I see 20 kg bales of t-shirts. Miscellaneous stuff can be very useful out here and I’m learning that if you see it and you might need it you grab it.

I love languages and Vanuatu has a surfeit, there’s English, French, Bislama, and more than 100 local languages that are actively used. Bislama appeared when locals were shanghaied by whites to go to Australia to work on sugar cane plantations, workers needed a lingua franca to speak to each other so they borrowed from English and created one. When they returned to the islands it was very useful so it flourished and spread throughout the Pacific, from New Guinea to the Solomons, Fiji, and Noumea, in Papua it’s called “toktok pijin”.  It’s a highly practical tongue, with simplifications that make it easy to learn and be understood. The word “long” for example, is a kind of all-purpose preposition, and can mean with, to, at, from, in, of. So “long” as you put “long” in your sentences you’ll get that light of comprehension. The other one to use is “blong” which means “belong” and is used as a modifier. All birds are called “pigeon” so a seagull is “pigeon blong solwata” (pigeon who belongs in saltwater). Nouns for objects that are previously unknown are epic descriptions: a saw is “one fela sumting, hemi kakem wud, hemi go out hemi come back, hemi bruta blong tomiauk” (one fellow something, he eats wood, he goes out he comes back, he’s the brother of the tomahawk). A piano is “bigfela black box hemi got black tut hemi got white tut, yu killem small hemi singaout gud” (big fellow black box, he has black teeth he has white teeth, you hit him softly and he sings out good). A helicopter is “mixmaster blong Jesus Christ”, why not.  I’ve been having fun attempting Bislama phrases and it’s starting to work (with frequent hilarity on both sides).

There’s a simple reason that so many tongues grew up here, it’s because the guys in the next valley, sometimes less than a kilometre away, were your bitter enemies. We’re not talking garden variety rivalries, we’re talking “let’s go get one of those f@!&kers and have him for dinner!” I’m not a fan of missionaries and their mission but they did get the tribes to stop eating each other. They also taught them basic hygiene, how to dig a deep “bush toilet” and why to use it, wash your hands, etc. On the minus side, apart from the regular mind control tricks they also introduced the concept of shame, especially shame at being naked. Women are taught they should be ashamed unless they wear “basket blong titty”. I don’t know why they didn’t just decide that the ni-Van were beautiful just as God made them in the Garden of Eden, probably something to do with Eve and an apple and a snake, beats me.

Good going for now, wood arrives in a week and then visible above-ground progress should happen quickly. For anyone thinking about a “holiday with some work thrown in” (hint hint) then January looks like a good month, instead of a shovel or a pickaxe in your hands I promise it will be a saw or a paintbrush. BFN.

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