It never seems to be a problem for the locals to keep their stomachs full, reach to your right and there’s a banana or a mango, reach to your left and there’s a yam or some taro. I tried “lap-lap” which is an all-purpose name for “stuff steamed in a banana leaf”. Sometimes it’s manioc paste, sometimes it’s taro or yam, usually flavoured with coconut, and it’s quite good, chewy, a bit sweet, lots of flavour and starch with a charcoally/banana-y taste. Sometimes they mix it with some nice bat meat but for now I’ll pass on that, thanks.
The work crew boys were hungry at the site so Eric wandered around the property and came back with three kinds of leaves, it’s called “mawewa” which just means jungle salad. Then he scampered up a coconut tree and came down with some tiny cocos, the flesh inside was soft and sweet and he wrapped the leaves around for a taste treat. Crunchy and greeny, soft, with a very good interesting mineral-y taste, yum.
Later that day Eric lets me join him as he hunts for dinner. Let me describe Eric first. He has been in Efate just nine months, he comes from a tiny village on the far side of Mt. Yasur in Tanna, which is to say he lived a hard 4-hour 4WD journey from “town”, and “town” in this case was Lenakel, which is two small concrete block buildings with no roofs and local women sitting around bartering melons and yams. So in fact Eric left the Stone Age just nine months ago, all the cars and people and activity here in our crazy world still dazzle him. He has a slight build, but I honestly believe he may be three times as strong as I am. We were moving boulders and there was one I could barely roll, Eric squared up to it, grunted, and picked the friggin thing up. I told him there’s a sport called “wrestling” and if he ever wanted to win a gold medal we could get him a coach for a few months and he’d be a shoo-in for the top podium. No need for technique, just snap the other guy in half, grab the upper bit and press the shoulderblades to the mat.
Time to hunt, and Eric has brought his homemade slingshot, strips of bicycle tire and a few less-than-round pebbles for ammo. His demeanour changes entirely, suddenly I’m watching Paleolithic Man using millions of years of hard-won knowledge and instinct to fill his belly. He’s bent from the waist down, stalking, and he makes me stay 20 paces behind. I watch him move through the jungle as though he’s some other species, blending in and advancing silently, articulated knots of ebony muscle at work. He stops abruptly and turns himself into a statue. Time passes. He raises his slingshot at that sloooowest of paces that should just look like a branch settling in the breeze. The tension mounts as he pulls back the sling… summons the “aiming gods”… and then Whack! he has a nice fat bird for the dinner pot. It’s a Vanuatu Emerald Dove, Chalcophaps indica, iridescent red and green, gorgeous and quite abundant. I feel like I’ve just seen Australopithecus in action in real life, what a rare treat.
Jimmy is my other main work crew man, also Man Tanna, and I think he must be some kind of celebrity back on Tanna because anytime we go anywhere in the truck he’s hooting and waving to people he knows. They always stop, shake hands, visit a while, and every single time it descends into fits of giggles about some shared joke. Then if it’s a really good one they exchange that ni-Van secret handshake where one guy puts out a bent finger and the other clasps it between two knuckles and makes a “pop”. How I long for connectedness like they all have, always laughing and talking and touching and joking, they give me a new understanding of the term “social fabric”. Little by little I’m chipping away at their natural reticence when it comes to whitefellas and my efforts to learn Bislama are helping too.
Neither Jimmy nor Eric has ever driven a car, in fact it was never even in the realm of their wildest dreams that one day they would. They both ooh and ahh over my bigfela truck so finally I give in and ask Jimmy if he wants to try. We’re on a back road of a back road and there’s nothing to hit, so he slips into the seat, both bare feet working both pedals simultaneously. Whoa Nellie, we start at the beginning and I give a stern lesson on Driving 101 (or perhaps it’s Driving 001) and he seems to understand, he’s a careful type and a very good listener and learner. When he lets his foot off the brake and we get under way he gives a look of pure unadulterated human joy that I will take to my grave, not just childish delight but also his whole future seems to have changed, if somehow someday he could drive a truck like this then his life would be much bigger and brighter than he’d ever dared to imagine. No matter what ends up happening to my Vanuatu adventure it has all been worth it already for the moments like these.