Delving into politics

As usual the media has got it wrong, the Greek crisis is not about people protesting because they want more handouts and bailouts…they’re protesting because they don’t want more bailouts. They don’t want their government and the banking elite stealing any more of their money, taking on more debt just to make sure billionaire investors don’t lose a little money (the latest package is $5 billion in debt and $48 billion in interest). This is a battle for democracy itself in the very cradle of the place that invented the idea 2000 years ago: on one side of the barricades are the ruling elite, police, and bankers, on the other side are the people. A must-read article by a Greek who actually knows what he’s talking about:

people power

Nassim Taleb authored a book about “Black Swans”, unimaginable events that regularly torpedo all previous thinking and theories, whether in science or certainly in finance. He was asked whether the Greek riots could be called a “black swan”. He replied “No…I think the real Black Swan is not that they’re rioting in Greece, but that they’re not rioting in London and New York.”

While I’m on a roll, let me say that I think there’s a simple term that describes the Obama Administration (for whom I had happily voted). That term is: morally bankrupt. The only way the American people have a say as to whether their nation goes to war is via Congress, luckily that power is not supposed to reside with some sort of imperial (tyrannical? crazy?) president. Right now at last count the U.S. is lobbing bombs at no fewer than 5 different sovereign nations, with 30-40 U.S. missions per day bombing Libya. But neither Congress nor that inconvenient group known as “the people” have approved these actions. That’s because Obama insists that these wars, all the killing, crushing, and destroying of innocent people (last weekend it was babies in Tripoli), do not meet the definition of “combat”. Apparently blithely bombing other nations at will is no longer the same as going to war with those nations. Obama says that’s because the launching of these killer robot missiles,  antiseptically done by some pimply-faced youth in a bunker in Virginia, does not put said youth at risk, and since his life is not at risk, it’s not called  a “war”.

Morally bankrupt pretty well describes that reasoning IMO.

Of course the real problem comes when the other side gets killer robot missiles of their own. Maybe they’ll decide Ben Bernanke or the mayor of San Francisco or Obama himself are bad and must die. That’s when it really gets interesting, we’ll see how we like it when we get a taste of our own medicine.

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Photo of Earth from 3.4 billion miles away

As it left the solar system the Voyager spacecraft took this pic of Earth. We are the tiny white dot:

look up and smile!

Modern computer chips and displays render something like 256 million different colors. Zoomed in, our Earth, with all our hopes and dreams, all the people, all the creatures, all the geology and history and philosophy, reduced to exactly three pixels of varying hues. Nice.

what color is your parachute?

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A jungle road

For weeks Jimmy has been talking about his father coming to visit from Tanna and how much he’s looking forward to meeting me. Finally the date arrives, he’s coming over on a cruise ship (they sell seats in steerage class to local ni-Vans) and he’s bringing some yams from his garden and some special kava for me. Dad, I’m told, is an important man in his village, he’s the deacon of the church and gives captivating sermons that are a mix of traditional tribal beliefs, mainstream Christianity, and some special aspects of their Seventh Day Adventist faith. Among other things, they believe in necromancy (communicating with the dead); they think if you eat animal flesh you will behave like that animal; and at night they wear a “cold, wet abdominal bandage” to help cure “the secret vice” (masturbation). I’m looking forward to a lively discussion and maybe learning a thing or two.

We head into town to pick up Dad, I drop Jimmy off first to do a few errands. When I pick him up again I can see he’s already into the kava, he floats into the truck with a smile and a dreamy, faraway look in his eyes and starts smoking one cigarette after another. A few of his friends pile in the back and I’m directed to the place where Dad is waiting. After twisting and turning our way past ramshackle shacks, wild-haired pickaninnies, and the usual montage of rubbish and tropical greenery we arrive at a small kava bar. Jimmy assures me they have “extra strong Tanna kava” so I drink down a shell and wait for Dad to appear. (Damn, Jimmy was right, the kava is extra strong…) Jimmy offers me a dodgy-looking piece of cooked liver, nice to put something (anything) in your mouth after the disgusting kava root brew.

Dad arrives and we shake hands and smile…but Dad has no English, no French, and no Bislama whatsoever, just his local ooga-booga dialect. No worries, Jimmy translates as we head across town. Jimmy says Dad wants to get out of Vila, it’s too noisy and busy after Tanna village life, so Jimmy tells him he can stay with one of his mates out in Eretap. I wince when I hear this because I’ve been on the Eretap road recently and it’s a shuddering thuddering mess.

We talk while we drive, Dad thanks me for being so good to his son, how much it means to him, and asks me to build a house for him on Tanna (no matter how much you give them they always seem to want more). Dad says to Jimmy “…this is a very kind man. Tell him I love him…” which of course just melts me. After a few kilometres of truly awful dirt road in the fading light, Jimmy spies a tiny opening in the wall of jungle. “Turn here” he says, pointing to a car-sized hole in the impenetrable riotous mass of bamboo and vines. My headlights barely pick out a gap but I’m game, up we go.

I’ve got brand-new offroad tires, a strong new Nissan 4WD truck with a big engine, but within 20 feet I can already see this is going to be interesting. I ask Jimmy “are you sure this is a road?” but a glance over at his glassy-eyed smile tells me the answer, he wouldn’t  know what a good road looked like if he saw it, right now life is just a fuzzy, warm, bemusing, befuddling adventure.

We thwack past trees and shrubs , my headlights brightening a tiny patch of black greenery. As we crawl along I’m cataloguing the varieties of damage to my truck (“that root can take out my undercarriage, that branch is gonna smash my headlight…”)  I’m in 4WD Lo but my tire treads have filled already with slick jungle mud. The “road” steepens, I make a first attempt which ends when we start slipping backwards, wheels slinging mud everywhere. We slide into a burrao tree and I wince helplessly as it slowly creases the side of the truck: rear fender SCREEEEEE rear door CREEEE driver door REEEEE front fender EEEE Thump! Shit this isn’t funny anymore, time to regroup. I look up and through a small gap in the jungle blackness I spot The Big Dipper, turned upside down, flat against the horizon. It’s the first time I’ve seen The Dipper since I left America 5 years ago, and it hits home just how very, very far away I am at this particular moment in time.

I shake Jimmy and ask him “how much further?”, he swims to the surface and after a pause replies “about 5 kilometres”. “Sorry Jimmy” I reply, “we’re stuck”. A conference with his Dad follows, (“abbidy babbidy snabbidy skabbidy blabbidy”), I pick out the word “nakamal” which means “village meeting hut”. Dad will walk the remaining 5km in the pitch blackness, picking his way through the jungle and then asking for somewhere to sleep if/when he arrives. No water, no flashlight, no raincoat, no money, no worries. Meanwhile Jimmy, I, and the rest of the motley crew will somehow push and cajole and grind our way backwards down through the black jungle tunnel on our way back to “civilization”, or at least back to a passable road.

Anyone who says there’s no more adventure left in the world doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

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How I feel about Vanuatu…

Must-see short video by Irish surf photographer Mickey Smith (turn up the sound and go full screen):

“…fires of happiness, and waves of gratitude, for everything that brought us to that point on Earth, at that moment in time, to do something worth remembering, with a photograph, or a scar… I feel genuinely lucky to hand on heart say I loved what I did, and though I may never be a rich man, if I live long enough I’ll certainly have a tale or two for the nephews, and I dig the thought of that…”

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Richard Branson knows how to live

Fresh air, exercise, adventure sports…

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Lagoon digging etc.

Using a 22-ton excavator to dig out a lagoon/swimming pool, no Environmental Impact Statements required. Flushes at high tide, already got plenty of fish and a small octopus. The excavator makes the place look like a war zone, I’m already remediating with new local plantings. Gonna be great.

22-ton excavator making a mess

plenty of work to make it look natural again

pretty inviting...(no)

already clearing up at high tide

kitchen sink

making windows, fixtures, cabinets etc. from scratch takes forever


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Another Bislama lesson

Building site with approx location of house

Bislama Lesson:

Cancer  –  Rabis mit (rubbish meat)

Country & Western music – Singsing blong kaoboe

Vegetables  –  Eni  kaen cabis (any kind of cabbage)

Rectangle – Gat fokona

Global Warming – Fasin blong wol i stap kam hot sloslo, we baembae i save mekem se long fiuja solwata i save kam antap mo draonem sam aelan (the fashion of the world where it becomes hot slowly, which by-and-by will make in the future the saltwater come on top and drown some islands)

One of the great joys of my time in Vanuatu has been discovering the Ni-Van people, their cheerful disposition, the easy and honest camaraderie they share with me and with each other, and the beautiful simplicity of their outlook have all been wonderful lessons for me. This simplicity is sometimes a two-edged sword, especially when it runs up against the complicated ways and desires of Western whitefelas like me. They often puzzle at whitefela and wonder why he wants things done a certain way. Why do you want those pieces of wood to be even? Why do you care if the roof is straight so long as it doesn’t leak? (and even if it does leak a bit, who cares? The rain is warm and nice…)

Sometimes these puzzling whitefella desires get interpreted too literally. One expat bought live chickens at the market and instructed her housegirl to “pluck them and put them in the fridge”. Upon returning she found the chickens in the fridge as requested… featherless  (ouch!) and shivering with the cold. Another expat decided to bring over his beloved Porsche, he welded a 5mm steel plate on the bottom to protect against the shocking Vanuatu roads (some potholes are so large if you went in they might never hear from you again). He asked his gardener to “wash the car and don’t forget to wash underneath this time”. The gardener took the initiative, asked his mate to come help, and the owner returned to find his car upside down on its roof… as requested the bottom was spotless.

This simple Ni-Van outlook has also meant they are very gullible, and they have a long history of being tricked by fast-talking foreigners. The Chinese said they wanted to build a fish-packing plant which would employ hundreds of Ni-Vans, but could they also get fishing rights for their longline fleet? No problem…but when the boats arrived, they took the fish but never seemed to come ashore since everything went straight back to China for processing…

One particularly gullible episode happened 15 years ago. An enterprising Indian guy came to Vanuatu and befriended the Prime Minister, to demonstrate his bona fides he donated two large garbage trucks with his name on the sides. Pretty soon he and the PM were best mates so he proposed a very exclusive deal. It seems he was in possession of “the world’s largest ruby”, no you can’t have a look, it’s hidden somewhere in Port Vila for security reasons (a fuzzy photo of the rock in question was available).  Our Indian proposed that Vanuatu issue $175 million in government bonds, collateralized by the ruby, and the Indian promised he would take the proceeds and “build lots of roads and airports and such”. The scheme gained momentum and was nearing final approval, (plenty of bribes having been paid) until finally the expat editor of the local paper got wind and ran articles accusing the PM of selling Vanuatu to a swindler. At the last minute people started asking questions about the Indian, it turned out he had just finished a long prison term in Hong Kong for smuggling so the scheme fell apart. The PM sent some thugs to beat on the editor, but soon there was a new PM.

Simple, gullible, kind. The kindest is Jimmy, he and I have a real bond, mates for life after what we’ve been through together, and he’s the only person I know in the world who says “you must love everybody” and really means it. Everybody loves him right back. His simple desire to please, though, has a flip side to it. We were cutting roof rafters, long expensive pieces of wood that you don’t want to screw up. We were on either end of the board, I asked “does it reach?” and Jimmy replied “yes Mark”. I came down from the ladder to find the board was cut 50mm too short, shit. I asked “Jimmy, why did you say it was OK?” and he replied “because I didn’t want you to be sad…”  The amazing thing is that right away he proceeded to do it again a second time. Infuriating, but how could I possibly be angry?

Sam is another one of the work “boys”, in his 40’s, Sam is an herbal healer of some repute back on his home island of Santo. He’s constantly showing me plants and trees and telling me recipes for making medicines of various kinds. He’s in great demand for his secret “men’s protection” cream, apparently it “seals off the penis” so you don’t get hepatitis or HIV if you go with a woman. Sam and I had a long chat about world affairs, he’s quite up to date and very negative about “all the wars that America starts”. We talked about that for a while, and then he asked earnestly “when will America send in Rambo? He would win all these wars right away…” The other work boys all nod and murmur in full agreement. Good question…

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