Dear Dad and Mom,
(Experienced in third world living, my parents had expressed their concerns re: water quality and sharks in their last letter) . . . Sorry to disappoint you, but we never filter or boil our water, we regularly eat tomatoes and lettuce that has only been rinsed in tap water, and we swim as often as we can. We do occasionally use sunscreen and we always sleep under mosquito nets. This place is the creme de la creme of Third World postings for low-paid volunteers. Not only is it relatively safe and disease-free, we can easily afford the French wine that even the Lakatoro Co-op sells. Mind you, we've had to buy small jars of peanut butter since we beat the Australian Livestock Officer to the last large jar of Kraft (stale dated, of course).
Last week I drank kava with the Bishop (story related in the letter posted last week); today it was the Acting Prime Minister (PM had stroke while in Washington in February ; I'm sure it was in all the British Columbia papers). I guess all that is left is the Queen. The Acting PM is the local MP and Minister of Home Affairs (i.e. my boss), and has been in the area for the past three days inspecting "development" projects that were funded with his Member of Parliament's discretionary development fund. They range from boats to rainwater tanks to video machines. Did I mention that an election is scheduled soon? Maybe I shouldn't be so judgmental - the mechanics instructor at a vocational institute (a bush materials shed) that we visited today told me that he sometimes used the video machine's generator to power the electric welder. I was supposed to go on tour with the Minister on Wednesday, and then yesterday, but they kept leaving without me. I guess I should spend more time storianing with the bigwigs and less working in my office. He told me that yesterday I missed a ride in a big sailing canoe and later mentioned the kava drinking. Of course, I also missed getting home at 20:00, but if the cause was partying, it would have been worth it. In actuality, if today was an indication, I missed two valuable opportunities to learn the wants of various villages, and to see and be seen (I was one of the Minister's prime exhibits of what the Gov't is doing for the people).
At Leviamp, after inspecting the Vocational Institute and video machine w/ TV and generator, we were served lunch (ham spaghetti with purple yam on white rice - not bad, actually). After eating, we were discussing cash crops and I brought up kava. The conversation turned to kava drinking, the national sport - soccer runs a close second - and the Minister's Third Secretary started in on how, these days you could hardly get into a nakamal in Vila because of all the white men in them. He went on to say that all the embassy people rush to the nakamals every day right at 4:30. A few tongue-clicks issued forth from the group. Not only that, but they brought their wives! The clicks intensified. Sometimes, they even brought ni-Vanuatu women. A roar of clicks ensued, and "They break our customs!" was interjected. I felt that the time just wasn't ripe to mention that I had promised to take Holly to a nakamal on our next trip to Vila or that on my last trip to Vila, I had gone to a nakamal with a group of CUSO's and a ni-Vanuatu girlfriend. I ascribe their unusual openness to one of three possible explanations: (a)They didn't care what I thought, or (b)as a whiteman I didn't exist at the table, or (c)after hearing me speak for the past couple of days, they didn't think my Bislama was good enough to understand what they were saying, perhaps the more probable explanation. Tuesday, I was at a meeting with the Minister, where I was Keith's (the Local Government Council Secretary, my boss) big exhibit. Keith kept asking me to tell everyone all about the great things I was doing and all the great ideas I have (?). At least two of the local participants have never let on that they understand any English, so I started off in Bislama. The Minister asked me to speak English. And it was the first time that I'd felt confident speaking Bislama in front of a group!
I was also asked to come along on this afternoon's trip to a village a couple of kilometers south of here. The request was made after a fruitless search for a camera, and I was asked to bring mine to take a picture of the local soccer team (surely the fame of the Litzlitz Swallow Birds has reached Victoria) in the new uniforms (you guessed it - another development project) that the Minister was going to give them, so pardon me if I feel that my economic expertise wasn't the only basis of the invitation.
Litzlitz greeted us with a large banner assuring us that the village supported the Minister's party, and during the ceremony he was presented with an envelope to help the Vanuaaku Pati in the forthcoming election. No different from home, I guess, just more honest. The main event, actually, was the dedication of a rainwater collection tank - never mind you can tell by the patches that the thing is several years old. The ceremony was preceded by a welcome to everyone (the Minister's bodyguard received equal billing - so did I, so I guess I shouldn't have had so much trouble keeping my face straight). I snapped pictures through the whole thing, including a couple of the Minister with the team. I'd seen on the program (handwritten) that a kava ceremony was to follow, so when we all took our places inside the half-finished community hall (at least it was half-roofed because they had put up all the roofing iron that they owned since my last visit), I got ready to get some good pictures. Then a guy came down the bench handing out plastic cups, immediately followed by a guy with a teakettle pouring kava, everyone guzzled it down, and that was the ceremony.
. . . I'll describe the meal that followed, which I quite enjoyed. The entire village had, as per the usual custom here, lined up to shake our hands after we were all presented with leis upon our arrival. We all sat on mats around communal batches of laplap, ripped off pieces, dipped them in the central pool of cream, and ate them by hand. (I had a good picture of a woman making coconut cream in the traditional manner - squeezing it out of grated coconut in her hands.) There were also communal chicken halves that we ripped apart and ate. This meal occurs at any ceremony here, and I must have been here too long, because I've grown to like laplap (when served on the odd occasion - the locals eat it morning, noon, and night). It is grated carbohydrate (yam, banana, taro, kumala, etc.) mixed with coconut cream and maybe meat, wrapped in big leaves, and cooked on hot rocks. It's the bane of most expats' lives.
Afterwards, gifts to dignitaries were presented. In order of presentation (and attractiveness of gift), the Minister was given a carved and painted model outrigger canoe (kanu witem pikinini), the bodyguard got a woven tea tray with handles, the Third Secretary got a large floor mat, a Local Government Councilor got a fancy woven bag, I got a woven fan tastefully fringed with blue plastic baler twine, and the LGC Senior Executive Officer got a fan ringed with chicken feathers (I should have offered to trade). Then everyone lined up again to shake hands, and we departed.
About the entourage: the Third Secretary is the Minister's political executive assistant. The bodyguard is a BIG, ugly, mean-looking guy who really gave me the geological survey (that is, a stony stare) when I first walked up on Tuesday morning to say hello, but by today, I actually saw him smile and heard him say a few words. Having him along kind of gave me pause. I found him intimidating, but I got the impression that he wouldn't delay a professional or determined amateur (I never could detect that "telltale bulge"). If one assumed that there was some reason besides prestige for his presence, and given my lack of confidence in his abilities, could I count myself among the victims of any attack? Actually, I was probably in more danger from our mode of transport - the infamous "green truck" - speeding along dirt roads at 50 kph behind our police escort - a blue crewcab Toyota pickup with a flashing red strobe light on top that blinded me every time I glanced through the windshield; I don't know how the driver could see anything. We shared the road with a grand total of about 5 vehicles during the day. The LGC uses the Green Truck with glee to transport VIP's around - they figure it lends credence to their pleas for a new truck. It should, but I don't think the message gets through. At least the VIP always gets to sit in the "death seat" next to the driver. The rest of us get to toss around in the back in case of an accident. Our seats are benches along the sides of the back. Seatbelts? - let's get serious.
Actually, for a politician, the Minister is an OK guy. After the usual speech about how the LGC would have to pull up its own bootstraps and if we wanted something, why didn't we just ask, he seemed to listen to my ideas. The trouble with these guys is, just as at home, they don't want to admit that politicians come and go, but civil servants are forever. I expected the usual ministerial glad-handing, but he seemed genuinely friendly, to a reasonable point. A little more political sophistication here will take care of that. Just for fun, I asked him if the report I heard on BBC last night that Vanuatu had unceremoniously expelled two Libyans who showed up unannounced to start up an embassy was true, since it was identified as a "report from Vanuatu" and wasn't repeated this morning. (Vanuatu's relations with Libya are a real sensitive issue in this region. This week the Australian Foreign Minister flew to New Zealand for consultations after hearing that Libya was going to set up an embassy here. Vanuatu is walking a tightrope between showing everyone how independent their foreign policy is and actually letting the maniacs in. The local government-owned press and radio rarely report any substantial news like this.) Instead of inviting me to mind my own business or to leave the country, he actually gave what sounded like an honest answer - from a politician, yet! He told me that these two guys had turned up without credentials and Vanuatu had contacted their offices in Canberra and Tripoli to find out just who they were. He didn't think that they had been expelled, because he would have made the decision. I was amazed to deduce that he apparently wasn't in daily telephone contact with Vila. All this was in English (my attempt at subtlety). Then he gave a statement in Bislama to the rest of the people around to the effect that foreign policy was of no importance to people at the village level. There was general agreement, and to be honest, he's probably not too far off the mark, although only an aspiring suicide would express support for French nuclear testing in the same setting.
We were sitting on a bench in Leviamp's equivalent of a village square. Its a scene right out of South Pacific mythology - just behind us, a blacksand beach curved around for a couple of miles, interrupted only by stretches of rough lava with holes through which the surf spouted. Running down to the beach is green forest, and the water is blue. Of course, reality is slightly tarnished; nobody sets toe in the water because of the sharks, and Hurricane Uma broke the water pipe into town, so now all drinking water comes from springs along the river, which passes another village upstream. I knew we were getting the VIP treatment, because our water was served in glasses that still had the "Duralex" stickers on them.
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©S. Combs, 1987.