Sunday, July 24, 2016

The White Man

“The white man, he drinks water from a plastic bottle! Humph! We get our fresh water from the mountain rivers.” I was sitting in on a health and hygiene seminar that was presented to the women as one of many electives during the week-long Presbyterian Women’s Conference at the village church. After he spoke the words, he caught himself, chuckled, and explained in English what he was trying to convey to the women - that they were fortunate to live here with such fresh water to drink. I understood his point, and thoroughly agreed. Didn’t every plastic water bottle sold in the US boast of “fresh spring water” or “pure mountain water”? Not to mention the squared bottles of South Pacific’s own packaged “Fiji” water that lined every BP station’s refrigerated shelves! But it was “the white man” that piqued my interest and would continue to rattle around in my thoughts throughout our time here.

“They just came to our islands and stuck a flag in the ground, claiming it suddenly belonged to France or Britain. Did they not see our homes? Did they realize our islands were already claimed… by us?” The older woman sat on the grass with her ankles crossed, a plate of steaming taro root, rice, and manioc bread (läp läp) in her lap lap (sorry, couldn’t resist). I’d plopped down beside Jennifer (her dummied down tourist name, I’m sure) to say hello. She’d become a quick friend days before when she’d led us up and down 3 mountains, through 8 rivers, and along slick footpaths on the 4 hour hike from church. Now, she always greeted us warmly, and I clung to her in a sort of new-kid-at-school way. The woman was seated next to Jennifer, and surprised me with her clear English and extensive knowledge about the history of these islands. I sat fascinated as she talked of the battles between France and Britain over this land, the enslaving of the native people, and the pride the Ni-Vanuatu had in reclaiming independence in 1980. I say reclaiming, because before the “white man” came along, independence was already theirs. I asked how the independence was won, imagining bloody battles such as the American Revolution or a better comparison maybe - the Trail of Tears. But she shook her head. “Just meetings with the chiefs.” Huh. These ‘cannibalistic, custom-keeping savages’ obviously had been underestimated. “You mean they didn’t war?” She said that the chiefs got together and organized a meeting with ‘the white man’ to petition to become an independent country. Now, don’t misunderstand, between the time the British and French came poking their flags in the volcanic Vanuatu soil and Vanuatu had its very own flag to fly, blood was shed, dignity was taken, sandalwood and resources were stripped, power was abused. But the chiefs of the villages that dot these 60 islands managed to come together and form a united front against the superpowers that were joint-governing them. Britain and France had formed separate governments, separate ruling languages, separate flags, separate currencies, separate postage stamps, and separate educational systems. (info from “Getting Stoned with Savages” by J. Maarten Troost) The effects of this tug of war can still be heard when walking from one English-speaking village to a nearby French-speaking one. Their dialect depending on whether Presbyterian English or French Catholic missionaries established the church there.

I took the opportunity to also ask her about the recent introduction of the cell phone and internet to village life. Was it a good thing, bad thing, or a bit of both? “Bad. All bad,” she said with a scowl. Then she told me how the phones and texting connect the teens too easily and bring things to them that tempt them. She spoke about how this new technology has increased the number of teen mothers and orphaned babies who must be cared for by aunts or mothers of the young women. I nodded knowingly, recalling conversations and concerns of moms in the US about precisely the same things. With more access to bandwidth and data, though, the American teens now sent explicit photos to each other on Snapchat or posted reputation-crushing videos on Youtube or Facebook.

As I lay in bed that night, my mind meandered through the recent sound bytes. Was ‘the white man’ like those cell phones? Only bringing destruction and immorality and temptation and greed? A recent blog post by my friend, Deanne, on SV Exodus, entitled “Generosity vs. Charity” further muddied the waters - did ‘the white man’ think he was bettering the island people? Did the island folks need bettering? Did they require progress? Did they need religion? Did they need help at all? With the exception of religion and medical aid, I would have to say no, and I know many people who would argue those two exceptions.

Then the rivers of thought deepened further… I am ‘the white man’. My ancestors were ‘the white man’. When I step ashore on these islands, what do they see? A threat? An annoyance? A handout? Another person coming to tell them how to live? I sincerely hope that I enter these islands with absolute respect and a clear desire to learn about their lives and culture and families, not an arrogant attitude of needing to help them or change them. Just a listening ear and my own story to share.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Down by the River

Author: Sarah
Date: June 30, 11:45am Vanuatu Time
Location: Aneityum
Conditions: Partly cloudy, 22C, 10-12ks SE

It was a new place for us, yet in many ways felt very familiar as we walked along the village footpaths on the Saturday morning after we arrived in Aneityum, Vanuatu. After months in first world New Zealand, we were suddenly plopped down in the remote Pacific Islands again. Time seemed to sludge to a halt. The tropical air was heavy with mist, alighting the skies with spontaneous rainbows more vivid than any we'd seen, and more complete in their arc from the sea and all the way back to the sea. From the shore wafted the smell of cooking fires, a sure sign that we were back in the islands.

Our first day ashore led to many friendly greetings, one of which would lead also to a quick friendship and many unforgettable experiences. We met Christopher and his family as he was tending his cassava crop just off the village footpath. After introductions, we found out that there would be a church service in the southernmost village the next day, and he asked if we could join him in going. To get there would mean a 'two hour hike' or a spirited longboat ride around the shoreline in the open sea. In the end, we decided to try the boat ride. Mark wanted to help carry any church goers, too, and said he'd bring our dinghy as well.

Back on board we looked at the satellite maps to get an idea of what exactly we'd signed up for. The village was 10 km away and we would be battling the same heavy seas we'd dealt with during our passage, only this time in a small fiberglass longboat and our inflatable dinghy! It would definitely be an adventure!

The next morning, Christopher greeted us on shore with a bag full of fresh baked bread and another full of mandarins, red bananas, and papaya. Mark's mom, the kids and I hopped in Christopher's longboat, and two local boys hopped in the dinghy with Mark, excited to ride in a "rubber boat". Turns out, Christopher's family had opted to stay home and miss the church service. Soon, we would better understand why.

Once outside the protection of the reef, the seas were ominous. I clutched Michael closely beside me with one hand and clung to the edge of the boat with the other as the boat climbed each mountain of water. Church started early for me- prayers silently, but fervently running through my head with every threatening swell.

More scary than our ride however, was watching Mark in the "rubber boat" with the two boys. The dinghy skidded up to the crests of the waves and then smacked down the other side. Each time, the boys would lift off the seats and slam back down, holding tightly to the line on the bow. My prayers couldn't come fast enough to keep up with all the fears that were racing through my mind.

I started to sing silly songs with Michael in an attempt to distract him (okay, really to distract me!) from the situation. "I'm Henry the Eighth, I am, Henry the Eighth I am, I am. I got married to the widow next door. She's been married seven times before…"

Mark's mom was having her own troubles. Each time we'd slam over a wave, her tailbone would painfully meet the hard wooden bench. (Sitting through the church service would not be easy for her!) This wasn't the casual trip to church that we were accustomed to, but in a strange way I felt more connected to the people here having experienced it and so grateful for the expert driving of Christopher.

The most challenging part of the trip was yet to come, though. We entered the bay and my eyes widened at the sight of rolling waves crashing into shore. How in the world would we get out? Would we even make it to church?

Again, Christopher's experience driving the longboat paid off. We wove through black lava rocks and onto the black sand beach, riding a crashing wave into our landing spot. Quickly, we scrambled to hop out at his instruction and helped him push his boat up further onto the beach using round buoys under the bow to roll it up the sand. In all of the excitement, I hadn't seen Mark's landing. By the time I looked back, I saw him knee deep in the water holding onto the dinghy while waves crashed behind him. He was soaked, and we hadn't thought to bring a spare set of church clothes.

Just when I thought we'd all be true salty sailors throughout the day, Christopher said we'd go to 'the river' to rinse off. Dripping wet, we walked though the village to a large estuary where it seemed all the kids had been sent to wash up for church. Mark was diving in while the rest of us waded into the cool, fresh water among the kids rinsing suds from their hair.

I'd recently heard Vanuatu described as paradise, and with the lush forests and gardens along with the many rivers for fresh water, it seemed they have everything they need here. When we were in Tonga, we'd met Red Cross workers who were camped on the wharf manning the water makers that provided the only fresh water to the villages during the severe drought. In the Tuomotus, sandy atolls in French Polynesia, they struggled to grow fresh produce in the shallow, dry ground. But here, food and water were available in plenty. Grapefruit (like the pomplemousse we'd feasted upon in the Marquesas after a 19-day passage), papaya, bananas, mandarines, leafy greens and root vegetables grow both wild and in carefully kept gardens.

The church service took place outside with a blue tarp flapping about above our heads to keep us dry and an honored wooden bench set along the outskirts of woven mats. The village church was not big enough inside to house the three villages who were gathering this particular Sunday for a youth celebration that happened every third month. Hymns were sung alternately in English and then Bislama, the local common language among all the Ni-Vanuatu people. While individual islands, and often individual villages will have different dialects, the Bislama language is also spoken fluently in order for them to communicate within their country.

Due to the mixed British and French historical ownership, Bislama (also called Pigeon English) is a mix of English and French with a unique tonal quality similar to other island languages. In comparing my English Bible with the "Baebol Long Bislama", I enjoyed comparing the words and sounds. Church in these islands is such an integral part of the culture, and a wonderful way to integrate into the community. Sure, it can be long and way outside our comfort zone, but it is clear how much it means to the Ni-Vanuatu and instantly we are embraced as friends.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

First Impressions

Author: Mark
Date: June 20, 9am NZT
Location: 20 14.28 S - 169 46.68 E -- Aneityum, Vanuatu
Conditions: 10-20kts from the west, mostly cloudy skies with squalls

We arrived to Vanuatu Friday around noon. Needless to say we were happy to be out of the squashy seas and in a calm anchorage. The first impression of Vanuatu could only be good given the contrast of sloppy seas to a calm anchorage. Like most new islands we visit, we are eager to find ways to connect with the locals. We find that our experiences are much richer when we spend time walking the villages, talking to people and making new friends. It takes a lot of energy to put yourself into extrovert mode in foreign cultures, but the rewards can be amazing.

Looking back to our earlier sailing days (Caribbean, Brazil, Columbia), we were much more focused on meeting other like minded sailors than really connecting with the locals. That was a nice comfort zone. Sail in packs to an anchorage, fly your club burgee, get a happy hour on the calendar and discuss boat projects, weather, and fishing. Don't get me wrong, we still enjoy being with fellow sailors, we just find ourselves much more focused on learning and living with local people in villages. Their life if rich in many ways. We are learning more and more that connecting with others in different cultures is challenging and sometimes uncomfortable. Some islands and countries make connecting much easier, and Vanuatu is so far one of the best. Let me explain.

We've been here 48 hours. The first 24 hours we met the local school teacher, the policeman, a couple of the church elders, a local villager came up to us and gave us fresh fruit from their garden while some village kids played with our kids on the beach AND we were invited to attend a special church service for youth in another village about 15km away. Whew! That was a busy day. Little did we know that the next day - Sunday, we were going to be in for a real treat. A day we would not soon forget. From a near capsize of our dinghy with a breaking wave, a bath in a river with villagers before church, and a 3.5 hr hike through the jungle back to the village -- we have memories that have left a lasting impression. Stay tuned when Sarah gives you a look into the amazing day we had with the villagers of Vanuatu!

PS

We only have Sat connection, so we can only share one pic. When we get better connectivity we will upload more!