Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Treasure on Mystery Island

Mystery Island, Vanuatu
When we pulled into our first Vanuatu anchorage and the kids heard us talk about Mystery Island, their first question was, “Is it deserted?” A tradition began in the Caribbean, and has stuck. Anytime we’re near a deserted island, Mark will create a treasure hunt for the kids. Like sundowners, or Friday Family Night, this is something the kids make sure we remember. And with all traditions one starts, one should ensure it is one that can be perpetuated!

As parents, some of these traditions are thrust upon us by society. Who in the world thought of the tooth fairy? Seriously, staying up late to retrieve an old, crusty tooth from under my child’s pillow, and then paying him for it? All while risking waking up the little angel I’d finally gotten to sleep after the umpteenth bedtime story and drink of water! Heaven help me.

Some of these traditions are passed down from our own families or heritage, and we expect our kids to be excited to partake. “Ooooh, let’s feast on fruit soup for Christmas!” Bleh. Okay, okay, we’ll just call Dominoes.

And some of them we create in our own crazed minds, initially to insert some “fun” into family, but morph quickly into a chore. Remember your first child’s first birthday? Personalized and handmade party favors (for all the attending 1 year-olds who could read their own name, of course!), a Pinterest-inspired mermaid cake ordered for a small fortune from the boutique bakery in town, and a guest list longer than my Christmas card list. Yes, it was self-induced madness that lasted only that one year for only that one, blessed, obliviously spoiled child.

Tradition! Tradition! It’s one of those things in life that matters. A lot. The kids couldn’t sit still as we dinghied to shore on Mystery Island. Mark and I had concocted a terrifying tale of poison nuts, sequestered sailors, and crazed cannibals. We’d written out clues and entered the waypoints into the handheld GPS. (I know, we should be using a real compass and counting steps, but just roll with it.)

Mark set the stage with a brief summary of the scenario, and the kids set off with the GPS in search of the next clue. I giggled as I realized that we have limited hiding spots on these deserted islands. Inevitably, clues would be hidden in coconut shells or trees, clam shells, and under rocks or logs. The kids noticed this, too, as Elizabeth informed Mark that his clue for clamshell was much more creative last time. She even rattled it off, having done that hunt over a year ago!! It matters. They love it. They remember.

In the end, the main character of our terrifying tale was cooked for dinner in a cannibal pot, but before she met her dreadful fate, she left behind a stash of treasured goodies - American candy that my aunt and uncle had brought to us in New Zealand when they’d visited.  It has been meticulously rationed by the kids ever since! Sour gummy worms, skittles, and Sour Patch Kids chewing gum along with a few Australian coins for good measure.

Parents, this is the stuff kids remember. Take the time. Have some fun. This is where true treasure is hidden.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Seaside Service

Somehow it is Sunday again. When we arrived over a week ago we figured we’d stay a few days, but here we are again, joining the community in worship at the local Presbyterian church. The clanging of the bell on shore tells us it is almost time for the service to start, so we eat a quick snack and then get into the dinghy. We’ve learned that these services can be a couple of hours long, and inevitably our rumbling stomachs interrupt the sermon.

Mariellen and I are dressed modestly in long skirts and sleeved shirts in accordance with their culture (well, I wouldn’t consider myself an immodest dresser in general, but here there are strict societal standards regarding clothing). Women are expected to cover shoulders and knees, with conservative necklines. Many of the women wear long, roomy dresses with puffed sleeves and ruffled fabric in layers for decoration. And the men wear pants, collared shirts - some even have ties on. I can’t help but think I look like the missionaries who used to come to my childhood church and speak about the faraway places they traveled. In fact, while we were on our hike the other day, a young man asked Mariellen if she felt like a missionary. I wonder if they view us as such, as well.

During the service, the wooden benches filled to capacity as people shuffled over to fit latecomers. I glanced out the window to see them setting up seating under the trees - it was a full house today. I found out that the three main villages on Aneityum were here, as were the women visiting from a nearby island, Futuna. They were here all week for a conference, easily recognizable in their matching white dresses.

Like last Sunday, the worship was passionate and lively, with many songs sung in English as they were taught by missionaries throughout the years, complete with hand motions and harmony. Mr. Ben, the schoolmaster, was also the preacher today. I’d seen him carrying around a copy of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, and the message sounded very similar to one I’d read years ago when the book was popular in the U.S. (At least from the few sentences and phrases he would sprinkle in for our benefit amidst the local dialect) After church we were asked to stand with the elders outside and shake the hands of the congregation in the traditional procession. What an honor to look into the eyes of the young and old of the community, shake their hands, and exchange blessings.

In keeping with the typical generous hospitality, we were asked to stay and share the afternoon meal with them, but after a 2-hour service, we all needed a little break. I declined as politely as possible, saying we didn’t want to infringe on their time with the ladies from Futuna. Before we could leave, though, Christopher and Fina shuffled me to their home and used a banana leaf to wrap up some freshly baked “lap lap” (pronounced lop lop) from the underground steam oven behind their house. They explained to me that it was made from grated cassava root mixed into a dough with coconut milk. Then wrapped in leaves and buried into an oven of layered rock and wood then sealed with a layer of soil shoveled on top to steam it. No electric oven. No casserole dish. No trash left over. This is more organic and ‘green’ than any Whole Foods or Trader Joes junky could manage! I’m constantly humbled by how much I am learning on our Field Trip!

Sarah Cutting Lap Lap
Our 'host family' with fresh Lap Lap after church

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.