Anyone who has travelled anywhere knows that things always work differently to home – sometimes a little bit, and sometimes a lot. When you are just passing through, you notice them, you might even have a little chuckle about them, but you tend not to be bothered too much by them – in fact, they generally add to the charm of being someplace else. It’s not until you spend some time somewhere, put down some roots and get a mailing address, that you really realise that you are properly not in Kansas anymore, Toto. After a while, you start to miss some stuff about home that you’ve never really thought much about before. Some of those things that work differently – some of them begin to grate. Sometimes a little bit, and sometimes a lot. But some of those things that seemed so strange at the beginning actually make more and more sense the deeper in you get.
We’ve been in Vanuatu for three months now. Christmas is over, and the daily routine has started to become, well, a routine. Somewhere along the way, I’ve stopped noticing the squeals of kids jumping off the jetty next door – they’ve just become part of the usual soundtrack. Practicing my Bislama on the bus seems quite commonplace, and it’s less fun, and kind of annoying, to drive over all those potholes in my street everyday. I don’t even think about calculating how behind schedule a meeting or workshop is, because it will finish when it finishes. And, proudly, I’ve stopped gasping every time someone opens a coconut with a machete.
It’s easy to write off the different things as inefficient or otherwise untenable and keep them firmly in the “quaint and quirky” box. But I think there are actually some different things here in Vanuatu that make a whole lot of sense. Here’s just a few.
Directions by landmarks
This is one way I feel like I was born to live in Vanuatu. I have always been rubbish at remembering where places are based on street names – I navigate by landmarks. Don’t tell me your house is left into Smith St and just off Jones Tce; I will give you nothing but blankness. If it’s left at the hardware, past the house with the purple fence and in at the place with a yappy dog, I’m with you all the way. And so is the rest of Vanuatu. Apparently there are street names in Port Vila, but they aren’t marked and no one knows what they are anyway. When we order delivered pizza, I describe my house by it’s location relative to the beach and the nearby hotel. Precise, no. Colourful, 100%.
Schedule-less, route-less buses
I spend a fair bit of time on buses – partly because I catch one every day, and partly because they rarely take me on the most direct route to my house. Buses in Port Vila are actually a fleet of minivans that drive around town at will, picking people up where they can. You can flag one down whenever you see one, tell the driver where you are going, and he will tell you whether he can work it into the route he’s making up as he goes along to drop off the other passengers, or pick up his sister-in-law, or get some petrol. This means that sometimes you have to wait a while to find a bus and it might take you longer than expected to get where you are going because you’ve gone to another suburb or two first, or you might need to sit on board at the petrol station while the bus gets fuel. At first, this seems kind of unreasonable from Australian standards. But actually, is anyone’s time actually that precious that other people’s destinations can’t be accommodated? And it’s pretty fun discovering new corners of town that I would otherwise not have stumbled across.
Having 14 public holidays a year
There’s at least one public holiday every month, except for June and September. After the first couple, I had a strange sense of guilt about getting yet another day off. But in the same way that your time is considered expendable at the petrol station on the bus, it’s also not seen as so precious that you shouldn’t have time off to celebrate a wide and varied range of civic and Christian occasions. It’s really liberating to get over the self-importance of time.
Selling stuff that's out of date
OK, sure, this takes some getting used to. But how much stuff gets thrown out that is actually perfectly fine, just because of the little date stamped on the side? In my uni days, I worked at a supermarket, and I can tell you it’s a lot. Instead, everyone just takes responsibility for themselves and actually looks at what they are buying, checks it passes a sniff test and decides whether or not to eat it. Brilliant.
Making do and fixing stuff
What if instead of throwing out your umbrella because an arm snapped, or buying a third (or seventh) pair of black shoes because the heels on the other two aren’t cool this season, we got stuff fixed or made do with what we had? That’s how it is in Vanuatu. For the most part, imported stuff is pretty expensive, whereas getting things repaired is generally fairly cheap. Making things out of what you’ve got is also a much more cost effective option, so lots of rooves are thatched with palm leaves and everybody uses woven-palm bags (known as baskets). Apart from being cheap to produce and compostable when it breaks, there’s pride and a wealth of talent in this locally made stuff, and consumption doesn’t come better than that (check out the store for more global treasures like them)!
And by the way, everyone wears thongs, everywhere. No other shoes required!
Coconut with everything
You thought coconut came in a can, or in sprinkley little flakes? You’re wrong. And if you thought it was only for desserts, or fancy juice bars, or maybe a curry here and there, you’d be wrong about that too. Coconut is part of every meal, every day. It’s mulch, it’s fish food, it’s fence posts, it’s boats. It’s the best thing since sliced bread (and way more versatile!).