I am back in Vila for more training classes and I find my impression of the city has completely changed. When I first got to Vanuatu I thought Vila was a dirty, sleepy little town with not much going on. Although I still think it’s dirty, now I view the rushing trucks, rows of stores and restaurants, anchored yachts, and so many white people with the wide eyes of a country bumpkin. And I suppose really, that description wouldn’t be too off the mark.
I expected as a Peace Corps volunteer in a 3rd world country I wouldn’t be living in a Hilton with wireless internet and 24 hour room service. I also expected that whatever my living conditions ended up being they would no doubt evoke feelings of sympathy from those faithfully following my blog at home. However what I did not expect was the outpouring of horror and concern that would come from local people on my own island when I mention my home village.
Inevitably, when people hear I live in Quatamwele, they give one of three reactions: they emit a low whistle and shake their heads; they grasp my hand tightly and say, “Oh, sori!” like I just told them the family pet died; or they simply laugh and laugh. The times I make it into the small “town” of Lolowai, shopkeepers will see me and yell out, “Luk! Gel Quatamwele i kam daon lo bush!” causing everyone in the store to stare at me, or residents might simply shout, “Woman Bush!” as I walk by.
Even on North Ambae, where the stores are fewer, cold drinks are impossible to come by, and only one brave truck will dare take on the dirt roads, I am still a source of curiosity and concern. People in the villages on the coast, like Nancy’s Vandue or the neighboring Waluimbwe, are constantly asking how I’m doing “up there.” When I come down to visit, some worried mama will predictably take my hand, and with her brows knit together will lean close and ask in a low voice, “How are you?” No matter how convincingly I say, “Great! Things are great!” she will keep a hold of my hand, concerned eyes searching my face as she asks again, “No, but seriously. How are you??” Although the concern and mothering can be comforting being so far from home, I start to get a little annoyed by people’s constant anxiety that I’m wasting away in the jungle. My favorite fretful mama story comes from Waluimbwe when a particularly apprehensive woman said to me: “Oh my goodness, how are you feeling? Are you sick? Because you look awful!” Being in perfect health I was initially slightly peeved at this woman’s undisguised horror at my appearance, but to be fair I tried to assess the situation through her eyes. And what I saw was a little white girl standing in front of her, feet eternally dirty, mold growing on her skirt, shirt smelling like algae from the dirty creek it was last washed in, a mixture of sweat and dirt plastering her hair to her forehead, and wearing a broken flip flop. Ohhhhh, I did look awful! But up in the bush this is the normal way of things. We don’t concern ourselves with petty things like appearance and cleanliness. Up there the way I looked wouldn’t have garnered a second look. Maybe I have been in the bush too long!
But despite people’s dismay at my living conditions, I really like it up here. Sure I may eat only local kakae instead of rice and meat, and sure I may fall asleep to the sound of frogs and cicadas instead of the whiring of generators and the twanging of local “string band” music. But it’s peaceful in the bush and we live a happy, quiet life. I’m sure it must seem unlikely to all of you. Here I am—a girl with more pairs of stilettos than stamps on her passport, a girl whose drink at Starbucks takes longer to order than to consume, and a girl whose idea of hardship is when her favorite Indian restaurant is closed for remodeling and she has to get Thai for take-out instead—living in a bamboo house without electricity or running water. But the truth is I’m here, I’m making it, and I actually (mostly) enjoy it. I am Woman Bush, I am Girl Quatamwele, and I’m proud of it.